After half a century of being on the air, the BBC science fiction romp Doctor Who has finally cast a non-white actor in its lead role. Unfortunately, this means I might watch some Doctor Who in the future.
If you’ve never seen Doctor Who, do not feel obligated to watch it. Ostensibly it’s a science fiction adventure series about a time traveling hero and his (or, as of very recently, sometime her) companions. Think of it as like Star Trek, but instead of an American military force visiting a Roman Empire-themed planet, it’s a couple of British people on holiday going to the actual ancient Rome with a time-traveling alien called the Doctor. My dad got hooked on the series in the 1970s, when it was being broadcast on PBS, and when the series rebooted in 2003, he passed that appreciation down onto me.
Over time, liking Doctor Who has felt more like a curse than a blessing. At its best, it does fulfill the basic promise of science fiction episodic television—once a week, you get transported to a fantastical place where our heroes will solve a problem in a clever way. It’s just that the show has frequently been uneven in its modern era, not sure whether to follow in the footsteps of episodic television of the past or to treat Who as a prestige enterprise.
For my part, I feel like Who has always been better when it takes things an episode at a time. Although the initial series revival, with the excellent Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, played a little bit with long-term plotting, each season since then has focused less on the monster of the week and more on an overarching mystery. But delving into the series’ mythology to create mysteries or conspiracies has diminishing returns. There is simply not a lot to say about the Daleks as an allegory for fascist regimes that has not already been said in the 50 years of the show being on air. That, and the actual mythology of the show to dive into is simply goofy-ass.
The Doctor is a Gallifreyan Time Lord, now the last of his kind, who gallavants across the universe fighting Daleks and Cybermen and meeting Shakespeare. (Interestingly, Gallifreyans can choose what kind of shape they regenerate into after they die, and apparently, the Doctor did not see any reason to anything other than a white man until quite recently.) Prior to the show’s reboot, these enemy aliens were often props made of cardboard or plastic tubing painted silver; treating them as serious antagonists is kind of a struggle when you see their humble beginnings. Doctor Who has the hallmarks of an edutainment children’s show, but the prestige format presents it as serious adult fiction. The result feels campy, but often the show and its plot lines are too dour to take advantage of that tone. I had to take a break from the show after the season where the characters face genocidal lizard men in the center of the earth because somehow they managed to make that premise incredibly boring to watch.
Despite knowing that I am no longer a Doctor Who fan, seeing that a black actor has finally been cast in the role has given me the urge to revisit the show. Each Doctor has their own, mostly distinct personality. The most famous Doctor, Tom Baker’s, was the kind of eccentric, scatterbrained fop that has been most associated with the character, but Eccleston’s Doctor was a kind of rough around the edges guy in a leather jacket, who remarked slyly to someone who noted his northern English accent that “lots of planets have a north.” Matt Smith played the Doctor as a very old man suddenly in a young man's body, his limbs rubbery and always in motion, as if he was somehow surprised that he could move that fast. Peter Capaldi, for his part, leaned into his already extant image as an angry guy, but tried to convey a sense of majesty and brokenness of an alien who is so old now that they’ve kind of just given up on pleasantries. Ncuti Gatwa, best known for his work on Sex Education, will be the next actor to put their specific spin on this character that theoretically can be anyone from anywhere. We simply don’t know what a black Doctor looks like or feels like, and having watched this show with my dad, I’ve always hoped I’d be able to find that out.
There have been many acclaimed actors from the UK to take up the mantle of the Doctor—besides Eccleston, Paul McGann and David Tennant have also played the role, and Jodie Whittaker played The Doctor for the time being. Ncuti Gatwa will soon join that roster. I’m glad that he gets a chance to play one of the best-known, and longest-running, science fiction protagonists of all time. I also hope that he will soon be on a better show.