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.
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.