Doctor Who: A Brief History Of Female Doctors

Featuring the show's de facto creator, American fan filmmakers, audio drama, and Neil Gaiman.

Jodie Whittaker as the first canonical female Doctor. 

The sixteenth of July 2017 will go down in Doctor Who lore as the day that Peter Capaldi's replacement in the lead role was announced. To the surprise of many, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall selected not another actor to play the role but an actress. The actress in question being British thespian Jodie Whittaker, a veteran of Chibnall's hit ITV series Broadchurch and had established her genre conditionals appearing in the alien invasion film Attack The Block.

Perhaps predictably, the decision has thus far proven to be somewhat controversial. While some fans rejoiced in the news or decided to take a "wait and see" approach (this writer being among the latter), others were very vocal in their displeasure. These included long-time "super-fan" Ian Levine and many who felt the move was one that was made either as a stunt or in the name of political correctness.

Yet an examination of the show's history and fandom shows that might not be the case. The story of the possibility of a female Doctor is one whose threads include the show's de facto creator, American fan filmmakers, audio drama, and Neil Gaiman. 

Classic Origins

Sydney Newman: The de facto creator of Doctor Who.

Tracing back the origins of any meme (or, if you prefer a more traditional term, idea) can be difficult. Even more so when one is going back into the history of a long-running television franchise. Yet the first documented idea of a female Doctor comes straight from the mouth of one its most iconic stars: Tom Baker. In a 1981 interview on the BBC's Nationwide program to announce his leaving the role, the man behind the Fourth Doctor had this exchange:

Q: What kind of person do you think it should be? A departure from yourself, a mad professor?

A: Well you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man.

Surprisingly, the host did not do an immediate follow-up on Baker's comment. The show's then producer, John Nathan-Turner, did and used it to great effect in the lead up to the casting of Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor. Indeed, it was this moment that arguably laid the groundwork for the "will the next Doctor be a woman?" speculation that has arisen every time it's been announced the hunt was on for a new Time Lord.

It was later in the decade that the idea got a serious pitching to the BBC by none other than the man who might be considered Doctor Who's creator. In 1987, in the aftermath of his decision to fire Sixth Doctor Colin Baker for the role, BBC One controller Michael Grade reached out to the one-time head of BBC Drama Sydney Newman for ideas on the future of the show.

Newman's suggestions can largely be seen as a "back to basics" for the series. A new Doctor traveling with a pair of siblings who would go on adventures with him only for him to regenerate. Not only regenerate but into a new, female incarnation. Newman noted that doing so had risks, writing to Grade that:

"This requires some considerable thought—mainly because I want to avoid a flashy Hollywood ‘Wonder Woman’ because this kind of hero(ine) has no flaws—and a character with no flaws is a bore.”

Grade put Newman in touch with Jonathan Powell, who now occupied the same position Newman once held. The two men appear to have had a clash of temperaments and the idea wasn't perused with Sylvester McCoy being cast as the Seventh Doctor and making his TV debut later that year.

The Fan Factor

Barbara Benedetti's fan film female Doctor from 1984. 

While the BBC might have demurred on the possibility, a section of the show's already burgeoning fandom did not. Three years before Newman made the suggestion to the BBC, it would seem that a group of Seattle based filmmakers cast the first on-screen female Doctor. She was played by actress Barbara Benedetti whowas recommended to filmmaker Ryan K. Johnson based on her performance in a production A.M. Collins' play Angry Housewives. As Johnson explains on the web page documenting the films:

 "Barbara had no idea who Doctor Who was, I think she just took it on faith that I had made the whole thing up."

Johnson teamed Benedetti's Doctor with a Victorian era companion, Carl the Chimney Sweep, played by her Angry Housewives' co-star Randy Rogel (Rogel, incidentally, went on to win an Emmy for his writing on Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s). The pair would appear in four fan films in total throughout the 1980s beginning with The Wrath of Eukor which saw Carl finding her wearing the outfit of Sixth Doctor Colin Baker has just regenerated before the two embark on a series of adventures. Their adventures culminated in 1988's Broken Doors which saw her regenerate into a new, male incarnation. Despite plans to make films with that incarnation, the series ended after Broken Doors.

The films were shown at conventions in the Seattle area during the 1980s and were warmly received at the time. They've continued to have an afterlife of sorts making the rounds at conventions before finding a home on Daily Motion in the digital age. Benedetti herself passed away in November 1991 from lymph-node cancer at the age of 38.

Facing 'The Curse Of Fatal Death'

Joanna Lumley's female thirteenth Doctor in 1999's 'The Curse Of Fatal Death.'

By the time Benedetti passed away, the Doctor's adventures had gone off-screen. The series had effectively ended in 1989 but was finding a second life in novels and comics. And, it seemed, potentially on the big screen. During the Wilderness Years, rumors of new Who projects sprung up quite regularly but outside of the 1996 TV co-produced with Fox in the US, the BBC showed little interest in such a venture.

With notable exceptions. One of those came in 1999 as part of that year's Red Nose Day event when Richard Curtis approached Steven Moffat (then perhaps best known for his series Press Gang) to write a special Doctor Who story. Ultimately running 23 minutes, The Curse Of Fatal Death was at once an affectionate homage and parody of the still off-air series.

