The female Doctor question once more

It’s been almost a month since Peter Capaldi announced his intention to leave Doctor Who at the end of 2017. In remarkably quick time the fandom has turned from lamenting Peter Capaldi’s impending departure, to speculating excitedly about the identity of the actor who will be playing the 13th Doctor, to now fighting angrily amongst itself in the latest fandom war to break out in this exceptionally quarrelsome fandom. I’m talking about the controversy over the question of whether the Doctor should be played by a woman. It’s not really a new controversy—it rears its head every time the question of the next Doctor comes up and every time anyone publicly speculates about the future of Doctor Who. Not to mention every time Steven Moffat gives a self-indulgent wink to the fans indicating the possibility of the Doctor one day undergoing a sex-flipping regeneration.

But there’s something different about the discourse about a prospective female Doctor this time. It’s like the calls for a female Doctor have finally reached fever pitch. The people calling for a female Doctor are calling louder and shriller than ever before. There’s no humility in the calls for a female Doctor any more. What used to be speculation and suggestion about the possibility of a female Doctor has turned practically into demand, coupled with an intolerance for the views of those who don’t want such a radical change to the show’s format. I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s practically at the point where those pushing for a female Doctor won’t accept any new actor cast as the 13th Doctor who isn’t a woman.

I’ve elaborated on why I don’t want a female Doctor before, but with the female Doctor idea being pushed so forcefully at the moment, I feel compelled to reiterate my position. I’ve seen various reasons put forward in opposition to a female Doctor, but fundamentally, for me, it’s about being true to the character. For me, it’s simple: the Doctor is a male character. The Doctor is a man. I’ve never thought of the Doctor as anything other than a man. I don’t think generations of fans and producers of this show since the 1960s have ever thought of the Doctor as anything other than a man, as indicated by the fact that in 53 years and 13 regenerations, the Doctor has only ever been played by male actors. For me, at least, casting a female actor to play the Doctor would not be true to the character. I would feel that a 13th Doctor played by a female actor would lack something intrinsic and fundamental to the character, which is the character’s gender. Seeing the Doctor played by a woman, I think and I fear that I would feel, “This character is not the Doctor. She is another character (maybe even a good character) but she is not the Doctor.”

As I said in my earlier post on the subject:

I’ve come to love this character, the Doctor, independent of any of his individual incarnations. When I think of the Doctor, no individual incarnation springs immediately to mind, but I think of a number of essential traits that make this overarching character, this person, who he is: heroic, principled, selfless, eccentric, lonely, mysterious — and a man. I very much get the feeling that, throughout his various incarnations, despite looking and feeling different after each regeneration, the Doctor remains the same person, and it’s very important to me, for my investment in the character, that the Doctor always feels like the same person. To an extent, at least, I’d feel that the Doctor had become a different person if the Doctor were to become a woman. After thirteen or however many incarnations as a man, I think I’d feel that I couldn’t recognise a female Doctor as the character I knew and loved; that a female actor is likely to depart in a fundamental way from how the character has been portrayed in the past would only exacerbate this feeling.

“But Time Lords don’t have a fixed sex, it’s been shown they can regenerate into the opposite sex, so the Doctor is not a man” might come the objection. My first response to that would be that all that’s been shown onscreen is two Time Lords regenerating into the opposite sex, one, the Master, after a long history of having been a man (like the Doctor), and one, the General, whose first words after regenerating were “Back to normal, am I?” It’s not been established canonically when and how Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex—it certainly hasn’t been confirmed that every Time Lord can do it, or that a sex change is a 50% chance for every Time Lord. That the Doctor has been a man 13 times out of 13 so far suggests that there’s more involved than pure random chance.

