‘Predictable as ever, Doctor’, says the Master in the Doctor Who episode ‘The Deadly Assassin’. In a similar vein, the Guardian has followed the announcement that Peter Capaldi is leaving the series with not one but two articles about how the new Doctor must be a woman, black or preferably both. Because white males are boring! After all, it’s 2017. As the Hitler Youth said to the 19th-century humanists: ‘We don’t think like that anymore.’
Of course, there is nothing wrong with having more women and black people cast in mainstream roles. The more the merrier. But when cultural representation of diversity becomes an end in itself, then it becomes meaningless, a box-ticking exercise that distracts from exploring what stories we want to tell and why.
Moreover, when on-screen diversity is seen as the pathway to a more just society we’re in trouble. Not only does this entail a re-essentialising of people along biological lines – something that emancipatory movements, from female to black to gay liberation, fought long and hard to get away from – but it is also, at root, unradical. Diversity of representation is embraced by cultural elites as a gesture that suggests change, but which in fact does nothing but reinvent the ideological status quo to be more palatable. In the end, it is simply the cultural version of capitalist logic: equality will trickle down to the disadvantaged by their representation in culture.
This sort of mainstream, essentialist tokenism also has an impact on freedom of expression – it limits the ways we can think about storytelling.
The real problem with Doctor Who has nothing to do with the gender or race of its actors. As Nicholas Barber notes in The Economist, the contemporary trend is for fictional universes to shrink around the private lives of their characters. Star Wars, James Bond and Sherlock have all lost whatever ambition they might once have had, and have turned into glorified family soap operas. Doctor Who has also been showing strong tendencies in this direction, with the parentage of River Song being a particularly drawn-out, dull and self-involved storyline.