Doctor Who: An Alternative History of 11 American Female Doctors
A little while back I explored the idea of Doctor Who if it had been an American institution instead of a British one, complete with American actors as the famous Time Lord. It was a good bit of what-if that I'm still very proud of.
Recently, I had some fans ask me to revisit the concept one more time, but switching around the gender. Could we picture The Doctor as an American woman over the last 50 years of travel in time and space? I say yes we can, because some of the choices are just perfect.
So once again into the alternative dimension machine, and let's see where the Tardis takes us.
Twenty years after she had become one of the masters of radio drama with Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitch-Hiker, Lucille Fletcher was approached by Rod Serling to have some of her works adapted for his show, The Twilight Zone. During an initial meeting, the ever-prolific but inundated Serling mentioned an idea he had of a time traveler that would careen uncontrollably through space and time saving people. The premise intrigued Fletcher, who offered to explore it in writing. Serling agreed, thinking it might make a good episode.
He was shocked and awed when Fletcher met him again in 1961 with what amounted to an entire season of serialized adventures featuring a mysterious woman from another planet. Serling had grown frustrated with CBS and the fight for Twilight Zone's survival, and convinced CBS to let him executive produce the series. CBS agreed, provided that Serling and Fletcher temper the science fiction with comedy. They wanted I Love Lucy in space. That was almost the end of the show before it began, until CBS suggested who they wanted as the star.
First Doctor: Eve Arden (1963 - 1966)
Eve Arden had won the hearts of America as a sardonic and hilarious high school teacher in Our Miss Brooks. Her wit was razor sharp, but she brought a kind of honest affection to the role that made her a very beloved figure on screen. After Our Miss Brooks she had tried darker roles like Maida Rutledge Anatomy of a Murder, and this made her the perfect fit for Doctor Who.
Arden agreed to lead the series, and worked closely with Fletcher to combine the dry humor she was known for with Fletcher's otherworldly settings. It was Arden who put the Doctor in Doctor Who. Initially, the show was called The Librarian of Eternity, with a nameless Librarian as the star. Arden pointed out that primitive Earth, the setting of the first story, would have no idea what a librarian was, and suggested the title of Doctor for its universal meaning of wisdom and help. She also thought, "Doctor Who?" would make a good running gag, which continues today.
As a woman in the '60s, CBS was careful to keep The Doctor out of much of the initial action, leaving Dennis Weaver's Ian Chesterton to play the hero more often than not. Her charm stifled any grumbling very quickly though, and Arden was soon front and center in the fray. It was her who would first humiliate the Daleks, her who would match wits against the Celestial Toymaker, and her who would fall defending the Earth from their first meeting with the Cybermen. When Lucille Fletcher left as head writer in 1966 Arden bowed out as well, unwilling to try and continue the powerful partnership the two women had created with another writer.
Second Doctor: Virginia Mayo (1966 - 1969)
It started as a sort of sexist joke in a production meeting about how often women change their clothes, but the concept of regenerating a new body when the old one was damaged was to become a core concept in the Doctor Who mythos. When Eve Arden stepped out of the Tardis for the last time, former vaudeville turned screen star Virginia Mayo sauntered in.
You could not possibly have two more different women. Arden relied on a quirky poise, while the vivacious Mayo tended to use her undeniable physical beauty combined with a slightly off-putting style of humor to manipulate her surroundings. She had a tendency to cater to ditzy dame stereotypes, but used her appearance as a somewhat helpless damsel to secretly save the day out from under threats.
She's most fondly remembered from an incredible performance in "The Silver Pyramid," where she took on Eric Kleig (Richard Attenborough) as he snidely accused her gender as incapable of logic while he sought to resurrect the Cybermen from their frozen tombs. The line, "Logic, Mr. Kleig, is just another kind of madness in the hands of a fool," is widely considered one of the best lines ever spoken on the show.
Mayo left the show after three seasons to return to B-movies and other less strenuous work.
Third Doctor: Jennifer Jones (1970 - 1974)
A new producer, Glen A. Larsons, changed up almost everything fans knew about Doctor Who. Gone was the constant traveling, and in its place Jennifer Jones' Doctor was now a scientist working exclusively for the United States military in exile on Earth. The comedic style that had always been a tremendous part of the show was left behind in order to capitalize on the drama skills of the Academy Award-winning actress.
Jones brought two things to Doctor Who it had never had. The first was her willingness to engage physically with opponents. She remains the only Doctor to ever regularly carry a gun (Albeit for only three adventures), and more than once displayed a tremendous skill with a sword. She was an action star in the way Arden and Mayo never could have been.
Her other aspect was her cynicism of the military, even outright paranoia, despite being employed by them. This was well founded, as the First Lady of the United States was an evil fellow Time Lady and hypnotist, The Madame, in disguise. The chemistry between Jones and Veronica Lake's Madame was tremendous, and was a bright spot in Lake's otherwise depressed final career. Her tragic death from hepatitis prevented her character's planned redemption in Jones' final episode. The death of her friend sparked a second suicide attempt for Jones, and she retired from acting almost completely in 1974. Flashback Doctor Who: A Look Back on Series 7
Fourth Doctor: Florence Henderson (1974 - 1981)
Mrs. Brady as The Doctor? Right up until the debut of "Robot" everyone was still thinking this had to be a joke. Nonetheless, the perfect television mom remains one of the most popular Doctors ever with fans. Producer Norm Prescott wanted very much to take the series back in a more humorous direction, or at least one that was less grim. In Florence Henderson he had the perfect person to do that.
