A Female Doctor: A Sex + Gender, Timey Wimey Talk

There were hints of it when The Doctor regenerated at “The End of Time.” Neil Gaiman’s episode “The Doctor’s Wife” pretty much stated that Time Lords can change sex from regeneration. And then, of course, we have our friend Missy — or The Mistress — to consider from this past year’s Doctor Who. And according to Steven Moffat, the man who also wrote the two-episode comedy special Doctor Who and The Curse of Fatal Death — the role of The Doctor will eventually be played by a woman. According to Moffat, they have been laying down the groundwork to do this for some time, but it is a question of finding the right personality before they can make this an eventuality.

Doctor Who, particularly in the era of Russell T. Davies, has been pushing the envelope of just what future, and present, life can be: and how far it can be accepted as a given. There is, and there will be, resistance on the part of some fans. I mean, The Doctor has been consistently male for at least thirteen incarnations now — from 1963 all the way to the present — and even for those who are not outright dismissive or hateful towards the idea, it would take some getting used to.

But, at the same time, would it really?

Could it be time for a female Doctor? Steven Moffat says, "Possibly."
Could it be time for a female Doctor? Steven Moffat says, “Possibly.”

The Doctor has changed a lot throughout the years. He is the Lego-equivalent of a protagonist: even though you can rearrange him into different shapes, sizes, and patterns the building blocks of him as a character — his core — will always be the same. This allows the people working with him to tell new stories about his character while always making it clear that he is The Doctor. And myths change over time: they adapt according to the times and even the culture of the audience.

There are some interesting implications, of course. There is the matter of LGBTQIA representation to consider with regards to sexuality and gender. For the most part, The Doctor has been portrayed as asexual and while it’s tempting to mention that in latter years he has become a lot more romantic and has displayed feelings and more physical expressions of love towards his Companions and other characters, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideas. Certainly asexuality does not exclude the possibility of platonic love — which seems to be a default setting of The Doctor’s character — and it also doesn’t outright dismiss the notion of romantic or even physical love.

So what if The Doctor has relationships with male or female Companions, or other characters? Does it really matter what body The Doctor has at the time? Certainly this wouldn’t affect The Doctor’s brilliance or core personality. In fact, this would make some good stories in and of themselves. I mean think about it: The Doctor changes into a woman for the first time in her life. Does it take some getting used to? Do her relationships change? Does this create discomfort in her Companions, or another level of relatability?

And this isn’t even going into gender. While Missy prefers to be called The Mistress or a Time Lady, would The Doctor want to be considered female? Would she insist on male pronouns: as gender does not necessarily equal sex? I’m thinking that she would adopt female pronouns as Steven Moffat and others probably wouldn’t delve too much into this nuanced issue for mainstream television. Personally, I could have seen Missy insisting on being called The Master and it would have definitely fit her core character to do so.

I think the idea I’ve been thinking about the most since the possibility of sex-changing in regeneration actually came about is whether or not The Doctor would be a good representation of a transgender — or gender-fluid — character. On one hand, I can see some transgender and queer fans completely supporting this idea and perhaps relating to this character more: expanding on the idea of a complex LGBTQIA universe that Davies himself brought to television.

But then there is the opposite side of the coin. Some fans have accused the creation of characters such as the female Thor, and the Black Captain America of being gimmickry: as something of a fascinating “What If?” oddity that will be retconned out or marginalized again once the status quo of those franchises are restored. Certainly, there is something to be said about making a story about an entirely original female character instead of temporarily gender-bending an established one. One concern I have in seeing a female Doctor is that she will, inevitably, regenerate again and that this last regeneration will either have less time on screen, or become something of a one-off.

I think that this can be done under a fine hand and certain degree of sensitivity, but whether or not Steven Moffat and his writers are up to the task is a whole other story entirely: though the fact that Doctor Who has hired Catherine Tregenna, its first female writer in about six years, might hopefully be a step in the right direction.

Personally, I want to see a female Doctor. I want to see what she would be like and to watch her dance toe-to-toe with the messed up intrinsically Lovecraftian madness of the Whoniverse. I want to see her laugh and cry, be silly,  fierce, and terrifying, a fiery angel and a goofy clown, and loving hard, while pulling her sonic screwdriver on some Daleks. It could be another adventure for The Doctor: a new aspect of the character’s life that we can see unlocked in both external and self-exploration.

In the end, I want to see The Doctor give her Companions The Talk. You know the one. Whereas humans get the Birds and the Bees talk, Time Lords get The Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly Talk. I’d like to see her explain that just as she understands, or doesn’t understand, or intuits time so too does she understand, not understand, or intuit her own sense of sex and gender. So too does she understand, not understand, and intuit herself.

