Not a ‘Lady Doctor’, just the Doctor: Narrating Gender in Doctor Who

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’s nar­ra­tion of its gen­der­flu­id protagonist.

TEXT Mercy Ferrars LEKTORAT Lara Helena FOTO Koolshoot on Pexels

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. 

Read: Doc­tor Who (Staffel 12): Die Zer­brech­lichkeit von Raum und Zeit

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 is final­ly 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 “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. What do you think? What pro­nouns do you use for the Doc­tor? Feel free to write to us here or on Insta­gram

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. 


Doctor Who currently airs on BBC One & BBC America. (Fall/2021)

ABOUT: Mercy Ferrars 

… author of Why We Are Here, pub­lish­es Fer­rars & Fields Mag­a­zine since 2019. As a philoso­pher she is most­ly inter­est­ed in inter­sec­tion­al crit­i­cal the­o­ry (of which she has some fair knowl­edge) and in the meta­physics of the uni­verse; time and space (of which she has basi­cal­ly none). As a writer, she most­ly writes nov­els, short sto­ries and poet­ry which cen­ter around an explo­ration of com­plex feel­ings. She can be a lit­tle seri­ous some­times (that’s why her favourite TV show is Bojack Horse­man) but her sense of humour is all the more basic (her favourite sit­com is New Girl…).

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