Back in 2012, the idea that The Doctor could be – shock, horror – a woman was worthy of an April Fool from showrunner Steven Moffat. Yet with each regeneration, pressure increases to hand the keys of the TARDIS over to a Time Lady. Peter Capaldi has voiced his support, as has David Tennant – and Tilda Swinton has been heavily trailed as a possibility. Missy is a delight, so who could argue?
Well, me. Concentrating on The Doctor’s gender not only obscures the many brilliant women who have been a driving force in the Whoniverse, it’s also stopping the real conversations about gender that the veteran show needs to have.
From the moment in 1963 when the British public was catapulted into time and space with Delia Derbyshire’s haunting theme and met The Doctor’s smart and capable granddaughter, Susan, the women of Doctor Who have (almost) always been more than damsels in distress. They’ve got The Doctor out of trouble, figured out problems, shown bravery and heart and even bomb-making skills (sort of). The point is – they don’t need to be in the lead role to be leading the way.
The TARDIS’s female passengers have been a mirror of the time and an inspiration to the girls tuning in. In the 1970s, investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith joined as an ardent feminist who infiltrates nefarious medical establishments, battles Sontarans and assists the UN. After an emotional reunion with David Tennant’s Doctor in 2006, she headed up spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures from 2007-2011 – a rare TV heroine in her 60s.
The 1980s gave us genre-busting Ace – a black bomber jacket-wearing kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who is the only cautioned arsonist to travel in the TARDIS. Then script editor Andrew Cartmel said she was “a fighter and not a screamer”. Streetwise and working class, she paved the way for Buffy to slay vampires and Xena to be a warrior princess.
In the modern era, Rose Tyler gave relevance to the returned Who, gobby Donna Noble saved millions of lives across the galaxy and Amy Pond brought a bundle of complexity to the series when she killed Madame Kovarian in a moment of rage-filled revenge. Her half-Time Lord daughter River Song was a time traveller, archaeologist and assassin in one. Take that sweetie. The Master has even become Missy, showing that ladies definitely don’t have to be good girls.
And yet… Steven Moffat’s Who has passed the Bechdel test (featuring at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a bloke) less frequently than Russell T Davies’ did. The passes between women of colour and LGBT women have traditionally been really low, although that’s set to change with new companion Bill Potts. There are nowhere near enough episodes written by women. Sure, a female Doctor might look like progress – but instead of looking at who’s speaking the words, shouldn’t we think about whose words they are?