But I recognise that Moffat (or Chibnall, if he is so inclined) could easily retcon that continuity and establish with a single throwaway line in a forgettable script that the Doctor has an equal chance of regenerating into a man or a woman, and that he’s just had exceptionally unusual luck so far. So the more important answer to the objection above is that just because the Doctor can be made to regenerate into a woman, doesn’t mean he should. The whole idea of sex-flipping regeneration is very new in the history of the show (2011 was the first reference I believe), and the Doctor has now been a man for 13 regenerations and 53 years offscreen or over 2,000 years onscreen. He’s long been widely and popularly identified as a male character, and the Doctor was entrenched in the fandom’s consciousness and the broader cultural consciousness as an iconic male character long before Steven Moffat turned up on the scene, late-coming, and told us all that, actually, the Doctor isn’t a male character, he’s actually a bisexual gender-fluid sequential hermaphrodite (as I once saw it amusingly put), and that our long-standing identification and association of the Doctor as a male character is wrong and misplaced.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth. I fully respect the views of those who disagree with me and take a different perspective, as long as they respect mine. Because it’s an increasingly common thing among the more ardent supporters of a female Doctor to dismiss everyone who doesn’t take their position as misogynists. Because apparently there’s no other possible reason a person might be reluctant to radically change a fundamental part of the format of a 53-year old show other than hatred of one half of the human race. Even the substantial number of female fans who oppose a female Doctor. Apparently they hate women, too. Sounds legit. Perhaps there are people who oppose a female Doctor because of misogynistic motivations, but I would assume their number is minuscule, because one wonders why misogynists would spend their time watching a show which so proudly elevates and empowers its female characters.

I know that the majority of supporters of a female Doctor are reasonable, intelligent people who do not believe that opponents of the idea are all misogynists. I’ve been in many debates about a female Doctor before and the majority of those arguing for a female Doctor have been reasonable and respectful of the views of those of us who disagree. But there is a vocal minority who do take that line, and they’re incredibly stubborn and infuriating people to argue with, who are typically projecting their own profound intolerance onto others. In this respect it’s regretful to see that Radio Times has, since Peter Capaldi announced his departure, become a prominent voice pushing the “all-opponents-of-a-female-Doctor-are-misogynists” line with its articles containing thinly-veiled suggestions to that effect, giving unwelcome respectability to that view.

Something else I worry about with the push for a female Doctor is that it would be done for all the wrong reasons. If it’s done for genuinely creative reasons, because the producers are interested in the creative possibilities casting a woman as the Doctor opens up, that’s fine. I respect that, even I don’t agree with it. I can’t respect the decision if it’s done for political reasons, to promote a social agenda, or simply to be progressive or politically correct. Doctor Who isn’t another front for a progressive social agenda, another hive of reactionary social oppression that needs to be prised open by the winds of equality, it’s a TV show for kids. When it comes to casting for a TV show, “it’s time” just isn’t an argument. Why is it time? Is it oppression to be denied the opportunity to be Doctor Who? Is playing the Doctor a human right now? Should we inform the UN, in that case? Forgive my saltiness, but I really don’t have patience for arguments like this. A casting decision should always be a creative one with the purpose of making the best work possible, not a political one, because when politics is elevated above art in making casting decisions, by definition worse casting decisions are made and the show, as art, suffers.

I mean, I wonder what would be gained politically by turning an established and iconic male character into a woman as a purely symbolic act, especially considering the backlash from the substantial proportion of fans who don’t want a female Doctor. I’m not sure that the campaign to turn established male characters into women is the best progressive strategy considering how much it annoys fans (male and female) of the franchises in question. In any case, I’m not even sure a decision to turn an iconic and long-established male character like the Doctor into a woman, when the person making that decision knows that they would face a huge backlash from a substantial number of fans if they did so, can ever not be political. Even if the decision is made predominantly for creative reasons, the decision to cast a woman as the Doctor, after 13 men have played the character and after the character has been entrenched in popular consciousness for so long as a man, couldn’t not be fundamentally political. It would almost certainly be perceived that way, especially if Chibnall uses the words “it’s time”, as he would, in reference to the decision.

All that said, I’m not necessarily saying that if a woman were cast as the 13th Doctor, I wouldn’t give it a chance. As I said in my earlier post on the subject, I would most likely continue watching the show and I would keep an open mind about the change—I would even be interested in how a female Doctor would be played out, like most fans, I’m sure. I would be prepared to admit that I was wrong about how I thought I would feel, and that I end up continuing to identify a female Doctor as the character I love. But I think my reservations are legitimate, and I would rather it not happen at all than see it go ahead on the unlikely chance that I end up warming to the change. And it’s not just me—as I mentioned a number of times, there are a substantial number of fans, if not a majority, who are opposed to a female Doctor. It’s worth considering whether what the idea’s supporters want from a female Doctor is worth alienating a huge proportion of the fandom for.

