By Guest Contributor Joy Ellison
Over the last few weeks, fans have called for a person of color and/or a woman to star in Doctor Who. If you care about race and gender presentation in Doctor Who, then pay attention to who serves as the show’s next executive producer.
When it comes to who should replace Matt Smith as the next star of the TV show Doctor Who, many fans are hoping for one thing: anyone but another white guy.
For nearly 50 years, the Doctor, the time-traveling main character of Doctor Who, has been portrayed by white men. Fans concerned with social justice are right to clamor for a different sort of Doctor. While the Doctor may be an alien, over the course of the show the character has come to represent the best of humanity. That’s why it is especially important that the Doctor be portrayed by a person of color or a woman – or, dare we dream, a woman of color, a person with a disability, a queer person, or transgender person, or a combination of all the above.
But while we wait to meet the new incarnation of this beloved sci-fi character, fans should turn their attention to racial and gender representation in an area of Doctor Who that isn’t immediately visible on screen: the executive producer.
Who serves as the executive producer for Doctor Who may affect the show almost as much as who portrays the Doctor. Since the re-launch of the series in 2005, the executive producer of Doctor Who has also served as showrunner, filling both the roles of producer and lead writer, giving the position tremendous influence on not only the content of the show, but also casting and staffing.
Just as all 11 Doctors have been portrayed by white men, so have all 13 of the show’s executive producers been white.
The impact of Doctor Who’s executive producer is obvious to fans who have watched the revival of the series. When Russell T. Davies re-launched the show as executive producer, he brought with him an increased commitment to diversity. Davies cast Christopher Eccleston, a white man, as the 9th Doctor and David Tennent, another (surprise!) white man, as the 10th Doctor. Nonetheless, under Davies, fans saw a more diverse cast, full of many different types of heroines, as well as queer characters and people of color. Davies didn’t handle diversity perfectly, but his influence demonstrates just how important an executive producer can be.
Under current showrunner Steven Moffat’s leadership, Doctor Who has become undeniably whiter, straighter, and more sexist. Moffat hasn’t developed any recurring characters of color and his women characters leave much to be desired. While both River Song and Amy Pond are competent and spunky, they are defined exclusively in relation to the Doctor and Rory. In the place of women with independent interests and developed characters, Moffat substitutes bossy women and hopes no one notices.
Moffat presented women in the same way in his previous show Coupling, a situation comedy about dating and romance. In light of Moffat’s own statements to the press, he seems to write his women characters this way because he actually believes that’s how women behave. Take a look at this Moffat quote, which is almost breath-taking in its racism, classism, heterosexism, and misogyny:
“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
Thank you, Steven. This explains so much.
Contrasting Doctor Who under Moffat and Davies lays bare just how profound an effect the executive producer of Doctor Who has on the show. It’s not just what the Doctor looks like that matters, though who portrays the Doctor does matter very much indeed. If the role of the Doctor is finally given to an actor who isn’t a white man, that actor will need to be supported by an executive producer who able to write for such a character and committed to doing justice to a new vision of Doctor Who.
But why does writing matter so much? Fans hoping for a more diverse Doctor should pause to reflect: A black woman doctor has already saved our planet once. Remember Dr. Martha Jones?
Despite the consummate acting of the talented Freema Agyeman, Martha is one of the most maligned of the Doctor’s companions. Some commentators have argued that fans despised Martha because of her race and gender – a well-documented phenomenon in geek culture. Others have said that the writers didn’t give Doctor Who’s first Black companion a fair shot. Both analyses are correct. Martha is a kick-ass character who doesn’t deserve the racist misogyny leveled at her by some fans. But, she was also written as a rebound for a lovesick Doctor who is still pining for Rose. Martha, an otherwise brilliant woman with tremendous initiative, nurses an adolescent crush on the Doctor that seems out of character. The Doctor, portrayed by David Tennant, is shockingly indifferent to her obvious feelings. This aspect of Martha’s storyline is deeply disappointing. It also reveals an important truth: diversity is important, but it needs to be supported by good writing.
Storytelling matters. The problems of Doctor Who won’t be solved simply by casting a new actor in the starring role. The show needs to tell new stories shaped by new visions.
Current showrunner Steven Moffat and executive producer Brian Minchin will likely be with the show for a while. When it comes time for a new executive producer to take control of the TARDIS, I hope that fans will pressure the BBC to let what happens to our favorite time-traveler be decided by someone who isn’t white.
Joy Ellison is a writer and activist who is building a full-scale replica of the TARDIS. You can follow Joy on Twitter @j_in_tuwani.