Since its premiere on November 23, 1963, the character of the Doctor on the show Doctor Who has been played by a man. As of three days ago, that's no longer the case. With Jodie Whittaker cast to be the 13th iteration of the Doctor, the door to the universe’s possibilities has been flung open, and I, for one, am so on board.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as enthusiastic. After the announcement of Whittaker’s casting, the troll chorus of the internet cleared its throat and burst into whines of the Valkyries. Given the sheer sound and fury of their moans, you’d think these oodles of grown adults were upset about a looming Doomsday — not about the casting for an alien on a children’s show.
The Sun chimed in with its own derision of a female Doctor. In an editorial, Adam Postans wrote, "It is frankly nauseating that the [BBC] should now get on their sci-fi high horse and gallop into Right-Onsville to plonk a woman sheriff in town.”
Along with the editorial, The Sun published nude images from Whittaker's prior acting roles. The Daily Mail followed suit, running photos from Whittaker's work in The Smoke and Black Mirror with the headline "Doctor Nude!"
Where The Sun and Twitter trolls went low, the BBC went high. The Beebs responded to the backlash with a graceful statement that reminded fans of the engine that keeps the show running: Change. "Since the first Doctor regenerated back in 1966, the concept of the Doctor as a constantly evolving being has been central to the programme," the statement on the BBC website read. "The continual input of fresh ideas and new voices across the cast and the writing and production teams has been key to the longevity of the series."
After all, it was only through changing — or regenerating! — that the Doctor Who franchise could persist with such success over the decades. Now, the show features a diverse range of characters in a diverse array of relationships. The Doctor’s best friend is a charming pansexual alien named Captain Jack Harkness, his wife is a bisexual archaeologist named River Song, and his current companion happens to be a lesbian.
Modern updates like these ensure that the show stays relevant. Having a woman play the Doctor is a natural, and necessary, next step.
How did the petulant fans not see this coming? That the Doctor could be a woman shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for anyone who’s kept up with the show. There’s a long-established precedent for women Time Lords. When Matt Smith began his tenure as the quirky, bow tie-wearing 11th Doctor, he acquainted himself with his new body: “I’m a girl. No, no, I’m not a girl. And still not ginger.”
Then, last season, the Doctor’s rival nemesis, also a Time Lord, reappeared — this time, presenting as a woman. When played by a man, the Master (John Simm) read like a slightly manic spoof of a Kevin Spacey villain. But when the Master regenerated as the Mistress (or “Missy”), played by Michelle Gomez, the Doctor finally found a rival as dynamic and intelligent as he was.
The trolls’ fury confirms a lesson that Doctor Who teaches fans time and time again: Sometimes, people can be terrible. Luckily for us, the Doctor's able to make us better than we were before.
The entire series of Doctor Who is predicated on the idea that the Doctor is kinder, wiser, and more attuned to the universe's glory than humans. Instead of going on intergalactic vacations, the Doctor has tethered him (and now her) self to Earth in to solve our problems.
Often, we’re too caught up in our daily lives, or too stuck in our conventions, to notice that evil aliens have taken over. Yet through meeting the Doctor, the humans he encounters are compelled to be brave, bold, and better than they were. He brings out the Gryffindors in us all.
But in the real world, we don’t have a Doctor to broaden our minds. We have to do it ourselves. And how terribly human of us to limit a character like the Doctor to wee Earthling conventions and gender dichotomies. The Doctor isn’t a man or a woman; the Doctor is an alien who presents as a man or a woman. His (or her) personality and history are entirely separate from the shell into which he (or she) regenerates every few season.
With every trip on the TARDIS, the Doctor bursts open his human companions’ conception of the universe. Let’s have this casting have the same effect on us. The Doctor would want us to rise to the belief that people aren’t defined by their bodily appearances or their genders. Rather, we’re individuals, and little universes in our own right.
When it comes to Jodie Whittaker’s casting, I’m as open-minded and excited as the Doctor would want me to be. In 2017, I didn’t get a woman president. But I did get a woman Doctor. And frankly, since the Doctor was temporarily made the President of Earth in Season 8, that’s got to count for something. The casting of a woman to play the Doctor is a real-life lesson from Doctor Who, and I hope we all listen.