Peter Capaldi’s departure

So, for anyone who hasn’t heard the earth-shattering news, Peter Capaldi will be leaving Doctor Who after Series 10, to regenerate in the 2017 Christmas special. I wasn’t ready for the news to be honest, because it doesn’t feel that long ago that we welcomed Capaldi into the role. But, on the other hand, I was kind of expecting this. Peter’s not a young man, and the role inevitably takes its toll even on sprightly youngsters like Matt Smith and David Tennant. And three seasons, or four years, seems to have become the convention for an actor’s run as the Doctor these days. Anyway, here are some of the thoughts that have been running through my head since I heard the news.

On one level I’m disappointed. Peter Capaldi has been an absolutely fantastic Doctor and it was always going to be sad to see him leave. Although I admit it took me a while to warm to him after Matt left, over Series 9 I came to adore him, so much that I count him as my second favourite Doctor after Matt Smith, and Twelve and Clara have become my favourite Doctor and companion team after Eleven and the Ponds. Of course I knew that Peter had to leave eventually, but I thought (or hoped) that with Peter it would be different. I saw uniquely in Peter, unlike in Matt, the potential to become the next iconic Doctor Who, the show’s modern Tom Baker, if he stayed around for an extended run. I would have loved to have seen Peter establish himself in the role long-term. I would have loved to have seen his face and his name become synonymous with the Doctor, like Tom Baker was. Given how much Peter revered the show and loved the role, and given that he wasn’t a young actor like David or Matt with full careers ahead of them, I half expected him to do exactly that. But alas. It’s been a privilege to have had Peter at all, so I can’t complain that he didn’t stay for longer.

twelveclara2

Peter has undoubtedly been the best actor ever to star in the role. He brought compelling gravitas, intensity and passion to the role. His Doctor was utterly bewitching to watch. Unlike most actors who take up the role, usually up-and-coming actors or relatively small names, Peter was a distinguished and widely-respected actor when he took the role. It’s probably not exaggerating to say Peter was (and is) one of the most distinguished British actors of his generation. The role was, frankly, below him, but he took it up anyway because he loved the show so much and it was his childhood dream to be the Doctor. Do we realise how privileged we are to have had him? Without at all detracting from Matt or David or Chris or any of the other actors who’ve played the role, Peter’s performances were just of a higher calibre than any who’ve come before him, as the tours de force of Heaven Sent, Hell Bent, Twelve’s speech in The Zygon Inversion proved. You could see how devoted to the role he was by the way he put everything into his performances, and it’s made for some of the best Doctor Who ever (in my opinion).

When Twelve regenerates we’ll get a new actor in the role, and that in itself is exciting, as sad as it is to see Peter go. The speculation has already started (and I’m going to join in soon—watch this space!) What’s already clear is that the calls for a female Doctor are louder than ever this time round. I’ve shared my reasons why I don’t want a female Doctor before, but since the topic has come up again I’m going to write another post on the topic soon reiterating my thoughts. I’m not sure what I would do if, come Christmas, Twelve regenerates and the Doctor is a woman, but I think I would keep watching, albeit begrudgingly. I would give it a chance, at least, but I can’t see it working.

pcap-doctor-mysterio

In any case I think it’s unlikely that a female actor will be cast as the next Doctor. A new showrunner is taking over, and, with Peter (and probably Pearl, too) going at the same time, everything is going to be new. Like in 2010, it’ll practically be a reboot, and the show has to win its audience over all over again. I think, in those circumstances, Chibnall and the production team would consider that introducing a female Doctor would be too big a risk to take, because if the audience don’t take to a female Doctor and turn away from the show, the BBC might easily be tempted to make the decision that the show is finished and cancel it.

