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The Women Of ‘Doctor Who’
Dr. Geek, Ph.D.   |  

Verity Lambert Mission To The Unknown Press Photo Large

With the coming start of the tenure of Peter Capaldi as the 12th actor to the role of the Doctor in a few days, it is a good time to re-visit one of the controversies of the process that chose him. The revived popularity of the show meant that there was a lot speculation in the media and on the Internet about who the next Doctor would be. Some of that attention was on the role the role of women in Doctor Who. More specifically, why hasn’t there been a woman chosen to play the role?

Continue below for more, and to read about the women who have played an important part in Doctor Who‘s history.

As Helen Mirren once commented after some fans suggested her for the role:

“I think it’s absolutely time for a female Doctor Who. I’m so sick of that man with his girl sidekick. I could name at least 10 wonderful British actresses who would absolutely kill in that role.”

Advocates for a woman in the role were frustrated again, but the question will not be put off forever. This topic first arose in 1980 when Tom Baker made the oblique comment that he wished the next actor all the best with the role “whoever he or she is.” John Nathan-Turner later wrote that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, but it’s a bell that’s been impossible to un-ring.

In the 30-plus years since that time, there have been women leaders of both Western and non-Western nations (Margaret Thatcher, Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Mary Robinson), women executives in charge of major international corporations (Carly Fiorina – HP, Meg Whitman – e-Bay & HP, Virginia Rometty – IBM, Mary Barra – General Motors), women ministers of state (Madeline Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton), and self-made women billionaires (Oprah Winfrey).

Women have demonstrated equality in many if not all fields of human creative endeavor, but Steven Moffatt said:

“I didn’t feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough, most people who said they were dead against it — and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this — were women, saying, ‘No, no, don’t make him a woman.'”

While Doctor Who is a hugely popular, mainstream entertainment in Great Britain, Doctor Who is not a popularity contest. It is clear that the production staff is not yet warm to the idea of a woman playing the Doctor.

That said, the 50-year history of the show has included important women both behind and in front of the camera. Some reflect important aspects of the show’s popularity. Others are groundbreaking individuals in the history of media and broadcasting in the United Kingdom. A few are the first in their role during the history of the show. Several have substantially decided the fate of Doctor Who with their actions. The following list includes many of these important women, ordered in terms of their influence on episodes and seasons throughout the half century of Doctor Who:

