Doctor Meh and the Planet of Lazy Tokenism
So I’m annoyed about Doctor Who, though not because I’m opposed to having female heroes in action/sci-fi but because I’m keen on having good quality, original female heroes in action/sci-fi. A female Time Lord could be fantastic. A female Doctor though? Ehh, is that all the creative effort the BBC and its writers could be arsed to put in? Hey girls, look at this fantastic nearly new-ish lead character we’re giving you to look up to, hardly any mileage, just 54 years on the cock – sorry, we mean clock – oh be careful not to touch that bit yet, the paint’s still fresh there.
Seriously, BBC. You lazy fucking bastards.
As I’ve said before, both on Twitter and here a year ago, I’m all for female heroes. If you convinced me a Black Widow origin movie had just opened across town I would stop writing now and break both speed limits and records so I could kneel on the pavement outside the cinema screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP AND TAKE MY MONEY” at them. I liked Star Trek: Voyager – commanded, you’ll recall, by a female captain played by Kate Mulgrew, who appropriately got top billing in the title sequence. I like Blindspot, starring part time Asgardian1 Jaimie Alexander as the intriguingly tattooed and Jason Bourne-ily kickass Jane Doe/Alice Kruger. Star Wars’ Rey and Jyn were both good and refreshed a series I felt was getting a bit tired. I expect I’ll like The Major and Wonder Woman when I get round to seeing their respective movies, and if you waved the possibility of a Laser Eraser series or movie at me…
SHUT THE FUCK UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!2
But here’s the thing that makes all of these better than a female Doctor: originality. Ok, they’re not all new characters, but the important thing is they’re not male characters that have just been rewritten as females. Wonder Woman is not simply a feminised Superman or Captain America. She’s similar in that she’s a superhero but her backstory shares few features with either. Just as well because Superman’s a boring bastard who’s given whatever power he needs to tackle whatever immediate problem he faces, which is problematic for the basically feminised Superman Supergirl and isn’t for Wonder Woman. With Wonder Woman, especially the new movie by the sounds of it, there’s little sense that anything like this is going on.
Similarly Janeway isn’t a female Kirk or Picard. Her ship isn’t even the Enterprise, though there’s no reason it couldn’t have been had the series begun differently. In the Star Trek universe women can command ships, as in ours now, and ships obviously change commanding officers. Besides, Gene Rodenberry established that 23rd century women can occupy senior positions way back in the pilot episode. Jane Doe, Natasha Romanova, Mysta Mystralis, Diana Prince and the rest are great hero characters for lots of different reasons, but not least because none come with the baggage of having started off as a male one.
“Ah but,” the female Doctor proponents say. “The Doctor’s a Time Lord, a two hearted alien who lives for centuries and regenerates into new bodies. Who’s to say that it can’t be a female one?” And this would be perfectly plausible if there’d be anything in the show to suggest it up until recently. Instead we’ve got a long canon of male to male regenerations and in it there are also female Time Lords (Time Ladies? Not sure about this. Are we saying females can’t hold the title ‘Lord’?) who have female to female regenerations. Not once between 1963 and the early 2000s was there a hint that regenerating into a different gender was a thing, and you’d think someone would’ve mentioned it before a recent Doctor (10th or 11th, I think) chucked some forgettable throwaway line about it. Actually seeing the Master as Missy on screen didn’t happen until 2013, the series’ 50th year.3
Some gender swap proponents also point to the Battlestar Galactica reboot successfully changing characters’ sex to much short term but rapidly forgotten outrage. What they’re overlooking is the new BSG changed nearly everything. Remember how it began? 90 seconds in a guy holding a schematic reminds you what Cylons look like, and within a minute you see they now look a lot more sophisticated and apparently have a human woman in charge. Then the woman and everything else gets blown up by a massive and unfamiliar looking Cylon ship and she doesn’t seem to care, so what was she? This doesn’t seem at all like 1978 so far. Ok, now we’re off to the Galactica and a military looking woman jogging through corridors, crew doing crewy things, a tour guide doing important plot exposition. An important looking guy is immediately addressed as Commander Adama so we know who our leader is, and now the jogging woman again. And did he just call her Starbuck? Rage rage gnash gn- wait, he’s in the control room now and it’s nothing like 1978. And now we’re in the hangar and there’s a Viper fighter in the background and that’s all new too. Wow, they changed lots. Soon we’re on a planet with a woman who we find out is a politician and junior cabinet member and then there’s a crowd scene and hey, that’s the crazy woman with the Cylons who got blown up a few minutes ago. Is she really a Cylo- oh my fucking god, did she just kill a BABY? And now here’s Baltar who’s a famous scientist instead of a power mad tyrant and fuuuuu… the baby killing Cylon is his girlfriend and she’s definitely not human because her spine lights up when they have sex. We’re only 20 minutes in and we’ve already forgotten Starbuck’s female.
