What does Doctor Who mean for women in 2021? “The doors have been flung wide open”
This International Women’s Day, Doctor Who’s female stars, writers and behind-the-scenes experts give their thoughts on how the sci-fi series has included and celebrated women.
Doctor Who made waves in 2017 by casting Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor – but it was far from the first or only time the 56-year-old sci-fi drama had encouraged and spotlighted women both in front of and behind the camera.
In fact, from original producer Verity Lambert all the way through to Whittaker herself, the women of Who have always been a significant presence – and this International Women’s Day seemed like the perfect time to ask just a few of them to share their thoughts on the show’s relationship with female creatives and fans, as well as the meaning of International Women’s Day itself.
From current stars of the show, fan-favourite actors and writers to audio drama producers and figures from the wider Doctor Who family (not to mention a Doctor herself), all our interviewees had a unique take on the struggles and successes women had experienced in Doctor Who’s orbit, as well as the significance of the Thirteenth Doctor’s arrival.
Check out what they had to say in their own words below.
Mandip Gill – actor, Yaz Khan in Doctor Who
International Women’s Day to me is a day to celebrate women’s progression politically, socially and economically. It’s also a day for us as a whole to recognise the further improvements needed. Ultimately it’s about the celebration of women.
Doctor Who saw what most people could see, in that it wasn’t an equal playing field. They absolutely took a stand in changing the space to one much more equal by having Jodie as the Doctor. This challenged things that were just a given and showed the audience why we should continually challenge these structures and roles.
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From the first meeting I knew the significance of this change to Doctor Who history and knew I wanted to be a part of that change. You could feel the significance and positive energy of what was to come from my first audition with Jodie.
Personally, I love the weight of being a south Asian female companion and do hope young people take inspiration from my role in Doctor Who as I did watching the cast of Goodness Gracious Me.
Jo Martin – actor, Ruth Clayton/The Doctor in Doctor Who
I have been a fan of Doctor Who all my life. I remember getting all my cousins and everyone to dress up as characters in Doctor Who. They would argue.
I said: “You’re a Dalek, I’m the Doctor.”
They were like: “You can’t be, because you’re not a man.”
I heard that all the time. I’d be fighting them, and getting the hump. So to suddenly cut to getting the call to say, “Will you come audition for Doctor Who?” If I’d known it was for the Doctor, I think I would have blown it. I’d have been too excited, because it’s a lifelong ambition just to be in the show.
When I actually found out what it was, yes, there was the excitement of “oh my gosh, I’m going to be a Doctor”, and, secondly, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be first Black female Doctor.”
After the excitement – I was so excited!– yes, the fear did come. The fear did come, because when Jodie came, there was a whole lot of fanfare – some good, some bad. Thank God Jodie’s not on Twitter, but I am. And I was actually told to come off it when my episode aired, in case, you know, there were things. So I did.
In the end, I had to obviously brush that off, and realise I’m representing all those little girls like me. I get tearful when I say this. The young people out there who have no representation – and I never had that when I was a young girl; seven, eight, nine, 20, watching all these kind of shows, and sci-fi, and being a fan of all that, and being a geek about it, but not ever fitting in.
When I wanted to dress up as someone, they’d say, “Oh, no, you can’t dress up as that, because you’re not this, you’re not that.” And now they’ve got someone they can dress up as. The amount of pictures I’ve had from Australia, America, here in the UK, of Black geeks and young kids who send me pictures of them dressed up in their – some are very good – imitations of costumes. Some are really awful!
It touches my heart. I remember when we shot that scene where I said: “Let me take it from the top. ‘Hello. I’m the Doctor.’”
Oh my gosh. I think we had to do it a few times, because literally, as I’m getting there, I just get so choked up. It’s not just for me. It’s not just about an actor getting their rocks off – “oh, yeah, I’ve got this part.”
It was bigger than that. It was more than that. It’s all the young girls around the world, around the globe, to empower, and to show them. And the fact that I get to fight like Jason Bourne – hello. Because we can fight. We can do it all.
Doctor Who is a lovely fandom to be a part of. I’m really proud of how they’ve taken me on as a Black, middle-aged woman. We’re not supposed to fit into this genre. We don’t exist, you know? But we do now, baby.
On a day like today, it makes me think of how far we’ve come. It also makes me wonder, how much longer do we have to wait to get even further? Because the process has been a long one. And in terms of the Black female directors and female writers, they’re not getting the same opportunities as the white males are getting. But when you look at people like Michaela Coel, I’m filled with joy, you know?
It fills my heart with joy at the moment that we have this day, and that we’re celebrating the glory that we are as women. Yes, we have progressed, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
Bob Rimington – Escape Room designer for Escape Hunt, including Doctor Who: A Dalek Awakens and The Hollow Planet
The Sci-Fi genre and fandom would be sad places without the efforts of women. Authors like Mary Shelley and Ursula LeGuin shaped the genre, while it was a predominantly female fandom that worked to keep Star Trek on the air in its early days.
