Is Ncuti Gatwa’s casting enough to ‘decolonise’ Dr Who and the BBC?’
A confession: I’ve always been a ‘Whovian’, a fan of the Doctor Who enterprise. Like my allegiance to Liverpool and familiarity with novels written by Enid Blyton, my love of Doctor Who is another of the British gifts bestowed upon me by a father who spent his early twenties in 80s England. But like any inheritance, one needs to make it their own. So, after Russell T. Davis revived the series in the early 2000s, I jumped right in, fell in (halal) love with David Tennant, and became a card-carrying member of the Doctor Who fandom.
It therefore should come as no surprise that in my household, the announcement of a new Doctor is always a big deal. There had been much speculation about the next doctor, some of the rumours suggesting Years & Years actor T'Nia Miller, It's A Sin's Olly Alexander or even Jo Martin, who had appeared previously on the show as the ‘Fugitive Doctor’, the only other black person to be cast as the iconic lead. But we were in for a treat.
Listen. The way I *squealed* with joy when I learnt the Scottish-Rwandan star, Ncuti Gatwa, was taking on the mantle of Doctor Who was honestly, undignified. But for good reason. What a win! I thought. Gatwa’s performance on Sex Education was phenomenal, often stealing every scene he was in, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for his magnetic personality to shine on one of the longest running science fiction shows around.
''There is important work still to be done in diversifying the talent behind the camera, in the writers rooms, and in who commissions shows, decides what gets made and with what budgets. That being said, changes on screen are notable, and certainly worth acknowledging as a marker of progress. ''
The Doctor isn’t an easy role to pull off; an earnest, quirky character with a dedicated (and borderline obsessive) fandom, but I could immediately visualise how Gatwa would make the character his own. The BAFTA Scotland winner will also bring with him a new, younger audience to the series, and I am excited to see how he, alongside the writers, will develop the show’s canon.
Doctor Who is a show where the characters travel through time and space. Anything is possible, and somehow, goodness always wins. Although over the years, the modern iteration of the show has been described as being ‘uneven’, there is something to be said for a series where goodness isn’t exemplified by the authority of the police (like almost all crime shows) or by the supremacy of any imperial, power hungry race.
Sure, it’s not perfect, missing the slickness of the two Stars (Trek and Wars), with a sincerity that is could be described as positively ‘un-British’, but there is something to be said for the series’ wholesome, heart-warming appeal.
In a sense, it is a story about loners and outsiders who want to have adventures and do good things in the world. The Doctor is the last of their kind, an alien being with two hearts, one worn, ostensibly, on its sleeve. What’s not to love?
Of course, much discourse surrounding Ncuti’s casting has been celebrating his achievement as the first permanent black Doctor. This fits with much recent discussion about the importance of visual diversity on screen, and a broader push for ‘better representation’.
As many have rightly pointed out, ‘representation’ on its own and for its own sake, does not lead to social change. We must resist the temptation to overstate the importance of black and brown characters of any gender in lead roles.
There is important work still to be done in diversifying the talent behind the camera, in the writers rooms, and in who commissions shows, decides what gets made and with what budgets. That being said, changes on screen are notable, and certainly worth acknowledging as a marker of progress. But how much progress does it represent?
The BBC, home of Doctor Who, is the UK’s public broadcaster, with a history as the voice of the British Empire. Funded by viewers and commercial services, it has a strict mandate, which includes as part of its mission ‘to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.’ It is slow moving, traditional and often risk averse, its culture closer to that of a large government bureaucracy than a slick commercial studio. Any significant changes it makes then are more a lagging cultural indicator, rather than a leading one.
The inclusion of Yasmin Khan, a Muslim companion, in the last few series of Doctor Who, was a welcome nod to Britain’s second largest religious community. But the lead is a different matter altogether. The decision to cast Ncuti Gatwa as the 14th Doctor, in my view, is an indication that (at least for now) casting black actors as leads is no longer a risky, controversial move, but one that has been de-risked enough for even the BBC to get on board.
That is certainly something worth celebrating, though it doesn’t mean the job is done. It is one thing to cast one white woman, one black man, and then return back to the dominant, cultural centre. It is another for the centre to shift completely, permanently away from the status quo. Are we there yet? Only time (or perhaps a quick trip in the Tardis) will tell.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian author and social justice advocate. She is a regular columnist for The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @yassmin_a
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