Okay, you’ll have to excuse the slightly inflammatory title. The truth is, I’m a big admirer of Chuck Wendig. Blackbirds, the first book in his Miriam Black series, is a smart and twisted psychic thriller with one of the most compelling lead characters I’ve encountered in years. And his Terribleminds website is probably the high water mark when it comes to discussions on the often mundane realities of writing. His prose is bold, loud and filthy but it’s never less than honest. He’s one of the strongest voices in writing today and deserves as many plaudits as people care to send his way.
But on the subject of the Doctor becoming a woman, he is just plain wrong.
Chuck wrote a pretty heartfelt piece at Terribleminds the other day, detailing why the Doctor can – and indeed should – regenerate into a woman when Matt Smith hangs up his bowtie in this year’s Christmas special.
If you haven’t read it yet, head over there now and take a look. I’ll be here when you get back…
Rumours of a female Doctor have persisted since the early 1980s, when incumbent producer John Nathan Turner hinted at a sex change for the character. It was nothing but a bid for publicity of course – a bit of gossip to keep people interested while the BBC figured out how to fill the Tom Baker shaped hole in their show. The rumour has since become perennial, springing up whenever the lead actor steps down. It’s never had any real weight to it.
But have times changed? Could viewers be ready to accept, or better yet welcome, a female Doctor?
The argument that prompted Chuck’s article is that casting a woman as the Doctor would be nothing more than tokenism – an argument he quite rightly refutes. To quote him directly:
‘Some people said – “Well, why not make the supporting characters be strong female characters?” That’s tokenism… Tokenism is a dismissive, hand-wavey gesture… Making your titular character – in this case, making the Doctor a woman – isn’t a token. It’s a nuclear bomb.’
That’s all perfectly true and I have no particular problem with it. But it’s also where Chuck, to my mind at least, goes wrong.
He’s approaching the argument with the idea that the Companion, whoever she/he/it may be, is a fundamentally lesser character than the Doctor.
When the show is written properly (and that’s a whole other argument for a whole other blog post) the Doctor/Companion dynamic is a partnership, with each character supporting the other and bringing something different to the story. The Doctor will always have his alien knowledge and meta-perspective but there are plenty of areas in which he’s lacking. It’s the Companion’s job to be grounded, practical and compassionate. In short, the Doctor may be able to do Great Things, but the Companion has to be great at getting things done. Different abilities, different roles, but not necessarily unequal.
In fact, the Doctor-plus-glamorous-female dynamic that the show chose to adopt upon its return in 2005 hasn’t even been the norm for much of its history. When it first started life in 1963 it was an ensemble piece, the Doctor just the eldest in a multi-generational surrogate family. He wasn’t the main character and he certainly wasn’t the hero – that was Ian and Barbara, the unwilling participants in a temporal joyride.
This grouping was soon replaced by a sort of triangle of powers – the Doctor and two Companions; one male, one female. The Doctor provided the brains, the female Companion provided the heart and the male Companion provided the muscle.
It’s a model that recurs throughout the series – Ben and Polly, Jamie and Zoe, Sarah and Harry, Rose and Captain Jack. There are variations on the theme of course – Romana and K9 sort of fall into this category, as do Nyssa and Tegan, Amy and Rory. I’d go so far as to say it’s the show’s default character dynamic, rather than the Doctor+1 relationship, which only became the norm in the 80s.
(Oh, alright; you could argue that it started in the UNIT years of the 70s, when the Companions officially became Assistants working for the Doctor, but even here you find the surrogate family of the Brigadier, Benton, Yates, et al on hand to get into fights and blow stuff up).
What I’m trying to say is that, when handled properly, the Companion should never have to be considered a secondary character. It’s only in recent years, particularly towards the end of the Tennant era when the show was in love with its own star, that the Doctor became the intellectual, physical AND emotional focus of the show. Is it any coincidence that they chose to do away with a permanent companion for his final year?
But getting back to the point at hand, Chuck’s other mistake is in apparently thinking that boys only relate to male characters and girls to female characters:
‘This is a show where little kids are watching. Little boys. Little girls. Do we really want to say to little girls, “You can never be the Doctor? You are forever relegated to the Companion?”‘
When I watched the programme as a boy in the ’80s, I never wanted to be the Doctor. Because even at that age, I knew he was unknowable, one step removed from the rest of the universe and the keeper of great and terrible knowledge. He’s the show’s Gandalf. Its Merlin. Its Obi Wan (prequels notwithstanding). I simply couldn’t be the Doctor. No one could. That’s the point of him.
So no, I never wanted to be the Doctor. But I’ve always wanted to be his Companion.
Ace was my childhood hero. She attacked Daleks with baseball bats. She carried a rucksack full of homemade explosives. She fell in love and got into fights and got hurt and scared and defiant and funny. She was brilliant.
I didn’t want to be Ace per se, but she’s the one I identified with most strongly and that’s the way it’s always been – the Companion is the viewer’s representative inside the story. They have the change and grow while the Doctor remains, for all his various forms, just the Doctor.
Children don’t need to be assigned heroes of their own gender to look up to. They just need heroes.
To be fair, I think Chuck is well aware of this as he’s no slouch when it comes to writing brilliant women (I refer you once again to Blackbirds), so it’s a surprise to see him use the argument in his post.
So, could a woman every play the Doctor? Of course she could, and probably will, one day. Just not for the reasons Chuck posits.