The latest series of Doctor Who wrapped up on the weekend with the completion of a startling two-episode finale: Dark Waters and Death in Heaven.
This season we’ve seen what is perhaps the darkest, edgiest version of the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi. And in the penultimate episode, the season baddie, Missy, unveiled herself as the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Master. The Master – like the Doctor – has always been male.
Fans were split over the gender change. Some loved it (check out this reworked website banner) while others loathed it. Confusion around pronouns, titles and the implications of a female Master for Doctor Who have ricocheted around social media.
For those of you who have spent the last 51 years on another planet, Doctor Who is the story of an alien able to travel anywhere in time and space courtesy of a bigger-on-the-inside blue police box; a man who has been able to cheat death over and over again by regenerating his old or damaged body into an entirely new one.
The laws of time, distance, death, gravity – the very nature of existence itself – are open to creative interpretation in Doctor Who.
Except of course gender, which up until recently has been an immutable law of reality.
And that’s why this weekend’s concluding episode was so fascinating. Finally it seems the scientific team behind Doctor Who have worked out how to send a character across the gender/language event horizon and have them re-emerge as the opposite sex from when they went in.
Though, of course, it’s not like we haven’t been here several times before.
Are you ready for a female Doctor?
The fourth and longest serving Doctor Who Tom Baker kicked off Time Lord gender speculation as far back as 1981 when he mischievously wished the incoming Doctor all the best “whoever he or she may be”. In 1987 the BBC approached the show’s creator Sydney Newman to help pull the show out of decline. Newman proposed following the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, with a new female doctor.
His advice was ignored – and the show was eventually taken off the air for 16 years.
Some 30 years after Baker’s comment, sci-fi/fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman finally confirmed Time Lords could flip between male and female in his Hugo Award-winning episode The Doctor’s Wife. That said, show runner and head-writer Stephen Moffat quashed any chance of a female doctor under his tenure by likening the chances of a female Doctor to the queen of England being played by a man.
Doctor Who’s complicated relationship with gender continues and Moffat is regularly criticised for making Doctor Who more sexist, and of reducing his female characters to being non-existent without a male presence to guide them.
Last year, Gaiman criticised Moffat for not hiring any female writers since 2008. And as Matt Hills pointed out in his recent article on The Conversation, Moffat’s portrayal of the Master-turned-to-Mistress has expanded the range of what gender means while still relying on old fashioned stereotypes to restrict it.
Sci-fi breaks the rules of gender
The gender fluidity that Doctor Who is only just beginning to open up to has many precedents in science fiction.
Ursula Le Guin wrote the ground-breaking Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton explores the implications of technology allowing people to cross easily between genders. Angela Carter, Joanna Russ, and Michael Moorcock have all dealt with gender shift through the medium of sci-fi.
Two other examples of gender shift in popular culture are worth noting.
This year Marvel comics shocked its fan base by announcing that The Mighty Thor, one of its most popular and long running comic series, was going to replace the male Thor with a new female Thor. Series writer Jason Aaron was explicit about the role change:
This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.
There are some interesting similarities between the reaction to a female Thor and a female Master.
It turns out that the character of Thor in Marvel is more a title than a first name in the same way that the Doctor and the Master are earned honorifics. Disgruntled Thor fans have struggled with not being able to use gender markers such as Lady Thor or She-Thor to distinguish the new Thor from the newly retconned role of Thor itself.
Similarly, there has been some arguments that a female Master should be referred to as the Mistress.
Words are important here. Master is the term for a degree. It can refer to a boy and also to various positions of power bestowed on men professionally. Mistress can refer to a woman in power, but primarily it means a woman having a sexual relationship with a married man.
This is problematic for Doctor Who because of the way that Missy both refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend and undertakes her scheme to get the two of them to travel together (and so avoid sharing him with the other woman in his life).
And then we have 80s movie franchise Ghostbusters, set to be remade with an all female cast next year. Watch the original again if you dare. It’s terrifying. The gender politics are so unreconstructed that I had to keep covering my son’s eyes for reasons that had nothing to do with the scariness of the ghosts and ghouls.
Surely with an all-female cast and with Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig as director, earning the title of Ghostbuster will have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with brains, bravery and skill.
This is just a handful of examples and, more broadly, the way women are portrayed across the sci-fi, super-hero and fantasy genres often swings from ridiculous and degrading to the straight out misogynistic. That’s why a female Master on Doctor Who is so important.
While the show is most certainly a British institution its story lines have also come to reflect wider shifts and movements across Western society. Its success since the 2005 reboot, according to author Brian Robb , is due to the show’s willingness to engage with modern, social issues.
In the past, it has tackled politics, race, consumerism, environmentalism, the media, romance and sexuality – and now, finally, it has caught up to gender.