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'Doctor Who' has its first Black lead. Will the show contend with race?

Ncuti Gatwa attends the Critics Choice Awards in March.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images for Critics Choice
Ncuti Gatwa attends the Critics Choice Awards in March.

When news first broke that Ncuti Gatwa would be the new star of the BBC's long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, it felt like an important step forward for the franchise.

After all, the show's lead character – a time traveling alien thousands of years old known as The Doctor – has only been played by white people since the show's inception in 1963.

Current star Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to star in the show just five years ago. And Gatwa, a Black man born in Rwanda and raised in Scotland who earned raves playing a gay high schooler on the Netflix series Sex Education, seems poised to offer an even more revolutionary vision for one of TV's most enduring science fiction characters.

That news was compounded by more announcements: David Tennant, who played a popular version of The Doctor from 2005 to 2010, will return for the show's 60th anniversary next year. He'll be joined by Catherine Tate who played a popular sidekick to The Doctor – they're known as "companions" on the show – Donna Noble.

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

All this will be guided by returning showrunner Russell T Davies, who revived Doctor Who in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus and left the series when Tennant did in 2010. With credits that include groundbreaking work like Queer as Folk and It's a Sin, there's seems little doubt that Davies plans on taking the show in directions it's never traveled before.

And yet. As a longtime Whovian – that's nerdspeak for a fan of the show – I'm left to wonder if the new Doctor Who will fully take advantage of all the diversity in its new casting choices.

Specifically, I fear 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 reimagining The Doctor as a woman, they often skirted the issue.

Reimagining the show through regeneration

For those unfamiliar with the show, Doctor Who came up with an ingenious way to keep the series going in its early days, allowing the program to switch out its lead actors. The Doctor undergoes what's called a "regeneration," where he morphs into a new body, often with a different personality, accounting for his tremendously long life.

In practical terms, this storytelling device allows the show to change its star whenever necessary, fueling Doctor Who's rise as a British TV institution and international phenomenon. And in 2017, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi departed the role as Whittaker took over.

I'll be honest, I haven't been all that impressed with the episodes featuring Whittaker, crafted by current showrunner Chris Chibnall. Too often, it seems as if the show races through plotting and circumstances at breakneck speed, leaving me yearning for a little more time spent developing the characters.

No shade intended for the show's actors — especially Whittaker, who has plunged into playing The Doctor with an appealing abandon. She nails every scene in a way that recalls the best characteristics of the classic Doctors, while also developing her own vision. Still, the show's writing too often hasn't matched her skill.

The series' recent six-episode story arc, dubbed Flux, featured The Doctor facing off against a cavalcade of bad guys, including two aliens who looked like they had crystals stuck to their faces, classic villains like the Weeping Angels, another murderous alien called The Grand Serpent and a character who claimed to be our hero's adoptive mother. Even in a season aiming for an epic story, it felt a bit overstuffed.

Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and John Bishop from the cast of Doctor Who.
James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC Ame / BBC Studios/AMC
BBC Studios/AMC
Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and John Bishop from the cast of Doctor Who.

To be sure, the core of Flux's story turns on important revelations about The Doctor's origin and life story. But it tumbles out in a rush, culminating with The Doctor's decision — spoiler alert! — to turn away from an object which would allow her to access all the memories of her previous lives, closing the door on too much introspection and robbing the character of her biggest weapon: her experience.

What there wasn't enough of – 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 turned down a romantic relationship with her companion, Mandip Gill's steadfast Yasmin Khan, for fear of getting hurt. The wonderfully poignant scene was one of the few times we saw her inner life emerge – but almost as it was happening, she turned away.

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

It's something I've always felt was true about the best Doctor Who storylines; The most interesting aspect of any episode is always The Doctor.

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

Despite all the ground they have covered, the Chibnall/Whittaker episodes haven't really connected with what it might mean to change the gender of a character who has been a man onscreen for nearly 60 years. This feels like something of an opportunity missed, muting the impact of such revolutionary casting.

Why diversity matters on a show about an alien

It may sound bizarre, worrying that a show about a time traveling alien doesn't sufficiently explore gender or race on screen. But that is the unique vision of Doctor Who; it's a series that sends its characters to the end of the universe and time, yet grounds it all in a cheeky reflection of British culture.

It is, like so many of the best iterations of science fiction in media, a grand palette for exploring the current state of humanity. And centering the narrative on characters from groups previously marginalized by big, venerated franchises like Doctor Who, requires more than just casting a new actor – it demands building a new character rooted in a new identity.

Davies is a skilled showrunner who has deftly handled depictions of race and identity in other series, so I remain hopeful these new casting decisions reflect a willingness to dig into the possibilities. (After Flux, Whittaker and Chibnall have produced three Doctor Who specials for this year, culminating with her final appearance in a 90-minute finale in October.)

Gatwa's casting actually reminded me of an old joke a white comedian told to a Black friend about time machines – saying that he could go anywhere he wanted, but his friend could only travel back to about 1965 before he would have some serious problems.

I'm hopeful, in an odd way, that Gatwa's version of The Doctor winds up reckoning with the painful reality behind that joke – particularly, how people of color and folks from LGBTQ communities have been treated throughout human history. And I can't wait for the symbolic impact of seeing a Black man as the charismatic know-it-all with all the answers – a type of role far too often denied non-white performers.

It may not be quite as seismic as a Black actor playing James Bond. But for this Whovian of color — who has watched the show off and on since the mid-1970s — it's close enough.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.