Why Ncuti Gatwa is an inspired choice for Doctor Who fans | James Coray Smith
Jhe casting of a new Doctor sparks speculation rivaled only by that surrounding the appointment of a new England manager, or the next James Bond. This is partly because the choice is seen as revealing something about the country. Doctor Who is, in cliché, a “national institution”, a term first applied to it by the Radio Times as far back as 1972. And Ncuti Gatwa’s clever casting to fill those boots is a sign that showrunner, Russell T Davies, is determined that it will remain an institution well into the 21st century.
Because while there are undeniably ways in which Gatwa’s casting is innovative, he’s just as clearly a good actor with a solid theatrical pedigree, someone known for his showy supporting roles on television, but not yet as that star above the title. Which is a phrase that also describes most of its predecessors.
A new doctor has been making headlines for decades. Peter Davison, who played the role from 1981 to 1984, often commented that his friends thought he was dead when his photo appeared on BBC Nine O’Clock News in 1980. But the years since the series resumed in 2005 saw announcements on an even greater scale big. Castings for Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker were televised events: they respectively had a special mini-documentary, a live reveal show and a trailer that aired right after the 2017 Wimbledon men’s final.
This time it was different again. Bad Wolf, the production company responsible for the upcoming Doctor Who series, tweeted a photo of a post made by Gatwa to his nearly 3 million Instagram followers. It consisted of two hearts and a blue box. This led to hours of online speculation on both sites before Bad Wolf confirmed that Gatwa would indeed succeed Whittaker.
On the TV Baftas red carpet on Sunday, Davies, with Gatwa at his side, pointed out that his new lead role had been chosen after a “flamboyant” audition, given when the production team had almost decided to offer the role entirely to another actor. Auditioning for a leading role in a series is fairly normal for television, but unusual for Doctor Who. Most of the doctors, including Davies’ previous two, were people the then-showrunner had worked with before. That Davies does something different indicates his approach to the show he returns to: innovate, renew, make a splash.
Of course, in these depressing times, the backlash from some right-wing culture warriors online has come like clockwork. Those who attempted to criticize the decision to launch Gatwa without reference to its three Bafta nominations and Bafta Scotland win, for Netflix’s Sex Education, simply demonstrated their own estrangement from contemporary culture on which they affected the expertise. The truth is, there’s something cheerfully assertive about a role sometimes seen as an exemplar of Britishness played by an actor who moved to Scotland as a child, having fled high-profile country Rwanda due to recent government policy. (Davies took the time to criticize the government’s attitude towards Channel 4 and the BBC.)
None of this contradicts the Doctor Who story. While the program’s longevity makes it seem like part of the establishment, its main character overthrows governments and brings down empires as part of their crusade against the monsters. One of the most admired and frequent Doctor Who writers of the 1970s, Malcolm Hulke, was an activist with an MI5 record. In the 1980s, screenwriter Andrew Cartmel got the job after he suggested in his interview that Doctor Who was the perfect cultural vehicle to bring down Margaret Thatcher.
Gatwa is the first black actor to play the lead role in the series. Black British actor Jo Martin played the part, but not as the lead. Further on, Tom Baker’s father was a Jewish sailor, Davison’s a Guyanese engineer turned grocer. Interestingly, the role was cast disproportionately by Catholics, as Baker and Sylvester McCoy (1987-89) were both trained for life in the church before becoming actors. There are particular patterns in the cast, like how several actors who played Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four also played the Doctor. Perhaps it has something to do with the program’s innate anti-authoritarianism. Perhaps the mystical nature of the role is why, along with the clerical aspirants mentioned above, it was filled by two actors – David Tennant and Gatwa – whose fathers were ministers.
There’s certainly something about the show that appeals to those who are or have been marginalized, despite its centrality to British television culture. Davies made Vince, one of the frontmen of his groundbreaking show Queer as Folk, a Doctor Who fan in recognition of the extremely gay male nature of his then-active fandom. But Doctor Who’s slightly shadowy relationship to the country it’s often seen as representing makes perfect sense. It was created by Canadian Sydney Newman, and its first episode was written by an Australian, Anthony Coburn, produced by Verity Lambert, a Jewish woman, and directed by Waris Hussein, a gay Muslim born in Lucknow when India was still part of the British Empire.
Gatwa’s casting is groundbreaking yet unprecedented. But that’s the paradoxical nature of Doctor Who. As the late Radio 1 DJ John Peel said of his favorite band, The Fall, it’s somehow always different and yet always the same.
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