On the subject of Series 11, though, even though I would have loved to have seen Peter continue as the Doctor under Chris Chibnall and see a new showrunner’s interpretation of his Doctor, I’m also excited by the prospect of a 2010-style (soft) reboot. A totally clean slate. That means, I guess, Pearl would have to go, too. I realise it might be uncharitable to Pearl to advocate for her to leave before we’ve even seen her, but I have a feeling that she’s only staying around for one series anyway, since Series 10 is Moffat’s final series. Maybe Chibnall would have preferred to have some familiar faces around him when he started, maybe not, but the opportunity to totally reinvent the show, with a completely clean slate, is too good to pass up. I think Steven Moffat’s total overhaul of the show in 2010 was immensely successful in breathing new life into the show and ushering in an exciting new era. I’m looking forward to seeing how Chibnall recasts Doctor Who in his vision.

Now, let’s start preparing ourselves for another emotional regeneration. What am I saying? You know you’re going to cry, you may as well accept it. At least we’ll get to see Twelve with Clara again… *lip quivers*

Doctor Who headcanon #2

Time Lord regeneration is both the secret to the continuing success of Doctor Who, and one of the great mysteries of Doctor Who mythos. It’s easy to forget that the Doctor isn’t human, but each time the Doctor regenerates, losing his old face and persona and gaining new, we are reminded of the alienness of the Doctor and his kind, the Time Lords, as represented by the wonder of regeneration. Time Lords are creatures of time — they “walk in eternity”, as the Fourth Doctor so enigmatically put it. The essence of time is change, and regeneration reflects this aspect of time. You think you know the Doctor, but there goes and regenerates, and suddenly he’s no longer the man you know. When you appreciate that the Doctor has done this twelve times in a lifespan of over 2000 years, you realise how really alien and inhuman the Doctor, and his species, is.

Much ambiguity surrounds the concept of regeneration in Doctor Who lore. It has never really been made clear what actually happens when a Time Lord regenerates. True to form, we fans have tried our best to nail down the precise mechanics of regeneration, but, ultimately, until more explicit evidence is provided, it is a question open to interpretation.

Which is where headcanon comes in. Some time ago I read a contributor’s piece on Doctor Who TV which speculated that regeneration involves the total “death” of the Time Lord in body and mind, wherein the consciousness of the Time Lord’s former incarnation is disintegrated alongside the physical body and is replicated in the new body. In this way, each incarnation of a Time Lord has a separate consciousness. I’m not satisfied with this explanation, as I don’t really like the idea that the only relation that any given incarnation of the Doctor has with his previous incarnations is that they are made up of the same atoms and share memories. This theory almost denies that the Doctor is the same person as his previous selves. Are a man’s memories all that makes him who he is?

I prefer to think that regeneration is an organic process that is supposed to rapidly “renew” the Time Lord’s body, rather than dissolving the old body and constructing an entirely new body. The change happens at a cellular level: the cells remake themselves to rejuvenate the whole body. This process is imperfect, though, and the regeneration process will result in a physical change of appearance — a side-effect of regeneration. The regenerative process also has the effect of frazzling the brain, resulting in an altered personality, but, ultimately, continuity of consciousness. In this way, aspects of personality due to “nature” (i.e. preferences, persona) change, but not those due to “nurture” (i.e. values and principles, memories, things that are learned or due to experience).

This interpretation can also be distinguished from theories that see regeneration as involving a “body-swap” wherein an existing body is simply changed into another body (while consciousness and memories are retained). I don’t see regeneration as exchanging one body for a completely different one, but as a complete and drastic renewal of the same body. I think it is the disposition towards seeing regeneration as a simple “body-swap” that leads many to embrace the possibility of a female Doctor: the argument is that there is no reason the Doctor could not regenerate and find that he has ended up with a female body. In contrast, the way I prefer to see regeneration — as a renewal of the existing body rather than changing one body for another — means the idea of a female Doctor is more problematic, as it is hard to see how a male body could renew itself into something other than a male body. The objection could be raised, “But how is it any different from a young man (Eleven) regenerating into an old man (Twelve)?” Ignoring the fact that Eleven had physically aged to an extent that made him physically older than Twelve when his regeneration process began, I’d suggest that such changes as physical age, height, complexion, hair colour, facial structure, weight, etc, are essentially superficial changes of outward appearance. In contrast, a change from man to woman, involves a fundamental chromosomal shift, which begs the question: if one chromosome can slip, why not two? Why do not Time Lords routinely regenerate into non-humanoid forms?

