The titular protagonist of the cult BBC series Doctor Who has done many amazing things in the show’s 50-year run. Traveling time and space in his TARDIS police-call box, he’s investigated aliens and saved the Earth on multiple occasions. In one episode, he even hitched Earth to his time machine and towed it back into orbit after the planet got stolen by a band of extraterrestrial mutants.
Still, after all these years, there’s one thing the Doctor hasn’t done – gotten a sex change. Since the series began in 1963 (and since it was rebooted in 2005), this esteemed television role has been solely reserved for men. White men, at that.
Lately, many Who fans have hoped the Doctor would eventually become a woman or person of color. But in a special broadcast on Sunday, the BBC announced that it was bringing yet another white dude into the fold: The 55-year-old Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, who’s going to replace Englishman Matt Smith to become the show’s 12th Doctor.
Of course, a bit of controversy seems inevitable with whoever takes on the role. Just as some fans griped that Smith was too young and unknown when he first appeared on the series in 2009, now others are reportedly complaining that Capaldi is too old – even though he’s the same age as the first Doctor, William Hartnell, was when the show first aired so many decades ago.
So far, though, it seems that most of the anger is being reserved for Doctor Who‘s lead writer and executive producer, Steven Moffat. On Sunday, Moffat rubbed some fans the wrong way when he mocked the very idea of making the Doctor a woman; as Buzzfeed reports, he compared it to hiring a man to play the Queen of England.
“I was ready to be happy for Peter Capaldi. I was ready to go forward and say we should all rally behind him. I was ready to be excited for the next fifty years of Doctor Who. But now all I feel is a huge, aching sense of disappointment with Moffat,” writes Alyssa, the author of Whovian Feminism, a blog that examines the show from a feminist angle.
Later, Moffat suggested that many fans weren’t receptive to the idea of having a woman Doctor.
“It’s absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it,” he said, according to the U.K.’s Express newspaper. “It didn’t feel right to be, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it.”
But as far as the story goes, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the Doctor as a woman, person of color or LGBT. Beloning to the humanoid race of the Time Lords, the Doctor isn’t any one being: when he gets hampered by a life-threatening injury (or the actor playing the Doctor decides to retire), he can “regenerate,” taking on a new form and personality. The memories stay, but otherwise the Doctor becomes a new person.
And when it comes to fans, well, they tend to be a diverse bunch. At Comic-Con International this year, plenty of women were in attendance at the Doctor Who panel. During another panel, the audience roared with cheers and applause when Smith joked that the Doctor might end up regenerating into a woman.
“The show’s growing popularity isn’t a reason to keep things status quo, but an opportunity to change things up and have something to say to its ever-growing fanbase,” argues the TV blogger Boob Tude Dude on Zap2It.com. “It’s not just women that would benefit from a female Doctor. Men would benefit equally, if not more, from a strong, smart, silly female Doctor who is permitted to have as many flaws, quirks, and assets as the previous eleven Doctors did. The qualities that make The Doctor one of the most powerful and popular figures in science fiction have NOTHING to do with him being male.”
Since Smith announced his impending resignation from his TARDIS post last June, newspapers and bloggers have offered up plenty of suggestions on who the next Doctor could’ve been. Among the names were a number of black and female actors and actresses, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sheridan Smith and Zawe Ashton. Ashton would’ve been particularly interesting – an actress of English and Ugandan descent, she plays Violet “Vod” Nordstrom on the British sitcom Fresh Meat, and might just have the right mix of charisma, quirkiness and pluck required of a good Doctor.
Still, at least one critic suggests the show might be better off not having a female Doctor so long as Moffat is in charge. Dave Maass, a Doctor Who expert who blogs for SyFy’s Blastr.com, tells Rolling Stone that Moffat isn’t exactly known for drawing nuanced female characters.
“There’s been a lot of criticism of Steven Moffat’s treatment of female characters, and even accusations of misogyny,” Maass says in an email. “It dates back to his days as a writer on Coupling and continued until more recently, when the Doctor forcibly kissed a lesbian character (a move more like to the mayor of San Diego than a benevolent Time Lord).”
“That may not be completely fair, since [Moffat] is also responsible for several heroines, and storylines centered around them,” Maass adds. “Fact remains, his females tend to fit a standard template: Gorgeous, stubborn and in need of a savior.”