The world tuned in with bated breath this Sunday to find out who would be the next Doctor, after weeks of speculation and the bandying of names from Helen Mirren to Chiwetel Ejiofor. With Steven Moffat at the helm, many Whovians were nervous—the decision to cast a new Doctor is a serious responsibility, and given Moffat’s track record, one he might not necessarily be trusted to handle. Moffat’s world is one in which women are objects, people of colour don’t seem to exist, and anything can be resolved with enough manpain.
When the news arrived that fans would be saying goodbye to Eleven, it represented a tremendous opportunity for both Moffat and the Who tradition at large, for there’s something critically important and transcendent about the Doctor. As a character, the Doctor can potentially be anyone and inhabit any regeneration. That the show hasn’t historically taken advantage of this tremendous capacity for flexibility and social commentary is one of the most disappointing things about it; the Doctor could be a woman, a person of colour, a disabled person.
There’s nothing to say that the Doctor has to be a white man; the Doctor is, after all, an alien.
Thus, many fans were eager to see the producers of the show take the Doctor in a new direction. A woman in the role could have been striking and startling, a defiance of the traditional depiction of the Doctor, and she could have inhabited an entirely new incarnation and pushed viewers in some fascinating directions. Women can be aliens and space travelers and heroes too, after all, and there’s no reason to keep them trapped at the side of a white man running the show, never able to articulate themselves or be their own people, never independent of the men around them. Always secretly in love with the Doctor.
Helen Mirren was mentioned on a number of occasions; Judi Dench would have made an outstanding Doctor as well, and Tilda Swinton would have been stunning. The producers could have drawn upon the talents of Antonia Thomas, Zuleikha Robinson, or another stellar British actress of colour. The options for a female Doctor were abundant, and quite diverse, thanks to the fact that Britain seems to be almost a farm of incredibly talented women of stage and screen.
Unfortunately, 15 minutes into the programme, it became apparent that the next Doctor would be a man—not a surprise, but still a disappointment. Rumours had been strongly leaning that way, and while fans nursed hope that the producers might defy the conventional and think outside the box a bit, they knew it was unlikely. Moffat underscored his disdain for the idea of a female Doctor with the comment that: “I’d like it if the queen was played by a man.”
Perhaps we were better off not having a female Doctor in Moffat’s hands, as the thought of what he might have done to the character as a woman is rather appalling, given the level of misogyny he feels quite comfortable exhibiting on live television.
With the announcement of Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor, Moffat and the team assured viewers that nothing about the franchise would be changing; a white man would be at the helm of the TARDIS. Capaldi is an older man, making him a somewhat unusual choice, but beyond that, much of his profile and career are bog-standard, with nothing remarkable or outstanding about him to commend him as a candidate for the twelfth Doctor that would have brought the show fully into the 21st century.
He’s known in the UK as both a star on Torchwood and The Thick of It, where he played Malcolm Tucker, an impressively foulmouthed character. Some British fans seemed to be cautiously accepting of his takeover of the role, in the “if it has to be a white man at least it’s him” sense, while fans in the US rushed to Google to figure out who Peter Capaldi was as soon as the announcement went live. Others on both continents were delighted; Capaldi has loyal fans just like many other actors with long careers.
Some are going so far as to say that Moffat’s being “bold” to put a greying man in the role, which is puzzling; what exactly is “bold” about putting an aging white man, a very traditional authority figure, in this role? Over the last season, the Doctor’s fatigue was becoming apparent, and in a sense, it’s very logical to transition to an older, more time-worn body.
There’s certainly nothing edgy or risky about the choice of an established white male actor with some distinguished grey in his hair; what would have been risky was an older woman, one who defies the demand that women look perpetually youthful and fresh. Or a disabled woman, managing the TARDIS from her wheelchair or tapping about with a signature cane to replace Smith’s bowtie. Or an actor/actress of colour, proving that one doesn’t have to be white (or necessarily male) to occupy the iconic role.
Moffat’s nasty comment about women on the broadcast went hand in hand with his general lack of interest in anyone other than people like him; as a white man, he occupies a certain place in the social hierarchy that he sees no reason to disturb, and he reinforces it handily from his position on the Doctor Who team. In this case, all the bookies were unerringly right, zeroing in on Capaldi as the candidate long before the official announcement, and the fans stood to be yet again disappointed by Moffat, nursing secret hopes they all knew would be dashed in the live special.
What’s likely to change about the character under Capaldi? Probably nothing. He might be slightly less childlike and puckish, with a more mature edge, given the actor’s more sombre appearance. But he’ll still be the Doctor Moffat has always presented to us, and that’s a great shame, because it’s time for a genuinely new Doctor and an infusion of fresh production talent to the show.
If only the head producer regenerated every time the Doctor did.
Photo by Palleon, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.