Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Big Changes on Doctor Who


Fans the world over are hoping Doctor Who will cast a woman or a person of color as the Thirteenth Doctor. But they probably won’t. Here’s why.

Doctor Who fans are still reeling over news that Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi will leave the show following Season 10. Whenever a Who regeneration happens, there’s always some sadness involved, since fans must say goodbye to a beloved character. But there’s also excitement at the prospect of a new era, and anticipation about who will take over the role.

For the moment, we really don’t know anything about who might play the Thirteenth Doctor. The folks in charge are understandably silent on this front. A full season featuring Capaldi’s Twelve still remains, after all. But that hasn’t stopped speculation from kicking into high gear. Many Who fans feel hopeful that the Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation will finally signal a more progressive future for the show. After 53 years and twelve different white British men playing the role, it probably is time for the BBC to shake things up a bit. Maybe cast someone who is either a female or a person of color (or both!). But that’s unlikely to happen. And we probably should start preparing ourselves for that eventuality now.

Fan-casting for Thirteen is already well under way, and I’ve seen dozens of interesting, diverse actors tossed out as possibilities. Fans, celebrities and former Who stars have offered fantastic suggestions ranging from Hayley Atwell to Richard Ayoade to Olivia Colman to David Oyelowo to Frances de la Tour. And yet the early oddsmakers – a.k.a the bookies in London – are backing an entirely different kind of horse. Skyfall actor Ben Whishaw currently sits at 5/1 odds at the U.K. bookmakers. And he is exactly the kind of status quo choice that Doctor Who doesn’t need.

Don’t get me wrong, Whishaw is a tremendously talented actor. He would make a fantastic Doctor.  I will fight people who criticize his abilities should he somehow manage to land this role. But he is also an incredibly safe and, honestly, kind of predictable choice. Whether the show could ultimately land Whishaw or not isn’t the issue –  he was a favorite choice back when Matt Smith left too. It’s that he represents exactly the kind of casting choice I think that the BBC is looking for. Which is a safe, traditional, non-controversial one.

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in a “Doctor Who” promotional photo from Season 9. (Photo: BBC)

The Ratings Problem

On some level, a desire to play it safe makes sense. From the BBC’s perspective, Doctor Who is struggling. Its ratings are way down. In fact, the show repeatedly recorded its worst viewing figures ever during Season 9. Viewers complained that Who stories had become hopelessly over complicated or lacked narrative stakes. Merchandise sales are apparently also on the decline. And the Cardiff-based Doctor Who Experience exhibition (and general fan attraction) is set to close this summer. Yikes.

As a result, rumors have swirled for several months that the BBC wanted a major shakeup at Doctor Who. According to the British tabloids, the corporation was allegedly very interested in pushing all remnants of Steven Moffat’s version of the series out the door with him. This would mean dumping Capaldi, along with new companion Pearl Mackie, and giving incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall a clean slate to start Season 11.

Per the gossip rags, the Beeb would rather return Doctor Who to a more traditional format. Preferably to something like the David Tennant years, with a dashing male lead and a younger female companion in tow. Or at least so the behind-the-scenes rumors suggest. So, basically, the BBC would like to see the safest possible choice that’s not going to rock the boat for any viewer. It’s worth noting – this is the same set-up that Moffat himself got when he took over Doctor Who back in Season 5. So it’s not unheard of. But it also indicates that corporation higher-ups would mostly like prefer to try and boost ratings by sticking with a known formula.

However, there are also many potential reasons behind the show’s struggles. Capaldi took over immediately following the global celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. The end of Matt Smith’s tenure was basically the biggest moment of worldwide brand awareness the show had ever achieved. There’s kind of nowhere to go after that but down, at least to some degree. And the BBC didn’t do much to help itself afterward, either. Who faced many scheduling woes in the Capaldi era– from airing at widely varying times each week in the UK to taking an entire year off the air following Season 9.

David Tennant and Billie Piper in “The Christmas Invasion”. (Photo: BBC)

The Safe Choice

If the conventional wisdom of some behind-the-scenes types is that Doctor Who is in decline, the desire for a return to the era of Tennant makes sense. From a marketing perspective, the Russell T. Davies years were a time of accessibility and expansion. The Tenth Doctor stories appealed to lots of different kinds of viewers – many of whom had never watched Doctor Who before. The flirty relationship between the Doctor and Rose added an element of romance. And David Tennant consistently ranks as one of the most popular Doctors in series history, largely because his Ten was charming, charismatic and, yes, easy on the eyes. And many of these factors also apply to Smith’s era, which saw strong ratings and branding success. An actor like Ben Whishaw fits this pattern perfectly. And this type is clearly the version of the status quo that higher-ups feel most comfortable with.

The implication buried somewhere in all this is that Peter Capaldi is somehow too old to play the Doctor. Or that modern audiences only enjoy a younger, dishier version of the character. It’s kind of infuriating – Capaldi is only 58 – and most likely wrong, to boot. In my experience, the majority of Who fans have had largely positive things to say about Capaldi’s performance, particularly in the face of stories that often varied rather wildly in quality. But if casting an older (white male) actor now reads as pushing the envelope to some of the folks in charge, how likely is the show to go further?

Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie (Photo: BBC)

The Future of Doctor Who

As much as many fans want to believe that this will be the year that Doctor Who finally makes a progressive casting choice for the Doctor, it probably won’t be. Along with a new Doctor, we’re also looking at a new showrunner and the implementation of a different writing style for the show. (Rumor has it that Chibnall is a fan of American-style writers rooms and plans to use something similar for Season 11.)  That’s a lot of unknown factors that could affect the show’s success in the future. Of course the higher ups are nervous.

So despite the fact that many are clamoring for something different, they’re unlikely to get it. Chibnall’s first job will likely be making the show feel more lighthearted and accessible after several years of Moffat’s super-dense stories. And that means they’re probably going to default to the formula that they already think works. No matter how angry it may make all of us who want Doctor Who to be a show that pushes itself and its audience forward into a more modern era.

Because the truth is, for all the rumored concerns over ratings and merchandise sales, Doctor Who is not a show in serious trouble. It’s a global phenomenon and obviously makes a ton of money for BBC Worldwide, no matter how many people still watch it over their standard televisions. It’s in no danger of cancellation and will likely run as long as the BBC chooses to leave it on the air. There’s no real reason that it needs to cling to the status quo quite so deliberately. And yet, it probably will. Because Doctor Who is an old institution, and the wheels of progress grind exceedingly slowly.

That said, Chris Chibnall himself is a Doctor Who fan. He’s written for the show before. He helmed one of its spin-offs, Torchwood, for several years. His turn at the helm will largely be a positive one, no matter who he casts as Thirteen. Whoever he picks will probably be a great choice. Even if his decision seems unlikely to be as potentially forward thinking as I would prefer. And it’s not like any of the early names on the rumored short list, including Whishaw or Broadchurch actor Andrew Buchan (who is said to be a Chibnall fave) would be a bad choice.  The show will go on, and tell great stories. And we’ll have this conversation again when Fourteen comes around.Doctor Who can’t avoid the march of progress forever, and eventually we’ll get a different kind of Doctor. Just probably not in 2018.

Next: Doctor Who to Bring Back Classic Villains the Ice Warriors

(Prove me wrong, Chris Chibnall. Please? I’d be totally okay with it.)