Story highlights

The BBC's recent announcement that actress Jodie Whittaker will be the new lead in 'Doctor Who' has outraged some fans

These viewers need to accept that a woman can excel at filling a man's shoes -- all while defying space and time, Filgate writes

Editor’s Note: Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, Salon, and other publications. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

In the story of the beloved sci-fi show, “Doctor Who,” the lead character, the Doctor, survives by periodically transforming into a new physical form and personality, who is also then portrayed by a different actor. After the BBC announced Sunday that actress Jodie Whittaker, star of the British crime drama “Broadchurch,” will be the 13th Doctor, disgruntled viewers immediately voiced their disapproval on Twitter. Chief among their complaints is that the Doctor is a Time LORD, not a Time Lady. To which I say: Please.

If Michelle Gomez could win the affection of longtime fans with her eccentric and lovably-evil rendition of Missy, the female incarnation of the Master (another Time Lord and the Doctor’s nemesis), then Jodie Whittaker should have the chance to portray the Doctor.

Michele Filgate
Michele Filgate

Was the world ready for a female Doctor 12 years ago, when Russell T. Davies brought the show back? Absolutely. So why did it take so long to get to this point? Perhaps the BBC feared making too many changes at once and losing potential viewers. But if Gomez’s Missy is any indication, a woman can excel at filling a man’s shoes.

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!” Christopher Eccelston’s Doctor says in the first season of the re-launched show in 2005. Haters aside, the “me” that many audience members (myself included) are ready for is, in fact, female.

Thanks to other sci-fi stories that paved the way, the idea of a woman being able to think on her feet and save the day on “Doctor Who” isn’t exactly an alien concept. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to Dana Scully in “The X-Files” to, in more recent years, Katniss in “The Hunger Games,” pop culture continues to envision a shift from a more patriarchal society to a less sexist one. And even if that’s arguably still more fiction than reality (what with recent stories of harassment in Silicon Valley and a President who freely comments on women’s bodies), stories can offer transformation and hope by envisioning a better world. The kids and teenagers who watch “Doctor Who” won’t have an issue with the Doctor being a woman unless an ignorant parent tells them to. Younger fans aren’t the problem; for them, it’s completely normal to see a woman don a cape or solve a crime.

It’s the naysayers who need to get with the program. Or tune into a different one, because “Doctor Who” – and most science fiction – has always been about exploring the edges of what’s possible. “Doctor Who” is inherently a show about questioning ideas. The Doctor’s frequent pitch to potential companions is that they will see the universe, and it will be scary and exhilarating and wondrous, but it won’t be boring. The people who aren’t willing to embrace a female Doctor are the people who don’t want things to change. Given the choice, they would likely never set foot in the Doctor’s time machine, or TARDIS, in the first place.

Since “Doctor Who” launched in the 1960s, the Doctor has almost always traveled with female companions, who sometimes serve as a conscience, helping him make decisions, and at other times allow for exposition. A woman in control of the TARDIS opens up fresh possibilities for the dynamic between the Doctor and her new companions. This past season, for instance, Pearl Mackie played Bill Potts, an openly gay character. It’s still unknown whether Mackie will remain with the show next season, but it would be particularly interesting to see the two actresses play off each other.

What kind of Doctor will Jodie Whittaker be? Will she continue to follow in her predecessors’ footsteps? Will she have Matt Smith’s manic bravado or David Tennant’s brooding charm? Or will she take on a more parental role in the vein of Peter Capaldi’s throwback to the show’s beginnings?

Get our free weekly newsletter

And even more importantly, how will fans react? Are they likely to be more critical of her because of her gender? We’ll find out when Whittaker makes her debut in the Christmas special.

In the finale of season 10, we saw Capaldi’s Doctor resisting his regeneration, because each time he transforms, a part of who he had been dies with him. As showrunner Steven Moffat says in a video on the “Doctor Who” YouTube Channel, “(T)he turmoil of regeneration, while it extends your life, does sacrifice parts of you that you want to keep.” I like to think Capaldi’s Doctor is a proxy for the older audience. He doesn’t want to go, but it’s time for him to transform into something more contemporary: a woman who can defy space and time and societal rules in order to see, and help other people see, larger truths.