Lazy Luddite Log

24.8.14

All The Doctors

Tonight I will be watching the return of Doctor Who with a brand new actor. I cannot discuss what I am yet to see but I can discuss past actors and in how well they were served by the various recent fiftieth anniversary programs. I also go on a ranty tangent relating to the identity of Peter Capaldi.

Hartnell – Troughton – Pertwee

An Adventure In Time And Space was an amazingly well done docu-drama showing how Doctor Who started. It focused on William Hartnell as the original actor to play Doctor Who. I personally would have liked to see them extend the story of Hartnell to his limited involvement in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors in 1973. This would have then allowed for some depiction of both Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. That may have made the story even more depressing than it was but it is the story of an old and sick actor so I would cop that for the sake of another concept. I personally think that the collected programming during the fiftieth anniversary should have done justice to all the past incarnations of the Doctor.

Baker

Tom Baker is amusingly impersonated in the comedic mockumentary The Five-ish Doctors Special which lampoons his absence from past televised reunion shows. However then there was the surprise coup of him having a cameo (as an un-named character) in the Day Of The Doctor. That was spine-tingling. Also I have been watching some old Doctor Who recently and always find I am most drawn to the Tom Baker era. Despite my protestations that I have a number of favourite incarnations I suspect that maybe I do have one favourite…

Davison – Baker – McCoy

The Five-ish Doctors Special was possibly the best thing produced for the fiftieth anniversary. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are a wonderful comedic trio in playing themselves as past Doctor Who actors desperately seeking to get into the Day Of The Doctor. This cack-fest is worth seeing over-and-over and has a wonderful cinematic Hobbit reference in it. I may be saying this in part because the 80s was my time as an avid Whovian.

McGann

Apparently Paul McGann is called “the longest and the shortest” Doctor in the sense that he was only in one tele-movie but has been in the most other media such as audio-plays and novels. However for me TV is what defines Doctor Who and therefore it was wonderful to see McGann in the online mini-sode The Night Of The Doctor. I think this was the most exciting moment for me suddenly seeing what could-have-been if McGann had been in a continuing series. It was also nice to see him have a cameo in the Five-ish Doctors Special as someone who is a successful jobbing actor.

Eccleston – Tennant – Smith

I touched on both my approval for Day Of The Doctor and my desire for changes to it here. What if she special had included all three actors of the revived era? I would have loved to see Christopher Eccleston as well as David Tennant and Matt Smith. The fact that producer Stephen Moffat managed to get Tom Baker involved but never managed to bring Eccleston back into the fold is a huge pity. The one implication of my futile wish however is that a show with the three latest actors would never have needed the invention of the ‘War Doctor’ played by John Hurt.

Yes I love John Hurt too but a seasoned actor like him could have taken on another role in the special. I personally would have liked to see a wise elder figure in the role of the ‘Interface’ of the doomsday device the Doctor took to that hut in the Gallifreyan desert. Why? That hut intrigues me. What is it and why did the Doctor go there? I think it is of personal significance to him. There are mountains in the background and this reminds me of tales told by the Doctor in the classic series of a hermit who lived in the mountains behind his childhood home and who was a mentor of sorts for him. It would make sense for the Interface to imitate a past incarnation of that character.

But what of Rose you say? Well it was never Rose – just a computer simulation. New Who has plenty of “feels” as is and you cannot have everything in your special. What of Jack? Or Martha? Or Amy & Rory? All recent companions could have worked in a reunion show.

However I personally think that the likes of Kate Stewart and Queen Elizabeth I give the Doctor plenty of supporting characters to play with. I enjoyed the show and think it was one of the most well-developed adventures I have ever seen but I can also lament lost opportunities.

Capaldi

And now I come to the new actor who will play the Doctor from this weekend and I become ranty. At the time his tenure was announced I knew nothing of who Peter Capaldi is. This was quickly addressed by friends on Facebook whose posts informed me of two things. One was that he had played a character in a political satire who uses expletives with aplomb. The other was that the Doctor was to be played by “just another white person”.

I’m well aware that the concept of “white” is a hopelessly vague one which obscures diversity behind the selective unifying characteristic of a pinkish complexion. I’m also well aware of how much it is subject to interpretation and revision that can vary with time and place. This generalization promoted me to look into the Capaldi background a bit.

