Monday, July 17, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: A Female Doctor Who?

A reader named Don writes:

One other question for your "Ask JKM" segment”-- one I'm sure you've had in your inbox a few times the past 24 hours: what's your take on the casting of Jodie Whitaker as the first female Doctor?

Don, I know you submitted a few questions, but I’m going to answer this one first, since it is so timely today. Also, as you say, my inbox has been filled with commentary on this particular question.

I had hoped to comment on the remarkable casting news yesterday, but I was blindsided by the passing of George A. Romero and Martin Landau, and am only now landing on my feet.

Excuse me, if, given the events of the last twenty fours, I am a little less diplomatic than I usually am in this response to those who have found cause to complain about the casting news.

My thoughts on Jodie Whitaker as the first female Doctor in Doctor Who?

It’s about bloody time!

Doctor Who has endured and even thrived, basically, for almost fifty-five years, by constantly re-inventing itself.

It has re-invented its style, its lead character, its universe, its hero’s background, and more. The Doctor is a character who has been old, young, Scottish (!), mischievous, deadpan, pompous, and comedic. The Doctor has had curly hair, dark hair, blond hair, and gray hair. The Doctor has been a renegade, on the run, a cosmic hobo, and even trapped on 20th century Earth for a time. The Doctor has fled Time Lords, worked with the Time Lords, and witnessed the death and rebirth of the Time Lords.

Change is, actually, the essence of this particular character, and that change is one significant factor that keeps the series fresh and intriguing.

I like and appreciate Peter Capaldi very much in the lead role, and feel he made the character his own. I feel he will be evaluated as a strong “Doctor” in terms of franchise history, but I have also read so many comments on the Internet about his era feeling old and tired. 

There was starting to become this overwhelming sense that even in a universe of constant change, Doctor Who was starting to feel old. It needed an injection of new blood that a standard regeneration might not provide.

So we now have the opportunity for new blood in the writing, behind the scenes, and in front of the cameras with Jodie Whitaker as well. The Doctor  shall be re-invented again, just as the character was reinvented after Hartnell, after Troughton, after Pertwee, and so forth. But for the first time, the Doctor will be a woman.

We could be on the cusp of something great, I feel.

And there is absolutely no plausible reason why the Doctor should not be female, given what we know of regeneration, and given the Doctor’s long history of constant change. We have the example, for instance, of the Master.

All the jokes about “bras in the TARDIS” are -- forgive me for being blunt -- stupid and juvenile, as are the by-now predictable cries of “SJW Doctor Who.”

The Doctor is a character whose very existence has been defined by elasticity. The cries of anguish over a female Doctor are sexism, pure and simple, and I hope that those making this complaint fulfill their written (online) promises to leave Doctor Who fandom at this juncture.

We won't let the door hit them on the way out.

And while they are making a hasty exit, they should also leave modern science fiction fandom, in general, if they have a problem with a female Doctor.

Now, I don’t like change just to be edgy, just for the sake of change, but change is “baked in” on Doctor Who, and this change is not out-of-line with what we have seen in the series, historically-speaking.

Those who can’t bring themselves to watch the adventures of a female Doctor can content themselves with 12 incarnations of white male Doctors, and just enjoy those, again and again, ad infinitum without ever having to come up for air, or face the fact of a changing, more just, more equal world in terms of on-screen representation. 

These snowflakes -- to coin a phrase -- belong in the past, in their own safe space of eternal reruns. Personally, I look forward to not hearing from them again. That would be such a relief.

For it has been a huge embarrassment, I feel, to see this sort of bad white male behavior crop up again and again in fandom, and be forced to defend it. 

I remember white men feeling wounded and betrayed by the presence of a strong woman, Furiosa, in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and wondering what on Earth they could be thinking…when they should have been rejoicing a marvelous addition to that cinematic universe.

