Doctor Who, like a lot of science fiction, sounds goofy from the outside. The main character is a thousand-year-old alien who can travel through space and time. He is the last of the Time Lords; the others of his kind, who lived on the planet Gallifrey, were killed in the Time War. Since then, he has traveled the universe protecting other planets and sentient species from being obliterated, and he has adopted Earth as his pet project.
The Doctor is basically immortal. In the biggest power grab in the history of television screenwriting, the showrunners decided that any given incarnation of the Doctor could die and the character would simply regenerate into a new body. This comes in handy whenever an actor playing Doctor Who quits or gets too demanding: Just kill him off and start fresh with another. The show has been around for 50 years thanks to this conceit.
The 11th Doctor, Matt Smith, just announced that he is leaving the series. The 12th Doctor should be a woman. It’s time.
Each new doctor has a new personality and costume. The ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, who was the first one in the 21st century reboot of the series, was moody and mysterious. David Tennant was dashing and wore a long coat given to him by Janis Joplin.* Smith is a funny, sometimes corny, physical comedian in a bow tie.
The Doctor’s essential characteristics, the ones that show up in every reincarnation, are intelligence, courage, cleverness, adventurousness to the point of recklessness, and a sentimental affection for humans. The Doctor also has two hearts, but there’s no reason he has to have a penis.
We know it’s possible for Time Lords to switch genders when they are reincarnated. When the Doctor woke up in Smith’s body, he patted down his legs and face to get a feel for his new form, and he confirmed that he was a male by grabbing his … Adam’s apple. This would have been funnier if he hadn’t seemed so relieved.
The show has a huge following of smart, passionate fans, and everyone has an opinion of who should be the next doc. Alley Pezanoski on BitchMedia makes a strong case for a female doctor, as does Matt Patches at Hollywood, and “informed sources at the BBC” say it might happen. But the official BBC Doctor Who TV site presented the possibility as an April Fool’s joke last year, and as you can imagine, there’s a backlash. The Daily Mail says “ANYONE but a woman.” Opponents cite tradition, of course, the first refuge of sexists.
Mac Rogers, who runs Slate’s Doctor Who "TV Club", points out that there is precedent for a female Doctor: "Exhibit A is Lalla Ward's performance as the second Romana in the classic series. As another Time Lord—and the rare companion whose intelligence equals the Doctor's—Ward showed the command, humor, flamboyance, and lightning-fast thought process required for the character."
Science writer Jennifer Ouellette says her reasons for championing a female Doctor go beyond feminism and the obvious fact that a female Doctor would be really cool. “Artistically, it would be a very rich vein for the series writers to mine, both thematically and in terms of character development. It's a perspective on history he hasn't experienced yet: that of being the "other" in, shall we say, a less than enlightened time. It changes everything: where he can go, what behavior is appropriate, how others respond to him (both intellectually and sexually).”
Doctor Who fans have come up with some great picks for their fantasy next Doctor. Phil Plait, who writes Slate’s "Bad Astronomy" blog, suggests Jennifer Saunders. (He also suggests Tim Minchin, who is a dreamboat and pretty much the only male pick who would make me recant my call for a female Doctor.) Slate culture critic and Doctor Who TV Clubber June Thomas picks Lara Pulver. Slate designer Andrew Morgan says Natasha O'Keeffe: “She could pull off the look/attitude and can deadpan like no one’s business.” Amanda Marcotte suggests Natalie Dormer or Lena Headey. Greg Laden says, “That’s easy. Emma Watson.”
A female Doctor would go a long way toward making up for the show’s recent regression into tiresome stereotyped sex roles. The Doctor travels with human companions, usually one lovely young woman at a time. As Ted Kissell writes at the Atlantic, the recent companions have been weaker and younger than the ones who accompanied the earlier Doctors.
The adorable, plucky, but somewhat pathetic sidekicks started appearing when Steven Moffat took over as showrunner. As writer Elizabeth Lopatto says, "I'm fine with the next Doctor being a dude, as long as we get more interesting women and a more emotionally competent writer. Because if Moffat writes us a female Twelve, I imagine she'll be just as sad and broken as the other women he's written (most notably abuse victim River Song, whose lives are stolen from her by the man she loves, for whom she later goes to jail for a crime she didn't commit; although placeholder/perfume model Amy Pond should get special mention for blandness)."
The nadir for me was an episode from this season called “Hide,” in which the Doctor and Clara meet their 1970s doppelgängers, a male war-hero genius and a female assistant who is so sensitive that she can communicate with ghosts. Please could we just once have a female mad scientist and a male empath?
Science fiction matters. The Doctor Who world penetrates into our own—even if you don’t care to watch a show about a Time Lord whose only weapon is a sonic screwdriver, you probably get the reference when someone says “it’s bigger on the inside” or jokes about a cybermen attack. The writers have created some of the scariest monsters of modern times—stone angel statues that attack you when you blink—without resorting to torture porn or gratuitous dismembered bodies. They’ve sent the Time Lord to visit Van Gogh, Shakespeare, and Madame de Pompadour. They’ve shown us Pompeii, the end of the Earth, and endless aliens and planets. Most of all, in the Doctor they’ve created one of the most lovable, resilient, moral, inspirational, and entertaining characters in modern culture. If they can imagine all that, they can imagine a world without gender essentialism or rigid sex roles. The 11th Doctor will soon be dead. Long live the next female Doctor.
Correction, June 3, 2013: This article originally stated that the coat worn by David Tennant was made of leather. It was fabric. (Return to the corrected sentence.)