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The inspirational women of Doctor Who who paved the way for a female Doctor

As the world celebrates International Women's Day, Doctor Who author Jacqueline Rayner pays tribute to the Tardis heroines who helped make history

Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who silhouette crop
Published: Thursday, 8th March 2018 at 12:53 pm

By Jacqueline Rayner


Let’s go back to the 1970s. A fearless journalist scribbles made-up shorthand in her Holly Hobbie notebook as she investigates the spider plant in the corner of the living room (it’s probably a Krynoid). Later, the journalist becomes a warrior, stalking the house in her leotard with the BAGA badges sewn on, wielding a butter knife because for some reason (probably Mary Whitehouse) she isn’t allowed to play with a breadknife. Still later, and the warrior has transformed into a miniature Time Lady, who’s really cross that her school uniform is checked gingham rather than a gym slip and straw boater.

Did any of us girls watching Doctor Who in the '70s even consider that the Doctor could one day be played by a woman? I’m sure there were some who had the imagination to do so. My mind didn’t take me that far. My heroes, the people I wanted to be, were Sarah Jane, Leela, Romana, and all the wonderful female assistants who followed (and who came before, discovered eventually courtesy of Target books).

Travel forward thirty years. See all the tiny Roses fighting Slitheen in the playground. Another decade on and there are thousands of schoolyard Claras, and shortly afterwards many wonderful Bills, begging their mums to buy them dungarees and denim jackets. But something is changing. There are excited whispers, rumours they hardly dare believe. The Master has turned into Missy! Maybe… maybe something even bigger lies ahead.

Then it happens. The new Doctor will be played by a woman! Cue gasps of amazements in playgrounds around the UK. Cue little girls desperate to have their hair cut in blonde bobs. Cue (a few months’ later) sales of yellow braces and rainbow jumpers going through the roof. Being the ultimate hero, the Doctor, is no longer the sole preserve of boys. Now, the girls can be the ones in charge. They can finally be the ones to fly the Tardis. After 54 years of being the assistant, this is such huge news. Such a change.

For International Women’s Day, BBC Books and Puffin are publishing two books about the women of Doctor Who. BBC Books will release The Missy Chronicles. Missy is of course the most obvious harbinger of the Doctor taking on female form. Initially as evil as her predecessors, she attempted to take a new path, eventually dying without hope, without witness, without reward.

At the same time, Puffin will release a collection of stories by women writers about some of the inspirational companions who went before, the ones who paved the way for the day when the Doctor would at last be played by a woman.

The Day She Saved the Doctor features four of those heroes:

Bill Potts, proudly out and full of potential, strong enough to retain her personality when turned into a Cyberman and brave enough to choose love and travelling the universe rather than returning to a life on Earth.

Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts in Doctor Who
Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts in Doctor Who (BBC Pictures)

Clara Oswald, who willingly gave up her life and condemned herself to a million other lives and deaths, just to save the Doctor. She knew him so well that she could convincingly pretend to be the Doctor – in fact almost became the Doctor at times.

Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in Doctor Who
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in Doctor Who (Getty)

Rose Tyler, an ordinary girl from a London estate – but her first encounter with the Doctor proved she was extraordinary. The Doctor’s greatest friend, she absorbed the time vortex to save him.

Billie Piper as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who
Billie Piper as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who (BBC)

Sarah Jane Smith, brave even when scared, an indefatigable champion of women ("There’s nothing 'only' about being a girl", she famously told the Queen of Peladon). She became a proto-Doctor herself, starring in two spin-offs and frequently saving the world without any unearthly help.

Of course these aren’t the only wonderful women who’ve travelled with the Doctor along the way. Some of the most fearless females he’s met include:

Barbara Wright: the original bad-ass, impersonator of gods and the woman who knocked over a swarm of Daleks with a bin lorry.

Vicki: single-handedly incited a gang of wimpy, astoundingly-eyebrowed teenage boys to rebel and overthrow the enslavers of their world.

Zoe Heriot: even cleverer than the Doctor, plucky enough to stow away in the TARDIS in search of adventure, happy to blow up annoying computers.

Liz Shaw: a top scientist with dozens of degrees, eventually returned to research as she wasn’t getting enough of the scientific action at UNIT.

Leela: fearless warrior of the Sevateem who had to be persuaded not to slay all her enemies with knife or poisoned thorn.

Romana II: the first proto-Doctor, leading the action while the Doctor was being silly elsewhere.

Peri: occasionally seemed like the traditional damsel in distress, but had the bravado to confront her first major villain with the line "So what? I’m Perpugillium Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can."

Ace: troubled teen and lover of explosives. A companion whose life was central to the Doctor’s adventures.

Grace Holloway: top surgeon who operated in a ballgown. That’s all you need to know.

Martha Jones: doctor turned alien fighter. Walked a conquered Earth alone for a year, seeding rebellion and bringing about the downfall of the Master.

Donna Noble: the most human of all the Doctor’s companions. There are worlds safe in the sky because of her. There are people living in the light and singing songs of Donna Noble, a thousand million light years away. They will never forget her.

…and even with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor to look up to now, Doctor Who’s female fans will never forget Donna either, or the other amazing women who were such important steps on the journey towards the Thirteenth Doctor.


The Missy Chronicles is published on 22nd February by BBC Books; The Day She Saved the Doctor is published on 8th March by BBC Children's Books


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