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Doctor Who's Ncuti Gatwa is the perfect Doctor for the perfect time

Russell T Davies couldn’t have picked a better actor to play the Doctor – and not just for the obvious reasons.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08: Ncuti Gatwa and Russell T Davies attend the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2022 at The Royal Festival Hall on May 8, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Published: Monday, 9th May 2022 at 5:35 pm
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Russell T Davies knows how to make an impact.

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After years of high-profile TV launches, special trailers and slow build-up announcements for big new Doctor Who castings, the only truly surprising thing for the returning showrunner to pull was…nothing at all. And so it was that instead of a live special, behind-the-scenes documentary or Wimbledon tennis drop, Doctor Who’s new lead Ncuti Gatwa was unveiled by a single tweet. Or an Instagram post, depending on which you saw first.

With hindsight, it was a genius move – Davies and Ncuti Gatwa were both attending the BAFTAs the same day, so they had a captive TV and press audience for impromptu photoshoots and interviews – and symptomatic of Gatwa’s casting as a whole. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Because first off, I have to say: isn’t this exciting? Gatwa’s casting already feels like a fresh, interesting creative choice from Davies, rebooting Doctor Who at a stroke (as any regeneration should, really) and bringing in plenty of new fans alongside established audiences.

Anyone who’s seen Gatwa’s performance as the vulnerable, hilarious Eric Effiong in Netflix's Sex Education will need no reminding of his acting ability, but he also feels like a clean slate for the series – a young, vibrant actor with bucketloads of energy whose (comparatively) small list of acting credits means that his Who performance can feel singular and new.

At the moment, it’s hard to say what Gatwa’s Doctor Who performance, or Doctor, will be like. That sense of renewal and the unknown is essential to what makes the show work, and it’s hard to think of another actor working at the moment who better embodies those values. Like Davies returning to the show after It’s A Sin, at the top of his game and with any job offer at his fingertips, Gatwa’s casting sends a message: Doctor Who is not an afterthought. Doctor Who is the biggest game in town. And now everyone else is going to know it.

But this casting works on other levels as well. Following the first female Doctor was always going to be a challenge. Returning to a male actor could seem like a rebuke to Jodie Whittaker’s era – a misstep to be corrected. Casting another woman might (despite the lunacy of this after more than a dozen male actors in the role) be written off as more of the same.

Davies sidesteps the issue. By casting Gatwa as the first person of colour to play the Doctor in the lead role (‘Fugitive Doctor’ Jo Martin technically beat him as the first person of colour to play the Doctor two years ago), Davies drives the series ever forward, innovating and attracting new interest at a time when the format risked going stale.

It’s a similar technique to the casting of the Doctor’s similarly regenerative nemesis the Master – first rewritten as a female incarnation in 2014 (as played by Michelle Gomez), then back to a male actor in 2020 when they were played by British South Asian actor Sacha Dhawan. One can only imagine the Master’s glee at finally beating the Doctor at something – twice!

But Gatwa brings more to the role than talent and milestones. For years, there’s been talk of how the BBC needs to attract the attention of the Netflix generation. Since he left Doctor Who in 2010 Davies has seen the TV landscape change as streamers rise up, poaching viewers (especially young viewers) from traditional broadcasters and putting pressure on homegrown TV shows to compete.

Gatwa speaks to some of that 'lost generation'. Sex Education is a beloved international hit with a dedicated younger audience, and Gatwa’s Eric is a central part of its appeal. Since the announcement, Twitter has been inundated with people saying they’d watch Doctor for the first time because of Gatwa’s casting (to the extent that the official Twitter account for the show has made a couple of cheeky gags about it), and I’m sure there are many more who will give the show a chance they might not have before.

It's a little trite to say that Gatwa will speak to fans in a different way than any Doctor before, but in one way it’s literally true. Incredibly, the Rwandan-born Scottish actor will be the first Doctor to have their own public social media accounts at the time they’re starring in the show. Already, he’s posting more about the show than any Doctor-elect before him, interacting with fans and supporters as they congratulate him on the news.

And maybe that’s why his social media casting announcement doesn’t feel like a snub. Sure, he didn’t get a big TV reveal – but Davies knows which way the wind is blowing, and calculated the perfect way to make the best impact in 2022. Really, it bodes well for what he has planned for the series when he takes over later this year.

Both the reveal and Gatwa’s casting prove that Davies and his team know exactly what they’re doing with Doctor Who. It’s not more of the same, or a return to the good old days of 2005-2010.

Instead, it’s a first step into the future. And we didn’t even need our own TARDIS-es to see it.

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Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Sci-Fi coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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