Henderson was a positive presence, quirky, and always with a helpful smile and a hand. She would conspicuously chew gum during tense scenes, and break tension with a popped bubble before offering some to friend and foe alike. Sunshine and snarkiness were the tools of her trade.
She proved very influential to the series. She was the first Doctor to wear exclusively pants, the first to employ outlandish clothing to use as a trademark (In her case she wore several garish belts and matching multi-colored boots), and she returned to traveling all over the universe with her companions Sarah Jane Smith (Candice Bergen) and the robot dog K-9.
Thanks to a great set of stories by rising science fiction fantasy star Nancy Kress, the Fourth Doctor cemented herself as a mainstay in television, and Florence Henderson proved she was more than a mom, she was a hero.
Fifth Doctor: Lynda Carter (1981 - 1984)
Another side effect of Florence Henderson's time as The Doctor was a tendency to try and snap up actresses leaving popular television shows in order to continue the momentum. Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter certainly fit that bill.
There was initially a backlash against Carter because of her youth. The Doctor was something a hallmark for older women in Hollywood, proof that you weren't washed up at 40. In addition, the age of The Doctor compared to her companions usually kept any semblance of impropriety at bay. Just 30 years old, Carter was then the youngest woman to play the role.
Carter's time is marked by a tendency to act as a detective, which prompted critics to quip that Wonder Woman was now Lois Lane. She was quiet, thoughtful, and introspective, though possessed of a hidden bravery that rivaled any of the other Doctors. Carter was also the subject of controversy, as her rescue and sacrifice to save companion Peri Brown (Jane Lynch making her screen debut) in "Caves of Androzani" was felt to have certain romantic overtones that had never been present between The Doctor and her female companions before. Later on, the openly gay Lynch would remark that being carried in Lynda Carter's arms was the highlight of her twenties.
Sixth Doctor: Tuesday Weld (1984 - 1986)
Troubled former child star Tuesday Weld would be the next woman to portray the Time Lady, and her take on the character was more manic and chaotic than it had ever been before. Rarely had The Doctor ever been without a trademark aloofness and poise, even during the unbuttoned casualty of the Mayo years. The Sixth Doctor, though, was mad.
Weld brought a fearsome energy to the part, and began her run by almost strangling Peri in a fit of regeneration-induced madness. She was known for her almost clownish costume covered in question-marks, as well as being harsh, rude, and downright condescending. In short, she was a hard Doctor to like.
Yet, her anti-authoritarian attitude captured a teenage audience almost immediately, and ratings soared. When the Time Lords of Gallifrey called her home to stand trial for meddling in space and time, she stood defiant before them and established The Doctor as a counter-culture hero who would not bow before petty bureaucracy. The finale of season 23 remains one of the highest rated episodes in the history of the series.
Ironically, it was the same petty bureaucracy that limited her time in the role. Upper management at CBS disliked Weld's performance and notoriety in Hollywood, and they terminated her contract early once they had acquired what they considered a more appropriate Doctor.
Seventh Doctor: Sharon Gless (1986 - 1989)
After yet another cancellation of Cagney & Lacey, producer Barbara Corda was temporarily put in charge on Doctor Who. The temporary post last until the series ended in 1989, and CBS decided that the new Doctor would be Christine Cagney herself, Sharon Gless.
Gless toned the roll way down, and in doing so lost a lot of the newly picked up young fans without necessarily gaining back old ones. Her attitude towards her young companion Ace (Marcia Cross) was extremely maternal and chiding. Some fans began to refer to her as Super Nanny, and lamented a lack of action that had become the new norm with Weld.
Under Gless Doctor Who lost all of its edge as producers tried to turn back the clock to a time when female characters weren't quite so powerful. Gless and Cross were caught in the middle of the madness. They did manage to pull off some tremendous episodes in the final season, touching upon an AIDS-like virus in one outing and child abuse in another, but by then the ratings had plummeted. The show felt out of date and passé, and CBS quietly shut it down in 1989. Flashback The Case for Neil Gaiman as Showrunner of Doctor Who
Eighth Doctor: Elizabeth Brooks (1995)
In 1991 Fox purchased the rights to Doctor Who from CBS, and began seeking a way to revive the series. A television movie seemed like the best bet, but who would play The Doctor? A host of big names were thrown about, but the chosen director, Amanda Bearse, decided to contact the fans that hosted past Doctors at conventions. They suggested former Howling star Elizabeth Brooks.
Brooks had started big in the '80s with Howling, and had made a name for herself as a cult personality in addition to her tremendous talent. Plus, she was still stunning into her 40s, with a presence and a charisma that made her the perfect fit to revitalize the show. Brooks signed without ever reading the contract, and filming began for the television movie in 1993.
