Destroy All Monsters: There Will Never Be a Female DOCTOR WHO

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Destroy All Monsters: There Will Never Be a Female DOCTOR WHO

Peter Capaldi is a splendid choice to play the Twelfth Doctor. He's even somewhat outside the box. Doctor actors have been inconspicuously reducing in age, almost without exception, from One to Eleven - and in casting 55-year-old Capaldi, I can see, beyond question, that there is new and interesting ground for showrunner Steven Moffat to cover. Moffat has completed three superlative seasons with "The Doctor As Boy," and can now tackle "The Doctor As Man," or even "Old Man." For the fiftieth anniversary of the show, that has a pleasant "everything old is new again" vibe to it.

(Another pleasure in all this, which can't help but delight the 7-year-old me who used to sprint behind the couch when Tom Baker's Doctor Who came up on the telly: Capaldi allows for the possibility of the Doctor being scary again. Not just the show and not just the monsters, but the Doctor himself. Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, and many of the others were goofy, charming, ebullient and all, but they were also scary-as-fuck older men who no child would feel entirely safe getting locked in a TARDIS with.)

While Twelve was being cast in the BBC's top secret Arctic bunker, there was the appropriate amount of online chatter/fantasy about whether, this time, the Doctor would be a woman. In this, I happily indulged. (Helen Mirren if casting on the elder end of the spectrum, sure, or Emma Watson on the young; but for an age straight down the middle, the conversation begins and ends with Olivia Williams.)

From a basic role-reversal/Affirmative-Action/let's-try-to-even-the-playing-field-a-bit standpoint, asking why the Doctor must always be a pale-faced male between the ages of 25 and 45 (at least recently, until Capaldi) makes a lot of sense. Further, speculating about whether the BBC might rewire the teatime triumph to allow for the possibility of young girls (and women, and boys, and men) to imagine a version of the adventure where the Time Lord is the woman and the companion is the boy (or girl, or man, or whatever) is entirely legitimate.

Ain't gonna happen, though.

There will be an atheist in the White House before there's a woman at the controls of the TARDIS. This isn't because the Beeb is sexist, or because Steven Moffat doesn't know how to write women, or whatever other complaints are being leveled at the status quo on Twitter this week. This is, without any judgment on my part on whether this is "fair" or not, simply because of the nature of the thing itself.

The thing itself, being this 50-year-old science fiction television serial Doctor Who, is inherently patriarchal in both design and philosophy. An inherently patriarchal construct cannot be rearranged through a simple game of gender Mad-Libs, as the knee-jerk cries for Time Lord gender equality would hold. It's vaguely insulting, in fact, to suggest that it could, falling somewhere between tokenism at the shallow end and outright condescension at the deep.

Before I get much further, I must reiterate that what I'm describing has nothing to do with my personal feelings on whether this is fair or not. It isn't fair, but then, "fairness" is a made-up numbers game we invented when we learned how to count. Fairness does not, in point of fact, exist.

I'd love a female Doctor for the same reasons as just about everyone else, but casting a woman as the Twelfth (or the Thirteenth) is not the same as creating a female captain for Star Trek or demanding a Wonder Woman movie from Warner Brothers. Captain Janeway and Wonder Woman are important parts of the SF lexicon because they are inherently female characters, not because their genders were assigned randomly in an effort to balance an equation.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is inherently male. His adventures are inherently patriarchal; Doctor Who is, in its way, a patriarchy propaganda delivery machine. We do not, as a matter of course, have a parallel conversation about whether or not they'll cast a woman as James Bond when Daniel Craig is ready to hang up the tuxedo. James Bond, and his myth, are patriarchal through and through; if you cast a woman as James Bond, you would have to rearrange the chairs to such a degree that James Bond movies would cease to be James Bond movies. They'd become something else, and that's fine; but a James Bond movie is a patriarchal construct, and so is Doctor Who.

There's nothing wrong with a patriarchal story, by the way, as long as everyone knows what they're watching and filters its messages through the appropriate series of lenses as a result. Doctor Who is wonderful fantasy and oftentimes quite brilliant science fiction, but it is designed and executed to reinforce a series of messages, the largest of which is one of the oldest in television history: Father Knows Best.

From William Hartnell's First Doctor traveling with his "granddaughter" on an adventure across time and space, the Doctor is always the learned mentor who snatches companions from relative naiveté and subordinates them to his wisdom like an archetypal schoolmaster. The Doctor is not designed like the typical (male) hero of much of science fiction; he may be the series' main character, but he's not its protagonist. The Doctor is a permanent shaman/wizard/Wise Elder, in the Joseph Campbell sense of the archetype, and he's here to teach his companions a lesson.

The companions are not so frequently female because the Doctor wants to get up to some TARDIS hanky-panky, although the modern Who era has not shied from the intimation on just about every conceivable occasion. The companions are frequently female because, in Doctor Who's analysis of the Way the World Works, women are emotionally available to the wonders that the Doctor is handing down from the Universe at large, and can therefore radiate that wonder out at the audience.

(Yes, they're sometimes male. They're also sometimes River Song or a robotic dog. The design of the companions is more flexible than the design of the Doctor, but the archetyping remains dogmatically male/female: one character has the power and is here to disseminate it; one character does not have the power, and is here to receive it.)

If it makes anyone feel any better, the female companions are meant, by design, to stand in for all of us. None of us really get to be the Doctor, whether we're male or female, just like none of us really get to be God or Gandalf; but we all get to be Sarah-Jane, whether we're a boy or a girl.

That's the bright side of all this, to which the obvious dark side is simpler and meaner: Doctor Who thereby relentlessly reinforces the "silly schoolgirl" trope in endless Mozart variations from Susan Foreman to Clara Oswin Oswald. It doesn't so much matter that the silly schoolgirl (or boy) in question is meant to stand in for all of us; she's still (usually) an onscreen female who attacks problems with inexperience that often leads to complications and sometimes disaster, so that the catharsis of most of the episodes is built around the Doctor/schoolmaster/"Daddy" swooping down and putting things right, sometimes even at the cost of his own life (cue the next regeneration scene here). In the emotional investment required for us, the audience, to get into and out of every episode of Doctor Who, is the subtle reminder each time: Father Knows Best.

All of which brings me back to Capaldi, and the underlying meaning in casting the Doctor as a man with grey hair and a potty mouth, rather than yet another Beatles-esque British pinup. Capaldi can make the Doctor scary again, because patriarchal overlords / Time Lords must be scary to really work, a quality the series has gotten away from, at least since Eccleston. This is because, to really serve as a reinforcement tool, not listening to Daddy has to have some frightening psychological freight to it. The schoolmaster would have a hard time maintaining the status quo if you're not at least partially afraid he's going to go after your pink buttocks with the ruler, and in the makeup of the Doctor, both within his universe and without, the status remains most definitely quo.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

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