Chris Chibnall Cast A Black Woman As The Doctor, But It’s Only Just A Start

Chris Chibnall Cast A Black Woman As The Doctor, But It’s Only Just A Start

In this week’s episode, “Fugitive of the Judoon,” the BBC’s Doctor Who made history by casting a black woman, Jo Martin, as the Doctor for the first time in the series’ 57-year history. Let’s talk about it.

One of the biggest changes showrunner Chris Chibnall brought to his run as head of the long-running sci-fi classic was infusing the show with more diversity than ever before. While nuWho began in 2005 with the first black recurring character in Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), the first black companion in Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), and a few other guest and recurring characters of colour, that diversity cooled off during Steven Moffat’s run from 2010 to 2017.

Even when the characters were of diverse backgrounds and sexual identities, the show did the characters a disservice by killing them off. (Danny Pink, played by Samuel Anderson, and Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, both ironically die the same way: They’re turned into Cybermen). To many fans of colour, these exits left an awful taste in our mouths compared to the treatment of white characters on the show, whose exits often felt far less traumatic.

When Chibnall took over as showrunner in 2018, he seemed to make a big point of the importance of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. Two of the companions for the past two seasons are people of colour—Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole.

A few episodes have been written, for the first time ever, by writers of colour: Malorie Blackman, who co-penned “Rosa” with Chiball, and Vinay Patel, who co-wrote “Demons of the Punjab.” Patel returned to co-write this season’s now history-making episode “Fugitive of the Judoon.”

The season 11 episodes dealt with American black history (though written by a black British writer) and the partition of India, both specific cultural moments that benefited from having a writer closer to them than Chibnall alone. We’ve also had more South Asian representation than ever before, including the fantastic reveal at the top of this season that the Master would now be played by Sacha Dhawan. And in a move to top all moves, this week’s episode introduced a black woman, played by Jo Martin, not just as a Time Lord, but as the Doctor herself. It’s still unclear how or where in the Doctor’s timeline she comes from, but she’s here, she’s ours, and nerdy clothing stores better prepare to sell her outfit.

All of these welcome additions aside, these past two seasons under Chibnall’s direction haven’t been perfect. His premiere episode, “The Woman Who Fell From Earth,” introduced an older black woman named Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) as a potential companion, and she was amazing. Strong, confident, brave, and exactly the kind of person who belongs on the TARDIS. But halfway through the episode, fans of the show watching live began to see that she wouldn’t survive the episode.

I’ll never forget watching my Twitter timeline dissolve into dismay at the realisation that Grace was about to die. And indeed, she does, to further the emotional bond and narrative arc for two men, her grandson Ryan and her husband, Graham. Grace’s fridging was an icky start to a new season, new Doctor, and new showrunner, especially after Bill’s pretty grisly and disappointing ending not too long before.

But with Doctor Who bringing on Blackman for “Rosa” and Patel for “Punjab,” I was going to give Chibnall the benefit of first season growing pains. But then this season saw the death of two more black women, both on-screen and implied off-screen. There was Barton’s mother (Blanche Williams) in the premiere, who was killed by her own son for no actual narrative rhyme or reason, and in the very next episode, Bella (Gia Ré), a faux hotel critic looking for revenge on her estranged mother.

She was left on a planet, surrounded by the enemy, and the Doctor, despite Ryan’s protest, didn’t even consider going back to try to save her. The audience is left to assume or decide that she somehow survived? But given the show’s track record—three in a row under Chibnall, and four in a row when you consider Bill—I found myself sceptical and beginning to think Chibnall had a thing against black women who weren’t Rosa Parks.

These deaths had stacked up in my mind, so when I saw the previews for “Fugitive of the Judoon,” I decided this was it. If this new black character died, I might have to roll up on Chiball in my TARBIS (Time and Relative Blackness in Space) and have some harsh words with him. But this time, he exceeded my expectations and surprised us all. The new black woman is The Doctor. It even said so in the credits, in case there were any doubts.

The end titles. (Image: BBC)

She’s here, and I need her outfit and the Funko Pop ASAP. I love her energy (like Donna meets River Song?) and Jo Martin was fantastic at switching between the confused Ruth and the self-assured Doctor. The tension between Ruth Doctor and Thirteen was well played without being too stereotypically catty, with the expectation of them working well together in the future set up perfectly. I am buzzing with anticipation.

But all of this does not mean that Chibnall is off the hook. The Ruth Doctor could become yet another black woman we see die on screen, or leave assumed dead. Regeneration is a key component to Doctor Who’s main character after all, so I honestly expect her to die and regenerate, as all Time Lords do. But it would be less jarring if I hadn’t been on edge because of the last few character deaths. Yes, Doctor Who is a show that deals with life or death constantly, but you can’t just take each episode singularly. You have to look at the patterns you are creating. (Just like everyone noticing that Yaz has been teleported somewhere three times this season. Girl can’t stop getting beamed up!)

So while I am thrilled at the prospect of a black woman as the Doctor, and plan to give the BBC as much money as I can to show that I want all her merch, I am still not ready to make Chibnall the diversity king. Even though he’s gotten a lot of flack from the anti-PC police for being overly “woke,” which is hilarious, I know plenty of people who are annoyed he’s not pushing the button far enough. (Give us Thasmin, you cowards!) I also wish Chibnall would do a little more with the PoC characters we already have—Ryan and Yaz have gotten no new character development in any of the five episodes this season, and it’s really glaring.

Photo: BBC

I hope that the next time we see Ruth Doctor, it isn’t the last. The universe, with all its dimensions, is wide and there’s room for 13 official iterations of the Doctor, plus the War Doctor, plus the Valeyard, plus 10.5, plus Ruth Doctor. Let her have many adventures in time and space. Deal with the fact that she presents as a black woman, just like the show’s dealt with Thirteen being a (white) woman. Give her the merch and extra-canonical stories she deserves. Comics. Big Finish audios.

Giving us a black female Doctor isn’t the end of the road for representation, it’s just the beginning. Don’t waste it.

Connie is a writer, editor, podcaster, prolific tweeter, and New Yorker. She is currently a writer for a children’s magazine and a writer/editor at Black Girls Create. Her other writing has been featured in Buzzfeed, SheKnows, Polygon, Shondaland, and The Nerds of Colour, among others. She also hosts a Doctor Who podcast called Time and Relative Blackness in Space.