BBC announced the new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, and it is fantastic news! I want to start out by saying: I love Jodie Whitaker’s Thirteen. I was happy when she was announced, more so when she arrived, and I’ll be sad to see her go. Her era is uneven, but ultimately one I enjoy. I’ll go into that more, later, but for now, know that I will always have a fondness for Thirteen. That said, I am excited for the next evolution of Doctor Who!
Why I’m not sad the next Doctor isn’t a woman of color
In a perfect world, the next Doctor would be a woman or enby of color. In a perfect world, Doctor Who would be an environment where a BIPOC/BAME woman or enby could lead the show and be supported as a character—with thoughtful writing that shows their full humanity—and as a performer—with a studio who makes a concerted effort to protect them and defend them against harmful fans.
This is not a perfect world. What became clear to me during this current era, the era of a white woman Doctor, is that this fandom isn’t a safe space. Not just unsafe, but often actively hostile—for even a white woman. When I think of someone in that position who is not a man and who doesn’t have the bit of protection that being white affords them, I feel fear.
We know what fandom is like to companions who aren’t white women. Even setting aside the treatment of Martha Jones—the character—in the show and in the fandom, you can still find the toxicity aimed at Freema Agyeman—the performer—who merely dared to play a part on a show. Fandom’s dislike for the other has never stopped at the character, and has always followed the talent into their real lives.
By the time Pearl Mackie signed on as Bill Potts, I’d already sequestered myself away from the uglier parts of fandom. So, I don’t know all the nasty things that may have been said about her… but I can imagine. And while I deliberately avoided hate for both the character and the actress, I did—and still do—experience a phenomenon where people are ecstatic to praise the show for butchering Bill, a character who is a Black, lesbian woman.
It’s hard to say whether people who hate the Fugitive Doctor do so because she’s Black, because she’s a woman, or because she threatens the concept of the Doctor that white men have for decades projected their personalities onto. If the Doctor has been a woman before, if they’ve been Black, how can they also be aspirational? Whatever the cause, some folks will take every opportunity to diminish the work of Jo Martin.
This isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms to be made about characters in Doctor Who who are women of color—though that should also be aimed at the cishet white men who wrote them—but that criticism should not be coupled with outright aggression towards the people who portray them. But again this isn’t a perfect world. And when fans that are used to being centered their entire lives feel like they are no longer prioritized, they lash out. And women of color take the brunt of that.
Doctor Who, as it is now, isn’t ready for a mainline Doctor who is a woman/enby of color.
I believe RTD was being progressive when he brought Martha and the Jones family into the show. I believe he had good intentions. But his privilege prevented him from being able to write Martha with the care and consideration she demanded. And as a result he mistreated the character. And that gave fans permission to hate her, and to project that hate onto the actress.
Yaz is similarly unrealized as a character because so much of the nuance of her being a woman of color is unaddressed outside of the episodes that are specifically about race or British colonialism. The fact of her being in law enforcement as a Pakistani woman is never fully explored… how she’s treated by the people she serves and protects (or whatever the British equivalent of those values are), how she’s treated by other officers.
With Thirteen, their femme appearance has almost no bearing on how they move through time and space. Except, again, in an episode that is specifically about sexism. The Doctor rarely has to acknowledge their outward presentation or how it hinders them, even passively. It is literally a non-point. And that could be cool except the show makes a point when it’s relevant to the story. The way Yaz (and Ryan) never have to acknowledge racism except when they’re stuck in the Jim Crow south.
Being—or being perceived as—a woman influences everything about the way you experience life. And being perceived as a woman in a body that isn’t white brings with it an entirely different, more complicated reality. A white woman wouldn’t even be able to fully capture the reality of a woman of color. A woman or enby of color simply cannot be written by a man, especially a white man.
