After months of waiting, fans of Doctor Who finally witnessed Ncuti Gatwa’s full debut as the show’s eponymous Time Lord in a fun-filled Christmas Special—but not everyone is happy, with some viewers voicing strong opinions about the new iteration’s race.
The long-running British science-fiction series sees the Doctor, a mysterious 2,000-year-old time-traveler, and his companions journey across time and space in a ship known as the TARDIS. Every few years the doctor regenerates, which is a biological ability of the Time Lords, a race of fictional humanoids originating on the planet Gallifrey. This allows a new actor to take on the titular character without the show having to end.
Gatwa, known for his roles in Sex Education and Barbie, is the 15th Doctor in the new series that has seen a reported £100-million cash injection from Disney. While the British show has been running on the BBC for 60 years, it is now also streaming on Disney+ outside of the U.K., with Disney now a co-producer. Much-loved writer Russell T. Davies is also back running the show, so fans have had high expectations.
The holiday special featured the return of this new incarnation of the famous traveler facing up against a horde of goblins that want to harm Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), an orphan on a mission to learn the truth about her past.
Gatwa—who takes his historic place as the first Black man to assume the role, and who also happens to be gay—has been praised for his performance by fans, but he has also faced unsurprising backlash.
When a new actor is announced to play the Doctor, they are accustomed to criticism. This is because the show has a passionate fanbase, with every fan having a favorite incarnation of the main character.
While most people quickly learn to love the new actor as soon as they watch a Doctor’s debut episode, this year there have been racist and homophobic trolls crawling out of the woodwork. Some have taken to X, formerly Twitter, to criticize the BBC show for becoming “woke propaganda.” Others have lambasted Disney, accusing the show of now having the same “woke” issues of other recent Disney projects.
Newsweek reached out to the BBC and Disney+ for comment via email on Tuesday.
“RIP DR WHO. Ruined by BBC who wants to turn a straight white doctor who into a black gay dr. Just to make it more diverse for the black gay community. Is that where our tv license is being wasted on. Dr who was white male from start till you turned him a gay symbol,” one livid viewer wrote on X.
In the U.K., a TV license is necessary to legally watch or listen to any transmissions on television and radio. The cash raised from licenses is used to fund the BBC, which is commercial-free.
“Someone tell me it’s a p*******. #DrWho a ‘black’ doctor? Viewing figures – zero. No offense ffs but Dr Who aint black. Thassit. Neither is he a wimmin. Gottit? Make it so. Do as you are told!!” said another.
“I have never seen anything so awful as Doctor Who regenerating into a generic, Disney, Mary Sue hero who is exactly the same as every other character Disney destroyed,” a third person wrote.
A fourth added: “My Dr Who obsessed son has finally consigned him to the bin, last series was rocky but it’s the woke thats finally broke the spell. It’s a pile of s**** now apparently, as usual I didn’t watch it.”
However, other fans of the show have taken to X to stand up for Gatwa and explain that the Doctor is a Time lord who regenerates, so it makes sense for the character to take on different physicalities.
“Even if Ncuti wasn’t the doctor before Jodie [Whittaker], timelords are literal aliens who can change their race as well as gender. it’s not ‘woke’ to have an actor who’s black play the doctor,” one X user wrote.
Whittaker played the first female version of the Doctor, a role that caused huge divisions among fans in the U.K. and beyond.
“Spotting racists is easy this Christmas. Just look for anyone describing #DoctorWho as ‘BBC Wokeness’ or ‘Box Ticking’, a black actor playing an entirely fictional character is just too much for them to take,” said another.
“Love the fact that people are moaning that Doctor Who has gone ‘woke’, like they are happy to believe that goblins can steal babies and The Doctor can travel through time, but draw the line at the fact he is played by a black man #DoctorWho,” someone else wrote.
Another added: “Absolutely loved the #DoctorWho Christmas Day episode. It was brilliant. The rampant homophobia and racism online is disgusting though. If having a gay or black actor playing the Doctor is ruining your Christmas, you need to call the ‘get over yourself’ helpline.”
In an interview with British entertainment magazine the Radio Times, Gatwa discussed how he had braced himself for criticism after landing the role that had only been played by white performers before him.
“I was a little bit braced for impact and then was very pleasantly surprised because it was the antithesis [of what I was expecting],” he said.
“But then, also, what’s scary is that we all live in [social media] bubbles. I remember scrolling on Twitter and being like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m so loved.’
“And then I clicked on one tweet that wasn’t as positive. And then that opened up an entire world of the opposite feeling. ‘Oh no. There they are.’ Seeing the anagrams of my name [made into a racial slur] was just lovely.”
Despite what naysayers might think, Doctor Who has always reflected changes in social and political norms.
“The fact that it continues to do so in 2023 shouldn’t really come as a surprise,” Garry Berman, author of Best Britcoms and For the First Time on Television, previously told Newsweek. “It was always ‘woke,’ long before the term was coined.”
First airing in 1963, the show was originally designed to teach children about science and history. Over time, the series began to explore societal issues such as racism and sexism throughout the past, future and present.
“While many of the Doctor’s early companions possessed few talents beyond screaming when in danger, the program began to reflect social changes through its companions as well as through the Doctor himself or the series storylines,” Berman said.
The show first received accusations that it had become “too political” in 2017 when showrunners decided to gender-swap the Doctor for the first time. English actor Jodie Whittaker took over from Peter Capaldi to play the Doctor’s 13th incarnation, with the decision dividing fans.
Recalling some of the sexist trolling she received when her role was announced, Whittaker told the Radio Times in 2022: “There’s a fine line between the hilarity of it and the fact that it’s terrifying that a woman being given a particular job can cause so much rage. It’s just a tiny vial of rage, of course, but the anger, the negativity, are always the loudest.”
In 2016, Scottish actor Capaldi—who played the 12th doctor—told Newsweek that he hopes the show continues to adapt.
“I think it’s important the show reflects the times,” he said. “The Doctor is a hero for all times. So I think he, or she, or it—because he’s not a human being—should reflect the times.”