Despite this, I know from my own and others' experience that the occasional – usually male – fan will attempt to act as gatekeeper against 'fake fans' – usually women – and their nefarious schemes to join in the fun. What they don't seem to realise is that women have always been here, making and enjoying Sci-Fi, whether everyone wants to welcome that fact or not.
I’ve found many welcoming online communities celebrating Doctor Who, and I continue to be inspired by the wonderful artworks and costumes made by fans. Doctor Who fans are some of my favourite-ever escape room escapees, and I love hiding a multitude of Easter eggs inside games for them. I know that somewhere there's a super-fan enjoying the effort.
Any Sci-Fi show that casts a female protagonist in a traditionally male role is making a bold choice, and I think the need for it is highlighted by the knee-jerk 'ew a girl' reaction of some fans.
However, there have so far only been two female Doctors - compared with 12 male Doctors. Would that feel equal if it were reversed? I personally hope that the next 11 Doctors are all women who bring as much heart and joy to the role as Jodie Whittaker does.
Alex Kingston – actor, River Song in Doctor Who and Big Finish audio adventures
Doctor Who always had a companion.
Now, admittedly, the companion was usually female, and was always presented in a sort of learning capacity. They were never, in a sense, the Doctor’s equal in terms of understanding the universe and the laws of the universe. But they were always incredibly brave, fearless, young women.
So I’ve always felt that Doctor Who has been sort of quite out there when it comes to representing women – and now that they’ve cast Jodie the doors have been flung wide open, which I think is very exciting, for that show to move forward.
I very often had fans who would say to me, “What do you think? Do you think a woman could ever play the Doctor?” And to be honest, initially when I was asked that quite a few years ago, I wasn’t sure. You know, I was like, “I don’t know.” The Doctor has been male for so long. Is it going to be difficult for people to readjust?
Then I very quickly got over that fear. Because absolutely, as I said, it was this gift waiting to be unwrapped. To see girls cosplaying as Jodie’s Doctor, as opposed to cosplaying as Tom Baker’s Doctor or David Tennant’s Doctor, it’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful.
For me, International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate and champion anyone who identifies as a woman. For me, I suppose, it’s a reminder that no matter how tired you might be feeling, or exhausted, or under-appreciated, or how invisible you might be feeling, you have every right as a person to have equal footing on this planet with everybody else.
Part of me wishes that we didn’t have to do this, and that actually, you know, every day should be International Women’s Day; it should be Save The Planet day. If only we were, as humans, a little bit more able to be sensitive, loving, caring and supportive of one another’s needs and rights, we shouldn’t have to do this.
But unfortunately, we’re not there yet!
Alex Kingston's Doctor Who novel The Ruby's Curse is released on the 20th May.
Rebecca Brower – Production Designer for live experience Doctor Who: Time Fracture
I was first welcomed into the Sci-Fi world with Captain Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew, who powerfully took her place as Captain of the Starship USS Voyager. Fandom for me was sitting on the sofa in the front room with my Dad and watching Star Trek in the late 90’s. Finding characters I can relate to as a woman was what got me into this genre.
It’s now exciting to see a new generation of women being welcomed into the fandom through characters including Rey, played by Daisy Ridley in the Star Wars franchise, The Scarlet Witch played by Elizabeth Olsen in Marvel and, of course, The Doctor.
I think it was definitely time for a female Doctor. It’s also been refreshing to see diverse casting stretch even further within the Jodie Whittaker era, with talented actors such as Jo Martin and Mandip Gill.
I do feel we are at the beginning of big change for equality. Marvel announcing a new female Thor played by Natalie Portman, and of course a female Doctor Who all within the last two to three years feel like great steps to becoming an equal industry.
But it’s not just about representation on the screen; it’s about representation off the screen. I want to see the changes that are happening on screen happen with Creatives off screen, such as Directors and Production Designers. I want to see more women filling these roles in the future.
On the surface it looks like Sci-Fi isn’t a good place for women, because the people who responded negatively to recent changes Doctor Who has made shout the loudest above everyone else. However, under this thin layer of prejudice there are a lot of fantastic fans including women, men and non-binary people, who love the show. That's what makes it so great!
Ingrid Oliver – actor, Petronella Osgood in Doctor Who
The people who tell me they’re fans of Doctor Who – strangers, friends, family – have always been a mixture of men and women. Of all ages. That would suggest to me that sci-fi is a big, all-embracing, friendly place to be. Of course, you’d be wise to ignore some of the darker corners of the internet. But then that’s true of all fandoms, not just sci-fi.
