A case for women Doctors

We need to talk about Doctor Who.

I know Doctor Who is everyone’s favorite sci-fi television show. I understand that it is the longest running television show and that it’s able to bridge generational gaps because of it. It is as iconic as Star Trek and more storied than Star Wars. I get that. And the modern remake has fueled a fire in the current generation and spawned toys and games to keep the obsession hot.

But Doctor Who suffers — and always has — from a fatal flaw. Rampant sexism.

The new series of Doctor Who kicked off this weekend with what looks to be a new companion — one who’s dark-skinned and lesbian. And while I’d love to use those things to applaud the show’s attempts to add diversity to television, I can’t.

Despite the ambiguity inherent in the titular character, there has never been a female Doctor. And, though at times there have been multiple travelers with the Doctor, there is always one “Companion” and she is always female.

Since the Peter Capaldi doctor, most of the romantic overtones between Doctor and Companion in the new series have been sidelined, but that doesn’t change the inherently straight, cisgendered nature of the relationship between Companion and Doctor. Adding a lesbian to the mix doesn’t change the fact that the show is still sexist.

Companion is a weird archetype, but it loosely translates to “sidekick” — even when the Companion’s story overtakes that of the Doctor himself — as it did with Clara. A sidekick can never be as important as the hero, and anyway the show isn’t called Clara Oswald — it’s called Doctor Who. No matter what the new showrunners do with the show, no matter what new characters and stories they tell, as long as the Doctor represents only half of the population.

The Doctor is a Time Lord and Time Lords can regenerate. When they do, they take on a new form and a new personality — which is a convenient retcon to explain when leading actors are unavailable to continue the role, and likely at least partially the reason for the show’s longevity. Despite the fact that Time Lords can regenerate to a different gender, that has never happened to the Doctor (though it did happen to the Time Lord known as the Master, sometime arch enemy of the Doctor, who’s currently calling herself Missy).

It’s been posited several times that Time Lords can regenerate only 12 times; Peter Capaldi marks the twelfth doctor. Unless the new showrunners add in some more convenient retcon (something that we can’t exactly put past them in a show like Doctor Who), that would mean that the Doctor is, was, and always will have been, male, an obvious gender imbalance that should put even hardcore fans up in arms. And if they do add convenient retcon to support Doctors beyond the twelfth? Anything other than a long string of female doctors (twelve to be precise) would still be perpetuating this inherent, latent sexism.

Let’s talk about Companions for a moment.

Why has there never been a male companion? In the early days the companion was very much like whatever uterus-bearing, nameless side character in the original Star Trek that Kirk ends up making eyes at — fodder for brief romantic interest and/or involvement and a reflective surface on which to display the Doctor’s genius and ingenuity. In the current incarnation, even during the brief period where Amy Pond‘s husband tags along on the adventure with the eleventh Doctor, the Companion has continued to be, invariably, female. And despite the fact that in the new series, we see the Doctor with a wisecracking bald guy helping him out — wisecracking bald guy is not the Companion. You know this intrinsically the first scene that the character Bill appears — ah, yes, new companion, you think as you see her walk onscreen for the first time. And then you start to wonder (or, I do, anyway) why the Doctor is only ever interested in traveling with women.

I have no problem if the Doctor is just heterosexual, but the current incarnation of the show goes to great lengths to explain how the Doctor/Companion relationship is not romantic, that the Doctor doesn’t want a romantic relationship with his Companion and that he already has a (albeit unusual, time-traveling) relationship with River Song. And that only works if we explore other relationship types as well, which we can’t if the Doctor is only male.

Doctor Who has many great things going for it. It’s also terribly formulaic. To be sure, that gives it some of its charm, but the male/female, Doctor/Companion dynamic — that has been a staple of the show since its inception — is one thing that needs to go. We need more diverse stories in television and in science fiction, in particular. We need stories told from the perspective of more than just straight white men. Give me the show about a time-and-space-traveling heroine and I will be there. Television in a lens through which we perceive the world around us and, as such, needs to reflect the diversity of the world around us, not the homogeneity of writers and producers making the shows.

