Some Observations on Doctor Who from a New Fan

Grace Lapointe
7 min readJan 25, 2023

Content note: ableism, sexism, racism, abuse, and antisemitism discussed here and in the links; spoilers for the Doctor Who episodes mentioned

My college friends showed me a couple of episodes of Doctor Who back when David Tennant was still the Tenth Doctor. However, I started watching the show a lot only last year. I watched all the 2000s Doctor Who episodes on HBO Max in 2022 and 2023. I haven’t watched all of Classic or New Who by a long shot.

In 2022, I posted “The Veil Between the Worlds,” my Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler Doctor Who fanfic at AO3 or at Wattpad. Clearly, I love the show and writing about it!

The first Doctor Who writers invented regeneration to acknowledge William Hartnell’s illness, in agreement with Hartnell and the show’s producers. This seems more creative and respectful than ending the show or casually replacing him as the First Doctor.

I agree with most of these examples of plot elements from Doctor Who, a show started 60 years ago, “that would never fly today,” as both articles say. Some are sexist and racist. Others are just cliché or very low-budget. It’s amazing how much mainstream pop culture and attitudes changed from the 1960s to the 2000s and even between 2005 and now. Many people in the 2000s incorrectly assumed racism, sexism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQIA prejudice were over, no longer problems. Many also didn’t know about ableism or fatmisia.

From what I’ve watched of all the New Who Doctors, they’re feminist, non-violent, and oppose racism and war. They sometimes must fight in wars, though. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Time War devastates the War Doctor so much that he renounces the title of the Doctor. The show itself, through characterization and story-lines, also tries to oppose bigotry and injustice of all kinds.

By the time New Who started in 2005, the Doctor was aware of their power imbalance over their companions and respected companions’ autonomy and consent. I understand if you find the huge age gap between the alien Doctor and human Rose Tyler a deal-breaker or creepy. It’s one of the few examples of an immortal in love with a mortal that I love, as weird as it is. It’s partly because of the fascinating story, plus Billie Piper’s chemistry and acting with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. The Doctor and Rose treat each other respectfully, and there’s no abuse or grooming in their relationship.

So, in the spirit of those articles I linked earlier, here are some subtler details, which I also think would never be on the show today. They’re just some observations of what I thought was poorly executed, misguided, or aged badly. I’m glad I watched it and will keep watching it.

In Scotland in “Tooth and Claw,” the Doctor jokes regarding Rose, “I bought her. . . It was either her or the Elephant Man.”

I’m disabled and remember a lot of people didn’t know about ableism in 2006. So, I think the title of the 2006 episode “The Idiot’s Lantern” also wouldn’t fly if it were made today. Despite the ableist word “idiot,” the title phrase is just slang for TV as a distraction. The episode itself is great, when the Tenth Doctor’s righteous, feminist anger at an abusive, misogynist character has surprising consequences. The Doctor often calls Rose’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Mickey an “idiot,” which is mean and petty. Donna mocks other characters’ disabilities a lot.

The villains Davros and John Lumic are wheelchair users, and their disabilities and fear of death directly motivate them to create evil, armored Daleks and Cybermen, respectively. These ableist villain arcs and motives were typical of fiction in general in 2006 and even 2016. The show has gotten so much better lately regarding disability.

Women often slap and sexually harass male versions of the Doctor. Their abuse of him is usually downplayed or played for laughs. I hated this and the witches’ character design so much that my fanfic is partly a response to them. Rose is a rare companion who never slaps the Doctor. But after her mother slaps him, she says mockingly to him, “You’re gay!” in a 2005 episode. Rose is meant to be very flawed and typical for her age and era. I like her but understand if you don’t.

In the 2007 episode “The Shakespeare Code,” the Carrionite witch Lilith’s sexually predatory actions towards the Doctor are taken seriously as physical and sexual threats, unlike other assaults on the Doctor. She’s treated as his enemy, as she should be. She also harms him remotely with magic, steals a lock of his hair, and stops one of his two hearts. His companion Martha Jones, a medical resident, re-starts his heart.

The young-looking, beautiful, devious, and sexually predatory witch is named Lilith. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, but she eventually became a demonic figure. She’s sometimes reclaimed as a feminist figure. The inclusion of Lilith or her name in recent fantasy is often controversial, especially when combined with other stereotypes of witches or vampires. It’s also so cliché, like all stereotypes.

