New Series

Change, my dear: Matt Smith and female Doctors

So, Matt Smith is off for a Hollywood career, leaving Doctor Who behind to attempt what no former Doctor has ever really achieved.

Oh sure, Tennant and Eccleston get the character actor bits from time-to-time, McGann flirted with the States in the 90s, but none of the modern Doctors has ever really managed it. On gross, I suspect Sylv is ahead, given his fairly meaty part in the new Hobbit films (on a sidenote it’s worth pointing out that Tom was asked to audition for Gandalf and Sylv for Bilbo in the original Peter Jackson trilogy – how squeetastic would that have been?).

I’m a little saddened. When Smith stopped twirling, waving his sonic around and being an idiot (seemingly a trope that all Timelords are required to adopt these days) he was a fine actor and a very good Doctor. His flair for comedy got a lovely runout in The Crimson Horror and Amy’s Choice; and he showed some serious acting chops in the likes of the Angels two-parter, Name of the Doctor, A Good Man Goes To War, The Doctor’s Wife and a couple of others.

What Smith really brought to the table, however, was a gaucheness, an awkwardness that was very Doctorish. These were Smith’s best moments; his Doctor’s defining charactiersitcs, which is why it was always such a shame to see writer after writer giving him Big Portentous Speeches or the nonsense with River Fucking Song when it was made clear again and again that The Eleventh Doctor just doesn’t get kissing and all that boring stuff. It reminds me a little of Iain Briggs claiming that Sylvester McCoy played anger very well, so he gave him lots of angry bits to do in Fenric. I’ve a lot of time for him as an actor, but anger is one of Sylv’s least convincing emotions, bless him.


By the time Tennant went he was well past his sell-by-date, as were Tom, Jon and arguably Billy and Pat. But I feel that we’re just getting to know Matt Smith as The Doctor. As a young man coming into the role, his appearance has actually changed quite a lot since his debut – and his characterisation shifts intriguingly once you get past the ‘zany Doctor’ stuff that everyone seems to think is a necessity in Doctor Who episodes these days.

Unlike Tennant, Smith is believably alien. You could believe he actually is very old, from another planet and genuinely sexless. The latter part reinvigorated an aspect of the character that had become depressingly predictable – snog a companion, feel lonely – and reconnected The Doctor with his previous incarnations. Oh there were aspects of it, but Smith actually played it like he disinterested, bemused and slightly disgusted by physicality.

Physicality. Has an actor ever brought such physical presence to the role? The Eleventh Doctor is twitchy, hunched and slightly tic-y. When he runs he looks a bit like a spider. His posture is terrible, but it all builds a picture of a rounded character, slightly awkward within his own body, which is kinda fitting when you think about it.

But Smith is off. Certainly at the height of his powers as far as his run is concerned, but I would have liked another season of him. Instead we’re now weighing up the likes of Rory Kinnear – a candidate who I will categorically rule out right now as some sort of Paterson Joseph-like flack – Domnhall Gleeson, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Colman and Idris Elba.

Most, if not all, have gone out of their way to deny that it’s them, which is exactly what they would say if it were one of them (Cooper even went so far as to voice his puzzlement with the programme and express the view that the lead character flew around the universe killing insects). I think it unlikely it will be a ‘name’, with most being the fancy of a bored reporter probably scanning Doctor Who forums in search for exclusives.


Once again, with dreary predictability, the prospect of a female Doctor has been filling either vacuous or pompous column inches. While this has been the case since JN-T’s day there are now boring articles from post-feminist writers about how the show has been insulting women since 1963 thanks to its patriarchal refusal to give the show a female Doctor. One supposed candidate, Helen Mirren, voiced the opinion that the new Doctor should be gay, black and a woman.

My view on this is simple. The Doctor is a man. Beyond some throwaway comments we have no indication that Time Lords (also bear in mind their female counterparts are called Time Ladies) swap gender. There have been at least eleven incarnations of The Doctor and not once has he been female. The same goes for half a dozen incarnations of The Master, several for Borusa and a couple for Omega and River Fucking Song (essentially a female Doctor and pretty fucking insufferable).


