On Doctor Who, Science Fiction’s Oldest Franchise Still Chooses to Lead with Hope

Showrunner Russell T. Davies and stars Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson discuss keeping the 60-year-old franchise fresh and relevant in upcoming season

TV Features Disney Plus
On Doctor Who, Science Fiction’s Oldest Franchise Still Chooses to Lead with Hope

Doctor Who is remarkable for many reasons. It’s the longest-running science fiction series on television, having just celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. Its main character, a two-hearted, time-traveling alien, has been played by well over a dozen actors. And it’s launching a brand new season—its first, fourteenth, or fortieth, depending on who you ask—this spring, now on a new streaming home that will put the show in front of more viewers, globally, than ever before. But what still sets this franchise apart is that for all its longevity, all its reboots and restarts, and the foundational idea of change that’s baked into its very premise, its central thesis has always been the same: travel hopefully. 

Technically, that’s one of the more famous lines spoken by Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth incarnation of the show’s famous Time Lord. But it’s also a fairly succinct summation of everything the show’s always been about—and the philosophy it continues to embrace in its latest outing. 

“Hope is the name of the game in Doctor Who,” star Ncuti Gatwa, who plays the Fifteenth Doctor, tells Paste. “We get asked a lot what is the magic of [this show] and why it’s lasted so long. And it’s definitely that dedication to hope and joy that you really don’t see [elsewhere] on TV.”

“After all these years, as well!” Millie Gibson, who plays companion Ruby Sunday, adds. “I mean, when it first started, it was completely different and unlike anything on TV, and still, 60 years on, with all the CGI we’ve got and all the other franchises out there, it’s still got that essence. That’s its character.”

It’s an attitude that’s largely fueled by the character of the Doctor himself. Despite a history littered with trauma and loss, the Time Lord’s omnipresent wonder and unabashed joy in the universe’s—and, often, humanity’s—ability to adapt and change offer a necessary reminder that things like optimism and kindness are ideals we each have to choose to embrace. Goodness takes a surprising amount of effort, and, more often than not, holding on to hope is hard work. But it can change the world. 

Russell T. Davies, current Doctor Who showrunner and the man behind the series’ return after a decade-long hiatus back in 2005, has long held that the franchise is a “fundamentally optimistic” one. That idea was part of his pitch for the show’s revival nearly 20 years ago, and it doesn’t sound like much has changed for him on that score since then. 

“I think it’s so important,” he says when asked about that long-ago quote and the idea of hope at the series’ center. “I think it’s particularly relevant because Doctor Who has a large child[ren]’s audience. It’s a family show. It’s for absolutely anyone. But the fact that children sit there in the audience is very significant to me. And even back in 2005, I was very much aware that children are always being told that the world’s going to end, that global warming’s going to get us, that war’s going to get us, and my goodness, now you look at the 24 hours news streaming these days and parents having to have conversations with their children about what they watch and the information they receive. So in that world, I wanted something that was a beacon.” 

In our current era of often grim and dystopian science fiction, it’s comforting that Doctor Who, as a franchise, still refuses to embrace the cynicism that powers so many other properties. 

“Some shows will say, look, this [bleak future] is where we’re heading. And I think that’s fair enough: be warned, people. This could be around the corner,” Davies says. “But I think science fiction is very good at [being a beacon]. I admire Star Trek enormously and that’s what I love about the Enterprise and the Discovery and all those ships—those crews are noble and brave, and they’re kind and they learn. And the same applies to Doctor Who.”

The new season of Doctor Who takes this attitude and runs with it, bounding into a future that feels more joyful, playful, and downright fun than it has in some time. Led by Gatwa, the first Black man and the first openly queer person to play the Doctor, this latest era of the franchise seems to have clear ideas about what it wants to be as it heads into its sixth decade. “I don’t think it’s vastly changed,” Davies says when asked how different his second time in the showrunner’s chair is than his first. “But I know what you mean. Genuinely, it’s kind of my job to look at the world and the state of television and the state of all of us in society and wonder what we need now.”

And he’s not wrong—Doctor Who has always wrestled with many of the same themes we see in the new season’s initial episodes: try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. There’s no such thing as monsters, there are just creatures you haven’t met yet. Hate is always foolish, but love is always wise.

“It’s a little madder,” he continues. “It’s a little more cartwheeling and freewheeling and fun, but at the same time, it’s got an even stronger emotional core.  And when you cast someone like Ncuti and Millie, the two of them in these lead roles, I just love how young they are. I think we live in a world—you can talk about Gen Z or you can talk about Generation Alpha, but our young people are more encouraged than ever to talk about their emotions, and I was more than happy to bring along a Doctor who resonates with that, who expresses himself more than previous Doctors have done. And I love the end result of that.”

That more youthful and emotional feel is just one of the ways the show has kept itself fresh over the years, and according to the man in the TARDIS, Doctor Who’s willing to change to meet the cultural moment in which it finds itself.

“The show just evolves with the times,” Gatwa says. “That’s what the show is about, is evolution, regeneration. And when a show has been around for this long, it will end up just naturally doing that, reflecting the society around it.  Not saying that I am someone who reflects society, I’m just a boy who’s acting. But we would be remiss if we didn’t take stock of the fact that there are a couple of firsts here. And that’s important. In my opinion, it’s about time and could have been done a little bit sooner, but we’ve had the amazing Jodie Whittaker as well who started the train of breaking barriers.”

The show’s willingness to increasingly center women, queer, trans, and nonbinary characters in its larger universe has led to a certain amount of backlash, most often from an ugly element on the internet that enjoys deriding the show as “woke.” (The show is about a literal alien that travels through time, but, hey, characters of different gender and sexual identities are apparently a bridge too far for these folks!) But Davies, who has a long history of writing progressive-minded television, insists Doctor Who should reflect not just the world we currently live in, but the one we want to build.  

“I think there’s a very great danger in thinking that Twitter is the world, and it isn’t. I know very few people on it. And it’s a real horror show to think that actually, those are true opinions. But, like I said, I have to write the program very much aware of the fact that it’s 2024. So of course it’s going to be more progressive. Of course, it’s going to have its eyes open to the future,” Davies explains. “I consider that to be very natural. But bear in mind, I’m the writer who was writing Queer as Folk in 1999, so you’re in my wheelhouse here. It’s what I believe in doing and I believe in it passionately with all my heart and will never change.”

Though those involved likely wouldn’t call it so, Doctor Who has always been a political show, though perhaps not in the way most would think—at its best, the show is aspirational, an exhortation to be the best versions of ourselves, to hope we might one day become the people the Doctor already thinks we are. And that, at its heart, is what it sounds like this new era is about. 

Doctor Who, to me, lends itself to inclusion and diversity. It’s about looking at society and how we can better it. That’s what happens in each episode: there’s a problem that happens and we solve it and things get better. Like we were talking about, it’s fundamentally optimistic. And I think it’s just optimistic to include everyone and that’s the era that we’re in now. The era of optimism.”

Doctor Who premieres Friday, May 10th at 7 p.m. ET on Disney+, and streaming on BBC iPlayer at midnight on May 11th in the UK.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin