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24th May 2022

Doctor Who finds it’s newest Time Lord

Doctor Who finally welcomes Ncuti Gatwa as its first black doctor (if we conveniently forget the Timeless Child twist)
Doctor Who finds it’s newest Time Lord
Photo: Steve Collins @ Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a Doctor Who fan, the past two weeks have been Christmas, your birthday and Easter all rolled into one. With returning actors and new cast members, we’ve barely had time to breathe. Probably the biggest news of all is news surrounding our favourite alien; 29-year-old Ncuti Gatwa is set to play the next incarnation of the Doctor.

The announcement was strangely quiet, leading some to suspect that the BBC was trying to get ahead of a leak. In contrast to Jodie Whittaker interrupting Wimbledon to pick up her TARDIS key and Peter Capaldi’s bombastic extravaganza, Gatwa hinted at the announcement with a coded Instagram post before the Doctor Who Twitter announced it fully last Sunday. The lack of fanfare felt puzzling to fans. But true to form, they gave Gatwa the reception he deserves.

Gatwa admittedly was not who fans expected to take on the role. Fans speculated that T’Nia Miller was next to pilot the TARDIS. As usual, Richard Ayoade topped many wish lists. But once they announced Gatwa, the verdict was, “well, of course, who else would it be?”. He is currently most well-known for his role in Netflix’s teen series Sex Education, playing the iconic, confident and effortlessly funny Eric Effignong.

Sex Education (the TV show, not the gruelling process at high school) is primarily a comedy, and Gatwa has proved himself to be a master of making audiences laugh. However, he’s also had more heavy storylines over his three years at Moordale. Series two sees his character being the victim of a homophobic attack and his journey of rediscovery in the aftermath. In these moments of vulnerability, courage, and power, he shines, and we see the seeds of the Doctor.

On one hand, Eric could not be more different from the Doctor (a 17-year-old schoolboy versus a thousand-year-old two-hearted alien). However, his performance in the show proves he has some serious talent. He is brimming with Time Lord potential.

My personal hope is that if he takes one thing from Sex Education over to Doctor Who, it’s the colourful outfits. Because if you’re going to save the world, why not do it in style?

Previous Doctors have welcomed Gatwa with open arms, from Peter Capaldi congratulating him on STV News to Sylvester McCoy’s absolutely adorable video. One of the best parts of getting a new Doctor is seeing the old Doctors’ messages to their successors. It reminds me how remarkable this show is, still beloved almost 60 years after the first episode. Doctor Who is more than a show, and it is an honour to watch it be passed on. 

Now, whether we can call Gatwa the first black Doctor is… well, it’s complicated. You might remember that back in series 12, we met the Ruth Doctor, played by Jo Martin. Ruth was an incarnation we’d never seen before, and she had no memory of being the Thirteenth Doctor. In that series’ finale, we learned the Ruth Doctor predates even the first Doctor as one of potentially hundreds of incarnations that came before. So, technically, Gatwa is not the first black Doctor. However, he is the first black actor to lead the series as the Doctor.

Plus, I’m completely fine with pretending the Timeless Child twist didn’t happen. But that’s another article for another time.

Predictably and frustratingly, the news has been met with backlash. In one corner you have outright racists complaining that the show has “gone political”. And in the other are the subtle ones who “were just hoping for another woman”. As if white women are the only people under-represented in media.

Apparently, a box that’s bigger on the inside and travels anywhere in time and space and an alien with two hearts who changes his entire body is perfectly believable. As long as he is a white alien driving the space-time machine.

As for the “woke” comments, there is a whole list of episodes that tackled political issues. The Pertwee and Capaldi eras are particularly politically-charged. The Daleks are a Nazi allegory, for crying out loud. Frankly, the time for a black Doctor is overdue. 

Thankfully, the overwhelming amounts of support and excitement drown out the negativity. Fans are eager to see the show expand the possibilities of who can play the Doctor. A black man playing one of the most iconic science-fiction heroes, the great peacemaker of the universe, is one of the most exciting things to happen on TV in a while.

As a white woman, I can’t imagine exactly how this feels. But I do know how I felt watching Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. I understand how incredibly important representation is. Anyone can be a Time Lord now, and the inside of the TARDIS has never felt bigger. 

It will be interesting to see if the show will address the Doctor changing race. After all, the show didn’t ignore the Doctor becoming a woman. Whittaker got some fun one-liners about her “gender upgrade”, as she called it and occasionally forgot how to refer to herself. However, none of this went beyond the surface level “girl power” moments.

It often felt like the writing team avoided mining any depth from the Doctor changing gender to avoid being controversial. But risks are what Doctor Who is all about.

Until now, Doctor Who‘s handling of racism has ranged from middling to poor since it came back in 2005. I could write a whole other article about the unfair treatment of Martha Jones. One moment that sticks out is when she worries someone will cart her off as a slave in 1599, and the Doctor replies “just walk about like you own the place”. The same series has Martha trapped in 1913 and subjected to period-typical racism while she works as a maid.

There have certainly been strides to fix this. Capaldi’s Doctor remarks that “history is a whitewash” when Bill remarks that Victorian London is more diverse than she thought. Whittaker’s third adventure saw the Doctor and Co. meeting Rosa Parks. The attempts might be in good faith, but they failed to give the issue the necessary weight.

I’m not asking for an anti-racism PSA in my show about aliens. Nor do I want someone racially harassing the Doctor and companion every episode. But I don’t want the show to pretend a black man travelling back to the Elizabethan era is the same as when David Tennant did either. Hopefully, returning showrunner Russell T Davies will step up the challenge and, crucially, hire black writers. 

Aside from these concerns, it’s an incredibly exciting time for Doctor Who fans. Ncuti’s immense charisma, talent and charm make him a perfect choice to be this generation’s hero. Coupled with Russell T Davies coming back as the series’ head writer and Heartstopper‘s amazing Yasmin Finney as a new companion, we could well be heading into a new golden era of Doctor Who.

We are in an era that doesn’t place restrictions on who gets to travel the universe and save planets. All you need is a sense of adventure and to be ready to run.

Gatwa is, of course, beside himself to be taking on the role. When speaking about his casting, he said, “I may only have one heart, but I am giving it all to this show”. And as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I couldn’t ask for anything more. 

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