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Why the Casting for 'Doctor Who' Has Become the Focus of a Debate About Race and Gender

By Bethany E. Larson | Indiewire June 7, 2013 at 11:55AM

In the 50 years that "Doctor Who" has been on the air, the titular character of The Doctor -- the last of an alien race called the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey who can to regenerate into a different physical appearance -- has been played by 11 actors. Each has brought his own interpretation to the character, allowing The Doctor's idiosyncrasies, hairstyle, British dialect and fashion sense to evolve in a way that keeps the protagonist fresh and exciting to fans of the show.
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Matt Smith in 'Doctor Who'
BBC Matt Smith in 'Doctor Who'

In the 50 years that "Doctor Who" has been on the air, the titular character of The Doctor -- the last of an alien race called the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey who can to regenerate into a different physical appearance -- has been played by 11 actors. Each has brought his own interpretation to the character, allowing The Doctor's idiosyncrasies, hairstyle, British dialect and fashion sense to evolve in a way that keeps the protagonist fresh and exciting to fans of the show.

Though The Doctor's physical appearance has been everything from grandfatherly to clownish to brooding, there's one factor that has remained the same. The Doctor has always been is a he. 

A white he. 

But soon that may change. On June 1, 2013, Matt Smith, the 30-year-old actor currently portraying The Doctor as a floppy haired, bow-tie wearing, happy-go-lucky guy with a bitter streak and underlying fear of loneliness, announced via a press release that he will be leaving "Doctor Who," and that The Doctor will regenerate in this year's Christmas episode, when the Twelfth Doctor will be revealed.

David Tennant in 'Doctor Who'
BBC David Tennant in 'Doctor Who'

This announcement is not necessarily a shock. Smith has been in the role for the past three seasons -- as long as his predecessor, David Tennant -- and his companions, the married couple Rory Williams and Amy Pond (played by Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan), left the show mid-season. Though Smith's Eleventh Doctor has continued on with a new companion, Clara, charmingly played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, the most recent story arc was lackluster and ultimately disappointing.

It makes sense for Smith's departure to come at the end of this year, after the airing of the 50th anniversary episode that will reunite many past Doctors and their companions. While Smith has been beloved by Whovians, there was hardly a fan outcry at the news of his departure -- the fandom is accustomed to the ever-changing cast and nature of the show. Instead, fans skipped to their predictions as to whose face will appear when Eleven regenerates into Twelve.

The thing that is so unique about The Doctor is that there are no set guidelines or descriptions of what The Doctor must look like. The character is a physical tabula rasa -- instead of a specific-looking type of actor, the person in the role of The Doctor must have an understanding of the character's timeline and intrinsic personality, but also must bring something to The Doctor that hasn't been seen before. 

And this time, it seems that the world is not just ready for a different kind of Doctor, it may demand one.

Helen Mirren in 'Phil Spector'
Phillip V. Caruso/HBO Helen Mirren in 'Phil Spector'

Almost immediately after Smith's press release was circulated, Whovians began speculating as to whom Twelve might be, with many fans hoping it's a woman. Dame Helen Mirren has been a popular choice, which isn't surprising as she expressed interest in the role in 2011, sending a feminist spark to Whovian brains, as have Olivia Williams ("Rushmore," "Dollhouse"), Sue Perkins ("Heading Out") and Emma Watson ("The Bling Ring," "Harry Potter"). And there's nothing stopping The Doctor from being a woman. Showrunner Steven Moffat has made it clear that The Doctor could absolutely regenerate into a woman's body, and since that possibility came to light fans have been enamored and curious about how the writers would handle a female Doctor; many believe it's high time that a woman take over the role.

Then there are others who have been clamoring for an end to the white-washing of "Doctor Who," and it seems as if fans are equally divided between wanting to see a woman in the role, and wanting to see a man of a different ethnicity. To that end, Idris Elba ("Luther," "The Wire") has been a popular prediction among fans, as has Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Children of Men"). However, some are pointing to Rupert Grint (also a "Harry Potter" alum) as a natural choice that would be a nice counterpoint to Eleven's regeneration when he said, "I'm still not ginger," a line that became controversial because the audience couldn't decide if it was supposed to be disappointment or relief that The Doctor was expressing.

What is perhaps most intriguing about the fan predictions of who might be Twelve is that there are actors of all different genders, ethnicities, and ages being cited as the person fans would like to see as The Doctor. If there's another lead character of a show with that much physical flexibility, I don't know it. Certainly James Bond, another iconic British character whose 50 years on the big screen have been divided among different actors taking the role, could never be afforded this range of possibility in terms of how he's represented.

Idris Elba in 'Luther'
BBC Idris Elba in 'Luther'

Though Whovians have never been quiet with their opinions, they do place an immense amount of trust in Moffat, whose relationship with fans is best compared to that of Joss Whedon and his Whedonites, to do what is most right for the show. The worst thing that could happen is that an actor is cast as Twelve because the team behind "Doctor Who" feels pressure to pick someone in the interest of political correctness instead of in the interest of the series.

At the end of the day, the gender-neutral, multicultural casting possibilities provide "Doctor Who" with a burdensome luxury -- the gift of choice. Actors of different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders and levels of name recognition can audition for the role of The Doctor, and the casting team can consider every worthy candidate without fear that the perfect actor might not be right, physically, for the part. So here's hoping that the casting team embraces the fact that there are no limits or constraints when it comes to The Doctor. Except for, of course, the fact that The Doctor is British.

That's the one thing that simply cannot change.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Doctor Who, BBC America, Matt Smith






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