Will the Voice Of Authority puh-leeeeeze change?

**Warning: some slight Doctor Who spoilers, up to the end of Season Three.**

It’s only taken about four years, but I’m finally catching up with Doctor Who. In (very) general terms, the newest iteration of the classic sci-fi series is really making me happy: fast-paced, witty dialogue cavorting along, effortlessly charming the viewer into following, especially in the David Tennant years. I’m now at the end of Season 3, and in spite of some minor details, I am actually quite pleased with the treatment of gender in the show. Both Rose and Martha are intelligent individuals with quite different personalities (not just a cookie-cutter “here’s your female companion”); both are a joy to watch, in spite of the occasionally typical infatuation story lines. Riffs on Captain Jack’s ‘pansexuality’ are entertaining, well-timed, and are treated at times with just enough gravity that the humor in it turns on humanity, rather than some caricature of homosexuality.

But seriously, people. Time Lords are supposed to be* the most intelligent beings in the multiverse, with impressive talents and access to advanced technology. So why is it, in all the possibilities in all the possible worlds, that ALL of the Time Lords are white men?

The easy answer is: we live in a society in which white + male is seen as the default. One could go so far as to say they are the only people who are consistently treated as full human beings. But seriously, O Writers of Science Fiction: How is it that in imagining myriad variety to existence, this old trope keeps popping up?

The Doctor is, in many ways, the embodiment of Male Privilege. He walks into situations with absolute confidence in his ability to fix it, even when he does not know how he’ll do it, or even what the situation is. He does not identify himself to the satisfaction of those who question his authority. He completely ignores many challenges to that authority. He speaks; everyone else (eventually) listens. In one episode, The Doctor must make himself human to escape his adversary, including suppressing all consciousness of ever being a Time Lord. His character is still the same embodiment of privilege, if in a slightly more day-dreaming, less self-confident package. His human persona is a professor at a boys’ school, a position of authority over lesser (in this case, younger) beings. His position has not changed much at all, even if his species has. All his behavior is, of course, treated as Right and Good, as though we silly humans should know our betters when we see them, and when we don’t, we’re chuckled at for the buffoons we are.

Members of the Time Lords’ species have the ability to regenerate their bodies when those bodies are damaged, and those bodies are ostensibly have completely different skeletons (“new teeth”) and muscular systems (“new voice”). Everything about each regenerated Time Lord is new, except his gender and skin color. If his entire body changes, why in the world wouldn’t his skin color change too? There is likely some theoretical* reason why biological sex (and, by extension, gender) is immutable in a Time Lord, but if The Doctor is going to be consistently male and functionally heterosexual (as evidenced by the constant line of female companions), then Time Lords are clearly not unilaterally asexual or non-gendered beings. Biological sex exists; gender presentation does too. So why lack the creativity to play around with those very basic human traits? Why insist on every Doctor (and Master, don’t forget!) being Male and White?

The good Doctor has only one regeneration left, if Wikipedia is to be believed. How about something slightly different for a change? The role requires a British actor; Britain isn’t just made up of the native Gauls and Norman French anymore. How about letting the next person to play The Doctor to be of Indian or Pakistani descent, or descended from immigrants from anywhere else in the world? How about letting the Doctor be a woman for once? The Voice of Authority is virtually always the old (white) man in western social reality. Why does some of our most creative fiction have to fixate on that too?

==x-posted at The Geek Side==
*Read: bullshit


20 Responses to Will the Voice Of Authority puh-leeeeeze change?

  1. G. Neuner says:

    Uhm, so, okay, the Doctor is always white and male. I think the reason for that is that he is supposed to be “more British than the British” so to speak. On the other hand he has about 900 (or well, maybe more than a thousand) years of being a male white Brit already, why change that so drastically all of a sudden?
    By the way, it is hard to believe that he only has one regeneration left after all, the series is just too successful to kill it as soon as the next Doctor decides he wants to do something else. There will be some resolution storywise as to why he all of a sudden is allowed to regenrate more than 13 times.
    Oh, and let’s be a Doctor Who geek here: the regeneration process was shown to be able to allow unlimited regenerations in the 1978 serial “Underworld” (okay, the people regenerating for hundreds of thousands of years were Minyans, but they got the technology from the time lords) and in “The Sound of Drums” the Master says the time lords gave him another round of regenerations because they needed him.
    The whole thing does seem more like it is imposed by the time lords on a whim. There will be a lot more Doctors…
    Also… in “The Sound of Drums” there is a black man playing a Time Lord in the flashback scene showing the Master as a kid.

