The announcement that an actor of African origin has been selected to play the role of Dr Who in the world’s longest-running and best-loved sci-fi series, caused huge discussion in the UK where the eccentric Doctor has been an institution for generations. But who is the Doctor and why is so much fuss being made about which actor plays him? Gail Collins provides some answers
So, who is Dr Who? Like fish and chips, a cup of tea, football and the royal family, Doctor Who is deeply embedded in British culture. First aired on BBC in November 1963, the programme introduced the UK to a quirky, ingenious, time-travelling, telepathic alien Time Lord from the distant planet of Gallifrey.
Eccentrically dressed and a bit of a rebel, the Doctor has a human form, but way more heart (two in fact). If that’s not too much to take in, the Doctor also travels in a Tardis, which on the outside resembles a 1963 British police telephone call box but somewhat mysteriously, is much bigger on the inside, containing the control room and on one occasion, even a swimming pool! Oh, and when injured or near death, Dr Who can regenerate – a perfect device for introducing a new Doctor when needed.
Originally made for a younger audience, it has successfully crossed the age-gap, with an enormous and on occasion overly devoted fanbase, who at times can be as eccentric as the Doctor himself. If you are a Doctor Who virgin but have had your interest piqued, just watch it and allow your imagination to soar! If you are already a fan, forgive me if I do not have space to explain all the nuances of this splendid character. It is in the Guinness Book of Records as television’s longest-running sci-fi fantasy series.
With each change in the actor playing the Doctor, speculation over who could be the new Dr Who takes up as many column inches in the British media as who will play the next James Bond or win an Oscar for Best Film. Yes, it is that big. Over the years, this series has also represented a social commentary on Britain, using storylines to reflect the politics and issues of the day. It will be interesting to see what take it will have on Brexit and Black Lives Matter.
In 2017, speculation for the new Doctor (the 13th) reached fever pitch when rumours abounded that for the first time, the Doctor might just be a lady and actress, and Jodie Whittaker duly became the new Dr Who. Five years on, following her decision to step down from the role, once again there have been months of guessing and social media discussion but on 8 May, the wait was finally over when the BBC announced that the talented Rwandan-Scottish actor, Ncuti Gatwa was going to become the 14th Doctor.
29-year-old Ncuti Gatwa will not be the first Black Doctor – actress Jo Martin played the ‘Fugitive Doctor’ during one episode in 2020, leading to conjecture that she would be the next Doctor. Gatwa is, however, the first Black actor to take on the lead role full-time and he is expected to debut in the third of three specials that will air in 2022, before the next series in 2023.
It has been reported that Gatwa was the final actor to be auditioned for the role. The new lead was already potentially chosen, but the African actor’s portrayal of the Doctor during an eight-page scene reading for the audition left show boss, Russell T. Davies and his team no option. In a Radio Times interview Davies said, “Simply the best actor walked into the room”, referring to Gatwa.
Is the casting of a Black actor in this pivotal role on the hitherto imperial BBC, a sign of overall changing times and a shift to a more panoptic view? Gatwa himself once said: “I wish that I had seen myself more reflected on TV when I was growing up, and I think a lot of people feel that way.” Well, he has now become part of solving that problem.
Trawling through social media and looking at comments about this new casting gave me an insight into general opinion. While there were the usual racist trolls that skulk out on every occasion a Black person makes the news, the majority were the fans, who seemed delighted with the choice and hopeful of him bringing something special to the role, although one did astutely tweet, “I wonder how they’ll explore the Doctor facing racial prejudice? They’ve seen it, but this’ll be the first time they experience it and have to sit in it.” Series writer, Davies, is not a man to flinch from the task.
Ncuti Gatwa also has his own staunch fanbase with over 2.6m Instagram followers and his new role will undoubtedly bring a fresh audience along for the ride. Nigerian-British bestselling author, screenwriter and journalist, Bolu Babalola, summed it up on Twitter with, “We don’t even be watching Doctor Who like that. But now I am ready to watch the nerd phone box show.”
A tough road
Ncuti Gatwa’s journey to the success he has achieved today has been a tough road. He was born in Kigali, Rwanda, but in 1994, at the age of two, his family fled to the UK family as refugees, escaping the civil war and genocide raging in his home country.
They ended up in Scotland where he grew up and went to school in Dunfermline, a place where most of the kids had never met a Black boy before. He overcame racist bullying in the same irrepressible way he has taken on all the challenges he has met in life, becoming friends with his abusers and understanding that ignorance too often plays a large role in racism.
By the age of 17 he knew he wanted to act and trained in the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland before being beckoned to the bright lights of London four years later. He played the part of Demetrius in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Globe Theatre, and more acting roles followed but never enough to stay on top of the expense of living in London. He often relied on friends for accommodation and even food. His experience of essentially being homeless has led to his role of Ambassador for the youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint.
Five months before his big breakthrough, playing the part of Eric Effiong in Netflix’s very successful cult comedy-drama, Sex Education, he was temping at Harrod’s, selling perfumes worth thousands of pounds when he himself couldn’t afford the Travelcard to get back to where he was staying, and was seriously considering giving up his dream.
His part in Sex Education changed everything and from then, he has been on an upward trajectory. The role earned him a BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Actor in TV in 2020. This was followed by the role of Nick in the film of Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel, The Last Letter from Your Lover, released on Netflix last year.
He received the news about Dr Who whilst on set for the new Barbie movie, bringing to life the Mattel best-selling toy doll – where in a complete contrast, he gets to play a real-life Ken, boyfriend of Barbie. His emotional reaction on landing the sought-after part showed humility and joy: “There aren’t quite the words to describe how I’m feeling. A mix of deeply honoured, beyond excited and of course a little bit scared. This role and show means so much to so many around the world, including myself, and each one of my incredibly talented predecessors has handled that unique responsibility and privilege with the utmost care. I will endeavour my utmost to do the same.”
Ncuti Gatwa becoming the 14th Doctor may well be a defining moment in British cultural history and could make him a compelling forerunner leading the way for very capable and talented Black creatives in front of and behind the camera to play their part in what should be an open-minded future.