You know what that means. The internet has spent its five minutes mourning the loss of the current Doctor, and is now ready for endless speculation and debate about who the next Doctor could/should be. And there's one major argument that gets hashed out to raise tension and vitriol levels every time: could the next Doctor be played by a woman?
My answer? Absolutely. But not as long as Steven Moffat remains at the helm.
A lot of people have argued that the Doctor has always been played by male actors, that he's a male character, and so he should continue to be so. There are female Time Lords (Time Ladies?) like Romana, who always regenerate into women, so why shouldn't the Doctor be a male Time Lord, who always regenerates into a man?
And I think there's a fair bit of canon legitimacy to this argument. We've had Time Lords and Time Ladies, that's how things are, end of story. But I think it's disappointing if that's the line the show continues to take, and I think that in doing so, Doctor Who would miss a chance to exploit sci-fi's potential to break out of society's current biases and limitations, not to mention failing to take advantage of the unique opportunity created by the Doctor's regenerations. The Doctor can potentially become anyone. He has a consistent history and some consistent personality traits, but he can be old or young, zany or sinister, tortured or light-hearted, brutal or forgiving. By having the Doctor regenerate into someone of a different gender or race (or both!), the show can reinforce the idea that these are just concepts, that it's what's on the inside that counts, and that gender, like appearances, does not dictate that.
Unfortunately, this is all theoretical. The show could choose to have a female regeneration and treat it in this manner. It could have other people be surprised that the Doctor apparently became a woman and have the Doctor shrug it off, or even be confused, because it's no big deal at all. It could treat it in the most casual manner possible, giving young girls a zany sci-fi hero to emulate, making a "it's no big deal" statement about gender, even potentially opening dialogue about transgender issues and what being "male" or "female" really means. But right now, I don't think it would. The show could just as easily make it into a big deal, or worse, a big joke. And although I hate to be skeptical, that's the path that I think it would take under Moffat's control.
Obviously, a female Doctor couldn't take the form of Moffat's usual female characters -- the sassy, "independent" girl whose life is built around the Doctor, who's tied to the Doctor in mysterious ways, who the Doctor met as a child and who fell for me as a young adult, and who will ultimately die for him as well. It's difficult to build a female character's life around the Doctor in a negative way, when in fact she is the Doctor. But I still think that a female Doctor would be treated in a very different way by the show. We would get the lingering shots of long legs and cleavage. And we'd get the jokes. The show has made so many casual, sexist one-liners over the past year that I can't imagine it would stop, simply because the protagonist was now a woman. I can imagine a new joke coming up every week, about how things are different now because the Doctor's female, how she can or can't do this thing, why her changed interactions are now hilarious, and on and on and on. Subtle, but insidious, and never ending.
And I also worry that it would be a one-off. In the history of the show, it would become "that time the Doctor was a woman." The Smurfette Principle, the Token Girl within the Doctor's history, with everything about the Twelfth Doctor focussed on this one trait as a result. We don't need to have every Doctor from here on out be a woman (at least for the next 11 incarnations), but if people ended up saying, "Well, we did a female Doctor, so now we're back to normal," it would almost be a step back for the character. A novelty incarnation. It would take finesse to make sure that this didn't happen, and I don't believe that Moffat has that skill. In fact, I think that he would purposefully do the exact opposite, while claiming that he was creating a true feminist figure for the ages.
If the next Doctor is female, it needs to be a casual change. No big deal. Just another incarnation of this fantastic, insane alien. But the show has no female writers, and a terrible track record of dealing with female characters over the past couple of years. So yes please to a female Doctor. But not for number 12. Let's wait until the crew has changed, and it has a chance of succeeding.