  2. Not to mention the fact that in “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood,” Martha, the WOC, is treated as insignificant and subservient to the Doctor and all other (male) authority figures. Reminds me of the first post I read here on the S4 episode Midnight.

    And it would be fairly simple to explain the Doctor’s sex becoming female with a regeneration – the show is set in a fictional universe, which, while similar to our own, operates under slightly different rules. For instance, the Whoniverse includes things like time travel, two-hearted aliens and pepperpots bent on universal domination as major plot-points. The writers can work out all that, and then expect me to believe that something as simple as writing the title character as a woman/POC just wouldn’t work? Yeah, your footnote pretty effectively covers it.

  3. Jo says:

    The writers can work out all that, and then expect me to believe that something as simple as writing the title character as a woman/POC just wouldn’t work? Yeah, your footnote pretty effectively covers it.

    And yet I continually have conversations like this (admittedly, with non-feminists, and re: this blog post):

    me: shorter me: 13 possible doctors and they’re all white dudes — we’re getting bored, ppl
    some variety on #13 plz
    dude: helloooo who says his race has other colors?
    me: dude, it’s science fiction
    it can have all the variety it wants
    dude: or not 😛
    me: but somehow the doctor’s skin color is immutable?
    not buying it
    dude: i say BAH to politically correct noncense
    get over it
    me: oh?
    and were television full of only black women you’d have a problem wouldn’t you?
    it’s always good to see oneself represented
    and being the lead would be cooler than shit
    dude: honestly.. i wouldn’t care if they could act
    me: ha
    dude: best for the job
    what does the roll call for..

    but how is to say the timelords we not all white british types?
    me: because it’s science fiction that can be written however we want 🙂
    of course 🙂
    why be so limited?
    esp. in a show that’s all about possibilities and alternate realities
    it’s a blind spot
    dude: why make him a black transsexual just to make a demographic happy?
    me: ha
    why make him a white heterosexual dude just to make a demographic happy?
    dude: just because you can is not a valid reason to do something
    me: exactly

    I could totally bingo with that conversation. Also: notice that nowhere in this conversation (and I put in all the pertinent bits) does it allow for the possibility that The Doctor could be a woman at all. Me saying non-white non-dude produces “black transsexual”. *headdesk* Yes, non-gender binary would be great, but there is in that connection some assumption of maleness (whether by biological sex or by gender identification). Either the thought never crossed his mind or he knew if he dared say “The Doctor can’t be a woman” I’d have ripped him a new one.

    But in an anything-is-possible world, even with alternate universes, there is no way that the lead character could be portrayed by a woman or a person of color; no reason or justification for seeking out or wanting to see such a thing.

    And the TV networks think pretty much like this guy, if the casting so far is any sign.

  4. Jo says:

    Martha, the WOC, is treated as insignificant and subservient to the Doctor and all other (male) authority figures.

    I knew to look out for this, and I watched this episode with a critical eye. Maybe I’m missing something because of white privilege, but I didn’t have too much problem with those episodes. Martha herself didn’t buy into the subservience; she played at it, because it was set in our England in 1913. She would have been treated like a second class citizen then, and everyone around her would have believed that she was. The entire plot depended on her, including the welfare of The Doctor. She was central, even if her way into being relatively accepted into the time period was by filling a role reserved at the time for oppressed peoples: women, the lower classes, non-white people.

  5. But in an anything-is-possible world, even with alternate universes, there is no way that the lead character could be portrayed by a woman or a person of color; no reason or justification for seeking out or wanting to see such a thing.

