Following Monday’s announcement that Peter Capaldi will step down as the lead in Doctor Who at the end of the year (regenerating in the Christmas special), the rumour mill has gone into overdrive as to who could fill his Time Lord shoes.
But could this be the year that the BBC finally breaks the mould by casting a Doctor who is not a white male actor?
The lore is there (we saw in the previous series that a Time Lord can change both sex and skin tone when regenerating), the public desire is there, and this might be the time for the corporation to make a statement about its commitment to telling diverse stories – or risk a backlash.
You see, back in 2013 when Peter Capaldi was cast, some people were disappointed. It was no reflection on Capaldi’s calibre as an actor – he’s done a brilliant job in the role as expected, and will be missed when he steps down at the end of the year – but simply because some had hoped that 2013 could be the year when a female or non-white actor took over the TARDIS, showing a whole new demographic of kids that their stories mattered.
Since then the discussion around the subject has only intensified, with departing showrunner Steven Moffat regularly asked whether the Doctor could be a woman, as well as revealing that a black actor was once offered the role.
“I certainly don’t think there’s ever been a problem with making the Doctor black, which is why it should happen one day,” he said when new companion Pearl Mackie was cast.
“I mean, we’ve tried. The part has been offered to a black actor. But for various reasons, it didn’t work out.”
Following the news of Capaldi’s departure, former companion Billie Piper joined the discussion, going so far as to say that it would feel like a “snub” if the next Doctor wasn’t a woman.
The pressure is on the BBC to make a progressive choice. Just think: in 2013 people were disappointed that they played it safe; now four more years have passed, and the same kind of casting could start to look like a pattern.
Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie filming the upcoming Doctor Who series 10
In recent years, the series itself has also laid the groundwork for such a casting change, with Doctor Who’s rules of regeneration (where an injured Time Lord renews every cell of their body, resulting in a different appearance and personality, and a different actor) revealed to allow for gender and ethnicity changes.
As far back as 2011, Matt Smith’s Doctor mentioned that a Time Lord friend of his had changed genders between incarnations, while in 2014 longstanding villain the Master was reborn as Michelle Gomez’s Missy.
Even more recently in 2015, an elderly white male Time Lord regenerated into a young black woman (below), in what may have been a nod to the long-running discussion about the Doctor’s casting future. Canonically, more than almost any other character in fiction, he can change, and to some it’s long overdue that he does.
T’Nia Miller as The General
Of course, there will always be dissenting voices. While for the most part fans of Doctor Who have adopted its core message of inclusion and equality, a vocal minority would decry the casting of a woman or person of colour as “tokenism”, and a betrayal of the Doctor Who of old.
But honestly, seeing as we now know that Time Lords can change both gender and ethnicity through their regenerations, why wouldn’t we have a non-white or female actor take the lead? If Time Lords can be any shape or colour (as the series has categorically shown us), it’s frankly a bizarre coincidence that the Doctor has been a white man every time thus far. He probably wants a check-up at the Gallifrey health centre.
And if it’s a meritocracy where only the “right” actor is chosen for the part, we’re saying that there are no female or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic actors good enough for the role, and never have been, which is patently absurd and untrue. If the best person for the job happens to be a white man every single time, that’s one hell of a coincidence.
In the end, it remains to be seen exactly who will replace Capaldi, and whether the BBC will take this chance to do something a bit different with Doctor Who. It’s likely that the decision won’t be made for some months yet (with incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall telling RadioTimes.com that he won’t even start work on Who until later this year), and it’s impossible to predict what direction they’ll go in (not that that’s stopped us trying, of course).
For my money, it seems more likely that a male BAME actor will be chosen over a female actor, as having a woman play the Doctor would require a slight repositioning of the series that, while not unwelcome, might be tough work for a brand new showrunner.
But we’ll have to wait and see. For now, the signs look good that we could potentially be getting a slightly different sort of hero stepping into the Tardis – and after 53 years of travels in time, it’s not a moment too soon.
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on Saturday 15th April