Not a ‘Lady Doctor,’ just the Doctor: Narrating Gender in Doctor Who
by MERCY FERRARS
On October 31st, Doctor Who: Flux (season 13) aired on BBC One. Three chapters into Jodie Whittaker’s adaptation of the role, Ferrars & Fields plunges into one of the longest running TV series’ narration of its genderfluid protagonist.
Doctor Who is loaded with valuable teaching moments. And how else could it be when the heart of the series is a universe travelling Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, bearing two hearts and living as a quasi-immortal by virtue of a cycle of regenerations.
Sometimes we forget about that as viewers, because the Doctor doesn’t look like an alien, they look like our average bloke next door. Rogue and human. But the Doctor knows the whole universe, with its multiple species, unique histories, and pocket universes, and they celebrate each of those lives. Far from complicated Earth beliefs, binarity, patriarchy, or homophobia.
Which leads us to the Time Lord race. Besides the queerness of the show, which features some (but arguably not enough) LGBT+ characters and subtexts, effort is made to portray the Time Lords as genderfluid beings. They are a very advanced alien race, named for their mastery of time travel technology and their non-linear perception of time.
In 2018, Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Thirteenth Doctor aired. It rippled through tenacious viewers who couldn’t believe that a character who seemed to be a man for 58 years had regenerated into a woman. Yet we have long been prepared by a wide-ranging narrative of the Time Lords’ gender fluidity. Clearly, nobody seems to have listened properly. Despite the effort to write them also as agender, Doctor Who refers to its main character in binary terminology a little too readily. Nonetheless it manages to make the case for a genderfluid race. Can the Time Lords’ writing be accused of essentialist feminism? And how does one actually talk about a species outside of gender identity when they position themselves in shifting binarity?
“Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman”
In their thirteenth incarnation, we join the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) on wonderful adventures, from Sheffield to deserted planets and witch hunts to an encounter with Rosa Parks. The thirteenth incarnation of the iconic television series, which has run intermittently since the 1960s, is energetic, caring and adventurous. Her chapter begins when she falls from the sky (“The Woman Who Fell To Earth”) and meets her first companions—Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin (Mandip Gill)—on an alien-infested train. While still puzzled by regenerative confusion, policewoman Yasmin Khan addresses her as “madam” at the very beginning of the episode. The Doctor is both surprised and confused: “Why do you call me madam?”—“Because you’re a woman?” replies Yasmin. The Doctor’s eyes begin to sparkle with delight as she replies, “Am I? Ah, does it suit me? Sorry, half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman!” The scene sets the beginning of a powerful journey to the Doctor’s origins, lost memories and magical stories, quite reminiscent of the recent Era of the 2005 reboot.
As much as screenwriter Chris Chibnall’s thirteenth Doctor may differ in personality from her predecessors, her signature is coherent with the previously established canon of thirty-seven seasons of Doctor Who. In a number of instances gender fluidity in the Time Lord species has been mentioned on screen; one of the first occurring in 2010, when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) transforms into the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) in “The End of Time.” Bursting with new life energy, he hastily examines himself, hoping that this time he will finally be red-haired. When he feels his longer hair, he immediately assumes that he might be “a girl,” an assumption that is only disproved when he touches his Adam’s apple. Telling from his demeanour, a switch in gender could happen anytime, and it would not even be a surprise.
“We are billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes”
Next, in 2011, the Eleventh Doctor meets his TARDIS in the form of a woman in “The Doctor’s Wife.” Prior to the event, he is summoned by a fellow Time Lord, a renegade introduced as “The Corsair,” via distress call. The Doctor’s tales of his old friend frequently mention the different genders the Corsair took on during their existence: They were a “very bad girl” and a “fantastic bloke.”
In 2013, a mini-episode featuring the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) was broadcast on BBC. In “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor is born through the regeneration of Paul McGann into John Hurt. The Sisterhood of Karn explains that Time Lord science is very advanced on their planet and that they could trigger his regeneration, insisting that “the change need not be random: Fat or thin, young or old, man or woman?”
In “Deep Breath/Dark Water,” (2014) Missy (Michelle Gomez) is introduced as a female incarnation of the Doctor’s former childhood friend and current nemesis, a Time Lord who was called “Master” in their first incarnations.
In 2015, the “General” was the first Time Lord to change gender in the episode “Hell Bent.” After spending most of their life as a woman, the military leader of Gallifrey transformed into a man in their eleventh incarnation.