  1. Barbara CleggBarbara Clegg Interview Screen CaptureOne of the places where women have had the least influence on Doctor Who is the writing staff. It’s been pretty much a “boys only” clubhouse since 1963. Ms. Clegg holds the distinction of being the first woman to actually write a Doctor Who serial that made it to air (Lesley Scott was co-credited with her husband for the story “The Ark” in 1966, but she was only given credit at his request and did not apparently contribute to the script at all.) Ms. Clegg wrote the story Enlightenment from 1983, the last part of a three-part story arc that introduced the companion Turlough and featured the White and Black Guardians from The Key to Time saga from 1978-79. It’s her only association with the show. It’s a shame that it took 20 years for the show to have a serial with a woman author.
  2. Helen RaynorHelen Raynor Blog PhotoSadly, male domination of the Doctor Who writing staff continues with the series’ return. Helen Raynor is the only woman to write for the revived series in the 21st Century. She wrote four episodes in two separate story arcs in Series 3 and 4, Daleks Take Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. This also makes her the first woman to write a televised Dalek story, and the writer who brought the Sontarans back into the series for the first time since 1986. She further went on to be Script Editor on the spin-off series Torchwood and wrote two episodes. Since her last contribution to the show in 2008, no other woman has written for the show.
  3. Hettie MacDonaldHettie Macdonald candid from the film Beautiful ThingsMs. McDonald is the first woman to direct for the new series. She has only one episode to her credit, but it’s a meaningful one: Blink. It introduced the Weeping Angels, and is generally considered to be one of the best episodes of the revived new series. The episode won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. She subsequently worked on series Wallander (shown in the United States on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS) and Law and Order: UK, the British version of the American series currently showing on BBC America.
  4. Julia SmithJulia Smith Retrospective ATV TodayMs. Smith, along with Paddy Russell, is one of the first two female television directors at the BBC, ever. She directed two serials in the 1966-1967 season, The Smugglers and The Underwater Menace, making her the second woman to direct for the Classic Series. The Smugglers is remembered as the first Doctor Who serial to use extensive location shooting outside the greater London area, and the point at which William Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis was recognized by everyone as being a significant impediment to his further participation in the series. The Underwater Menace is the first story with Patrick Troughton as the Doctor for which footage still exists (all episodes of “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Highlanders” are gone.) It was made in a hurry due to delays in pre-production and was not regarded as particularly well made by either producer Innes Lloyd or star Patrick Troughton. Ms. Smith went on to co-create and write for the BBC nighttime soap opera EastEnders, which continues to run on the BBC since 1985.
  5. Paddy RussellPaddy Russell Screen CapturePatricia “Paddy” Russell is the other woman to first sit in the Director’s chair for television for the BBC, and the first woman to hold that title on Doctor Who, ever. She came to work on Doctor Who with a significant resume, including work as a production assistant on the BBC Quatermass serials of the late 1950s and a 1954 BBC production of George Orwell’s 1984. In total, she directed four serials for Doctor Who. The first was The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, a serial that plays with audience expectations by having William Hartnell play a dual role as both the Doctor and a Catholic Abbot responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of French Protestants. Her second effort was Invasion of the Dinosaurs, a Jon Pertwee-era serial that is mostly remembered for its mediocre special effects. The last two are considered to be classics of the Tom Baker era: The Pyramids of Mars and The Horror of Fang Rock. Pyramids is a serial in which the Tom Baker/Elisabeth Sladen team really gels to the point that Sarah Jane Smith gets to handle parts of the exposition of the back story herself (something of a rarity in Doctor Who companions). Fang Rock is the swan song of the Philip Hinchcliffe style of Doctor Who story making. Though credited to producer Graham Williams, it represents all the moody, atmospheric, horrific elements that brought Tom Baker and the show ratings that met or exceeded the popularity of the Dalek-mania period of the mid-1960s. She continued to have a successful career in television direction and production until the early 1980s.
  6. Billie PiperBillie Piper Head ShotWe now come to the first actress on the list. The classic theory for companion characters is that they are supposed to be audience identification vehicles; the audience is supposed to see the Doctor and the story through the companion’s eyes. It isn’t always true. It is very true for Rose Tyler, however. Russell T. Davies and his fellow producers had a serious problem in 2005: they have to revive a television program with roots that ran back to 1963 and a big part of their target audience hadn’t been born when the show went off the air in 1989. How do you provide a Doctor Who program that will satisfy older viewers while attracting a whole new generation of younger fans? The answer is Rose Tyler and Billie Piper: you take an ex-teen pop singer and cast her as someone who is a member of your younger audience, revealing the existing world of the show through her eyes. It worked spectacularly, making Billie Piper a star and allowing the show to change lead actor at the end of its first season without damage to its ratings. It is no mistake that when Russell Davies wrapped up his tenure as show runner for Doctor Who, Rose returned. Likewise, when Steven Moffatt was looking for former companions to add to The Day Of The Doctor, Rose was the one.
  7. Elizabeth SladenElisabeth Sladen Candid PortraitIf there is one companion character that exceeds Rose Tyler for popularity and impact, it’s Sarah Jane Smith played by Elisabeth Sladen. Why describe her as so important? One need only look at her resume on Doctor Who. She was brought on board as a companion to replace Katy Manning’s Jo Grant for Jon Pertwee’s last season as the Doctor. She was then paired with Ian Marter and Tom Baker for a season, and then left with Baker alone for a season and a half. Her connection with fans was so strong that her departure was a media event in Great Britain, a first for a Who companion. She then reprised the role for The Five Doctors and a pilot for the first attempt at a Doctor Who spinoff series called K9 and Company. She became the only actress from the Classic Series to return as a companion for the new series in School Reunion. She then got her own spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, for four seasons, another first. She was the companion of the 1970s for many people, and was strongly identified with Doctor Who almost up to the point of her death in 2011.

    As for the impact of her performance, Toby Whithouse summed it up:

