Doctor Who, Stunt Casting, and the Elusive Female Doctor

by thethreepennyguignol

So, I write a lot about Doctor Who on this blog, and there’s a question that I haven’t addressed yet. One that, with the end of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the show’s lead drawing to a close, has been asked more and more: why is the Doctor always a white dude?

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For those not in the know, the Doctor, the show’s main character, is a Time Lord, a member of a race whose main characteristic is being able to regenerate into different forms. The show has shown several times that the Time Lords aren’t limited by race or gender when it comes to regeneration (most notably, The Master, the Doctor’s long-time nemesis, traditionally male in the series before, is now played by a woman), so why is it that, thirteen times in a row, the Doctor has been played by a white man?

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Now, obviously, the first person to go to when it comes to answering a question like this is Steven Moffat, the current showrunner and man behind the selection of the last three Doctors (Peter Capaldi, John Hurt, and Matt Smith). He has said a lot on the matter, considering how often the question has come up over the last few years – he’s agreed that we need “better female role models and representation on screen” but he’s also argued that  “It will not happen that somebody sits down and say we must turn the Doctor into a woman. That is not how you cast the Doctor.” Perhaps most importantly, however, when asked what advice he would give incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, he said “Just choose the best person for the job and any other agenda, however worthy, should be ignored.”

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And I think this where my main issue about the discourse surrounding the casting of a non-white, non-male Doctor comes from. It’s the idea that casting a woman or a person of colour is an agenda of some kind – that any move away from white and male is a deviation from the norm, a shift from the default. I see a lot of people discussing the casting of a female Doctor as a gimmick of some kind, as though putting a woman in the leading role of a show that has made it entirely possible for a woman to lead it is some kind of big flashing “ATTENTION” sign to get people ruffled up. Putting a non-white non-dude as the lead of Doctor Who wouldn’t require the show to change it’s mythology in any way, and yet, for some reason, it’s consistently suggested that doing so would fulfill some kind of “agenda”. As though shows about women or non-white people (or both!) are a specialty subject, because obviously white and male are the default standard that pop culture aims for. Women and people of colour aren’t stunt casting, for goodness sake, not when the show has set up their ability to take on the leading role pretty unequivocally.

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And hey, you know, I totally agree that the best person should be cast for the role. Steven Moffat said about casting his Doctors that “A person will pop into the showrunner’s head and they’ll think. “Oh, my God, what if it was that person?” And when that person is a woman, that’s the day it will happen.” So really, thirteen times in a row, the person who popped into the showrunner’s head just happened to be a white guy? Not to say that the people who’ve played Doctor Who haven’t all been great in their own ways, but it’s patronising to suggest that the fact the Doctor has always been a white man hasn’t contributed to the fact that the character has always been a white man, if you catch my drift. It speaks to the fact that the pop culture landscape is still vastly dominated by white maleness that the actors who just so happened to pop into the showrunner’s heads when they needed to recast were never women, or people of colour. The only way that’s going to change is if someone has the bollocks to actually put in the effort to cast someone different, and that isn’t going to happen as long as everyone sits around pretending that the casting of the Doctor is some sort of God-given event like the naming of a monarch or some shit. I’m not saying the Doctor shouldn’t be played by a white guy ever again, just that the reasoning often given for why the character always has been is pretty thin.

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Okay, but why should the show think about casting someone else? Doctor Who’s naturally chameleonic premise means that the show has been able to explore time and space from a number of different perspectives and outlooks – even in the last five years, we’ve gone from Matt Smith’s hyperactive smartass to Peter Capaldi’s dour, sarcastic Doctor. The show is limiting itself by sticking to having actors solely white and male playing it’s leading character, when some creative casting could actually bring something new to the show’s premise beyond “ooh, I wonder if this white man will be grumpy or happy?”.

So yeah, I would love to see the next Doctor cast as something beyond the show’s white male standard. I’m not going to boycott or hate the show on principle if it doesn’t go that way, but it would be great to see the show I love (a show that is rapidly stagnating, for what it’s worth) trying something genuinely new for a change.

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