Race and Gender in Doctor Who: Beyond Who Plays The Doctor

By Guest Contributor Joy Ellison

Current executive producer Stephen Moffatt on the Doctor Who set. Image via WhatCulture!

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.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • aboynamedart

    Hi, thanks for your thoughts, but a couple of things:

    I believe the gender of the Doctor is strictly what they were born as and their regeneration stays consistent with that.

    Except that we know of at least one Time Lord, the Corsair, who regenerated into a woman (but kept his tattoo, as described in “The Doctor’s Wife.”)

    just feel the same way as I feel about them making him POC, don’t force it, make it naturally happen, but remember it is long over due.

    It’s possible, then, to argue that Moffat “forced” Matt Smith into his current position. As we have discussed before at Racialicious, the issue begins with many fans not even willing to consider the idea of a woman or a POC or a WOC, etc. for the role. There’s certainly no shortage of good candidates.

    • RiverVox

      Just want to mention that “The Doctor’s Wife” was written by Neil Gaiman and I would interpret this as his gentle vote for being open to changing a Time Lord’s gender upon regeneration.

      • Kai Leakes

        I enjoy Neil Gaiman as a writer, glad he did that then. I didn’t see that episode sadly but now I know. 😀

    • Kai Leakes

      Hi Aboynamedart,

      Thank you for telling me that, I had said I wasn’t sure if that had happened and you let me know it did, so if it’s been established. Then YAY go for it. LOL I wasn’t against it as I stated, I had just been under the impression that the gender had been established after so many doctors, so since you stated that, that occurred then by all means, bring on a lady!

  • Artemisia

    I’m going to say something that’s going to get me a lot of flack, but hear me out for a moment.

    Moffet’s actually correct about women in that quote.

    Now, before you rip my head off…it might seem sexist to point this out, but boys, in general, don’t play at getting married, don’t play house, and so forth. Why? Because for a very long time, that’s how boys were trained. Boys, in general, are trained to be independent and tough and not feel pain and not show emotions.

    Girls are trained the opposite direction. This is why, when you get to adulthood, there is this clash of interests, and because boys, in general, aren’t trained to be fathers and husbands, but rather walking bank accounts, they rarely have the ability to discuss things like couch cushions without sounding like total prats.

    Comedy and satire is about pointing out the absurdity of the whole thing, and it’s because I study those that made me realize just how screwed up we make boys in our society.

    Your opinion was quite thoughtful, though I disagree with quite a lot of it. I do agree that a different showrunner will mean a very different tone to the show.

    • B.B.

      I think you are both right. Moffat was saying women are inherently more needy than men, and that is wrong. And training children to adapt to strict gender roles is wrong, too.

  • FreeX

    Moffat’s racism was apparent from the start when Rose Tyler ran away from Mickey Smith (her black boyfriend, played by Noel Clarke) and into the arms and adventures of The Doctor (Christoper Eccleston). Her parting shot? Thanks for nothing. Why nothing? Because the backstory is that Our English Rose was supporting Mickey, (under Moffat’s gaze, Mickey is simple minded, unambitious, far beneath Our English Rose). And then Martha Stewart, a character I adored and looked forward to every week. But then I realized that Martha, like many black characters, was created as a vehicle to discuss race racism and prove how diverse the show is and maybe now those POCs will shut up because we’ve given them what they wanted except the Pure White Doctor will never deign to acknowledge Martha’s beauty or her love, with a kiss and more. Disappointment set in.

    From the Martha Jones wikipedia page. ” As a black time traveller, the series’ writers have used the character’s presence as a means of injecting social commentary, tackling social issues such as racism in both bygone eras as well as the present day.” In the Shakespeare episode the Doctor (a.k.a. the best of humanity), mocked Martha’s concern over the use of blackamoor and ethiop, proclaiming her concerns, political correctness gone mad, (hello Steven Moffat, author surrogate much? See also: the Master). Oh, and lets not forget his homophobic treatment of Captain Jack. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Jones

    Moffat isn’t the only villain here (yes, I said villain). Russell T. Davies is the creator of Torchwood, The only male black character in Miracle Day, ex-CIA agent Rex Matheson (played by Mekhi Thira Phifer) was given lines that portrayed him as the least savvy, least intelligent, even buffoonish at times (oh, the white-male-gaze).

    I got sick of the Ponds right after the beginning of their second season. I couldn’t understand why Amy Pond merited more seasons than Dr. Martha Jones. But I soon understood.

    I stopped watching after the first two episodes of series 7. The story lines were too simplistic and boring. I never liked Matt Smith as the Doctor; David Tenant (and Eccleston) were much better. But now it’s time for something new.

    The new Doctor Who should be like Olivia Pope.

  • jackmackenna

    PS: you don’t want to be praising RTD for his commitment to diversity. Read “The Writer’s Tale”. He was going to include an N-word joke in one of his scripts. I’m not kidding.

  • RiverVox

    My jaw is hanging agape at he bald-faced, ignorant sexism of Moffat’s statement. I would find it pathetic if he wasn’t at the helm of what was once my favorite show. As for Martha, I like to think of her as the one who got away. She didn’t have to suffer the fate of the others of this reboot, (Rose, Donna and Amy) who get erased and disenfranchised after their time with the Doctor. Perhaps now that he’s made it explicit, we can exert some pressure on the BBC.