Doctor Who Costumes: What Should Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor Wear?

Will Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor costume tip a (maybe literal) cap to the past, draw from contemporary influences, or forge ahead into the future?

Ncuti Gatwa BBC official portrait
Photo: BBC

Not to complain about what is largely a fun job, but writing about what Ncuti Gatwa is going to wear as the new Doctor is really hard. Have you seen the guy? Every single photo I’ve seen of him since his casting was announced looks like a potential Doctor costume. Every single one.

Does the New Doctor Need an Unchanging Costume?

First question: do we really need a capital C Costume? And if we do, is it going to be near-permanent? There’s a difference between something obviously designed and never changed out of, and a consistent look. Compare the Eighties Doctors, who wore largely the same clothes in every story (as did a fair few of their companions, spending whole series in the same clothes) and whose costume was clearly designed to be The Doctor’s Costume.

When you have a situation where everyone wears the same clothes for a prolonged period of time it’s as much a sign of artifice as a boom mic shadow or large fibreglass insect bashing into the camera. It takes you out of the story. When Turlough has been wearing a school uniform for nine stories in a row you start thinking ‘Didn’t he hate his school? Why is he still wearing that? What does he smell like?’, and then end up pondering if the Doctor sweats. I’m sure they must. Fairly sure they do in a few stories. Are people changing their underwear but keeping the rest of their clothes on? Is everyone so grumpy in Eighties Doctor Who because their skin is constantly irritated and there’s a smell of stale sweat over everything?

Doctor Who 50th anniversary composite

When the Doctor wears the same clothes for ages, most of the time it passes unnoticed. Patrick Troughton, for example, occasionally changes his trousers but otherwise you can’t tell if he’s changed his shirt or possibly his bowtie. Similarly, William Hartnell wears largely the same ensemble irrespective of how much sand or mud or Mire Beast excreta he gets on it. The modern equivalent, insofar as 2005 can be considered modern anymore, is Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor wearing basically the same clothes but occasionally changing his jumper. Put simply, the Doctor’s clothes aren’t a part of any attempt at realism Doctor Who is attempting.

Ad – content continues below

And yet, this approach can fail when attention is drawn to it. It’s more conspicuous in the Eighties because for Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker (in his final season) the costumes feel designed. In Season 12 there’s a reason Tom Baker is wearing the same clothes in every story (each story follows on immediately from the previous one), but after that his costume does change occasionally. For the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors their costumes remind you that they are a character in a television series. Obviously they are, but generally speaking you aren’t meant to be thinking about that while watching.

The Doctor’s Clothes = The Doctor’s Personality

For the most part, each Doctor has a consistent look and style with the occasional change in colours and accessories. This has frequently leaned towards the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in terms of style influences, mashing up Victorian and Edwardian looks for the first three Doctors. The Doctor’s clothes often reinforce their personality: the paternalistic tinkerer of Hartnell’s Doctor, the dishevelled front of Troughton’s, Pertwee’s glam rock commanding officer. With Tom Baker we moved to France (specifically a performer from nineteenth century Montmartre) giving his Doctor a distinct visual identity that contributed to his being the visual shorthand for the show. Other stories had Victorian/Edwardian scientists battling monsters (The Time Machine is an obvious example), none resembled Toulouse-Lautrec paintings.

It isn’t until the Fifth Doctor’s costume – inspired by a picture of Peter Davison playing cricket and another Edwardian look – that we have the Doctor in the same clothes throughout (and not ones that quite match the initial ‘Old Man in Young Man’s body’ concept for the Fifth Doctor). With the Sixth Doctor – garish colour palette notwithstanding – the Doctor’s clothes evoke Victoriana again. It’s the deliberately clashing colours that match this Doctor’s loud personality.

Doctor Who Remembrance of the Daleks Sylvester McCoy

The Seventh Doctor’s costume still looked back to British history but the 24-year-old show’s reference points had moved along with it, forward to the 1920s and 30s. Initially intended to be a more child-friendly Doctor, McCoy’s first costume mixes the bumbling Bertie Wooster with an eccentric professor. Paul McGann’s costume is a ”Wild Bill” Hickok costume for a party (Hickok was a hero of the American Old West who told wild stories about himself and was a mixture of soldier, spy and showman). Combined with a wig to mimic the hair McGann had when he auditioned, the vaguely Byronic image connected the effervescent Eighth Doctor with the romantic poets and their emphasis on strong emotions.

Moving From Historical to Contemporary Influences

When Doctor Who returned in 2005 Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor was a clean break, image wise. He wore contemporary clothes shorn of eccentricities, matching the actor’s take on the role. With David Tennant the inspiration was again contemporary: a mix of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and geek chic (a fashion trend which appears to be mainly about wearing thick-rimmed glasses). Leaked set photos from the 60th anniversary filming show Tennant wearing that same silhouette with slight tweaks. Matt Smith continued the geek chic with his braces and boots while looking back to the past: a tweed outfit with bow-tie that felt like a mix between the Second Doctor and Indiana Jones’ work clothes. Tennant and Smith had, like most Doctors, a few different outfits matching a specific style that would change from story to story.

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who series 12 episode 6: Praxeus

Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor bridged the approaches between Smith and Tennant, wearing outfits with a clear Jon Pertwee influence (indeed getting to try on one of Pertwee’s velvet coats in his trailer), but occasionally kicking about in cardigans and hoodies. This moving between different outfits and mixing things up is enough to counter any possible queries about body odour and whether the TARDIS has a Febreze dispenser. Jodie Whittaker and designer Ray Holman found inspiration from a late Eighties magazine showing women in men’s clothing, and like the 9th Doctor, her coat provided a distinctive silhouette while t-shirts and jumpers changed.

Ad – content continues below

Defining the 14th Doctor’s ‘Vibe

Overall, the main job of the Doctor’s clothes is twofold: give that Doctor a specific visual identity (the First and Second Doctors can wear similar things but conveyed very different personalities with them), and also cover the actors up so you can’t see their bum. It helps to give them different outfits that fit within these parameters, but just because there’s been a pattern established doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. Keeping the same outfit for every story is a bad idea, however, because it makes you wonder about whether the Sixth Doctor – in ‘The Two Doctors’ – could just have chloroformed Shockeye with his armpit, or whether the TARDIS regenerates clothes on a regular basis (after all, it does change the Doctor’s clothes when they regenerate in ‘The Tenth Planet’).

So, given that we don’t know what the new Doctor will be like and that Ncuti Gatwa can apparently wear anything, we have absolutely no idea what his Doctor will wear, other than a hunch that its influences will be contemporary rather than historical (based on the costumes of the previous two Doctors cast by past and future showrunner Russell T. Davies). Personally, I hope it changes from story to story too. The challenge for the costume department is to find a shape, a shorthand, a – yes, I’m going there – vibe, that means the Doctor is the Doctor irrespective of what they are wearing.  

Doctor Who returns this autumn on BBC One and BBC America with Jodie Whittaker’s final episode as the Doctor.