A recent conversation with Steven Moffat, the current showrunner for the beloved British sci-fi series “Doctor Who,” brought to mind an old brain teaser meant to stump school children. If memory serves, it went something like this: A man and his son were in a car crash. The man died on his way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into the E.R. The surgeon scrubbed in, looked at the patient and declared, “I can’t operate on this boy — he’s my son.” How is this possible?
When a specific vision of gender roles in culture has long been pounded into our brains… well, one can see why that riddle still works. For some people, even in this day and age, it may take a moment to remember that women can also be doctors. And what’s true of the common ideas about doctors holds for The Doctor as well, it seems. With the next regeneration of The Doctor imminent, “Doctor Who’s” producers profess to have no idea of who they’ll cast and what specific qualities they’re looking for. Nevertheless, it’s fairly clear that the new face of the Time Lord will still require a daily shave — just like his predecessors.
Let’s back up for a moment. At the beginning of June Matt Smith, the actor currently reporting for Time Lord duty, announced that he would be leaving the series. During Thursday morning’s panel at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, Smith and The Doctor’s current companion Jenna Coleman revealed that they are about to film their final episode together. Fans will meet the new Doctor in the 2013 Christmas special, airing a month after “Doctor Who” celebrates 50 years of being on television with an anniversary special.
There’s been a groundswell of Internet chatter posing the idea that the next Doctor could be female. Why not? In the five decades that the franchise has been in existence there have been 11 versions of The Doctor, as the role passed down through an assortment of British actors differing in age and appearance. There are female Time Lords, according to the canon, so it’s possible. Oddly enough, each new Doctor always manages to come back as male. (And Caucasian.) So why not a woman? Here’s how Moffat, who was not present for the TCA Q&A session, answered that question during a recent roundtable interview at Comic-Con, starting by addressing the question of what qualities he’s looking for in the next yet-to-be-cast Doctor.
“It’s going to be the person…who is right for it now,” he told a group of reporters. “And you try and make that judgment as best as you can on the quality and the special nature of that performer. There’s no political agenda. There’s nothing whatever except choosing the best possible person for the part.”
“Does that mean it could be gender-blind casting?” I asked. “Would you cast for a woman for the next Doctor?”
Moffat: I’m not going to talk about that. I can’t talk about anything about the new Doctor.
IMDb: I’m not looking for specifics. But would you say, for the next Doctor, if you’re trying to decide, would you say ‘We want to see both actresses and actors for this role?’”
Moffat: I don’t think that would be a sensible thing to do, no. I think you’d have to make a decision on the gender before you approached it, I would say.
IMDb: But it sounds as if, at some point, you might say, “Let’s cast for women?”
Moffat: I didn’t say that, no. Within the narrative of ‘Doctor Who’, it is possible that he could be female? Yeah. But as to whether The Doctor will be female in the future, I’m not going to comment on that.
…Except he kind of did.
Understand, this is not an attack on Moffat. As “Doctor Who’s” latest showrunner, it is Moffat’s prerogative to shape the show’s direction as he sees fit. Moffat is the kind of writer who takes care to imbue well-known source material with his own signature touches while remaining loyal to the source material’s vision. As a boy, he read and loved the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which informs his thoroughly modern take on Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock and Watson use cutting edge tech, but they are still unmistakably Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Moffat talks about his childhood love affair with the first “Doctor Who” episodes with the same fervor.
But the problem with hewing so closely to a classic version of anything is that it can close the door to embracing the transformation of the world around that creation, and evolving it to fit the modern age. Moffat is not alone in his vision of keeping a beloved fantasy hero within the constraints of a particular trait set established long ago. Google Donald Glover and Spider-Man, and check out the fan reaction to the idea that in the modern age Peter Parker — a orphaned kid who lived with his aunt in New York — could be played by a person of color. People may love Glover, but they grew up with a Caucasian Peter Parker. Thus, we have Andrew Garfield in the movie role — not a bad choice, just not a particularly bold one.
Show business is still a business, and there’s only so much risk network executives and producers are willing to take with a franchise of “Doctor Who’s” caliber. The show went into a coma for 16 years between the old series and the new, and having been revitalized by Smith, and David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston before him, it’s still a success for the BBC and BBC America. The most the folks at the top are willing to risk, we’d bet, would be to perhaps make The Doctor a ginger. Or, maybe, to hire an actor of a different ethnicity…but, sorry, Idris Elba is a bit busy at the moment, and frankly we’d rather see him become the first black James Bond. (Yes, OK, there are plenty of other British actors of color who would do great in the role. It’s just that we’d pay to watch Idris Elba read the entire IRS book of tax code out loud… so there’s that.)
If there’s one immutable truth about “Doctor Who”, however, it is that none of the previous rules are set in stone. The franchise has lived for 50 years. There’s no reason that it can’t continue for decades more. We may yet see the day on which a fascinating and intriguing actress gets to say, “Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… run.”
The celebration of “Doctor Who’s” 50th anniversary includes a special, airing November 23 on BBC America, and premiere of the original movie “An Adventure in Space and Time,” starring David Bradley as the first actor to play The Doctor, William Hartnell, also set to debut in November.