‘Never mind a TARDIS full of bras,’ I thought last summer as Twitter memes made fun of what even by Daily Mail standards had been a particularly misogynistic reaction to the first ever woman being cast to play the Doctor, ‘what about a TARDIS full of coats?’
No matter how often I reread the near-complete run of Target novelisations my grandmother had brought home from her charity shop, no matter how immersed I was in the lore of the Doctor’s universe for a child who was still just too young to stay up for what seemed like they’d been the last ever seasons (exception, after much inter-parental negotiation, two Sylvester McCoy stories a friend of my dad’s had worked on; luckily, killer robots going wild in a luxury tower block weren’t judged too frightening, though I’d be whisked quickly to bed two years later when the villains of the second story turned out to be evil clowns)…
…it never occurred to me, even when I was compiling a list of inconsistencies to send in nine- or ten-year-old’s handwriting to the long-suffering author of The Universal Databank, to wonder why the Doctor couldn’t regenerate into a woman too.
Although, once the show had come back in my twenties and David Tennant was installed as the Tenth Doctor, I did start being careful (as a queer woman with short brown hair I still insisted on trying to stick up, who’s never worn a suit tidily in her life) not to wear pinstripes and Converse at the same time, in case that made it too obvious what I’d been thinking of.
While many women fans say they’ve always longed to be able to watch a female Doctor (or rather, given how little we still know about Gallifreyan gender, a Doctor played by a woman, who’s read as female by everyone or almost everyone she meets on Earth), my engagement with the figure of the Doctor must have been a queer speculative pleasure of a different kind, less about seeing a woman represented, more about imagining how the Doctor’s bricolage of masculine style would translate into a woman performing it instead.
Our first sight of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was the one-minute trailer where she pushed back one of Peter Capaldi’s hooded jumpers on her way to rediscovering the TARDIS in a forest, once the key had vworp-vworped back into her hand – a moment that might not even fit it into the season as we know it, but immediately inspired Thirteen’s first wave of fan art.
Last November’s costume reveal, on the other hand, seemed to be harking back to the motley of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, with cropped trousers held up by clownish braces, and a gallimaufry of rainbow stripes, mustard yellows, and different shades of blue.
Back when I was supposed to be watching Playschool and Playdays, not a man in a straw hat with question marks all over his sweater (and, I’m reminded now, red braces) outsmarting a power-crazed architect’s out-of-control robots and reconciling Toyah-Willcox-esque girl gangs, Thirteen’s signature outfit would have said ‘1980s kids’ TV presenter’ – or even Mork and Mindy – much more than ‘Time Lord’.
Overthinking style like I do, I couldn’t help having misgivings about us being offered a suddenly-less-serious Doctor at the same time as casting the first woman in the role – but artists and cosplayers took her look to heart so quickly that they invested it with their joy; a rainbow stripe can’t not signal queer-coding, in 2018, even though we’ll have a right to be disappointed if this season bottles out of acknowledging on screen that this female-presenting Doctor has a wife; and one could always believe the TARDIS had met this new Doctor with an outfit like that because so much of what she’d learned about walking on Earth as a woman had come from Sarah Jane.
In fact, as the first episode confirmed, the Doctor hasn’t even been in her TARDIS since she fell out at the end of the Christmas special. (Before anyone kicks off about lady drivers, every other Doctor since the reboot has crashed their TARDIS on regenerating too.)
‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ – one huge David Bowie reference to throw on to the lampshade when we’re already dealing with a mysterious genderfluid alien who inspires humans, changes their lives irreversibly and travels through the stars – isn’t even introduced to us until we’ve seen the slice of multicultural, confidently diverse 21st-century Britain that Doctor Who sets up as normal life: a unit of family and friendship that centres around school-leaver Ryan, the bond between his mother Grace and her new white husband Graham, and Ryan’s ex-classmate, a Muslim probationary police officer called Yasmin Khan.
