Diversity and the Last of the Time Lords

I’m over the moon that Peter Capaldi is going to play the next Doctor. I think he’s a terrific actor, he is clearly as dedicated a Whovian as one could hope to meet, and I bet no one can possibly be putting him under more pressure to do a good job than himself right now.

The announcement last night, in a rather hastily put together live show, demonstrated how big of a deal the casting of this particular role has become. The hype surrounding the show has steadily increased since Russell T Davies breathed new life into the TARDIS back in 2005. And with such hype comes commentary. And with commentary comes meta-commentary, which is my area of expertise.

At the fore of the discussion on the identity of the actor who will next play this most iconic of TV characters is the plea that the part should go to a non-white male. I’ve heard this a lot recently. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, a host of different names were mooted as possibilities, among them Idris Elba, Chitowel Eijofer, David Harewood, Billie Piper, Olivia Coleman and Helen Mirren. This morning, a friend of mine tweeted that she heard someone say the following:

“I wish it had been a woman or a black guy.”

I have so many feelings swirling around my head about this it’s hard to pin them all down. But some things did immediately spring to mind. Of the actors listed above, some are women and some are black guys. None are both. Surely if ever there was a time to employ the term ‘and/or’ it would be now. If we also factor in the precedent for casting previous supporting players, how come there wasn’t a big call for Sophie Okonedo (Liz 10 in The Beast Below), Christine Adams (Cathica in The Long Game) or Yasmin Bannerman (Jabe in The End of the World) to play The Doctor? (Or was there a campaign which I missed?) And what about non-white, non-black actors? I’m not sure how much of this is a historic hangover, but those of African-Caribbean descent often seem to be the poster-children for issues of diversity at the expense of the Asian and Hispanic communities. I know she’s busy on The Good Wife right now but I reckon Archie Panjabi would do a stonking job as The Doctor. (With Omid Djalili as her companion. They would make a cracking ‘odd couple.’)

One the one hand, diversity is usually regarded as a Good Thing. It connotes inclusivity, a variety of perspectives, a sense that ‘normal’ is not defined by any one sex or ethnicity or religion or orientation. On the other hand tokenism is usually regarded as a Bad Thing. It connotes misrepresentation and a patronising attitude to a particular group. Treading the line between these two can be very difficult indeed, particularly when combined with issues of creativity and artistic license.

Compare and contrast: the lack of diversity in ‘Friends’ (set in New York City) with the lack of diversity in ‘Midsomer Murders’ (set in rural Oxfordshire.) New York City is a very diverse geographical area, and towards the end of its 10 year run, Friends was starting to come under fire for its overwhelmingly ‘Whitebread’ depiction of NYC. On the other hand, rural Oxfordshire is, as a matter of fact, predominantly Caucasian, and so would the inclusion of characters from ethnic minorities be a crass attempt to shoehorn in an unrealistic sense of diversity? (This is of course setting aside the boneheaded remarks made by the writer about the last bastion of Englishness.) It seems to me that the crucial difference between these two examples is representation. Artistically depicting somewhere real but omitting its ethnic variation seems, well, not to put too fine a point on it, like whitewashing.

As a matter of opinion, I think that Doctor Who creates ethnically diverse landscapes very well. Which makes sense, given that it’s a show about the past, present & future of this and many other planets. So it’s right that characters should be depicted who are white and black and brown. And green and blue and red. And it’s not as if this kaleidoscope is restricted to the extras either. Looking back over the 7 series of the main show (plus specials), 4 series of the spin off Torchwood, and 5 series of the spin off The Sarah Jane adventures, the supporting characters show a terrific range of sexes, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in each show. In fact I’d be hard pressed to come up with another TV universe which has embraced the range of humanity experience so fully. Although I’m sure that there are groups that might feel differently. (Off the top of my head, I’m not sure of the extent to which non-able bodied people are depicted.)

So, for the 12th time in a row, a white male has been cast as the main protagonist. Is this a missed opportunity? Perhaps. Moffat made it clear that he is open to the idea of a non-white male doctor. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse from the point of view of those who think this is a missed opportunity. If the Doctor could have been female, does that mean that she should have been? Do the arts have a responsibility to push an inclusive agenda, or is that agenda served better by maintaining the ‘integrity’ (whatever that means) of casting whoever the producer’s feel will do the best job, irrespective of their sex, age or ethnicity?

I think my feeling is that while I can understand the disappointment of those who feel Capaldi’s casting is a missed opportunity, I can’t share in it. I think that given the show’s (in my opinion) generally good history of casting a range of actors, it’s more important for them to focus on what they do with those characters. For instance if Hispanic actors were only ever cast as villains I think I would see that as more offensive than simply not casting them in the first place.

