In A Nutshell
Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary today and is the longest-running sci-fi show in history—a TV series that has remained hugely popular in Britain since the days when color television was only a distant dream. So far, 12 actors have been cast in the title role, but in 1966, the second of those very nearly managed to destroy it forever. According to the BBC, Patrick Troughton came within an inch of playing the character in blackface.
The Whole Bushel
Although it seems relatively modern, British sci-fi series Doctor Who has been going roughly forever. Starting in 1963 with grouchy William Hartnell, it’s since seen 11 leading men come and go, with another shortly on the way. Unlike most shows though, change has never been a problem for the Doctor. Thanks to a nifty plot gimmick, the character is able to periodically transform himself into a whole new person—a trick that usually coincides with the lead actor getting a better offer. It’s a technique that allows the Doctor to change his appearance, his character, his style; and once very nearly allowed him to be played in blackface.
In 1966, character actor Patrick Troughton was poised to take over the role. Afraid of being typecast and worried that being so identified with a children’s show would ruin his career, he toyed with ways of disguising his appearance. According to interviews he gave after leaving the role, his preferred method was to play the character as a sort of Captain Nemo: complete with turban and dark skin. Since he was white, this would naturally require him blacking up for the role; a costume method was still unfathomably acceptable in the ’60s. In the end, the producer squashed his idea, asking him to instead play the character as a sort of intergalactic Charlie Chaplin.
It was a heck of a lucky escape for the show. Blackface was already getting kind of old by then, and in 2013 it would be nothing short of mortifying to know Matt Smith was playing a role once reserved for breathtakingly racist caricatures. No matter when your show started, that’s not the sort of past you can shake off lightly. Had Patrick Troughton got his way, the world’s longest-running sci-fi show might well now be just another historical curiosity, consigned to the same cultural dustbin as Disney’s cringe-inducing Song of the South.
Show Me The Proof
The Telgeraph: Doctor Who 50th anniversary—Patrick Troughton considered playing the Doctor in blackface
BBC: The Changing Face of Doctor Who—How to regenerate a Time Lord
Doctor Who Patrick Troughton Interview (video)