The Interwebs have been a-buzz for the last few weeks over the news that Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who. ‘Tis certainly a trying time for those who’ve spent the last four years waiting with Amy Pond, curling their hair like River Song and smiling at strangers in the street simply because they’re wearing a bow tie. But I am managing to hold it together because (and I make this confession somewhat hesitantly) Smith has been my least favourite modern Doctor. Like many Whovians, I can firmly state that Number Ten – the dashing, cheeky, passionate David Tennant – is my Doctor; but I am among the comparatively few who would say that Christopher Eccleston, Number Nine, comes a close second. Eccleston’s Doctor felt like a thousand-year-old: determined but playful, browbeaten, lonely, yet still fighting the good fight.
So although Matt Smith’s Number Eleven has been fun, I don’t believe he’s the be-all-and-end-all of the character. Which is why I’m intrigued by the debate over who should be the New Who.
The fans were naturally the first to weigh into the discussion with their own thoughts on who should be cast in the role. A poll by the Radio Times concluded that Colin Morgan (of Merlin fame) should be the Twelfth Doctor, readers of The Guardian chose Chiwetel Ejiofor (recently Louis Lester in Dancing on the Edge), while IGN’s respondents, clearly unable to let go of the past, chose David Tennant. Other suggestions have included Rory Kinnear (Quantum of Solace and Skyfall), Tom Hiddleston (War Horse), Ben Whishaw (Richard II), Idris Elba (The Wire), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Stephen Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt (respectively Guy and Mac from Green Wing), Russell Tovey (Being Human) and, perhaps my favourite out-of-the-box proposal, Rupert Grint (Harry Potter).
Many of these suggestions are, to put it bluntly, uninspired. Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, is doing a fantastic job as Sherlock in a programme produced by many of the same people as Doctor Who, so it’s natural that he would spring to mind, but much as I love him (and I do) I’m not convinced that he’s the right person for the job. But what I like about some of the quirkier suggestions is that they make you reconsider not just who, but what, the Doctor should be.
First, a number of fans have wondered whether John Hurt, who appeared in the series finale credited as ‘The Doctor’ and who was implied to be a past incarnation, will in fact be the Twelfth Doctor. I think that the writers will be sneakier than that, and that John Hurt is actually the Doctor from a parallel universe, or the Doctor before he called himself ‘The Doctor’, or even someone else called ‘The Doctor’ who is not actually our Doctor. But the mere possibility of John Hurt being the next Doctor underlines the fact that the last three – that is, all the Doctors of the modern era – have been under forty-five.
Actually, this isn’t such a break with the original version of the show. An interesting blog post by The Reinvigorated Programmer reveals that the majority of Doctors were in their thirties or forties when they took the role; Peter Davison, the Fourth Doctor, was only two years older than the youthful Matt Smith when he began, while the First and oldest doctor, William Hartnell, was only 55. An interesting pattern, given that the character is somewhere around a millennium old – surely even a modern Doctor doesn’t have to be a slip of a lad? How about a Doctor who really looks and behaves as if he’s lived through a Time War, the loss of several wives, girlfriends, children and siblings, the sinking of the Titanic, the destruction of Pompeii and myriad other catastrophic events? Assuming that Clara makes it into the next series (and I hope she does), the relationship between her and the Doctor doesn’t need to be one of dashing hero and the young woman swept off her feet. Why not father-daughter, or teacher-apprentice, or just plain partners? Granted, the sexual tension between Numbers Nine, Ten and Eleven and their companions was fun to watch (except, of course, when it was heartbreaking), but the more paternal role of the doctor in some the earlier series didn’t seem to do the shows popularity any harm. In any case, there are only so many ways a man can react to young women falling in love with him without things getting repetitive.
Which brings us to the next general suggestion about the next Doctor: that he, or rather she, should be a woman. Specific actresses who’ve been mooted are Miranda Hart, Billie Piper (of course), Olivia Colman, Sheridan Smith, Sue Perkins and Helen Mirren, who would apparently be more than happy to oblige.
Now I’m all for strong, interesting female leads on TV, and, certainly, having a female Doctor would shake up the traditional Doctor-companion dynamic. Bearing in mind that all of the Doctor’s recent love interests (Rose, Madame de Pompadour, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (or so we hear) and of course River Song) have been female, maybe we could see the first gay Doctor? Wishful thinking, perhaps: although other planets in the known universe seem to produce more variety in their interpersonal relationships – as indicated, for example, by the lovely Vastra and Jenny (also an example of an interspecies relationship), and of course by Captain Jack, the epitome of pansexual – Gallifrey stills appears to operate under a one-man-one-woman system that’s sufficiently safe for the BBC at teatime on a Saturday. But a female Doctor-female companion friendship would also be very different ground to tread: bitch-fest followed by bonding over awful men, anyone?
And yet I’m not sure that casting a female Doctor is the right way to go. For one thing, from an in-universe perspective, it’s not at all clear whether this is even possible. All previous Doctors have been male, just as all of River Song’s incarnations (at least, those shown on screen) were female; indeed, the official BBC website suggests simply that some Time Lords are men and some (AKA ‘Time Ladies’) are women. True, there seems some flexibility (The Guardian points out that the Eleventh Doctor, on feeling his new long hair for the first time, thought he was a girl) but to my mind it’s a stretch, and one that I feel is only being considered to make a point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Doctor being a man. It works. He isn’t defined by his gender, but by his decisions and his personality (and occasionally the fact he has two hearts). You could make him a woman, but why bother? The feminist cause would be much better furthered by original female characters who are fun, interesting and intelligent in their own right, not ones who are ‘made’ female for the sake of it.
So I am inclined to agree, finally, with YouGov’s poll, which asked not for possible actors but ideal attributes. By far the biggest items of agreement were that the new Doctor should be (a) British and (b) a man. Race and age were less of a concern, and being straight was important to only 15% of people. So, bearing in made that the public wants a home-grown actor in the role, the production team is definitely free to change tack, with an elderly Doctor, a child Doctor, a black Doctor, a gay Doctor… Or, you know, they could go with Rupert Grint – after all, the Doctor has always wanted to be ginger.