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‘Doctor Who’ and the Fear of an Asexual Female Protagonist

With the news that Matt Smith is moving on from Doctor Who, there’s been a whole lot of interesting online discussion about the idea that the new Doctor might be a woman. In particular, Slate published an article yesterday arguing that “The next Doctor should be a woman… you should care even if you don’t watch Doctor Who,” and suggesting that “[the show's creators should be able to] imagine a world without gender essentialism or rigid sex roles.” This is certainly true, but the question actually has broader implications than that.

There is, of course, no precedent for the idea of Time Lords changing gender, Orlando-style, but equally it’s never been explicitly made clear in the show that they can’t — it’s a possibility that Doctor Who has simply never addressed. But, hey, why not? It’d make Gallifreyan society an interesting place to live, that’s for sure (and, let’s face it, probably a whole lot of fun, too). It’s not like the possibility is too outlandish to be written into the show, either — it requires a pretty impressive suspension of disbelief in the first place to accept the premise that Time Lords get 12 opportunities to regenerate into a new body when an actor wants to leave the show their life is under threat, so the idea that one such body could be of a different gender isn’t really much of a stretch.

Apart from exactly what this idea would mean for your average Time Lord’s sex life, the most interesting idea about all of this is what it’d do for the show’s gender dynamics. If you’re not familiar with the classic series, it’s easy to assume that the Doctor/cute girl companion dynamic has existed for as long as the show itself, but in fact the early Doctors were often accompanied by male companions as well as female, with both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton adopting rather paternal roles to the gaggle of energetic young TARDIS residents. Jon Pertwee’s first companion was a (female) Cambridge-educated scientist who was just as brilliant as he was. It wasn’t really until the early ’80s that the pattern of the Doctor having a single female companion was established, and even then it was augmented with conceits like K-9, Kamelion, and the occasional male character.

One thing has been a constant, though — the Doctor himself has been entirely asexual, save for the notorious on-screen kiss during Paul McGann’s performance as the Eighth Doctor in the one-off special made during the show’s wilderness years, a kiss that had fans outraged precisely because it was so out of character and proved that the producers behind the telemovie had no idea what they were doing.

Apart from that brief (and arguably non-canonical) lapse, the Doctor has remained entirely romantically removed from his companions — he’s held very clear affection for them, certainly, but it’s never been in any way implied that they were getting it on (with the possible exception of the Fourth Doctor’s Time Lady companion, although the chemistry there was probably attributable to the fact that Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were getting it on IRL).

It’s interesting how recent Doctor Who has, if anything, emphasized this idea of the Doctor’s asexuality; Matt Smith said earlier this year that his version of the character was “more asexual than some of the others,” and in 2011 he answered a question about whether his version of the Doctor is at all interested in sex as follows: “No. The Doc’s idea of an orgy is playing chess with an ostrich. His brain doesn’t work in that way. He would find it weird and peculiar. He finds women peculiar. He is quite asexual.”

The idea that the Doctor “finds women peculiar” is probably one that says more about Matt Smith than it does about the Doctor’s character — 30 years of Doctor Who history rather contradict the idea that the Doctor finds women any stranger than men, and in general he has been characterized by his enduring affection for humanity in general, regardless of gender. (It’s a revealing answer that apparently even a thousand-year-old asexual alien with a time machine, a penchant for saving the universe, and two fucking hearts would find women “peculiar” and men perfectly normal. The second sex, indeed.)

Anyway, Smith’s own prejudices aside, it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider whether the character would remain like this if played by a female, or if the show’s producers would find it impossible to resist the possibility of sexing up the Doctor somewhat. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if they did manage to avoid it — after all, when was the last time you saw a female character in a sci-fi show who wasn’t in some way sexualized, or at least defined largely by her gender? Has there ever been an entirely asexual female character on TV? I certainly can’t think of one — asexuality is usually the preserve of aged male professor types, workaholic detectives, and plucky hobbits. And serial killers.

To be honest, I doubt we’ll ever see a female Doctor — the show is too well established to risk messing with its fan base to explore the possibilities of Gallifreyan gender politics. But if nothing else, just examining the possibility is enough to spotlight some of the problematic ways we think about gender on television. Too often, female characters are defined by their femininity and gender-neutral roles are left to men. Whether a female Doctor would be an idea to challenge that hegemony, or simply a device for reinforcing it, is a question to which we’ll probably never know the answer. And, as illuminating as this hypothetical conversation about the next Doctor has been, that’s a shame.

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