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Doctor Who: how the Doctor became a man, and why it matters that he’s regenerating into a woman

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who BBC
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This Sunday, Doctor Who will make history. When the show’s 11th season premieres on October 7, it will feature Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor — the show’s first female Doctor since its debut in 1963. (Doctor Who’s original run ended in 1989, but it returned to the BBC in 2005, after a 16-year hiatus.)

The move is entirely plausible within the mythology of the series. Doctor Who is the story of a mysterious alien known as “the Doctor,” who travels through time and space having adventures with a rotating cast of friends. Whenever the Doctor is mortally wounded and/or his actor quits, he dies and is regenerated into a new body, with the same essential self but usually a new set of personality tics.

It’s been established within the world of the show that the Doctor can take on any race and gender, and that he has an ambiguous amount of control over the choice. But thus far — over the course of 54 years and 14 actors rotating through the role (including John Hurt as an incarnation known as the War Doctor, who appeared in three episodes in 2013, and David Bradley, who recently filled in for the deceased William Hartnell as the First Doctor) — he has chosen to appear only as a white British man of various ages, for reasons known only to himself.

Fans have been crusading for a female Doctor or a black Doctor or really any option besides a white male Doctor since 2008, when David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) announced that he would be leaving the show. But as Tennant was first replaced by a younger white guy (Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor) and then by an older white guy (Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor), many fans resigned themselves to the idea that Doctor Who was simply not interested in exploring the possibility of a nonwhite, non-male title character. So Whittaker’s casting announcement was in the odd position of being at once shocking, since it broke 54 years’ worth of precedent, and also unsurprising, since it was responding to nine years’ worth of fan campaigning.

When Whittaker takes over as the Doctor, some of the subtext that Doctor Who has spent the past 54 years developing will finally become legible. The Doctor began as a cipher of a character whose gender hardly mattered, but over the course of the show’s long history, the Doctor has taken on ever more traits of masculine action figure archetypes — and once the Doctor is a woman, those traits will be thrown into sharp relief.

Initially, the Doctor wasn’t a hero. Now he is.

When Doctor Who premiered in 1963, the titular Doctor wasn’t the superhero/Christ figure/Lonely God/Oncoming Storm/insert-grandiloquent-title-here that we know today. Instead, as played by William Hartnell, he was like a Mary Poppins whom you couldn’t quite trust.

Hartnell’s First Doctor was an amoral, grumpy, capricious figure whose main role was to incompetently ferry his companions — although at that point, they didn’t have an official title; eventually they would become assistants, and later companions — to various times and planets, and then stand back while they got things done. Sometimes he would even hinder them: Early on, he tries to club a wounded man to death to save himself, and it’s only the quick thinking of one of his companions, a schoolteacher named Ian, that stops him.

Back then, Ian and his fellow teacher/companion Barbara were clearly the adults in the room. They were the wise and capable heroes who could sort out all the problems their group of adventurers came across. Susan, the Doctor’s spacey teenage granddaughter, was also on hand to function as the audience surrogate who would give all of the children in the audience a character they could identify with. The Doctor himself was just there to take everybody from place to place and get them into trouble.

But slowly, over the 54-year history of the show, the Doctor rendered his first group of companions redundant. He took on the moral authority and competence of Ian and Barbara, and the childlike whimsy and glee of Susan, and married those characteristics to his own ability to travel through time and space. The Doctor became capable of carrying the entire dynamic of the show’s original ensemble entirely on his own, as action hero and wondering child and magical trickster all at once.

Consequently, the Doctor’s companions no longer needed to have skills that the Doctor didn’t. The companion didn’t even need to be more than one person. Instead, she — and as the show progressed, the companion increasingly became she as a default — became necessary primarily so that the Doctor would have someone to explain things to.

So while Doctor Who started as an ensemble show, today it’s very firmly a two-header: The hero Doctor is the center of everything, and the lady companion tags along. That metamorphosis would have been unlikely if the First Doctor had been a woman — but if you look at the early episodes of Doctor Who, there’s very little back then that would have needed to change if she were.

Becoming a hero changed the way the Doctor is written. That’s why it’s so exciting that she’s about to be a woman.

The First Doctor could easily have been a woman without drastically changing the original premise of the show. Doctor Who was aimed at kids when it debuted, and children’s stories are full of not necessarily benevolent trickster ladies who shepherd children from one fantastical location to another, like Mary Poppins and the fairy godmothers of fairy tales.

Really the main thing about the First Doctor that codes as masculine, at least in the context of 1963, is that he goes by “the Doctor,” and as such has a claim to institutional knowledge and authority that even the practically perfect Mary Poppins isn’t granted. Outside of that detail, the Doctor could have been a woman without threatening established gender roles; back then, the Doctor wasn’t really the hero. Ian was.

But as time went on, and the Doctor transitioned from an amoral trickster whose gender didn’t particularly matter to a hero, he took on the traits of specifically male heroic archetypes. He made grandstanding speeches about righteousness to his enemies, like Superman; he was tortured by the memories of the family he’d lost, like Batman; he talked a lot about his responsibilities, like Spider-Man. And crucially, even though the Doctor has become more childlike over time, his glee and curiosity for the world never detract from his heroism and moral authority. That’s part of what makes him such a fun and compelling character, but it’s also an honor that’s typically reserved for male heroes.

I can think of no female action hero who gets to giggle hysterically while piloting a Segway through an underground tunnel toward a murderous alien spider, because the general assumption is that if she did, it would make it harder for the audience to take her seriously when the time came to defeat the alien. Female action heroes tend to be serious when they’re in the midst of action, at most dropping a grimly amused one-liner, because women who laugh are frequently assumed to be incompetent. The Doctor gets away with it, in part, because he’s always been presented as a man, and as such we’re willing to cut him some slack. He can always be counted on to save the day no matter how silly he gets. And part of saving the day usually means rescuing his companion, with varying levels of help from her.

The companion is usually young and beautiful, “for the dads” in the audience, and in the post-2005 era, there’s often been mild romantic tension between Doctor and companion. Modern Doctor Who usually at least gestures at giving the companion an emotional arc of her own, and sometimes she gets to save the world and the Doctor, too, but she is never the hero in the center of everything. That is always the Doctor.

As a result, the Doctor has come to be defined in opposition to his companion: all-knowing where she is questioning, ageless and immortal where she is very young, and male to her female. So the new season will fundamentally alter the dynamic we’ve come to accept as the basis of the show. The Doctor will still be all-knowing, ageless, and immortal, but now she’ll be a woman, and her wide-eyed and admiring companion will be a group of people, including two men. Doctor Who will take place in a world in which the cleverest and saddest and funniest and all-around greatest hero in all of space and time will be female.

Doctor Who may have begun as the story of a Mary Poppins-like trickster shuttling a group of earnest explorers around the universe, but in its current incarnation, it is the story of an old man action hero traveling around time and space explaining things to a beautiful young woman who may or may not be in love with him. That’s why, for as overdue as this casting is, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is going to be so subversive and revolutionary: It offers the expectation that we will finally get to see a woman do the explaining and the day-saving and a man the wide-eyed and adoring listening. That’s why the idea of a lady Doctor is so exciting.

Update: This article was originally written in July 2017 on the announcement of Whittaker’s casting. It has been updated with details about the new season.