The issue of underrepresentation of women in traditionally male spaces is an issue across society generally. I think Doctor Who is doing a lot to combat that. There’s so much female talent on screen as well as behind the scenes. Hopefully it will show little girls and boys that science, and science fiction, really is for everyone.
With regards to Jodie’s casting, I felt we’d got to the point where it was an inevitability that we have a female Doctor. It no longer made sense to many fans why an alien couldn’t assume the shape of a woman. As indeed it didn’t for me.
On a personal level, I’d love to work with Jodie because she’s a phenomenal actress. I think Osgood and the Thirteenth Doctor would be so interesting together. Jodie’s Doctor is warm and energetic and funny, I think Osgood might be slightly intimidated by those things because she’s not hugely comfortable with social interaction.
For me, International Women’s Day is a chance to stop and reflect on the challenges that still face women with regards to social equality and pay parity. But also to celebrate the achievements of remarkable women, in whatever field.
For a long time we, as a society, weren’t great at chronicling women’s achievements in our history books so it’s nice to have the opportunity to redress the balance a little.
Joy Wilkinson – writer, The Witchfinders, Doctor Who series 11
Funnily enough, it’s actually my mother’s birthday, the 8th of March. In our house, it’s always been a celebration of inspiring female role models, but on a wider scale, it’s a chance to shine a light on the achievements of women all over the world.
I’ve noticed it over the years just becoming bigger and bigger. It used to be this sort of weirdly radical thing and now it’s wonderful it’s this mainstream thing where we just stop and listen to these stories, and feel really inspired by them. So it’s wonderful to be a part of it this year.
When I came onto the show, I didn’t know it was a female Doctor, and I was already just absolutely over the moon to be writing for Doctor Who. So I found out at the same time as everybody else, when Jodie took her hood down on TV. It was this incredible, national moment, really. And to actually be writing for it – it just got even more exciting.
The story I was writing – you know, I had already pitched “The Witchfinders”, thinking it would be a male Doctor, and still think that would be a brilliant story. But it finally gained all this other level of complexity knowing it would be a woman going into those times, and she couldn’t just march in there and take charge, and use different skills to try to influence – like women do today, in what is often still a man’s world.
So it just got even more exciting and complex. When she’s in those situations, we know all the pressures. They’re the bit in the novel version I’ve just done, where we’re kind of in her head, when they’re all turning on her, and she feels this fear in a different way to how she felt it when she was a male Doctor, and it was, you know, she was up against all kinds of horrors across the universe.
Suddenly, she’s in this situation of someone in a female body on Earth, and it’s the same as being a woman today, walking down a dark alley. It’s just a different kind of fear and helplessness, and that’s a revelation to her.
It’s just brilliant to be able to expand on what Doctor Who’s about, to contain that experience, and to have a whole new range of people able to relate to her. There were all kinds of unexpected delights and challenges in her writing her as a female Doctor in history.
I think that was a really important story to tell – and, I thought, a story you could only tell in Doctor Who, you know? Where you could have this sort of license, through the sci-fi, to take it to an extraordinary place, and show a female Doctor being incredibly heroic and overcoming the odds, rather than it being how history was, and that these women ended up dead.
It’s a wonderful opportunity to tell a different story, and to inspire people today.
Joy Wilkinson's novel The Witchfinders is released on the 11th March.
Emily Cook – Writer at Doctor Who Magazine and Big Finish Producer
Growing up with Doctor Who when it relaunched in 2005, I always felt it was something for everyone. And as I learnt more about the history of Doctor Who, I became immensely inspired by Verity Lambert, the programme’s first producer.
I am, however, aware that sci-fi as a genre has been traditionally male-dominated, both in terms of its production and its fandom. But times change, so it’s important to make sure everyone is made to feel genuinely welcome (some women are, some aren’t unfortunately) and given equal opportunities to contribute their talents.
In my work at Big Finish, this is something that comes fairly naturally to me because there are brilliantly talented women on my radar and I’d be a fool not to work with them! In fact, my very first Big Finish production (Torchwood: Drive) ended up being entirely female-led in terms of its production, direction (Lisa Bowerman) and main cast (Naoko Mori and Suzanne Packer).
Jodie’s casting was undoubtedly a hugely significant moment. Having met little girls who are big Doctor Who fans, it’s heart-warming to see just how much the Thirteenth Doctor means to them. The fact that all young children can now run around the playground pretending to be a version of the Doctor – the hero – they’ve seen on TV is a wonderful thing.
As told to Helen Daly and Huw Fullerton
Want more Doctor Who? You can book tickets to The Doctor Who: Time Fracture live experience or pre-order Doctor Who: Mind of the Hodiac. If you are looking for the full set of TV listings, check out our TV Guide.