    That seems to be a huge problem with sci-fi/fiction/the patriarchy in general. That certainly doesn’t excuse it or make it okay – if anything, it makes it more infuriating. It’s part of why I find so much science fiction unsatisfactory and frustrating – women, non-heterosexual people and POCs are included only when they fit the plot (and then only in a generic, stereotypical way – Doctor Who seems to be better than most), rather than treated as variable beings that can express in many different ways, the way white, straight men are portrayed. You could probably exhaust the copper reserves of the planet if you collected a penny for every different personality trait of white men in science fiction, while POCs, women, and non-straight folks are typified and formulaic.

    And you’re right – the silencing of Martha was done fairly consciously, and in a way that allowed her agency (one of the reasons I seem to tolerate Doctor Who better than most TV shows).

  6. *sigh*

    In the original there were black Time Lords and female Time Lords in the background –not to mention Susan and Romana (who could control her appearance in regeneration –although it was established then that the Doctor hadn’t learned how to do that, which actually makes it EASIER to have a non-white Doctor, I would think).

    I don’t have much to say about the new series because I haven’t seen it at all yet.

    Your point about the Doctor’s actions being based in male privilege is, of course, spot on.

  7. eloriane says:

    I just have to say…

    I think the reason for that is that he is supposed to be “more British than the British” so to speak.

    So… all British people are men now? I’m sure the Queen will be surprised! I bet she thought she was really British– who will tell her the bad news?

    Also, according to the CIA world fact book, in 2001 the U.K. was still 92% white. But that’s not 100%. And I’m sure it’s an even smaller number now. “Britishness” doesn’t mean “whiteness.” In fact, an Indian Doctor would be a great face for Britain today.

    It’s just factually incorrect to assert that Britishness inherently means “white men.” So, please don’t.

  8. Jo says:


    This is what gets me: it’s catering to a specific (i.e., non-worthy) audience to include women, POC or non-heterosexual people, and yet perfectly natural to cater to white dudes.

    Silly me. Thinking “white male” isn’t really the default everyone says it is. *headdesk*

  9. womanvsfeminist says:

    These sci-fi people who claim to be so futuristic and creative seem decidedly UN-creative when it comes to the gender of the doctor and his assistant.

    I totally love the new Dr Who series. It’s gotta be some of the best tv around at the moment. But the element of ‘white male is default AND white male knows best’ that you have pointed out on this post is something I cannot come to terms with. His female partner is grating too. I agree that the female characters are cool, strong and independent rah rah rah, but they are still female sidekicks. They are his support and they follow him around.

    I hope a future doctor (future? past?) is a woman one day soon.

  10. Lynnette says:

    Are you familiar with Curse of the Fatal Death?

    Old Comic Relief skit by Moffat.
    Completely white, but both the Doctor and the Master have gender presentation issues
    …admittedly only so they can hit on each other, but it made me smile.

  11. Aileen Wuornos says:

    I’ve often pondered upon this exact issue myself. I started my love of Doctor Who with the old-school repeats (Peter Davison, can I get a oh god yes?) For me, it was very interesting to see the attitude towards the doctors companion originally as “shut up woman, you know nothing” eventually evolving over forty-fifty years to an equal with the doctor, and a force to be reckoned with in her own right.

    I think my favourite ‘ companion ‘ was Teagan Jovanka, (and I swear I’m not just biased cos she’s meant to be Australian!) during Davison’s reign (I am *so* not obsessed with this era of the Doctor! ) who in my humble opinion was like a blending of Rose, Martha and Donna.

    Your analysis/comparison of the Doctor as the embodiment of male privilege, for me, was a new one, and an idea I loved at that.

  12. Crowfoot says:

    Aaaah I love me some Who. Seriously. Even though what you say here, Jo, is completely spot on.

    And Aileen you’re quite right! Since I’ve finished watching the reboot I’ve started on Classic Who and your summation of the shift in the way the female companions are treated certainly gels with what I’ve seen so far. And I haven’t seen very much – I had intended to start at the actual real beginning but very quickly just jumped to Tom Baker because, well, TOM BAKER. *ahem* I’ve yet to watch any episodes of Fivey yet, but I think I’m going to like him quite a bit /nerd. And I’m even more interested in watching Teagan after what you’ve said.

