Returning to Doctor Who’s Old White Guy Roots: Peter Capaldi is the 12th Doctor

At first that headline might sound a little sarcastic– Okay, so it is, but I’m also dead serious.  In recent years, the old British TV show has branched out and reached new audiences, primarily in the U.S. But when Zoe Ball announced the newest Doctor, I’d venture a guess that 70% of the American fans waiting at the edge of their seats for the announcement let out a collective and ironic “who?” before heading straight to the Wikipedia app on their smart phones.

But Peter Capaldi is no stranger to many English fans, who seemed genuinely stoked to get a good and well-known actor for the role. There seems also to be some enthusiasm for the general curmudgeonly disposition of the roles Capaldi tends to play.  So the 12th Doctor will be breaking old crumbled barriers by moving away from the recent trend of increasingly younger, hipper Doctors, and bringing back the old white dudes of the past.

The Doctor through the ages...
The Doctor through the ages…

When interviewed during the live announcement, Rufus Hound (go ahead and imdb him too) said that he was proud of Doctor Who because it’s British. And indeed, the show is so very British. It’s kind of a thing. It’s a thing like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song is a thing for American 80’s babies, except that it’s a thing for Brits across several generations because of the show’s absurdly long run of quirky white dudes running around time and space pestering people. Granted, Capaldi is actually Scottish, but, despite the fact that most American fans will now refer to him as “that doctor guy from World War Z,” he was clearly a British fandom favorite for the 12th Doctor. Matt Smith was a no-name but his young, popular charm appealed to the suddenly booming fandom on this side of the Atlantic where our heroes aren’t allowed to age. (You gotta admit, you were totally relieved not to see some baby-faced pop star take the helm, right?)

But to any disappointed American Who fans, BBC basically says, well… eat it. It is after all a British show, steeped in British pride, culture, and a lot of talk about tea. So right on.  Who cares if non-U.K. folk don’t know the guy?

We haven’t seen Capaldi in action yet, so we don’t exactly know what kind of personality he’ll bring to this new incarnation of the Doctor, but the man is obviously a talented actor (no seriously, go now and check out his imdb page). So, what’s to complain about then?

Well… frankly nothing. As nice as it’d be to have a brown-skinned Doctor or a woman Doctor or a Doctor who falls in love with a male companion, maybe we can just settle for a good Doctor backed by good writing and stories that don’t act like race isn’t a thing, or gender isn’t a thing or sexuality isn’t a thing. Because, honestly, we hoped, but what were we really expecting from a show built on the legacy of quirky white guys barging into homes and offices telling people “it’s okay, I’m the Doctor” (seriously, make him a Black guy and let’s see how that scenario changes), a show who decided that its two major Black characters (from separate seasons no less) just had to get together, a show that deals with race in Shakespearean England by saying “you’d be surprised, it’s not so different from your time”, a show whose supporting cast is pretty impressively white given how much of it is set in the colorful city of London?

So yea, there are some things Doctor Who could work on to paint a more dynamic and realistic picture of the planet the Doctor is so fond of, but the main reason I think people are disappointed is actually because of the strides the show has made since the reboot — the first Black companion in Martha Jones, the first LGBTQ companion in Captain Jack Harkness, a prominent middle-aged female hero in River Song.  These things are super awesome, and everyone loved them!  And now we want more!

The thing is, the hope for a  break from the white guy tradition of Doctor Who is particularly unique, because Doctor Who is an iconic hero, and while the lamer type of fan tends to balk and whimper when the race or gender of an iconic hero is changed, with The Doctor the mechanism for such changes is built in!  He regenerates into vastly different phenotypes while always maintaining his Time Lord quirkiness.  So, not only is it surprising that a non-white, non-male Doctor hasn’t already happened, it’s a special brand of disappointing when fans hope for something different and exciting only to find more of the same, especially when it actually would make more sense that the Doctor wasn’t always white. I mean… it’s kinda like rolling snake-eyes 12 times in a row. At the very least, you’d expect one ginger.

All that said, I’m sure that Capaldi is gonna be great, and the wompy sigh at the announcement is not a comment on his talent or his appropriateness for the role. In fact, given his previous appearance along with Karen Gillan in “The Fires of Pompeii” episode when he confiscates the TARDIS, we know he’s got talent, and it will be really interesting to see how the writers bring it all together in making him the next reincarnation.

It’s just that usual sigh we’re used to letting out when we dare to imagine someone other than a white dude in the sci-fi spotlight and find ourselves disappointed… again. Oh well, maybe next time. In the meantime, I for one am gonna marathon some Luther.


20 thoughts on “Returning to Doctor Who’s Old White Guy Roots: Peter Capaldi is the 12th Doctor”

  1. I also think what’s being ignored in many of these conversations – possibly because American audiences don’t fully understand how the BBC works – is the question, does an organisation funded by the British public have a responsibility to reflect audience diversity more in one of its most iconic shows. I’m not sure the answer is straightforward, but I’m slightly annoyed that more people aren’t asking the question.

  2. Seriously fantastic point. I’m slightly annoyed at myself for not asking it. Though given their belligerent denial when faced with that big scary “r” word, I imagine, they’d respond similarly– “But we *do* have diversity! Seee? And then point gleefully at Martha Jones and Mickey”. Rather than evaluate why folk might make those accusations. Your using the word “responsibility” reminds that this is kids show and there is certainly a pressing responsibility to kids to reflect diversity and encourage cross-cultural understanding. Not to mention, since we’re talking about roots, it’s also originally an educational show which means glossing over historical points like race is pretty ridiculous.

  3. I agree. I think one of the issues is Moffat as a writer isn’t that comfortable with diversity. He doesn’t write women or POC well, they just don’t seem to feature on his imaginative radar. I love Capaldi, I think he’ll do an amazing job, but I’m sad an opportunity was lost.

  4. Neil Gaiman had some interesting things to say in the wake of the announcement:

    “And here, for what it’s worth, are my other thoughts: Do I think it’s time to cast a woman as the Doctor? Not yet. Not quite… [f I were show-running (I’m not) I wouldn’t cast a woman as the Doctor yet, and it would absolutely be on my list of things to do in the following regeneration. (I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate.) Some of that is stuff I’d find hard to articulate, mostly having to do with what kind of Doctor you follow Matt Smith’s Doctor with: someone harder and much older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to me, as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game…”

    As someone who was a huge fan of Eccleston’s resentful warrior Doctor, I can’t help but agree with Gaiman.

    Oh, and Tracy, there’s a very well put together article over on Pajiba on your point about Moffat. It’s well worth a read.

  5. Thanks! And thought the Gaiman comments were interesting, though interesting to have confirmed when the actor who refused was asked.

  6. Gah! I accidentally clicked the down thumb instead of up on your comment and can’t fix it. Sorry! (if anyone can help me fix it…)

  7. Sorry, don’t think there’s a fix for that one (Free thumbs rights or something like that.) But it’s been countered with a thumbs up! Blog-world problems…

  8. Beautifully written post.
    I was hoping for a fresh new Doctor Who concept, but I’m sure Capaldi will do an awesome job, but feel the same as the other comments, they missed a big chance here to be more diverse.

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