In 1963, the BBC began to broadcast a little show about a strange man who flew around in a time-traveling spaceship entitled Doctor Who. This “Time Lord,” also known as The Doctor, was an extraterrestrial being who appeared human in nearly all respects, except for his two hearts and a few other discrepancies. He would travel in a ship he called the TARDIS, which from the outside looked like an old British police telephone box — a common sight during the time the show first aired.
Accompanied by the odd friend here and there, The Doctor traveled time and space, encountering new and exciting worlds and beings. Needless to say, the show became a hit and a cultural phenomenon. As the show has continued over the past 60 years, there have been many iterations of The Doctor. In order to continue the series while accommodating lead actors who would wish to move on to other projects from time to time, the creators of the series came up with the ingenious concept of regeneration, a plot device that means The Doctor can change into different incarnations when his previous body has been too badly harmed to heal normally.
In its 60-year history, Doctor Who has cultivated a broad fan base who have taken to calling themselves “Whovians.” These passionate fans have always had strong opinions when a new actor has been introduced as The Doctor, with responses running the gamut from delight to dismay. When Matt Smith’s iteration began to showcase naivety, fans questioned it after having become accustomed to the “know-it-all” Tennant version for five years. They questioned the dramatic jump in age between Smith’s Doctor and that of Peter Capaldi who came before him, when they’d previously expressed distress that the casting seemed to be moving towards a “younger and hotter” model. Of course, the uproar seemed to hit a crescendo when the first female actress to fill the role, Jodie Whittaker, was cast, with some questioning why The Doctor was suddenly changing genders after over 50 years. One group even adopted the hashtag #NotMyDoctor. So it seemed expected that with any new casting would come a new wave of negative feedback.
However, when the announcement came of the most recent incarnation, the incredibly talented Ncuti Gatwa, it was met with resounding applause.
Update December 14, 2023: Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor was introduced in a surprising new way during the third of the 60th anniversary specials, so this article has been updated by Valerie Parker to discuss the exciting new developments.
The Impressive Audition
Every time a new actor is anticipated for the role there are many guesses as to who the next Doctor would be, but it seems the casting of Gatwa took the fandom by a welcome surprise. This was much to returning show-runner Russell T. Davies’ amusement (whose return was also a welcome surprise), as he had previously planted “a couple misleading leads” about the Doctor’s new identity. “None of you guessed,” Davies gloated to RadioTimes, “He’s so brilliant and so popular, he wasn’t even guessed, so I’m feeling a little bit victorious here.” The showrunner kept the secret of Gatwa’s turn as The Doctor for three months after being blown away by an incredible audition.
According to Davies’ interview with the BBC, he stated that Gatwa gave a “blazing” audition. In fact, it was the very last audition, and Davies had already thought they had settled on someone when “[Gatwa] came in and stole it.” Gatwa “seized hold of The Doctor and owned those TARDIS keys in seconds.” The showrunner, who has returned after a hiatus from the show, is thrilled to work with Gatwa and says, “the future is here, and it is Ncuti!” Gatwa, while not being the first person of color to play the role of The Doctor (that was Martin’s Fugitive Doctor), he will be the first person of color to helm the show in the title role.
History of The Doctor
There have been 13 actors who have played the 14 official leads of Doctor Who, beginning with William Hartnell from 1963 to 1966. From there, viewers saw Patrick Troughton (1966-1969), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davison (1982-1984), Colin Baker (1984-1986) and Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989) during the classic era. Paul McGann (1996) appeared in one television film that was intended to set up a relaunch of the series that never went anywhere, but McGann would reprise his role in specials.
The new era started off with Christopher Eccleston (2005) before turning into David Tennant (2005-2010), Matt Smith (2010-2013), Peter Capaldi (2014-2017), and Jodie Whittaker (2017-2022). David Tennant returned as the Fourteenth Doctor for 3 specials for the 60th anniversary in November and December 2023. In addition, the late great John Hurt played a character known as The War Doctor for the 50th anniversary special in November 2013, and Jo Martin played a long-forgotten iteration known as The Fugitive Doctor when then-showrunner Chris Chibnall introduced a new history for the character.