I suppose the way one looks at the mechanics of regeneration also depends on what explanation for the origins of regeneration one accepts. To my knowledge, two different explanations for Time Lords’ ability to regenerate have been offered in the show. The traditional explanation, developed in the expanded media, was that regeneration is an artificial aspect of Time Lords’ physiology inserted by Rassilon during his shaping of Time Lord civilisation. The more recent explanation propounded in the revived series is that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate naturally, per A Good Man Goes to War:

DOCTOR: “But she’s human. She’s Amy and Rory’s daughter.”
VASTRA: “You’ve told me about your people. They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the time vortex. The Untempered Schism.”
DOCTOR: “Over billions of years. It didn’t just happen.”

This explanation posits that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate due to billions’ of years exposure to the time vortex. A similar process, River Song’s conception in the TARDIS, brought about the ability to regenerate in her.

These two explanations are plainly in clear contradiction with each other: either Rassilon did artificially insert regeneration into the Time Lord genome, or he didn’t; either regeneration is a result of natural evolution, or it isn’t. Such a contradiction can be resolved by resorting to Rule 3 of my headcanon rules: “Any blatant contradictions between onscreen explanations can be resolved by preferring the most recent explanation.” Rule 9 also comes into play: “Only the television show is explicitly canon; the audio stories, novels and comics are canon if you want them to be, but are not necessarily so.” Since the traditional explanation was only propounded in the expanded media, its canonicity must be subordinated to the later onscreen explanation. Another related piece of Time Lord backstory developed in the expanded media but retconned in the revived series was the idea that Time Lords are “born” fully grown through an artificial process of being “loomed” into existence from DNA strands — The Sound of Drums and Listen have showed Time Lords as children (the Master and the Doctor respectively), as did The Day of the Doctor, which made mention of “2.47 billion” children who died on Gallifrey (and indeed showed some Gallifreyan children).

So I prefer the “evolutionary” explanation for regeneration rather than the “artificial” explanation. It occurs to me that, if one accepts the evolutionary explanation, one would be more disposed to seeing regeneration as a restorative process (as I do) rather than as a process involving a total reconstitution of the body, or a body-swap. Conflicting views of the implications of regeneration, can be, if not resolved, but at least better understood, when the different interpretations of the mechanics and origins of regeneration are understood.

On a female Doctor and sex-change regeneration

The regeneration of the Master into Missy has brought to the fore debate over the prospect of a female Doctor. The debate among the fandom about whether the Doctor should one day regenerate into a female form onscreen has been as vociferous as any debate about UNIT dating, whether Susan named the TARDIS, or whether or not Adric was an annoying tit. It was first established that sex changes for Time Lords were possible when the Eleventh Doctor remarked in The Doctor’s Wife that another Time Lord, the Corsair, had regenerated into a woman “a couple of times”. Subsequently, in The Night of the Doctor, the Sisterhood of Karn divulged to the Eighth Doctor that, with their “elevated” Time Lord science, they could bring about a controlled regeneration, even to change him into a female. Now that a major male Time Lord character has been shown onscreen to have regenerated into a woman, the prospect of a female Doctor has become more real than ever.

Personally, while I thought the Master’s sex change was very successful, and while I’m not completely closed to the idea of a female Doctor, I do have significant reservations. For one, I think portraying the Doctor as a female would be incongruous with the essential nature of the character. The Doctor, to me, is an intrinsically male character — not overtly or stereotypically male in that he’s some kind of chest-beating ape, but still very much a masculine character. Paul Verhoeven explains it well. He’s a father figure to the universe, a defensive and loving dad. It’s clear he sees himself in a very paternal way — he feels he has an obligation to look after the universe, to protect his charges from bullies and meanies of all sorts, to step in and give a helping hand, as a father should. He loves and is loved by the universe as a fatherly protector.

