Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  This week, Bennett deconstructs the cross-gender appeal of Doctor Who.
Well, the next actor to play The Doctor was anointed/appointed last week during a live BBC broadcast (see "The New Doctor Announced") and thanks to a BBC America simulcast I was able to watch it.  Veteran actor Peter Capaldi got the nod and while his work is unknown to me I'm OK with their choice of an older actor--I'm not even disappointed it won’t be a woman this time (see "Confession of a Comic Book Guy--Gender Norm Panic Meltdown").  When you're a Doctor Who fan you have to take it on faith that the producers know what they're doing.
And I am a fan; an old school Who fan, my first Doctor being the 4th, the one played by Tom Baker, the guy with the mop of curly hair and impossibly long scarf.  Even if you don't know what about Who most of you would be able to pick that one out of a police line-up.  For some reason beginning in the late 70's there was always one guy dressed up like the 4th at every comic con I went to.  In 1979 I was studying in London for a year and on my first Saturday in the UK I was pumped by the prospect of actually being able to watch a brand new episode of the show on British TV.  But it was not to be.  I was staying at a youth hostel and while it had a television room the other (predominantly British) residents wanted to watch what was up against it: Buck Rogers.
But even I, who loved it, have to admit that with its weird serialized format, cardboard sets and monsters that were sometimes literally made out of paper mache, Doctor Who was the geekiest, nerdiest subform of fandom in existence.  The image of Tom Baker's Doctor might be iconic but it's also emblematic.  In America it's still regularly used as visual shorthand for "total geek SF fan."  Even Star Trek and comic book fans could openly sneer at Doctor Who fans.  For decades in America it remained a tiny, fairly obscure cult, especially after the series was cancelled in 1989.
That all changed in 2005 when the series was revived.  This modernized version, overseen by Executive Producer Russell T. Davies, almost immediately became a global multimedia franchise.  This, I believe, was because he turned something which had always been designated supremely geeky into a show that could appeal to the widest possible audience.  And by definition "widest possible audience" would have to include women.
As I previously reported (see "Confession of a Comic Guy--The Biggest Danger In America") I've always found the fact something once presumed to be exclusively for cellar dwelling boys (I can say that; I once dwelled in a cellar) would suddenly have such a large fan base.  But of course the show has always had its share of female fans.  I place into evidence the essay collection "Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey through Every Season of Doctor Who."  Reading it definitely helped me see how the show would appeal to women.  For one thing, by the 70's (as long as they the stories were set in space and future), our heroes travelled through a gender neutral universe.
There The Doctor and his companions almost universally encountered solidly egalitarian societies where being a woman didn't automatically disqualify someone from doing something.  And because the series had its roots in the cozily asexual Boys Own Adventure school of adventure there was almost always a complete lack of sexual menace.  The 4th Doctor's companion Leela might have worn a leg-baring leather outfit seemingly designed for maximum "Dad appeal," but she was universally treated like everyone else, i.e. nobody hit on her.
Davies appealed to a female audience not by "feminizing" the show, but by focusing on the inner lives of the characters and their relationships.  Plus it didn't hurt that he gave them a point of entry into the world of Doctor Who through strong, smart, attractive female characters who invariably fell into complicated, ill-defined relationships with The Doctor.  The fact that in this iteration he was trouble, damaged and emotionally unavailable, not to mention kind of "dreamy,"* didn’t hurt either.
There are probably some of you who never "got" Doctor Who, old or new, who are wondering why I’ve told you all this.  It's because I can't help but think that if they can make Doctor Who appeal to women you might be able to do the same thing with superhero comics.  But that's a subject for next week.
* As to whether Peter Capaldi can be considered "dreamy," I've consulted my network of female Who fans and as it stands right now it's four "yes," two "no," and two "it's more complicated than that" with an unsolicited "yum."
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of