In July this year, Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th Doctor. As the first woman to take on this role, there was of course much excitement, controversy, anger (you name an emotion, it was in there) at the news.
While I have my own reservations regarding the casting choice, I am not here today simply to rant irrationally about my own preferences. I am reserving my final judgement until I actually see Ms Whittaker in action. Given that she is an exceptionally talented actress, I am confident that she will deliver (if the writing allows for it).
What I am here to do, however, is answer some points in the ongoing debate that have frustrated me somewhat in recent weeks. And these points are all centred around one main theme: Women in Science Fiction (or the lack thereof).
I have read many posts online, both in mainstream media and on fan pages, praising the BBC for taking the leap to cast a female Doctor because, “there aren’t enough women in science fiction;” and, “isn’t it wonderful to have a strong female lead in a sci-fi series AT LAST.”
If this is the sole basis for you applauding the news, then I am sorry, but this just doesn’t wash with me.
Firstly, there are strong female leads in science fiction already. Granted, the male to female ratio is still stacked heavily in the male column in this regard, but please don’t let that lead you to believe that strong women are a novelty in science fiction. They are not. The problem is that they are so often overshadowed and overlooked in the genre.
I, myself, can name several female characters whose ‘bad-assery’ has been highly influential to me over the years. Characters such as Sarah Connor (Terminator), Samantha Carter (Stargate), Beverley Crusher (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Princess/General Leia (Star Wars). I could go on.
Now, these ladies may not have title roles in their respective franchises, but that in no way diminishes the roles they played or the impact they have on fans.
I grant you that we need to see more women in strong leading roles (in general, not just in science fiction), but I ask you: does that really mean that we should take existing male characters and make them women?
The way that the media has been lauding the BBC in the last few weeks, you would think that this was the first time a science-fiction character has changed gender through casting. To quote Battlestar Galactica here:
Speaking of Battlestar…
In the original series (1978-9), Starbuck was played by Dirk Benedict. In 2004, there were more than a few feathers ruffled when the reboot saw Katee Sackhoff take on the role. In making Starbuck a female character, the relationship between her and Apollo was suddenly open to an ongoing saga of sexual tension that had not been part of the original series with two male characters.
Thankfully, Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck was much more than just an on-again-off-again love interest for Apollo. She had nerves of steel, and a wicked right hook, not to mention a chequered past with her own family and the Adamas that meant she was interesting to watch and to figure out during the 4½ seasons of the show.
If she had been there purely as Lee Adama’s arm candy, there would have been a bigger axe to grind on that score.
One of the most famous examples of male characters becoming female through casting was Ripley in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. The story goes that when Scott pitched the story, the producers suggested making Ripley a woman as it would shock/surprise audiences when she survived to the end of the film.
There may not have been as much controversy around this choice, however, as audiences didn’t have a pre-existing male Ripley to compare Sigourney Weaver to. And let’s be honest, I doubt any of us could imagine anyone else stomping along in a giant robotic suit of armour and shouting:
“Get away from her, Bitch!”
On the flip side, however, you can bet that Katee Sackhoff was constantly compared to Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck. Jodie Whittaker has a legacy of 12 preceding actors (13 if you include John Hurt) to live up to. In that respect, I certainly would not want to be in her shoes.
Of course, all of this leads me to wonder one thing: If people are so keen for there to be more strong female characters in science fiction, then why aren’t they being written? Why do we feel the need to hijack existing male characters? At some point, that becomes ridiculous, right? I mean, has anyone considered casting a female James Bond? No? I didn’t think so.
I maintain that changing a character’s gender is not as simple as changing their name from James to Jane (for example). Men and Women relate to the world in completely different ways. One of the endearing qualities of Doctor Who as a series is seeing the Doctor being brought up short by his companion (usually a female character) who comes at the situation from a different angle. Look at how Matt Smith’s Doctor played this with Amy (Karen Gillan) in their early adventures together. I would recommend Season 5, Episode 2 – The Beast Below as a prime example of this.
Granted, out of all the science-fiction franchises available, Doctor Who lends itself most readily to changing its main character’s gender, purely thanks to the plot device of Time Lord Regeneration. It legitimately allows the writers to reinvent the series periodically.
Having said that, the original run of the series did establish that Time Lords could not change gender through regeneration, a point that seems to have been glossed over with the recent Missy storyline which, in hindsight, seems like the BBC was testing the waters for what they planned for the Doctor him/herself. I just hope the writing team haven’t bitten off more than they can chew this time around.
I don’t know about you, but all this leaves me anticipating the new series of Doctor Who with even more baited breath than usual. Surely, this is what the BBC was aiming for all along.
As we wait, though, let’s not sit around feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have strong female role models in science fiction. Let’s celebrate the ones we have and look forward to being inspired by others in the future.
Leave a comment below if you have any favourite female Characters or Actresses known for their Sci-Fi roles that you think deserve our attention.