Doctor Who Moves Backwards In Time

By Arturo R. García

Peter Capaldi addresses his casting as the Twelfth Doctor in “Doctor Who.” Image via Mashable.

As jarring as it was to see Doctor Who get the kind of drawn-out prime-time infomercial special reserved for reality show winners, the confirmation that Peter Capaldi got the nod to play the Twelfth Doctor is also striking, for a number of reasons — many of which, it should be mentioned, have less to do with Capaldi than with the program itself.

Make no mistake: Capaldi will emerge as a capable, perhaps superlative, lead for the show. But it’s fair to worry whether he was the right person for the job, or just the one best tailored for showrunner Steven Moffat.

Before Capaldi was revealed, Moffat turned a brief talking-head appearance into a case study in time-efficient crassness, as he rebuked the increasing calls for the eponymous Time Lord to become a Time Lady by saying, “I like that Helen Mirren has been saying that the next Doctor should be played by a woman. I would like to go on record that the Queen should be played by a man.” It’s also troubling to read in an interview with the Radio Times that Capaldi was apparently the only person he had in mind all along:

“I happened to know he’s a big fan,” said Moffat. “There’s something very seductive about an utterly brilliant, arresting looking leading man actor – one of the most talented actors in Britain – who you happen to know is a big fan of the show. You start to think ‘maybe we should so something about that’”

Actually, one starts to wonder, Why is the person in charge of one of the BBC’s biggest franchises all but boasting that he didn’t consider people who aren’t white hetero cis-males for the starring role?

Author Neil Gaiman, who has written two well-received episodes featuring Capaldi’s predecessor, Matt Smith, also chimed in with his approval of Moffat’s choice, and his tone-deafness was even more blunt:

If I were show-running I wouldn’t cast a woman as the Doctor yet, and it would absolutely be on my list of things to do in the following regeneration. (I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, after all.)

Some of that is stuff I’d find hard to articulate, mostly having to do with what you follow Matt Smith’s Doctor with: someone harder and older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to me, as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game …

So having a time-traveling phone box is reasonable to Gaiman, but having a woman at the wheel is too sci-fi. Got it. It also stands out that both men addressed the diversity issue by focusing on how it relates to (presumably white) women, rather than a person of color — and it’s not like there aren’t qualified candidates.

But defenders of the move quickly seized on the casting of an older actor — Capaldi is 55, the same age William Hartnell was when he originated the role in 1963 — as being progressive on other fronts: not only does it push back against “conventional” Hollywood wisdom in pushing an older man to the forefront of such a show, the argument goes, but it’s already weeding out people who claim they’re done with the show because Capaldi isn’t “hot” like Smith or David Tennant.

However, Moffat’s own words reflect how differently factors like “age” and “experience” are received based on gender alone. And if you weigh Who against other procedural weekly programs, Capaldi looks less like a trailblazer and more like another in a long line of white leads.

Even while accounting for both complaints by lovestruck fans and the theory (hope?) that Capaldi’s Doctor will be less lovelorn than Smith’s, the undercurrent of the Smith and Tennant eras was a shift from being a Saturday evening “kids’ show” to a franchise that deployed many of these younger, hyper-connected fans as part of its social and promotional engine. And many of those younger fans are growing up in a time when race, sex and gender roles are arguably seeing more flexibility than ever — at least socially, if not in the media landscape. The calls for these fans’ Doctor to reflect their increasingly multicultural world, which began when Patterson Joseph lost the role to Matt Smith just four years ago, have become roars. But Moffat’s answer seems to be, This is still your father’s Doctor Who.

But that’s not entirely true. Because while it’s nice of Capaldi to say, “Doctor Who belongs to all of us,” it’s really Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. And Moffat seemingly can’t stop himself from rubbing that in everyone’s faces.

  • Idris.Ababa

    I don’t care what anyone says, series 3 and 4 (with Martha) are some of the best! You can watch them on netflix.

  • llamanoir

    Well said!

  • Helix Luco

    gaaaaaaaah i hate Moffat. even if he did have the guts to cast a female Doctor he’d probably write her in the same staggeringly misogynist way he does all his other female characters.

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    No, it’s insulting, just like it would be insulting to have, say, Superman singlehandedly defeat Hitler. Changing painful aspects of the past dishonors those who suffered.

  • aboynamedart

    Yup. Let’s let the mores of the pre-Civil Rights Era just govern every modern adaptation.

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      If it takes place in the pre-Civil Rights Era, then yes you should. Otherwise you’re simply making the US look better than it actually was.

