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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On Wheels

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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