David Harewood, on playing Lord Asrail in "His Dark Materials."
So: what are we asking when we ask if Doctor Who could be a woman, or black, or a black woman?
We aren't asking whether he could have been a black woman in 1963: obviously, he could not have been. The Original Doctor was an archetype, and the Old Crazy Science Guy Archetype is an old grey haired white male. (Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is.) The BBC could have created a series involving time travel in which the main character wasn't an Old Crazy Science Guy—but that series would have been a different thing from Doctor Who.
We aren't asking whether a black man or a woman could pretend to be one of the white male Doctors: if we could recreate the Fourth Doctor in a flasback, but have Tom Baker played by Lenny Henry; if Dawn French should have been considered for the role of William Hartnell in the forthcoming film about the early days of the series. That would obviously make no sense at all. Don't know why I even mentioned it.
I think the question we are asking is closer to "Could a black man, or a woman, or a black woman do the Doctor's job".
The process of regeneration is pretty vague. Sometimes it seems to be conceived as a very radical form of cosmetic surgery; sometime it seems to be a kind of metamorphosis; sometimes it seems to be more like Hindu reincarnation. When the Time Lords turned Doctor Pat into Doctor Jon, they talked in terms of changing his physical appearance. When Doctor David turned into Doctor Matt, he seemed to be genuinely sad—as if he was leaving something behind. When different versions of the Doctor meet up—most recently at the end of Name of the Doctor—they regard themselves as different people, not merely "myself when young". I therefore conclude that, in modern continuity at least, regenerating is more like "a new person taking over a job" than "a new actor playing the same character". "Could there be a black Doctor?" is much more like asking "Could an hispanic boy take over the job of Spider-Man?" than "Could a one-legged man play Tarzan?"
So all bets are off, and anyone can play the Doctor, regardless of age, hair colour or shoe size, right?
If you want to carry on believing in James Bond, you have to pretend that "James Bond" is a nom de guerre which has been used by a number of British spies and assassins over the years. The same individual can hardly have been expelled from Eton in 1932 and have pushed the present Queen out of a helicopter during the 2012 Olympic Games. But it doesn't follow that anyone could do the James Bond role—that it could be a scruffy Welshman who prefers Guinness to Martini or a celibate Frenchman who doesn't approve of gambling, or a wheelchair bound professor of espionagoloy. There's a sort of essence, involving smart suits, baccarat tables, fast cars, beautiful girlfriends and expensive cocktails that makes Bond Bond.
I submit that there has to be some essential quality somewhere that makes the Doctor the Doctor. I submit that that that essence of Doctorness is more important to Doctor Who than the essence of Bondness is to James Bond. Replace Daniel Craig with a Chinese martial artist and you still have fast cars, stunts, scripts and villains with ridiculous plots, clever gadgets, sick jokes. "That was obviously a James Bond film" you might say "Even though it didn't have James Bond in it." But Doctor Who, the character, is literally the only thread connecting all the disparate bits of TV that make up Doctor Who the TV series together. Doctor Who without Doctor Who in it is like Hamlet without the Hamlet; like Garfield without Garfield.
If Peter Davison had been a woman, it would have made very little difference, except possibly to Sandra Dickenson. Tom Baker correctly said that the Doctor didn't have romantic emotions—that was one of the things which made it an interesting role for an actor to play. The Tom Baker Doctor wasn't especially macho, and when he was joined by a Lady Time Lord, she wasn't particularly feminine. There was very little sexuality to the show: a little flirting when Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were romantically involved in real life, but no sense that it could ever go anywhere. If Tom had grinned and passed the torch to, say, Joanna Lumley, I think everything would have carried on as before :a fairly non-gendered character played by a man becoming a fairly non-gendered character played by a woman.
Since then, we have, of course, discovered that Doctor Who is almost entirely about flirting. Tom Baker's remarks about the Doctor being asexual were hallucinated by a sexually dysfunctional fan-base. New Who is about a Doctor who falls in love, gets married, (sort of) and on whom all the female companions have crushes. That's the whole point of the show.
The last time we had this discussion, Russell T Davies remarked that if he cast a lady as the Doctor, parents up and down the land would have to field the question "Mummy, does the new Doctor have a willy?" I think he had a fair point, however badly he may have put it. New Who is adult enough that any Male to Female regeneration would have to be addressed in terms of transexuality and gender reassignment; it is enough of a children's programme that those subjects could probably not be handled, or not handled well. In the old days, we could happily have had a scene in which the Doctor indicated that he now had a female shape and that it made no difference; now we would have to deal with the fact that he is married to River Bloody Song and that Wonderful Clara either does or doesn't have a crush on him. The femininity of the Doctor would become what the series was about.
The race thing, on the other hand, is very nearly a non-issue. When the 1996 American TV reboot was under discussion, there were vague suggestions that the Doctor should be a stereotypical urban American black guy. And that the TARDIS should sing rap music. The name of Eddie Murphy was uttered. This would, of course, have been appalling. The Doctor's Englishness, or at any rate Britishness, is much more part of his essence than the shape of his genitals, which I hope and believe will never appear on screen. But there are plenty of ways, interesting ways, in which a character can be English and Asian or English and African at the same time. Yes, a version of Doctor Who in which every bloody story was about race, racial identity, prejudice and people treating you differently when your skin changes colour would be terribly, terribly, boring, but I think that could probably be avoided. Matt Smith is the youngest actor to play the role, and the whole series hasn't become about his youth.
"Edwardian English Gentleman With Dark Skin", "African English Edwardian Gentleman", "Asian English Edwardian Gentleman" are all perfectly imaginable. "Lady Edwardian English Gentleman" starts to set off warning bells, albeit quite quiet, tinkly ones.
This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4."
The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One.
In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief.