By Sara Karlovitch

I was not born a nerd. Sure, nerdism runs in my veins. My father kept every single one of his Dungeons and Dragons manuals well into adulthood and would like everyone to know that he single-handedly started the “Game of Thrones” craze, because he had read them “before they were cool” and strongly believes George R.R. Martin owes him monetary compensation for emotional distress.

No, I was made a nerd. The school year was still young and I was in third grade. My mother was away on a business trip, and it was my father’s job to watch me and my little brother all by himself. It was a school night and instead of reading me the customary story and making sure I brushed my teeth, he put on all three “The Lord of the Rings” movies and fed me ice pops all night.

I was entranced by the mythical world of Middle Earth. I desperately wanted to be like Frodo Baggins, where a wizard in gray robes would knock on my door in my boring New Jersey town and inform me that he had a magical quest for me to complete.

Watching “The Lord of the Rings” with my dad that night was like a nerd baptism. I was reborn, plucked from the depths of elementary school mediocrity and introduced to the world of dragons and elves, whose language I would spend hours trying to learn how to speak. “The Lord of the Rings” could not contain my various appetite for things traditionally mocked by mainstream society. I devoured Harry Potter and memorized the “Star Wars” movies like they were The Bible.

However, it wasn’t until eighth grade that I would be introduced to the penultimate, the obsession to end all obsessions, the crème de la crème of nerd society: “Doctor Who”.

For those who had a life in high school, “Doctor Who” is a British science fiction show about an alien time traveler, called The Doctor, who bounces around time in space in a blue police box saving the universe, usually from their sworn enemy, the Daleks. The show has been on since 1963 and is watched by millions of people every week. The show has been able to maintain its longevity due to a very clever bit of mythology thought up by the show’s creators.

See, The Doctor isn’t any normal alien. He’s a Timelord. The Timelords are a race of aliens from the planet Gallifrey and are virtually immortal. Instead of dying, Timelords simply “regenerate.” This means that, at the time of what would usually be a Timelord’s death, every cell in their body changes, creating a completely different person with new looks and a new personality. Think of it as reincarnation, except you get to keep all of your old memories. This allows actors to quit the show after a few seasons without stopping the show completely.   

So far, 14 actors have played The Doctor. 13 of them have been white men. That was until July 16, 2017, when the show announced that “Broadchurch” alum, Jodie Whittaker, would be taking over the famous part. For the first time in “Doctor Who” history, the Doctor would regenerate as a woman.

Nerd Twitter, predictably, lost its shit.

For many, it was a day of celebration, and tears of joy flowed freely. People posted adorable videos of young girls freaking out about how their childhood hero was going to be a woman. Parties were thrown, and “Doctor Who” fans of all ages felt like their prayers to the BBC gods had finally been answered. Myself included. I couldn’t stop smiling the entire day, and I spent hours on the phone talking to old friends from high school, no one really quite believing what was happening.

However, not every “Doctor Who” fan felt like Christmas had come early. Nerd Twitter quickly descended from a joyous celebration into a misogynistic hellscape. People accused the show of trying to brainwash children and how political correctness was now going to ruin space. Fanboys cried that they would never again look upon a show that burned them so cruelly. Women had already ruined “Star Wars”, how dare we ruin “Doctor Who” as well?

People were quick to roast and dismiss the small, but significant voice of dissent. However, the backlash to Jodie Whittaker’s historic appointment forced “Doctor Who” fans to talk about something that we left largely ignored since the show’s inception: that the “Doctor Who” fandom was toxic.

The term “toxic fandom” has been gaining popularity in recent years. It means that the community of fans surrounding a book, movie, TV show, etc. are unhealthy to be around psychologically, especially for women. Many of the fans, usually the white, straight, cisgender male ones, will dictate what makes someone a “true fan.” At comic cons, which should be the ultimate nerd safe space, toxic fans challenge or argue with other fans of the show that don’t fit their definition of what a “true fan” should be. The online forums are even worse, and one needs a hazmat suit to even look at them. Naturally, other white, straight, cisgender male fans escape this sort of intense scrutiny. And change, no matter how small, angers them.

Toxic fandoms could not exist without toxic masculinity. Nerd culture was male-dominated for almost as long as it has been a thing, and still is. However, cracks are starting to appear in that glass ceiling, and nerd culture is slowly becoming a girl thing.

I found “Doctor Who” when I was at the most awkward stage in my life: middle school. I was a lonely bisexual kid who was buried so deep in the closet I had basically dug myself a tunnel to China. “Doctor Who” gave me a group of friends to hang out with. Coming out as a “Whovian” was good practice for when I would come out for real four years later.

“Doctor Who” provided me with the second example of someone like me on TV. (The first was Willow Rosenberg from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.) The Doctor liked both girls and guys. They could be masculine but also feminine at the same time. The concept of gender was foreign to them. It was an extremely powerful thing for a young kid to see. The Doctor being a woman provides me with a greater connection to the show I love. I hope young kids questioning their sexuality look to The Doctor as an example of what they could grow to be. Someone comfortable in their own skin, no matter how much it changes. I want young girls, boys and everyone in between to see a strong capable woman- who also likes women- building things, being in charge and saving the day.

Toxic fandom and masculinity drove me from “Doctor Who” when I was in my senior year of high school. I watched the episodes, but it felt more like a chore than something I actually enjoyed.

But as I watched Jodie Whittaker in her first episode on Oct. 7, I couldn’t help but feel like the love for what once was my favorite show be rejuvenated. When Jodie Whittaker declared that she was indeed The Doctor, I felt tears prick into my eyes.

Jodie Whittaker’s first episode racked in well over 8 million views, making it one of the most popular episodes in “Doctor Who” history. The critical response to her performance was overwhelmingly positive. Twitter was flooded with pictures of young girls (and boys) falling in love with the new Doctor.

Whittaker’s performance marks the beginning of a new era in “Doctor Who”. It’s not just the Time of the Woman, but also the signaling that we, as a community, have to and will treat one another better.

Because The Doctor is back. And she’s not taking anyone’s shit.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy Doctor Who’s Facebook page.

Sara Karlovitch is a junior journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at skarlovi@terpmail.umd.edu.

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