A little over a week ago, when Peter Capaldi was announced as the twelfth Doctor, there was a lot of celebration and cheering across Doctor Who fandom. And for good reason. Capaldi is a brilliant actor, and I have no doubt he will make an amazing Doctor. However, amidst all the praise and adulation has been some criticism and negativity. There have even been some rather baseless and silly criticisms. This isn’t really anything new. Doctor Who fans can be hard to please sometimes, and there are typically vehement complaints with every new Doctor, from Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket not being Doctor-ish enough to Matt Smith being too young—an interesting one given that some people are now calling Peter Capaldi too old. However, there is one criticism of Capaldi’s casting that is gaining a fair amount of voice and it’s actually quite valid.
To be fair, it’s not actually a criticism of Peter Capaldi himself, and I’ll reiterate that I think he’s a great choice for the role. I’m excited to see his portrayal. Indeed, I can’t wait! The criticism is directed more towards the process itself and the people who make the decision, people like Steven Moffat and the other senior members of the production crew. The simple fact of the matter is that Peter Capaldi is the twelfth white man in a row to play the role, thirteenth if you count John Hurt. There has never been a person of colour in the role or even—gasp!—a woman. And lots of people have noticed. (Just as a bit of shameless self-promotion, this Jezebel article on the topic even mentions me by name!)
It’s important to note that these are generally unconscious biases. I don’t for one minute believe that Steven Moffat sat down with his associates and said, “Matt Smith is leaving so we need to pick a new Doctor, but whoever we pick, he must absolutely be white.” That would be silly. However, the choice did nevertheless end up going to a white man, and there wasn’t even an actual audition process this time. Moffat has said he had Capaldi in mind right from the start. Capaldi did do an audition, but he was the only one. That audition was simply so that Moffat could make a tape of the performance and pass it on to others involved in the decision-making process so that they could say yes or no. They all said yes. It’s really not that unusual for actors in television and movies to be chosen without a full audition process—sometimes parts are even written with a specific actor in mind—but it is a fairly good demonstration of bias in motion because when Steven Moffat sat down to think about what the new Doctor might be like, he probably did what so many other white male fans would do (and I include myself in that statement): He imagined a white Doctor. He then thought of an actor who would fit that imaginary Doctor. Because white is the default in his mind, he naturally gravitated immediately to a white actor. In this particular case, no non-white actor even had a chance.
As for the possibility of a woman in the role, Moffat himself said,
When it's the right decision, maybe we'll do it. It didn't feel right to me, right now. I didn't feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it—and I know I'll get into trouble for saying this—were women. [They were] saying, “No, no, don't make him a woman!”
I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next Doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.
I suppose one could argue that I am, myself, exhibiting a bias in suggesting this, and yes, I suppose I am. However, it’s a bias that challenges existing biases. We can probably never totally eliminate all biases in our lives, but the only way to minimize bias is to challenge it with alternatives.
Of course, I’m not in any way suggesting Peter Capaldi should be dropped and a woman or person of colour cast in his place. Peter Capaldi has been chosen. He is the twelfth Doctor and he will remain so for however long he chooses to. Once he débuts next year, we can judge him based on his performance, which as I’ve already state, I’m confident will be brilliant. However, when Capaldi does decide to move on, perhaps whoever does the casting then will consider some truly new options.
* Yes, I am aware that Neil Gaiman has stated that a black actor was previously offered the part of the Doctor but turned it down. Because of the timing of this statement, many people have erroneously concluded that it was for the role of the twelfth Doctor. Gaiman has since clarified that it was for an earlier Doctor. This does show that people of colour are not completely out of the mix when it comes to the role, but it doesn’t change the fact that the second choice after this unnamed actor was another white guy.