Capaldi inherits his surname from his Italian grand-father who came to Scotland a century ago and sold ice-cream made to a family recipe taken from his homeland. Were Italians even deemed “white” in the UK of a century ago? Whatever the classifications of the time, I can well imagine Giovanni faced a degree of prejudice as a result of his ethnicity. Hopefully his son Gerry (who also sold ice-cream from a van) fared better and that by the time Peter came along he felt like a wholly accepted part of British society. However that is only my hope.

The slurs of “wop” and “dago” abound in British comedy shows of the 70s that I saw as a child. Hopefully much of it by then was presented with the intention of lampooning those using the terms but that is optimistic. It was in the 70s that Peter was a teenaged Doctor Who fan. With a surname like his I suspect he would have had some experience of prejudice.

Now however Capaldi is lamented (by some with a focus on identity politics) as just another white playing the Doctor. I find it ironic that over the course of a few generations the same family within the same cultural context has (likely) been subject to both racist harassment and racialist dismissal of cultural identity. I agree that representing diversity in fiction is important (as I have discussed for another science fiction show here) and there are lots of ways to do that. Despite its name Doctor Who has always focused on the adventures of a group and progress has slowly been made and will hopefully continue.

There is more to diversity than just glancing at a mug-shot and making blanket pronouncements on that basis. Those who oppose racism need to grow beyond using racialist simplifications (some go so far as to use what I would call a 'race binary' for all humanity). Overly blunt analytical instruments are prone to backfire.

* * * * *

Due to various plot twists the Doctor expended all his regenerations but then got a brand new set and that is what we start with tonight. It will be interesting to see how this new first incarnation fares in investigating the whole of Spacetime. I hope they will do justice to this long-running story-telling vehicle.

Cross-posted here.

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4 Comments:

  • I wasn't sure whether to comment on this or not but I keep thinking about it so I guess I'd better.

    It's definitely within the realms of possibility that Peter Capaldi has experienced xenophobic prejudice because of his surname, and I don't doubt his ancestors did. But the comments people have made about his whiteness - in the context of every other Doctor's whiteness - are not really about him. The reason why some people were disappointed to see another Doctor - whatever his cultural identity, which you are also making assumptions about - who looks the same as all the previous Doctors is that there was a huge deal of conversation and discussion in the lead up to his casting about what the Doctor *could* be, given that regeneration makes *any casting* possible, and there were a lot of people who voiced their longing to see a Doctor who looked like them. I don't see anything wrong with that. Visible representation is demonstrably important for people who are routinely marginalised - there are plenty of studies about this - whatever your opinion of the social construction of race. It would be nice if the media industry in the west were not overwhelmingly white, but it is. It would be nice if kids who aren't white, diverse as they are, had as many characters to see themselves in as white kids do, but they don't. The same goes for girls, fat kids, kids with disabilities, and any other group that is marginalised and therefore made to feel other or subnormal in their own society. The race critique isn't being made in isolation and it intersects with the other ways of showing diversity that you mentioned yourself: Peter Capaldi isn't fat, visibly disabled or female, either. If his casting helps the children of Italian migrants to english-speaking countries feel more represented, that is a good thing and I am glad for them! More representation of all kinds of people is important. Diversity just means more difference. It doesn't mean there shouldn't be white actors but there should be more of EVERY kind of actor.

    But like I said, the disappointment isn't really about him specifically, it's about the bigger conversation about who the Doctor could be. The choice to continue casting Doctors who are or appear white is definitely a choice, even if it's not one made with evil and conscious white supremacist plans in mind. Moffatt could make a different choice, and he has deliberately not done so, because he thinks casting "another white guy" is better. The other factor in the sense of disappointment people voiced when the casting was announced was that it came after a lot of pretty disdainful and rude responses to the campaigning from Moffatt himself, particularly about the possibility of the Doctor being a woman, which you haven't mentioned here but which is inexorably tied up in the commentary about Capaldi being another white MALE.

