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.