A newcomer’s guide to the Doctor (Who, that is)

This is an experience I imagine almost everyone having:

You’re alone. It’s late at night (but not too late yet) in the mid-90s and you’re flipping through the channels. You stop on some cheap-looking sci fi thing with British accents. You watch. Without seeing the title credits, you already have a pretty good idea what it is. What else could it be? Doctor Who. The next thing you know, 4 hours have passed and you haven’t moved.

I wasn’t immediately compelled by the reboot of what I believe is the longest-running television series of any kind in the history of television (nevermind the fact that there have been long breaks in between seasons — even given that, it’s impressive to think the show is more than 50 years old). I loved Christopher Eccleson ever since he costarred in a quirky black comedy thriller with a young, unknown, Scottish actor named Ewan McGregor and directed by an equally unknown directory named Danny Boyle (who would go on to direct TrainspottingA Life Less Ordinary28 Days/Weeks LaterSlumdog Millionaire…). He played the quiet one. The boring one. The one that ultimately goes berserk and tries to kill his roommates over the bag of money buried under the floorboards.

Shallow Grave

So, when I first watched the Doctor Who reboot, I liked it — because I liked Christopher Eccleson, because it’s British and because, hey, it’s Doctor Who, right? — but I didn’t love it.

Shortly thereafter the world went nuts and Doctor Who was everywhere. Kids in my son’s third grade class were bringing sonic screwdrivers to school fer crissake. It was so cool to like Doctor Who that it was no longer cool to like Doctor Who. Now, you don’t stumble across a guy with a ridiculously long scarf on some unknown channel in the middle of the night, you binge-watch the whole series on Netflix.

I’ve watched and put up with some pretty bad sci fi in my day. Babylon 5? Yeah, that’s up there. Doctor Who always seemed to love to walk this fine line of camp and poignancy but when it was being rerun from the 70s or 80s (or earlier) it didn’t need to try too hard to nail the camp part. It was there, dated-looking like a Dalek in all its tin can glory.


The new series seemed to have a multiple personality disorder. It would flip manically between camp and serious without warning which seemed to coincide well with Christopher Eccleson who’s nothing if not incredibly brooding. I mean, the man’s brows beat the puppet version of David Boreanaz from the “Smile Time” episode of Angel.

Smile Time

Even with David Tennant — still my favorite Doctor from the reboot — the show floundered and never quite got past the pseudo-sexual-tension-that-wasn’t. I mean that in a good way. Floundering. Floundered like the TARDIS hurtling through space and time without really having any particular direction. That’s kind of what the show did.

I’m not sure what changed, but the season that Matt Smith started, suddenly the show got really freaking good. The sexual tension was there, sort of, but it was diluted by the fact that the female companion had her own male companion — so it was never the whole “hey, why don’t you talk to me, I’m from a different planet…want to see my spaceship?”…actually…it was still that. But minus the pick up lines.


Can I just point out that in every series, the Doctor — literally — picks up the first female he sees? His similarities to Zaphod Beeblebrox aren’t as few as you’d assume. And why is it that Time Lords are all heterosexual? I’ve yet to see a gay Time Lord. Or, you know, a female one (River Song, notwithstanding…spoilers).


It’s not that there was a different Doctor, either. I like Matt Smith but I still think David Tennant is a better Doctor. The game changed, the story became more faceted, and the 1-and-1 relationship was eased by the addition of another traveller in the blue box. I’m still working my way through season 6 and there’s a new Doctor coming this year. An older Doctor than we’ve seen since the show was rebooted. (I dearly hope any semblance of sexual tension is gone in the new series — I just don’t want to see 20-something girl-panion hitting on Old Doctor.) Nevertheless, I’ve been hooked. At one time, I remember hearing “oh Neil Gaiman wrote an episode” and deciding to watch the series solely on that alone. Having watched the show up to and past that episode — it’s not even the best by a long shot, and I’m a huge fan of Gaiman.

So, I get it. I get why it’s a thing. I’ve drunk the Kool Aid. I’ve joined the party. Expect TARDIS ringtones and whatnot. And I hope beyond hope that the new Doctor doesn’t freak the shit out of me. Now go check out this site because the bouncing heads are funny.