Working in a male-dominated field of science, I have grown slightly weary of “wise old man” characters. Every great story has one, a Dumbledore, a Gandalf, a Master Hora - and don’t get me wrong, I love those characters! And I even take comfort in the thought of having that one grandfather-like figure who has all the answers. But as a woman, it does form a problem to me that intelligence is still expected to appear in the form of a white-haired old guy.
Doctor Who used to cater to an über-version of this stereotype. The grandfather, the doctor, the lord of time - how much more of an authority figure can one be? Mind you, when the show first aired, this was a good thing. Less than twenty years after the war, people yearned for characters that would reign the world with wisdom, rather than tanks. And what is more: considering where the show started, it has adapted amazingly well to the changing notion of female characters throughout the decades.
And yet, even in RTD’s era, forty years later, we still have that wise old man who has the answer to everything. Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble - they all are important, they all are intelligent and, yes, they all save the day at some point. But they all need the Doctor to show them that they are special. They need the wise old man to single them out and make them realise what they are capable of. (I know that this is a very harsh summary of what are actually brilliant characters.)
But compare this to Moffat’s writing: Remember Sally Sparrow, who figures out absolutely everything on her own, including how to make the Doctor figure out everything. Or Madame De Pompadour who remains in charge of Versailles even when under threat of being beheaded, and who finds a way for the Doctor to return when he has already given up. Also note that, while the Doctor and Rose are taken aback by her wit, she never is. Her intelligence is the most natural thing in the world.
No wonder the aliens want her brain! Did you notice the choice Moffat made there? She is a courtesan and it would have been an easy joke to use any part of her body. Her heart would even have been a somewhat okay and probably more poetic option. But it is her brain that the aliens want. And only her brain will do, forget the Timelord.
Whether it is Amy, who knows the Doctor better than he does himself, or Clara who outwits the Doctor in so many ways - the list goes on and on. Culminating, of course, in a wonderful Professor Song, who challenges the Doctor on a whole new level: Not only is she the Doctor’s equal, she is actually frustrated with him being “not done yet”.
Flying the TARDIS, speaking Gallifreyan, being a doctor - all that which used to distinguish the Doctor from his companions, that entitled him to have the final word - none of it can impress River Song. She does all of these things and she does it better than him. And she shows him how much he still has to learn. Who cares about a degree in cheesemaking, when you have no idea how to be in a marriage.
But does this take away from the Doctor? No. Again, Moffat is very smart about this. The Doctor is still a wise man. He still knows what really matters, still makes us see life with different eyes. But it is no longer because he is a man, or because he is a thousand years old, or because he has a degree in everything - it is because he is a person who has lived their life with open eyes and an open heart. A person who never ceases to learn new things.
Moffat stripped away everything that would give the Doctor intellectual authority by default. He ditched absolutely anything that might relate wisdom to gender. He added new dimensions to the notion of intelligence, some of which create a struggle for the Doctor. He gave him new things to learn and people to learn it from. And all it did was to make his wisdom more genuine. All it did was to make the Doctor better.
(image sources: x, x, x )