  • aboynamedart

    Yeah, unless that’s verified by either the actor in question or an independent source, Reads like hokum to me.

    And even then, if one actor of color turned the part down, then what is that supposed to prove — that they only ignored POC at a 90-plus percent clip?

  • aboynamedart

    And yet the result is the same — the reinforcement of white privilege. So yes, you are arguing that Gaiman should get a pass.

    • Nezumichan

      *Sigh.* Let me rephrase this as best I can. Intent isn’t magic is a well-known and true statement — all the good intentions in the world don’t make it not reinforce white male privilege. But, on the other hand, intent not being magic doesn’t mean it’s meaningless, either. We are not going to get through to someone like Moffat who goes into this entirely on bad faith — at best, we can shame him into doing better by making continuing as he is untenable. Someone like Gaiman, who actually does make an effort can potentially be educated or convinced why his statements are problematic. It’s not a sure thing, and the only way to do that is to call him out and criticize him just like you would Moffat or anyone else who makes such statements.

      Writing someone off as an irredeemable bigot whenever they express the misogyny, racism, etc. they’ve been soaking in and can’t escape without lots of hard work and self-examination is ultimately counterproductive, and equating Moffat and Gaiman smells too much like that to me.

      That said, Gaiman doesn’t seem willing to learn from this instance, so screw that and let him have it.

  • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

    yeah, so much bunk. he’s basically saying he’d rather not see an older, harder more dangerous woman. he wants to see the younger, softer, safer reaction to capaldi be a woman. and he thinks that’s progressive thinking?

  • Ellington

    I stopped watching Doctor Who after Martha left ( I loved Martha), and the only Doctor that I really liked in the modern revamp was Christopher Eccleston, and he was “the harder edger Doctor” (David Tennant mugs far too much for my tastes, and Matt Smith had no eyebrows and that just kind of creeped me out). I mean it was a big deal ( a stupid one in fact) that Eccleston’s Doctor had a Northern accent (he is from the Salford/Manchester area) that is how ground breaking this show thinks it is.
    I would have loved to watch again if they had introduced a Female Time Lord or a Time Lord of colour, but alas no.
    I am not surprised at all with this choice of another white male, it is to be expected of the unimaginative and the pedestrian.

    • trixtah

      OMG, someone else who thought Tennant was royally annoying with his “mugging” (I called it “gurning”, same diff). And yes, I thought Eccleston was the best out of this lot, by far. So “older, edgy” = done.

      And yeah, not surprised at the current choice, but still disappointed.

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    No big surprise about the next Who being another white guy—I figured the casting of any one that wasn’t white was going to be a long shot to begin with. But yeah, Ejiofor would have made a kick-ass doctor, if someone had had the guts to cast him.

  • aboynamedart

    And how would a Doctor of color break those rules? Furthermore, how would a woman Doctor break them, when Gaiman himself pointed that out in “The Doctor’s Wife”?

    And the argument for rules is odd given even Moffat’s predilection for hand-waving plot discrepancies by saying, basically, “it’s just sci-fi.”

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      I’m not saying it does break the rules; based on Gaiman’s comment it does not. Gaiman’s comment is saying it wouldn’t work dramatically, and I disagree.

      What I’m saying is often I hear this argument in general for sci fi and fantasy.
      For example, having the Howlin’ Commandoes be integrated in Captain America. But there were no integrated troops in WWII, and saying it’s a sci fi fantasy world doesn’t change that.

      • aboynamedart

        Except, in this case, the example doesn’t quite fly, because Doctor Who isn’t as closely tied to one — or to any– particular time period as that part of The First Avenger was to Cap’s life.

        And even accounting for said time period, the film managed to include Black and Asian-American members in the Commandoes’ ranks, and it would not have broken canon to reference the events of Truth: Red White & Black, either.

        • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

          My point was that there shouldn’t have been black soldiers in the Howlin’ Commandoes. It’s unfortunate, but that was Army policy until the end of the war.

          Again, I’m not trying to argue against a POC or female Doctor – I’m arguing against “it’s a sci fi world” as an explanation.

          • BirdieBlue

            I’m pretty sure Captain America bends or breaks a whole lot of “realistic” rules about army policy just by virtue of existing. I do respect the “realism” argument in some media, even sci-fi or fantasy media, but Captain America plays fast and lose with a whole lot of military “fact” – why not that one, too?

          • aboynamedart

            Just curious: what was the rule on troops wearing winged helmets?

          • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

            That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Changing one thing does not change the underlying social issues. One thing that proves it is that during Captain America’s initial WWII run, (i.e, comics published in the 1940s) there were no integrated troops.

            The Howling Commandoes were actually a postwar (1960s in fact) retcon which including Gabe Jones in the elite unit, something that just would not happen in the war. To include him may seem like a good idea, but it papers over the US army’s actual racist policy.

            Obviously the rules for the Doctor are very different, but I think it’s a mistake to say “it’s a sci fi/fantasy world” to explain things that diverge from our world that have nothing to do with sci fi.

  • Sally Strange

    Ye gods, but I despise Moffat.

  • http://autistscorner.blogspot.com Thalestris

    Darn. I was really hoping for Chiwetel Ejiofor. :(

  • Allen Herring

    I was hoping that there would be something different announced, but alas, we got more of the same. I want to say I’m surprised but it seems that Moffat wants to be the Doctor when he grows up.

    What I have issue with is that the companions have all been white after Martha. Donna, Amy, and Clara are all young attractive white women. For me I wonder if it is a dream of Moffat’s realized.

    As for this Doctor being harder, I’m not sure if I see that occurring (maybe, possibly). I don’t know if I expect a turn away from the romance aspect of the show. After all, the Doctor is married to River Song, and with this Doctor, I can see an “age-appropriate” romance being actualized. I didn’t expect the show runners to “thrust” a DOC (Doctor of Color/Gender) upon the audience as well as an Interracial/Same-Gender romance too. That is just TOO TRUE to LIFE for a sci-fi show.

    What I’d really like to see is more Companions of Color and Sexuality. Individuals more along the vein of Martha Jones (probably my favorite companion – though I do care for Donna and Rose).

    I think a new show runner will need to take over the Doctor before we, the audience, get sci-fi beyond these static stories with tired lead male tropes.

    Here’s hoping.

    • http://demiurgiclust.net shelly

      Donna, Amy, and Clara are all young attractive white women.

      Catherine Tate (Donna) was in her early 40s when she played Donna (she’s 45 now). That’s not “young”, by most people’s standards. Nor would she be considered conventionally attractive, IMO.

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        In fact she’s three years older than David Tennant.

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      I don’t think there should be romantic tension between The Doctor and his companion(s).

  • aboynamedart

    Thanks very much for bringing this up, too.

  • Elizabeth MB Downs

    I haven’t watched Dr. Who in awhile. Seeing this reminds me why I haven’t. The current staff really don’t give their audience much credit do they? The fans have been suggesting actors other than traditional male white, and they are clearly being dismissed.

  • SoLiteral

    I agree with everything except the idea that Neil Gaiman is somehow more bluntly tone deaf here than Steven Moffat.

    Moffat is nauseatingly dismissive, while Gaiman seems to want it to happen at some point. I don’t understand why he’d foolishly leave it off the table this time, but I can’t see it as worse than Moffat’s deep-seated blah.

    But you’re right that it is a completely traditional pick, and when that tradition looks exactly like the show-runner.

    • aboynamedart

      For me, what tipped it over the edge was Gaiman’s saying, “someone harder and older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to me.” Whereas Moffat attempts to couch his remarks in “humour,” Gaiman, to me, was doing something similar while still trying to sound progressive. Because 1) how is a male inherently “harder and older and more dangerous” and 2) why does that “feel” right to him? But Gaiman’s comments hadn’t been as widely disseminated, and i didn’t want to let either of them off the hook.

      • Nezumichan

        I don’t want to pretend Gaiman’s comments aren’t problematic, but I also find them more tolerable. It’s an ugly thing to say, and tone deaf with regards to issues of diversity… but it’s a misstep by someone who put more thought into it than “WOMAN BAD!” and who actually has a history of being tolerant, progressive, willing to represent diversity in his works, etc. while Moffat’s is the same old hateful, misogynistic bile from a hateful, retrograde misogynist who has trouble imagining people who aren’t white men as anything but props for white men to be dashing around that has typified just about everything he’s said and done.

        • http://fatshionelle.tumblr.com/ Natalie

          I’ve seen a lot of comments like these, usually from his fans, and it just sort of reminds me of something my mother always said: “Nothing you say before the word but actually counts.” I just don’t think a history of being “brave” enough to write strong female characters gives him a pass. Moffat is certainly his own special level of intolerable, but I don’t think that makes Gaiman’s comments any less gross or somehow worthy of defense.

      • Meganology

        Right. When your instincts as a storyteller just through sheer coincidence happen to line up with maintaining a racist and sexist status quo, then you need to re-examine those instincts.