Back in 1963, nobody would ever have believed we'd still be talking about Doctor Who fifty-four years later. The series was originally envisioned as an educational show that explored history, but a remarkably successful sci-fi plot featuring an alien race known as the Daleks changed everything. Now, in 2017, the series is making history itself — with the central character, the Doctor, regenerating into the form of a woman.
It's been a long journey to this point; so how did we get here?
Regeneration Is A Gamble
Our story begins in 1966, when William Hartnell's contract for the show came to an end. He was suffering from arteriosclerosis, and as a result was really struggling to learn his lines. Hartnell later wrote that he didn't leave the role willingly, and indeed he seems to have repeatedly clashed with the production team. Matters came to a head during filming of The Gunfighters, with Hartnell reluctantly agreeing to leave the show.
It fell to legendary script editor Gerry Davis to create the concept of regeneration. He suggested that, as the Doctor was an alien, he could periodically "renew" his body, allowing the part to be recast. Producer Innes Lloyd immediately saw the potential for this, suggesting the Doctor could regenerate regularly; it would essentially allow Doctor Who to carry on, switching lead actor whenever it was necessary.
It was a stroke of genius.
The Game Begins
The years passed, and Doctors came and went. In the 1970s, Tom Baker — viewed by many fans as the best Doctor to date — decided to play a prank. Announcing his departure in a press conference, he noted:
"I wish the next Doctor, whoever he — or she — might be, the very best of luck."
At the time, Baker wasn't serious. He meant it as nothing more than a jibe, knowing it would catch the attention of the British press and lead to a furious debate. Ever since this pivotal moment, whenever a Doctor has announced they're leaving the role, the debate has reignited.
Into The Twenty-First Century
Of course, the original series of Doctor Who came to an end in 1989, only to be revived over a decade later by Russell T. Davies. Davies, too, toyed with the audience, hinting that he was considering casting a female Doctor. He didn't, but it's pretty certain he wasn't opposed to the idea.
When Davies moved on, though, it became a lot less likely. Stephen Moffat took over, and he made pretty clear that he was choosing actors because they "popped into his head":
"A person will pop into the showrunner's head and they will think. "Oh, my God, what if it was that person?" And when that person is a woman, that's the day it will happen... It will not happen that somebody sits down and say we must turn the Doctor into a woman. That is not how you cast the Doctor."
As many fans pointed out at the time, this approach to casting essentially means that you'll unwittingly cast to type. Under Moffat, the odds that the Doctor would ever regenerate into a woman were remote. Intriguingly, though, he found himself repeatedly having to defend that decision.
Changing The Nature Of Regeneration
For all that's the case, though, Moffat did change the rules of regeneration. Most notably, he had the Master — the Doctor's most notable Time Lord nemesis — regenerate into the form of a woman. Michelle Gomez's Missy won the hearts of Doctor Who fans across the world, and at the same time proved that Time Lord sexuality was fluid.
Dialogue began to offer tantalizing hints that the Doctor himself had once been female. In 'The Witch's Familiar,' Missy noted she'd cared for the Doctor for a long time:
"Since always. Since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl. One of those was a lie – can you guess which one?"
In 'Worlds Enough, And Time,' the Doctor reminisced on their days back at the Academy:
"She was my man crush... I think she was a man back then – I'm fairly sure that I was too..."
Regeneration had changed, and now Time Lords could switch sexes. These fragments of dialogue actually dared to suggest that the Doctor had been a woman in the past too, and fans took note. It seemed the possibility of a female Doctor was no longer outside the realms of possibility.
A New Showrunner, And A New Direction
With both Moffat and Capaldi moving on, though, it's time for Doctor Who to be relaunched yet again. And it seems new showrunner Chris Chibnall has a very different attitude to Moffat. In an open letter to Chibnall, Moffat advised against choosing the role just to make a statement:
"Just choose the best person for the job and any other agenda, however worthy, should be ignored. It has to be the best person for the Doctor that Chris is writing for... Chris is going to be working with the actor for quite a few years and it is a pressure cooker. It can be tough, so you need to choose your friend wisely. So long as it works for the good of the show, that's fine."
Now we know that Chibnall has made his choice; Jodie Whittaker has stepped forward as the first female Doctor. The possibility of a female Doctor was first raised as a joke by Tom Baker back in 1981, but now it's finally become a reality. We have our first female Doctor, and she's sure to leave as much of a mark as any of the previous stars.
Do you agree with casting Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor?