You can’t be what you can’t see, the American activist Marian Wright Edelman once said. She was talking about the representation of women in the halls of influence and power, but the point applies just as much to other demographics, and to the stories we tell.
The heroes Western culture has placed at the centre of TV and film have historically tended to look, well, a bit like me: in somewhat better shape, sure, but nonetheless broadly white, male, heterosexual and somewhere around the middle of their life. That makes sense, given the whole patriarchal American hegemony thing the world has had going on recently, but it’s a bit of a shame because the part of the world’s population that actually does look like me is relatively small.
The recent run of blockbuster comic-book films that put other demographics at their centre – Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi – has connected with a wider demographic (and annoyed bigots, which is almost as satisfying), and the internet is awash with comments such as, “For the first time I have a superhero that looks like me.” More than once, I’ve seen cinema audiences watching these movies applaud.
Little wonder that Doctor Who – another historically very white, very male work of sci-fi – has been moving in that direction too. In the past few years, the show has introduced its first female Master (Michelle Gomez), followed by the first British South Asian one (Sacha Dhawan). In 2017 the BBC announced that they’d finally gone through with a radical casting decision that had been rumoured, on and off, since 1980, and chosen the show’s first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.
Just to hammer home the point, the 2020 season included the revelations that the Doctor had once (in a forgotten past from before the bit they’d shown us on television) looked like the black British actress Jo Martin – encouraging a flurry of headlines such as this, from Essence: “‘Dr Who’ Is Now A Black Woman (And We’re Losing Our Minds)”. Only a few years ago, the assumption was still that the Doctor had to be a white man, probably aged somewhere between 30 and 50. Now, they could plausibly be anyone.
I had, if I’m honest, been hoping another woman would take the role next: Whittaker has not been well-served by the lead writer Chris Chibnall, ratings are down, and there is a danger her casting – like the absolutely brilliant but commercially lacklustre gender-swapped Ghostbusters movie – will come to look like an aberration, or even a mistake. I didn’t want anything to happen that might suggest the awful pink-faced men who sit on Twitter all day using hashtags like “#NotMyDoctor” had even the vaguest semblance of a point. And yet it took all of half a second for my reaction to the announcement that the next actor to play the Doctor would be Ncuti Gatwa to cycle from, “Oh” to, “Who?” to, “Oh my f***ing god.”
Cool thing number one: Gatwa is young, just 29 – the only Doctor to be younger when they joined the show was Matt Smith (Peter Davison was around the same age as Gatwa). That makes him the first Doctor who was not yet born when the first incarnation of the show ended in 1989, and means he was young enough to have watched the first years of the Noughties reboot as an actual child. I don’t know what this generational shift will mean for the show, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t change anything. (He is, incidentally, the third Doctor to be younger than me. For those of you experiencing this for the first time: you get used to it, but yes, you are old now, sorry.)
Cool thing number two. Gatwa’s best-known role thus far was in Sex Education, as Eric, a character who was both proudly African and proudly gay, and the performance won him a pile of awards. This, taken alongside the return of Russell T Davies as the series’ lead writer after a 13-year absence, feels like something else that will feed into the show in ways we can’t guess at yet. As well as Doctor Who, Davies is known for his unapologetic depictions of gay life in shows such as Queer As Folk and It’s A Sin. If he gives us the first queer-coded Doctor as well as the first black one, it’ll go some way to make up for the current incarnation of the show’s failure to deliver on hints of a love affair between the current Doctor and her companion, Yaz. (That the Tardis console room seems to contain both a double bed and handcuffs these days gives one pause for thought.)
The coolest and most exciting thing, though, is that Gatwa is not only a black Briton, but a former refugee: his family fled the Rwandan genocide when he was two years old and settled in Scotland (making him, incidentally, the fourth Scottish Doctor, and third this century). The character of the Doctor has been, at times, both establishment and outsider. With this casting, the show’s creators are making very clear which side of the line the new era is going to land on.
Gatwa told The Reggie Yates Podcast in 2020 that when Sex Education first appeared on Netflix the previous year, he started getting letters from people who recognised something of themselves in the character of Eric. “I was very struck by how important representation is,” he said. “People are just watching the show and gaining strength from the character.” He is clearly aware of what this casting will mean to people of colour, and to many other people, too.
For all the predictions of a backlash, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People who had drifted away from the show are saying they’ll tune in again; those who never watched it in the first place are saying they’ll start. Throw in the return of Davies, so soon after It’s A Sin (his masterwork) and just in time for the show’s 60th anniversary, and, in words shamelessly stolen from one friend in nerdom, “It feels like Doctor Who just ignited.”
In April 2022 the British government announced plans to deport refugees to Rwanda. Three weeks later, the BBC cast a former Rwandan refugee as the lead role in the most British of franchises. Just occasionally, this silly kids show about a time-travelling alien makes me feel genuinely, properly proud.