“Doctor Who” has a new lead, but is in more desperate need of a new showrunner

News that Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor in “Doctor Who” will be the main headline that comes out of today’s live special to announce the newest Doctor. Overall, the special was the type of fluff reserved for basketball players announcing where they will next take their talents: Thirty seconds of news took up nearly thirty minutes of airtime, which was filled with breathless analysis from people with varying degrees of connection to the show’s overall history. The two primary individuals most closely associated with the latest incarnation of The Doctor–Matt Smith and Steven Moffat–spoke only in pre-recorded bits, ostensibly to allow Capaldi as much limelight as possible and also to avoid any fanatical viewer that might have rushed the stage in joy/anger.

But honestly, by the time Capaldi was announced, I had all but resolved to never watch the show again.

capaldi.jpgOn the surface, it’s hard to argue with the casting of Capaldi. He has a fantastic resume that includes stints on “In The Loop” as well as a major part in “Torchwood: Children Of Earth”. The fact that the show went with a much older Doctor that Smith suggests that youthful sexiness isn’t the presiding factor when casting The Doctor, and having the oldest Doctor since Russell T. Davies restarted the show in 2005 gives the show a lot more interesting room to play within the confines of The Doctor in the modern era. But it’s these very confines that have me wishing the show had decided not to simply expand the established parameters but blow up the entire paradigm.

In Capaldi, the show went “older,” but still stayed “white” and “male.” When news broke that Matt Smith was leaving the show, floods of unsolicited responses came flooding from the show’s rabid fanbase, and those suggestions ran the gamut of age, race, and gender. For every Capaldi there were calls for Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lara Pulver, Jessica Hynes, and countless others that don’t fit into the mold of the previous eleven doctors. To be clear, as my colleague Linda Holmes noted on Twitter: “questioning exclusion” and “demanding entry” are two different things. Those that choose to believe that anger over casting choices today boil down to, “You only would have been happy with a woman,” are missing the point so badly that engaging with such an argument is pointless. I have only so many breaths on this earth, and wasting them trying to correct that argument is a bad use of those.

Had Moffat come out and said, “You know, I heard all of those suggests for a female Doctor. And they bring up a good point! Changing things up is part of this show’s DNA. Had I thought of a good way to bring that into the story organically, I would have leaped at the opportunity. But instead of change for change sake, I went with an actor who filled my idea of the next Doctor.” Those that wanted change would have grumbled, but at least felt as if the showrunner heard and understood cries for a Doctor that was different from its predecessors, even if the show ultimately went a different way. Instead, Moffat chose to actually attack those that suggested that a female Doctor would be a good thing. Singling out Helen Mirren, who told him once that it would be good to have a female play the role, he said, “I’d like to go on record: I think it’s time that The Queen were played by a man.”

Let’s just unpack this, shall we?

First of all, the false equivalence here is startling, especially from a man as purportedly brilliant as Moffat. There is no way in which a male actor playing the Queen of England is the equivalent of a female actor playing The Doctor. Apples and oranges to say the LEAST. Second of all, if it’s a joke (as many in the in-house audience, who laughed, took it as), it’s a really terrible joke: since it’s impossible to equate the two, it boils down to utter nonsense. But lastly, if it’s NOT a joke, as I suspect it isn’t, then Moffat essentially said this: “It’s nice to want things. But you don’t always get what you want, and you will never get a female Doctor under my watch.”

Thus we come to the crux of the problem, and Holmes’ smart and succinct separation of the issues here. The issue is NOT that Moffat didn’t cast a woman (or a non-caucasian of either gender). It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. It’s as ludicrous to him that a woman would be the Doctor as a man would portray The Queen. Both represent a type of drag performance that might be amusing but certainly not authentic. And given that science fiction/fantasy is a place where “what if” and “why not” have their safest homes, it’s disheartening to see limitations put on a show that is, by its design, utter limitless.

And here’s the thing: Moffat’s comments didn’t slip out accidentally during the live show. They were part of a pre-taped discussion about Capaldi’s casting, which meant that 1) the thoughts were carefully thought out, and 2) no one in the BBC thought the optics of that statement were remotely problematic. It’s just mind-boggling that a jibe at those wishing for a female Doctor were overtly dismissed and met with laughter from the in-studio crowd. I don’t think those laughing are a bunch of sexist jerks that celebrate the reaffirmation of men within the world of “Doctor Who.” But I do think that it’s illustrative that so many hard-core fans find the idea of a female Doctor so confusing and strange that laughter was the only response they could muster upon being confronted by the idea.

