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.
On 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.
I 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.