Controversy Over Casting Fictional Characters

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SPOILER ALERT: This entry discusses the casting of the Thirteenth Doctor! (In case you don’t already know and would like to preserve some mystery. Good luck doing that until Christmas.)

Whenever the Doctor’s regeneration is imminent, I always greet it with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. There’s always that little voice that says, “I really like this Doctor. I really hope I like the next Doctor.”

Change is always a bit scary… and casting the Thirteenth Doctor as a female is definitely a change.

While most people are happy about this, there are a few who hate it and many more who aren’t quite sure how to feel. I fall into the last category. On the one hand, I am very curious to see what the Doctor is like as a female and the kinds of stories that can be explored. On the other hand, I’m also nervous about the dynamic and feel of the show potentially changing into something I don’t like or that somehow violates the intangible “essence” of Doctor Who. Similar to Peter Davison, I am happy about the potential inherent in this change, but also acknowledge that it is going to be different and we still aren’t sure how it will work out (even though we hope it will.) We all want Jodie Whittaker to feel and be true to the Doctor’s character, the same as we always have whenever there’s a regeneration.

Now, it is a little bit silly how much people can fight and debate over the “true nature” of a character. A lot of it is personal preference and tradition liberally mixed with head-canon. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does present an interesting dilemma. Because sometimes an actor or actress is cast in the role of a beloved character… and they just don’t work. They might not be bad at what they do; they just weren’t right for the part. And things get really messy if there is a drastic casting change. I still remember the huge mental hurdle I had to get over with Starbuck being a woman instead of a man in the new Battlestar Galactica.

So when is it okay to mix up casting and when do you stick with tradition?

There really isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for this as each case will be a little different. In my opinion, the validity of a drastic casting change (or even casting in general) depends on two factors: 1) the nature of the character, and 2) whether or not the possibility of this happening was established in that fictional universe. Doctor Who is a little unique in this regard, but we’re going to walk through it anyway and see if we can apply it to other stories.

 

  1. The very nature of the Doctor encourages diverse casting. The fact that the character of the Doctor can regenerate into essentially a completely new person (albeit with all of the memories of the previous incarnations) means that literally anyone could be chosen for the role. Yes, it has been tradition for the Doctor to be cast as a Caucasian male (who is always British, by the way), but the nature of regeneration means that it doesn’t have to always be that way. I honestly thought that they’d cast a black or Hispanic or Asian man in the role before jumping to a female Doctor, but hey, we were gonna get there eventually!
  2. This did not come out of left field. If all of the other Time Lords only ever regenerated into the gender they were born with, I would have called bullshit on suddenly casting a woman as the Doctor. Even a universe as wibbly-wobbly as the Who-verse still needs a couple basic rules in order to function, and breaking those rules would make people understandably upset. But since the series was renewed in 2005, we’ve had numerous events that set a precedent for Time Lords not being bound to one gender. (We don’t even really know if Time Lords have a concept of gender!) In the sixth-season episode called “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Doctor mentions a fellow Time Lord called “the Corsair” who regularly swapped genders. In “The Day of the Doctor” a Time Lord known as “the General” is shot and regenerates from a white man into a black woman. The biggest and most powerful example is the Master regenerating into female form, going by the name “Missy.” I think the Master’s regeneration was a bit of a test run. If people could accept the Master as being the same person, just in female form, then they could do the same with the Doctor.

So, based on answering the questions of nature and possibility, the only thing that held back the Doctor was tradition. Some other stories may not work as well if a character changes color or gender, but Doctor Who has no such limitation. Because people are used to seeing and thinking of the Doctor a certain way, this casting choice, regardless of how good she is, will take some getting used to for some people. I just hope that we can set our concerns aside and give the Thirteenth Doctor the chance to have the same love and respect we’ve felt for… (his? her? their?) …the Doctor’s previous incarnations.

 

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