Doctor Who: Continuity and Gender Politics

Doctor Who: Continuity and Gender Politics July 27, 2017

I was raised on Star Trek, and was part of the original Star Wars generation.  And then I found the Doctor.

I was twelve years old (give or take a year, maybe two) when I chanced upon a novelization of a Doctor Who episode in the SF section of my local library. I don’t remember which episode but I know it was a Fourth Doctor adventure.

All the novelizations published in the US at the time had an introduction by Harlan Ellison explaining the fundamentals of the series, and why, as the subtle and charming Ellison put it, “Star Wars is adolescent nonsense; Close Encounters is obscurist drivel; Star Trek can turn your brains into puree of bat guano; the greatest science fiction series of all time is Doctor Who! And I’ll take you all on, one-by-one or all in a bunch to back it up!”

Well, I was a bit put off by that. But I enjoyed the story.

Some months later, flipping though the UHF band one afternoon, I happened on the local PBS affiliate and a program that featured a guy with a British accent and an absurdly long scarf. “Hey! This is that guy in the book!”

I remember watching the Doctor on the small black-and-white set in my parent’s bedroom as a kid; later, in college and grad school, he was on midnight on Sunday. If I wasn’t home, the VCR was set. (At one point Doctor Who was preceded by Red Dwarf, which introduced me to a different sort of British SF.)

I think every episode from the Third Doctor on has passed in front of my eyes at least once — even the infamous “Trial of a Time Lord” season — as well as a number of the First and Second Doctors’ adventures.

My love for the series rubbed off on my mom. When she was troubled by chronic pain after an accident at work and could not sleep, sometimes she would sit up watching the Doctor outwit rubber-headed monsters in various British rock quarries.

And now our long-time hero is set to become a heroine.


Gender in SF

Gender switching and non-conformity is something of a SF staple. Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil has a man’s brain transplanted into a woman’s body, while the final episode of Star Trek (original series) is “Turnabout Intruder”, where Captain Kirk is forced into a mind/body swap by Dr. Janice Lester, a bitter ex-paramour. (It’s widely regarded as awful and sexist, one of the worst episodes of the series.)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet whose human inhabitants (presumably genetically modified) are biologically androgynous most of the time, only occasionally assuming male or female characteristics. In John Varley’s Steel Beach, changing one’s anatomical sex is a routine sort of cosmetic surgery.

And more options are possible when dealing with alien species. I just read John Brunner’s Total Eclipse, where human archaeologists investigate the ruins of a long-extinct civilization whose species changed from male to female over their lifespan. The Tenctonese of the Alien Nation TV series have a third “binnaum” sex, while Asimov’s The Gods Themselves features parallel-universe aliens with a three-sex biology, who triad-bond and (spoiler alert, but the book is from 1972) merge into a single individual when they mature.

Some of these explorations have been widely praised as outstanding literature (The Left Hand of Darkness is a notable example). Other works have been little more than a vehicle for the author’s prejudices about gender. The tapestry of SF has a thick thread, dating back to the pulps, of manly men oozing masculine competence as they subjugate the cosmos and women both alien and terrestrial. I can forgive writers from the 1930s for such attitudes, but it’s kind of shameful that we can still find them today.

There is also a thin thread of radical feminist utopias, such as Alice Sheldon (writing as James Tiptree, Jr.)’s Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, that posit that the key to solving the world’s problems is to eliminate men, also a position with which I must disagree.

Still, any true SF fan should be comfortable with at least a bit of gender fluidity and alternative expressions.


But we fans of long-running franchises also value internal consistency, a.k.a. continuity.

Of course no long-running series gets it exactly right. Why does the tombstone Gary Mitchell creates for his old friend James Kirk read “James R. Kirk” when we all know it’s James T. Kirk? How did Boba Fett get to Cloud City before the Millennium Falcon, when he was following them there? And what ever happened to Superman’s “super ventriloquism” power? But internal consistency is vital for a SF universe that lets us suspend disbelief.

One of the delights of Doctor Who is a continuity running through 275 distinct stories, all featuring the same hero. This is an important point: while the Doctor regenerates and changes some aspects of appearance and surface personality traits, he is the same person. It is not a new person taking over a position, like the various Green Lanterns over the years in the DC universe or Jane Foster taking up Mjolnir and the name Thor in Marvel continuity.

The First Doctor with his granddaughter Susan. Image via BBC, fair use.
The First Doctor with his granddaughter Susan. Image via BBC, fair use.

It’s also important to understand that the Doctor has little control over the process of regeneration. Some commentators have gotten this very wrong. Vox’s Caroline Framke, for example, describes the Doctor as “a thousand-year-old alien who’s free to take on any form it chooses.” This is just wrong, completely inconsistent with how regeneration is portrayed in the series.

The Doctor is not a shapeshifter. He is subject to a wrenching biological process beyond his control, and several post-regeneration stories have centered on the Doctor or his friends coming to terms with this unwanted and suddenly-imposed alteration in appearance and personality balance. (Indeed his second regeneration was imposed on him by the Time Lords as a punishment, along with exile on twentieth-century Earth. Poor fellow.) On the handful of occasions when he encounters his past selves there is discomfort on both sides about the changes that have been forced on him.

It is true that the Sisterhood of Karn, with a more advanced science of regeneration and under highly unusual circumstances (the Doctor having died on Karn and been temporarily revived), was able to guide the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration into the War Doctor, and that they also offered a choice of gender — but they also spoke of how random the regeneration could be without their help. And it’s true that the Twelfth Doctor, with a fresh set of regenerations granted him by the Time Lords, was subconsciously able to control some facial features (a plot element used to explain away the fact that Peter Capaldi had played a minor character in an earlier episode).

