This article is irresistible, even for those of us who don’t know most of the British actresses cited in it. (“Or, you know, none of them,” he said, red-faced.)
So, the Doctor. The Oncoming Storm. DOC-TOR. Call him what you want, but regardless of what you call him he’s always…him. A female Doctor is an idea that’s been floated more than once, with The Curse of Fatal Death giving us a brief appearance by Joanna Lumley as the Doctor, Big Finish releasing a single disc in their Doctor Unbound series based on the premise that when a Time Lord kills themselves they regenerate into the opposite gender and Helen Mirren going on record as saying she’d love the role. Oh and Stephen Moffat polling a convention about it a little while ago and the entire audience essentially telling him they’d stop watching if he did it.
Now, whilst I have my doubts about that, the truth is that right now it’s not really on the cards. Which is a real shame because, HELEN MIRREN! COME ON, MAN! She’d be awesome! But what if it wasn’t an issue…because it was never an issue? What if, in this the 50th Anniversary year, we were celebrating five decades of a show about a female Doctor? Come with us now on a journey through time and space as we explore a very different 50 years of Doctor Who, and a very different 11 Doctors…
1st Doctor- Joyce Grenfell
Doctor Who began as a show with the odds stacked against it; a crew of mavericks put together so the BBC could say they’d given them a fair chance before firing them. However, instead of bowing to the seemingly inevitable, the crew decided to take their once in a lifetime opportunity and work it for all it was worth. The end result was Joyce Grenfell being cast as the first Doctor.
Best known as a perky, cheerful figure in post-war Britain, Grenfell relished being given the opportunity to play a darker, more mercurial role. Her Doctor was a chaotic figure, a cheerful nanny one moment and a stone eyed matriarch the next. Over time, the show even came to play with this, especially in Dalek stories where Grenfell would alternate between the schoolmarm role she was best known for and the darker, intense element she grew to revel in to tremendous effect. Signing onto the role amidst a sea of criticism, when she left, the BBC were flooded with tributes and pleas for her to come back. She never returned to the role, although remained proud of it for the rest of her life.
2nd Doctor-Hattie Jacques
Grenfell’s replacement was no less controversial a choice. Hattie Jacques had made her name as a comic radio actress and was involved in the Carry On movies, frequently as a matronly figure. However, anyone expecting a continuation of Grenfell’s approach was in for a surprise as Jacques took the role in a radically different direction. A wildly eccentric, deadpan, puckish Doctor, she used her reputation and physical stature to create an astonishing take on the character; a cosmic clown who could bring a tear to the eye with nothing more than a change of posture. On taking the role, decades later, Miranda Hart would cite her as a major influence.
3rd Doctor-Honor Blackman
Fresh off her success with the Avengers, Blackman took the show in a very different, far more physical direction than Jacques. Her Doctor was an action heroine, the stories filled with car chases, explosions and fist fights. Many fans welcomed this with open arms, whilst many more felt the show had become The Avengers with occasional aliens. Despite this, her run was extremely successful and is notable for a series of appearances by Vanessa Redgrave as the Mistress.
4th Doctor- Penelope Keith
The show returned to the controversy that had defined it’s casting of Joyce Grenfell with Blackman’s replacement. Penelope Keith was best known as a comic actress, and to make matters worse was in line for a leading role in The Good Life, a highly favoured sitcom being put together for the following year. In an immensely controversial move, Keith was awarded both roles and, in doing so, became the face of BBC TV for close to a decade. Her run as the Doctor was, and still is, regarded as the definitive version of the character by many fans, mixing her naturally arch, upper class comic timing with a tremendous flamboyance, laconic wit and theatricality. She attacked the role with a gusto not seen since the Grenfell years and proved such a success that jokes were dropped into The Good Life, hinting, strongly, that Margo and the Doctor were one and the same. However, behind the scenes, Keith freely admitted that the double duty and newfound celebrity was taking its toll and, ultimately, she asked to leave both shows. By the time she regenerated at the end of Logopolis (And a cheeky final line was dropped into The Good Life about Jerry and Margo popping out to Joddrell Bank for a picnic), she had played the role far longer than any of her predecessors. That record remains intact today and Keith was recently attracted back to the role for a new range of audio dramas.
5th Doctor- Joanna Lumley
Another former Avenger, Lumley was given the thankless task of succeeding Keith in the role. She responded to this with aplomb, opting to go in the exact opposite direction to Keith’s performance, whilst at the same time keeping her inherently British approach. Dressed in cricket whites and with an air of the polite swashbuckler to her, Lumley’s 5th Doctor was arguably the nicest version of the character, a woman desperate to save everyone and shown, again and again, that she could not. Despite this, Lumley continued Keith’s sense of humour in the role and both were major influences on Perkins’ performance, with Lumley appearing alongside her in Time Crash.
