This has been a tough few days for Doctor Who.
On Friday, the world lost the War Doctor. John Hurt’s career has been long and varied: I suspect, given the depth and breadth of his filmography, that his are the footsteps in which David Tennant has been following. (Not too closely, David, Sir John was married four times!) But it is for this tiny slice of a role that so many of us will remember him.
The War Doctor was conceived in an emergency. Christopher Eccleston had declined to participate in the 50th Anniversary special, and so his Doctor’s experience of the Time War could not be portrayed. According to himself, Stephen Moffat asked, “What if there was an incarnation of the Doctor none of us knew about? And, coincidentally, he was played by the most famous actor in the world?” Hurt was Moffat’s idea of Wilderness Years stunt casting: the Doctor who never was. Also according to Moffat, Hurt was tickled by the opportunity. “So I am properly Doctor Who now. I am a Doctor Who. I can say it?” Clearly he was delighted by the role: one of my favorite anniversary-special accessories was a short video in which he affectionately refers to Matt Smith and David Tennant as “the boys.” As a result, every one of his scenes is magic:
Yes, even that one.
On Monday, as we reeled, our beloved Twelfth Doctor disclosed his departure. While not surprising, it’s still terribly sad: he still feels so fresh, his tenure so brief, and he’s been such a delight in the role. I had hopes for Chris Chibnall’s powers of persuasion. Yet it was not to be: Capaldi is a film actor first, and not one for lingering television roles. (Film and TV are different worlds: the demands, the shooting schedules, the ongoing commitments of each suit different actors differently.) I will mourn and miss this Doctor, and feel grateful for the three seasons we got. (Will get? Will have gotten? Tenses are funny.)
Which I will watch over and over, as I have the single season my own first Doctor gave me.
Series 11 will be a jolt no matter what: new showrunner, new Doctor, for all we know a new companion. (Please, Pearl, stick with us!) It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before: Moffat’s era began so, and managed a reasonable amount of success. But DW was on an upswing of popularity at that time, new to BBC America and a blazing international audience. Now, if anything it’s plateaued, removed from streaming, with a whole year left fallow between seasons. Capaldi himself expressed misgivings about how his beloved show had been treated by its administrators; does it retain the strength it needs to overcome the trauma of this change?
And what will this change look like?
For years fans have clamored for someone other than a white man in the role. The opportunity here is of course immense, for Chibnall and the BBC. But so is the risk. America demonstrated this past autumn how much it still hates and fears women and people of color. In spite of its Queen is Britain really so different? Will the BBC have the courage to make this kind of statement with the crown jewel of its history?
Somehow I doubt it.
Current fan speculation is not without its bright spots. Richard Ayoade, Miranda Hart, and Olivia Colman make the short list. Other suggestions are more bland and typical. I’m sure we’ll ultimately be surprised, not necessarily unpleasantly, but I don’t expect to be inspired.
My personal one-two are Helen Mirren and Alexander Siddig. Both have the charm, the flair, the gravitas, and the range the Doctor demands. Mirren has expressed how much she’d love the role – and as much as I’d love to see her in it, I can’t help thinking of the statement Siddig would make. Refined and British he may be, but does television have the vision in these times to cast Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi in that most beloved and iconic of British roles?
Star Trek would do it. The play is yours, Doctor Who.