2017 really is a year of change, saying goodbye to the old and ushering in the new. This change exists on a global scale. And of course, change happens. Change is a fact of existence. But its effects are manifest and harder-hitting than ever this year.
So: forgetting the persecution of women and minorities in America, forgetting Britain’s outright failure to define Brexit as anything other than “Brexit” (thanks for that one, Prime Minister, seriously) and more to the point its startling lack of vision for a post-Brexit Britain, forgetting all those whose lives will change irreparably over the next year… our favourite sci-fi show is getting a new lead actor.
I felt the need to write that paragraph because, well, I feel the need to clarify the role of television today. Let me not for one moment seem as if I’m prioritising Doctor Who over the real world and its real issues – I’m not. But don’t let it seem as if I’m not considering Doctor Who as one of them, either. The fact is that when the world reaches a point of crisis, the media becomes more important than ever. Everything on television today says something about the world we live in. If it seems to be saying nothing, then in most cases, it’s probably endorsing it.
So for that reason, what you’ll find here is a lack of white males. For the record, I am completely against the next Doctor being a white man. Not only is it poor representation, it’s now not too far off being a continuity error, which grows in size every time another consecutive white male is chosen. We don’t know a massive amount about Gallifreyan society, but what we do know is that Time Lords can change race and gender, and do change race and gender, and that the Doctor is not exempt.
And of course, the whole Capaldi era has been about grappling with those anxieties. Series Eight saw the introduction of Missy, the first female Master, in a story in which the Doctor contemplated becoming a queen. Series Eight and Nine saw Clara Oswald, the companion, develop into an analogue of the Doctor, and show that she was bloody good at it. The Husbands of River Song saw the Doctor as the companion to a female lead. Whether you like it or not, the late Moffat era has been wholeheartedly committed to exploring the possibilities of a female Doctor, so much so that the regeneration of another Time Lord from a white man to a black woman is something I forgot to mention until now.
There’s no better time. It’s the natural endpoint of that journey, and when the most influential man in the world is a sexist white man who hates immigrants, what better time to change one of the most historic male leads into a woman, or change his skin colour without any fuss? This change will always be political, and there’s no way to escape it. Today, it might just do some good.
This isn’t about hating white men. We don’t hate white men. Anyone who does categorically hate white men has come to the wrong blog. This is about empowerment. It’s about acknowledging the people in the world who are feeling isolated and betrayed right now, and letting them step into a position of control, allowing them into one of our oldest and greatest traditions, and letting them be bloody good at it.
For this reason, you won’t see any white men on this list. There were a few that I would have liked on another time – James Nesbitt or Jason Flemyng would be wonderful, maybe even for the fourteenth incarnation. With that said, there are also some who I really, really, really don’t want to see. If Tom Hiddleston, Russell Tovey or Eddie Redmayne become the Doctor (I mention them because they’re popular choices right now), I may just throw myself out the window. Equally, as great as a person of colour would be, Idris Elba is just the wrong choice right now, following on from Peter Capaldi.
Moaning out the way, and acknowledging that I’m actually pretty pissed off to be losing my favourite Doctor after only three seasons (Matt Smith fans, I finally understand how you felt), here are my top choices.
- Tilda Swinton
I thought I’d stick Tilda Swinton at the bottom of the list as the least likely choice, an actress altogether too accomplished to take on a role in a Saturday night TV show. She is in many respects my dream Doctor; an unconventionally attractive, sharply dressed and dazzlingly charismatic actress who’s able to switch with ease between ‘totally lovable alien’ mode and ‘what the fuck is this psycho planning now’ mode, a skill which has defined some of the best Doctors – Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and of course, Peter Capaldi.
But it’s not going to happen. Right?
- Hayley Atwell
Full disclosure: I know very little about Hayley Atwell. I think I’ve seen her in one thing, absolutely ages ago, and have no recollection of her whatsoever. I haven’t yet had the time to check out any of her other stuff, or even watch an interview with her. I’ve seen a couple of clips of her in Agent Carter, and whilst what I’ve seen hasn’t wowed me (it could just be a poor selection of clips), a great deal of my friends and people I admire are huge fans. All I can say is, when Sam Rahaman and Phil Sandifer’s views cohere, you know you’re onto something pretty special.
So I’m willing to hold out hope here. A distinguished (but not universally recognised) female actress who wants to play the Doctor and is a popular choice with both the mainstream and the fans is a rarity, and I daresay one worth capitalising on.
- Sian Brooke
Sian Brooke is best known – almost solely know – for playing the third Holmes sibling in BBC’s Sherlock, not to mention three other fake characters. With these characters she created four distinct and memorable performances, showing diversity and creativity as an actress. Brooke is currently the most popular choice to play the Rani (should the character ever return, and maybe even work this time around), but that’s a move I’d be against. Yes, Brooke plays a marvellous cold, calculating scientist. But why typecast her so early in her career, and why give her a role in Doctor Who that’s equivalent to her role in Sherlock? (To add some perspective, that would be like including Benedict Cumberbatch on this list.) I’d much rather take a risk and see what Brooke does with the role of the Doctor herself.
If we do end up with a male Doctor (and let’s hope he’s not white), I hope Brooke is at least considered as a potential companion.
- Keeley Hawes
Another very versatile actress, Keeley Hawes is one of my all-time favourites. She rose to fame in Spooks, played (arguably) her defining role as the protagonist of Ashes to Ashes, and most recently demonstrated her range as a main character in The Missing, as a quieter character, apparently picked precisely for her ability to communicate profound meaning without having to open her mouth (of course, when she does open her mouth, it’s glorious).
This does beg the question of which she’s all the way down at number seven. I’m not sure I can give an answer to that one, because I’m not sure myself. This was a bit of a gut instinct list. I wrote a fan-fiction last year in which I envisaged Hawes as a hypothetical final incarnation of the Doctor, and to be honest, I think that could be it – my vision of Hawes as the Doctor is now so immersed in that version of events that I find it hard to assess her potential outside of it. Oh well, I’d still be over the moon if they picked her.
- Helena Bonham Carter
Peculiar, distinctive, compelling, a household name with a long list of films but who is still invested in British television and her own role in it. Not only is Bonham Carter a dream, she’s also a real possibility. There’s little else to say here other than that I’d be up for it.
- Tatiana Maslany
I’ve spoken quite a bit about versatility, so let’s just throw in the dictionary definition while we’re at it: Tatiana Maslany, an actress known for literally playing everyone. I mean, that’s basically the role you want to land when you’re trying to establish yourself as an actress.
Playing Orphan Black’s Clone Club is the kind of role you rarely get the chance to play. It’s the kind of role that an actress should be applauded for years after her time, if it’s successful. Maslany may well be applauded – she’s certainly been successful. And yet, one can imagine her being famous as the first female Doctor. Whereas Bonham Carter’s run would be remembered as “that time Helena Bonham Carter played the Doctor”, Maslany’s would be “that first female Doctor”, in a part as ground-breaking as William Hartnell’s, or Patrick Troughton’s, or Tom Baker’s, or David Tennant’s, or – unrecognised though it is – Peter Capaldi’s. Because it’s easy to not just imagine Maslany as the Doctor, but as a Doctor who is beloved by millions.
Orphan Black’s final series airs this year. Doctor Who begins filming shortly after.
- Maxine Peake
Is there anyone who’s going to dispute Maxine Peake’s acting abilities? She has Maslany’s versatility, Bonham Carter’s experience, Swinton’s bewitching charisma. Yet what distinguishes Peake from all of these is that as well as being the perfect fit for a two-thousand-year-old Time Lady, she’s every bit as capable of playing the everywoman. And that’s not something which should be understated at all.
Because, after all, what is it the public loved so much about David Tennant? Perhaps it was his good looks, which I’d argue are conventional, at least in comparison with his predecessors (and even more so his successors). Or perhaps it was seeing an actor accomplished in normal roles as normal people taking on something different, something strange and alien but with clear traces of his humanity. Generally speaking, I’d discourage letting the mainstream opinion sway the choice for the next incarnation – else we’d end up with Tom Hiddleston – but in this case, Peake seems like a happy medium between the progressive viewers who want to see something change, and the Tennant era crowd who decided that it would be far more fun to switch over to Simon Cowell on the other side after he left. Not that I care about them at all, but there are a lot of them out there, and maybe what Doctor Who needs right now is their viewership.
- Adrian Lester
There is always, of course, the other kind of representation. I’m aware that this list is dominated by women, but I should take a moment to point out that if the show takes another radical step but keeps the male lead, I won’t come out feeling short-changed. I promise. Deciding that in 2017 the best move is to stay safe on the gender front and try to improve racial representation is a totally respectable thing to do.
I now, therefore, turn my attention to Adrian Lester. Lester is a face you see on British television a lot. He’s recognisable, he’s popular, and you usually end up sticking on the channel you’ve found him on because chances are it’ll be a good series. But he’s best described, I think, as part of the furniture – in a good way. He quietly but confidently asserts his role in British dramas and varies his characters not with the sweeping reinventions you see from the likes of Brooke and Maslany, but with subtle and precisely calculated nuances.
