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With a whole new season rolling out on streaming services, it’s a good time to be a fan of the British television series Doctor Who. Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor has kicked off his adventures in time and space, and from only the first handful of episodes, there’s already a lot to consider. The production values appear to have been supercharged by Disney’s backing. There are all-singing, all-dancing musical numbers. Drag legend Jinkx Monsoon is devouring all scenery in her path. Space babies?

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If you’re not a fan already—a “Whovian,” in fandom parlance—you may not get the hype. As a get-up-to-speed brief: the Doctor is a traveling Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a masterly being with two hearts and a taste for adventure. After a devastating Time War involving recurring nemeses known as Daleks (think overgrown malevolent salt-shakers out for galactic domination), the Doctor is the last of their kind, soaring through space and time in a souped-up 1960s London police phone box known as the TARDIS (for Time and Relative Dimension In Space). The Doctor can regenerate into different bodies if grievously injured, which has allowed different actors to play the role since its debut in 1963. While traveling the universe, the Doctor is not alone: a “companion,” usually—though not always—a woman, comes along for the ride.

As we dive into a new season of a show that has been dear to viewers for sixty years, it’s worth looking at how each of the fifteen actors who have played the Doctor serves as a mirror to their own era. The Doctor may be flying through time and space, but Doctor Who is produced by humans and has been watched by many generations of viewers. This means the show has inevitably engaged with topical questions and challenges.

This isn’t unusual. International relations scholar Priya Dixit points out that looking at Doctor Who—or any sci-fi property—in this way isn’t asking kitschy entertainment to punch above its weight class. It is, rather, part of how entertainment is a key part of social vocabulary and ideation.

“Science fiction texts such as Doctor Who,” Dixit writes, “become part of the cultural resources—language—we use to understand and explain threats and relate to differences.” Moreover, they also include “representations of how the world could be.”

In the early years of the show, Cold War politics and imperial nostalgia loomed large. Doctor Who, in large view, “often used the invasion narrative to place Britain at the heart of a global crisis where the quintessentially English Doctor would save the day by outwitting and outmanoeuvring the enemy,” explains media studies scholar Lincoln Geraghty.

Media and politics scholar Alec Charles writes that, as the series was resurrected in 2005, it came with the obvious imprint of a post-9/11 world in which “the reality of conflict and its televisual representation has been brought into sharp relief.”

Villains in these new seasons included bat-like Krillitane aliens who attempted to use hypnotized schoolchildren as pawns; a military zealot in perpetual conflict over a community’s mystic “Source” of power; and tycoon John Lumic, creator of the horrifying robot Cybermen.

“Each of these villains remains intent, like the neoconservative or the jihadist, upon constructing his own Utopia,” Charles writes. “[I]ndeed, series director Graeme Harper reports that Lumic’s portrayal was based in part on Donald Rumsfeld.”

The show even engaged with the moral ambiguity of the Doctor’s actions, showing some of his interventions as praiseworthy while at other times employing human companions as safeguards against some of his angrier, more destructive impulses (Pompeii, anyone?).

Using the 2005 episode The Christmas Invasion as a lens on geopolitical relations, Dixit explores concepts of the “other,” and how humans evaluate threats that come from without or within a given community. This storyline, which has the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, fighting off a malevolent sentient Christmas tree, involves an alien race that wants to enslave half of humanity and a British prime minister who is willing to destroy them all to keep her people safe.

One’s perspective matters deeply, Dixit writes. In addition to

illustrating how meanings of security and insecurity shift depending on one’s standpoint, Doctor Who questions who is an alien and what makes someone alien and different. It blurs boundaries among humans and aliens and questions the “humanity” of the humans. This opens up discussions of how perspectives of self/others shift depending on which standpoint we are looking from.

The Cybermen, too, represent decades of engagement with social ideas about politics, culture, and technology. Authors including Geraghty argue that the cyberpunk genre, cyborgs, and fears of technological assimilation really coalesce in the 1980s. But the Cybermen, cyborgs of the 1960s, also draw a long history of British and American steampunk, Mary Shelley’s chimeric creature, the machine-human of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and mid-century ideas of engineering and progress. The Cybermen, in every era, have represented a fear of assimilation and de-humanization—in their first appearance in 1966, they presaged the mantra of Star Trek’s Borg, shouting: “Resistance is useless!” At first, the fear was simply “us versus them,” a fight to survive against a robotic foe set on devastation. As decades passed and technology assumed a larger and more complex role in daily life and capitalist discourse, the Cyberman changed, too, becoming not just a murder-bot but “a cruel technocrat that enjoys verbally and physically sparring with humanity,” writes Geraghty.

Beginning as it did in the 1960s, the show was for a long time limited in its constructs of sex and gender. Particularly during the post-2005 reboot years, critics rolled their eyes at the idea of a time-traveling Doctor, a being with infinite regenerative power, always reappearing in the form of a white cis man—not to mention that his companion was typically a fawning gal Friday.

Even in the show’s modern timeline, feminine competence did not typically draw rewards. Charlie Coile points out that when companion Donna absorbs the Doctor’s energy and masterfully architects the Daleks’ downfall, her victory is short-lived. While a male clone of the Doctor is allowed to relocate to an alternate universe, Donna ends up with her memories and abilities erased. Coile also notes that the character River Song is equipped with regenerative abilities yet “gives up her abilities to save her man and later her husband, the Doctor, during a near-death experience.”

Frustrated fans and Time Lords got some satisfaction on this point with the introduction of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. A late-2023 series of specials allowed David Tennant a brief return to give Donna her proper due (and her memories back). From there, an unprecedented “bi-generation” let Tennant’s Doctor retire to the back garden apartment with Donna’s family while Ncuti Gatwa took on a new TARDIS and traveler’s status.

Only two episodes in Gatwa’s series have aired at the time of this writing. If those are any indication, though, the show is ready to continue its tradition of taking on contemporary issues, with a focus on inclusion. Recent shows have mentioned issues from reproductive rights and refugee status to adoption and queerness.


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