But really, I just want to see The Doctor’s happiness as she gets her ultimate wish: when, at long last, she finally gets to be ginger.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: David Mack And Speculative Fiction As A Harbinger of Diversity

Star Trek would have you believe that, one day, Earth will become a virtual utopia. War, famine, and poverty will be eliminated. Advanced civilizations will come and help humanity solve its problems, and even explore the very stars themselves. Humanity, through a United Federation of Planets will encounter new species, societies, and ways of living. And while there will initially be conflict and fear, it will ultimately give way to tolerance, peace, and love.

Personally, I don’t find this realistic. Strip away the technology and science, even accepting the caveat that somehow unlimited resources and energy can be had, and you still have human beings that still feel greed, possess hubris, and fear what they don’t understand. And that is how we treat our own fellow human beings. I think that, if anything, our interactions with each other and other species would be a lot more like the scenario set in the universe of Babylon 5: where there are differences of opinion, internecine and squabbling politics, sanctions, and warfare but a degree of acceptance and understanding among individuals. But that is assuming that human nature will remain the same. Certainly, the anonymous reader that wrote a letter deriding the lesbian relationship between a Vulcan and Klingon in David Mack’s Star Trek novel Harbinger reflects some current human traits all too well.

It can be disheartening to consider that such bigotry exists — and has done so for some time — in speculative fiction and geek fandom. Even David Mack, in his epic open letter rebuttal of this reader’s email, admits that diversity is not nearly as represented in the Star Trek television series as it could have been. And even if the writer of the email to Mack wasn’t a hardcore Trekkie, this is not an original sentiment in whatever might constitute itself as geek culture or the various fandoms that make up some kind of community. I don’t think it is too much of a revelation to state that Star Trek — or speculative fiction itself — and fandoms can be problematic with regards to gender and cultural diversity.

But there is more to this. There always is. I think what really stands out at me is the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series. Part of the reason I bring this up is because of the image that Katharine Trendacosta uses in her i09 article Star Trek Writer’s Defense of Diversity in Sci-Fi Is Damn Near Perfect. It depicts the episode “Rejoined” where Jadzia Dax encounters Lenara Kahn. In fact, both women are Trill hosts for their respective symbionts: whom had been married. I was either in the latter stages of elementary or in the middle of high school when I first saw this episode, and I didn’t understand it.

Dax and Kahn

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand why Dax had feelings for Kahn. I assumed, then, that she was just experiencing echoes of emotion from her symbiont’s last host. Naively, I was more confused as to how she could even pursue a relationship with her even though the symbiont no longer had a male host and if disrupting the rules of their society was worth the trouble. I will even admit that, at the time, it made me uncomfortable. In retrospect, many adults seemed to feel the same way, or so Star Trek producers believed. Years later, of course, I realize that the Trill philosophy of wanting to prevent symbionts from “limiting their experiences by relationships from their previous lives” was another way of stating that people were uncomfortable with two pansexual beings — who both happened to be women this time around — from continuing and having new experiences with their relationship. You can say that it was the nineties and that we weren’t “quite there yet” (and we still aren’t in a lot of ways), but when I look back at that episode and even my own naivete and ignorance, I feel a kind of righteous anger that they couldn’t pursue that relationship further.

There are many other instances of how Star Trek poorly handled their depictions of gender and ethnic diversity, but there is one other story line that particularly got to me: though not, again, until recent years. There was a story arc between Miles O’Brien, his wife Keiko, and the Bajoran Major Kira Nerys embodied best by the episode “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places.” Due to a potentially lethal accident, the O’Briens’ unborn son had to be transferred into Kira’s womb. During this episode, Kira moves in with the O’Briens so that they can take care of her in the meantime. Miles and Kira end up spending a lot of time together, which Keiko actively supports. Their family dynamic changes during this time and Miles and Kira actually end up developing feelings for each other. Nothing comes of this, however, and after she carries the child to term Kira leaves the O’Briens.

I definitely remember being distinctly uncomfortable with this arrangement at the time: seeing the two characters bordering on cheating. Certainly, while life happens in chaotic ways, their situation was no time to develop a relationship. But now I can’t help but feel that there were a few possibilities in how that relationship could have turned out. While the resonance feels more like something Robert A. Heinlein would create as opposed to Gene Roddenberry or other like-minded writers, it would have been fascinating to see a polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship dynamic form from that particular episode: another kind of diversity and representation in a futuristic series priding itself on philosophical and human progress.

Kira Miles and Keiko

Even so David Mack, in his own open letter, states that “those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings.” And maybe it was these words, along with seeing Dax and Kahn again, that reminded me that although the writers of Star Trek couldn’t be too radical, they pushed the envelope of diversity as far as they thought they could: particularly in Deep Space Nine.

