The Doctor Who special, A Christmas Carol, was a hoot – much better than the Kylie Minogue-starring hogwash three years ago – but can the BBC's wonderfully inventive sci-fi series retain such heady standards? Is a radical change needed? Should the next regeneration of the Doctor, the 12th, be... wait for it... a woman?
In fact, didn't the current Who guru, Stephen Moffat (the extremely capable replacement for Russell T Davies), feel the time was ripe for Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson or Catherine Zeta-Jones to play the Time Lord? Matt Smith has been an energetic, smart and towards the end of the last series rather terrific Doctor – more eccentric Tom Baker or creepy Jon Pertwee than prickly buffoon Colin Baker – but wouldn't an actress reinvigorate the series? Moffat, perhaps, could devise a couple of episodes in which the Doctor becomes a woman, Boy Meets Girl-style. This might ease worried Whovians around to the idea. Moffat could then unleash two full series with a female lead and a dishy young male assistant. Andrew Garfield of The Social Network or Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire, maybe?
It may be fanciful to suggest that thespian heavyweights like Thompson or Mirren would take on a role that was once filled by Sylvester McCoy (last spotted in Casualty), but as American television has demonstrated, the best roles for women are on the small screen. Think of Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Glenn Close in Damages, Anna Paquin in True Blood and all the female leads – Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Betty (January Jones) – in Mad Men. Whovians (and I apologise for not being one, just a fairly regular watcher since the days of Pertwee) may baulk at the thought of the next regeneration going from male to female. But Doctor Who has not been frightened to do some pretty silly things in the past – flying buses, paving-stone girlfriends, K9 – so why should a gender change be preposterous? This is sci-fi, after all, and as Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a clear influence on the writing and storytelling of Moffat's series) and its offshoot Angel proved, anything goes in science fiction.
A brief peek at a Doctor Who internet forum, however, shows that Whovians are not awfully keen – comments such as "unacceptable", "PC nonsense" and "I don't want a woman" feature prominently. One fan maintains that Time Lords are born male or female and it is ludicrous to suggest that they can change sex when regenerating. It is heresy, etc. And illogical.
However, there has been some pretty weighty support for the idea of a female Doctor. The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering & Technology (UKRC) has argued that the next Doctor should be a woman, in order to raise the profile of "female scientists in the media". At the time of writing the Facebook page "The Next Doctor Who Should Be Female" has 31 members and "Make the Next Doctor Who a Female!" has 16. If they joined forces, there would be a giddy 47-strong army for change. It's a start.
Sydney Newman, then the BBC's head of drama, broached the subject in 1986. "At a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman," he argued. Joanna Lumley was touted but the powers that be plumped for McCoy. Dawn French, Frances de la Tour and Judi Dench have also cropped up as candidates. Russell T Davies went as far as to say that "Catherine Zeta-Jones would be great".
For me, though, the first female Doctor has to be Emma Thompson. The British actress has the wit, intelligence, charisma, gravitas and energy to pull it off. She wouldn't let anyone down and I suspect that even the most zealous Whovian would accept her after a while.
As long as Moffat is in charge, the storylines are consistently strong and the dialogue is perky and droll, does it matter whether the Doctor is female or male?