That sets him neither above nor below those actors, but does mean it’s easier to get an idea of what his Doctor would be like, and what strikes me is that of any Doctor to date he’s the closest to McGann, on the surface at any rate. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all – obviously it’s going to be easier to draw these comparisons with male actors, and frankly, it’s best if the one you’ve got the most in common with is the one who never properly made it onto television.
- Indira Varma
Then again, we know from Peter Capaldi that dipping into Torchwood actors can be a wiser move than it sounds.
The British daughter of an Indian father and a Swiss mother, Varma is perfect precisely because her race is entirely incidental. She’s a fantastic actress and it was only on considering her that I realised her background added that extra layer of diversity. No, maybe it’s not quite the leap that casting an actual non-British actor or actress would be, but it’s a step in the right direction and Varma has at least always embraced her heritage in the vast majority of her acting roles.
There’s very little to say about her other than what my gut instinct is – but considering my gut instinct took to Peter Capaldi before he was chosen, I’m willing to listen to it. Indira Varma is perhaps the most pragmatic choice on this list. Not only is she brilliant, not only does she tick all the boxes she should be ticking, she’s also an eminently practical choice as someone who, given the chance, would very likely accept the role.
- Amanda Abbington
The solution so obvious, everyone missed it.
Steven Moffat’s biggest mistake.
Well, I’m being facetious. Whether or not Mary Watson’s death was a mistake is… probably a more complex issue than I’m making it out to be. Either way, here we have a remarkable actress who was, to a large extent, misused by her show. She featured in seven episodes of Sherlock, though in one as a ghost, in another as a brief montage, in two of them as a teaser of what was to come, and in another as a drug-induced hallucination. That’s right. We had two full episodes of the real Mary Watson. In the first one we met her and in the second one she died.
To an extent, yes, the handling of a poorly-served character from Sherlock Holmes lore is, for reasons to obvious to explain, irrelevant to who’s going to be the new Doctor Who. But of course, we’ve touched on Sherlock already and now I’d like to do so again, considerably more directly than before. Sherlock is, ultimately, the closest show to Doctor Who on television. Until the end of this year, they will share a head writer and producer. The three writers of Sherlock have each written for (and indeed, together were the product of) Doctor Who. They’ve shared the majority of the directors. More to the point, Moffat’s Doctor Who and Sherlock are essentially the same show – a progressive, postmodernist (and on most days, feminist) reinterpretation of an old British story which everyone thinks they know, but where the rug is pulled out from under your feet at the last minute. The shows run parallel journeys; when Doctor Who is exploring deceit and betrayal within relationships (Series Eight), Sherlock is exploring it too (Series Three); when Doctor Who is questioning reality and dream, and by doing so commenting on the nature of television (Last Christmas), Sherlock is doing the same (The Abominable Bride). When Doctor Who is focused on questions of grief and the agency of dead characters (Series Nine), so too is Sherlock (Series Four).
And so if you want to play it safe with a female character, what better way to do it is there than to borrow an actress from a show which has more in common with Doctor Who than even its spin-offs? Both Sherlock and Doctor Who require actors who are of a theatrical, rather than a naturalistic, tradition. Both require actors who must tackle material which is the very opposite to what they’ll have been given anywhere else. Both require actors who can go from being the lead actor of their own show to a supporting actor in someone else’s. The fact is, these are all serious anxieties when finding a new Doctor, but we know already that Amanda Abbington is absolutely capable of resolving them all.
Benedict Cumberbatch could never play the Doctor. The shows are too similar, too relevant to each other, for that to ever work. For the same reason, Martin Freeman could never play a companion, Andrew Scott could never play the Master, and I daresay Sian Brooke shouldn’t play the Rani – actually, no, let’s take that a step further and say that Amanda Abbington shouldn’t ever play a companion. But you can mismatch any of those parts. So the beauty of having Amanda Abbington play the Doctor is that she’s able to draw on her experience working on a very similar show, but to play a part which is utterly distinct from the part she was playing before, so that at no point does the Doctor ever become Mary Watson. And why would she? They are, at heart, two very different people.
Let this happen. Let the actress of one of the most historically mistreated female characters rise up and continue a different legacy. Let Amanda Abbington play not a prop in a larger story, but the story itself, the one unchanging fixture of a tale which will outlive her.
I don’t think any of these people will play the Doctor. Not this time, not the next. And that’s okay. There’s a lot of talent in the world. All I can hope is that whoever is chosen will be both the best person for the role, and someone who, crucially, takes the role beyond its conventions and into a place it has never gone before. The world is changing. Let’s change around it. Let’s embrace a different kind of change, too.