As well as this, there’s my personal subjective preference for the Doctor to remain a male character. I’ve come to love this character, the Doctor, independent of any of his individual incarnations. When I think of the Doctor, no individual incarnation springs immediately to mind, but I think of a number of essential traits that make this overarching character, this person, who he is: heroic, principled, selfless, eccentric, lonely, mysterious — and a man. I very much get the feeling that, throughout his various incarnations, despite looking and feeling different after each regeneration, the Doctor remains the same person, and it’s very important to me, for my investment in the character, that the Doctor always feels like the same person. To an extent, at least, I’d feel that the Doctor had become a different person if the Doctor were to become a woman. After thirteen or however many incarnations as a man, I think I’d feel that I couldn’t recognise a female Doctor as the character I knew and loved; that a female actor is likely to depart in a fundamental way from how the character has been portrayed in the past would only exacerbate this feeling. Think of it as if a loved one or a very old and dear friend suddenly decided to get a sex change. After the operation and after that person has assumed their new identity, I think most people would feel that, although that person bears a resemblance to the person they used to be in many ways, it would be as though the person one knew and loved had essentially gone, or at least changed to the point of unfamiliarity. That’s because sex is not just biological happenstance — the sex organs you happen to possess — it is a fundamental part of what makes a person who they are.

All that said, I said I’m not completely closed to the idea. Although I have my reservations, I’m willing to be open-minded, and consider any proposal for a female Doctor on its merits. If a female were to be cast as the Doctor, I’d certainly watch with an open (even interested) mind and be willing to embrace the change. I could very well be wrong: a female Doctor might not be as incongruous as I expect, and I might identify with her as recognisably the character I love. At the same time, I think my reservations are legitimate, and I can’t help but be sceptical and respectfully opposed to the idea. However, I think it may, at least, be worth road-testing the concept of a female Doctor in a one-off episode in which the Doctor inadvertently turns into a female for the duration of the episode. The way the Doctor, as a female, relates to his/her dumbfounded companions would be worth watching, although I think the idea might have worked better with Matt Smith’s Doctor (with the Ponds) than with Peter Capaldi’s: I can imagine Twelve turning into worse-than-everybody’s-aunt, played by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.

Sex-change regeneration

There’s also the more academic matter of in what circumstances Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. Personally, I’d rather that it not be established canonically that regeneration is completely random with regards to sex, and that Time Lords are equally likely to regenerate into the opposite sex as remain the same. That is, I don’t want it to be established that Time Lords, as one participant in such a debate amusingly put it, are a race of bisexual gender-fluid sequential hermaphrodites. That’s not because I’m a bigot, it just blatantly contradicts all history of portrayal of Time Lords on the programme, and would seem like a liberty taken with the canon for narrow political reasons, as a way of championing transsexualism.

The evidence is that one Time Lord, the Master, has regenerated into a woman after more than one regeneration cycle of being a man. All the other Time Lords we’ve seen have always regenerated into the same sex, with one offscreen exception (the Corsair). This doesn’t exactly suggest that regeneration is completely random with regard to sex. Furthermore, it hasn’t even been established that the Master’s latest female incarnation was the result of regeneration; given that the Master has a history of stealing bodies, and that his last body in The End of Time was basically an imperfectly reanimated corpse in a state of irreversible decay, it can’t be discounted, without further clarification, that Missy’s body was also stolen in the same way he stole the body of Tremas on Traken.

So sex-change regeneration is possible, but, until it is established otherwise, it can be assumed it is anomalous or unusual, rather than the norm. Personally I entertain three theories (which are not mutually exclusive) as to the circumstances in which Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. The first is that same-sex regeneration is the norm, and that opposite-sex regeneration is a very rare, freak occurrence. The second is that, when Time Lords can control their regeneration (as Romana and the Master, and even the Doctor, it is implied, have been shown to be capable of doing), they can, if they have a sufficient degree of control, choose to regenerate into the opposite sex. As to why the Doctor’s regenerations have always (thus far) been random, I expect he either doesn’t know how (perhaps he snoozed through that class in the Academy), or doesn’t care enough, to control his regeneration. My third theory is that there needs to be an external influence on the regeneration to bring about a sex change, such as the potions the Sisterhood of Karn offered to the Eighth Doctor to control his regeneration. The three theories are not mutually exclusive, but the point is that sex-change regeneration at least seems to be unusual, and that some explanation is needed.