‘Who’ is Ncuti Gatwa?
The newest member of the Who family was born and raised in Scotland after his family fled the Rwandan genocide when he was a toddler. The 31-year-old actor is best known for his work on the hit British teen comedy Netflix original series Sex Education (2019-2023). In the show, Gatwa plays the role of Eric Effiong, a gay teen navigating his sexuality and identity while dealing with a religious Nigerian family, a bully-turned-boyfriend, and his friends’ dramatic antics. Gatwa carries the role with superb comedic timing and witty one-liners that have made him an instant fan favorite. The young actor was nominated for three BAFTA Television Awards in 2020, 2021, and 2022 for Best Male Comedy Performance and even won a BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Actor in Television in 2020.
The actor has said that while he is going to try to do his own thing with the role, he wants to respect the fan base and the iconic series. “This role means so much to so many around the world, including myself, and each one of my incredibly talented predecessors has handled that unique responsibility and privilege with the utmost care. I will endeavor my utmost to do the same,” Gatwa said in an interview with BBC. He continued, “Unlike The Doctor, I may only have one heart, but I am giving it all to this show.”
The same year Gatwa stepped into the role of The Doctor, he also played a role in the highest-grossing movie of 2023, Barbie. As one of the Ken’s, he was a standout performer and even revealed how Ryan Gosling himself was excited at the news of Gatwa being The Doctor, as Gosling is a fan of the series. Gatwa seems primed and ready to become the next big international superstar.
Time to Make Doctor Who Exciting Again
When news broke of the newest Doctor’s identity, fans celebrated. Many felt they finally had a Doctor that looked like them. The Twitter-sphere has been taken over by many commenting on the news. Film critic Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews) wrote,
“Ncuti Gatwa is so good on SEX EDUCATION, a lightning rod of charm and comedic timing. A star from the moment he popped on screen. He’s going to be phenomenal as the next Doctor.”
Many have shared the same sentiment, and the news has even called up new fans. Actress Kelechi (@kelechnekoff) wrote:
“I don’t know a single thing about that time traveling phone box but for Ncuti?? I’m now invested.”
It seems that the influx of new viewers is precisely what the powers at play had in mind when casting Gatwa. The show has, in recent years, lost much of its younger viewership. With Gatwa now at the helm — and his target audience being late teens to adults in their 20s — there is a lot of hope that the show could go through a reawakening of sorts. BBC Chief Content Officer Charlotte Moore agreed with the new direction, stating:
“Ncuti has an incredible dynamism. He’s a striking and fearless young actor whose talent and energy will set the world alight and take Doctor Who on extraordinary adventures under Russell T. Davies’ new era.”
An Impressive Beginning
Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor made his exciting introduction on Doctor Who during the final of three 60th anniversary specials on December 9, 2023. As well as introducing us to this new incarnation of The Doctor, Davies threw a new wrench in the works and introduced the new Doctor not through the usual Regeneration process but through a new process he’s calling “Bi-Generation,” which saw not the replacement of Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor, but the splitting of the character into two. While Doctor Who has utilized its time travel narrative to include multiple Doctor’s in a story before, this was the first time that a Doctor got to immediately interact and even cooperate with his new iteration while facing an ongoing threat.
This meant that Gatwa was not only thrust into the role following fan-favorite Tennant, but he also had to play directly opposite him on screen. Unsurprisingly, Gatwa rose to the occasion and quickly made the role his own. While viewers discovered what this new dynamic meant for the world of Doctor Who, Gatwa introduced the new and exciting Fifteenth Doctor, and made it clear the role is in capable hands. Though questions of what the bi-generation means in terms of multiple Doctor running around, and with new partner Disney clearly being interested in a larger “Whoniverse” that could include more shows in the world of Doctor Who, Davies has made it clear that for now, Ncuti Gatwa is The Doctor, and Whovians will get to see those adventures starting with a Christmas special on Christmas Day 2023, followed by what is considered a virtual reboot of the series, with season 1 premiering in 2024.
Stream Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor Who episodes on Disney+.