The idealist in me has long wanted to believe that labels don’t matter, but if you address me in the wrong way too many times? It becomes clear to me that labels are important. Labels help define us and our role in the world. This helps us connect to others—it gives us a sense of purpose and belonging. But labels aren’t static. How we identify changes over time. Children become adults; students become teachers; daughters become mothers; etc. But does that change who we are?
In many ways, we are ever evolving. While we only have a single lifetime, the events of our lives sometimes make portions seem wholly separate. That often leaves us feeling like the Doctor from Doctor Who. Where we would say something seemed like it happened a lifetime ago, that may be true for the Doctor. The Doctor’s longevity and ability to regenerate has given them the chance to live many lifetimes. Each time, they are a different person and live a different life than the one before, carrying with them all the memories and many of the attributes of their previous incarnations.
“But wait…” you must be thinking, “they? Isn’t the Doctor a ‘he?’”
On Sunday, July 16th, 2017, the BBC announced that the Doctor’s next regeneration will be female. Jodie Whittaker, best known for her role as Beth Latimer in Broadchurch, will take up the role and regenerate into the Doctor when Peter Capaldi departs the show in the upcoming Christmas special, Twice Upon a Time. This will be the first time in the show’s 54-year history that the Doctor will be a woman.
We’ve seen the Doctor speak as a woman in the past. In “New Earth,” the first episode of series two, the Lady Cassandra jumped into the Doctor’s body. However, that didn’t make her the Doctor. She was simply a woman trapped in a man’s body. So what does it mean now that the Doctor will be played by a woman? Does this change her?
In today’s society, we recognize that the labels that have been assigned to us are not always correct. Thankfully, increasing awareness of this has more and more people asking each other how to they prefer to be addressed and how they identify. Now as we move from a male to a female Doctor, we must consider the implications of what it means to be a Time Lord. Or a Time Lady. Is there a difference? Which is correct?
I was recently a guest on BBC’s Newshour, discussing the Doctor being played by a woman. At the end of the segment, I was asked if the Doctor, as played by Jodie Whittaker, will be a Time Lord or a Time Lady. I didn’t think twice—I said that Time Lord is a race, and thus she would still be a Time Lord.
Well, in reviewing references from both the Classic Who and New Who, the results are mixed. Time Lord and Time Lady have both been used to refer to women. Romana was called a Time Lady in “City of Death” from the 17th season of the classic series, and Missy specially requests to be referred to as a Time Lady in Dark Water in the 8th season of the new series. However, the Academy on Gallifrey is referred to as the Time Lord Academy in several instances, and Rassilon addresses the Senate (men and women) as “Time Lords of Gallifrey” in The Day of the Doctor in New Who. There does not appear to be a clear answer.
We’ve already run into a language issue. Is Time Lord a race? A species? A title in a caste system? In my incorrect estimation, I had previously considered being a Time Lord vs. being a Gallifreyan like whether you would call yourself a human or a Terran. Humans are a Terran humanoid species. However, not all Gallifreyans become Time Lords. Gallifreyans who become Time Lords are from ruling houses called The Chapters of Gallifrey. This sort of caste system determines who rules by bloodline, but being a Time Lord is more than who you’re related to.
Ten seems to reference this in “The Doctor’s Doctor” in series four. In this episode, the Doctor is cloned. The clone, Jenny, is a young woman, and Donna asks, “Does that mean she’s a … what do you call a female Time Lord?” Jenny asks what a Time Lord is and if she is one. The Doctor responds, “You’re an echo, that’s all. A Time Lord is so much more. A sum of knowledge, a code, shared history, shared suffering.” While the Doctor was likely speaking out over his hurt about the past, his point is made. There is a sum of knowledge gained through the Academy.
