I have had several conversations about Doctor Who over the summer. Whenever the discussion veered towards casting for the Twelfth Doctor, I voiced my dream actors (Idris Elba, Louise Brealey, Natalie Dormer, Chiwetel Ejofor), yet I couldn’t shake a strong sense of apprehension. I was hopeful for the casting of a woman and / or person of color, but I was not expectant. I’ve been disappointed one too many times during Steven Moffat’s tenure; the series and its creative leadership has lost my trust over the past two years.
So I wasn’t surprised when the following words left my mouth, while talking to friends about the Twelfth Doctor: “If Doctor Who casts another white male as the Doctor, I’m done. I will not start watching again until a woman and / or person of color is cast in that role.”
Drastic? I thought so, too, at first. It’s the kind of extreme throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater statement I dislike and avoid. After the words had been spoken, I reflected over them. And reflected over them. I stripped emotion from my words and considered their implications. And I can now say that I hold to my statement.
For anyone who knows me or my writing, it is clear that I adore Doctor Who. I fell in love with the series during my graduate studies in England and have since become a devoted fan. Even through the past two rocky years, in which many of my friends and a few TV critics / bloggers have left the series, I’ve remained loyal. (Not blindly loyal, mind. You can love something and still remain critical of it.) I have faithfully watched the series through clunky direction and lazy writing. My hope was that the regeneration of the Twelfth Doctor — in the same year as the 50th anniversary — would reflect our diverse world. That this casting would point towards the future in more than just words. That it would physically put an underrepresented face on one of the most iconic and beloved characters in television history.
That did not happen. Yesterday the BBC revealed that Peter Capaldi has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor. Steven Moffat, the BBC, and the other executive minds behind Doctor Who have placed another white man in this role. The twelfth straight casting of the same gender and the same race.
Before going any further, I want to make this clear: In no way do I mean to disrespect Capaldi. He is a tremendously talented actor with an impressive filmography. He is also older, which is a refreshing change from the boundless energy and youthful quirk of Matt Smith. Capaldi, I am sure, will make the Doctor his own, and he will do a beautiful job.
I just won’t be watching him.
Why? Because his casting reinforces a privileged, patriarchal system. While Britain is still overwhelming white (86% according to the 2011 census), the country has greatly diversified over the past several years. And yet, the show continues with its tradition of white male actors inhabiting the role of its protagonist.
Doctor Who, with its plotline of regeneration, created something truly ingenious — a method of continuing the show beyond any one actor. Regeneration scenes have shown that the Doctor never knows what he (or she) will look like; there’s no guarantee. The possibilities for the Doctor, therefore, are endless: male, female, Anglo, Japanese, black, Latino, bisexual, transgender, ancient, young. But the show still goes with the same-old standby: white, male. What does that communicate to its viewers? What does it communicate about its commitment to accurately represent — and celebrate — the incredible diversity and outstanding breadth of actors working today?
Moffat and others have clearly stated that the casting of the Twelfth Doctor would not be influenced by any external factors, e.g. nationality, skin color, gender. Time and again, we were told that the role would be filled with “a brilliant actor.” Period. In a recent interview, Smith — who will be leaving the role this Christmas — said: “I think they’ll just get the best actor for the part, man or woman. They’ll cast the best actor — the best actor who’s out there and wants to do it.”
It’s a company line — one that has been uttered over and again during this process of casting speculation. And it’s complete bullshit. Are we to believe, then, that no person of color and / or female could fulfil the role of Doctor as well as another white man? Is the “best actor” possible for the show truly the same gender and ethnicity, for twelve recastings since the show’s inception in 1963? Doctor Who is stuck in a time capsule. It can’t seem to move past its historic casting trend.
Some have told me that the whitewashed casting makes sense because Doctor Who is “a white show,” as in the majority of its viewers are white. Whether that is true or not (one would need to undergo an in-depth analysis of viewing demographics), that sentiment itself is frightening. It suggests that we only watch or want to watch characters that look like us. Sadly this sentiment is a reality in pockets throughout the world; there are many that don’t want to watch or engage with those that look different from them, belong to a different nation, or share a different cultural history.
That is a dangerous stance. Such thinking and practice divides us rather than encouraging us to seek common ground.
I write all this as a white individual. I am not — and cannot — speak for people of color. As a white person in America, I am aware that my cultural history is one of privilege. It is crucial for us all to be mindful of how our individual experiences influence our perceptions and actions. I can speak as a woman, and I am weary of the female characters in Doctor Who getting the short shrift the past two seasons — particularly this most recent seventh season — in which the new companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) functioned more as a problem to solve for the Doctor, instead of her own person with agency and motives. She was never fully fleshed out; Clara is a sketch drawing, not a full portrait. A female Doctor won’t solve all these problems (especially during the tenure of the current showrunners and writers), but it’s a healthy step in the right direction.
It may seem that a conversation connecting Doctor Who and racial and sexual prejudice is a non-sequitur, but I don’t believe it is. I think there is a direct correlation to the images we see on our screens, in the news, on our television shows — and how we perceive individuals who may look, believe or act differently than us. They are contributing factors. The images we see on our screens subtly inform how we view the world.
Let me be clear: I am not claiming that Capaldi’s casting directly contributes to xenophobia, nor am I saying that we consume media like mindless sheep with our worldviews shaped by external forces. I am saying that television has the ability to introduce diversity directly into our homes. Particularly in a show like Doctor Who, whose programming has historically and continues to be aimed at kids and families, when better is it to start introducing notions of diversity? Should the industry fail to do this, it will perpetuate its trend of under-representing and misrepresenting women and people of color.
At the end of the day, that is why I can no longer watch and support Doctor Who. It had the opportunity to place an under-represented face on an iconic character — and squandered it. The casting indicates not only a shocking lack of imagination but also points to an insidious truth about the television industry: it is — still — steeped in sexism and privilege. There are other showrunners, writers and shows that are incorporating a diversity of voices, cultures and experiences, such as Orange is the New Black and Shonda Rhimes. I choose to invest my time (and money) in those series.
I am hopeful for the day when Doctor Who finally breaks from its limited mold, and I will return to the series when it does. But for now, I am saddened—and, yes, a little angry—at its refusal to take a risk and embrace change. If the show continues in this trajectory, there may not be much of a show left to change. As with anything that stagnates, it will become tired and predicable, which is anathema to the very spirit of the Doctor. In fact, I think the Time Lord would encourage us to abandon it.