The Carrionite alien “witches” in “The Shakespeare Code” have big noses, gray-greenish skin, and overall look and act like stereotypical, evil, fairy-tale witches. Lilith can transform into this older-looking form as well. I wonder why two of the witches always look old, as opposed to the traditional maiden, mother, and crone often in productions of Macbeth. The original concept art looks more like a bird or plague doctor mask and less like a typical fairy-tale witch. They may have worked better as CGI or puppets than as actors.

The writers at Jewish, feminist publication Hey Alma! explain how many stereotypical traits of European witches are inherently antisemitic, even when they don’t resemble real people. Yes, the last link analyzes the work of an avowed antisemite, Roald Dahl.

In contrast, on Doctor Who, usually a diverse and progressive show, this is most likely unintentional. However, the combination of the name Lilith with the stereotypical witches below unfortunately fits old, sexist, antisemitic caricatures still prevalent in SFF. Like with Mother Gothel from Disney’s Tangled (2010), no antisemitism or sexism was intended, but the character design itself is problematic.

Doomfinger, Lilith, and Bloodtide, the three witches from “The Shakespeare Code,” standing around a cauldron. The older-looking, greenish-skinned witches surround Lilith, a young-looking witch in the center.
Doomfinger (?), Lilith, and Bloodtide, the three witches from “The Shakespeare Code,” standing around a cauldron. The older-looking, greenish-skinned witches surround Lilith, a young-looking witch in the center. (BBC, Doctor Who)
Lilith looks like her fellow witches in her true form (grayish skin, big facial features, and sharp teeth).
Lilith looks like her fellow witches in her true form (grayish skin, big facial features, and sharp teeth). (BBC)

Many stereotypes and myths are cultural, not individual in origin, and centuries old. This means that if writers use them without being aware of their origins, they may unintentionally perpetuate biases in which they may not believe. I say this all the time. Many SFF writers don’t realize myths of witches are rooted in misogyny, ageism, and antisemitism. If we consciously learn how these stereotypes work (because they are often unconscious), then we can avoid imitating them.

The same episode has several glowing references to Harry Potter and JKR, and has Shakespeare flirt with Martha in a creepy, racist, fetishizing way. This dates it, since it first aired in 2007 (the year the final HP book was published).

This episode also uses a personal pet peeve of mine, which I call the apotheosis of genius: elevating a person considered unusually intelligent to a god-like status. I’m referring to humans and exempting the Doctor, who is an immortal alien. The episode almost deifies Shakespeare. Like many pop culture depictions of William Shakespeare, it’s very silly, assuming he was the most brilliant person ever. When Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, dies, what’s called “the grief of a genius!” creates a rift in the universe, which the Carrionites then enter.

So, Shakespeare had deeper emotions than everyone else — oh, sure! That was sarcastic, but the nonsensical implication here is that Shakespeare’s loss and emotions were uniquely powerful, not merely that he expressed widespread human emotions and experiences unusually well. Western art almost worships the vague, fraught concept of intelligence. That’s what I call the apotheosis of genius. When exceptionalism is applied only to white men like Shakespeare, it also contributes to a myth of white cultural supremacy, contrary to the show’s messages.

In the controversial 2011 episode “Let’s Kill Hitler,” River Song taunts the Nazis by expressing solidarity with some of their victims: Jewish people, Romani people, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people. I understand her intent to oppose antisemitism, anti-Romani and anti-queer prejudices, and ableism, but she uses the g-word for Romani people. This word was common in shows and movies from the 1990s through the 2010s but often criticized. Many reviewers found this episode — including the provocative title — flippant towards such serious, relatively recent history.

I love the recent disabled characters on Doctor Who. Ryan has dyspraxia and travels with the Thirteenth Doctor. I’m also excited for Shirley, an upcoming companion of the Fourteenth Doctor. Both the character and the actor, Ruth Madeley, are wheelchair users. Overall, I think the diversity on New Who, with many characters of color, LGBTQIA characters, characters from diverse religious backgrounds, and disabled characters, has been great. Characters are usually well-developed, not tokenized, and have a variety of professions and interests.

In a previous blog post, I accidentally misspelled Jodie Whittaker’s last name and said Ncuti Gatwa is the first Black Doctor. He’ll be the first Black Doctor for a whole season, but I hadn’t seen Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor yet. She’s the first Black version of the Doctor.

I think the writers and show-runners have learned from previous decades and critiques and try to avoid even coincidental stereotypes. I can’t wait to watch David Tennant, Catherine Tate, and Russell T. Davies return to the show in November and Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson, and Yasmin Finney’s roles. For a show that’s been on for almost 60 years, Doctor Who tries to learn from its mistakes and tell fun, diverse stories.

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