Superheroes and sci-fi: Is there really a lack of diversity in science fiction?

Glasgow-born actor and Oscar winner Peter Capaldi in London, May 12, 2013.  Peter Capaldi has been named as the next lead star for the long-running British...
Glasgow-born actor and Oscar winner Peter Capaldi in London, May 12, 2013. Peter Capaldi has been named as the next lead star for the long-running British...
Dominic Lipinski/AP

The person you see here is Scottish-born actor, Peter Capaldi. He is white, he is British, and he is male. He has also been named to an elite club of actors picked to play the much-beloved British science fiction hero, The Doctor, in the forthcoming season of the BBC series “Doctor Who.” Every other actor in this elite club, like Capaldi, is white, is British, and is male.
The fact that neither a minority nor a woman was picked to play The Doctor this go-around has ruffled some feathers. Writing for The New York Times this week, author and Colby College professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender woman, called the pick of Capaldi “a little dispiriting.”
Admittedly, she lost me in her column’s second sentence which explains, “For those readers who did not get beaten up in high school, ‘Doctor Who’ is a beloved British sci-fi series about a character called the Doctor - a Time Lord who travels through space and time to battle evil.” If you are going to write a piece bemoaning stereotypes, it is best not to begin with the stereotype that all sci-fi fans got “beaten up in high school.” It’s a lazy and exceedingly overused cliché. I read “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novels on the school bus for years, and I was never beaten up in high school (or grade school or college or…).
Boylan closes her piece with this:

As the producers think about whom they want to take on the role next, they should keep in mind the way people’s hopes are lifted when they see someone breaking the glass ceiling, even when it’s for something as seemingly trivial as a hero on a science-fiction program. Equal opportunity matters — in Doctor Who’s universe as well as our own.

Further discussion on equal opportunity in The Doctor’s universe also came this week from legendary sci-fi author Neil Gaiman, who has written for “Doctor Who.” Gaiman told fans on his blog that he did not feel the time was right to have a female take on the role of The Doctor. He stated that after the quirky and youthful portrayal of The Doctor by actor Matt Smith, the part needed “someone harder and much older and more dangerous and, yes, male… as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game…”
Gaiman also touched on the issue of race and the role of The Doctor writing, “Would I like a person of colour as the Doctor? Absolutely.” In a separate post he stated that the part had already been offered to one black actor “who turned it down.” Gaiman has declined to offer more detail on that, and BBC America did not respond to a request for comment by The Huffington Post.
And yes, there have been others responding to Capaldi taking on the role, annoyed with the sameness of the newest Doctor and his eleven predecessors. All these criticisms bundle well with similar critiques accusing the worlds of comic books and science fiction of relying too much on straight white males to play the heroes. And to a point, these criticisms are not entirely unfounded.
Allow me to repeat that: the complaints of too much white male straightness within comic books and science fiction are not entirely without merit. I would, however, offer that these criticisms often overstate the problem and forget the ground that has been broken by comic books and science fiction. Case in point: the world of “Star Trek.”

At the time of its debut in 1966, the crew of the original “Star Trek” series was easily the most diverse cast on television. In 1968, the show featured the first interracial kiss on American television. By 1995, “Star Trek: Voyager” gave us our first female Starfleet captain, Kathryn Janeway, in a role played by Kate Mulgrew. That same year, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” featured an episode with one of the nation’s first televised lesbian kisses. And this all happened while Hollywood largely continued to churn out straight white male action hero after straight white male action hero.
Nowadays, you can find a hugely diverse mix of characters in science fiction movies and television shows and in the pages of comic books and science fiction novels. Spider-man has been re-imagined as a mixed-race teen from Brooklyn. Batman has shared storylines with lesbian superhero Batwoman. Archie Comics featured its first gay kiss. The pages of X-Men celebrated a gay marriage.
“Battlestar Galactica” featured a culturally diverse cast including LGBT characters. Its prequel, “Caprica,” showcased the still taboo practice of plural marriage. The “Doctor Who” spin-off “Torchwood” explored several gay and bisexual relationships. “Doctor Who” itself recently included a storyline involving a same-sex union between a woman and “an intelligent reptile from an ancient civilization long preceding mankind.”
So returning back to Jennifer Boylan’s New York Times piece, she’s right in saying that “Equal opportunity matters—in Doctor Who’s universe as well as our own.” Boylan and others may get their wish and see a female Doctor before the series ends its run. But let’s not forget that The Doctor’s universe is already rather diverse. Where else would you find a lesbian interspecies marriage between a human and a prehistoric talking lizard?