With the announcement that Peter Capaldi will be playing the Twelfth incarnation of Doctor Who’s iconic protagonist this past Sunday, we wrapped up one of those endlessly entertaining geek traditions: answering the question, “Doctor Who?” In the days leading up to the BBC’s official presentation, Capaldi was the odds-on favorite with British bookmakers, but there was also lots of speculation that this time Doctor Who might buck tradition and cast a more diverse time lord: somebody other than a white dude. There’s certainly no reason, whether in canon or in general, why the Doctor couldn’t regenerate as a non-caucasian, or a female, the show so far hasn’t crossed that line. But rumor has it that the role of the Doctor was actually offered to a black actor at one point, but he turned it down. As for a female Doctor? It wasn’t in the cards, at least not this time.
The word of a potential black Doctor comes via author Neil Gaiman, who is no stranger to the series, having penned two episodes of Doctor Who in recent years (“The Doctor’s Wife,” for which he won a Hugo, and last season’s “Nightmare in Silver). When asked if he ever thought there would be a non-white Doctor, Gaiman replied:
Of course. (I thought I’d said that I was disappointed that it didn’t happen this time, and that there are some amazing actors out there. I was rather disappointed that Paterson Joseph didn’t get it last time, although I’ve loved Matt’s Eleven.) And yes, I have no doubt there will be. (I know one black actor who was already offered the part of the Doctor, and who turned it down.) Just as there will be a female Doctor.
So that sounds like two potential black actors up for the role: Patterson Joseph up for Eleven, and then the unidentified other who was offered the part but turned it down. So who was that guy? Unsurprisingly, Gaiman refuses to answer on the grounds that the actor in question told him about it in confidence.
There seem to be two likely candidates, however. Pacific Rim/Prometheus actor Idris Elba was one of the names mentioned most in the run-up to the Twelfth’s reveal, so that would certainly make sense. And while it would be an historic gig, it’s understandable why Elba might turn down the role. As previous Doctors have attested over the years, playing the Doctor is a job that tends to eat your life whole, so it’s certainly no small commitment.
More recent comments, however, suggest that the black would-be Doctor wasn’t in the running this go-round, but for the role of the Eleventh, which eventually went to Matt Smith. The Mirror cites “sources on the show” to claim that Award-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (who brilliantly played another one-named badass, the Operative, in Joss Whedon’s Serenity) would have had the role of the Eleventh Doctor, but they couldn’t work out a deal, he passed, and so the world was introduced to the unmistakable, vaguely muppet-y visage of Matt Smith.
Ejiofor’s representatives didn’t return the Mirror’s calls, but the BBC dismissed the claims as “pure speculation” (which, of course, doesn’t make it untrue). Then Gaiman, apparently realizing that he’d set off a shitstorm of speculation, released a statement asking everybody to just hold their horses already:
Do you think I have anything to do with casting Peter Capaldi, or with who gets the part or what happens in Doctor Who? I don’t.
I have no secret insider knowledge. I am not part of a mysterious casting cabal. I’m an author on a book tour.
No, [the black actor] didn’t turn down the role of the twelfth Doctor. There have been many Doctors cast over the years.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Whether we nearly got a black Eleventh Doctor or nearly got a black Twelfth Doctor, who knows. Both Elba and Ejiofor are massively talented actors, so I’d love to see what either of them did with the role. But for now, the BBC insists that Peter Capaldi was their first choice for the next incarnation of the time lord, and I think he’s a great — if safer — choice as well.
But what about that lady Doctor we mentioned? A female Doctor is another possibility that’s been bandied about for decades, so much so that it seems just as inevitable that the show will go there as it will for a non-white Doctor at some point down the line. Hell, Dame Helen Mirren has even expressed her interest in the role, and you’d best not anger Dame Helen Mirren because she will break you. But Who executive producer Steven Moffat says he didn’t think it was the right time to hand the TARDIS keys to a lady. Speaking to press, Moffat said, “It’s absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it. It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it.”
What do you think? Was it the right time to regenerate a more diverse Doctor, or was Capaldi the way to go?