Here we arrive at the central distressing thing about today’s announcement: It missed an opportunity to push the boundaries of what not only “Doctor Who” can achieve, but science fiction serialized storytelling in general.  The show’s growing popularity isn’t a reason to keep things status quo, but an opportunity to change things up and have something to say to its ever-growing fanbase. It’s not just women that would benefit from a female Doctor. Men would benefit equally, if not more, from a strong, smart, silly female Doctor who is permitted to have as many flaws, quirks, and assets as the previous eleven Doctors did. The qualities that make The Doctor one of the most powerful and popular figures in science fiction have NOTHING to do with him being male. Demonstrating this by placing those long-standing qualities into someone who looked like Michelle Dockery would push this conversation past the theoretical and into the practical, which is often the only way these asinine debates get squashed at all.

river-song-alex-kingston-15685181-600-401.jpgI think it’s telling that when I expressed some of these thoughts on Twitter earlier today, I got many responses that boil down to, “It’s for the best: I wouldn’t want Moffat writing the first female Doctor anyways.” I have no way of knowing what’s in Moffat’s mind other than what he says publicly (thus my harping on his comment about The Queen), but it’s true that the female Companions during his run, along with River Song, have functioned more as enigmas to be solved rather than humans with whom to share adventures. Amy, River, and Clara largely existed as things for The Doctor to unpack, which in turn transformed “Doctor Who” into an increasingly elaborate box puzzle box. Wordplay, misdirection, and perplexing prophecy replaced solid character work that in turn made the show something to be solved instead of something to be enjoyed.

I’m not convinced this structure means Moffat has been sexist all along; if anything, it shows his increased obsession with trying to top previous scripts in terms of complexity, something that has rubbed off to much more solid effect on “Sherlock.” Then again, “Sherlock” is essentially a romance between two men, which could further bolster those that suggest Moffat isn’t a fan of female characters. Had I not heard these rumblings before today’s special, Moffat’s comment about The Queen probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. Had Moffat’s companions been strong, independent figures that weren’t ignorant of their own origins, Moffat’s comments would have gone unnoticed. Instead, his comments formed a triptych along with the other two elements that suggest a large, systemic problem that has absolutely no bearing on Capaldi’s capacity to play the Doctor but everything to do with Moffat’s ability to steer that ship.

Instead of focus on the new Doctor, maybe we should be focused on getting a new showrunner. The TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space. But Moffat seems stuck on the same patch of antiquated soil.


  1. LizC
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I feel like what Moffat really means here is “the Doctor is a white man.”

    Also, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone does mount a production of “The Audience” with a man or a person of color playing QEII (the role that Mirren is playing.) And I hope it gets great reviews and does good box-office, if only to spite Moffat.

  2. John Smith
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, you people need to get over the fact that the Doctor is a white male. Big freaking deal. It’s just so STUPID to be angry over that it literally astounds me. I don’t understand why anyone is complaining about that. Get over it.

    And I understand this is all opinion, but I highly doubt Moffat is sexist. And the comment you made about him writing Sherlock makes him sexist is probably about the stupidest thing any human being has ever said. Do you want Sherlock to be a black woman now? He’s been portrayed by a white male all these years and no one is complaining.

    It just doesn’t make any sense.

  3. John Smith
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Another white knight moaning that the show hired a serious actor instead of doing a bit of stunt casting that would affect the credibility of the show.

    Quit whinging and being so bloody PC.

    It’s not going to get you laid.

  4. Posted August 4, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Liz and John, I get where you’re coming from, re:Moffat just meaning the Doctor is a white man, except that in “The Doctor’s Wife”, an episode during Moffat’s tenure, The Doctor talks about a fellow Time Lord’s previous regenerations, both male and female. So Time Lords changing gender at regeneration is not only canon, but was *made* canon under Moffat.

    If Moffat means that the Doctor is male, always was male, always will be male, that’s not any better- it means that to him, the Doctor, our hero, couldn’t possibly be female, even though there’s nothing in his alien physiology requiring it. Because it’s as ludicrous to imagine this particular amazing, fascinating fictional character being female as to imagine a man portraying the real life Queen of England. (Which, gotta agree with you Liz, I would like to see.)

    I’m with you 100%, Ryan. Thanks for the piece!

