I’m nerd enough that I watched the announcement of who would be playing Doctor Who once Matt Smith leaves the role after this year’s Christmas Special. Like others, I followed along in the weeks preceding as geeks, bloggers, and celebrities all speculated on who would land the part. I had a wishlist of casting choices just like everyone else. None of my dreamdocs were chosen, alas, but you know what? It’s not my show — I don’t get to choose.
That doesn’t mean the choice of Peter Capaldi was bad, or insensitive, or unfair. On the contrary, the choice was brilliant, and one I didn’t even think of. So why are so many people feeling okay about denigrating Capaldi’s selection?
In the pre-decision weeks, Helen Mirren and John Barrowman (love them) both advocated for a female Doctor this time around.* Idris Elba was a frontrunner among those who wanted to see the racial barrier knocked down. And then there were less-political people who just felt the character of the Doctor had waited long enough, and it was time to let him regenerate as a “big ginge.” Personally, I would have been happy with any of those directions, if the person chosen was the one who best fit the direction Stephen Moffat planned to take the 12th.
I know that there’s not a level of diversity in television and film programming that reflects the actual demographics of society (side note, if you haven’t yet, check out the Fresh Air episode with Geena Davis on women in movies), but the negative, bitter backlash from diversity activists (and the non-activists who mostly just retweet things) when it was announced that Peter Capaldi — a 50-something British white dude — would be taking the role was pretty sucky.
Look, I was rooting hard for Chiwetel Ejiofor to be the 11th back when Tennant was leaving, and I was bitterly disappointed when Matt Smith was chosen (though he grew on me once his episodes started airing). I know that there’s precedent for a Time Lord becoming a Time Lady on regeneration, and Moffatt has said himself that he could see it happening. But listen: we are not entitled to determine the creative decisions of artists based on our own socio-political agendas. They’re artists for a reason… they have ideas they want to express. We are all free to do the same. So just like there’s no reason an Italian restaurant should be told to serve borscht just because I really think beets are underrepresented on most restaurant menus, people who write and cast tv characters shouldn’t be beholden to the agendas of some audience members at the expense of their creative vision.
Frankly, I wish the Doctor would be a vegetarian this time around. If he hates killing so much, then why is he so willing to eat the flesh of dead animals? He doesn’t eat onscreen often, but it’s happened a few time and it’s included meat. But that’s my agenda, not Doctor Who’s. It’s not up to me.
The Doctor is a character that’s been around for 50 years. 50 years. He’s had a rotating cast of companions and guest stars more diverse than most US tv shows. And he’s a British dude. So far, a white one. At some point the right actor (male/female/trans) could come along and wow the showrunner/writer/producer, and then maybe The Doctor will be a Black British Dude. Or an Indian British Woman. Or an Asian Trans Brit.** Or whatever set of demographic descriptors apply to the actor who blows up the audition and wins the part.
But in the meantime, the person who wowed Stephen Moffat this time was Peter Capaldi, an actor with a pretty great pedigree, and who, yes, I can already see as the Doctor even though I’m not very familiar with his previous work. He’s a fantastic choice, and ought to bring a shift in tone that will be cool. And as far as diversity goes, I’m pretty psyched they went with someone older for a change. If nothing else, I’m thinking it will change the romcom tendencies that creep in with all the younger companions that fall for the Doctor.***
Complaints that the Capaldi choice was generic, safe, wrong, an insult to women/people of color/name-the-underrepresented-group-you-were-rooting-for are just plain mean and narrow-minded, the opposite of what the complainers try to espouse, and really insulting to Capaldi and Moffatt — what makes any of us a better judge of how to cast the Doctor? Have we done it successfully? Written scripts like Blink? It’s just conceited to think that our personal opinions on this are more valid and our agendas more important than the professional opinions of the people who are doing the job.
If I want to get borscht on the Italian restaurant’s menu, I don’t just go in and tell them to put borscht on the menu, and get all my friends to blog and tweet the same thing. Then I’m just demanding an outcome, not helping the deciders see things my way. No, I need to talk to the owners and convince them of the inherent awesomeness of beets — they are the most intense of vegetables, after all — so that they will want borscht on the menu if it can be fit in without ruining the balance they’ve worked hard to create with the existing dishes, or at least so they can start thinking about gradually shifting some menu items so the borscht will eventually be a seamless addition that makes the menu more robust and diverse, rather than everyone reacting with, “Why is there Russian beet soup on this menu? It’s never been there before!”
Likewise, criticizing a professional for choosing an actor that doesn’t meet your idea of what demographic quotas need to be met is uncool. If you want to change the decisions, convince the people who get to make the decisions that your point of view is worth adopting. Then let the pro cast the right actor, whoever it is, safe in the knowledge that the diversity question was factored into the weighty decision.
Would I have been thrilled (still) with Chiwetel Ejiofor? Fuck, yeah. Would I have swooned if it had been Emma Thompson? Holy hell, yes. Or Gina Bellman? There are no words that express how fast the swoon would’ve felled me. But I’m not the showrunner, and neither are you. Congratulations to Peter Capaldi, and good choice, Moffat. For #12, Doctor Who’s a white dude again; time to get over it and start looking forward to the new episodes and the 50th Anniversary special.
White dudes can be good actors, too.
* In Barrowman’s case, do you wonder how much of that was just him hoping for more Captain Jack sexytime?
** Come on, the Doctor will always be a Brit.
*** Though, oh, Capaldi and River Song? Can’t. Wait.
P.S. The 50th Anniversary Special airs during WordCamp London. Who’s rigging up a projection? Tammie Lister, I think it’s your turn this time.