Well, that came out of the blue.
I think everyone was pegging their hopes on the 14th. It made sense for any number of reasons, not least because you’ve got that sweet spot between the FA Cup Final and Eurovision. Where was the song and dance, the flurry of trumpets, the countdown, the slow reveal? Instead we got a random Tweet that had everyone back and forth across the internet like chickens crossing a road for the five minutes we all spent trying to work out if the official Doctor Who account had been compromised. When it emerged that it hadn’t, the BBC website crashed, and the reactions began in earnest.
It wasn’t a bad decision. There is a thing that happens when you build up the anticipation to a fever pitch: the balloon instantly deflates, the disappointment palpable – “What, them?” It happened with Whittaker; it even happened with Capaldi, although no one remembers. At least this was a bit of a surprise. Dropping us on it the way they did there was no chance to feel let down.
I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours, on and off, trying to get my thoughts in order. And here they are, in a sort of order. You will not agree with all of them. That’s fine. It’s why we have comments.
1. I’d never heard of Ncuti Gatwa. I don’t watch Sex Education, although I gather it’s very well thought of. That’s fine, although it’s going to take a while to get used to writing out his name. “We say the same about you.”
2. All right, yes, he is a bit young. So was Matt Smith. I was completely wrong about him. I was also wrong about Catherine Tate. I’ve learned, over the years, that I can’t understand the inner workings of the BBC writing team any better than you all can. Sometimes things happen behind closed doors in the heady process that is auditioning and we don’t get to know what they are.
3. At least they had auditions. I think Chibnall said he did for Whittaker’s casting but I also think he’d probably made up his mind before they did the read-throughs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting a mate because he impressed you at a wedding, provided you know what you’re doing, but the fandom is under this irritating misconception that Doctor Who production needs to be some sort of democracy and that they should get a say about how it’s done, so maybe this will shut them up.
4. I like Jodie Whittaker. I always have. I wrote ‘liked’ in the first sentence and then went back and changed it. Anybody else been doing that? It’s very easy to write her off the moment the casting is announced. At least let her finish her arc in peace. We’ve still got Ace and Tegan, remember?
5. I’ve spent years defending Chris Chibnall, and I’m tired of it. The unfortunate truth is that his dialogue stinks. I don’t have an issue with even the more controversial aspects of those story arcs, but he can’t write a believable conversation, and as far as the other week is concerned I can’t defend a turkey. We were in Liverpool when ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ was broadcast; I managed to watch it but didn’t have a chance to review it until the following week, by which point I realised I had absolutely nothing interesting to say about it, because there was absolutely nothing interesting about the story. Doctor Who shouldn’t be dull, and I shouldn’t be bored. But here we are.
6. When you think about it, casting a male Person of Colour was the most likely and sequentially logical direction for the BBC to take, and frankly none of you should have been surprised. I wasn’t.
7. Be careful, too, of the “Oh but I wanted Idris Elba” trope. Because most of the time that’s shorthand for “He’s the only really famous black actor I can name”. Idris Elba, versatile as he is, would have been a diabolical choice. (He’s quite good in Sonic The Hedgehog, though.)
8. It doesn’t matter that Gatwa is an unknown, or famous for comedy, or younger than you. From what I can gather, the kids love him. And like it or not, they’re the future of the show. Not you. Not me.
9. Here’s the thing. A healthy degree of skepticism is absolutely fine. Honestly. If you’re examining Gatwa and saying “Hmm, wouldn’t have been my choice”, go ahead. I did the same with Smith. I was wrong – he had me within two minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS – but it’s quite natural to shrink in bafflement when you hear about a casting choice. Doesn’t mean it’s racist, except when it is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
10. There is a famous meme that does the rounds. I include it here for posterity:
Processed all that? Good, now forget about it entirely. It’s bollocks. Well-intended, but still utter bollocks. Some people never get past that first stage (that’s the one on the top left, for those of you who were wondering). We need to allow for that. I have never been a huge fan of Eccleston, but that’s probably my southern middle class privilege talking, and I own that.
11. Speaking of ownership: the outright criticism of Gatwa’s casting on the grounds of box-ticking is bigotry, and I will defy anyone – anyone – to prove me wrong. It’s offensive. It does him a disservice as an experienced actor (and winner of several awards). It also does a disservice to Russell T Davies, who – if you remember – was billed as the Second Coming (no pun intended) when his return was announced last September. And now you’re giving him a hard time because he’s cast a gay Scot with Rwandan heritage? Piss off.
12. If you’re wondering why point number 11 was so emphatically worded, it’s because (and you’ll love this) most white people are at least a little bit racist. It’s not a nice thing to talk about, and if you bring it up they’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks, with the likes of “I DON’T HAVE A RACIST BONE IN MY BODY”. Well, yes you do. I know you do, because I do. We can’t help it. You react differently to people who look different, at least when you don’t know them. There are preconceptions about diets, about religious beliefs, about lifestyle choices. If your son or daughter brought home a girlfriend / boyfriend of a different race, your reaction wouldn’t be the same as if they’d been white. You’d hopefully get used to them, but there would be an adjustment period. It’s partly societal, partly upbringing: we take on the values our parents had. And if you’re really about to tell me I haven’t got a clue about what you believe and how you feel, think about the last time someone told you an off-colour joke. Think very, very hard.
13. The question of whether people of colour can be racist is too long and complicated to address here, but I will go so far as to say this: all people harbour prejudice. You can call it racism, or something else entirely, but I don’t care what your skin colour is – if you’re a functional member of society, you have it, in some capacity or another. About men, women, those who have children, those who don’t, the rich, the poor, the East, the West. Don’t shy away from it. It’s what makes us human.
14. Let’s assume that you’ve read 11 through 13 and are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. How do we move forward from this? Because from one perspective I’ve just said it’s OK to be racist. It isn’t – but it is OK to accept your limitations. Inherent racism is a shackle from which you will never be truly free, but (and here’s the point) it is vital that you recognise it. Recognising it is the first step in tackling it; ask any addict. Ask yourself: where does this come from? Why am I reacting this way to this bit of news? No, really? Why does supposed box-ticking irritate me so much? Why was I really angry at Whittaker giving the brush-off to Graham’s cancer fears? Is it because it was callous? Or is it because I’m socially conditioned to expect women to be caring and empathetic? How would I have felt if it were Capaldi?
Only you can answer that one. But you do have to be prepared to ask the question. And many people won’t. Because it involves getting to know yourself a little better, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned these last two years of trauma, stagnation and poor mental health, it’s that we don’t like digging in the dirt.
15. Darren Grimes can, in general, go and f**k himself. From what I hear, he’s quite good at it.