It’s funny. When I think about it, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 both aired more or less during the same time period. Perhaps that’s why I mentioned both programs in the context of this article. Maybe it reminds me of how different I am from the child and adolescent I used to be. But I also learned something new. David Mack, in his rebuttal to his anonymous reader over the accusation of “remoulding the Vulcan persona to suit himself,” quotes the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It even has its own symbol worn by many Vulcans: including Spock himself. Whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the symbol to sell merchandise is kind of irrelevant but it reminds me of something else. I realized that even if that utopian ideal is unrealistic and will never happen, it is something to strive for. That sense of hope and wonder in the form of sheer possibility and diversity is what Star Trek is, and what it should ultimately be about.

This is what speculative fiction and geekdom should be about: what it should be the vanguard for.

David Mack, in not only being unashamed of the lesbian relationship between his two characters but even supporting and rejoicing in it, states that he will continue to support diversity in his writing. When you look at current fandom and some of its displeasure over other changes or recent iterations in franchises such as a Black Captain America, Thor now being a woman, and a female lead in a Spider-Man film you begin to realize something else. Not only is diversity important in representing various people in the franchises that they love, but it is utterly integral in keeping those worlds fresh and alive: keeping them changing.  Closed mindsets will be maintained and never challenged. No one will care about stories that never change or make them feel a part of them.

Without diversity, without change, genres and mediums will die.

It is my hope that writers such as David Mack continue to travel these places and bring us along on the ride: to make a place where a story is judged by the quality of its writing and interactions and not solely by an idea that hasn’t been fully fleshed out, or reactionary responses.

To boldly go where no one has gone before, or to go to where other people go and you don’t.  Frankly, if this is a journey that doesn’t suit you, then you shouldn’t come for the ride. As for me, I want to see where these explorations will take me.

Another Body of Work: The Soska Sisters to Direct Painkiller Jane

It is easy to say that horror is a moralistic genre. After all, we all know what happens when adolescent characters have sex — or at least once upon a time — in a horror film. But over time, and under the guidance of particular writers and directors, horror can also become something that observes certain moralities:  even creating commentary on them. Likewise, superhero comics have also been historically seen as vessels of “good” and “good laws” triumphing over “evil and immorality”: while nowadays they can be used to look at human nature in a very sophisticated and literary fashion.

Superhero comics and horror both use relatively iconic characters to represent particular ideas and tell stories with them. Of course, many of these stories are exaggerated, dramatic, and over-the-top. Body horror — a sub-genre of horror itself — utilizes bodily functions, dysfunctions, sexuality, mutilation, torture, infection, death, and the mind’s alienation from the flesh to add spectacle and say something about the human condition. And women’s bodies add a whole other context to this dynamic when you consider how they are often depicted as objects for the desires of others, belonging to others, in conflict and contrast to the idea they belong to women with their own thoughts and feelings.

So what happens when you take a female superhero, whose primary superpower is an accelerated healing factor that does nothing to cancel out the pain of her injuries, and allow her to make the acquaintance of two female directors with film backgrounds in body horror?

What you get is Jen and Sylvia Soska directing the new movie of Painkiller Jane.

It might sound strange, at first, to know that the directors of Dead Hooker in a Trunk and American Mary are involved in creating a superhero film until you consider their backgrounds and that of Painkiller Jane herself. The Soska sisters have been vocal about the rights and issues of women and LGBTQIA individuals both in and out of their films: while possessing a fascination with body modification, grindhouse gore, and pain. And Jane Vasko — created by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in 1995 — was a sarcastic and brusque undercover police officer, markswoman, and bisexual woman who, after a failed mob infiltration was left critically injured until she realized her power. However, even though her healing power is the only superhuman ability that she has, the fact that Vasko can — and is willing — to use it to her advantage despite feeling all the pain of her injuries — to maintain agency of her body after another character alters it against her knowledge and will, and in the middle of violent situations — says something about her strength of will and her drive for justice or vengeance.

Unfortunately, I have not read the Painkiller Jane comics, or watched the videos or television series already based on the character: so I know there are a few iterations of her origin story. I haven’t even had the opportunity to see the work of the Soska sisters themselves. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see how they will use their background and experience in fleshing out the pain and drive of this character. The Soska sisters talk a little bit about the aesthetics and the antagonist of Painkiller Jane in their interview with William Bibbiani of CraveOnline.

As for the rest, I’m intrigued to see how they choose to retell her story, how close they stay with the original source material, and how they might critique and subvert certain audience and reader expectations. And in case any of you comics fans might have any doubts as to what they might do with Jane Vasko, consider this:  the Soska sisters are also comics and superhero fans.

And one of their heroes is Deadpool.