That’s the thing with Battlestar Galactica – it was a reboot and established new continuity with just the basic premise, some names, and some plot ideas from the old one. Starbuck had always been female here and so had Boomer, who’d also always been a Cylon sleeper agent, and Starbuck and Boomer were never names but callsigns. Baltar had always been a vainglorious flawed genius, warship crews were always co-ed in all roles to the point the bathrooms weren’t segregated by gender, the junior politician happened to survive the genocidal attack that is one of the few common areas between the two series and became president, and so on and so on.
The whiners who accused the show of being “Galactica In Name Only” were sort of right because the writers really changed so much, and as a sci-fi fan I felt it was almost invariably for the better. Starbuck and Boomer being women would’ve been continuity bustingly, immersion breakingly weird if the new series had carried on where the old left off, but since it started afresh it was hard to care or even remember when there was so much else going on. Doctor Who has changed just one thing and is carrying on, so I think it’s going to shout and it’s going to jar and it’s going to be harder to put your brain on the hook for 40 minutes and get into the story without a little inner voice going: “It’s still incredible that not one of the Doctor’s first nine or ten incarnations plus all those Time Lords he ran into ever mentioned this aspect of Time Lord biology.” Or it will me anyway. Your mileage may vary, but to me it feels like the polar opposite of Chekhov’s gun – a complete absence of early foreshadowing leading us to ask where the fuck that gunshot came from.4
Maybe they’ll be able to retcon it convincingly, but of course this comes hot on the heels of having to retcon the Time Lords getting only 12 incarnations thing, and retconning too much or doing it clumsily is something that can break the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy fiction in any medium. It’s not the same for everyone, but everyone does have a point at which they go “Aaah, this is bullshit.” So it’s worth keeping the unavoidable plot holes and wrinkles small and to a minimum.
And it’s all so unnecessary when we already know the Doctor was mistaken about being the last of his kind, that female Time Lords exist, and that one, Romana, was a fantastic character who was both the Doctor’s intellectual equal and arguably his social superior. Writing her back in would have been no harder than with the Master or the other Time Lords, and imagine what the show could have done with her in the Doctor’s absence.
What if she’d reappeared, and rather than another regeneration the Doctor actually died and left her the TARDIS (which of course she’s just as capable of using as he was)? Or what if the Doctor went missing, either forcefully or mysteriously? Again, Romana could take over his role with maybe a nice long multi-season story arc of her investigating and slowly discovering the Doctor’s fate running alongside, with an optional eventual rescue depending on whether the BBC wanted him back and maybe to spin off a Romana series. It wouldn’t even look particularly different to how the next season is going to now, it’d just avoid this awkward question over the Time Lord facts of life that makes having ‘The Talk’ with your kids look straightforward.5
So that’s why I’m annoyed. Not because a female Time Lord is in the TARDIS, but because it feels like it’s the wrong female Time Lord for reasons that seem a poor fit narratively and which ultimately don’t even really give us, the audience, a fresh female hero. If you think that’s a step forward for feminism and some way to address the gender imbalance in fiction then I’m happy for you. But if things were the other way round and women got all the best roles, turning one character into a guy would leave me feeling fucking cheated.
So having said all that will I watch it? Well, I won’t say I won’t, but what I’m really looking forward to is Star Trek: Discovery. Did you hear it’s going to have a female CO and Executive Officer?
1. Yeah, I’d watch a Sif movie too. I like Marvel, don’t @ me. ↩
2. If you don’t know who Laser Eraser is THAT’S WHY SHE NEEDS A TV SERIES OR MOVIE. ↩
3. For me genderswapping the Master felt as creatively weak and lazy as it does the Doctor. What the hell’s wrong with writing quality original female villains as well as original female heroes? Incidentally, can I ask whether a man or a woman picked ‘Missy’? Christ, my wife would fucking emasculate anyone who called her that, and quite right too. ↩
4. I’m calling this Chekhov’s Ass Pull in case nobody else does. ↩
5. “Daaad, when Time Lords meet their past selves and one of them’s a Time Lady, do they ever-”
“Shut up and eat your cornflakes, son.” ↩