So it's that time again, the latest incarnation of The Doctor is retiring (that's as in the TV show Doctor Who, in case that wasn't obvious) and people are asking who's going to play the role next, and again people (particularly, I can't help noticing, people who admit that they don't actually watch the show) are asking if this time it should be a woman. Trouble is, that's the wrong damn question, the question should be, would the show be be better with a woman in the role? because if not, why do it? Why walk into that mine field if the show doesn't end up better for it?
First of all, could it happen? In setting I mean, is it possible without breaking canon? Answer, kind of yes, in that it's known that at least one time lord has changed sex upon regeneration, although it seems to be an occurrence with a likelihood somewhere between hit by a bus and lottery winner. However 'is possible' does not necessarily make for good storytelling, it's possible to have a character that has been in dire need of money for many chapters suddenly win the lottery, but it'd have to be really well written not to come off as a horrible deus ex machina. Not that The Doctor has a desperate need to suddenly be female (certainly not within story) but it's still a change that, at the very least, has that same potential to be narrative poison. Don't get me wrong, it could work, given care and good writing, but I think it would need care and good writing.
So, the equality thing, after all that's what all the pressure to have The Doctor regenerate into a woman is about. I already said there's no in setting need for the change, and it's hard to see how there could be, short of some kind of squicky need to populate New Gallifrey or something. Granted, 'no need for change' does not equal 'must not change', but my point is that the impetus behind the debate is external and basically seems to boil down to either 'it's not fair that only blokes get to play The Doctor' or 'it's sexist that The Doctor is always male'. Of these two arguments I find the former more compelling, The Doctor is a fascinating and more or less unique character and I can totally see how, if I were an actress, it would nice to have the opportunity of landing that part. Always assuming that the part remained fascinating and unique when made female, not to mention continuing to exist (neither of which are certain). Also a single part, no matter how interesting, is still a single part and a single opportunity, so a bit of a drop in the ocean equality wise (though it's possible to make the argument that every drop counts). In conclusion, valid argument, perhaps not an overwhelming reason to make a potentially poisonous (see above) change to a popular show. It's the other argument that bugs the hell out of me.
Is it sexist that The Doctor is always male? Some people would say yes without reservation, me, I think it's more complicated than that. The sexism argument seems to be largely predicated on the assumption that The Doctor is the most important role, which is not quite as cut and dried as it first appears. It's the title role, certainly, that much is undeniable, and without him there would be no show, but equally there would be no show without his various companions, so 'the companion' is also an important role, as important? less important? more important? I think the answer is probably that it depends on the episode and that 'lacking titular recognition' is about as much as can be authoritatively said. Ah, talking of authority, there's that argument, that it's sexist because The Doctor is an authority figure... well, maybe, in theory, sort of, I mean he does tell his companions to stay in the TARDIS / not do stuff / etc pretty often... on the other hand no companion in the history of ever has actually done as they were told (unless you count 'don't bother with the accent' I suppose), so if he's an authority figure he's a pretty ineffectual one. And yes, sometimes it turns out that they really should have listened, but equally sometimes not listening is what saves the day, so again it depends on the episode. Furthermore The Doctor frequently lets his companions walk all over him (in theory he could have told Donna that no, he wasn't going to take her anywhere, for example, in practice he didn't) or does things just to please / impress them (any episode that starts with some variant of 'what would you like to see?' / 'let me show you this cool place'). One thing you can say is that The Doctor tends to know practically everything about everything, this is not actually because he's male, it's because he's nine hundred and whatever years old, but if you want to get picky about it you can honestly claim that he's a male character that (usually) knows more than his (usually) female companion and I suppose you could make a case for a female Doctor based on that. Again, I'm not convinced it's an overwhelming argument, but there is something there. There's also an argument about providing girls with role models, but honestly, a genocidal lunatic drifter is your idea of a good role model? No? Well then.
Right, after all that what do I conclude? That there is no convincing reason that The Doctor has to be male, some tentative reasons why a female Doctor might be a good thing and a feeling that it could be done well (even if I have a large portion of dread about what the actual results might be) that's a tick in the go ahead and do it column, right? Well... lets think about this, suppose that the next Doctor is female, further, lets suppose that she then gets a male companion (quite likely, given that one major reason that the companion role is usually female is to maintain a degree of gender parity), thirdly lets assume that the general dynamic of the Doctor/companion relationship remains more or less the same (a lot of that relationship is based on relative age and knowledge / alien experiences / ownership of TARDIS / etc) then what you would have is a experienced, knowledgeable woman who goes out of her way to impress a much younger man, allows him to dictate her morals and generally boss her around and is frequently (though not always) shown to be wrong / in need of rescue despite her greater experience... You know, there's a reason you should be careful what you wish for.