But these exceptional cases are light-years away from “free to take on any form it chooses.”

The idea that some Time Lords sometimes change gender wasn’t introduced into continuity until 2011 — just yesterday, in Who terms — in the Neil Gaiman-penned episode The Doctor’s Wife. The Doctor mentions in passing how a fellow Time Lord, the Corsair, “didn’t feel like himself unless he had [a certain tattoo] — or herself, a couple of times.” (He then approvingly notes, “Ooh, she was a bad girl!”)

And that was a brilliant thing for Gaiman to slip into continuity! Transgender Time Lords — tattooed ones, at that — were probably not in the minds of the series’s original creators, but certainly there’s room in the show’s universe for them. But in context it’s clear that the Corsair is an extraordinary case. In all the series history prior to that, no one ever spoke of a Time Lord or Time Lady as “himself, sometimes herself” or vice-versa.

The writers built on that mention when they brought back the Master, one of the Doctor’s oldest foes (and friends), as the Time Lady Missy. This was a bit of a stretch, but we’d only seen four of the Master’s regenerations before. He also had other, stolen lives which were not regenerations — it’s complicated — but it allowed us to imagine other means by which the gender change could have occurred. So there was enough space in continuity to allow for it.

And Michelle Gomez did a bang-up job in portraying a female version of a character so sociopathic he once tried to hold the entire universe hostage unless it acknowledged him as ruler — and (spoiler alert)  yet making us believe her heel-face turn at the end.

But over the past season the treatment of Time Lord gender became increasingly hamfisted and inconsistent with continuity. They’ve dropped hints that the Doctor may have once been a woman, which does not fit at all, and written him as unable to remember whether his frenemy was a man or a woman at a given time.

It seems they are trying to re-write continuity so that all Time Lords are effectively non-binary. “We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes,” claims the Doctor in the penultimate episode.

So fans are asking, “Haven’t you called yourself a grandfather, not a grandparent, for a thousand years now? Didn’t you speak of the gender-swapping Corsair as an extraordinary case? Didn’t you spend almost all of this program’s history referring to both the Master and yourself as male? Didn’t we see you as a boy in flashback episodes, and haven’t we accounted for all of your regenerations and know that you stayed male through all of them, so why are you pretending that your gender was ever uncertain?”

But it looks like the writers have given us their answer. The Doctor’s companion Bill, as if speaking for fans, replies to his we’re-so-above-that claim by pointing out their gender-specific language, saying “But you still call yourselves ‘Time Lords‘”.

To which the Doctor, as if speaking for the writers, replied, “Yeah, shut up.”

Role Models

The change seems to be driven by external ideas about contemporary gender politics (that “petty human obsession with gender”) rather than anything internal to the story. That has made for controversy.

Fifth Doctor actor Peter Davison called the change “the loss of a role model for boys”, and has been criticized for it. Sixth Doctor Colin Baker replied, “[Y]ou don’t have to be of a gender of someone to be a role model. Can’t you be a role model as people?”

Yet a lot of the cheering about the change is coming from people saying, in effect, “Finally, little girls have a leading female to look up to!” If it is correct that kids benefit from a same-gender role model, then Davison is correct that boys are losing one, and at the very least we ought to pause to consider that.

If it is not, then a whole lot of the cheering is based on an incorrect sentiment.

Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments from the 1960s suggest not only that both boys and girls respond to same-gender role models more effectively than to different-gender ones, but that the difference is more extreme for boys. So Davison may have a point.

If boys respond better to male role models than to female ones, and if their greater likelihood of growing into either perpetrators or victims of violence suggests they might be more in need of good role models, then we ought to tread carefully.

On the other hand, social constructs about gender are baked so deep into culture that it’s hard to tease out whether something might be an inherent difference or the result of the socialization that starts at birth. (It’s also worth repeating, as I’ve stressed before, that if there are inherent differences between genders they are a matter of statistical averages and ranges, not absolute partitioning.)

If it’s all socialization, maybe deliberately plopping little Johnny down to watch a Time Lady save the world could work, and it might be a worthwhile experiment. Though it seems to me that a female role-model developed from scratch, rather than a male one retread as female, would probably work better.

All that said, perhaps they’ll find a way to work in the change that respects continuity. For example, after losing Clara and Bill and Missy, and weary beyond imagining after his experience in the Confession Dial, the Doctor decides the only way to continue is a complete abandonment of the past. Looking for a way to feel closer to the women he has lost, he journeys to Karn — barely holding an unguided regeneration at bay — to ask the Sisterhood to guide him in a gender-switch regeneration.

(You can have that one for free, BBC, if you like it.)

It could be done in a way that respects the show’s history and all the accumulated layers of story. But given the anvilicious way that Time Lord gender has been handled this season, I fear the show’s creative team isn’t up to the challenge — or just doesn’t care.

A writer or artist may have noble social goals. But to accomplish them, they must make good art; bad art will not change the world for the better. (We’ve all heard enough earnest bad poetry, haven’t we?) And internal consistency is vital for good storytelling.

A fictional universe doesn’t have to follow the rules of our world, but it has to follow its own rules. “To live outside the law you must be honest”, as Bob Dylan once put it; when you step outside of external constraints, as all fiction but especially SF does, internal consistency is your only guide to virtue and excellence.

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