The long-running British science fiction show “Doctor Who” – about a time-traveling alien who explores the universe – recently announced that a woman will play the Doctor for the first time. Lynne M. Thomas, who will take over as the head of the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library in September, is a “Doctor Who” fan as well as the co-editor of “Chicks Dig Time Lords,” a Hugo Award-winning book about the show’s female fans, and a contributor to the all-female “Verity! Podcast” about “Doctor Who.” She talked with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about the selection of Jodie Whittaker to play the Thirteenth Doctor.
What was your reaction when you heard the Doctor character will be played by a woman? What are the concerns of some fans of the show who don’t want to see a female Doctor?
I was absolutely thrilled when I watched the trailer and realized that a woman had been cast. I surprised myself by crying a little bit. It's a viscerally powerful thing to see someone like you represented in such an iconic role.
I'm sure that there are fans who have concerns about a female actor playing the Doctor – they may worry about a lack of nonviolent male role models, and about the loss of a tradition, but one of the major components of this television series is that it has changed with the times, and this is no exception. Changing the actors in the title role does not erase the 50 years of performances from their predecessors. It just opens up a new set of adventures to another fine actor.
Do you think the Doctor will be played by a person of color at some point? Does it matter for the show to have someone other than a white male play the character?
I expect and hope that the Doctor will eventually be played by a person of color. I would have been just as happy to have a nonwhite actor playing the Doctor as I am to have a woman in the role. It absolutely matters, because representation in our media tells us what stories are possible. It's a hugely important thing for people to understand that the hero of the story can look just like them, especially if they've had to search harder for that in the media they consume.
In recent seasons, a recurring character in the show, the Master, has been played by a woman. Do you think this was a way to test the possible reaction to a female Doctor Who, or prepare fans to see a woman play the Doctor?
The outgoing showrunner, Steven Moffat, has talked in interviews about the Master/Missy as part of laying the groundwork for a female actor playing the Doctor. It's been mentioned on the production side since 1986, when series co-creator Sydney Newman suggested it. It's been on-screen canon as a possibility since Neil Gaiman introduced The Corsair in the episode "The Doctor's Wife," and of course in "Hell Bent," one of the Time Lords regenerated from an older white guy into a black woman. It's not a new concept!
The Doctor changes height, build, weight, accent, eye, hair color, gait and personality traits upon regeneration. There's no on-screen or behind-the-scenes reason that the Doctor can't also change race or gender identity.
Do you expect to see anything different in terms of storylines with a female Doctor? Do you think the relationship between the Doctor and his companions will change, now that he is a she?
The Doctor stands up for justice, and kindness, and what is right, no matter who is playing the role. The Doctor's relationships with companions have varied over the 50 years of the series – platonic friends, mentoring relationships and, in the new series, romantic attachments too. The Doctor's relationships with companions also have changed across regenerations. The Doctor has two hearts, so it's expected that they will find a way to relate to the companions, in keeping with the personalities of the Doctor and the companions involved.
Do you think having a female play the Doctor can promote and encourage women in engineering and the sciences in a way that may not have been possible with a male Doctor?
Representation in media is hugely important; these are the stories that tell us what's possible, consciously or unconsciously. There is a big experiential, emotional and social difference between "I, the Doctor, will save the universe" and "I will help you save the universe, Doctor."
Having a woman play the Doctor means that there is now a woman front and center not only asking the questions, but providing the solutions to the problems and being listened to, and that has the potential to be a big cultural shift for viewers across the spectrum of gender identity.