    I do like how Doctor Who is the most predominant sci-fi show/story that I know of that doesn’t have its main character be a military leader barking orders at everyone else. There’s never been (so far) dialogue wherein the Doctor says to the other main characters “do as I say without question or else you’ll be imprisoned/I’ll reject you utterly/etc etc!!” He tells people what to do, certainly, and they listen – he IS that voice of authority – but it isn’t packaged with Complete And Utter Authority Above All domination-fetish military stuff.

    so.. crumbs? He’s an anti-authoritarian authority figure. Of course he’s all of the above, because while the (mostly) male writers are trying to write him as an egalitarian free spirit, they are still men in a patriarchy so all those white male supremist assumptions come through.

  13. Crowfoot says:

    Oh! Lynnette, I have heard of the Curse of Fatal Death but haven’t watched it yet. I love me some Rowan Atkinson so I’ve been meaning to check it out. Thanks for the links 🙂

  14. Lynnette says:

    Not all the old companions were terrible.
    In the B+W era, Susan, Barbara, and Zoe especially were all supposed to be intelligent and learned. Susan gets a very Donna-esque ending, however. And all are screamers.

    As with now, I think a lot depended on the writers. There is literally a Troughton story where his Doctor tells the girl of the group to go make coffee.

    But there is also one where Zoe introduces a 20th century girl to the joys of malicious hacking.

    • Crowfoot says:

      Re: the second Doctor telling the woman to make coffee. I think I’ve heard of that. Did she complain? Or was that Sarah Jane? I recall someone talking about a character retorting to that request. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

      It’s kind of interesting watching the writers trying to deal with feminism. Of Classic Who I’m mostly familiar with Four (not having got to the rest) and Sarah Jane is regularly commenting on men being sexist – well, companion Harry and other side characters. I think I find it interesting in part because the writers don’t seem to be mocking it? They seem to get that sexism is an issue? Sarah’s comment about Harry being old-fashioned isn’t met with rolling eyes for example. Whereas I remember early ST:TNG episodes with Picard being a sexist prick to Crusher. Feminism seems to be seen as more of a joke now?

      Jeezuzmaryanjoseph I’m longing for the 70s 😦

      • Lynnette says:

        Three did it to Sarah Jane, and she told him off…then formed an armed campaign against him and the sontarans (he was enough of a jerk she figured he was working for them.)

        Two did it to Polly and she smiled and made coffee for the entire room.

        I definitely think at any given moment Dr. Who handled writing women loads better than the flavor of star trek running at the time. I think part of that was the children’s show status, such that openly sexist remarks/situations were mostly limited to coffee and the occasional character exiting to marry.

        At the same time, there were also more women involved in Dr. Who from the very start and they seemed to give their female characters more agency. And starting with Sarah, willing to address inequality head on.

      • Crowfoot says:

        ah yes! I remember – I have that story of Sarah and Three and the Sontaran. Time Warrior, wasn’t it?

        Good point re how it being a children’s show affects how the sexism plays out. No rape jokes! (I hope. jeez. certainly not like the first two episodes of Torchwood! :-O holy crap!)

        And it’s also a good point about the number of women involved in the making of the show. I’m still new enough to Who to not really know the names of producers/main writers/etc (apart from the really well known RTD, Moffat, Terry Nation, natch) so I’m pleased to hear that more women were involved with it. I’ve heard that about the remake of Battlestar Galactica as well, which also did some good things with female characters (and some not so good things). Sady at Tigerbeat Down has interesting things to say about the strong female characters of BSG.

      • Lynnette says:

        Yes, it was Time Warrior. 🙂

        The first doctor who producer was Verity Lambert (the only female producer at the BBC at the time), and she arguably set the tone that has been more or less followed ever since. But she and Jo Wright were the *only* female producers for the entire run old series.

        The new series has Susie Liggat, Tracie Simpson, Nikki Wilson, Julie Gardner, Helen Vallis, Catrin Lewis Defis and Debbi Slater.

        In terms of directors, there were only five or so women directors in the old series and to be honest I don’t think the new series is doing much better there. Fiona Cumming and Paddy Russell both worked on the series from the 60s into the 80s.

  15. […] elements. It doesn’t entirely succeed at these progressive things because, as I said in comments, I think the writers are trying to be progressive, but being mostly white men in the 70s (or now, […]

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