When Jodie Whittaker was cast as Doctor Who’s new Time Lord in 2017, fans wondered how the series might grapple with the time-travelling hero’s gender shift. The answer, as it turned out, was “not much” – beyond one interesting sexism storyline in 2018’s The Witchfinders and the odd reference here and there, the Doctor’s big change hasn’t really factored into the series.
In most respects, this is totally appropriate – why would things change just because of the Doctor’s gender? – but in other ways, the sci-fi drama has avoided what could be some fun and entertaining storylines. Case in point: it feels like a shame we’ve never seen Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor share the screen with Alex Kingston’s River Song, the Doctor’s sometime wife and companion who appeared regularly alongside the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors from 2008 to 2015.
Both actors have expressed an openness to it, the fans would love it and it’s ripe for drama. Obviously, River would take the Doctor’s female form in stride – she’s mentioned having wives before – but how would lovelorn Yaz (Mandip Gill) feel about the revelation that the Doctor married a woman long ago and never mentioned it? And would the Doctor feel differently about River now than she did in her earlier incarnations?
Sadly, none of this has been explored, including the Doctor’s sexuality in general (Whittaker has had remarkably fewer romantic stories than the modern male Doctors) – until now. In new Easter special Legend of the Sea Devils, the Doctor finally acknowledges River’s existence, when explaining to Yaz why she can’t begin a romantic relationship with her.
“If I was going to, believe me, it’d be with you,” the Doctor tells Yaz. “I think you’re one of the greatest people that I’ve ever known – including my wife.”
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Bizarrely, Yaz doesn’t really pick up on this, and the moment is moved past quickly. Maybe we’re to assume they’ve discussed River off-camera; more likely, it’s more of a nod for fans than something to take seriously. But in finally acknowledging that the Doctor has been in a relationship with a woman before, the series at least gestures towards some of the ideas that could have been explored throughout Whittaker’s era.
What is gender and sexuality for a race of aliens who can constantly change their bodies and appearances? What is romance for a time-traveller who lives forever? And what challenges and different experiences might the Doctor face as a woman that her male selves never had to worry about?
It seems clear now that this era of Doctor Who doesn’t have much interest in confronting these questions. Though who knows? With one episode for Whittaker still to come this autumn, maybe River could drop in and rile things up for the Doctor (and Yaz) one last time…
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