How important is the Academy? Children were taken from their families at the age of eight to look into the Untempered Schism of Time, according to the Doctor in “The Sound of Drums.” This did not always end well. Neither does it seem to be a strict necessity, as humans were admitted to the academy for some time. It is unclear if they would ever finish, though. According to the comics, individuals spent centuries at the Academy. Does this mean looking into the Untempered Schism makes this possible? Does it change your genes?
We know there is a genetic component. In Doctor Who Confidential, it’s stated that Jenny, who was cloned from the Doctor, is “another member of that race, or something closely akin to it.” We also look to River Song. In series six, River’s genetics is explained in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Being conceived in the time vortex gifted River with Time Lord DNA in addition to her human DNA. There are few that would not consider River a female Time Lord, given her ability to regenerate.
So as a species or a race, being a Time Lord is like being a Trill from Star Trek. The Trill are a joined species–a host and a symbiont. While Trill have the potential to join with a symbiont, not all do, and you must take part in extensive training. Much like the Trill and joining, it is only after going to the academy that one becomes a Time Lord. There are both genetic and learned components of each group.
Each Doctor is a new person, carrying on bits of their former selves much like the symbiont carrying the memories of the past to the new Trill they join with. We cannot simply say that the way they thought of and referred themselves previously is the same way they will in the future. Even in people, we understand that we grow and change. Our labels change.
Jodie Whittaker comes to the role of the Doctor at a disadvantage not applicable previously. She is fighting against the notion that the Doctor is necessarily a man. Even actors who previously played the Doctor have stated they are unsure of a woman playing the role. “If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for. So, I feel a bit sad about that, but I understand the argument that you need to open it up,” Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, told The Guardian.
Not everyone agrees. Colin Baker, otherwise known as the sixth Doctor, stated on Twitter, “Change my dears and not a moment too soon–she IS the Doctor, whether you like it or not!” And as Merriam Webster so kindly reminded us, the word ‘doctor’ has no gender in English. There is nothing inherent in the character or even in the name the Doctor chose for themself. That’s a big part of where the Doctor differs from the Missy/the Master. Missy has been a female and a male. Missy changed her name and requested that she be referred to as a Time Lady.
Frankly, the phrase Time Lady makes my skin crawl. Perhaps it’s the association with Missy that does it, or maybe it’s the history Doctor Who has with female characters. It comes across being demeaning and diminutive, as if the Doctor will be subservient to men. The character should in no way be diminished or appear subservient because they will now be a woman.
I informally polled my friends through Facebook and Twitter; it seems I’m not alone in preferring Time Lord continue to be used (we ran about 80/20, Time Lord to Time Lady). While more gender-neutral options where suggested, including Time Being and Time Folk, most preferred to use Time Lord as a gender-neutral option. Some even argued that “lord” is a gender-neutral word. Rather than using the definition that a lord is “a man of rank or high position–a feudal tenant whose right or title comes directly from the king,” they argued that a lord is “one who has power and authority over others, and is a ruler by hereditary right or preeminence to whom service and obedience are due.”
There is a difference in usage in how we use lord and lady in regular conversation. While you think of a lord as someone powerful, a lady can merely be the polite way to refer to any woman. Lady can also bring up less savory feelings. It can be used to indicate a particular code of conduct—acting ladylike, which again brings up the idea of being subservient to men. It also brings up thoughts Jerry Lewis shouting, “Hey lady,” or any trilby-wearing bro calling you, “milady,” their voice dripping with condescension.
In the end, how we refer to the Doctor should be the Doctor’s choice. There is power in claiming an identity. There is power in her name. There is power in her history as a Time Lord. Let’s hope the writers recognize that and craft a scene where the Doctor is definitive in embracing her identity and remembering that she is who she has always been—a Time Lord.
Holly Christine is a geek girl with a sick love of Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, and all things sci-fi. She helps head up @NerdVice and @CirclePlus_ where you can listen to her on the podcast, “Late Night with Bisexuals.” Listen to her gush about her nerdy pursuits, adventure games, and everything cute on Twitter @gookygox.
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