Straight off the bat, let’s say it—Peter Capaldi is going to be a stellar Doctor. The show has never cast an actor who couldn’t play the part, and it’s unlikely that it will start now. It’s time to look forward to whatever he’s going to bring to the role.
It’s also time to take a look-see at the current dialogue surrounding the casting of the part, a dialogue asking whether the Doctor could ever become someone who was not white or male. A great deal of the discourse isn’t placing blame or pointing fingers, but rather wondering about the difficulties, the timing, the reasons. Can this character change? Why should he? Why are people asking for it?
Steven Moffat had some words to mollify those who were disappointed by the casting decision, stating that a female Doctor was totally in the cards and could potentially be tackled in the future: “It’s absolutely narratively possible, and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it.” He followed it up by explaining that he didn’t feel enough people wanted a female Doctor. More specifically, he made the claim that most of the people he had spoken to who seemed against a female Doctor were women themselves.
Whether or not Steven Moffat did, in fact, ask a large sampling of female fans and creators about the Doctor’s gender is frankly irrelevant. In fact, what the fans asked for is irrelevant as well. The issue here is simple—writers write what is interesting to them. Showrunners run shows in ways that they feel best suit their strengths. Steven Moffat is not going to change the Doctor’s gender unless he finds writing the Doctor as a woman an interesting and enjoyable prospect. He clearly does not.
Which is his prerogative. If Steven Moffat doesn’t want to write a female Doctor that is precisely why he shouldn’t write her. When you don’t want to do something, you’re liable to do it badly. And the fact that he knows that is a good reason to hold off is relieving.
Still, the desire for a female Doctor is compelling to many of us, for so many reasons. For some, it’s the desire to see a woman in a role that women have always adored and often emulated. (The sheer volume of female Doctor cosplayers should be evidence enough that ladies are interesting in assuming the mantle.) For some, it’s the simple fact that there’s no reason why the Doctor shouldn’t want to—if you have the ability to regenerate into a different person every couple hundred years, why wouldn’t you spend at least one of those stretches trying out something completely new? Especially if you’re the Doctor and “new experiences” are practically your surname. For some, it’s recalling that Doctor Who has always had some unsettling British Imperialist underpinnings, and making the Doctor something other than a white man would alleviate certain uncomfortable inferences within the show regarding his savior complex.
For some, it has to do with with proving the progress we’ve made; transgender writer Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “Diversity and Doctor Who” in reaction to Capaldi’s casting, to remind everyone that the triumph of seeing yourself reflected back by a beloved character is an empowering moment, one that could inspire so many:
“As the producers think about whom they want to take on the role next [for the 13th incarnation], they should keep in mind the way people’s hopes are lifted when they see someone breaking the glass ceiling, even when it’s for something as seemingly trivial as a hero on a science-fiction program. Equal opportunity matters—in Doctor Who’s universe as well as our own.”
But what if it’s all a matter of good timing? Neil Gaiman weighed in with his thoughts recently, saying that he felt a female Doctor wouldn’t be a good fit after Matt Smith’s run:
“Some of that is stuff I’d find hard to articulate, mostly having to do with what kind of Doctor you follow Matt Smith’s Doctor with: someone harder and much older and more dangerous and yes, male feels right to me as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game […] I’d rather see a female Doctor as a reaction to whatever Peter Capaldi is, than as a reaction to Matt’s creation.”
Which begs an interesting question: if the next Doctor is going to be darker (a move I’d agree with), would making this edgier incarnation the first woman Doctor have hurt the prospects of a female version? The show already had a interesting run-in with a similar problem in the 80s; Colin Baker’s Doctor was originally intended to be a much more shadowy customer, which was one of the reasons why his first action in that body was to strangle poor Peri. Baker claimed that he had wanted his uniform to be all black before producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner turned around and handed him the Coat of Rainbow Nightmares. While many problems in the production led to Baker’s eventual dismissal from the part, for many years he was blamed for his portrayal, given a hard time for being “unlikable.”
Christopher Eccleston’s ninth incarnation received no such criticism for playing the Doctor with an edge, though that might have been due to Nine’s struggle with post-traumatic stress. If the first female Doctor was one of those darker incarnations, would she receive the ire Colin Baker did, or the applause garnered by Eccleston? Generally entertainment (and society for that matter) does not look well on women who have ego, who are openly angry; maybe Gaiman’s instincts are on point in regard to a female Doctor’s ability to survive on the show.
And what about casting a person of color in the role? Gaiman said that a black actor had been offered the part and turned it down (though he wouldn’t say who, and did not make it clear if they had been offered the role of Eleven or Twelve). Why did this actor turn down the role? And could it have anything to do with worry over fan reaction?
One can only imagine the backlash that will occur if (hopefully when) the Doctor regenerates into someone not white. A contingent of Whovians have always shouted loudly at what they perceive to be “stunt casting” on the show—producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner of the classic series was taken to task for characters like Tegan Jovanka and Peri Brown, berated for trying to attract Australian and American audiences with them… and Tegan and Peri were still two white women.
Beyond that, some fans are concerned over how the Doctor’s race might limit historical serials. Though Ten simply told Martha to “walk around like she owned the place” in “The Shakespeare Code,” Martha did have to deal with prejudice directly in the “Human Nature”/“Family of Blood” two-parter, so the show is not beyond addressing the problems faced by people of color. With that in mind, it looks as though a portion of viewers fear the show constantly having to call attention to racism in any episode where the Doctor finds himself in Earth’s past.
An insightful piece by livejournal user viomisehunt, “Thoughts on the Dilemma of a Black Doctor,” provides another perspective: that just because slavery and discrimination existed in the past does not mean that, by default, everyone in the past was racist and would automatically take issue with a non-white Doctor. Additionally, there were free people of color in historical times gone by, in European countries and obviously elsewhere in the world. There were many people who fought against prejudice and racial brutality as well:
“Elizabeth the First, after hearing of Hawkins and Drake’s savage raids on African villages, predicted the Heavens would retaliate. Over half of the Abolitionist Groups in the USA were white Americans, and nearly all of the members of UK’s Anti-Slave Trade Groups, Abolitionist groups, Anti-Caste Society, and Anti-Lynching group in the UK were white. Although a scary large number of persons possibly rose as one with Enoch’s River of Blood speech in 1968, according to reports an equally large number of persons were appalled and stood against it.”
So the point is twofold—Doctor Who will always have the ability to shrug it off in lighter tales, making race a non-issue the way Martha did when she met Shakespeare. That’s a workable solution for some occasions because the Doctor always knows how to make himself the most important person in the room, and the color of his skin should not negate that particular superpower of his. But they also have the ability to show history as it truly was when the story calls for it, to make it clear how these historical institutions affected all people. They also have a chance to give the Doctor a very unique period of growth navigating that. It’s the sort of challenge you know he would welcome.
In answer to whether or not the Doctor should be a woman, should be a person of color, the answer was always yes. It’s just a matter of when, of how, (and of course) of who. The reactions to the Twelfth Doctor’s casting decision raise all the right questions about how it must be managed and why so many people have come down in favor of it. Now it’s just a question of where we go from here and how soon we can look forward to it.
Emmet Asher-Perrin just wants to know what the Twelfth Doctor’s uniform is already. She has written essays for the newly released Doctor Who and Race and Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.