The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Who's Missed Opportunity?

Right, wading into the waters of a classic internet controversy, here: high flammability, low stakes. By which, I mean, the casting of 55 year old Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor in Doctor Who. Now, my first reaction was to cheer the show for shaking up the trend toward younger actors, and going back to the eccentric older uncle-vibe of the first four incarnations of the character.

Not that I haven't enjoyed David Tennant and Matt Smith--quite the contrary, they each took the role in unexpected directions. For example, here's Smith using his very youthfulness to express the depth of the anger the very old soul in that body is capable of feeling:

These two younger Doctors in succession have both worked. But three? Probably a bit too much of sameness about it. So when they skewed more old school, and also got a terrific actor in the process, yeah, sign me on.

Plus, we got all these great "Malcolm Tucker is Doctor Who" trailers of which the finest is, to my mind this one:

But then I began noticing a boomlet of criticism, founded on the notion that Steven Moffatt had blown it, by casting yet another white British male in the part. From Zap2it to Jennifer Finley Boylan in The New York Times, a consensus of dissident voices have lamented a lost opportunity. In Ms. Boylan's words:
Mr. Capaldi is a capable actor, and come his debut, I’ll be right there with my teenage boys, drinking Mountain Dew and cheering him on. But imagine if we were cheering for Helen Mirren instead, or for the comedian Miranda Hart, or for Emma Watson, the former Hermione Granger. If the Doctor can regenerate into any form, it seems, oh, just a little dispiriting, that time after time he invents himself as a white British male.


But unlike presidents or popes, we may not get that many more chances at a glass-shattering Doctor. According to long-held Doctor Who mythology, the character’s 13th regeneration could be his last. A few years back, the BBC overturned that theory, suggesting that the character is immortal. Regardless, even the most die-hard fans can’t expect the show to last forever. As the producers think about whom they want to take on the role next, they should keep in mind the way people’s hopes are lifted when they see someone breaking the glass ceiling, even when it’s for something as seemingly trivial as a hero on a science-fiction program. Equal opportunity matters — in Doctor Who’s universe as well as our own.
Now, that's not nothing. And, I agree that the right woman could excel as the Doctor--the brief period when Helen Mirren evinced a desire to play the role? My automatic response was that was just awesome, and they should cast her forthwith. Likewise, I could see Gina Bellman in the part as well--her work in Leverage and in Moffatt's earlier show, Jekyll, convinced me that her take on the part would be credible, fun, and compelling. (Alex Kingston would've been a natural, too, but she's been too integral to the show as Dr. River Song to play another part, let alone the lead, alas.) And Doctor Who has strong women deep in its DNA; Verity Lambert was the very first show runner, from 1963-1965, and companions from Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright to Romana and beyond gave as good as they got. So, a female Doctor could be a great thing for the show, and poses no continuity violation (see: the Corsair).

Same for a non-white Doctor. Not sure about all the Idris Elba booming, though, even if he was the non-white actor who turned down the part; he's a great actor, but seems to me to be rather too straightforwardly a leading man for the Doctor; who underestimates the formidableness of any Idris Elba character? I could more easily see Paterson Joseph or Lenny Henry, who's been a fave of mine since Chef! in 1993-1996. And, in fact, non-white artists have played a huge role in Doctor Who from the very beginning; the very first episode was directed by Waris Hussein, and the show pioneered race-blind casting as early as the Hartnell era.

So, I get the frustration. The show could work with a non-male, non white lead, so why not do it? Shatter a glass ceiling, change up the world a bit, and rock-and-roll.

Moffat's explanation for why not a woman doesn't tell us very much; he said merely "It's absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it's the right decision, maybe we'll do it...It didn't feel right to me, right now. I didn't feel enough people wanted it." Now, the second part seems pretty thin to me. But Moffatt has also said--well, here, you read it:
Asked whether the list of potential actors to play the Doctor was a short one, Moffat told The Mirror: “Yes. The list went ‘Peter Capaldi’. It was a very short list.”

He said: “I happen to know he’s a big fan. There’s something very seductive about an utterly brilliant, arresting looking leading man actor- one of the most talented actors in Britain- who you happen to know is a big fan of the show.”
Yet he had previously not chosen Capaldi.

But maybe something about the actor has generated a new take on the character, a new story Moffatt feels impelled to tell. I hope so. For now, like Ms. Boylan, I'm prepared to enjoy Capaldi's run, just as I have enjoyed Smith's. But I also look forward to the day the glass ceiling is shattered by the TARDIS careening through it.

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