It’s all Tom Baker’s fault, you know. I’m loathe to criticize such a wonderfully eccentric national treasure–the man who, perhaps more than any other, totally embodied Doctor Who and character during his time in the TARDIS – yet it really did put the cat among the pigeons back in 1980 when, during a hastily organised press conference to officially announce his departure from the series, Baker wished all the best to his successor, “whoever he or she may be”. The resulting media scrum, staggering at least by the standards of the day, has reverberated down the decades ever since.
Now, let’s be clear; the whole thing was a typical example of Tom Baker’s ‘out of the box’ mischief-making, concocted with the approval of the show’s then-producer John Nathan-Turner in the back of a taxi heading towards the press conference after the pair had been “lying low” for several hours in some Soho bar. By that point, Nathan-Turner had almost certainly already offered the role of the Doctor to Peter Davison, but–obviously wanting to choose the best time for that particular announcement–opted to go along with Baker’s little wheeze.
Nor was he slow to note the results in the following day’s papers, which is why–ever the showman, and always keen to attract the gadfly attention of “Her Majesty’s Press”–Nathan-Turner repeatedly pushed out that “next Doctor could be a woman” line with every subsequent change of lead actor under his charge. Largely on the back of her starring role in ITV science-fiction show Sapphire & Steel, Joanna Lumley was the actress most often linked with the role, at least in the minds of journalists desperate to fill a few more column inches. (She eventually played the Doctor in current showrunner Steven Moffat’s first broadcast Doctor Who script, a skit for Comic Relief in 1999.)
Without fail, of course, Nathan-Turner would always go on to cast a man in the role–Davison, then Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. In a way, the ‘female Doctor’ became just a regular little in-joke, a tease that no one took entirely seriously. And yet it has become increasingly more serious over time. Perhaps it’s just the vagaries of social media, but this year’s speculation about Matt Smith’s successor seemed positively hard-edged in comparison.
Dame Helen Mirren’s suggestion this summer that “a gay, black female Doctor would be the best of all” seemed to reflect an increasingly vocalised belief that, when selecting its “new hero for a new generation”, the BBC had a duty to reflect the diversity of modern Britain and to show just how far our culture has evolved in the half-century since William Hartnell had first “harrumphed” his way onto our little black and white screens. In contrast, the Daily Mail argued that changing the Doctor’s gender “would betray a British tradition”, not least by removing a “desperately needed” male role model for the nation’s boys–a hero who “relies on intellect and ingenuity to triumph over violence”.
So, there were a few moans of “another straight white man” not quite lost among the global praise after the announcement of Peter Capaldi as “the Twelfth”.
At the time, Moffat told us that Capaldi had been on ‘a short-list of one’, but we now know that at least a few other actors were sounded out in the early stages, if only as an insurance policy in case Capaldi either refused the role or was unexpectedly knocked down by a bus. One of those subsequent bookies’ favourites was Ben Daniels, who last week confirmed that he had, indeed, been approached about the role.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m positive that Moffat and the BBC have made the right choice with Capaldi, and look forward to seeing what he does with the role. That said, having noted Daniels’ career since first seeing him in the BBC Films adaptation of The Lost Language of Cranes back in 1991, I’m also quite sure that he would have brought something equally different and wonderful to the role.
But would Daniels really have been given the chance? Reading his comments reminded me of the question that had struck me during the summer’s ‘speculation’, when people had been discussing the next Doctor’s gender, race and even whether he should have some physical or sensory impairment; would the Great British public really be ready for a Doctor–clearly seen by a lot of people as an important role model for the nation’s children–played by an openly gay actor? Might that be seen as a ‘promotion’ of homosexuality too far?
Hopefully not. No one objects to Gandalf being played by Sir Ian McKellan? (Or to Matt Smith engaging in some sweaty man-on-man action early on in 2011 TV film Christopher And His Kind?) It’s at best naive to assume that a character’s sexual orientation must be one and the same as the actor’s playing it. And yet I’m sure there’d still be some tabloid references to a “Doctor Yoo-Hoo” if an actor like Daniels (or Russell Tovey, a bookies’ favourite in 2008) was actually cast. After all, some people ignorantly questioned Russell T Davies’ ability to write a family-friendly drama like Doctor Who… simply because he was gay. That was just 10 years ago.
While he played the Doctor, Tom Baker gained plenty of attention from the opposite sex; this, despite (or should that be because?) him being more conscious than most about portraying the Doctor as an asexual innocent–more concerned with saving worlds, fighting monsters and having fun adventures than indulging in that “human-y private stuff” which the Time Lord would later refer to as “dancing”. Even though I’m quite sure any gay actor would be capable of doing that too, I’m not so sure he’d be allowed to without comment. Hopefully, at some point, I will be proved wrong.