Sunday, 30 June 2013

Doctor 'Joan Smith'

I have a shameful admission. When a friend first directly asked me “How would you feel about a female Doctor?” my gut reaction was opposition. The Doctor has always been a fatherly – or grandfatherly – figure to the entire Universe, not to mention wide-eyed young me who devoured novels and the shows equally. He ranks amongst other worthy fantasy Elder Statesmen as Gandalf, Captain Picard and Sherlock Holmes, all wise old men.

But then I decided to approach it as I do most issues in the Whoniverse – by assessing the canon qualifying. With thanks to Neil Gaiman, it is now canon that Time Lords can regenerate across the genders. So, it can happen!

Mary Tamm as Romana I
Should it, then? I got to thinking about the Female of the Species – Time Ladies, as they can be distinctly known. The most distinctive to my mind is Romana, the Fourth Doctor’s assistant during the Key to Time quest – Series 16, 1978-79. She was introduced as more than just the ‘damsel in distress’ that has so plagued Doctor Who – Romana was a Time Lord like the Doctor, but unlike the Doctor had qualified much higher in her training! The unlikely pair eventually bonded when the Doctor’s greater experience and improvised successes melded with Romana’s book-smarts and relative stability...

Lalla Ward as Romana II
Sadly, Mary Tamm would decide that the scriptwriters still couldn’t extract themselves from the premise that the Doctor’s assistant was basically a plot device to be captured or threatened and du jour.
handed – a fact which is arguably correct. Lalla Ward would take over as the second incarnation of Romana, only to be equally menaced by the villain

After their exit, Romana would be redeemed in the novels and audios that comprise that forgiving crucible of characterization, the Extended Universe. Romana would become Lord President of Gallifrey, and have entire stories revolving around her adventures on the Doctor’s homeworld which crucially didn’t involve the fact that she was a woman!

Gallifrey, it seems, was very progressive. Thalia and Flavia were both politically powerful, holding seats on the High Council; Thalia was a Lord Chancellor during the Second Omega Crisis, and Flavia would later ascend to the position of Lord President herself after another of the Doctor’s reluctant adventures back home. The Sixth Doctor would be menaced by the determined Lady Inquisitor, even if the script did call for her to flounder a bit with what was going on – and also wear a novelty birdcage on her head.

Left to Right: Lord Chancellor Thalia, High Chancellor (and later Lord President) Thalia, and Inquisitor Darkel
Kate O'Mara as The Rani
In time as well, Colin Baker’s incarnation would succumb to the more deadly gender – the Rani, a renegade like himself and played with overly-exagerrated hateur by Kate O’Mara, one of TV’s most favoured villains.
Just like our hero, she stole a TARDIS and used her superior intellect to carve a life for herself out in the universe – only she was unencumbered by petty morality. Thankfully this would frequently be her undoing!

All of these successful Time Ladies prove irrevocably that a female Doctor would be no bad thing – the real risk, I feel, is from bad writing, just like it plagued Romana so long ago.
Moffat and his script writers have made a few lurches away from the confused, screaming assistant – how would they cope with the confident, intelligent, alien Doctor contained within a woman’s body?
Of an equal risk is if Moffat pulls one of his famous surprises and switches the Doctor’s gender merely to spice up the show, or as a sop to the growing chorus of complaint from the ‘right-on’ crowd.
The show suffers from weak writing frequently enough now, let alone hamstringing it with an ill-thought shark-jump.

Done right though – with someone like the stark Tilda Swinton who recently acted as an equally alien figure as David Bowie, or the sinister Fiona Shaughnessy who excelled in bleak Channel 4 drama Utopia – there is no reason the Doctor couldn’t join the ranks of so many other Time Ladies who have excelled within this traditional, patriarchal, even misogynistic institution. Gallifreyan society? No, I mean the BBC! What an irony!

* * * * * * *

NB: I have purposefully avoided references to Lady Iris Wildthyme, the infamous and popular star of her own audio series from the Big Finish team. I’ve never heard them and thus feel I can’t do her justice.

Suffice to say I’ve heard good things about a post-middle-age, vodka-loving good time girl who just might be a parallel universe lush version of the Doctor – fit that into your arguments how you like!

Katy Manning as the irrepressible Lady Irish Wildthyme

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