Ncuti Gatwa is the Fourteenth Doctor! Here’s what you need to know about the Sex Education star turned Time Lord
Following Sunday’s stunning news that Doctor Who had found its Fourteenth Doctor in Ncuti Gatwa, fans fell into two camps. Half of them, like Matt Smith, knew the actor from his award winning performances in Netflix’s Sex Education, and were excited and thrilled. And the other half were cautiously optimistic despite his name being a very unfamiliar name to them.
It’s a sign of today’s media landscape, and how it’s changed over the past seventeen years since Christopher Eccleston’s announcement. More channels and platforms than ever before are splitting audiences into ever more individual segments. It’s now perfectly possible to star in three seasons of a hit show, win multiple awards and no less than three BAFTA nominations, have over two and a half million fans on social media, and still be relatively unknown to those who don’t subscribe to the particular streaming service your show is on.
In many ways Ncuti Gatwa is a bigger name today than David Tennant was back in 2005, especially internationally. But while it was impossible to be completely unaware of Casanova back then, despite up to five million viewers per episode watching Sex Education, if you don’t have Netflix, you may not have even heard of it. Meanwhile, many fans of Ncuti Gatwa as an actor seem only aware of Doctor Who as ‘that blue box show.’
So for those who haven’t followed the adventures of Gatwa’s Eric across Sex Education’s three seasons… Now that Ncuti Gatwa is Who, who is Ncuti Gatwa?
Like David Tennant, the Scottish actor trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Ncuti Gatwa (pronounced SHOO-tee GAT-wah) is twenty-nine years old, making him one of the younger actors to take the role. Matt Smith is still the youngest by a significant margin, being twenty-six when he was first announced. But by a remarkable coincidence Gatwa and Peter Davison were the exact same age when unveiled to the press as the new doctor – twenty-nine years, six months, three weeks and one day.
But here are striking parallels between Gatwa and one of the other most popular Doctors, David Tennant. Both are Scottish and the sons of ministers, and both learned their acting craft at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Both are classically trained Shakespearean actors and both have appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Tennant as Lysander for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Gatwa as Lysander’s love rival Demetrius for the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Tennant’s extra decade in the business may have given him a longer CV when first cast as the Doctor. But each had one star-making breakthrough role in a boundary pushing comedy drama about sex and love that dominated public awareness of them. For Tennant that was Russell T Davies’ Casanova, and for Ncuti Gatwa it’s been as Eric Effiong in Sex Education.
“I’m just going to carry on being myself and they’re going to fall in love with me sooner or later”
Gatwa, the son of journalist and Christian minister Tharcisse Gatwa, was born in the Nyarugenge district of Rwanda, near Kigali. But Ncuti was just two years old when the family fled the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic minority were brutally murdered. The Gatwas found refuge in Scotland, living first in Edinburgh and then Dunfermline. Ncuti encountered racism in school (“There’s not many people that look like me in Scotland,” he told the Guardian in 2020.) He’s also probably the first Doctor who can lay claim to being subject of a cyber-bullying campaign as a teenager.
But Ncuti was certain such responses were driven by ignorance and fear, and his quick wit and charisma soon brought the campaign to an end. (“You can’t know me and not like me … I’m just going to carry on being myself and they’re going to fall in love with me sooner or later. And they did.”)
In 2019, Gatwa discussed the special nature of his identity of being both a young black man and absolutely Scottish, in the BBC documentary Black and Scottish, still available on iPlayer.
Like generations of actors before him, Gatwa relocated to big city to pursue his acting dreams, moving to London. But like so many of them, it was a struggle. Despite regularly getting roles, the sheer expense of life in the English capital meant he spend five months homeless after his savings ran out. (“Being a 25-year-old man with no money or job affected my sense of self-worth,” he told The Big Issue. “Rejection became unbearable. Auditions weren’t just acting jobs, they were lifelines.”)
And then came mainstream stardom (and rent money) thanks to his star-making role as Eric in Sex Education.
Ncuti Gatwa found stardom with Sex Education, as the quick witted, charismatic, and compassionate Eric Effiong
Sex Education takes place in a British secondary school, albeit one with a curiously American seeming student culture. Otis (Asa Butterworth) is the son of sex therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson) who, despite his own myriad hang-ups about sex, decides to set up his own undercover sex education clinic for the students of Moordale. He’s aided and abetted by his best friend Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa. The quick tongued and flamboyant Eric quickly won the hearts of viewers and critics alike. But, most importantly, as a character Eric escaped the trap of the Gay Sidekick trope. Though fiercely loyal, and willing to sometimes tell Otis hard truths, he had his own life and challenges presented as equally important as Otis’ own. He also lacks the odd sexlessness of so many straight central characters’ gay best friends.
