On Sunday after the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final the BBC will reveal the identity of the next Dr Who. In many respects, it would make more sense to write this afterwards but the final decision is not really what I want to address – it is fan-casting. For any who are unfamiliar with the term ‘fan-casting’ it’s etymology seems a little shaky. As I understand it the original idea was ‘fantasy casting’; the idea like with fantasy football that you could pick your dream cast for a film or TV show regardless of financial restrictions, contracts, scheduling etc. This idea has been very popular for a while now particularly in the field of adaptations from books and comics. Fans say who they want for roles and the favoured choices then become talked about over and again. In this way fan-casting has evolved from ‘fantasy casting’ into actual ‘fan casting’ where fans of a series, franchise or book try to influence the casting through the internet.
This is where things get problematic. It is completely understandable that fans can have an actor in mind who they think is perfect for a particular role and in some cases these actors have ended up getting the part. Everyone is happy, right? After all, it is arguable that many fans are more invested in and have a better appreciation of the object of their fandom than the TV or studio execs trying to turn it into a film. You can bet that the fans are more invested in a ‘faithful’ rendition than the show runners and sometimes than the creators. An example of this would be the ‘Jack Reacher’ series. Tom Cruise is physically completely unlike the character in the books (a foot shorter for a start) and pretty much everyone I know who is a fan of the books can’t bear to see Tom Cruise represent him. The author, who is clearly aware of the lack of resemblance, is reportedly less concerned. Although it is tempting to think of the McBane/Wolfcastle defence here.
In general, I have a certain amount of sympathy for fans trying to defend the purity of the source material. My only problem with it is when it becomes dogmatic and ignores what an actor can bring to a role. Like Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman is completely the wrong height for a role. It’s not talked about much now but when Jackman was first cast many fans of the comics were enraged that a guy who was 6’3 was given the part when Wolverine is meant to be shorter-than-average stature. If fan-casting had had it’s way Jackman would still be on Broadway and the cinematic Wolverine we know would never have existed.
The trouble with fan-casting becoming too rigid really comes to the fore when a fanhood starts to consider their casting as somehow canon. What happens if that actor is unavailable? Now, instead of whoever is chosen being revealed and given a chance to prove themselves on merit, they begin their tenure with a sense of disappointment hanging over them. That may not stop a good actor making the role their own but there are some who will never forgive them for not being someone else.
This becomes more problematic still when the fandom’s canon is actually not faithful. Most people I’ve talked to think Elijah Wood looks exactly like Frodo and are surprised when I say I think he was miscast. In this case the fandom has edited out the fact he is too young for the role. This is easy enough to live with because this is more people being happy with the result than trying to influence casting in the first place. For Pedro Pascal the process was quite different. Many who read ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ seemed to have misread or ignored the description of Oberon Martell from the books and enthusiastically fan-cast Naveen Andrews in the role. When Pedro Pascal was cast these fans were left horrified and accompanied their disappointment with cries of ‘racism’ and ‘whitewashing’.
I’ve no wish to trivialise either of those issues but those accusations were inappropriate in this case. Expecting sympathy from George Martin, some of these fans were then horrified when Martin explained that this was what the Martell’s were supposed to look like. By any estimation, the source material suggests someone far more like Pedro Pascal than Naveen Andrews. At which point, this vocal part of the fandom then switched approach and claimed they’d fan-cast Andrews because it was an opportunity for greater racial diversity on the show. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that but demanding show-makers follow a particular political agenda opens up a whole multi-pack of worm-containers.
For the most part, TV and film-makers want to be seen as liberal and progressive. There is a good case for this too. If you are holding up a mirror to life then it should be a mirror that reflects in technicolor and not in monochrome. Likewise, values are promoted through our culture and there is a case for ensuring those values are consistent with the kind of society you want to embrace.
Fan-casting to an agenda, however, is a no-win situation. Either the agenda is appeased and or it is denied. Both outcomes will piss people off. Current thinking is that the most likely choice of Doctor will be either Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Kris Marshall. Sunday may prove these predictions completely wrong but whatever happens there will be grumbling and that is because pushing for a female Doctor has become an agenda. If those pushing for it get what they want, others will feel it was forced and will feel alienated from the show. Not only is this bad for the show it’s really unfair of Waller-Bridge or any other female actor who might get the part. Rather than embracing the qualities she will bring to the part, she will have a cloud of ‘political correctness’ hanging over her.
The alternative is that Kris Marshall (or another man) gets the role and the people pushing for a female Doctor feel let down or even that their wishes have been explicitly rebutted. Marshall (or whoever) will also start the role with an unwanted cloud, as if now they are the representative of the patriarchy, reinforcing the glass ceiling. None of this would happen if not for fan-casting. Of course, whoever is chosen may still have been a disappointment to someone but at least it would be on the basis of their acting and not something over which they have no control.
Now, you might argue it is still worth all these problems because the agenda is important. That may be true and works very well as long as TV and film-makers are on board with your agenda. What happens if and when a fandom with a different agenda gets what they want? You might think this is fine as long as their is a range enough of art for everyone and herein lies the rub. Fan-cast in your head all you like but remember what is canon for you isn’t for someone else even if other people on the internet seem to agree with you. In the end, it is better that these decisions are made on an artistic basis.
Finally, whoever is cast as Dr Who, good luck to you. That baton is going to feel especially heavy this time round.