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Re:generation pecs: Ncuti Gatwa’s bringing sex to Doctor Who. First stop David Tennant

OK, so in case you haven’t heard, in October 2022 Jodie Whittaker bowed out of the BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who with a feature-length finale called The Power Of The Doctor. The portents suggested that the Thirteenth Doctor incarnation was going out with a big bang, and in a 90-minute universe-spanning adventure that’s certainly what viewers were awarded with.

Not ideal I know, but due to some unforeseen ‘scheduling difficulties’ I was forced to watch the live broadcast on the BBC iPlayer app on my iPhone on my way to my parents’ place in Buckinghamshire, on the last full day of a visit back to Blighty.

Not having the faintest idea how many classic era Time Lords and companions were about to re-emerge from the wilderness in this exciting and frightening special, I watched with an overly arched eyebrow and a sardonic grin when the Seventh Doctor, the short-arsed Scot Sylvester McCoy popped up, for two reasons:

Firstly, he was the Doc that I’d never actually watched during his tenure in the latter half of the 1980s, though that was hardly his fault — I came of age in 1984, when the charisma-free Colin Baker (6) took over from Peter Davison (No.5, are you keeping up?), a time when this 14-year-old boy was going through some ch-ch-changes of his own. Essentially, I’d swapped the stamp collecting for clubbing, the vests for sex, and Adam Ant for David Bowie. Doctor Who suddenly became — you know the phrase — ‘for kids’, something I’d grown out of and I imagined buried in the past forever. Until 2005, anyway.

Secondly, I was not so completely unaware of Doc 7 that I didn’t know who the actor was playing him, and so I was frequently bemused seeing the real McCoy in our local supermarket — Waitrose on Finchley Road, trivia fans — when I lived in the area in the 1990s, and even more tickled when I started watching The Power Of The Doctor boarding a National Express coach from outside the very same food emporium a quarter of a century later, on 23 October 2022.

Commissioned for the BBC’s centenary, the extended episode felt like the ending of an era in more ways than two — not only because Jodie and showrunner Chris Chibnall returning the TARDIS keys and moving on to planets new, but that received wisdom suggests Chibnall’s original script was left open-ended, meaning the final scene with a ‘surprise’ regeneration was unwritten til the last minute because, the speculation goes, that he was unsure if the show was going to return or be paused indefinitely.

Yikes. There could be some truth in that, though, and it could well be that a) the bulk of the story was written before Russell T Davies was announced as returning to take back the showrunner role he originated or b) Chibnall thought it not part of his remit to write lines for the next doctor and so left that for RTD, in the same way that he left it for his successor Steven Moffat to pen Matt Smith’s lines at the conclusion of 2010’s The End Of Time.

So here we are almost a decade and a half later and Welsh wonder Davies, a marketing genius who shepherded Doctor Who’s triumphant return to television and served as the series’ executive producer and chief writer, is making a comeback. As is David Tennant, the effervescent, always memorable Tenth Doctor and easily its most popular incarnation since the show was revived. His iconic status rivals that of the Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, who was conspicuous by his absence in The Power Of The Doctor. Though it was hardly a surprise. For a start, TB – pretty much my boyhood hero – returned in 2013’s timey wimey 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor.

While it would have been quite something had he lent his sonorous tones to the latest story too, he’s gone on record as not being keen on multi-Doctor stories because he “didn’t want to play 20 per cent of the part”, hence why he was cleverly cast as the mysterious Curator, where he didn’t have to compete for screen time in scenes with other previous incarnations of the Time Lord.

Baker’s also 88 and yes I know, there was myriad Whotard chatter, all ‘Well, Ian Chesterton made a brief appearance at the Companion Support Group (a lovely touch, by the way) and William Russell is 98. Well, let’s just say Bill looks a very sprightly and healthy almost-centenarian and leave it at that.