  5. Maeve
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    John Smith, the point is that the Doctor and Sherlock are both old characters who have been done over and over and over again, so in order to bring something fresh and new to their reboots, the gender of the character is one thing that could be changed in order to explore new territory and keep things interesting. For example Sherlock has been changed to a new century, Dr. Watson is the veteran of a different war, the mysteries have been changed - why couldn’t the gender of a character be different too? The essential parts of these characters are not their maleness, but their character traits and personality. And I hardly think that just because something has always been one way is the best argument for it remaining so. Though if you think what Ryan said about writing Sherlock is “the stupidest thing any human being has ever said” I can only imagine you have a very limited life experience…

  6. Donna Noble
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    I am female, and I don’t see the need for a female Doctor. In fact, I don’t want a female Doctor. Am I sexist then?

    By all means have strong female characters, but why does that have to be “The Doctor”?

    This debate is just a bandwagon a sector of fandom has honed in on. If it was never suggested in jest, it would never have entered the equation.

  7. Blane Mather
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Three points:

    1) There’d be a lot less complaints about the lack of diversity on casting Doctor Who’s lead character if Midday had been a better steward of presenting fully developed, independent female supporting characters on the show.

    2) The U.S. version of Sherlock Holmes (CBS’ Elementary) has incorporated a fully fleshed out and independant female Watson to great effect, and that has allowed the show to make some interesting creative choices.

    3) Star Trek got it’s first female lead 18 years ago in Star Trek Voyager’s Captain Janeway. Doctor Who first showed us a female timelord 35 years ago (!), so why does anyone think then idea of a female Doctor as the.lead is such an alien concept?

  8. Blane Mather
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Previous post: Midday should have been Moffat. Darned spell check!

  9. Ryan Fitzsimmons
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Dumb argument McGee. Peter Capaldi is awesome, shame on you for trying to besmirch him like this. Why would The Doctor, who has always regenerated through time as a male, suddenly decide to regenerate as a female? Makes no sense from a logical standpoint. If you want the easiest access to government leaders and into places where you perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to be, regenerating into a white male makes LOGICAL sense.

    And I wish people would shut up about Idris Elba. It’s entirely ignorant on the part of people like Ryan McGee to suggest him for a potential Doctor as if he’s the only black British actor they know of. It would be a downgrade for him anyway, if you haven’t noticed, his film career has taken off.

  10. Ulallala
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    My God you’re a racist. Also a mind reader:

    “It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION”

    Oh look, also you’re an idiot. Neil Gaiman has already mentioned that a PoC *turned down* the role.

    I guess you’re just a racist idiot who *can’t* read minds.

    How dull.

  11. John
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you’ve resolved to never watch the show again. As someone who lives in the states but still got to watch Doctor Who in the 80s, this entire new generation has mixed feelings to me. First off because most of the new fans are clueless what the show is about, secondly cause they seem to think ‘romance’ should be a part of the show when it never had any place.

    The Doctors have routinely been old, and mostly ugly, men, and I love the casting of this new person as maybe we can finally move away from the whole ‘oh god the companion loves the doctor thing’.

    As for the whole ‘doctor who should be a woman thing’ - there’s 50 years of mythology to deal with, not just the garbage that Russel T Davies wrought upon us (btw regenerations just tended to happen they wouldn’t drawn out maudlin nonsense - the doctor does die - he lives on ).

    There were female time lords there were male time lords there was never any indication that ‘gender swapping’ was something time lords could do - but please - it’s a freaking tv show - stop looking for it to do anything but make the show that gets them the best ratings.

    This is the first article I’ve ever read by you, courtesy of Zap2it. I now will no longer read zap2it because I might run into your pretentious uninformed opinions yet again.

  12. Danny Siegel
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    My first 2 thoughts on hearing the Capaldi announcement:

    1) I like Capaldi and think he will be a good Doctor. I love him in The Thick of It and he was good in Torchwood season 3. An older Doctor is a good change of pace from Tennant and Smith, and he’s a much better choice than Ben Daniels, another older actor who was rumored and who had bored me to tears with his role in the US version of House of Cards.

    2) I hope the next Doctor is black or a woman. Personally, I had been pulling for a black actor this time, but mostly because I recognized more the potential names thrown around like David Harewood and Idris Elba. I can’t imagine Helen Mirren as the Doctor and didn’t know most of the other actresses that people suggested. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an actress who will be perfect in the role that is either a complete unknown or someone well known that I just haven’t heard of yet. Hopefully, the 13th Doctor breaks the gender or race barrier. As an American, the only rule for the Doctor is that it’s a Brit, because the show and character belong to that country.

    As for the change in showrunner, it’s not something I’m desperate for, but I think the eventual change will bring new blood. Moffat was at the helm during series 5, my favorite of new Who, as well as the writer of some of the best individual episodes. However, his storytelling in series 6 and 7 has faltered and shown that his effectiveness as a showrunner has a shelf-life. His writing of female companions has been a bot problematic with the increase in mysteries attached to them, though I still prefer them to the lovelorn Rose and Martha.

    The biggest problem is who can succeed Moffat. Moffat’s great episodes during RTD’s run made him an obvious choice to try running things. The best guest writer now is Gaiman, who wouldn’t come to Wales to run a show while still writing all his books. Chibnall may have been great with Broadchurch, but he’ll have that and the Fox’s US version, and his Doctor Who episodes have never even been that great. Gatiss has always been hit-or-miss with his episodes and I wouldn’t be confident in him steering the ship.

    Even more problematic is the lack of female writers on the show. In all of new Who, the only female writer was Helen Raynor, who wrote the Daleks in Manhattan episodes of series 3 and the Sontaran episodes of series 4. How has Moffat gone 3 series in the 2010s without using a female writer? I can’t name British female writers and producers due to unfamiliarity with most British shows, but there’s got to be a change in the gender dynamics in the writer’s room before we can hope to see a similar correction to female characters on the show.

  13. Kyle
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, but I never got this feeling of Moffat outrightly dismissing the possibility of the Doctor being a woman. Yeah he made the Queen joke but he also said that it was a possibility of it eventually happening. I don’t understand why so many people seem to be obsessed with the idea that the Doctor can’t be another while male. I think it’s stupid to say the Doctor has to be non-white or has to be a woman. Just as its stupid to say the Doctor has to be a white male. Why can’t it just be the right actor for the job?!

    You will never please everyone. I think it would have been interesting to see Helen Mirren as the Doctor. However, speaking to my brother, he was adamant that the Doctor had to be a man. Will we ever see a non white male Doctor? Who knows, but I also don’t really care—as long as each Doctor is entertaining and brings something new to the role. The next Doctor has already been cast so we can shelve the complaining about the casting process for another 3 years.

  14. Michael
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    “It’s just mind-boggling that a jibe at those wishing for a female Doctor were overtly dismissed and met with laughter from the in-studio crowd.”

    No, it’s not. It’s well deserved. The canon for the series has been established, several female Time Lords have made appearances and in some off-canon (e.g. Big Finish) have had major roles if not the only role (e.g. Iris Wildthyme).

    People whining about the doctor not having a gender change clearly aren’t familiar either with the Universe nor with canon.

    You want a female time traveler? Then lobby for a new series (e.g. the Sarah Jane offshoot).

    Or, continue to gripe about sexism and how awful Moffat is (he is, but not for the reasons you like to paint him with) and stomp your little digital feet and feel empowered by all the other SJWs who will agree with you.

  15. Annette
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    I am sorry but to me after watching the Doctor for so many years as a child and now, I think The doctor should stay a man. You can introduce another female timelord like Rani. I think that would be better. I mean how would that be with his granddaughter? Does anyone even know about his granddaughter? Have any of you watched the old ones? I grew up with this and yes it would seem really strange to me to change him so drastically. I Like the idea of a female timelord yes but not the Doctor. I find his younger self fun and his older self endearing. My favorite doctor is between Tom Baker and David Tennant. I can’t understand why people want to make such a change. Why did they have to write that he can change into a female and what happened to the amount of lives he can have? I guess I am just old school but I was raised on this. My Father and I watched it. Now my daughter and I watch it. I like my Doctor the way he is and would not have a female doctor.

  16. Mark
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    You lost me at “I had all but resolved to never watch the show again.”

    Rabid fans upset that their demands haven’t been met always say that. Watch the show with the new Doctor, give it a decent try, then decide if you want to continue watching Doctor Who. Deciding at a casting choice or not choosing what you wanted is silly.

  17. Kate
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Wow, people are angry. And rude.

    I thought you made a valid point: Moffat should not have rejected the idea out of hand, even if he didn’t decide to go down that road. I’m not terribly impressed with Moffat’s showrunning in general. There are just too many overly convoluted story arcs that end up falling flat. He also managed to create and then utterly ruin The Weeping Angels, one of the coolest Doctor Who enemies of all time.

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