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New 'Doctor Who' star Ncuti Gatwa feels 'sad' for critics of show's diversity

"It warms my heart to know that little Black kids out there will be like, 'Oh, I can be The Doctor,'" Ncuti Gatwa says. "It feels like a huge, lovely responsibility."
"It warms my heart to know that little Black kids out there will be like, 'Oh, I can be The Doctor,'" Ncuti Gatwa says. "It feels like a huge, lovely responsibility."

It's the question I most wanted to ask Ncuti Gatwa, the new star of Britain's science fiction TV institution, Doctor Who.

Exactly who is The Doctor this time?

That's because the show's lead character, The Doctor, is a time-traveling alien who has lived for thousands of years, occasionally "regenerating" into a new form. In practical terms, that means the show can change up its star every so often, allowing a new actor to develop a different interpretation of a character that has been around since the show's 1963 debut.

Gatwa is playing the 15th Doctor – a guy given to wearing bright clothing, with an excitable manner and a dazzling smile, full of enthusiasm and emotion in a way we haven't always seen in previous versions of the character.

"He's coming in hot ... he's a little bit cocky, my Doctor," Gatwa admits over a video conference call. "He loves to connect, but there's only so far that he will let you connect with him, despite his love of people and other things."

Resetting a science fiction TV classic

The new episodes, which are a bigger reset for Doctor Who than usual, are funded by Disney+, which has resulted in a more expansive and expensively produced version of the series. This gives the show the ability to carefully explain its backstory for viewers who might be tuning in for the first time — simplifying loads of tangled stories with a telling exchange between The Doctor and the human woman who joins him on his new adventures, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson).

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa appear as Ruby Sunday and The Doctor on <em>Doctor Who</em>.
/ Disney
Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa appear as Ruby Sunday and The Doctor on Doctor Who.

"I was adopted, and the planet that took me in ... they were kinda posh," Gatwa's Doctor tells Ruby, explaining that he is the last surviving Time Lord after a genocide. "They used titles like The Doctor or The Bishop ... Say 'Doctor' for 1,000 years and it becomes my name."

Right away, the show sets up an important, promising explanation for The Doctor's wanderlust and his hesitancy to talk about his history: He's avoiding the emotional weight of some serious tragedies.

"There's a huge trauma there from the genocide that he came from," Gatwa says. "And he's sort of immortal and is cursed with this plight of always traveling with a human companion and he loses them constantly. He's had a lot of death and a lot of loss in his life, and he also feels responsible for that as well."

Mirroring the star's real life journey

The Doctor's backstory has a poignant symmetry with Gatwa's real life story. Born in Rwanda, he came to Scotland as child when his family fled genocide and civil war in 1994. Now taking on the role of The Doctor, Gatwa is the first Black man and the first person born outside the United Kingdom to play the character.

Doctor Who has often reflected current times through its casting. In the 1970s, when James Bond was big, Jon Pertwee played a dashing Doctor; Matt Smith was a twentysomething Doctor for Millennials in 2010 and Jodie Whittaker became the show's first female lead in 2018.

For Gatwa, casting a nonwhite person as the show's lead sends an important message: anyone, finally, can be The Doctor.

"It's about time," he says. "The character is a shape-shifting alien. It can be anyone. So for there to only have been one representation of the character, I think is just quite limiting. ... Who wouldn't want to see themselves in the shoes of The Doctor?"

Can 'Doctor Who' be too woke?

But not everyone has agreed. Some Doctor Who fans have complained about the show growing too "woke" by featuring a transgender character in its 60th anniversary specials last year and through casting Gatwa, who is also the first openly queer man to play The Doctor. (Of course, such complaints overlook the fact that Doctor Who has had LGBTQ+ characters and politically charged storylines for a while.)

The show's new episodes – crafted by Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who reinvented the series in 2005 and who is also openly gay – reflect queer culture in offhand but notable ways. For example, one episode includes a nonbinary adversary for The Doctor called Maestro who corrects a person that uses "him" instead of their correct pronoun.

Jinkx Monsoon, winner of <em>Ru Paul's Drag Race</em>, plays Maestro on <em>Doctor Who</em>.
James Pardon / Bad Wolf/BBC Studio
Bad Wolf/BBC Studio
Jinkx Monsoon, winner of Ru Paul's Drag Race, plays Maestro on Doctor Who.

The star says he's processing it all by focusing on the love he's gotten from fans, which he says outweighs the hate. He's also careful to point out that he's not the only actor to be the target of racism and that others have it worse;non-white actors like The Little Mermaid star Halle Bailey and Obi-Wan Kenobi co-star Moses Ingram face racism plus misogyny.

"I don't want to diminish racial aggression at all," he adds. "But for me, personally, I find it fascinating that it matters so much to these people. ... You are going to limit yourselves from a show that ... you claim to love ... because you don't like something about someone's appearance or their race. It's just ... really sad for them."

Gatwa, now 31, made a splash playing gay teen Eric Effiong on the critically acclaimed Netflix series Sex Education. He's since appeared in the Barbie movie and Masters of the Air on Apple TV+, and is slated to star in a revivallater this year of Oscar Wilde's 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest at London's National Theatre.

On Doctor Who, he brings an effervescence and enthusiasm that is almost palpable. In one episode, he leads Ruby into an adventure to help a crew of "Space Babies" running an orbiting station above the Earth; in another, they visit 1960s-era London to walk along Abbey Road and watch The Beatles work on new material.

Through it all, the show manages a deft balancing act, both nodding to the program's roots as a kids' show (particularly evident when the true villain of the "Space Babies" episode is revealed) and offering storylines appealing to adult viewers who have watched for decades.

Gatwa says wide diversity on a show with such a long legacy on British TV is important.

"It's ... tricky, because you want to celebrate the win [for inclusion] and you do celebrate the win, because this signifies progress," he says. "But let's not stop here. There's lots more to go. And this should have happened a little while ago, as well."

Even in the world of a Time Lord, it seems, progress takes time. "But ... it warms my heart to know that little Black kids out there will be like, 'Oh, I can be The Doctor,'" Gatwa says. "It feels like a huge, lovely responsibility."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.