Just weeks ago, I watched with dismay as Star Trek Discovery was attacked as Star Trek: SJW because it featured diversity in its leading cast, even though this diversity follows well the tradition of Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and Voyager (1995-2001). Indeed, diversity is the essence of Star Trek, much as change is the essence of Doctor Who.

Look, I’m a straight white man, myself, and I just don’t understand at all how this kind of misogyny and racism can go hand-in-hand with a love of science fiction, and a love of Star Trek, or Doctor Who in particular. And I won’t defend or apologize for the behavior of those who feel the Doctor must always be a male, or that all starship captains should be white males simply because of “tradition.”

As I’ve written before, that’s a logical fallacy, the appeal to tradition. Just because something has always been one way, it must continue to be that way, the belief goes. That’s a bad reason to do something, in my book. Why?  Because over time, we learn, we get new facts...we grow.

I feel those who make this argument are not just misogynist and racist, but trapped in a perpetual victim mentality loop.


It’s obvious that there are plenty of white male heroes out there for these snowflakes to continue to enjoy.

They have names like Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, James Bond, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Batman, Superman, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, Hercules, Ant Man, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Hawkeye, Wolverine, Peter Quill, Owen Grady, Rick Grimes, Jon Snow, Paul Atreides, John Connor, Jean Luc-Picard, Captain Archer, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Mad Max, Mal Reynolds, etc., etc.

I just can’t feel sympathy for these complainers because one regeneration of a multi-incarnation hero -- the Doctor -- is going to be, perhaps for three years, a woman.

The fact that they are complaining about this -- one three year stint out of 54 years or so -- exposes the fact that they are total and utterly indulged, or to use a term they hate (but which is apt): privileged.  

If they don’t want to watch a female Doctor, then by all means, they should opt out and make a beeline for the safe spaces of reruns.

But they should know that they won’t be missed. 

And that time is rapidly passing them by. 

They are loud and vocal and obnoxious, and let's face it --  even threatening --  now, in 2017, but more and more people are seeing them for what they truly are: bullies. 

Their complaints are not about ethics in journalism. 

Their stance is not a a response to “social justice warriors.” 

These folks are gate-keeping, and arguing for a status quo that they perceive they benefit from. They represent a rigid, exclusive brand of close-mindedness that doesn't belong anywhere near the concept of science fiction, and a universe of endless possibilities.

I hope Jodie Whitaker does a great job as the new Doctor, and I recommend that she give Kate Mulgrew a call at her earliest opportunity to discuss what it is like to carry the torch for a science fiction brand (mistakenly) thought to be the exclusive terrain of white males.

It's going to be an interesting three years. But for every hater out there, I hope there will be a voice like mine too, urging on the new incarnation of Doctor, and helping to usher in a fantastic, exciting future.

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at:


  1. John, brilliant answer. I am extremely glad that we finally have a female Doctor Who. I actually thought the last time, when Peter was chosen, we were going to get a female. Perfect example of Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway decades after TOS "Turnabout Intruder" made it clear that federation starships are not commanded by women. As a boy, I loved Erin Gray's Colonel Wilma Deering and disliked as the series progressed as her character was diminished in the shadow of Gil Gerard's Buck. It's about time the Time Lord is a lady. The new 2018 Netflix LOST IN SPACE series has Doctor Smith character recast as a female too, Parker Posey.


  2. John,
    I could not agree more! Your passionate response is exactly how I feel. With all the problems in the world today, some people are upset about this?!? My feeling is that we may be about to witness the greatest season of Doctor Who ever, because everyone involved in making the show will want to prove the haters wrong. Doctor Who is all about change, and that is why it's lasted so long. The sexism denotes a ridiculous amount of insecurity. As SGB so rightfully pointed out, the new Dr. Smith is a woman, and as the biggest Lost In Space fan anywhere, I am totally cool with it! Bring on the new adventures! Anyone who feels differently can eat cosmic dust.