I see no explanation for why there shouldn’t be a Doctor played by a man with different-coloured skin or by a a gay man. Within the Doctor Who universe it goes without saying that race is not an issue, not to the Doctor or his companions at least. Not would the sexual persuasion of an actor (presumably) impact on the character who is largely sexless.

But I don’t see any argument for giving the part to a female actor that amounts to much beyond ‘why not?’ and ‘because it’s teh sexist!’. In the former case I don’t see that this amounts to more than dreary gimmickry, a kind of listless fiddling with the core concept of the show. In the latter I find it astonishingly patronising that some people feel a female Doctor would right some historic wrong that has been perpetrated towards womankind.

Indeed, many female voices seem to have voiced much the same opinion: if a female Doctor is simply about some quasi-political statement of balance then it’s little more than an empty gesture, and an insulting one at that. The rejuvenated show has showcased strong, intelligent, resourceful and self-possessed women as companions, friends, possibly lovers, allies and enemies.

Something else that’s caught my eye is the roll-call of names perpetually regurgitated in terms of the female Doctor debate – and it does not convince me that the majority of its exponents have the slightest idea about Doctor Who. Why else would Miranda Hart and Sue Perkins – two of the most annoying people on television – be mentioned so frequently? I suspect that many who are wading into this debate are the kind of rent-a-controversial-opinion gobshites that newspapers love and the web thrives on.

sue perkins dr who

Putting one’s voice against the female Doctor idea is the equivalent of stepping into some geeky beartrap. It’s fairly easy to label – explicitly or insidiously – anyone who thinks the idea of a female Doctor is a crap idea as sexist, antediluvian or (the favourite implication of a certain kind of Doctor Who fan) as a sad virgin who’s afraid of women.

I see Paul Cornell has pretty much adopted all three – stating that any argument whatsoever against a female Doctor is, by necessity, ‘unreasonable and horrible’ – which comes as no surprise given his well-documented love of the fairer sex. Cornell then conflates the issue with gay marriage; the implication seems to be that if you don’t want the Doctor to regenerate into a woman you must be sexist and homophobic. Crikey.

This attitude infuriates me as it seems to be an excuse for a certain kind of fan to imply his sexual and intellectual capacity over others. The notion of some Doctor Who fans being cooler than others amuses me no end, but the sniffy superiority of this right-on fan (lest I detour into white poppies, white kids and the hoary old Pertwee-was-a-Tory drivel) is one of the least attractive elements in fandom, and I include DWB in that statement.

There are some arguments against a female Doctor that are not valid. Certainly there are many superb actresses out there, children would not be confused by the notion, I find the ‘no male role-model’ argument a bit bemusing (thought it has come most notably from women in my experience) and there probably is an element of fandom that harbours a certain amount of misogyny – there’s a particularly witless article on the subject on The Daily Mail – but the ‘female Doctor’ debate has simply provided a particular section of fandom to demonstrate how ‘cool and sex’ they believe themselves to be.

I don’t want to see it. Perhaps a woman would play the part in a way that would delight me, but I doubt the writers could make it work. Moffat’s female characters are much-discussed and somewhat problematic to my mind, while the navel-gazing wretchedness of Chibnall’s take on the subject makes me wince just thinking about it. The show is not currently firing on all cylinders and I don’t have a lot of trust in the production team – lobbing a dangerous gimmick such as changing the sex of The Doctor would likely kill off my fading enthusiasm for NuWho.

Setting aside all the wearying Guardianista wibbling about gender politics, ‘why not?’ seems to be as good as the pro argument gets. In a programme where anything is possible it frequently proves impossible for writers to resist pointless tweaking and meddling for the sheer Hell of it. Doctor Who is famously the programme in which anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean that anything should happen. The show has core strengths; certain solidities and realities. One of them, for me, is that The Doctor is a man, however horrible and unreasonable that makes me in some corners of the universe.