Eric’s major storylines across the three seasons included his attempts to bridge being out and proud of his homosexuality with his religious upbringing. Consistent with Sex Education’s avoidance of obvious cliches, Eric’s father Abeo accepts and loves his son. But his fears for his son in a homophobic world nevertheless creates conflict between the two. Meanwhile, Eric develops a love/hate relationship with Adam, the headmaster’s son. Over the first season, we discover Adam’s homophobic bullying of Eric masks his inability to accept his own sexuality. It was a storyline showing that, alongside the sparkling dialogue and fun, Sex Education was able to embrace the sometimes complicated and difficult shades of grey in human relationships.
Gatwa’s performance as Eric always has hints of what he may have brought to his Doctor Who audition
As Eric, Gatwa’s displayed many of the qualities expected from a Doctor. It’s a role with the actor’s raw charisma as its foundation. And while it’s in the milieu of getting friends to embrace life and get the girl, he’s made his share of emotional, inspiring speeches. Eric also possesses that mercurial ability to turn mood on a sixpence. One of his most iconic scenes involves his switching instantly from anger at the “dirty pig” who hasn’t washed their hands, to genuine concern when it turns out they were just in the school toilets for a bit of a cry. And, of course, he stands against cruelty alternately with fire and kindness. The stakes may be universally higher in Doctor Who, but Gatwa has already displayed the mix of glib disdain and simmering anger with which the Doctor has often seen off the Daleks or the Master.
BAFTA, the Broadcasting Press Guild, and the Rose d’Or are among those who’ve recognised Ncuti Gatwa as an actor
It’s also a performance that’s won Gatwa several awards. To date, his trophy cabinet includes a Broadcasting Press Guild Award, a Scottish BAFTA, a Rose d’Or, and a National Comedy Award among others. He’s received three nominations for BAFTAs, once for every series, and for a Critics’ Choice Award. There’s been no doubt that Gatwa’s winning, engaging, intelligent performance as Eric has been the bedrock of the character’s appeal. Or that Eric is an essential part of what has made Sex Education a hit with its millions of viewers.
One of the marks of Sex Education’s success has been its commissioning for a fourth season, a rarity for Netflix. But with Asa Butterworth indicating as recently as last month that filming for Season Four hadn’t even begun yet, there’s a question mark over whether Eric, or Ncuti Gatwa, will be back. Gatwa’s reign as the new Doctor not set to begin in earnest on our screens until November 2023. That means it’s just about possible the filming schedules of the two shows will avoid overlapping. But it seems more likely that Eric will becoming either a recurring character, or depart the show permanently either between seasons or in an early episode.
With Ncuti Gatwa at the controls, the TARDIS may be on course for its most exciting journey yet
Some of Gatwa’s other future projects are more certain, however. He’s currently filming Barbie, starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken. Though, with director Greta Gerwig at the helm, it promises to be something very different and more experimental than the bland exploitation of a merchandising brand you might expect. He’ll also be appearing in Masters of the Air from Apple+. He’ll be one of the airmen in the follow up to WWII ensemble dramas Band of Brothers and The Pacific.
But without doubt, it’s Doctor Who which is most hotly anticipated. But we still know next to nothing about Ncuti Gatwa’s debut series or the Fourteenth Doctor. The new era entered pre-production at Cardiff’s Bad Wolf Studios in March but, as far as we know, filming has yet to begin. The team probably haven’t made decisions about the Fourteenth Doctor’s new costume yet. And we don’t even know what this new Doctor will sound like. Gatwa’s accent is flexible. He’s sounds more Scottish when at home in Scotland. Other times he has flavours of the Rwandan accent he picked up from his parents. While as Eric he uses an English accent.
But one thing is for certain, the excitement and wonder of meeting the Doctor all over again. The thrill of seeing the most iconic character on British television with new eyes, is once more around the corner. And with Ncuti Gatwa at the controls, the TARDIS just might be about to embark on its most amazing journey yet.
Doctor Who continues this Autumn with the Thirteenth Doctor’s final episode, ahead of Ncuti Gatwa’s first full episode next year