Doctor Who and The Complications of Color-Blind Casting

Doctor Who has increased its commitment to diversity, but the show needs to examine this on more than a surface level.

Lenny Henry as Barton in Doctor Who "Spyfall"

This article contains major spoilers for the Doctor Who Season 12 premiere.

By many measures, the current era of Doctor Who is more diverse than ever before. Not only does the central team feature two characters of color in the form of Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill), but Head Writer Chris Chibnall has brought on the first writers of color in the more than 50-year history of Doctor Who to help shape this story behind-the-scenes. While these are steps in the right direction, Doctor Who is not immune to the current pattern of “progression” in mainstream media: From casting more diversely without thinking about how those diverse identities affect the character and story to killing off characters with marginalized identity in the service of white male character development, Doctor Who is making a lot of the same missteps that we see throughout the current era of storytelling.

The two-part Doctor Who Season 12 premiere features many antagonists, but for most of the story, the chief one is Daniel Barton (played by Lenny Henry), a multi-billionaire tech CEO who also happens to be Black. Casting a Black actor to play a role should mean considering the nuances of their identity and how it interacts with other parts of the story. Barton being Black does not change the story, but it does affect the story, most especially when Barton turns violent, killing his own mother in an action that is never put into motivational context. The scene seemingly happens because Chibnall decided that Barton was cold and needed to show that in the harshest way possible. Because of that, we had to watch yet another Black woman die on-screen via Doctor Who.

I’m referring to the ending of Doctor Who Season 10, which saw companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) shot in the chest and turned into a Cyberman—a trauma that is treated more as the Twelfth Doctor’s than it ever is Bill’s. Bill’s gruesome death is not Chibnall’s fault (it was written during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner), but it is his responsibility to remember as someone continuing this story. The fact that Chibnall chose to open Season 11 by introducing, then quickly killing Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) — a Black woman — to further the story of a (white) man, her husband Graham (Bradley Walsh) implies it is not a responsibility he thinks about.

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This narrative choice—the decision to kill Grace—is further contextualized by the fact that Graham is a white man largely put in place to give (white) fanboys something to latch onto now that the Doctor is a (white) woman, and the other companions are young POC. I understand the story reasons from Chibnall’s perspective for Grace to die, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other, better choices that could’ve been made. Still, I let it rock because I was excited about what the show got right, namely casting Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill as full-time companions.

“Spyfall: Part One” continues the Chibnall era’s greater commitment to diversity. It introduces us to a new, very attractive, Brown (Indian, based on the actor) incarnation of The Master (Sacha Dhawan). Chibnall’s contextualization of Barton’s Black identity, with the character casually commenting about being the only non-white face at school during his interview with Yaz and Ryan, was a small, thoughtful detail that gave me hope the writers were being conscious of how his experience in the tech world would be influenced by his identity as a Black man.

“Spyfall’ Part Two” made a sharp turn away from a fun, 007-inspired romp to something more akin to an episode of Black Mirror. Worse, it did not really build on its own premise, which further emphasized the questionable choices made in the episode. Was it still enjoyable? Yes, overall. But with some major caveats.

Barton kidnaps his mum, and we get the lovely visual of an older Black woman zip-tied to a chair. Barton talks about his success and, I don’t know, not feeling valued by her while his mum, still tied up, maintains a firm “idgaf” attitude. After his truly unnecessary monologue, he calls the Kasaavin to kill her and we watch her die.

If Chibnall were hell bent on this particular scene being included, it should’ve been clearly established that Barton had a tumultuous relationship with his mother and given narrative value outside of establishing just how cutthroat Barton appears to be. At any point in “Part One,” Barton could have made an attempt to contact his mother only to be rebuffed, or mentioned being estranged from her in his interview with Yaz. No work was done to humanize her character so her life—and thus her death—are given no weight.

There are infinite ways to show callousness or ruthlessness that don’t involve killing a parent. Lenny Henry is a strong enough actor that his absolute disinterest in being “good” was clear without having to show Barton kill his mother. Showing her death becomes even more superfluous when you have the fam find her lifeless body and Barton on a screen telling them to “take care of” his mum. It’s not only insensitive storytelling—it’s bad storytelling.

