This raises some important questions for the future of one of the world's longest running TV series. Can the Doctor be played by a woman? Should the Doctor be played by a woman? And will this lead to a glorious new pangender future for the series, or will it sound its death knell?
In the original series of Doctor Who, running from 1963 to 1989, seven actors played the character in successive regenerations, and each was male - William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. An eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, appeared in an ill-fated 1996 TV movie designed to revive the series and aimed uneasily at audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Some people will also remember the 1960s films, when the Doctor was played by Peter Cushing. Since the series was revived in 2005, another four Doctors (Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi) have appeared, plus a fifth regeneration seen in the 50th anniversary special, played by John Hurt. Not including the Peter Cushing films, that makes a total of 13 Doctors since 1963, all male.
In the last couple of years the outgoing showrunner, Steven Moffat, has introduced the notion of Time Lords changing gender. The Doctor's nemesis, The Master, was curiously regenerated as a prancing Scotswoman, played by Michelle Gomez, and Capaldi's Doctor has recently made jokey references to having once been a woman. This was obviously intended to soften audiences up for the idea of a female Doctor.
The answer to the question “Can a Woman Play the Doctor?” is a tentative Yes. Doctor Who is a sci-fi/fantasy series where the ground rules have mostly been made up as the show goes along. But the idea that Time Lords can change gender has come along very late in the day for such a fundamental character element and has been introduced specifically to enable a woman to play the part. It's an awkward piece of retconning to a character who has already been established over 50 years as a male, or at least outwardly a human male. So the answer to the question "Should a Woman Play the Doctor?" is a lot more debatable. Change and renewal are important elements in the appeal of Doctor Who, but so are continuity and respect for the rich history of the series. If anyone can play the Doctor, then what does Doctor Who now represent, other than a character undergoing a sort of permanent identity crisis?
Many people will be familiar with the concept of “jumping the shark”, a reference to an episode in the TV series Happy Days when the Fonz water skis over a shark. When a TV series jumps the shark, it does something drastic or gimmicky to draw attention to itself in the hope of reversing a declining audience. And, 12 years after the series was revived, the audience for Doctor Who is declining.
Many fans had high hopes for the series under Steven Moffat's stewardship. He wrote some of the best episodes of the first few series, including the classic Blink and The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances two parter. But the series has often been self indulgent during his reign as showrunner with hazy and inconsistent plotting and a dearth of good scripts, particularly in the early Peter Capaldi series.
Since 2005, Doctor Who's aggregated ratings have generally held steady at about 7.5 million per week on average, occasionally reaching 10 million or more for the appearance of a new Doctor or a Christmas special. Since Peter Capaldi took over, ratings have dropped to around 6 million for the 2015 series and 5.5 million in 2017. This includes people watching on catch up services, which is the BBC's preferred calculation, since the live viewing figures are much worse. One recent episode had under 3 million people watching the show live, and most episodes of the latest series had viewing figures under 4 million, pretty bad for a relatively expensive flagship show. So casting a female Doctor looks like a slightly desperate attempt to get people to watch the show again. And I think it's clear that Whittaker was cast precisely because she was a woman, not despite it. This is totally unscientific and anecdotal, but I've been struck by how many people I've seen online saying that they don't watch Doctor Who, or stopped watching years ago, but claim they will start watching again now that there's a female Doctor. But I think it's extremely unlikely that a casting gimmick like this really will bring these people back, despite what they say.
One of the reasons Doctor Who is such a cash cow is the enormous merchandising opportunities it presents. But I'm not convinced that the traditionally most enthusiastic Doctor Who audience, boys of say 6-12 years old, will be all that excited by a woman Doctor. Joanne Rowling was asked by her publishers to use the name "J.K. Rowling" for the Harry Potter books because it was believed that boys would be less likely to read a book written by a woman. I think it's also true that they will be a lot less likely to want to identify with or emulate a woman character in a TV series. Watching Doctor Who is likely to become increasingly uncool for this audience, and with them goes most of the market for TARDIS toys, miniature Daleks, books, comics, games, action figures and all the other Doctor Who branded tat. As for the adult audience, they may feel that the show is no longer the one they grew up with, and if the BBC has little care or respect for the series' history, then why should they?
There's a tendency to think of Doctor Who as a permanent feature of the TV landscape, but the series has been killed off before, in the 1980s, by gimmickry, miscasting and poor creative decisions. It's ominous that among those welcoming the news on Twitter were Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, the two men who starred in Doctor Who during its most chaotic and disastrous era, as it hurtled headlong towards its inevitable cancellation.
Some Twitter users have even claimed they are excited to see a woman Doctor, because their young daughters also liked the all-female Ghostbusters. Since the new Ghostbusters alienated its existing fanbase and was a box office disaster, this is not exactly a good omen either.
A lot of the reaction to this has been surprisingly unpleasant. Not only from those making “women driver” jokes about struggling to park the TARDIS, but from some of the media, which has treated anyone unenthusiastic about this change as a sexist, Cro-Magnon throwback who thinks women should be chained to the kitchen sink. Even the Daily Telegraph, not exactly renowned as a hotbed of pinko liberalism, ranted that objectors were “swivel-eyed Doctor Who fans, probably the sort of people who collect contraband gun magazines and lobby for the return of capital punishment“.
Well maybe I'm wrong but, as I sit here swivelling my eyes and re-ordering my collection of "contraband gun magazines" (whatever that means), I can't help thinking that Doctor Who is in serious danger, and may be heading for its next cancellation. One of the more popular Doctors, Peter Davison, also expressed his concern this week about the loss of a significant male role model for young boys.
For cultural historians of the future I think this will prove to be a fascinating moment. It's the most 2017 thing to happen in 2017, and perhaps it couldn't have happened at any other time. It reflects so perfectly our current obsessions with identity politics and gender.
What do you think of the casting of a female Doctor? Is it a long overdue change, or a betrayal of the series' history and origins? And will this revitalise Doctor Who, or kill it off?