The Woes of an Old Show in a New Century

There are mixed reactions to the casting of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor on the BBC scifi series Doctor Who, most of which have little do to with the man himself and more to do with the fact that he’s not a person of color or a woman.

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“I’m a lizard-woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife.” Just give them (and Strax) their own show already.

While I would have been interested in seeing a Doctor who wasn’t Caucasian, I’m actually glad he’s not becoming female. Just because Time Lords can switch genders, doesn’t mean they should.

While I’m waiting for the flood of outraged emails to begin, I’ll elaborate. I’d watch the hell out of a television show featuring a woman who travels through time, wise-but-childlike, ancient-but-youthful, kind-but-fiery, and all the other qualities that make the Doctor the Doctor. But we have passed the point where that would make sense on Doctor Who.

I bet I know what you’re thinking – Sense? On Doctor Who? A show about aliens and time travel that regularly features absolutely ridiculous and insane plotlines, often concluding in a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wiminess? And it’s true that the show’s internal logic isn’t particularly stable. Writers abandon continuity for the sake of story, and sometimes just for their own peculiar whims. So why would a female Doctor make it so difficult for me to suspend disbelief?

Because intentional or not, there’s an established pattern to the Doctor’s regenerations – it’s actually one of the few points of consistency. If the 5th Doctor had become a woman (as in the alternate universe counterpart Inspector Spacetime), I could roll with it. But after eleven regenerations as a white male, the sudden turn to female would just leave me asking questions that are completely unnecessary to the program. I’m not talking about gender politics, or the importance of finding and claiming female heroes. I’m not talking about being forced to confront the weakness of existing female characters. I’m talking about the basics of this family television show which has a tendency to crumble under the weight of intense dissection. Poke holes in the science, and it’ll scramble your brain. My enjoyment might just from doing the math on the probability involved in a radical change of a consistent sequence.

Now, I’d probably adapt. It’s not like it’s the end of the world. And I understand why people want a different kind of Doctor. It’s a basic tenet of the human race that we want to see representations of ourselves in the world, to know we’re not alone, and to have a voice that can share our personal experiences with others, hopefully educating them.

A fundamental problem with the NuWho series is that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. This means – despite the detour in “End of Time” – that everyone who’d like to see themselves represented in this advanced civilization of brilliant aliens has only one person to project that vision on – the Doctor himself. If only we could resurrect Romana and give her her own show. I’m still waiting for the Vastra spin-off because you don’t get much more diverse than a lesbian lizard Sherlock Holmes. I guess it’s a question of influence. The Doctor is a Big Fucking Deal, so to see another gender or race represented there, in that spotlight, would make a difference. It would have weight. Representation is important – as someone who has often felt invisible, I will never argue against that.

But I can accept that the Doctor will always be a man, probably a white man, much like Superman or Batman, and I don’t see it as a failure on the part of whoever’s doing the casting. Yes, Time Lord biology has been established as entirely fluid. And if Doctor Who goes on another 50 years, things could change. Maybe they should. But instead of campaigns to change the main character of one TV show, I’d rather see new characters born with their own set of baggage, someone who isn’t tied to a thousand years of history as a white guy. Characters like Virtue from Gail Simone’s The Movement, or Idris Elba in anything Idris Elba does.

True, the new won’t have the same gravitas as the old. But I don’t believe simply changing old characters is enough. They won’t accomplish what’s really necessary in terms of representation. Making the Doctor black or a woman doesn’t provide real opportunities for change if the Doctor is still fundamentally the same alien. Time can give us non-white male heroes with resonance, but only if someone creates them in the first place.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. Thank you for putting in words what i have been trying to explain to others. its about the character and the individual. also BRING BACK ROMANA!!!

  2. Good post. I have to admit, I was initially a little surprised/disappointed the casting wasn’t a bit bolder or inclusive. Of course we don’t know anything about this Doctor, so for all we know he’ll regenerate and suddenly have a desire to call up Captain Jack for dinner. But… you’re right.

    Neil Gaiman recently explained why he’s not upset over the Doctor not being a woman, that it wasn’t time yet. Even though he wrote the episode that made it canonical for Time Lords to change between genders, he didn’t think it fit the story that was being told. While it’s pretty easy to dismiss the Doctor’s characterization but he has been through quite an arc since the series was brought back. Eccelston, the brooding, PTSD survivor. Tennant, who wore his guilt like it was a fashion accessory. To Smith, the more weary, tired man who just wore a young man’s face. Sometimes it’s more blatant than others and it’s not 100% consistent (much like most of Doctor Who) but there’s a pretty logical flow there from Doctor to Doctor. He’s grown in a way that makes sense.

    One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that it can do just about anything. Its “rules” are written in pencil. A pencil with a generous eraser. It’s reinvented itself several times over its 50 years and I think that’s part of the reason people have latched onto it. If you think this story set in Earth’s past is boring we’ll get a fast paced sci-fi story on a spaceship tomorrow.So I think some people, myself included, kind of start imagining all the “What if” possiblities. Which is fine, but there still should be some logical flow in the storytelling, even if it’s underneath the hood. Seemingly random things in stories rarely true are random. If Moffatt thinks Capaldi is good for the role, than I’m inclined to believe him.

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