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If I’m operating from a place where killing Barton’s mother was a solid narrative choice (it wasn’t), how much more powerful would it have been to have the audience learn, alongside the Doctor, how truly depraved Barton is? How much stronger would the line “take care of my mum” had been if we hadn’t just seen her die? Why show us, then have the characters find out later? That doesn’t work when we don’t know or care about this man or his family. I don’t want to be dramatic, but it’s starting to look like Chibnall just enjoys watching Black women die—or at least doesn’t value their personhood enough to stop killing them as part of white characters’ development.

Later in the episode, the Doctor finds herself stranded in Nazi-occupied Paris with Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan. The Master — again, an Indian man — is a high-ranking officer, using a mild perception filter to appear presumably pale, blonde, and blue-eyed. We see The Master in Nazi uniform standing in front of a swastika with no narrative time spent on how upsetting this might be to some viewers. But putting a Brown man in that scenario, even if there is some kind of explanation, is… A Choice, one that Doctor Who seems uninterested in exploring in any real way.

The show one-ups itself, and has the Doctor, a blonde, white woman, “unmask” the Master, a Brown man, to the FUCKING NAZIS! Somehow he survives that, instead of being shot on the spot, which does not absolve the Doctor, or actually make sense. Again, this feels like an unnecessary narrative choice made without any thought to the racial dynamics at play, or how diverse viewers might experience it. The Doctor could have just as easily outplayed the Master in another way, as his decision to moonlight as a Nazi is not given much narrative weight.

In both of the above scenarios, the fact that the actor is a person of color changes the way the scene plays. In the first, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch a white woman die either. In the second, I can’t say there wouldn’t be some small satisfaction in watching a white, male Master — Simms perhaps — navigate that same situation. He wouldn’t be an Indian guy in Nazi uniform, he’d be one of their own, and the implications would be different.

The optics are different when your character is a person of color. I really shouldn’t have to explain why an older, Black woman, denied her bodily autonomy is a bad look. I shouldn’t have to explain why a swarm of Nazis surrounding an Indian man is problematic.

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Casting a Black actor to play Barton meant casting a Black woman to play his mother, which meant killing a Black woman in a series premiere twice in consecutive seasons—seasons promoted in some way around the diversity of their cast, and as a space for “all.” I’m not saying these people shouldn’t have been cast, because they absolutely should have. I’m saying their identities should have had more influence over their character’s treatment in the show.

Sacha Dhawan is fantastic as the Master. The audience knows he’s the Master, so we of course have a healthy understanding of what he’s capable of, but the Master now presents as an Indian man. That can’t be overlooked, especially if you put him in modern contexts. Being Brown in the (Western) world comes with baggage. Again, there is a clear acknowledgement of his non-whiteness, so the writers KNOW, but the writing has to be deliberate in how it expresses that.

When you “don’t see color” or do colorblind casting, you have to adapt the writing to the actor. Barton being Black doesn’t change the “plot” (haha plot) but it does change how that character moves within the story. It changes how the camera and the audience interact with them. Failing to consider how race (unfortunately) influences people’s perceptions of a person, a character, is unacceptable.

You can’t, for example, have this iteration of the Master do what Missy did in “The Magician’s Apprentice” and have it hit the same. And frankly — now that I think of it — having Oh reveal himself while a plane is being deliberately crashed was probably not the best way to introduce the Master, either. To be fair, I only realized it when someone else pointed it out. My mind does not go there, but certainly many people’s do. Maybe the Master took his appearance into account when he concocted this plan, though I’m doubtful Chibnall approached it from that perspective.

I’m not asking for less diversity in casting or saying writers have to share identities with the characters they create. A white man can write a Black woman, but he has to have at least a baseline understanding of how her identities (Black, female) affect her experience and how other people experience her. I’m not asking for characters of color to be protected by nature of being Not White, I’m asking that their identities, and the nuances that come with them, be taken into account.