  3. Sheri1:26 AM

    For better or worse, this furor is just an indicator of the extent to which people involve themselves with their favored media and behave as if they are its creators. This phenomenon is what leads to fan fiction (and at the extreme, slash fiction) and the more involved people feel, the greater and more embedded their sense of ownership of the material. People come to think of their favorite media property as *theirs*, and they don't react well to someone mucking about with what they think of as their property.

    This ownership phenomenon is baffling to those of us who are capable of behaving as just the audience of others' work, but the capital-letter FANDOM problem is one that plagues many creators. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle, who discovered, much to his surprise, that he wasn't free to put an end to Sherlock Holmes no matter how many times he tried! Remember the furor when Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced? You'd have thought someone came over and stole the doors off people's classic cars right in their driveways.

    This is a different issue from audiences merely reacting badly to bad movie remakes (or TV shows turned into movies), where audiences rightly suspect that change for the sake of change arose from a lack of original ideas--or any good reason to make the movie.

  4. I have to admit, I was ambivalent about the news. I don't have a problem with a female Dr. Who per se, and it certainly wouldn't prevent me from checking out the new season. I'm quite curious about how Jodie Whitaker will handle the part. I just hope Chris Chibnall has a creative reason for going in this direction and is not simply doing it for publicity or to appease a certain part of the fan base. As a fan of the original series, I always thought that it was pretty clearly established that Time Lords could not change sex because of Romana and the fact that she stayed female when she transformed. Of course, no one would touch a transgender scenario back then, so staying one sex was a given. When The Master changed sex in the new series, I felt as though that was Moffat trying to be all clever and twisty but whatever. At that point, it opened up the door for the Doctor to change sex as well. I guess for me, I feel as though the new series as gone so far afield from the original, I don't really relate to it or care anymore. I though Russell T. Davies bridged the old and the new nicely, but Moffat went off in some crazy directions that made it something else entirely. I agree with you that the Capaldi era was getting tired. I gave up at the beginning of his second season. Maybe Chibnall and Whitaker can breathe some new life into it. I certainly love Broadchurch. I just don't know if maybe I'm too old to appreciate the show anymore.

  5. John,

    I feel the same about opening the world of science fiction to change. If we can make Johnny Storm black or Starbuck a woman, Doctor Who can certainly be a woman too.

    No quibbles whatsoever on that point.

    However these cries of white male racism trouble me as a white male. It has become a tiresome thing for me.

    Are we to only believe even know for certain such complaints are entirely male (perhaps there are females in this camp) or white (are there no blacks, Hispanics or Asians?) that would prefer the Doctor be maintained as a male.

    Of course I can't possibly know the kind of emails or messages you receive on a daily basis that might provoke such a strong reaction from you. This is information exclusive to you and from that you draw your opinion and analysis and it is always a welcomed one.

    But it troubles me as a conservative white man who is socially liberal to always here about white racism.

    Racism exists in the hearts of all men and women. And quite frankly who are we to know if the intent to preserve something as iconic as Doctor Who as they wish it to be preserved made from a place of racism.

    I understand on its face people may not want a female and thus it stands to reason, but is it always from a place of intended racial or, in this case, gender malice. I don't know it that is always the case.

    Regardless, I feel it is not exclusive to white males and would prefer race or gender wasn't always part of every argument or equation.

    I feel these racial assignments are unfortunately overused and certainly do not reflect the majority opinion (am I naïve?) on just about any subject regarding a love of women in film or television. Again, the reimagined Starbuck worked for me personally. Race or sex has nothing to do with it. Sometimes I just don't care for a character but again not because of a person's race or gender.

    But I know it cannot be avoided in this application nor will it ever be eradicated as it seems to be a point of contention in just about anything (Ghost In The Shell, whitewashing, BLM, etc...)

    But yes, I too welcome the excitement to come involving the stories of a female Doctor Who.

  6. Hi SFF,

    I am also troubled about this.

    And I'm glad you wrote. You are a good friend and a strong thinker as well. Your viewpoint is welcome.

    And I don't yell "sexism" or "racism" lightly.

