Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Everything You Need To Know About Doctor Who's First Black Doctor

Since Doctor Who's modern revival in 2005, it has — in fits and starts — been interested in defeating its own historical barriers: including more female characters in more faceted dimensions, incorporating some LGBTQ+ content, and wrestling with western history and imperialism as the Doctor zips around time and space for fun, drama, and hijinks. In 2020, however, the series decided to take a bold step and fulfill a request asked by fans for many years: it added a black female Doctor to the canon — the first in history.

On the January 26, 2020 episode of Doctor Who, Jo Martin appeared as an incarnation of the Doctor — the exact same entity that Jodie Whittaker has portrayed for the last couple of years. We don't yet know her whole story, but on her introductory episode, we learn that Martin's Doctor has been on the run. Masquerading as a human named Ruth Clayton, she stored her whole identity as the Doctor away in a lighthouse, where she buried her TARDIS. Gallifrey, the home world of the Time Lords, is hunting her — and it's not for any wholesome interest in simply bringing her home. Her appearance already has shades of the David Tennant era of Doctor Who, when the Tenth Doctor sealed his Time Lord abilities within a watch and gave it to Martha Jones for safekeeping during 2007's "The Family of Blood" episode.

What began as a campy black-and-white sci-fi serial operating on a shoestring budget has become a major pop-cultural force with slick, modern VFX two generations later. It has always touted a belief in the better angels of humanity, but took an inordinate amount of time to actually begin reflecting a more complete representation of humanity.  Let's take a look at who Jo Martin is, and what her Doctor might mean for the series.

Where you've seen Jo Martin before

Doctor Who has made greater pop culture penetration in the U.S. in its revival than it ever did in its original run in the '60s through the '80s, but it has the beating heart of an utterly British character-actor program. Jo Martin fits this bill perfectly. She has scattered character actress credits for all the biggest hits even Americans would recognize for working English actors: Casualty, Doctors, and Eastenders. 

Insofar as American releases, it might amuse you to learn Martin has a tiny prison guard role in Batman Begins — so keep an eye out for her next time you feel like revisiting it. Additionally, Martin appeared on one episode of the second season of the critically acclaimed comedy Fleabag. Most recently, she landed a recurring role on the long-running medical drama Holby City as neurosurgeon Max McGerry. 

With almost all of Martin's film and television credits being wholly British, some of them can be hard to get ahold of on this side of the pond. If you'd like to see more of her repertoire, you can find the film Been So Long on Netflix, Deadmeat on iTunes, and Holby City is available on the lesser-known streaming service Britbox.

Jo Martin is fulfilling a longtime demand from Doctor Who fans

The particular interest in seeing the Doctor depicted as anything other than a white dude (occasionally expressed by former series actors themselves) has grown in volume as the background ephemera of the show has included more diverse people, themes, and settings. Steven Moffat, previous showrunner of Doctor Who, recognized this disparity and apparently courted an unnamed Black male actor for the role sometime in 2013, but scheduling conflicts sunk the prospect and he ultimately hired Peter Capaldi for the role of the Twelfth Doctor.

Part of the reason for the increasing demand was due to the uneven history of Black people brought on as Companions to the Doctor since the series' revival. While that expansion is of course a good thing, that automatically implies a sense of diversity being forever a second-place priority within Doctor Who. Complicating that further is the way in which those Black Companions were portrayed. In both the Ninth and Tenth Doctor eras, Mickey (Noel Clarke) was a bumbling fool, openly mocked by the Doctor as his white ex-girlfriend Rose (Billie Piper) became the Doctor's most potent romantic interest in the history of the entire show. Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) was brought on as a hyper-competent, whip-smart aspiring lowercase-d doctor, but was relegated to literal second-best after Ten moped for ages over losing Rose. Finally, there was Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), the gender-blurring, openly gay, Black Companion who temporarily died, was turned into a Cyberman, and waved off-screen after her girlfriend saves her, all in relatively short order.

It's too simple and rather insulting to describe Martin's place on Doctor Who as an apology for those things — she's worthy of being there in her own right as an accomplished actress — but it does engender a lot of goodwill and acknowledgement of past mistakes.

What Jo Martin's Doctor means for future plots

Jo Martin's explosive reveal as the Doctor doesn't mean Jodie Whittaker is going anywhere soon, though she can't publicly say how long her contract is for. This isn't the first time multiple Doctors have shared the screen — after all, this is a show about time and space featuring a quasi-immortal alien that can bend those rules as she dares-slash-pleases. Exactly what Martin's iteration of the Doctor means, however, remains mysterious. 

Between the fact that Whittaker and Martin's character-that-is-the-same-person don't recognize each other and the fact that Martin's Doctor doesn't know what a Sonic Screwdriver is, Doctor Who fans are largely presuming Martin's version is backdated to the origin of the series – perhaps even before William Hartnell's time. (The Sonic Screwdriver wasn't introduced until the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton.)

Martin's Doctor could be one or a combination of many concepts. We have previous examples of Doctors physically splitting themselves (David Tennant's Ten-Too), Doctors erased from time and even their own memory (John Hurt's War Doctor), and people who have accidentally gained the powers of a Doctor and lost their own identity (Donna's freak accident that led to her departure as a Companion). However, she isn't from an alternate universe, according to showrunner Chris Chibnall.

Whatever the reason, it almost certainly ties back to the overarching mystery of Whittaker's tenure surrounding The Timeless Child — a secret so terrible, the Gallifreyan hierarchy deleted it from all Time Lords' recollection and The Master leveled his own home planet in vicious retribution when he learned its truth. Doctor Who seeks to strike at the heart of everything the Doctor has ever believed about herself and threatens to turn it all upside-down. Jo Martin won't be a one-off, and will in every way make her own indelible mark standing up with the other 14 people who hold the lofty title of the Doctor.