In fact there was just one comment in the Guardian which actually made me feel quite upset on this subject:
“Given the rules of regeneration theoretically permit the Doctor to become anyone, many may regret there has been no change of race or gender – although, following recent concern over misogynist attacks online, female actors may be relieved to have avoided becoming a test case for the limits of Twitter tolerance by feminising a famously boy-centred franchise.”

The notion that marginalised female actors might feel relief that now at least they won’t have to put up with rape and bomb threats is offensive and abhorrent. Although for the avoidance of doubt I am absolutely not lambasting Mark Lawson for raising this as he is making a subtle point about a difficult subject, and kudos to him for that. For although I hate the idea, there is a possibility that he may be right, which I hate far more. As a feminist I find that idea far more damaging than Peter Capaldi getting the role of a lifetime.

3 thoughts on “Diversity and the Last of the Time Lords

  1. Alan Bell says:

    Davros is a visually impaired user of a powerchair – in fact all the Daleks are basically life support systems and transport devices. Granted this probably isn’t the most positive image of assistive technology, but they are badass!

  2. Becky says:

    I agree with what you said. I’m a bit of a doctor who fan and Stu even more so but I think they are looking at it the wrong way and not like a timelord at all 🙂 I mean looking at time from all points of time beginning and end and all in between. The title to your blog made me think, ‘the last timelord’. If PC was in fact the last timelord how would people feel about it? I think he will be great but it does beg the question, what would people want as a fitting conclusion to the epic series if it was to end completely after this series? In my opinion, most people would want to see a dramatic final choice for the role such as a unusual choice of british actor, a hollywood actor, or a change in direction such as a woman or ethnic group or disabled person. As long as the series continues and the doctor continues to travel through time there will always be enough time for one of these choices in the future and so, unfortunately, it doesn’t need to happen now. At least not yet. Perhaps a risk of series end would make them go for a more ‘risky’ (interesting choice). I think PC will be very cool though!

  3. Ralph Smallberries says:

    Good article. I wonder how much difference The Doctor originating on TV makes to people’s views of the debate. Unlike characters from literature (where our imaginations generally impose their look, well, until the awful cash-in comic/TV series/movie rocks up), the visual signifiers of The Doctor are the character – a white male in ‘zany’ dress.

    Growing up, science fiction stories seemed well ahead of the curve when it came to non-white (Samuel R Delany, Octavia Butler), non-male (Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Bulter) and non-hetero (Theodore Sturgeon, Samuel R Delany) main characters. Significantly, these were all characters where their race/gender/orientation was by-the-by, they simply were and there was no shoehorned message – the readers were treated as adults. However, when characters with minority backgrounds such as these are ‘whitewashed’ for TV/movie adaptations – here’s looking at you Legends of Earthsea – I get very annoyed. Not only are the producers ignoring the author’s carefully crafted work, they’re pre-judging their audience as ignorant due to their own low standards, but most significantly they’re alienating viewers who may have previously identify with these characters due to a shared minority background – basically saying that it’s not acceptable for the mainstream. Sadly there is little debate to be found in the broadsheets when these events occur, but there has been reams about this attempt to reverse-social-engineer The Doctor.

    I would hope that altering The Doctor’s ‘traditional’ outwards appearance would be down to the producers finding an actor they really feel has to be The Doctor. In that case the audience would go with the decision as they would be able to see what the actor has added to the character, a well-meaning but flawed gesture, however, may fail all concerned.

    My reading of The Doctor (henceforth referred to as TD!) is that TD chooses earthlings as travelling companions because we look like Gallifreyans (therefore outward appearance must be important to TD, possibly helping to ‘ground’ him with our similar look – it’s never good to be the last of your kind!). Also, as Gallifreyans have gender and race (I’ve seen female and black ones) TD must either select male and white or else have no choice about it – imagine trying to stay sane when the face looking back at you in the mirror is not only new, but a different gender and/or race! But as there seems to be little canon lore on regeneration, the writers are free to roam.

    Like yourself, I’ve also noticed the “make TD a woman or black guy” comments BTL on various websites and how limited that is when it comes to the diversity of humanity. It’s like there is a scale of ‘otherness’ from a subconsciously-accepted mainstream and some feel we can’t move too far from it in one go (not female AND black!), a ‘one step at a time, Martin’ approach that gives off a poorly-disguised-social-engineering vibe. If you’re making statement casting, go hog wild! Native American perhaps?

    However, one thing that I expect is non-negotiable for the casting of TD is they way the actor speaks. They must always use clearly enunciated English. I put money on there never being an actor cast as TD who speaks like an Irish Traveller. It would simply be too much of a leap for the majority of a mainstream audience to make. Which in a show about time travel, seems rather sad.

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