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“Doctor Who” has its first black role.  Will the show face race?  : NPR


Ncuti Gatwa attends the Critics Choice Awards in March.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Critics’ Choice


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“Doctor Who” has its first black role.  Will the show face race?  : NPR

Ncuti Gatwa attends the Critics Choice Awards in March.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Critics’ Choice

When news first broke that Ncuti Gatwa would be the new star of the long-running BBC sci-fi series Doctor Whoit felt like a big step forward for the franchise.

After all, the show’s main character – a time-traveling, thousands-of-year-old alien known as The Doctor – has only been played by white people since the show began in 1963.

Current star Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to star on the show just five years ago. And Gatwa, a Rwandan-born, Scottish-raised black man who won praise playing a gay high school student in the Netflix series Sex educationlooks set to deliver an even more groundbreaking take on one of TV’s most enduring sci-fi characters.

This news was compounded by further announcements: David Tennant, who played a popular version of The Doctor from 2005 to 2010, will return for the series’ 60th anniversary next year. He will be joined by Catherine Tate who played a popular sidekick from The Doctor – they are known as ‘companions’ on the show – Donna Noble.

And Yasmin Finney, last seen in Netflix’s popular British coming-of-age drama, Heart strokewill join the cast as one of the few openly transgender actors to appear on Doctor Who.

All of this will be guided by returning showrunner Russell T Davies, who relaunched Doctor Who in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus and left the show when Tennant did in 2010. With credits that include groundbreaking work like Queer as Folk and It’s a sinthere’s no doubt Davies plans to take the show in directions it’s never gone before.

And yet. As a longtime Whovian – that’s nerdspeak for a fan of the show – I wonder if the new Doctor Who will take full advantage of all the diversity of its new casting choices.

Specifically, I’m afraid Doctor Who may not really explore what it means to turn a black man into one of Britain’s most beloved TV characters. Because, when the current production team had a chance to develop storylines around The Doctor’s reimagining as a woman, they often sidestepped the issue.

Reinventing the show through regeneration

For those unfamiliar with the show, Doctor Who found an ingenious way to keep the series in its infancy, allowing the program to change its main cast. The Doctor undergoes what is called “regeneration”, where he transforms into a new body, often with a different personality, which explains his extremely long life.

Concretely, this narrative device allows the show to change stars whenever necessary, feeding Doctor Whoestablished itself as a British television institution and an international phenomenon. And in 2017, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi left the role as Whittaker took over.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed at all with the episodes featuring Whittaker, crafted by current showrunner Chris Chibnall. Too often it seems like the show goes through plot and circumstance at breakneck speed, leaving me yearning for a little more time spent developing the characters.

No shade intended for the show’s cast – especially Whittaker, who immersed himself in the role of the Doctor with appealing abandon. She nails each scene in a way that recalls the best characteristics of classic Doctors, while developing her own vision. Yet the writing of the series has too often not matched his skills.

The recent six-episode story arc of the series, dubbed Flow, featured The Doctor taking on a cavalcade of villains, including two aliens who appeared to have crystals stuck to their faces, classic villains like the Weeping Angels, another murderous alien called The Great Serpent, and a character who claimed to be our hero mother adoptive. Even in a season aiming for an epic story, it felt a bit overloaded.

“Doctor Who” has its first black role.  Will the show face race?  : NPR

Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and John Bishop from the cast of Doctor Who.

James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC Ame/BBC Studios/AMC


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“Doctor Who” has its first black role.  Will the show face race?  : NPR

Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and John Bishop from the cast of Doctor Who.

James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC Ame/BBC Studios/AMC

Of course, the core of FlowThe story revolves around important revelations about the origin and life story of the Doctor. But it quickly plummets, culminating in the Doctor’s decision – spoiler alert! — turn away from an object that would allow him to access all the memories of his past lives, closing the door to too much introspection and depriving the character of his greatest weapon: his experience.

What wasn’t enough – at least from my perspective – was a peek inside the Doctor’s own head. In the last special, Legend of the Sea Devils, The Doctor refused a romantic relationship with his companion, the unwavering Yasmin Khan of Mandip Gill, for fear of being hurt. The wonderfully poignant scene was one of the few times we saw her inner life emerge – but almost as it happened, she turned away.

One of my greatest joys in watching Whittaker’s predecessor, the hard-browed Capaldi, was watching him develop the Doctor from a curmudgeonly know-it-all with little patience for individual humanoids to a character who enjoyed grudgingly his connection with others. Especially his companions.

It’s something I’ve always thought to be true about the best Doctor Who scenarios; The most interesting aspect of any episode is always The Doctor.

Think about it: even for a series that goes all the way to the end of time and back, what could be more interesting than a super-smart, eccentrically charming, and staunchly moral alien who’s seen it all and still cares? How this character views existence, danger, romance, and societies is often the most exciting and telling element of my favorite episodes, including doctor’s day – a special episode featuring Tennant, Matt Smith and John Hurt as three different iterations of The Doctor working together.

Despite how far they’ve come, the Chibnall/Whittaker episodes don’t really have much to do with what it might mean to change the gender of a character who’s been a male on-screen for almost 60 years. . It feels like a missed opportunity, mitigating the impact of such groundbreaking casting.

Why Diversity Matters in an Alien Show

It might seem weird, worrying that a show about a time-traveling alien doesn’t explore gender or race enough on screen. But it’s the unique vision of Doctor Who; it’s a series that sends its characters to the end of the universe and time, but grounds it all in a cheeky reflection of British culture.

It is, like so many of the best sci-fi iterations in media, a great palette for exploring the current state of humanity. And center the narrative on characters from bands previously marginalized by revered major franchises like Doctor Whorequires more than just casting a new actor – it requires building a new character rooted in a new identity.

Davies is a skilled showrunner who has skillfully dealt with depictions of race and identity on other shows, so I remain hopeful that these new casting decisions reflect a willingness to explore the possibilities. (After FlowWhittaker and Chibnall produced three Doctor Who specials for this year, culminating with his final appearance in a 90-minute finale in October.)

The cast of Gatwa actually reminded me of an old joke a white comedian told a black friend about time machines – saying he could go anywhere he wanted, but his friend could only back to around 1965 before it got into serious trouble.

I hope, in some weird way, that Gatwa’s version of The Doctor will eventually address the painful reality behind that joke – specifically, how people of color and people from LGBTQ communities have been treated throughout. of human history. And I can’t wait to see the symbolic impact of seeing a black man as the charismatic know-it-all with all the answers — a type of role too often denied to non-white performers.

It might not be as seismic as a black actor playing James Bond. But for this Whovian of color — who’s watched the show off and on since the mid-1970s — it’s pretty close.

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