(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
In the days leading up to the announcement of the new lead for Doctor Who, I had a heated debate with a male friend about who might be cast for the role. “I just don’t understand why they have to keep gender-bending and race-bending everyone’s favorite characters in these existing franchises,” he complained. “It ruins the characters I like, and isn’t it lazy writing, anyway? Wouldn’t it be better for them to leave Doctor Who and James Bond and Spiderman as they are and add diverse new characters instead?”
For those not in the know, when ill health forced actor William Hartnell to step down from his lead role in Doctor Who in 1966, the producers of the show declared that the Doctor, being an alien, had a unique ability to “regenerate” at the end of his life, reincarnating himself in a new body. This enabled them to continue the show for more than five decades with new actors who each brought out different aspects of the Doctor’s character, and led to interesting moments where the Doctor got to interact with past and future versions of himself as he gallivanted across time and space. But over the past decade, some fans (as well as former stars of the show) have commented about the fact that while the infinitely curious and adventurous Doctor can regenerate into any body imaginable, somehow the actors that get chosen for the role have been uniformly white and male.
With the announcement that the new Doctor would be played by Jodie Whittaker of Broadchurch fame, some fans have delighted that they can finally imagine themselves as the Doctor instead of just one of the Doctor’s companions. Others have voiced frustration that this iconic BBC character still doesn’t look like any of the people of color who make up vast swaths of the British population. And, predictably, a vocal group of white male fans have complained that their beloved Doctor suddenly has girl cooties (or, put more politely, that the Doctor now reflects more than just their own experiences).
I am all for introducing diverse original characters. And I have zero fear that all white male protagonists will vanish overnight from existing franchises. But the advantage of race-bending or gender-bending an iconic character is that they change both the kinds of stories we tell about that group and the ways in which we perceive that specific character.
Katee Sackhoff’s performance as the hard-drinking, roguish pilot Starbuck in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica gave us a female action hero who was both amazing and incredibly flawed in ways women don’t usually get to be. When John Watson has been portrayed by male actors, he’s been a foil, meant to highlight Sherlock Holmes’ contrasting brilliance and eccentricity. Lucy Liu’s portrayal of Joan Watson on Elementary has emphasized how problematic the character’s subservient enabling of Sherlock Holmes is when the character is played by an Asian woman. The writers were pushed to give Joan Watson a richer backstory to explain why she might stay with Holmes despite his treatment of her, and Liu’s Watson started pushing back against Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes, becoming his apprentice and later a detective in her own right. While I can think of other actors who played marvelous Watsons, seeing Watson through the lens of Liu’s performance raised questions that ultimately transformed the character.
Which brings us back to Doctor Who. For five decades, the Doctor has been a quirky, chaos-loving explorer, saver of planets and destroyer of worlds, cheerful and dark in equal measure. How are those qualities going to read through the lens of Jodie Whittaker’s performance? How will established supporting characters react to the change? And what about the next companion, the sidekick character who gives the Doctor someone to explain things to, banter with, and rescue? If the show seeks gender balance by making the new companion male, how will the audience feel about identifying with a guy who is out of his element taking orders from a centuries-old, hypercompetent woman?
Time will tell.