Peter Capaldi is leaving Doctor Who. The charmingly disreputable aging punk incarnation of the Doctor he has played to perfection will, odds are, take his final bow in the 2017 Christmas special.
I’m sad to see him go. Capaldi’s intense, supremely laconic, and savagely kind Doctor has been epochal in a way few incarnations manage. He’s been genuinely alien, genuinely odd, and sinister at times in a way that the show has had great fun with. That early scene with Clara—the “…am I a good man?” scene—is still one of the all-time modern classic moments, as is the stacked revelations and monologue at the end of the recent Zygon two-parter. He is, categorically, a good man—but one whose self-knowledge, and whose own instincts, have gotten in his way as much as helped him. This Doctor is an elder statesman of a Time Lord, sure, but one with shades, a guitar, and a burning need to analyse problems to death.
I’m also sad to see him go because the show is currently at what might be the most important junction of its existence: the biggest choice in Doctor Who‘s history is coming down the line, and it would be so very simple for the show to make, if not the wrong choice, then certainly the easy one.
It’s past time for the Doctor to not be white, not be male, or perhaps not be either.
The obvious argument here is that the best person for the role deserves it. That’s true. The obvious counter to that argument is that when you only look in one section of your available talent pool, the chances of that person being there are, oh, no more than 49%.
To be clear, I am categorically not saying that the show has made wrong choices in the past: McCoy, Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and both Bakers have turned in phenomenal work in the role of the Doctor. Even its weaker points, like Colin Baker’s heavily-criticised run, tend to improve in retrospect. And believe me, I know. I actually did write a book about that.
Rather, I’m saying that it’s past time the show expanded that talent pool for reasons which have a positive impact not just on the show as it currently stands, but in terms of what Doctor Who and other shows could be in the future.
Every time a discussion takes place about casting a character that has previously been portrayed as a white male as a woman or a POC of either gender, two different responses tend to crop up. The first is the “get the best person for the role” one that we’ve discussed above. The second is that it’s far more effective to create new POC/female heroes and heroines rather than it is to recast existing characters.
That is absolutely correct—as is the equally viable point that having a non-white, non-male Doctor helming a show primarily created and produced by a very white, very male showrunner, writers’ room, and production crew is hammering a round peg into a square hole. It’s a difficult situation, one where there’s no immediate answer and as a result, all too commonly, no progress.
Doctor Who, now more than ever, is uniquely positioned to begin changing that.
First, it’s now on-screen canon that Time Lords are fluid in both gender and ethnicity. Passing references have been made in the past but we’ve now had confirmation of this facet of the show’s universe on screen multiple times. Identity, for Gallifeyans, is something integral and categorically not dependent on race or gender.
Secondly, the Doctor is now officially through the looking glass. He’s on a second set of lives, the literal embodiment of the old rules no longer applying. That reality powered much of Twelve’s early run and the complex elder statesman/young rebel energy that Capaldi brought and continues to bring so brilliantly to the role.
So, from a canonical point of view, preparations for change have very definitely been made. They’re long overdue but they’re a start and, as we’ll see, that’s the point here.
Doctor Who is the longest running genre TV program in the West. Even excluding the legion of excellent audio plays, comics, tie-in novels, and RPGs, the show’s vast body of work has grown with, been defined by, and has itself helped to define the way that popular science fiction is approached and considered (in the U.K., in particular). Too often that’s led to cheap shots and parody, like the episode of Extras the show featured in, but Doctor Who has outlasted the jokes and, especially under the stewardship of Russell T. Davies, often been a vehicle for subversion of perceived norms in the very best way. Davies’ run explored non-heterosexuality with remarkable compassion and humour and set a tone the show has followed even through the current year. In doing so, it’s also ensured that Doctor Who is no longer an isolated pop cultural archipelago but a closely connected part of a much larger world. It’s consistently been one of the BBC’s most profitable shows; given how wonderfully eccentric it remains, that success and resultant stability is a huge relief.
It’s also a huge responsibility and one the show has, if not completely ducked, then certainly not fully engaged with. Because like all fiction, Doctor Who is fundamentally escapist. And, like all fiction, Doctor Who is defined by the very times that we ultimately seek to escape from.
We live in dark times. Right now, the Doctor is more necessary than ever—and more than ever, the times require a Doctor who isn’t a white man. The message the show would send by casting a person of colour, or a woman, would be incredible: a statement that would echo up and down modern popular culture, not just because of the break with tradition but because of the doors it would open. A Doctor played by Rahul Kohli, or Riz Ahmed, or Lenny Henry, or Gillian Anderson, or Michaela Coel, or Meera Syal would still be the same character played by Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, William Hartnell and the rest. But because of the unique way the show is structured that same character would be filtered through a completely different, completely unique lens—one that speaks not just to the audience the show has always had, but the potential audience that has existed but has never seen themselves in it.
A Doctor who isn’t a white man is not a destination, it’s the start of a conversation. If the character worked—and it would—that would be an unmistakable turning point in how POC and female characters are portrayed on screen. It would also empower a generation of writers and actors, crew and producers to make their own work, with their own voices—work that, in the wake of a successful Doctor Who run with a woman or a POC in the lead role, would almost certainly find itself in a far more open and welcoming production environment.
That conversation is long and complicated and years overdue. It’s one that has to include bringing more and more women and POC into the fold as scriptwriters and showrunners and directors. It’s also one that needs to be years long in order for the changes it would catalyse to take effect. Most of all, it’s simply one that needs to happen, and there is no better time than now, and no better place to start than with Doctor Who.
Casting a non-white, non-male Doctor is simply what needs to happen next. Because once that happens, then that Doctor becomes the centre of a very different kind of oncoming storm: one of positivity and change, one of growth and difference. All of it under the unmistakable umbrella concept of a police box where one shouldn’t be and a clever, kind, odd stranger who is very definitely here to help.
The other option is easy. Throw a rock and you’ll hit three white actors who’d be great in the role and narrowly miss five who’d be at least good. That option is easy. This option is better, more complicated, more difficult, and ultimately helps save the day for an entire generation or more. We all know which one the Doctor would go for. Here’s hoping the producers do, too.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.