The 12th doctor was announced this past Sunday and he’s Peter Capaldi, a Scottish actor best known for his role on the BBC show The Thick of It. My frame personal of reference for him was his other appearances in the whoniverse, in the season 4 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” and a role I honestly don’t remember very well from the Torchwood special, “Children of Earth.” He seems like a perfectly natural choice for The Doctor, and since they don’t choose just anyone for these roles and he’s a veteran thespian, I’m sure he’ll be wonderful.
That said, there’s been a lot of talk about the casting of yet another white male in a role that could be played by anyone in the world. The doctor’s gender or skin color is not the most pressing issue in the current Doctor Who series, and if I were performing a social justice triage on Doctor Who, I wouldn’t start with the doctor himself, not at least the actor playing him, anyway, I would start with the writing.
Now I am a serious fanatic when it comes to the Russell T. Davies years, so I must acknowledge that that level of fanaticism comes with some temporary blindness but I would say that it was one of the most pure and undiluted attempts at social justice on television that I had seen so far. So maybe I’m spoiled. But I don’t think anyone will be shutting me down anymore when I talk about Steven Moffat, and that is the reason I find myself a little pleased in the wake of the announcement that may in the end up blowing up in the show runner’s face.
There’s a pretty complete rundown of Moffat’s public examples of blatant sexism on the tumblr Feminist Whoniverse, but I am just talking here about a few of the highlights. The most clear examples of Moffat’s attitude come from an interview he did in 2004 with The Scotsman, right after he got his writing job for Doctor Who.
“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”
This isn’t just sexist, it shows a truly depressing lack of understanding for gender roles in the first place. When he’s not generalizing about women, he’s talking about what he’s “not allowed” to discuss because apparently he’s so very oppressed that he’s not allowed to say things that might offend someone. Unless, you know, he’s being interviewed by a magazine. He goes on to expand on his perceived oppression.
“Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
This quote 100% explains how he writes all the relationships in his series and why no matter how earnest or heartfelt they try to be, they are constantly hamstrung by Moffat’s cynicism. Examples, the fact that The Doctor and River have no chemistry, the fact that after all they’ve been through Rory magically has no idea what he means to Amy. This flawed idea of how the world actually literally works deeply affects the directions his series goes in, and is most definitely the main factor in The Doctor being transformed into some sort of weapon-wielding, walking-away-from-explosions-holding-a-fainting-girl action-movie star.
Now the defense usually given to these two snippets is that they were such a long time ago (2004), so hey, let’s scoot on into the future, shall we?
“You have to hand it to the Doctor for dumping a slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy of himself. He tried leaving her in a parallel universe, and that didn’t work.” (2008)
I can’t tell whether he’s purposefully or honestly misunderstanding the relationship between Rose and 10 here, but either way it’s really foolish and honestly pretty disrespectful to more than the characters. It’s disrespectful to the writers who carefully crafted a relationship that redefined expectations for the way the Doctor would interact with his companions for a generation. Defining Rose as a “slightly needy girlfriend” minimizes her role and minimizes the contribution that Billie Piper made to breathing new life into the series, and characterizing the sacrifice 10 makes in parting with Rose as “palming her off” cheapens the sacrifice and the emotional weight of the moment. What kind of man can the Doctor possibly be, by the way, that he wouldn’t be able to break up with a girl except sending her off to a different universe? Moffat’s approach to these stories isn’t problematic just because he habitually demeans the female characters, this sort of writing about gender is equally disrespectful toward the men he writes. He doesn’t draw the line at fictional characters, however, when asked about Karen Gillian, he seemed delighted to objectify her, as well.
“And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work’.”(2010)
But all of this mounting evidence can for the most part be excused by apologists because it’s in the past, and Moffat has been watching his mouth lately to a certain degree, but during the announcement-special in a pre-taped interview, he responded to the folks who were hoping for a female doctor as such:
“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying we should have a female doctor, and to go on record I think it’s time that the queen was played by a man.” (5 DAYS AGO.)
He then went on to dig an even deeper hole, as is his habit, by letting everyone know that he was hearing from women that they didn’t WANT a doctor, which is hilarious mostly because Moffat seems to believe that women are incapable of sexism, but Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue responded in what has been the most eloquent article written on the subject so far.
“Although many fans (men or women, and even myself) didn’t want a female Doctor for 12, some of those fans didn’t want one simply because they were horrified at how Moffat would write such a character, not that they didn’t want one full-stop.”
And this is really what it comes down to; I have read around and I agree most with the articles that are ready to chuck out Moffat but feel just fine about Capaldi taking on the role. The battle cry against Moffat may on the whole have more to do with the way the writing has declined than Moffat’s brazen disregard for anything approaching social justice, but Moffat’s stance on his female characters, and really his male ones, has been a source of annoyance and frustration for fans for a long time. A blogger on zap2it.com pulled a few punches on the whole “is Moffat a sexist” question, but ultimately pointed out what many are observing, that Moffat’s casting was indeed focused on criteria that is completely outdated, and that that isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for the creative direction of the series itself.
“The issue is NOT that Moffat didn’t cast a woman (or a non-Caucasian of either gender). It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. It’s as ludicrous to him that a woman would be the Doctor as a man would portray The Queen. Both represent a type of drag performance that might be amusing but certainly not authentic. And given that science fiction/fantasy is a place where “what if” and “why not” have their safest homes, it’s disheartening to see limitations put on a show that is, by its design, utterly limitless.”
While it’s entirely true that socially we shouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior from any public figure, the fact that Moffat is or the thin argument that he might not be a sexist is far beside the point. The point being that his perspective and the way that he writes is negatively affecting the show as a whole. This is a point on which there are fewer and fewer dissenters as time goes by. The New York Times published an opinion piece by YA author Jennifer Finney Boylan on the subject, RogerEbert.com ran an article with the title, “Steven Moffat: Destroyer of Hopes and Dreams,” and the last two seasons have seen a growing negative backlash from Who fans of all kinds. After this announcement and accompanying remarks, I would be very surprised if Moffat’s run lasts more than another year. The concern that draws is whether or not Doctor Who will survive him, at least in the immediate future, or if this disaster is running headlong toward another extended hiatus.