Brit TV: Doctor Who & its problematic casting history

By Heather McClendon

This week the BBC revealed that Peter Capaldi has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor. Subsequently, all hell broke loose on the internet. Some people are ecstatic with the casting choice. Others are disappointed—and, yes, a little angry—that the role has been filled by yet another white man.

Addressing the new Doctor may seem incongruous on a site that focuses on historical television. However, it is precisely the history of Doctor Who that reinforces why this casting decision is so problematic. Had the show originated with the 2005 Russell T. Davies reboot, instead of its actual 1963 inception, the casting of Capaldi would only be annoying in its lack of imagination—and not disgraceful.

Take a look at the actors who have portrayed the Doctor since 1963.

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Now glance through the actors who have either had a reoccurring role or played the role of the Doctor’s companion.

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Quite clearly there is a historic trend of casting white individuals in the main roles, almost exclusively. Regarding the Doctor, the role is even more limited: each one is white and male. This, perhaps, made more sense during the 1950s and 1960s because much of television was siloed by nation. There was the occasional international broadcast—like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—but international TV imports during the 50s, 60s and, even, 70s pale in comparison to those of today.

With more television available online, whether by legal or pirated means, television shows now experience an even bigger global audience. There is no such thing as a “British” or “American” or “Mexican” show, in the sense that only those audiences view the programming. The whole world is watching.

And yet, despite these changes, Doctor Who—along with dozens of other series—does not adequately reflect the growing diversity of its viewing population. Doctor Who is stuck in a time capsule. It can’t seem to move past its historic casting trend. And it has received some sharp criticism because of it.

Most recently, a group of academics published an anthology of essays Doctor Who and Race. The essay topics range from representation in casting to xenophobia and nationalism to postcolonialism and imperialism. The writers examine episodes from 1960s “classic Who” to the rebooted series directed by Davies and Steven Moffat. Here is the book’s description:

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction television series in the world and is regularly watched by millions of people across the globe. While its scores of fans adore the show with cult-like devotion, the fan-contributors to this book argue that there is an uncharted dimension to Doctor Who. Bringing together diverse perspectives on race and its representation in Doctor Who, this anthology offers new understandings of the cultural significance of race in the programme – how the show’s representations of racial diversity, colonialism, nationalism and racism affect our daily lives and change the way we relate to each other.

An accessible introduction to critical race theory, postcolonial studies and other race-related academic fields, the 23 contributors deftly combine examples of the popular cultural icon and personal reflections to provide an analysis that is at once approachable but also filled with the intellectual rigor of academic critique.

Amongst some of the strongest criticism came from the book’s editor Linda Orthia, who called the show “thunderingly racist.” That could be perceived as an extreme viewpoint—hyperbole, even. Yet the fact remains that the contributing writers offer up substantial concerns and highlight problematic issues of race within Doctor Who’s narrative history.

The BBC denied the claims of racism and pointed towards the casting of Freema Agyeman and Noel Clarke as evidence of their “diverse casting.” The broadcasting network stated: “Reflecting the diversity of the UK is a duty of the BBC, and casting on Doctor Who is colour-blind. It is always about the best actors for the roles.”

Both statements ring a little hollow when you peruse the faces of all the main actors from the show since 1963. Are we meant to be impressed that it took the show 44 years to cast a person of color as the Doctor’s companion? Using the same argument, Moffat and others have clearly stated that the casting of the Twelfth Doctor would not be influenced by any external factors, e.g. nationality, skin color, gender. Time and again, the network and show executives said that the role would be filled by “a brilliant actor.” Period. In a recent interview, Matt Smith — who will be leaving the role this Christmas — said: “I think they’ll just get the best actor for the part, man or woman. They’ll cast the best actor — the best actor who’s out there and wants to do it.”

It’s a company line — one that has been uttered over and again during the recent process of casting speculation. And it’s complete bull—. Are we to believe, then, that no person of color and / or female could fulfil the role of Doctor as well as another white man? Is the “best actor” possible for the show truly the same gender and ethnicity, for twelve recastings?

