Where are the female leads in UK geek TV?

Andrew asks why UK genre TV is lagging behind the times in terms of putting female characters centre stage...

When it was announced that Matt Smith was leaving Doctor Who, the issue of the Doctor’s gender and, to a lesser extent, skin colour were debated. We now have Peter Capaldi to look forward to in the role, and although the presence of another white male has caused some annoyance, the sheer brilliance of Capaldi’s casting has been a cause for excitement.

So, the Doctor won’t be female for now, but what of other shows? There aren’t, and arguably never have been, any comparable lead roles for women on British genre shows, and it’s not really been tried.

Yes, there’s a companion in Doctor Who and they’re great parts, but if you look at attempts to replicate Who‘s success in a family viewing slot, not one of these shows has had a female lead. Robin Hood, Merlin, Primeval (which decreased the number of female characters as time went on), Demons… they all followed suit with Doctor Who. Instead, Strong Female Characters fulfilled once-progressive roles of being spunky and free-spirited (but still essentially love interests). Howard Overman’s Atlantis has some great actresses in its ensemble cast, but leads with three men.


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Is it simply because programme-makers don’t think a female lead will work? Or is it because historically men have usually been in lead roles, so when it comes to making fiction they are uppermost in the writer’s mind? Especially when these tales are based on stories from a time when the Patriarchy were more ensconced.

The tradition in fiction is certainly in favour of white male leads. Even now, good female and non-white characters generally come second-on-the-bill, or as part of an ensemble. American genre television fares better in terms of ensemble casts and titular heroines. Compare Robin Hood and Merlin to Once Upon a Time – the latter doesn’t put a male lead front and centre of its ensemble; then you have Buffy, Dark Angel and Alias. While it’s hardly a huge number, it’s not as if there aren’t good examples out there, yet it’s barely even been tried in the UK.

Tradition has a lot to answer for. Back on the subject of Doctor Who, one of the common arguments in favour of the character remaining male is because he has always been male. Anyone explaining the Doctor’s character is unlikely to define him by his genitals (‘Never cowardly or cruel, always, always has a penis.’), his supposed masculinity is obviously defined by something else. This adds levels of vagueness to the statement: ‘The Doctor has always been male’ (I’ve gone into more detail on this here). James Bond – that other great British icon – has always been male.

Putting the appeal to patriotism aside (Bond’s quintessentially British sociopathy enables him to kill strangers for money, notionally for an unexplored concept called The Greater Good. Brill. Now let’s all sing Jerusalem), this statement isn’t entirely accurate anyway. Thomas the Tank Engine and Roy of the Rovers are both male and British but let’s not get into how the hell gender works with trains. The other distinguishing feature these characters share is that they have always been fictional men. As readers and viewers, we have no control over their destiny. Besides, in the medium of film Bond has been played by numerous different actors without explanation. Therefore it would actually be equally possible for an actress to assume the role as it would in Doctor Who. It’s not as if women can’t be charismatic dickheads too.

Tradition is why these things are. Bond couldn’t possibly be a woman, because he hasn’t been so far. But “so far” is a contextual thing. It’s what science is based on – the consensus based on the evidence so far – but as any scientist will tell you we can and will be wrong again (eg. Initial reactions to the casting of Billie Piper, Catherine Tate, Matt Smith…). Television shows have had their own phlogiston theories, but time has passed and now it appears as just the one mass of history, rather than a series of twists and turns often made on an ad hoc basis.

Doctor Who‘s traditions are comprised of a lot of contradictory concepts anyway, so it’s intuitive to rationalise that another one won’t hurt if there’s a good story in it. There’s a lot of wriggle room for fictions that find themselves caught in tradition’s grasp. We not only have scope for the female equivalent of the Doctor or James Bond, but it’d just be something different for a change. There’s only so many young white men struggling to come to terms with stuff you can watch.

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What actually has more impact over the Doctor being a man is not what he’s been so far, but what lead characters have been so far in the history of fiction, which has a much greater momentum behind it. Narrative tradition generally casts the man as the hero. There’s also quite a lot of influence from centuries of comic tradition that comes to bear on any drama involving relationships, so that it’s hard to resist the temptation to pair off the male and female leads. That’s what comedies have been for a very long time.

As society changes, accurate representations are only changing with a gargantuan lag time. The reason there seem to be more voices adding to the Female Doctor argument is because more people have a platform (eg. Hello!), and because the dearth of female leads any opportunity for one is going to be lobbied for.

Let’s look at that perspective for a second. You know how the Doctor has been a beacon for the idiosyncratic? A benevolent, totemic cross between Santa and Jesus-during-that-bit-where-he-totally-trashed-the-Temple-and-was-badass? He’s comforting, reassuring. He’s a great, non-violent (well…) role model. Well, wouldn’t it be nice if a female character – or someone of colour, or someone, anyone from an unrepresented background – came to embody similarly lofty ideals?

I don’t agree that the Doctor needs to be a woman, but I also don’t think you can say that there don’t need to be more distinct female leads in genre fiction shows. The list is short, and doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

So, I ask again, if you aren’t going to have a woman playing the lead in Doctor Who, then what about a new show? There’s no female equivalent to the Doctor with their own series in any adult viewing slot, despite the series itself furnishing us with many possible candidates. This poses the question: why hasn’t this happened? It’s not as if The Sarah Jane Adventures isn’t leaping up and down and shouting ‘HELLO? Sixty plus female lead? Popular with children and adults alike? Hello?’

There’s also 1989’s Maid Marian and her Merry Men. Children’s TV came up with a way to subvert the traditional story seventeen years before the Robin Hood TV series (and twenty-one years before a film screwed the idea up). Despite this, a family or adult-orientated series of that kind has barely  been tried. If this debate about a female Doctor has raised the issue, you’d expect a response from programme-makers. It’s only been, what, thirty-four years since the Female Doctor idea arose in the press?

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Ultimately, there are popular female-led shows in other genres (Call the Midwife, Scott and Bailey) and groundwork has also been laid in children’s television, but the change is incremental. It’s not entirely helpful to say that positive results are on the way when it’s happening at this speed. The nearest we’ve had on British telly is 2009’s Paradox (which no-one remembers, including people who worked on it), Paul Cornell’s one-off pilot Pulse (abandoned in favour of The Fades), and Switch on ITV 2 (“Louisa Mellor of Den of Geek gave it a mixed review” – Wikipedia). Digital Channels provide an occasional experimental playground for such shows (and are probably the most likely bet for a female-led genre show), but the family viewing slot that Doctor Who resides in seems to be unwilling to break free from a template.

Speaking of templates, I’m relieved that the BBC are even trying to replace Merlin, but it’s intriguing that Atlantis is a similar series set in another legendary past. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if television is afraid of the future in more ways than one.

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