Sorting Out Fair Play Across The Universe: Doctor Who, Gender and Empathy

The following contains spoilers for the Doctor Who Season 11 premiere, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’.


Doctor Who is back, and we couldn’t be luckier. With a new Doctor, showrunner, production team and composer, it’s a truly new era for the 55-years-young franchise. It’s also helped by the fact that the new era has all the indications of being quite good, if Episode 1 of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker’s tenure – rife with sinister ambience, warm characters and a sonic screwdriver made of spoons – is anything to go by.

Beyond that, we’re lucky, ironically, because of the time in which this new era has begun. Whittaker’s casting as the first canonically female Doctor enters a tapestry of discourse centred around spotlighting women who are being further enabled to stand against the damage inflicted by masculine, misogynist hegemonic power. From the #MeToo movement’s ongoing efforts, to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony against incumbent Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to the release last week of Clementine Ford’s book Boys Will Be Boys confronting the ideals of toxic masculinity, we are within a flashpoint where the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor couldn’t have come at a better time.

To say Whittaker’s Doctor is an empowering character – for any gender – is a truism. Each Doctor, going all the way back to 1963’s first incarnation in William Hartnell, is intended to inspire the audience of its time: a figure of ultimate good faced with challenges and finding a way through the moral morass to the best solution. In this sense, Whittaker’s Doctor immediately establishes herself as the successor to thirteen(ish) lives worth of heroism, embodying the Doctor’s best in terms of wit, wisdom and concern for wellbeing.

Whittaker’s casting came in part as a proviso of producers Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens, who made casting a female Doctor a mandatory condition of their taking over showrunning duties, and is deservedly lauded. Much has already been written on the inspiring effect Whittaker will no doubt have for young girls, finally able to see a woman playing the role of their childhood hero. What’s worth highlighting here, too, is the benefit Whittaker and the women of Doctor Who can have – and, hopefully, have already started to have – on young boys.

There’s a scene towards the end of Whittaker’s first episode that’s stuck with me since I watched it Monday night. Grace, the headstrong would-be companion and grandmother to new main character Ryan, dies following a confrontation with the monster of the week. At the prelude to her funeral, Ryan stands at the doors of the church, waiting for his father – Grace’s son – to arrive for the service. The Doctor waits with Ryan, opining that his father’s just running late. Two hours late seems unlikely, says Ryan. You can see the Doctor thinks so too. But still she waits with Ryan, before attending the funeral as Grace’s husband, Graham, delivers the eulogy.

The scene lasts maybe twenty seconds. Little dialogue is exchanged, and it largely serves to show Ryan’s absent father is a deadbeat. But it left an impact, because it was something few other Doctors could or would have done with the same simple degree of empathy. Though they showed compassion in their own ways, certainly none of the recent Doctors, keeping in mind I love all four of them, would’ve reacted the same as the Thirteenth. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor would’ve offered a brooding, gloomy acknowledgement, or otherwise stalked off. David Tennant’s would’ve profusely apologised with a grim expression and mournful eyes. Matt Smith’s might’ve offered an awkward hand-on-the-shoulder, whilst Peter Capaldi’s likely would have stood with Ryan and not said anything at all. I’m also dubious as to whether any of them would’ve actually attended either the funeral or the wake on the stairs afterwards; maybe Tennant, but he might’ve borrowed a page from Eccleston’s book and brooded while he did it.

By contrast, Whittaker stands with Ryan – and with new companions Graham and Yaz – as one of them, a supportive, empathetic colleague who doesn’t fall victim to the cliched writing of a maternal stereotype. The funeral scenes cap an episode where the Thirteenth Doctor shows care for the corpse of an unfortunate victim of the monster, praises her new friends for their initiative in defeating said monster whilst consistently inviting them in as collaborators rather than followers, and asks the monster to “please” leave Earth rather than flat-out command it. Granted, that “please” is still loaded with plenty of forceful intent, and the Doctor demonstrates later that she’s no slouch when it comes to dealing with aliens who reject her compassion, but the way she does it all is distinct from her male counterparts. Even David Tennant’s Doctor, well known for always offering his adversaries a way out before subjecting them to fates worse than death, largely demanded rather than discussed.

Beyond the Doctor herself, the episode bears examples of women being lauded as role models. Grace comments on teenager Yaz’s employment as a police officer, noting the young woman’s done well for herself at such an age, in contrast to the demeaning dismissal of Yaz’s older male commanding officer. The book-ended cold open of the episode shows Ryan’s YouTube video honouring his grandmother as the best person he’s ever known, a notion further unpacked by Graham’s touching eulogy to his wife. Without beating its audience over the head, Doctor Who signals a keen focus on demonstrating the inspiration of women, not just for young girls, but for anyone watching. It’s a focus I want to keep seeing as we go further into the season and into Whittaker’s tenure (given that at least one future episode will feature Rosa Parks, this seems likely).

Which, as I said, couldn’t have come at a better time. The global conversation right now is situated around the ongoing strive for gender equity and recognition of women, shifting the balance away from oppresive male paradigms. Part of that shift must inevitably occur within the minds of the next generation of men and boys, those who will hopefully embody greater ideals of empathy, equality and respect than what many of us currently represent. Doctor Who is a show for everyone, attracting one of the most diverse viewerships in popular culture, and that should entail that the values of the show – and thus, what is taken away by audiences – be universal.

With that in mind, Whittaker can only be a good thing for everyone watching. Not only can the Thirteenth Doctor help to inspire the girls and women seeing a new heroine taking charge on-screen, but the boys who watch now – who will grow to be the men that can best embody the ideals we need – can absorb the kindness, support and sympathetic candour their hero displays.


All images are property of the BBC and used here for illustrative purposes only.

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