    (more in following comment)

    By OpenID radicallyvisible, At 26 August, 2014  

  • (continued)

    I was disappointed the new Doctor was "another white male" but also pleased that he was older than and not as conventionally attractive as the Doctor's other recent incarnations, pleased that he gets to use his Scottish accent, pleased with what I've heard so far from the actor himself, who seems passionate, talented and intelligent. I think Capaldi was a good choice and he will make a good Doctor. Just as there is more to diversity than appearances, there is more to critical responses than a single criticism. I also think there were other actors who would have been good choices, and I am angry that the current powers-that-be - specifically Moffatt - explicitly refuse to consider them because their appearance or their gender doesn't fit his racialised notion of what the Doctor should be.

    I don't know anyone who has said they won't watch Doctor Who any more because of Peter Capaldi, and I don't know of any criticisms of the casting that are about him or his suitedness to the role. I do know several who have said they won't watch because of Steven Moffatt and his public comments about what kind of actor can be the Doctor. And I'm very hurt by the accusation that I have "just glanced at a mug-shot and made blanket pronouncements on that basis" when I have actually spent a lot of time reading and thinking carefully and deeply about the issue of representation in media.

    By OpenID radicallyvisible, At 26 August, 2014  

  • You may as well comment. The only surprise is that you even saw the post (I think my blog posts tend to fly under the radar) and that you posted here rather than to LJ.

    Your comment allows me to make a clarification that I only considered once I 'published'. I'm concerned that some may think I'm saying racialist and racist thinking are morally equivalent. I think racism is _way_ worse. However one is sometimes used as a mask for the other.

    For instance I have seen someone (online) making blanket prejudiced comments about a cultural or national group they did not belong to and when they were told this was racist they countered by saying that "you cannot call it racist because they and I belong to the same race".

    From the way they expressed themselves I would be inclined to say they were one of those arrogant nit-picking nerds who make life online so fractious. Hardly surprising since the race concept they were hiding behind was cut from whole cloth by nineteenth century nit-picking nerds presuming they could fit humanity to a few convenient diagrams and charts.

    But this is a post about Dr Who so I will return to that. I think one of the problems you describe comes from the way in which the show is now promoted. The producers court the fans with the notion that fans have some kind of say in the direction of the show and then make whatever decisions they feel like anyway.

    Another problem is that Dr Who is regarded as some kind of "British Institution" with the central character as the quintessential British eccentric. In-story it would be more accurate to say the Doctor is an incomprehensible alien who likes to masquerade as a quintessential British eccentric. But the producers and many of the fans have a very narrow concept of what that should look like (I for instance think it should look older on average and act in an asexual manner).

    Chiwetel Ejiofor (the 'operative' from Serenity and yes I had to copy-and-paste his name) is black, Stephen Fry is gay, and Alex Kingston is a woman but they are all very much British and could all pull of the role of the Doctor. These are just a handful that spring to my mind.

    In-story we have seen the Doctor change species (using the Chameleon Arch) so his ability to assume the superficial characteristics of any human via regeneration is a much simpler matter. We are also seeing that to some extent he decides what that appearance will be (one aspect of the coming story arc that does intrigue me a bit).

    Outside of story I think the casting suggestions I make would be controversial. However I also think that the British are having something of an identity crisis as a whole. They are a multicultural society but the dominant ethnic groups are also the indigenes (which can produce a rather virulent kind of racist). They are confused as to how much they are part of Europe. And now there is the question as to whether the United Kingdom is even a thing at all.

    I have focused on the Italian heritage of Capaldi but he is very much Scottish and the show-makers are letting him express that in playing the Doctor (something Tenant had to hide because it was supposedly too soon after the regional accent of Eccleston). It is most likely a coincidence but I find it comes at an interesting time during which the Scotts may opt for independence.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 27 August, 2014  

  • Someone I only came across the second of your two comments for moderation now. In it you mention the issue of age. The character has a yoyo-ing apparent age but with an average tendency to go from older to younger. I wonder what is better politically. An older man is (demographically) a more powerful figure and yet in adventure fiction a younger man is iconic. This is why I feel that she shift from Kirk to Picard (in Star Trek universe) may well have been a progressive move. I would say almost the opposite if we were discussing (say) the appointment of a new university Vice Chancellor.

    I should finally add that this blog - which can be seen by anyone online - rarely if ever addresses anyone personally. Therefore if anyone is to take offence from it then they must number in hundreds (if only they happened to see it).

    By Blogger Daniel, At 15 September, 2014  

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