Her Doctor swaggered by in a ludicrous, pirate-themed costume that would have looked ridiculous on anyone else. She faced off against Geena Davis as the Madame, all the while beginning a smoldering romance with Freddy Rodriguez as her on-screen companion in an action-packed performance that wowed everyone. The show was a smash hit in 1995, and Fox actually ran it on three consecutive Friday nights to capitalize on it. A new series was commissioned immediately.
A month into filming the new Doctor Who series Brooks collapsed on set. She had hidden the brain cancer that eventually killed her for a year, but soon she would go home to die. Three episodes were completed ("Vampire Science," "Lungbarrow," and "War of the Daleks") and eventually released as a home video box set, but Brooks would pass away in 1997 at the age of 46. Rather than try to continue the series, Fox shelved any plans for the immediate future.
Ninth Doctor: Courtney Cox (2005)
Ten years after Doctor Who: The Movie, Fox decided the time was right. They managed to convince Courtney Cox, then coming off her long run on Friends to become science fiction's most famous woman. Cox did so... but there were strings attached. First was a producer credit that allowed her a great deal of influence with executive producer Marti Noxon. The second was a one-year contract.
Cox's Doctor was initially poorly received. It was never made clear during her time if she was the Eighth Doctor or the Ninth, and a vague physical resemblance to Brooks didn't help. Additionally, her leather jacket and spiky short hair struck old fans as bizarrely casual for The Doctor. The Ninth Doctor was an emotional wreck fraught with survivor's guilt and cold to those around her.
Yet, the series survived thanks to two factors. The first was that long-time Doctor Who fan Harlan Ellison turned several of his previous written works into Doctor Who stories. His re-introduction of the Daleks in "Worlds to Kill" garnered the show's first Emmy.
The second was Brittany Murphy as Rose Tyler. Her passionate focus on adventure and growing romantic love for The Doctor kept the show fast-paced, edgy and fresh, and gave young viewers a solid place to identify with. When her and Cox shared a passionate kiss at the end of the first season, it was a milestone in television that was mainstream news.
Still, Cox and Noxon butted heads and Cox opted to not return. She was replaced by...
Tenth Doctor: Tina Fey (2005 - 2010)
The two-year contract by Murphy might be the only reason that Doctor Who had a second season at all, but Tina Fey was the reason it had a third. Fey was a passionate fan of Eve Arden's original portrayal, and though she kept a modern touch in the dress she brought the show back to its roots in both comedy and style. The comedienne's wit mixed with a foxy corporate look embodied the Doctor of old, and she is regarded as one of the greatest of all the Doctors.
Unlike previous incarnations, Fey welcomed the affections of Rose Tyler, and their parting at the end of Season 2 was heartbreaking. The rest of her tenure was full of more platonic relationships, but also an awful lot of running, cracking jokes, and taking Doctor Who to heights it had never experienced before. She was also capable of a cold and intense cruelty that was unsettling from such a joyful figure.
Fey herself was an accomplished comedy writer, and used an improvisational style to keep things very organic. Her run as the Time Lady involved monsters old and new, and vast, galaxy-spanning romps that showed a modern audience all that the Doctor was capable of. There was a great deal of talk of Fey leaving the show for a behind-the-scenes role, but in the end she opted to close out her time and move on to her own projects. Still, she's scheduled to return for the show's 50th anniversary.
Eleventh Doctor: Lizzy Caplan (2010 - Present)
Lizzy Caplan had big shoes to fill as the Eleventh Doctor, and with her penchant of playing moody characters fans worried that she would be little more than a Brand X Courtney Cox. They were all very surprised to find the same quirky, otherworldly style that had made Florence Henderson such a hit.
Caplan's Doctor was something of an awkward maniac, pulling some from Weld's Sixth Doctor but more from the comedy of manners expressions used by Virginia Mayo. The result was a bizarre woman who could be easily loved but not easily trusted. Of the new Doctors she is the most alien, the most uncanny, and as such manages to beguile fans from all across the age spectrum.
Ever since she crashed her Tardis into young Rory Williams' (Kieran Culkin) garden, she has formed a formidable partnership with the now-grown and slightly neurotic nurse as well as his wife Amy (Heather Morris). Recently, she lost the pair to the Weeping Angels, and acquired a new companion in the form of Clara (Kat Dennings). She's tracked her own grave to the Fields of Trenzalore as we await the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, and more of her amazing adventures through space and time.
Lizzy Caplan has admitted the burden of being on the show is great, and her time may be nearing an end. The appearance of Susan Sarandon as a previously unknown incarnation of The Doctor in the Season 7 finale has everyone wondering what part Sarandon will have to play in the future of The Doctor.
There is also some speculation that the time may be right for a non-white Doctor. Lucy Lie has said in interviews she would love to play the part, as have Dana Davis and Rutina Wesley. Anna Friel is also a fan of the show, though the thought of an English Doctor is probably a bit of a stretch. Whoever ends up behind the controls of the Tardis, The Doctor appears to be pointed for somewhere amazing wherever she goes.