The Moffat and Chibnall eras marked an erratic decline in both the popularity and quality of New Who, and even Stevie Wonder can see the return of Davies and Tennant is a calculated attempt to save the show that has become mired in nostalgia, an exposition in gobbledygook that employed too many confusing narrative gimmicks such as the Timeless Child that rewrite the Doctor‘s entire history. Meh.

Not many people have been able to put their finger on exactly what else was wrong, but to some – sexists, racists, and homophobes perhaps? – the show became overly “woke”, in particular the casting of Jodie Whittaker as a female Doctor, more characters of colour in the main cast, more LGBTQ characters, etc.

I would argue that the problem with the show is that it‘s not “woke” enough. In fact, it‘s a lot less “woke” than it was under Davies and Moffat, and I have zero problem with a Doctor of the contradictory gender, though it felt like Jodie was often playing her as a teenager for kids, a kind of older sibling scenario.

A reaction against Peter Capaldi’s rather austere Twelfth Doctor, who turned off a lot of younger viewers with his haggard, grey haired portrayal perhaps?

It‘s not Whittaker’s fault. She can only be as good as the scripts she‘s given. She tried to play the Doctor she was meant to be, a joyous, irreverent Northerner given to extravagant fun. Jodie‘s version is most similar to Peter Davison‘s Fifth Doctor in that she wasn‘t an authority figure, less given to suddenly commanding a room through sheer force of will like every previous incarnation. The problem is, the scripts never let her go far enough, never let her push things over the edge to make her a truly formidable Doctor. Thirteen became the most passive, morally weakest Doctor under Chibnall.

Having said that, with a resurgence of the ‘celebrity historicals‘ that were a regular occurrence in the 1960s stories, the Chibnall era seemed to make a concerted return to the original mandate of Doctor Who to serve as an educational programme that might encourage its audience’s curiosity about the world and its myriad cultures, customs and identities.

Whichever way you look at it, Doctor Who has suffered from freefall ratings bit bit bit ever since Davies and Tennant left. And a few years ago even suffered an embarrassing shift from prime time Saturday night viewing to a perfunctory Sunday slot that just feels wrong. This is why there‘s so much hope invested in the return of New Who‘s founder, the hope that he would bring back the moral authority of the Doctor, a Doctor who‘s willing to destroy entire corrupt governments, corporations, systems so that something better can replace it.

Shall I take a guess? Well, if you put a sonic screwdriver to my head, I have a feeling that RTD’s shock comeback was on condition that DW gets to return to Saturdays and a Christmas Day special that was also shunted to the not-quite-an-event New Year’s Day scheduling. 

As soon as I read Russell was returning I felt the announcement that Tennant would also reprise the role would soon be a thing. So imagine my surprise when Ncuti Gatwa’s name was read announced as the next Doctor.

I can feel it in my water that both incarnations will be excellent — with Tennant apparently the Fourteenth and not reprising No. 10. Again, publicity and ratings wise it’s a very clever move, bringing back the most revered 21st Century Time Lord for three specials and with the return of Catherine Tate (ands the brilliant Bernard Cribbins in his final appearance), a wonderfully dynamic partnership that just oozed comedic chemistry.

Lest we forget that Tennant also made oblique references to the punishing and exhausting schedule filming entire series of DW, so by limiting his return to three stories would have undoubtedly been the way to get him to high on the dotted line. 

Hopefully the show as a whole might be a little more accessible again with this ‘medium hard reboot’. In a way I think it would have made more sense to dispense with the white male privilege after Tennant or Matt Smith and have a female Doc and a person of colour earlier. Having said that, Ncuti Gatwa is a superb choice that’s right for the time and going by comments from Neil Patrick Harris and the fact that the pleasantly pectoral Ncuti seems allergic to wearing shirts, he’s going to bring a a lot of sex appeal to the show.

In fact, as an obviously flamboyant and far from heterosexual man, he’s sure to bend the laws of space and time, in more ways than one.

Roll on 2023.

Steve Pafford


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