By Arturo R. García
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.