Part of the plot involved the Doctor running through his remaining regeneration's in quick succession starting with Rowan Atkinson as the Ninth Doctor. From there the Doctor changes into Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, and Hugh Grant in a sort of wish list-fulfillment of actors who were then considered solid choices for the role. When Grant's Doctor is killed stopping a weapon created by the Daleks and rogue Time Lord the Master (played by Jonathan Pryce), the Doctor seems well and truly dead.

Except that, apparently due to the universe being unable to get on without the Doctor's presence, a new thirteenth incarnation appears played by Joanna Lumley. The final minutes features the Doctor getting used to her new body (including a reoccurring gag about Dalek bumps) and companion/fiance Emma breaking off her engagement to the Doctor before the Doctor and Master walk off into the proverbial sunset arm in arm.

Curse Of Fatal Death eventually found release on home video from the BBC and has become a staple of the corporation's Red Nose Day Youtube and social media postings in recent years. Moffat, of course, would take over as the showrunner of the regenerated TV series in 2010 after writing for the show previously while Curtis would pen the memorable 2010 episode Vincent And The Doctor.

An Unbound Exile

With Doctor Who having still not returned to TV screens in 2003, it was left to the makers of spin-off media to celebrate the series' fortieth anniversary and to Big Finish Productions in particular. The company, which had been producing licensed audios dramas featuring various Doctors and companions from the series since 1999, hit upon a particularly interesting way of marking the occasion. Released under the banner of Doctor Who Unbound, the company produced a series of “what if?” stories that also featured new actors in the role of the Doctor. It is perhaps no surprise then that a story featuring a female Doctor was to be in the offing via a tale called Exile.

Written and directed by Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs, Exile in fact combined not one but two “what if?” premises together. Now only was the Doctor a woman but had become so after escaping the Time Lord tribunal at the end of the seminal 1969 story The War Games. Briggs cast actress Arabella Weir in the role of the alternative female Third Doctor and things seemed set to turn out well.

Except they didn't. Briggs chose to turn Exile into a full-out comedy with very mixed results. From the opening scene (which parodies the trial scenes from The War Games), it’s clear that Briggs was trying to create something ala The Curse Of The Fatal Death that would, at once pay homage and parody the Second Doctor and Third Doctor eras (Briggs even played a version of the Second Doctor that chastises his female successor). However, the story comes across as anything but funny with Weir’s Doctor having little to do but get drunk with a couple of her co-workers (having taken on the identity of Susan Foreman and working at Sainsbury’s) and imagining alien plots that turn out aren’t. Slightly better is the subplot which features two Time Lords (one played by Big Finish regular Toby Longworth and the other by a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennant) who have to try and track down the Doctor, made even more difficult for one of them having got their destination wrong, with both their clothes and money being from the 1970s rather than the 2000s. While the story has its moments, such as a scene where the female Doctor mistakes a man in a pub for the Master before vomiting and passing out, the story does little more than repeating the same series of drunken gags while trying to be a Doctor Who outing at the same time. The result would be one of the most marmite tales the company has ever released, even nearly fifteen years after its release.

New Who & The Female Doctor

Writer Neil Gaiman on the set of his 2011 episode 'The Doctor's Wife.'

The series finally came back to our screens in 2005 though from the moment it was first announced to be returning in 2003, the idea of a female Doctor was brought up. Jane Tranter, the BBC drama commissioner responsible for the decision to bring the series back, considered Dame Judi Dench for the role of the Doctor during early work on what became the Christopher Eccleston season. The thought was clearly in the air even then.

Despite the wealth of spin-off fiction and references within it to the possibility of a male Time Lord regenerating into a female, it was only in 2011 that it was established as part of televised Who (and thus making it about as close to canon as one can expect in a series about time travel lasting as long as this series has). Writer Neil Gaiman, as part of his Hugo Award winning episode The Doctor's Wife, has the episode open with the Doctor receiving a Time Lord message cube (last seen in The War Games). The Doctor notices the markings on it being from the Corsair and casually mentions:

“He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn't feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times. Ooo, she was a bad girl.”

Much like how the limit of a dozen regenerations had been casually dropped into a line of dialogue thirty-five years before by Robert Holmes, Gaiman changed Doctor Who lore in a throwaway line. Gaiman, a self-confessed fan of the series, took years of speculation and made it canon in a heartbeat. The series had never established that this wasn't possible before (unlike the regeneration limit which superseded a line from The War Games about how Time Lords “could live forever, barring accidents.”). It was Gaiman's line that opened the door to the introduction of a female incarnation of the Master known as Missy in 2014 and eventually to the cast of Jodie Whittaker three years after that.

Though the Doctor being female might only now be a part of the series canon, it is an idea that has long been in the air. From a remark by one Doctor, a proposal by the series' creator, fan films, and spin-offs, there has been not one female Doctor but two in licensed BBC products and a third if one includes a fan made series. There are probably even more out there in fan works but to suggest that, somehow, after all this time the idea is a new one pulled out of a hat simply isn't the case.

What it might be then is an idea whose time has come. As the Doctor has said before: 

“Time will tell; it always does.”

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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Doctor Who: A Brief History Of Female Doctors