Why David Tennant's Costume Change For The Doctor Who Anniversary Special Is Causing Controversy

The Doctor Who Centenary Special "The Power of the Doctor" was an emotional time for Whovians all over the globe, as fans said farewell to Jodie Whittaker's history-making turn as the Doctor. It had been previously announced that "Sex Education" star Ncuti Gatwa had been cast as the next regeneration, so imagine the intense shock to the system felt by all when Gatwa did not regenerate on screen, but instead Tenth Doctor David Tennant appeared to take Whittaker's place. The return of David Tennant's Doctor is a fascinating decision from a storytelling perspective, but fans were dismayed when the Doctor's regeneration also included a change of wardrobe.

This might sound like an oddly specific character trait to be upset about, but the Doctor's regeneration has consistently included the transformation into the clothing of the previous Doctor since the conclusion of the 1966 serial "The Tenth Planet." The fact Tennant arrived in clothing that looked familiar to the Tenth Doctor, and not the bright wardrobe of Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor seemed to break the rules of the show's own lore. Russell T. Davies, the man who revived and served as the showrunner for "Doctor Who" between 2005 and 2010, is also returning for this second incarnation of Tennant's Doctor and gave an explanation for the clothing regeneration change in "Doctor Who Magazine" issue #584.

As it turns out, Davies' reasoning for the clothing change has little to do with the time-traveling mythos of the Doctor, and everything to do with being mindful of real-life issues regarding clothing and gender presentation.

Davies wanted to avoid mockery

In the issue of "Doctor Who Magazine," Russell T. Davies chose his words very carefully when explaining his decision not to have David Tennant regenerate into Jodie Whittaker's clothing. "I was very certain that I didn't want David to appear in Jodie's costume," Davies said. "I think the notion of men dressing in 'women's clothes,' the notion of drag, is very delicate." Davies went on to describe himself as a huge fan of drag culture, but recognizing that dabbling into that realm "has to be done with immense thought and respect."

While Jodie Whittaker's costuming isn't as "feminine" as something like a fluffy dress could have been, Davies said that he was fearful a straight man wearing her outfit would "look like mockery," mentioning that Tennant is a good half of a foot taller than Whittaker. Most importantly, though, Davies had concerns about the way the media would have written about Tennant in the new outfit, worried that presenting the image of a man in "women's clothing" could be providing ammunition to newspapers that are critical of gender nonconforming people, and lead to sarcastic or harmful comments about gender presentation.

Davies has been a vocal advocate for the transgender community for years, something that cannot be said about other, prominent British voices in entertainment. The trans-exclusionary "radical" feminist (aka TERF) groups in the United Kingdom are directly connected to the increase in anti-trans discourse, legislation, and violence across the globe, and much of the British media have been willing participants in spreading their harmful ideology. Davies knows this, and it seems that his decision to regenerate a costume with the Doctor was to prevent allowing "Doctor Who" to be weaponized by TERFs.

No good deed goes unpunished

In reading his comments in "Doctor Who Magazine," I can't help but think that Davies is holding back his true feelings so as to not upset the applecart, or more specifically, not upset BBC, who has been broadcasting the sci-fi series since the 1960s. "We could have the Doctor dressed as a knight, or dressed as God, or dressed as William Hartnell, and the only photo they'd print would be of David [Tennant] in what they considered to be women's clothes," Davies said. "Then it becomes weaponized — as a mockery of feminine traits, a mockery of drag, of that culture. So that was never going to happen." Knowing Davies' history with LGBTQIA+ advocacy, it seems obvious that his heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his comments have stirred up some justifiably frustrated responses from fans and cosplayers.

Davies' comments are doubly ironic considering the Thirteenth Doctor's costuming of colorful pants and suspenders is nothing new, and many of the male Doctors that preceded Jodie Whittaker. "I don't understand how DT wearing 13's outfit is a mockery of drag, given that it's deliberately and definitively gender-neutral," said one fan. "Anyone who watches and cares about the show understands that. I also don't understand the logic of pandering to bigots rather than catering to fans." The latter statement is completely understandable, but unless someone has been on the receiving end of targeted harassment from TERFs (which I and my trans wife unfortunately have), it's difficult to fully understand why someone may want to pursue preventative measures. When reading Davies' comments in bad faith, it can also appear that he's trying to shield David Tennant from the type of transmisogynistic abuse hurled at trans women every day. In my opinion, I think the situation is a little more complicated.

Intent vs. impact

Jodie Whittaker's costuming as the Thirteenth Doctor has always appeared gender-neutral, and shortly after the issue of "Doctor Who Magazine" hit newsstands, a video of Whittaker went viral, where she told an audience, "You're not dressing as a girl and you're not dressing as a boy, you're dressing as the Doctor." Davies' comments may have been with good intentions, but the impact was harmful to any non-cisgender women who have ever cosplayed as Thirteen or found the costuming to be affirming regardless of gender identity. 

Nothing about Whittaker's costuming resembles that of a "drag queen," which makes Davies' constant comparison all the more confusing. Well, until you remember that "Doctor Who" is broadcast on the BBC, a network that has been called out by human rights advocates as peddling harmful, transphobic rhetoric. The fact that Davies' comments never once contain the phrase "trans women" feels very intentional ... and likely legally mandated. The irony that the Master actor, Sacha Dhawan, had already worn Whittaker's costume in the same special cannot be ignored, but in my personal opinion, holds the key to the truth of the matter. I think there are three possible options:

  • The BBC told Davies he wasn't allowed to put David Tennant in Whittaker's clothing because of the possible transgender implications that would follow but didn't care if a "villain" could have a trans read because the BBC is notoriously transphobic.

  • Russell T. Davies needs a session with a sensitivity consultant on gender presentation before he talks to the press.

  • Davis is a well-intended cis man trying to do right by a marginalized community but fumbled the execution.

We'll have to wait and see if there's any in-universe explanation regarding the Doctor's clothing regeneration, but until then, the discourse surrounding "Doctor Who" rages on, with no definitive answers in sight.