What Hollywood Can Learn From Doctor Who’s New Stance on Diversity

06.03.16 12 months ago

The Doctor”s companions have been almost exclusively white over its 50-year history, and the Doctor himself has been nothing but white, so it's exciting to hear showrunner Steven Moffat putting some powerful words into the universe about steps toward better diversity. He's also expressed regret of the show's past failures and their stance going forward to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The United Kingdom is a very diverse place so when a sci-fi series mostly set and filmed there can't replicate that diversity on screen, there's a big problem. And Moffat agrees. DoctorWhoTV has transcribed an interview with the creator from the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine.

“We decided that the new companion was going to be non-white, and that was an absolute decision because we need to do better on that. We just have to,” he said. “I don”t mean that we”ve done terribly – our guest casts are among the most diverse on television, but I feel as though I could have done better overall.”

It's true, in the New-Who era, those surrounding the lead cast have been very diverse. But in lead roles, not so much. Hearing Moffat and his team specifically worked toward casting a POC in the new Companion role (the lovely Pearl Mackie eventually won the gig) is exciting and important. While actors like Noel Clarke, Freema Agyeman, and Samuel Anderson have made strides, they are only one segment of our world and diversity is constant work. Something Moffat now realizes.

“I had this baffling idea that if we just threw open each part to everybody, it would all work out in the end. I put my faith, inexplicably, in the free market,” he told the magazine. “It doesn”t work. You can only cast for talent – you”ve got to cast the best person, every single time – but you”ve got to gauge where you”re looking for the talent.”

And that's a big thing a lot of people don't realize. Yes, everyone wants the best person for the job but is everyone getting the same opportunity to apply for said job? You have to make a conscious effort because too many people's default is set in white stone. It's why many of us keep talking, and loudly, about how bad whitewashing is and how good casting POCs as white characters is. It's why I'll support evolving established characters as well as creating new ones to keep up with the year we're living in.

Something has to give. The cycle needs to be broken. You have to look at things from a different perspective.

Hollywood holds back from diversifying a cast for a historical drama but is perfectly fine casting white people as Egyptian Gods. But diversity can be achieved, easily, without making a fuss about it – consider the new Magnificent Seven cast. History itself has erased the existence and contributions of many women and POCs because of who has consistently been in power. While the “historical accuracy” argument really needs to be reconsidered, Moffat realizes a time-traveling fantasy show like Doctor Who has even more responsibility to depict a diverse universe.

“It”s a show that has no excuse. Sometimes the nature of a particular show – historical dramas, for instance – makes diversity more of a challenge, but Doctor Who has absolutely nowhere to hide on this. Young people watching have to know that they”ve a place in the future. That really matters. You have to care profoundly what children”s shows in particular say about where you”re going to be. And we”ve kind of got to tell a lie: we”ll go back into history and there will be black people where, historically, there wouldn”t have been, and we won”t dwell on that. We”ll say, ‘To hell with it, this is the imaginary, better version of the world. By believing in it, we”ll summon it forth.” And, outside of the fiction, it”s about anyone feeling that they can be involved in this industry as an actor, a director, a writer… It”s hugely important, and it”s not good when we fail on that. We must do better.”

As someone who has been very critical of Moffat the last few years, I'm thankful he's opened his mind, realized the privilege he's working from and is making steps to be better. Again, that doesn't mean the work stops there. Last year the 50-year-old series cast its first transgender actor, Bethany Black. Representation in all aspects is very important in depicting the world. As Moffat said, “Young people watching have to know that they”ve a place in the future,” but they also need to know they have a place now.

In the interview, Moffat also touched on the possibility of the Doctor being cast as a POC down the road.

“Absolutely it would [be refreshing if the next Doctor wasn”t white]. Two non-white leads in Doctor Who would be amazing,” he said. “In fact, a lot of people would barely notice … I certainly don”t think there”s ever been a problem with making the Doctor black, which is why it should happen one day. I mean, we”ve tried. The part has been offered to a black actor. But for various reasons, it didn”t work out.”

You may recall actor Paterson Joseph (who's worked on Doctor Who and Moffat's Jekyll) said he'd auditioned for the role around the time David Tennant was heading off. Then there was the unnamed actor Neil Gaiman mentioned in 2013 writing, “I know one black actor who was already offered the part of the Doctor, and who turned it down.” Rumor was that person might have been Chiwetel Ejiofor.

But the lesson I'd love Hollywood at large to take away from Moffat's words is that you can't rest on our laurels. You can always do better, and you can always be the one to make a change that will have a lot of impact on the world.

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