    “Because she was a comic companion, and I think that she, more than any other before her, redefined the role of the companion. And there are elements of Sarah Jane Smith that you can see in every companion afterward down to Amy. She changed the companion from being a rather helpless hysteric to being a feisty, opinionated, strong equal to the Doctor. And, at the time, you know that was quite an extraordinary thing to do. That was not the role the companion, or women, were meant to be playing. They were meant to be playing the victim, they were meant to be decoration. I think what Lis Sladen did with that character is quite extraordinary. We forget how revolutionary she was at the time.”
  8. Jane TranterJane Tranter Head ShotJane Tranter is the first of three women who are key to the revival of Doctor Who in 2005. As the Head of Drama from 2000-2006 and Head of Fiction from 2006-2008, she had the final word about what appeared on the BBC during the first decade of the 21st century. Her support was key in reviving the series on BBC television in 2005 after 20+ years of loose talk about making a Doctor Who motion picture, a somewhat feeble attempt to reboot the series for American television in 1996, and 16 years after its cancellation. Ms. Tranter continued to be a booster of the series and its related spinoffs well after its successful relaunch. When she left BBC corporate in 2008 to become executive vice president of programming and production at BBC Worldwide in Los Angeles, she brought Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner with her. Together, they made Torchwood: Miracle Day as an American co-production and she got Executive Producer credit.
  9. Lorraine HeggesseyLorraine Heggessey Head ShotThough the idea of returning Doctor Who to British television was not an unwelcome one in 2004-2005, actually doing it was highly problematic. The rights to make Doctor Who were held by BBC Worldwide, a wholly owned commercial subsidiary of the BBC responsible for selling and promoting BBC products around the world. After the 1996 Paul McGann Doctor Who movie failed to attract much attention in the United States, Universal Television let their option on the rights expire and they reverted to BBC Worldwide. There, hopes of a Doctor Who motion picture held sway and “in negotiations” for several years… in spite of the fact that a Doctor Who motion picture had been rumored since early on in the 1980s (with a then post-Arthur Dudley Moore rumored as a possible Doctor to crack the American market.) Enter Ms. Heggessey as Controller of BBC One, who convinced BBC Worldwide to give up the rights to Doctor Who. Together with Jane Tranter, she commissioned the revived Doctor Who series. Ms. Heggessy left the BBC in April 2005, a few short weeks after Doctor Who returned to air, to work as an executive at Talkback Television and later at Boom Pictures.
  10. Julie GardnerJulie Gardner On The Set of Doctor WhoWith Ms. Tranter and Ms. Heggessey working hard to bring Doctor Who back to BBC One, the question in 2003-2004 then became how to actually produce it. This fell to a third woman television executive, Julie Gardner. As Head of Drama for BBC Wales, she got the task of making the show and convincing a frequent collaborator named Russell T. Davies to be in charge of its creative aspects. She went on to be an executive producer for Doctor Who, Torchwood (including Miracle Day), and The Sarah Jane Adventures. She succeeded Jane Tranter as BBC Head of Drama in 2006 when Ms. Tranter became Head of Fiction. She also followed Ms. Tranter to BBC Worldwide in Los Angeles in 2008, as an executive producer in charge of scripted projects.
  11. Delia DerbyshireDelia Derbyshire Cutting TapeAfter looking at the contributions of three highly visible television executives, it is time to consider a woman whose contributions to Doctor Who are at once obscure and incredibly ubiquitous for nearly two decades. As a staff member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Ms. Derbyshire “realised” (arranged and played) the version of the Doctor Who theme used (with some small variations) from November 1963 to August 1980. Though the theme was originally written by Ron Grainer, her contributions were such that Mr. Grainer was said to remark “Did I really write this?” upon hearing her version (to which she responded “Most of it.”) Mr. Grainer attempted to get her a co-composer credit, but it was blocked by the BBC on the grounds that the work of the Radiophonic Workshop was kept anonymous (she finally did get the on-screen title of Arranger when her version of the theme opened The Day Of The Doctor.) She remained at the Workshop for another 10 years, and collaborated with other English musicians on different experimental works of electronic music. She then largely left the world of electronic music to become a radio operator until the late 1990s. She died in 2001 while working on an as yet unpublished album of new music.
  12. Verity LembertVerity Lambert Mission To The Unknown Press PhotoIn the world of Doctor Who, Ms. Verity Lambert may well hold the title “the mother of us all.” Though the series was created by BBC Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, and Head of Serials Donald Wilson, Verity Lambert was the one who ran it during its first two critical years. Though the show was originally conceived as a sort of children’s educational travelogue, it was Verity Lambert who told Messrs. Newman and Wilson that the format could support the Daleks even though they were against it. This makes her responsible for establishing at least one of a trio of elements used by the series to this day: the Doctor, the TARDIS, and monsters. She ran the show through two long and highly successful years in which the show appeared nearly every week during a season that lasted 9-10 months. In total, she produced something like 80 half hour episodes of the show — a feat that remains impressive in an age where Doctor Who averages about 15 hour-long regular season episodes a year. Ratings during her two years would not be equaled again until the creative synergy of Philip Hinchliffe, Robert Holmes, and Tom Baker came along in the 1970’s and has been rarely repeated since. In short, she made the show a hit, a big hit. That gave it the strength to grow and become the show it remains to this day. She went on to a huge career in media in Great Britain, eventually becoming head of the media conglomerate EMI and was appointed an Officer in the Order of the British Empire (a knighthood) for her contributions to television production.

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