In less than a week, Doctor Who will be changed forever by the arrival of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, the first woman to play the role...officially speaking. The debate about Time Lord gender has been a part of Doctor Who for decades, but before Whittaker, Doctor Who at large has given us a few unusual stories to imagine what a female Doctor would be like.
There have been more attempts at female Doctors beyond Jodie Whittaker’s casting—whether in the realm of fandom filmmaking or even suggestions during the classic era of the show to attempt to cast a woman in the role. But the two most prominent examples we actually have in Doctor Who’s past of imagining a female Doctor both err on the side of comedy: Steven Moffat’s—yes, that Moffat!—1999 Comic Relief skit “The Curse of Fatal Death,” a lovingly absurd pastiche of Doctor Who tropes, and Doctor Who Unbound: Exile, a 2003 audio drama from Big Finish, which skewed to a much darker side in its humor. Looking back at both in the wake of Jodie Whittaker’s impending arrival gives us a very interesting look at how times have changed...as Doctor Who has itself.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Especially when in the modern day we get to look at this one-night-only spoof spectacular from the perspective of knowing that Moffat would go on to helm the revived Doctor Who over a decade after “Curse of Fatal Death” aired. But nonetheless, it’s amazing to return to the special—which imagined Rowan Atkinson as a hypothetical ninth Doctor, on an adventure with his companion/fiance, Emma, played by Julia Sawalha—and see just how many jokey pokes at the (at the time long-canceled) classic series ended up being things the writer would integrate into the show when he became showrunner.
Sexual chemistry between the Doctor and a companion (and the Doctor and the Master, although Moffat would do it with a Mistress years later), and the extension of a Time Lord’s regeneration cycle—after Atkinson’s Doctor goes through a series of increasingly comical regenerations, played by actors like Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, and Hugh Grant—were two things in a particular that Moffat’s time on the series would effectively “canonize.” But it’s a third thing Moffat lifted from “Curse” that would one day lay the roadwork for Whittaker’s Doctor...that Time Lords could be any gender between regeneration cycles.
As if it were the walking embodiment of kismet itself, Joanna Lumley played the Thirteenth Doctor for the final moments of the special, reveling in the chance to, err...examine her new “etheric beam locators.” Yes, Lumley’s brief time as the Doctor is played for the sort of laughs you’d expect in a ‘90s comedy skit from the writer of Coupling.
It’s a deliberate poke at the sort of things fans who didn’t want a female Doctor would turn to—too crude for a TV show that once featured a giant green dick monster named Erato, too silly for, well, a TV show that once featured a giant green dick monster named Erato. But it didn’t stop Moffat from borrowing his precedent and making it an actual part of Who history to be picked up on by his successor, Chris Chibnall, years later.
If “Curse of Fatal Death” leaned into the more farcical side of humor, Exile—penned by Nick Briggs (best known to modern Who fans as the voice of the Daleks) as part of a line of “what if” stories that imagined new Doctors in fresh, suddenly adjacent scenarios to Doctor Who history—offers a heady mix of the bleak and the absurd.
Imagining a life where the Doctor wasn’t turned into Jon Pertwee at the climax of the Time Lord’s trial against the Second Doctor in 1969's “The War Games,” but instead escaped Gallifrey and hid on Earth from her people, Exile cast Arabella Weir as a Doctor who fled imprisonment only to find her own self-imposed exile equally stymieing.
The absurdity in Exile comes from the completely alien—although not in the typical Doctor Who sense—approach it takes to the Doctor, here a woman working for a supermarket chain who spends pretty much every moment of her free time boozing with her co-workers and living the mundane life of an early-21st century working class lifestyle. This was just a few years before Doctor Who’s TV revival would attempt to capture a similar down-to-earth vibe with the supporting cast of Rose Tyler’s friends and family (although obviously more family-friendly and sans heavy drinking!).
Equal levels of comedic pastiche are given to the Time Lords tasked with capturing the escaped Doctor—played by Toby Longworth and David Tennant, a little-known actor never to be heard of in Doctor Who circles again—who are pretty much the sort of useless administrative halfwits Robert Holmes cast Gallifrey’s finest as in “The Deadly Assassin,” dialed up to 11. Everyone in the story is chasing the most ridiculous circles around each other, and it’s only the Doctor’s sheer inability to carry on hiding the person she’s always wanted to be that brings her colliding into her pursuers at the story’s end.
But beneath the comedic parody of Exile is a sinister heart, critically examining the identity crisis the Doctor goes through as she struggles to hide her innate desire to be an adventurer running around saving the day with her need to stay hidden from the watchful eye of the Time Lords. Weir’s Doctor is a belligerent drunk—drinking to forget the hero she once was—haunted by visions of her predecessor. She imagines increasingly ridiculous potential alien threats around her because she craves, almost dangerously, the chance to fight evil and see unthinkable things once more. Bleaker yet is the story’s controversial decision to depict gender changes in regeneration as something that only comes about when a Time Lord dies by suicide, amplifying the underlying melancholy of Weir’s Doctor. As absurdist and silly as Exile can get, there’s a controversially weird and darkly tragic undercurrent to it behind the laughs.
It’s interesting to note that the two most prominent examples of female Doctors we got to see before Jodie Whittaker officially joined the line up are rooted in comedy—as if, long before a woman would step into the TARDIS officially, the only way we could slowly even introduce the idea was through the lens of the absurd, even if these examples would then go on to critically engage with the idea that a female Doctor could be a valid possibility in the future.
Beyond that, both “The Curse of Fatal Death” and Exile represent intriguing stepping stones to the road we find ourselves on now, just barely a week away from seeing Whittaker’s Doctor descend on our TVs. They might not be canon, but they form a weird part of a long road in Doctor Who history.