6th Doctor-Miriam Margoyles
Margoyles’ performance was, at the time, widely criticised for being both too broad and too similar to earlier takes. Whilst this is debatable, it’s clear she suffered from script problems from the outset and this tainter her entire time on the show. With the advantage of time and distance however, her run as the Doctor is actually one of the most interesting. Margoyles plays her as a truly mercurial, unpredictable figure, mood changing scene by scene and with an unfettered arrogance the role had never had before, making the tragic events of several stories all the more effecting. Whilst her run was widely regarded as the least successful in the show’s history, Margoyles’ Doctor has enjoyed over a decade of new life on audio, giving her the critical acclaim she lacked, and deserved, during her time on television.
7th Doctor-Siobhan Redmond
Redmond came to the show with one remit; to give it back the edge many had felt it had lost during the Lumley and Margoyles runs. She did this almost straight away, using her natural Scottish accent, her distinctive build and red hair and dressed, very deliberately, in male clothing. She played the role with absent minded, academic charm and razor sharp comic timing. This was tempered by a tremendous natural authority and age that she could call on to chilling effect. Despite being the actress in the role when the show was cancelled, her run remains one of the most fondly remembered and critically acclaimed.
8th Doctor-Helen Baxendale
The 8th Doctor’s arrival was met with massive amounts of hype, with the unprecedented stunt casting of Julia Roberts as the Mistress overshadowing the entire production. It came and went with little fanfare, with Roberts vowing never to do TV again and British star Helen Baxendale largely, and unfairly, overlooked. However, the 8thDoctor would have the last laugh as Baxendale continues to enjoy huge success recording audio adventures for Big Finish, with current guest star companion Will Mellor.
9th Doctor-Suranne Jones
The 9th Doctor had everything to prove and the first trailers for the show demonstrated the exact level of bravado needed. Footage of Jones, in jeans, a black t-shirt and a leather jacket, sprinting away from an explosion were intercut with a monologue in the TARDIS control room where she not only trailed the show but made it clear just how dangerous things would be. Despite being around for just one season, Jones’ take on the Doctor is regarded by many new fans as the definitive one; her combination of Northern flamboyance and desperate, desperate need to atone for the sins of the Time War make it an electrifying season, with her chemistry with Rose and Captain Jack pushing these 13 episodes into contention for one of the greatest seasons in the show’s history.
10th Doctor-Sue Perkins
Fans still reeling from the 9th Doctor’s surprise exit were more than a little surprised to see Sue Perkins step into the role. In stark contrast to Suranne Jones’ mercurial, often grim take on the role, Perkins brought a lightness of touch and cheerful eccentricity that hadn’t been seen since the Grenfell years. Complete with brainyspecs, a new found joy in her work and remarkable chemistry with Rose, the 10th Doctor was a massive hit. The burgeoning romance between Rose and the Doctor, heartbreakingly cut short in ‘Doomsday’ and revived in ‘Journey’s End’, was praised by fans and critics alike, as Perkins became the first openly gay Doctor in the show’s history. Her final episodes, featuring the return of Sheridan Smith as the demented Mistress (Having regenerated from an award-winning cameo by Dame Judi Dench as Professor Yana), remain two of the highest rated episodes in the show’s history.
11th Doctor-Miranda Hart
The first real accusations of stunt casting since Catherine Tate’s bravura run as Donna Noble accompanied the announcement that well known comedienne Hart would be stepping into the role. However, just like Tate, Hart rose above the increasingly personal nature of the attacks and claimed the series as her own. Her combination of ‘Jolly Hockey Sticks’ style upper class jollity, physical comedy and surprising emotional depth meshed seamlessly with the role and led to an early run of fantastically well regarded episodes. Later seasons have seen the character take a slightly different, alien turn that many fans have had trouble dealing with, but Hart remains a rock solid core for the show. Rumours that she will leave in the as yet unannounced New Year’s 2013 special, to be replaced by Sophie Okonedo, remain unconfirmed.
So there you go, an alternate, female history of the Doctor. I would happily have watched any of these actresses in the role and who knows, one day I might. Hart does have something distinctly Gallifreyan about her…
Dunno about the rest of you, but this article is going to keep me up googling all night. Honor Blackman, Joanna Lumley, ooh…