“We should be on by now.” – “Time” David Bowie
On July 16, 2017, the world was introduced to the 13th incarnation of the Doctor – and it was Jodie Whittaker. After years of speculation, the Doctor was finally a woman. Initial reactions ranged from ecstatic to raging mad. “Doctor Who” fandom has always be diversive, with the main line drawn in the sand separating classic and new school fans. That’s not to say fans from both camps haven’t been able to cross the divide and appreciate all incarnations of the much beloved time traveler. Some have – and do – and rally behind the show where the main theme is change and progress. Stars of both the classic and new show defended Jodie Whittaker’s casting, while many fannish gatekeepers argued this couldn’t possibly be, that their Doctor had to be a man, and that the show they’ve loved for years was now dead to them.
So, where are we now? Down time between regenerations and seasons is always the hardest for devoted Whovians. Old school fans survived the Wilderness Years, devouring spin-off novels and Big Finish audio adventures from 1989 till 2005, when the show returned. Today, fans are left waiting a few months, at most a year or two. In the span of that time, there will be numerous articles spouting rumors – and sometimes spoilers – and it leaves a lot of time for speculation as well as celebration.
At this year’s WHOlanta, I saw both women and men cosplaying as the 13th Doctor, decked in long rainbow lined coats, striped shirts, bright suspenders, blue trousers, colorful socks and combat boots. Panels were held discussing why her Doctor matters even though we’ve only seen her on screen for mere moments. Panelists pondered if the new Doctor might borrow any formal wear from her wife’s closet. In press photos, Jodie Whittaker has been seen posing with a whole hallway of fanart of her Doctor. A new logo has been released, its thin golden lines hiding the symbol for female gender in plain sight. The fights continue to rage on about whether this is right or wrong, but many fans are taking the wait and see approach – or pinning their dread on to Chris Chibnall’s writing instead of the actress’ casting.
Are we on the road to acceptance, when that is exactly what this show has been about for 50 odd years? I polled con goers to describe their reaction to the 13th Doctor’s casting in as few words as possible. “Chekhov’s gun” was the answer that stood out the most. Because, thanks to Steven Moffat, this is where we’ve always been heading.
In the 1999 Red Nose Day Special “The Curse of the Fatal Death,” Moffat spoofs the Doctor literally running through a series of star-studded regenerations, featuring everyone from Rowan Atkinson to Hugh Grant – but the special ends with the Doctor being played by Joanna Lumley. In retrospect, the joke works because it’s something most fans thought could never happen at that time. Give them Romana or the Rani, but leave their favorite time lord alone. The Doctor being a woman was literally a joke.
When Moffat took the helm of the show in 2010, it wasn’t business as usual. In the Neil Gaiman-penned “The Doctor’s Wife,” the 11th Doctor mentions that another time lord called the Corsair changed genders. River Song, the Doctor’s wife, is a time lady thanks to being conceived on the TARDIS, and she gives up her remaining regenerations to save him from, well, herself. And then there’s Missy, the Master’s latest incarnation, a Mary Poppins-type maniac with a penchant for upgrading the dead into Cybermen – and then learning that she does have as many hearts as the Doctor. Moffat made it possible for Chris Chibnall to cast a woman – and no one is laughing about it now.
But the answer that lodged itself in my heart was “wonderment.” With every regeneration, it’s a chance to meet a new fantastic facet of the same person. Both the promotional commercial announcing her arrival and Whittaker’s proper introduction in “Twice Upon a Time” have focused on her eyes, which I don’t think is an accident. We’re seeing the world through fresh eyes – her eyes. Will the characters and companions in her stories question her abilities, much like the audience already has? If we’re lucky, they’ll accept her like every Doctor that has come before, and just keep running.
Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites like FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has work forthcoming in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”