    It's not a conclusion I have jumped to, or that I particularly like. I don't use those terms regularly here.

    This is based, alas, on many examples I have seen while blogging in the last three or four years.

    I don't say that these white men are conservative, or that they are liberal, just that again and again the knee jerk reaction from these white male fans is to whine and complain FIRST when women or people of color earn a prominent part in a science fiction production.

    No women ghost busters team! No black storm troopers! No strong women in Mad Max! No diverse casting in Star Trek! No female Doctor in Doctor Who!

    Again and again, this particular group (which I have observed is, sadly -- like me -- white and male) makes a spectacle of itself posting hateful, sexist things. Every new development is greeted with hatred.

    I'm of this demographic too, obviously. So I'm not proud about the behavior, and I don't like to accuse anyone of bad faith.

    But I've seen it.

    I used to not comment on it. But I think it's time that the gloves come off. The bullies can't be allowed to own the bullhorn, without push-back. Bad things happen when good people remain silent.

    I understand why cries of racism, or sexism trouble you. I'm with you there.

    But at this point, what else is the negativity a result of?

    It's different to dislike a series, or a performance, after you have seen it. It's different to assess the decisions a failure, creatively, after a review.

    Notice that these complaints are all about an objection to a creative decision that hasn't yet been seen. They are not a response to the success or failure of a work of art, they are a complaint about issues of gender, or race. These folks don't think the Doctor can be a woman. Or that an African-American woman should have a central role in Star Trek. They don't know anything about those characters, except their gender/ethnicity.

    And that is the definition of sexist and racist.


    1. Completely fair. But it exists on all fronts. There are those that are vocal about white women filling the role of Asian characters. Ghost in the shell as I noted is a fine example. There are those that cried foul over m. Night shyamalan's choices with Avatar.

      Folks are entirely too sensitive about race and gender on all sides of the issue.

      Personally I have been a proponent of creative decisions that take chances or risks and roll the dice with a given property despite the naysayers. Ghost in the shell is one such property I wrote extensively about defending those various creative choices. The reruns and old films will always be there.

      Give the new ideas a shot.

      And at the very least do people, and here is where we agree, have to have a problem with blacks, whites, asians or women in a given role. Does it always have to come down to that? I've seen it from all types john.

    2. And john. Thanks for the discussion my friend, all respect.

  7. Thanks for a well-articulated and thoughtful answer, John! The gender of the Doctor doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that the Doctor’s character is engaging, otherworldly, and larger-than-life. (Also, to be blunt, the show owes women one after the awful 6th Doctor-Peri relationship.) I’m keeping an open mind about the new Doctor as long as the new showrunner returns the series to a standard of coherent storytelling that was prevalent for the 1st-5th Doctors, as well as the 9th in 2005. (As you can tell, I pretty much agree with your assessment of the last two classic Doctors' seasons--with exceptions--and I confess my enthusiasm for Moffatt's tenure is quite limited, though I've enjoyed Capaldi.)

    One of the most curious objections came from someone who said that the Doctor is like a male relative: he can tel the Doctor things he can't talk to an aunt or sister about. The problem with that is that the Doctor is a character for ALL the fans, not just one.

    I also see a lot of false equivalencies going around, and I'm sure you do too, One wag wrote, "Will we have a male Wonder Woman?" Obviously, the problem there is that the Doctor has nothing in his name to indicate that he has to be a male. (To be fair, on the opposite side someone likened the first female Doctor to a female Starfleet captain; I don't think that analogy holds up either, important though Janeway was.)

    Another thought going around: what about the Rani and Romana? Why not bring them back? Could they regenerate into a man? I happen to like the Rani, and wish they could have brought her back (played by an actress like Rebecca Mader). Unfortunately, Pip & Jane Baker withdrew the rights to the character. But perhaps it could be interesting to have Romana regenerate as a man--at least in a tie-in novel.

    Overall, I look forward to Jodie Whitaker's performance.