Doctor Who Meets Affirmative Action Absolutism

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The outstanding revival of Doctor Who will soon be retiring another incarnation of the Doctor. David Tennant, who I think has been the best Doctor of the whole franchise, is going to move on to other things after several TV movies that also finish off the tenure of head writer Russell T. Davies, the man behind the series' revival. Steven Moffat, who is taking over the head writer's spot, happens to be my favorite writer of the bunch, having written three episodes that I'd put in the top ten of all time and one that unquestionably occupies the top spot. But there's been a bit of worry about who would become the eleventh Doctor. Rumors circulated that they might pick a woman or a black man. I'd be very surprised if they picked a woman, but I wouldn't have been surprised at all if they'd found a black man who could capture the essentials of the Doctor very well. They've certainly made great efforts to be racially inclusive in the revived show, marking a stark contrast with the very white casting of the original episodes.

It's strange, however, to see some of the response that I've seen now that they've finally chosen the eleventh Doctor, and he turns out to be white. It strikes me as affirmative action absolutism. To be clear what I mean, here are a number of different things people call affirmative action:

It can mean (1) outright quotas, where you guarantee a certain number of spots for whatever group you're extending affirmative action toward. This was originally what happened at the college and university level until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for state and federal funding to be used that way.

It can mean (2) idealized quotas, where you lower the usual standards to try to reach a ballpark figure, but you don't do it by the numbers. It's effectively a quota, but because you're not an absolutist about an exact number of spots, the Supreme Court allowed it in 2003 as long as you don't use strict numerical criteria in letting race affect your calculations.

Then there's (3) what George W. Bush calls affirmative access, which is to go out of your way to find qualified candidates but not to lower your usual standards very much, and if there aren't qualified candidates in the target group or aren't as many as you'd like, then you don't lower the standards more to fill up the spots more.

The third policy has always struck me as the best, particularly for this sort of situation. You're casting for an iconic character with a history dating back over 40 years. You want to produce the best artistic product you can, and the choice of the lead role on such a show is huge. It would do a lot of good in the world to cast a black actor for the part. However, there are considerations more important than race, and those should never be put aside if it turns out all the black actors who audition are enough away from what you think the role needs to be like compared with a candidate who just stands out as perfect. According to all reports from the producers, they chose someone who does exactly that. He seemed exactly what they wanted. If they had a black actor who'd auditioned who could do the job passably, it seems to me that it would be immoral to hire him instead of the guy they went with. If they had someone who would have been great for the job if the guy they hired had never appeared, who perhaps might have otherwise been their first choice, then it becomes a harder question. It depends entirely on how much better their first choice is. It didn't sound like anyone was close from the way the producers were talking, though.

So it seems like this sort of complaint relies on a very strange moral premise, which I'll call affirmative action absolutism, a view that becomes very strange when applied to the case of there being only one spot. Somehow the idea is that whenever you've got an ongoing role where the actor can be replaced and not have to look anything like the previous actor, and all the previous actors were white, you've done something bad by not choosing a black one at the next opportunity. Such a view strikes me as completely crazy. Race is an important consideration, but it's not the only one, and there are other ones that can be more important. You have to know that none of the more important considerations are determining the decision to complain that something bad has gone on in the selection of a white actor to play the Doctor.

I can't see how anyone but the producers can flatly say that they've failed at some moral responsibility by choosing a white actor, because only those present at the auditions and casting decision meetings can know enough to assert that the producers are lying when they said Matt Smith stood out so far above the other auditioners that it was hard to consider anyone else. I very much doubt they're lying, though. Steve Moffat isn't out to cater to higher-ups in the BBC. He's a long-time fan who has a very good understanding of the essence of the character. He's a storyteller who wants to tell the best story he can with the best cast he can. Why would he choose someone and then lie about the reasons? It's extremely implausible. Besides, claiming that you know they're lying is stronger than wondering if it's true. Claiming you know it requires having been at the auditions and knowing that there are black actors who tried out who would have done just as good a job or almost as good a job as the Doctor. I very much doubt that's true of the complainers, since they almost certainly weren't present for any of that.


Hi Jeremy,

Sorry if this is slightly off-topic, but I'm just kinda curious. When you mentioned . . .

Steven Moffat, who is taking over the head writer's spot, happens to be my favorite writer of the bunch, having written three episodes that I'd put in the top ten of all time and one that unquestionably occupies the top spot.

. . . I was wondering, if you don't mind saying of course, which three episodes these might be?

I've only ever seen the new series, and I haven't seen the fourth season yet, but I think my fave episodes so far are probably "Army of Ghosts" and "Doomsday" from the second season. Well, it's a toss-up between this pair and "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood" from the third season. Among other things, I loved that the latter two took place during the Edwardian period, which to me evokes Narnia for some reason, which in turn was a fave book series of mine as a child (the LW&W was in fact the first book I remember reading in English), as well as (alas) the unrequited love between the Doctor and the beautiful Martha Jones!


My favorite Doctor Who episode of all time, hands down and without anything remotely in the ballpark of having a hope of competing, is "Blink" from season 3. The other two I was referring to are season 4's library two-parter, which you haven't seen yet. Moffat also wrote the WWII gas mask episodes in the first season, which I thought were among the top episodes of that year, and "Girl in the Fireplace" in the second season. They haven't had the awards for 2008 yet, but the other episodes by Moffat have all won Hugo awards for best dramatic presentation, short form.

I did like the episodes you listed, but I wouldn't put them as high as the three by Moffat that I liked most.

I don't keep up with many race-oriented blogs, but all the complaints I've heard about the "missed opportunity" relate -- either explicitly or implicitly -- to the question that Arturo Garcia opens with:

A lot of people have less faith than you in Moffat and his ability to resist the BBC higherups. So the complaint isn't just that they didn't pick a black man; it's that many people were atwitter about the possibility of getting a black man or perhaps even a woman (without sacrificing quality), yet the BBC chose what looks like an emo heartthrob kid. Even admitting that we didn't see the audition, it looks like a suspicious move to a lot of people -- like bowing to the absolute of commerce. I don't think you can separate the two complaints. In full, the charge is that the show passed up making a principled social stand in order to cast what appears to be an inferior product.

Now, like you, I have reasonably high hopes that this guy is going to do very well. Even at its worst, the show is pretty resilient, and some very clever people are in charge. But good grief, he's gotta get a haircut.

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