It shows how much mistrust the Moffat years had instilled in me about the show’s ability to tell any story about women that didn’t just exist to give a man an intellectual epiphany or to subject him to pain that the reveal of the actors playing the new companions (or now the Doctor’s ‘friends’ – with one regrettable absentee we’ll talk about) had left me thinking they and Whittaker could just as easily be the cast of a sentimental ITV Sunday night drama about an adoptive family as they could be the new stars of Doctor Who. If this Doctor can really have all the same kinds of stories told about her that past production teams told about her male incarnations, why does she need to be accompanied by an older white man?
Though it’s the Sheffield characters who have the plot function in the first episode of reminding the Doctor where she is – and whose actions create the story-space where the Doctor must confront the villain and express who she is – once the show moves off earth, the Doctor will symbolically hold this group based on kinship and affinity together. So have other Doctors when the TARDIS has had large casts: but even though the regenerated Doctor is unflappable at realising that on Earth she’s now a woman, gender will matter more to the gaze of many viewers, placing her in a maternal rather than paternal role.
But asking what does it look like when a woman embodies the qualities conventionally projected on to fathers? is perhaps closer to the particular kind of queerness that enters the narrative when a woman is cast as the Doctor – and, itself, is just a subset of the question what does it look like when a woman embodies the qualities conventionally projected on to men?
(Which, put that way, doesn’t even have to mean taking up any of the material signs of masculine gender expression – though many of the queer women of Twitter have been longing ever since August 2017 for the sight of the Doctor in an equivalent to many of their previous regenerations’ signature frock-coats.)
Many of the activities and institutions the Doctor typically involves themselves with are already coded masculine, because they relate to technological, political and military power. Every regenerated Doctor has different dominant aspects to their character: what this Doctor lends herself to, or distances herself from, are as much of a story about gender politics as the stances for or against different kinds of combat and warfare that Wonder Woman takes.
Past Doctors could enter the corridors of the White House in McCarthy’s America or the battlefields of the First World War and have nobody question why white British-accented men like them were there, only why their suits were cut so strangely for the time or why they weren’t in uniform; this Doctor, entering most such settings on our Earth, will have to cope with the fact that someone her gender is expected not to be there, certainly not in a role that takes control, and that her appearance will be scrutinised much more harshly for how well it conforms (or not) to the period’s norms about gender and sexuality, since women’s sexual morality has so consistently been more policed than men’s.
(That’s if the show even goes historical this season: fans are pretty certain one episode will be set in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement, and since this is the first year Doctor Who has hired any writers of colour, we have to hope that episode will be in Malorie Blackman’s hands.)
The Doctor’s relationship with war and command, for instance, is always a theme of their character, even more so since the reboot (when the ‘Bad Wolf’ slogan was echoing through the time-stream as a mystery for Nine, I half-expected it would allude to some kind of paramilitary group with whom he’d committed acts that still haunted him in the Time War). Would the narrative cast this new Doctor as being more peaceful just because she was a woman, via that same assumption that women are ‘just better at’ peacemaking that we see in fields from international development to telefantasy? To simply make the Doctor more peaceful at the same time as making her a woman would, I’d suggest close down the even queerer stories about war and gender that a Doctor Who season like this could offer us – and which, as a viewer, I want it to offer us, because it can.
This Doctor still stands her ground, faces down obstructive or indecisive humans, and fights the monsters, performing her ethics in those brief moments where she gives her adversaries time to relent. But, from the little we have to go on in the first episode, she sees ‘good’ as manifesting despite, rather because of, the organised sovereign power to use force.
‘Right then, troops!’ she says as she moves through the train carriage to investigate the unidentified alien presence that’s trapped Ryan, Grace, Graham and Yaz on the train. ‘No, not troops. Team? Gang? Fam?’
The route to companionship she offers Yasmin involves disregarding the structures of the police force that hasn’t trusted her to take her own cases, rather than working within it; it remains to be seen whether this Doctor, potentially TARDIS-less for as long as Jon Pertwee’s Three, will follow him and most of his successors in joining in the internationalist fantasy of UNIT, the global UN task force responsible for Earth’s defence that offers telefantasy’s longest-running representation of the cosmopolitan military.
But what most fills out this Doctor’s relationship to her gender, her body, and society is newness. ‘We’re all capable of the most incredible change,’ she tells the teeth-studded Strenza warrior she’s cornered up a crane. ‘We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.’
Her words are just as applicable to a long-running cult series changing the gender of its hero as they are to giving a cruel hunter-killer one last chance to change his ways. But they also echo many gender-variant people’s relationship to gender itself as they change how they present themselves to the world and then negotiate how the world sees them.
The Doctor’s words when she describes getting to know her regenerated body, Magdalene Visaggio writes, could equally describe how many trans people balance their future and their past, so that even though it could apply to every regeneration it gains so much extra meaning (for those who understand it) because of how it seems to resonate with so many trans lives:
The Doctor’s tinkering and making skills, which let her create a new sonic screwdriver with little more than a blowtorch and some stainless-steel spoons (not even knives or forks, with their points and blades, but spoons), allow girls who aspire to be scientists and engineers, and older women who grew up being told they never could, to put themselves in the centre of the story – and also have more than a little in common with the eccentrically-dressed, begoggled Holtzmann, the breakout character from the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters and the queer revelation of (that first, more hopeful part of) 2016.
The resourcefulness it takes to see a heap of Sheffield spoons and imagine them combined into a sonic screwdriver is the same resourcefulness, I’d even suggest, with which queer women and some other gender-non-conforming people have seen the figure of the Doctor: the resourcefulness of unscrewing and reassembling masculinity, of breaking it down into its component parts so that you can see which ones have prevented you being yourself and which ones belong to you.
The Doctor has not just the resourcefulness, but the courage and the knowledge, to make a reality out of this bricolage, whether it’s re-forging the most ordinary piece of metal on the dining table into a cosmic wand, or dealing as matter-of-factly as this Doctor with the fact that humans are now seeing them as a woman.
The defining sentence of this Doctor’s character, as agreed by the gif-makers of the internet, is likely to be a line she delivers while still wearing Peter Capaldi’s waistcoat and rolled-up sleeves, in the tiled underground lab where she improvises her new ‘sonic’: ‘When people need help, I never refuse.’
That line could have described the Doctor ever since William Hartnell (sometimes their help works; sometimes it might have been better if they had refused), and indeed Thirteen is the first Doctor I can really imagine running away with the TARDIS, as we’re supposed to believe happened in dour Hartnell’s youth.
The politics of how to help, especially when one’s embodied on Earth as a white woman, are something we’ll have to wait and see whether Doctor Who can dramatise or even recognise. Two of the companions this Doctor will be taking on her adventures are young people of colour (one of them a young dyspraxic man who, so far at least, has been shown living with his disability as a fully formed character): the new showrunner Chris Chibnall and his scriptwriters, including Blackman and Vinay Patel, will have had to grapple with how different their experiences would have been compared to an unconventional white woman’s in various aspects of Earth’s past, just as Russell T Davies’s episodes at their best voiced through Martha Jones.
The end of this season’s first episode doesn’t give confidence that, on showrunner level, the production team is aware enough of racist tropes in popular culture to be able to avoid them, let alone subvert them: killing off Sharon D Clarke’s Grace, the only black woman among the companions-to-be, so that Graham and Ryan can mourn her afterwards and so that the Doctor has to deal with the consequences of her adventures on human beings speeds along both roads of the race and gender intersection at the sametime, crashing straight into the junction of ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ and ‘Black Dude Dies First‘.
(It doesn’t even matter whether, as some websites have hinted, Grace is due for some kind of supernatural return: viewers of colour who know how often this happens, and to a less visceral extent even white viewers who are bored with stories that can’t hear the mood music, have already had to feel the punch in the face of seeing her die.)
It isn’t until the very end of the episode that we see the outfit that fan art and cosplay have already turned into the new embodiment of the Doctor, when Yaz takes Thirteen to a charity shop and helps her find the (extremely fashion-forward) pastel raincoat, rainbow t-shirt, cropped trousers, braces and boots ensemble that we’re going to have to associate with this Doctor from now on.
Her certainty that this new style, not even created by a TARDIS wardrobe but through a fallible human gaze expresses the self she wants to embody means I have to affirm it – but we wait to see what further stories can be told about this new Doctor, and what further stories queer women and other gender-non-conforming people might use this new Doctor to tell.