Well, it’s official. The 2017 series of Doctor Who will be Peter Capaldi’s last. The Doctor reinvented as a magnificently crumpled, aged punk has been one of the show’s golden ages and he’ll leave colossal DMs to fill.
But that means that we’re now back at that point where everyone finds themselves asking the same thing:
Over at MCM Towers, we have some thoughts.
Here’s the thing: Doctor Who is a show that has made the transitory nature of entertainment part of its DNA. The show is designed, from the ground up (or at least from that first regeneration), to embrace change. That’s one of the reasons it’s most of its way through a sixth decade and why its history is as rich and varied as that of the world that has evolved with it.
It’s time for the show to catch up with that world.
The Capaldi era has been revolutionary in a couple of ways that aren’t quite visible until you look straight at them. The first is the show’s cheerful embracing of narrative experimentation. We’ve had variable length episodes, a season of two-parters and all manner of visual and audio trickery to the storytelling. It’s almost as if 12’s own fundamental uncertainty, embodied in “…am I a good man?” has been embraced by the show itself. Doctor Who, at its best – and it’s often been there during the Capaldi years – has had no time for standing still.
That’s where the second revolutionary take comes to the fore; this is a Doctor who has felt entirely different to every single one of his predecessors despite owing a lot to three of them. Capaldi’s Scottish accent, his severity, his fierce eloquence, his grey hair, his age. All of these things have tied 12 visually to one, four and nine far more than any of his other predecessors. He’s felt impossibly old, desperately immature, incredibly clever and fiercely, savagely kind in a way that those three incarnations all also embodied. But in doing so, in wrapping those traits in Capaldi’s maniacal, heron-like physical presence the show has created something truly unique. Something made all the more unique by how easy it would have been to go for another young, spiky haired motormouth after David Tennant and Matt Smith.
That’s amazing. It’s also, bluntly, a good start. One that needs to be built on with the first incarnation of the Doctor to not be a white guy.
We know, the “just choose the person best for the job” argument is going to be coming straight at us just as soon as it finds the right Liz-Lemon-rolling-her-eyes gif. But the response to that is simple; the person right for the job can only be found if a large group of people are considered. And it’s way past time that group of people was expanded.
It’s somewhere between an open secret and an urban myth that previously Chiwetel Eijofor and Paterson Joseph were both either offered the role and turned it down or got down to the final shortlist. It’s also an open secret that several actresses have expressed huge interest in the role, ranging from Dame Helen Mirren to Hayley Atwell. There isn’t a name in this paragraph that wouldn’t not only knock it out of the park but turn the show into something incredibly different and, at the same time, still absolutely focused on its core concept; a brilliant, kind alien stranger who travels the universe, revels in the joy of discovery. Never cruel. Never cowardly. And never more powerful, especially in this day and age, than to have those words represented by someone who isn’t the embodiment of the cultural default.
I am absolutely not saying there aren’t a raft of brilliant white actors out there who would be perfect for the job.
There always are and they are always the first and, it often seems only, place the show looks for a new Doctor. Now, more than ever, that should change.
We live in dark times. And when things get dark, we turn to art to reassure us, to help us escape and to help us understand. And the art of our times is always shaped by those times, defined by the very things we seek to escape or to bring into sharper relief. Our stories are the maps to the territories we live in and those stories need to be as varied and unusual as we are ourselves.
It’s not just that a non-white and or non-male Doctor is overdue, even though they are. It’s that a non-white, non-male Doctor is the Doctor we need and deserve in the times we live in. Someone who embodies a perspective too quickly overlooked or demonised; someone who looks and sounds different but who is still the embodiment of six decades of heroism, intellect, compassion and humour. We need a Doctor. We need THIS Doctor, whoever she or he may turn out to be.
And even then that’s just a start. Different perspectives come from different writers and it’s past time those writers and showrunners were also pulled from a wider pool. We talked about this last year and there isn’t a candidate on that list we wouldn’t love to see steer the show into the third decade of the 21st century. Voices as real, as vital, as human as the ones that have gone before. But different. New. Needed. Overdue.
And even THEN, that’s just a start. The point is regularly made that casting a POC or a woman in a traditionally white male role isn’t as effective as building up new characters to that same level of cultural prominence. That’s absolutely right, and the fierce loyalty and love for Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is the absolute proof of that point. We evolve as a society the same way we learn as individuals, by trying new things, hearing new voices. But it’s hard, almost impossible for some people. And the more they resist, or turn away, the slower the change comes and the more we turn in on the cultural comfort food we’ve always known. If Doctor Who has a weakness, it’s assuredly that. The neat geological periods of previous Doctors serving as oases for many, and many in turn never venturing past them.
But at the end of this year, there is a perfect opportunity to do three impossible things at once; reach out to those cultural oases, reach out to new audiences and use the longest-running genre TV show in Western history to create something new.
At the end of this year, Peter Capaldi regenerates. And if he regenerates into Riz Ahmed or Rahul Kohli or Ruth Negga or Olivia Colman or a hundred other possibilities? That takes a 50 year foundation and builds something new on top of it. A beach head that will send an undeniable statement that people want new kinds of lead, new kinds of story. A message that will echo down a generation of writers, showrunners, crew and audiences. Not just the day saved, but the day changed, and changed forever for the better. I can’t think of a more perfectly Doctor Who moment than that.
By Alasdair Stuart