We need a Tardis full of interesting female characters - with rich interior lives

The response to the announcement that the Doctor would yet again be played by a straight, white man is just about settling down.

It was clear, from the day it was announced, that clearing airtime in order to unveil the new lead for a different, long-running and much-beloved television programme was a dodgy idea and watching it an exercise in extreme silliness. Even so, millions of us (just under seven at the peak moment of revelation) tuned in to watch Doctor Who Live: the Next Doctor on BBC1, and lo, it was revealed. Our new Doctor, behemoth of the Saturday tea-time slot and great British institution, was to be another straight, white male – this time of Scottish ancestry – Peter Capaldi. Let joy be unconfined!

Capaldi’s most recent appearance on TV was as Randall Brown, the whip-smart, obsessive-compulsive head of news in the much-missed BBC2 period drama The Hour. And, of course, everyone over a certain age will recognise him from his brash and convincing performance as the spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (as well as its big-screen sibling, In the Loop).

The Doctor’s adventures are repeated and relived every season – but with scripts that explore his personality and showcase the complex humanity of his companions, Capaldi will make a fine lead for the show, as charismatic and twinkly as Tom Baker (who, by way of repeats on Nigerian television, was my first Doctor), as coldly alien as David Tennant could occasionally be, and as raw as Christopher Eccleston.

Following the lacklustre final outings of Eleven (Matt Smith), I can only look forward to Twelve’s adventures. I have no doubt that Capaldi will shine. I wish him the best.

And yet. While I wouldn’t censure the appointment of Capaldi himself, I can’t help but be disappointed. Prepare to groan and shake your head, but why not give a woman the job? The conditions were perfect – a resurgent feminist movement, and a female audience very much engaged in the fan and pop-culture spaces.

It was largely the “female internet” that took issue with what commenters saw as a weak character in Clara. We are recognising our power in being fans who shout back, and new opportunities to influence content in a tangible way.

In a year when Orange Is the New Black and Elementary both feature trans actors playing trans characters – and when one of the biggest shows on the planet was created by a black woman, is based on the life of a black woman and stars the first black female lead on US prime time in almost 40 years (Scandal, Shonda Rhimes, Judy Smith and Kerry Washington, respectively) – a female doctor felt tantalisingly within our reach.

On Twitter I mentioned how, like with the recent debate about women on British banknotes, I didn’t realise I cared that much until I did. The prospect of a female doctor (or a non-white man, for that matter), once awakened in certain quarters of the fandom, was not easy to budge. Even Helen Mirren said she felt it was time for the Doctor to be black, a woman, and gay.

The whole lead-up made the news of Capaldi’s new job (technically no longer a secret, as bookmakers had stopped taking bets on him long before the announcement) all the more disappointing – however pleased we were to note that, of all the many straight, white men the role could have gone to, it went to such a remarkable one. When I read that Steven Moffat, who writes the show, had said, “I didn’t feel enough people wanted [a female Doctor],” I wondered where he had done his polling. This felt very much like a missed opportunity.

The internet has regrouped, though, and now come our indignant requests. Tumblr’s servers are groaning under the weight of posts such as “What Moffat must do with River Song and Clara in the next season” and “Doctor Who’s sexism problem – and how Moffat can solve it”. Twitter isn’t far behind. It’s fair to say that Moffat rules swaths of Tumblr simply by being the pointman on both Doctor Who and Sherlock (due back on BBC1 this year). Now that he’s disappointed a good proportion of fans by not giving us a female Doctor, we hope he’ll fill the Tardis with interesting female characters every week – women with rich interior lives, written to the full, and not just existing to “save” the Doctor, or swoon upon him. 

Jenna-Louise Coleman in the last series of Doctor Who. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder