Doctor Who has always been cast as a man, but the show's creator wanted the character from the long-running BBC science-fiction drama series to regenerate into a woman.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Sydney Newman – who first commissioned the show in the early sixties during his time as BBC Head of Drama – suggested in 1986 that a woman should be cast as the Doctor.
The Sunday Telegraph says that Newman, critical of the direction the show had taken, wrote to his successor, Michael Grade, calling on the corporation to "engage the concerns, fears and curiosity" of its viewers. He said, "Don't you agree that this is considerably more worthy of the BBC than Doctor Who's presently largely socially valueless, escapist schlock!"
Newman then went on to discuss his idea for the Doctor to be played by a woman instead of a man. His letter continues:
At a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman.
This requires some considerable thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy, Hollywood Wonder Women because this kind of heroine with no flaws is a bore.
Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.
The paper suggests that Joanna Lumley was considered for the lead role but, in the end, Newman's ideas were not taken up by the BBC and, in 1987, Sylvester McCoy was named as the seventh Doctor.
As well as Lumley, Frances de la Tour (Rising Damp) and Dawn French (The Vicar of Dibley) were considered for the role. Later, Dame Judi Dench – who plays M, opposite Daniel Craig's 007, in the James Bond movies – was one of the many actors considered as a possible ninth Doctor prior to Doctor Who's relaunch by Russell T Davies (Torchwood) in 2005. On that occasion, Christopher Eccleston landed the part. He has since been succeeded by, first, David Tennant (Casanova) and, then, Matt Smith (Christopher and His Kind).
As well as being a former model and James Bond girl, Joanna Lumley, now 64, has played a number of iconic TV roles: Purdey, in The New Avengers (1976–1977); Sapphire, in Sapphire and Steel (1979–1982); and Patsy, in Absolutely Fabulous (1992–1996/2001–2004). She is also the voice for AOL UK's "You've got mail" email notification.
The actor did, in fact get to play the Doctor, albeit briefly, in a two-part Doctor Who story – Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, by Steven Moffat – a charity special, which was shown as part of the1999 Comic Relief Red Nose Day.
In 2007, when Tennant announced his intention to leave the show, British female scientists entered the fray, saying that, after nearly 40 years, it was time for a woman to be handed the key to the TARDIS. The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) issued a statement saying:
There is a distinct lack of role models of female scientists in the media and recent research shows that this contributes to the under-representation of women in the field.
The UKRC believes that making a high profile sci-fi character with a following like Doctor Who female would help to raise the profile of women in science and bring the issue of the important contribution women can and should make to science in the public domain.
Despite there being female Time Lords – the alien race of which the Doctor belongs – the idea of a female Doctor has always been a contentious one with fans and programme makers alike.
The whole debate about whether or not the Doctor should always be played by a man was started in 1980, when Tom Baker left the show. During a press conference, held to announce his departure, Baker told the assembled media that he wished his successor, "Whoever he or she is", the best of luck. On this morning's Andrew Marr Show, Tennant commented that Baker has since admitted that he made the line up, just to be mischievous.