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.