Can Ncuti Gatwa save a tired franchise?

The new Dr Who is timely, not tokenistic

Artillery Row

Doctor Who is regenerating and it is, as they say, about time. The news was slipped out quietly, in a Sunday lunchtime tweet by the show’s official account, that Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa would be taking over the titular role.

Viewing figures have sunk to their lowest ever

It’s testament to how far the show has fallen in the national consciousness that there was no great fanfare — no special reveal; no glitzy, glamorous television event. As I have written before for this magazine, the Jodie Whittaker era has not been a success. Viewing figures have sunk to their lowest ever. Children, girls and boys, have switched off in their droves. The programme has become cemented in viewers’ minds as pursuing its political agenda above all else.

Part of the problem is that turning the Doctor into a woman has been a nudge-nudge wink-wink joke since at least the early 1980s. There is, of course, no particular reason why a female Doctor wouldn’t work, though the sheer weight of the programme’s history and tradition meant the blueprint in the public’s mind was of a male figure: an Edwardian adventurer, an eccentric frock-coated and (in the classic series at least) pleasingly un-sexual man.

The first female incarnation (imagine Miriam Margolyes or Thandiwe Newton or Lesley Joseph in the role) needed to be somebody who grasped the character and, through the strength of her own personality and performance, burst onto our screens with a unique and gutsy re-imagining. This, unfortunately, did not happen, though the ultimate blame for the failure of this run must lie with the Head Writer, Chris Chibnall.

It is a great irony that, amongst the kind of sad people who in adulthood still watch Doctor Who (and I am one of them; but, don’t worry, I shower daily and even had a girlfriend once), Chibnall is infamous for a youthful appearance on the BBC’s Open Air. He castigated two of the show’s then writers, Pip and Jane Baker, for their lack of complexity and the poor quality of their scripts. Yet “Doctor Who is now a woman” seems to be quite literally the limit of his own vision.

It is borderline misogynistic. The main character which he generated was unusually weak and feeble, desperate in her search for friends, and even — the ultimate sticky-fingered fanwank fantasy — becoming embroiled in a lesbian relationship with one of her companions. Married to a pitiful retconning of the show’s history, and an obsession with reviving the “old favourites”, Chibnall’s legacy is a programme in desperate need of a reset, or even outright cancellation.

The BBC has taken the former option — a reset — with its (re-)appointment of Russell T. Davies as the programme’s showrunner.

Colour blind casting has to be the future

Davies is one of the sharpest operators in television, and he knows what the punters want. It should be no surprise, then, that he has reoriented the Doctor back towards the traditional blueprint with his casting of Ncuti Gatwa in the lead role. Gatwa, though an award winning performer, is far from a UK household name; nor were Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy or Matt Smith. He is at the younger end of the Whos, but older than Smith or Peter Davison when they were cast — both incarnations that are remembered with affection. He is a good actor, and in interviews has an elfin sparkle, reminiscent of Smith or Patrick Troughton or even McCoy.

Some commentators have fallen into the ugly trap of opining negatively on his skin colour. Gatwa is an exercise in “box ticking”, they proclaim.

But there is no reason at all why the Doctor shouldn’t be black (indeed, Jo Martin, in her recent role as the “fugitive Doctor” was, I thought, rather better and more suitable than Whittaker). Here’s the thing: we are a multi-racial society. One in ten relationships are mixed race. Blended families are becoming the norm (my own is one of them). Whilst I see potential harm in some of the more extreme elements of identitarian ideology — such as the idea, emanating from certain sections of the education establishment, that white children are natural oppressors, minority children inevitably oppressed — there can be no harm whatever in iconic British roles like Doctor Who being open to everyone, regardless of race. Indeed, colour blind casting has to be the future. And, clearly, this casting decision will have a special resonance with many people.

I hope Gatwa seizes the role and makes it his own. I hope the new series is vibrant and exciting and fun — and, if it must feature politics I don’t necessarily agree with (the classic series often tilted to the temperate left, though writers like Terrance Dicks were anything but), that these messages are adornments to, rather than substitutes for, entertaining stories. To quote Colin Baker’s controversial, bombastic, technicolour-coated sixth Doctor, for whom I’ve always had a particular soft spot: “Change, my dear — and it seems not a moment too soon.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover