DOCTOR WHO - Sex and the TARDIS

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Tony Fyler says the Master’s a woman now – and the Doctor could be one in the future. Get over it.


First, let’s deal with this: as far as we know, the Mistress is a bona fide, regenerated, 100% natural incarnation of the Master. Not a body-theft, not a unique gift of the Master’s, but a perfectly normal Time Lord regeneration.

Regeneration of course is the process by which chemicals flood a Time Lord’s body at the point of renewal, changing them fundamentally at a chromosomal level. It has to be on a chromosomal level because, as has been noted before, ‘everything changes – nothing like you were!’ – hair colour and type, eye-colour, height, build, bone-length, skin colour, even (as we’ve seen through Romana’s revolving door regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks) species-template can change during regeneration. The Doctor’s Wife told us the story of the Corsair, who changed sex several times at regeneration. The Night of the Doctor and the subsequent personality of the War Doctor appeared to confirm that both sex and even temperamental characteristics can be altered specifically, rather than randomly, at the point of regeneration.

In case you’re not getting the message yet, everything can change when a Time Lord regenerates. How, this being the case, they identify themselves as the same person from body to body appears to be a matter of personal self-definition – the Corsair, we gather, never felt like themselves until a particular tattoo was inked into their new skin, irrespective of gender. If there is a fundamental about the Doctor that keeps him the Doctor from body to body, it appears to manifest as a wanderlust and a determination to fight oppression whenever he happens to encounter it. It should be noted that neither of these things are sex-specific, nor even gender-specific as we the viewers understand them in the 21st century.


So the Master’s a woman now. Ta-dah! It’s on screen and official – Time Lords can become Time Ladies when they regenerate.  And so a bold new chapter of possibilities opens up. The idea of a female Doctor is technically neither closer nor further away as a result of this revelation. But the way such a change could be written has been made easier for the Doctor by the Master blazing the sex-changing trail.

Now, much of fandom has accepted this with good grace and open minds. But there are those who claim such a shift ‘makes a nonsense’ of the show.

Really? A time-travelling police box that’s bigger on the inside didn’t pop that little bubble for you? It’s not hardcore science fiction and (with the exception of the occasional, interminable Christopher H Bidmead script), it’s never taken itself seriously as such. Doctor Who is a science fantasy show.  You either free your mind of the strictures of Taking Life Seriously and go with it, or it’s probably not going to be something you enjoy. If you accept the idea of regeneration at all, but get upset over the idea over a Time Lord changing sex during regeneration, you might want to reassess what it is you’re actually getting upset about. If you claim it would ‘ruin’ Doctor Who if the Doctor were ever played by a woman, you might want to take a look around at which century you’re living in.

Then there’s the argument that ‘it just wouldn’t be the same’ if the Doctor was ever re-cast with an actress in the role. To which the only rational reply must surely be ‘No it wouldn’t – isn’t that great?’ This is probably the only show on television that’s ever had these interminable debates, because it’s probably the only show on TV where you can – as part of the format – entirely change the lead actor periodically. They can be anything – that’s the fundamental point of the show. If it hadn’t been for brave Production Teams, prepared to change almost everything, Doctor Who would have died in 1966, and we’d have missed out on 48 years of adventures. Not being the same is how you get a show that’s lasted 51 years.


Others claim it would go against ‘tradition’ to have a female Doctor. This is the Doctor we’re talking about, you understand? Going against tradition is what he does. Even within its own mythology, tradition is changed, rewritten, ignored, overlooked from one era to another – remember the time the Doctor was half-human for one day in 1999? The whole ‘tradition’ of there only being twelve regenerations was invented in one line of dialogue by Robert Holmes, and subsequently written into canon by other stories. But oh look – there’s our regeneration-limit in the Tardis’s rear-view mirror. If time can be rewritten, believe me when I tell you that tradition can be rewritten too, and without the need for fandom to go into apoplexy.

Still others accept that the Master is now the Mistress, but resist the idea that the Doctor could ever have a female incarnation. ‘Just because they can do it,’ they say, ‘doesn’t mean they should do it.’

Granted, an ability to do something is not a mandate to do that thing. But neither is it a mandate not to do it. The implication of this argument seems to be that Michelle Gomez’s portrayal of the Mistress was done ‘just because they could.’ Nothing to do with advancing the characterisation of a classic character into new and interesting areas then? Nothing to do with having a first class actress to inhabit the role? No, it was just ‘because they could.’ In some corners of fandom, I’ve even heard the idea that ‘if they wanted an evil Time Lady, they should have used the Rani.’ Really, take a breath. Take a pill. Apply a cool flannel to your overheated brow – you’re confusing the sex of a person with their motivations. For amoral experiments that couldn’t really give a toss about the Doctor, apply to T. Rani, lately of Lakertya, soon appearing in Big Finish audio stories. For over-complicated plots focused firmly on the Doctor, apply to T. Mistress, last seen evaporating into a cloud of blue fire, on Earth. Each character is distinct, and has their own storytelling uses. You can’t simply treat them as psychologically interchangeable just because one of them’s been historically portrayed by women, and one by men. Well you can, clearly – anything’s possible, remember – it’s just not the best storytelling decision open to you.

There are those – and I was one – who hoped Missy would be something new and original (Is it wrong that I still want to see The Terrible Zodin on screen?). Disappointment at the non-appearance of a new villain is perfectly valid as far as it goes. But when the argument becomes ‘Why not do something original rather than re-invent a Classic?’ we’re in danger of missing the point. Steven Moffat and his team have shown themselves more than willing to invent new villains, and new chunks of the Doctor’s history – Hello, Sweetie. This time, the overarching, convoluted story-arc was well-suited to this particular classic villain, given a new twist, so they used the Master, given a regenerative freshness as the Mistress. And Gomez brought acres of delightful madness to the role, building on its long history and making the incarnation her own.


This is what will ultimately determine whether we ever get a female Doctor – the storytelling. Historically, yes, the Doctor has always been cast from among a pool of men. What the arrival of the Mistress does is mean there’s now no reason within the canon or tradition of the show that the character should continue to be cast from only a pool of men. The next Doctor (and bear in mind, Capaldi’s just arrived) will be played by the actor or actress best able to take the character in bold new directions, make interesting, brave choices, and impress the Production Team with their vision of the character. No-one is ever going to force a female Doctor into the storyline just for the sake of a week’s worth of headlines. Even John Nathan-Turner never did that, and he was desperate for headlines. What’s happened with the arrival of Missy is simply the kicking-in of a barrier to equal-opportunity imagination and adventure that was long overdue for overturning in the 21st century.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk
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