Doctor Who, with its plotline of regeneration, created something truly ingenious — a method of continuing the show beyond any one actor. Regeneration scenes have shown that the Doctor never knows what he (or she) will look like; there’s no guarantee. The possibilities for the Doctor, therefore, are endless: male, female, Anglo, Japanese, black, Latino, bisexual, transgender, ancient, young. But the show still goes with the same-old standby: white, male. What does that communicate to its viewers? What does it communicate about its commitment to accurately represent — and celebrate — the incredible diversity and outstanding breadth of actors working today? 

Rules, not exceptions

Unfortunately, the trenchant casting system of Doctor Who is the rule, not the exception. Take a look at other UK shows that have aired for at least twenty years. Coronation Street—with its gigantic cast—is strikingly whitewashed. (Seriously, scroll its character listing from ITV.) EastEnders, which premiered in 1985 fares a little better; it currently has three families of color and has historically included diversity in its casting. Taggart, another show that has aired since the 1980s, also has a history of casting white individuals to fulfil main roles.

Obviously this is not an industrial problem merely within British television. U.S. television is guilty as well. And it isn’t just shows that have been around for awhile that miss the mark of diverse representation on screen. Brand-new programming all too frequently under-represents or misrepresents women and people of color.

That being said, it is frustrating to witness our world increasingly diversify—in both physical cities and online spaces—and not see long-standing television programs evolve with and depict that diversity. Britain specifically has greatly diversified over the past several years. While the country as a whole is still overwhelming white (86% according to the 2011 census), fewer than half of the people living in London are white. The number of individuals who are of mixed race has risen over 1 million, and the number of Asian people in the UK has risen over 2.4 million.

And yet: Tentpole series and their showrunners seem to be uncomfortable with reflecting that growing diversity on television—at least in regards to main characters. Doctor Who had the opportunity to place an under-represented face on one of the most beloved and iconic characters in television history—and squandered it.

I suppose that is what I consider to be the most frustrating aspect of all this. The casting decision goes far beyond Doctor Who. It points to an insidious truth about the television industry: it is still steeped in sexism and privilege. The problematic aspects that existed at television’s birth regarding race and gender continue on. While there has been tremendous growth in pockets of television, these issues are systemic and will, thus, require more time to be remedied.

One day in the future, Doctor Who may finally break from its limited mold. I am hopeful in that. If the show continues in this trajectory, though, there may not be much of a show left to change. As with anything that stagnates, it will become tired and predicable, which is anathema to the very spirit of the Doctor. In fact, the Time Lord would likely encourage us to abandon it.

A different version of this column is posted on Heather’s blog at www.heathermclendon.com.

8 Responses to “Brit TV: Doctor Who & its problematic casting history”

    • Heather McLendon

      “Life After Tardis” is a great historical overview of those actors’ careers — thanks for sharing! It’s always fascinating to see how an iconic role changes (or doesn’t change) an actor’s career.

      Reply
    • Heather McLendon

      How interesting! I wonder who it was. I can imagine that many ideal actors for the role have scheduling conflicts — or perhaps have no interest in the series. Still, it would have been great if DW/BBC had had a second and third back-up so to speak. To me (and this is entirely me), it isn’t enough to make the effort once and be turned down. Diversity in casting requires a commitment, and if your first choice turns the offer down, then you search again. Obviously the BBC was under a time-crunch, so I’m sure they felt pressure to find someone relatively quickly. I understand that. I would just love to see that commitment to diversity, not just within Doctor Who but other popular series as well (UK and US).

      Reply
  1. Figs

    I wondered about the black actor who turned down the role too. My wife was hoping for Idris Elba, and I had heard a lot of scuttlebut about Chiwetel Ejiofor, both of whom are very, very good actors, but both of whom also have ascendant careers that Doctor Who may have stalled.

    But even if that were the case, it’s still troublesome, because the comparison there is to some of the best known black actors working today to a white actor who many, many fans had to look up just to realize they’d still never heard of him.

    Reply
  2. John Hancock

    Don’t be a hater or a feminazi…just enjoy the show. It started with a white male and thats the way it will continue.

    Reply

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