There’s absolutely no reason why a female Doctor wouldn’t work from a canonical point of view.
When Peter Capaldi’s 13th Doctor recovers Gallifrey and bags his extra regenerations, or revisits the Sisters of Karn for a sup from the magic cup, there’s no reason that Doctor Who‘s next star shouldn’t be a woman.
Ignoring the classic show and the myriad spin-offs (there’s bound to be examples in the Virgin New Adventures – anything that could possibly happen seemed to happen there), in ‘The Doctor’s Wife‘, the Eleventh Doctor refers to the Time Lord he receives his message cube from – The Corsair – as being at different times male and female. So, yes, he could regenerate into Joanna Lumley or Suranne Jones or Keeley Hawes or Sheridan Smith or anyone you like.
From a Time Lord point of view, it’s not entirely clear how important gender is or what role gender plays in society – Romana II was arguably the best female Doctor we never had, ascending to the rank of Lord President (Although we didn’t see a great many high-ranking female Time Lords in ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ – just fleeing Time Women and Children, for shame, Moffat).
It’s not even clear what role gender plays in Time Lord biology/reproduction. We know the Doctor’s had a family and has a granddaughter, but we don’t know how those roles manifest and how they came about (apart from the Looms).
Over the character’s 12(ish) depictions, he’s swung from asexual to hyper-sexual – from smooching nobody, to smooching Captain Jack, Rose Tyler and everyone in between – and back to more or less asexual. Gender seems a peripheral matter in the Doctor’s appreciation of beauty or brilliance; he’s not human, his perception is broader, and he’s endowed with a sense of context that makes our petty distinctions based on skin colour, belief system and shape of reproductive organs seem truly irrelevant.
He loves River Song. He loves Rose. He loves his TARDIS. Gender wouldn’t change that.
So I don’t think a female Doctor would change the show in any real structural way. The archetype of the Old Cranky Inventor that got Doctor Who through the Sixties isn’t a trope people need to fall back on anymore – the show manages to be infinitely complex and tricksy without young people batting an eyelid, so they’re going to get it if he’s suddenly a she.
As to whether it should happen, I’m divided.
On the one hand, Doctor Who has always been a progressive force in popular culture. Despite the overabundance of screaming young women twisting their ankles in quarries, the show always encourage tolerance, equality, peace, dialogue, proved that violence was never the answer, that compromise could always be found, and that’s there’s “nothing only about being a girl.”
Just as the post-2005 show did an incredible job of normalising the full range of human sexuality for young people, it could be argued that Doctor Who has a moral obligation to keep moving forward – using its ratings and position at the heart of the sitting room to address perceived inequalities. Why can’t the Doctor have a gay relationship as far-reaching and complex as his relationship with Rose? Why can’t we have a young Muslim companion? Why can’t he be black?
Absolutely no reason. I want to see all of those things, but the idea of a female Doctor makes me hesitate. It’s canonically appropriate and it’s morally appropriate that the Doctor regenerate into a woman, but the four-year old who first clapped eyes on Sylvester McCoy scrabbling away from a Dalek in 1989 is uncertain about the whole thing.
The Doctor occupies a rare place in popular culture as an unambiguously heroic male lead who wins with his wits and not his fists. There’s no shortage of male role models prepared to make utilitarian sacrifices for the greater good, but the Doctor is a wonderful anomaly in that he’s not conditional on masculinity or violence. He normalises – if not lionises – being an outsider, being different and seeing things from a perspective that others might not.
He triumphs through his intellect, through talking, and will do so without raising a fist in anger. It’s why he became a gay icon in an era when LGBT characters didn’t exist on screen, and it’s why he’s a geek icon now – because as much as male sci-fi fans love John Conner, James T Kirk or Han Solo, odds are they’re not as much like them as they are like this exuberant, intellectual and unapologetically silly wanderer “living his days like crazy paving.”
The Doctor is a wonderful character, there’s no good reason he can’t be she, and that a female Doctor wouldn’t be incredible. Little girls deserve icons just as much as little boys, and little girls and little boys don’t give a damn what gender their heroes are. With a female Doctor at the controls of the TARDIS, maybe our children will be better than we are feeling our way through a world still fumbling over depictions of women, issues gender parity or incidents of outright sexism. Maybe they’d just instinctively get it right. That would be perfect.
But I’m not perfect; I’m selfish. I grew up with He-Man and Thundercats, big dumb action movies with taut muscles and alpha-douche dialogue, and big dumb videogames where aliens were shot in the face and women were perved over.
And deep in my heart, I forever see the Doctor as the man I want to be.