That’s not to say there should be no women or enbys of color in the series. There absolutely should be! There should be writers and directors of color, women and nonbinary folks, and folks with other identities that give them unique experiences and perspectives, who can craft stories for these characters with the care they deserve. These characters should be in Doctor Who, and Doctor Who should evolve to support them. Putting the weight of being the Doctor on a woman or enby of color without doing the work to protect them would be perpetuating harm against them. 🔽
But what about Ncuti?
When Tosin Cole (and Bradley Walsh) left the show at the end of season 12, folks couldn’t wait to disparage Tosin. They couldn’t leave it at criticism of the character, a simple “I didn’t connect with Ryan.” There was always the additional, personal attack on Tosin. There will always be folks who refuse to empathize with Black folks–real or fictional. Casting a Doctor who is not white is still a bold choice, and taking that role is still brave.
Ncuti is a Black man who is known for playing the gay character—Eric on Sex Education. But he has not explicitly identified as gay. His personality is flamboyant, his style is immaculate, so whether he identifies as queer, he is likely perceived that way. But he is first and foremost a man. He will absolutely have to deal with racism—and queerphobia—and 🗣️ HE SHOULD BE PROTECTED! But there is a level of familiarity white men will have for him that would not likely extend to white women, and almost never to women of color.
Why I’m happy the Doctor is Black—even if he is a man
Black men have had it rough in the Whoniverse. Mickey was compared to a tin dog and treated as less than for the majority of his run on the show. The Doctor called him outside of his name so much–Rickey, the idiot–they made a joke of it by giving his alt-universe doppelganger the name Rickey. Even though Mickey got to become a hero, and ended up with the baddest to ever do, Martha–extreme pair the spares energy—Mickey never really got his due.
Danny Pink got nothing but racist microaggressions from Twelve. Clara, Danny’s own girlfriend, lied to him, dismissed his feelings, and basically treated him like shit. He stayed with her, so that’s partially on him, but all he got for that was a torturous post-life existence as a Cyberman with feelings. Truly heinous.
Finally Ryan. He didn’t get mistreated, but he wasn’t really served by the story. With three full-time companions, there just wasn’t space for any one of them to be fully developed without sacrificing the other. Unfortunately, Ryan was not prioritized as much as Graham, but he had it better than Yaz—a woman of color.
My fears are…
- That RTD, like his predecessor, will feel the need to surround their Black (queer?) Doctor with at least one companion that is safe, benign, and expected–a straight, white, middle-aged or older man; a Classic Doctor-eque avatar for the cishet white man audience to feel reflected by.
- That RTD has not learned a thing since Martha, and will write his Black (queer?) Doctor “color-blind” with no regard to how his Blackness influences his human experience.
My hopes are…
- That RTD will build on top of the foundation Chibnall laid.
- I want the Timeless Child arc to influence storytelling for the Doctor.
- I want classic canon to be recontextualized with this new framework.
- I want Flux to be followed-up with stories that acknowledge it happened and are affected by it.
- I want to mess with the Doctor’s numbering somehow… 😈
- The Doctor is openly, canonically queer! I want the Doctor to flirt with folks of various genders, and have crushes on men and enbys who are masc-presenting. And/or I want the Doctor reveal they have no sexual and/or romantic interest, and explicitly identify as what humans call asexual and/or aromantic.
- The Doctor is flamboyant, fresh, funny, and weird! I want them to bring Ncuti’s personality to the Doctor, and lean into them being gorgeous!
- We get more Fugitive Doctor, and more Dhawan Master!
My Headcanons (things I’d love, but don’t expect)
- References to previous eras, and companions, especially Black ones–acknowledgement of Martha’s (and Mickey’s) treatment, Danny, Bill, etc. 🔽
My Doctor is…
I don’t need my Doctor to be Black. I don’t need my Doctor to be a woman or enby. I want my Doctor to always be something different! I want them to reflect the vast diversity they see throughout the universe, in their complexion, in their physical stature, in their age, in how they dress, how they speak…
I want my Doctor to be a Doctor for everyone.
NOTE: I wrote this piece before the latest casting announcements, and instead of editing this to reflect those new announcements, I will leave this as-is and follow-up!