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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era