Cambridgeshire writer of Doctor Who books discusses who should be the next Time Lord
So who should be the next Doctor? The best life form for the job, that's who.
In this fine, learned city of scholars and sages, everyone’s an expert in something – be it astrophysics, archaeology or the life cycle of the Indonesian flatworm. Being a polytechnic boy, the best I can offer, rather pathetically, is Doctor Who.
With two books on the subject under my belt and a regular writing gig on the show’s official magazine, I know more than any 45-year-old man respectably ought to know about Zygons, Zarbi and zed neutrino biological inversion stabilisers (one for the hardcore there).
So I watched with a mixture of amusement and weary resignation last week as, within moments of incumbent Time Lord Peter Capaldi handing in his notice, the UK media abandoned such trivial concerns as Brexit and imminent Trumpageddon to focus on the true defining question of our age: Should the next Doctor be a woman?
Plenty think it should be. Peter Capaldi himself says it’s a good idea, while one of his predecessors, Paul McGann, has narrowed his choice down to a particular woman, Tilda Swinton. Former TARDIS traveller Billie Piper went further, claiming it would “feel like a snub” if the role went to another man.
According to the Radio Times, “the pressure is on the BBC to make a statement about its commitment to telling diverse stories” – by casting a woman, a non-white actor or, indeed, a non-white woman – “or risk a backlash”.
As a Doctor Who fan and (I’d like to think, but I guess it’s for others to judge) a feminist, I feel a bit conflicted about all this. I’m all for increasing female and ethnic minority representation (you’re already cringing at the ‘but’ coming here, aren’t you?), but why fixate on Doctor Who in particular? It seems an oddly specific way to push for social change. After all, Death In Paradise has just announced Ardal O’Hanlon as its third white male lead on the bounce and I don’t see any “backlash” against that.
Partly, of course, it’s because the Doctor is the only character on TV who can change his entire body and personality. (Well, apart from Michelle Fowler on EastEnders recently. And Mark Fowler before her. And Sam Mitchell. And Miss Ellie off Dallas and… well, loads of soap opera characters, actually. But the point there is we weren’t supposed to notice they’d changed, which wouldn’t really have worked if Miss Ellie had come back as a black man.) Also, Who writer Steven Moffat has set a precedent by showing that Time Lords can change both gender and skin colour. So, goes the argument, why not have the Doctor be something other than a white male?
Well exactly. Why not? That’s the correct question to ask. In my opinion, the incoming Doctor Who showrunner, Chris Chibnall, should have total freedom to choose his next Time Lord – black, white, male, female, human or Raxacoricofallapatorian (That’s enough nerdy in-jokes – Ed). And if the best person for the job is a woman, then fantastic. Sounds great. I’m well up for that. But if the best person for the job happens to be a white man, also great.
The point is, Chibnall shouldn’t feel he has a BBC diversity officer breathing down his neck – and there sure as hell shouldn’t be a “backlash”, whatever the decision. Unless he casts Milo Yiannopoulos or Piers Morgan or something. In which case, fill your boots.
The ironic thing is, of all the places where women are still shamefully under-represented – from boardrooms to the Houses of Parliament – British TV drama isn’t one. On the contrary, it’s a golden age for the female TV lead: think Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, Claire Foy in The Crown, Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty, Nicola Walker in Unforgotten, Suranne Jones in Doctor Foster (and Scott & Bailey), Joanna Scanlan in No Offence, Emilia Fox in Silent Witness, Olivia Colman and Sheridan Smith in… everything else. What have the blokes got to offer in return? Inspector George Gently? That drippy vicar off Grantchester? The bloke from Midsomer Murders? Do me a favour.
Also, diversity is a more complex issue than the media – and some identity politics lobby groups – often make out. Isn’t class still as much of a factor as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation? For example, I’ve seen a lot of people on social media nominating Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a potential new Doctor. If she’s the right woman for the job, then fair enough – bring her on. But would a woman born in west London who attended a private sixth-form college in Marylebone, then RADA, be any more of a victory for diversity and progress than a white, working-class male actor from, say, Doncaster? (Her brother’s called Jasper, for goodness’ sake.)
Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the fabulous Nicola Walker or Anna Maxwell Martin have a crack at the Doctor. But I’d be equally happy with someone like Bertie Carvel, a posh white boy (the clue’s in the name) from Hampstead who also happens to be a brilliant, quirky actor.
Whoever they end up casting, the important thing is they should convincingly be able to portray the Doctor’s values of tolerance, justice and respect for all life forms, regardless of colour, creed, gender or number of limbs and eyes. Plus it would help if they look good in a silly hat.
:: You can read Paul Kirkley’s column in the Cambridge Independent every Wednesday. Subscribe to the Cambridge Independent app, available for all iOS, Android and some Dalek devices.