In 2017, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) shares his species’ views on gender in “World Enough and Time,” when he declares that the Time Lords are “billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” Prior to that sweet little tantrum Capaldi does so well as Twelve, he had referred to the Master as his “man crush” and used female pronouns, which left his companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) quite confused. In the same episode, he also says that “she was a man then. I’m pretty sure I was, too,” suggesting that Hartnell’s Doctor in 1963 had a previous regeneration cycle in which they had been female.
Later, in the reboot’s 12th season, we are introduced to the Doctor when they were just a girl, hence preceding Hartnell’s incarnation as the first Doctor in Doctor Who canon.
Finally, in 2018, the Fifth Doctor sums it up perfectly in the prose of “Ophiuchus,” when he explains to his companion Nyssa: “Gender is a very fluid concept. For some people more than others. For a Time Lord, even more so.”
Doctor Who’s concept of gender fluidity could, unfortunately, be read as essentialist
Undoubtedly, it is challenging to write an agender character whose origins date back to 1963, when the world still thought mainly in binary concepts. Unlike other series, Doctor Who has a run of 58 years through different decades and mainstream cultural discourses. This must be taken into account when comparing the series to today’s scripts that portray gender more inclusively. Russell T. Davies’ vision of a “sexless” main character does work out, and their gender fluidity is mentioned repeatedly. And yet, it’s hard to believe that a sexless Time Lord with over 700 years under their belt would attach their gender to physical essences after regenerations. Even if they do not feel gender inwardly, an Adam’s apple seems to automatically sign masculinity to them. As such, the Doctor as a character is heavily cis-centered. Such biologically essentialist subtexts are to be criticized. The way they talk about other Time Lords also falls into the binary system, such as when they call the Corsair “bloke” and “gal,” or suggest that the Sisterhood of Karn allows them to become a man or woman in the next incarnation. The space in between, the rainbow spectrum of identity, has not even begun to be taken up, although the Doctor in particular provides such a good template for inclusive writing. In episodes where Whittaker’s Doctor travels to past times like the witch hunts, when women were even more oppressed, her meta-gender exuberance seems to stem not from her agender identity, but from the comparably emancipated cultural paradigm of the 21st century woman. Doctor Who thus seems to be more of a “tell” than a “show,” in that it tells of the Doctor’s gender fluidity in words, but hangs on to partly binary, partly essentialist notions of gender. That leads us to ask what pronouns are actually appropriate to talk about the Doctor.
The Doctor’s pronouns
I am a native German speaker with a degree in English philology and philosophy, and I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the Thirteenth Doctor and her gender. One of the reasons why this article is also written in English is the inflexibility of the German language, which can be bent at will for poetry and prose, but quickly reaches its limits when it comes to discourse about genders and pronouns. The Doctor offers a whole new challenge. Many writers seem to solve it as I do: when speaking of the Doctor as a character, we use they/them; when speaking of a particular incarnation, we use the pronouns of the gender with which they identify, so, for example, he/him for Eleven and she/her for Thirteen. Should we refer to all Doctors as they/them? Some suggest at least highlighting Thirteen’s pronouns as she/her, arguing that while she is not the first female Doctor within the universe, she is the first in the real world, hopefully paving the way for more FLINTA* (and BIPoC) characters. Yet another suggestion is to treat the Doctor as a fictional character and use the pronouns for them that we feel are important. Perhaps there is no clear-cut answer, but the discussion is initiated.
Era of the Doctor
The Doctor, whose birth name, by the way, is unpronounceable (“Vanderdeken’s Children”), chose their title as a designating promise (“The Day of the Doctor”) and devoted themselves to defend the good of the universe; thereby the earth and humanity become their protégés. To fulfill their own ethical maxims they require a sense of responsibility, bravery, and heroism, but also a willingness to take risks and sacrifice—intelligence in all its striking forms. As a character written by countless authors, they are often caught between old and new concepts; between genderlessness and binarity; animated by our own world which is reflected in them. But much greater in scope, the Doctor is defined by their relationships, their companions, and the stories which they become a part of. They are molded by seeing worlds die, suns burn, and galactic wars raging in time. By lessons learnt, by embracing the diversity and vastness of the universe, its facets, its children. They are truly forged in fire. That is the Doctor. All the rest is motion.
EDITED BY LARA HELENA.
Doctor Who currently airs on BBC One & BBC America. (Fall/2021)
Mercy Ferrars is a MA graduate in philosophy and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction essays. She is madly in love with Scotland, dogs and Bojack Horseman. This essay was part of her Bachelor’s thesis.
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