Doctor Who has a long-standing problem with diversity, and the pre-credits sequence in the second 60th anniversary special is a perfect example. The TARDIS careening out of control, the Doctor and Donna Noble find themselves facing Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, played with great aplomb by Nathaniel Curtis, an actor with an English mother and an Indian father. And this represents a problem.
To be clear, the problem is not that Nathaniel Curtis was cast in Doctor Who. The problem is that instead of being cast as a historical figure from the area of India/Pakistan, he joined the ranks of race-swapped British historical figures. And this is just the latest example of a strange geographical myopia the show has displayed for decades in the original series and in the revival under Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat — despite the TARDIS being able to travel anywhere at any time in history, when it comes to Earth it is almost invariably somewhere in Britain, Europe, or America.
This is not a problem that existed in Doctor Who’s foundational years. Under Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert, the original concept of the show was that it would alternate between historical stories and science fiction. Doctor Who used this as a carte blanche to explore world history. In the first season alone, the TARDIS crew travelled the Silk Road to China (“Marco Polo”), visited ancient Meso-America (“The Aztecs”), and got caught up in Revolutionary France (“The Reign of Terror”) — in fact, the only episode set in England in the entire first season was the pilot. The second season found the TARDIS visiting ancient Rome (“The Romans”) and the Holy Land during the Third Crusade (“The Crusades”). The third season went to the Trojan War (“The Mythmakers”), ancient Egypt (“The Daleks’ Master Plan”) and 16th Century France (“The Massacre”).
The coming of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor marked the formalization of a gradual change in format — throughout the Hartnell years, the number of historical adventures had been going down while the number of science fiction stories increased. But the Earthbound stories still maintained an international scope. The Great Intelligence made its debut in a story set in 1930s Tibet (“The Abominable Snowmen”), and the TARDIS crew was swept up into a political drama in Australia (“The Enemy of the World”).
With Jon Pertwee stepping onto the role of the Third Doctor came massive changes. The show was produced and aired in colour for the first time, the Doctor was exiled to Earth, allowing the show to take on an ensemble cast, and it also lost the international scope it had maintained during the 1960s. Other countries may have been mentioned during Jon Pertwee’s run, but they were never visited on screen. This did not change until Tom Baker took over the role, and the TARDIS visited renaissance Italy in season 14 (“The Masque of Mandragora”). Whenever the TARDIS was located on Earth between 1970 and 1975, it would be somewhere in Britain.
The visit to Italy in 1976 was the start of a minor change that continued with the beginning of Season 17 — “City of Death” took the TARDIS crew to present-day Paris. But the TARDIS wouldn’t travel outside of England again until 1983, when the Fifth Doctor visited Amsterdam (“Arc of Infinity”), and once more the next year to the Canary Islands (“Planet of Fire”). The Classic series would travel abroad one more — and final — time in 1985, when Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor visited Spain (“The Two Doctors”).
The revival of the series under Russell T. Davis saw a higher budget and better production values, but retained a similar geographical myopia to the Classic series after 1970. The furthest afield the Ninth Doctor travelled was America (“Dalek”). There was a mention of an adventure in Feudal Japan, but this was never seen on screen (“Boom Town”).
However, while the myopia was similar, the TARDIS crew did travel abroad. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor visited France (“The Girl in the Fireplace”), New York (“Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks”), and ancient Pompeii (“The Fires of Pompeii”), but these episodes took place once per season, and were outnumbered by episodes set in Britain. Steven Moffat was a marked improvement — under his watch, Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor visited Venice (“The Vampires of Venice”) and France (“Vincent and the Doctor”) in season 5, along with America (“The Impossible Astronaut”/“Day of the Moon”) and Nazi Germany (“Let’s Kill Hitler”) in season 6. Season 7 brought the TARDIS twice to America (“A Town Called Mercy” and “The Angels Take Manhattan”) and once to a Soviet submarine under the north pole (“Cold War”). But, while Europe and America were visited, the rest of the world was conspicuous in its absence. There were no adventures to Asia, Africa, or South America.
The Eleventh Doctor was also the high point for international TARDIS travel under Steven Moffat. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor didn’t venture outside of England until season 9, when he visited Viking-age Scandinavia (“The Girl Who Died”). Season 10 was an improvement, with the Doctor visiting Eastern Europe (“The Pyramid at the End of the World”) and a brief trip to the United States (“Empress of Mars”). To give credit where it is due, Moffat’s final story involved travel to Antarctica and the Great War’s Western Front (“Twice Upon a Time”). But the visit to Antarctica in the final story was the farthest afield either Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat took the TARDIS crew on-screen. Everything else was regional to Europe with a few trips to the United States.
For all of the writing and storytelling issues the series suffered under Chris Chibnall, it was under Chibnall that Doctor Who regained the international perspective that had been part of its foundation. For the first time since William Hartnell, there were at least as many Earthbound stories set abroad as there were set in Britain, with the TARDIS crew once again travelling to Asia, and for the first time travelling to South America. Season 11 brought the TARDIS to America (“Rosa”), the border of India and Pakistan (“Demons of the Punjab”), and Norway (“It Takes You Away”). Season 12 brought the TARDIS to America (“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”), had an adventure that shared its time between Peru, Hong Kong, and Madagascar (“Praxeus”), went to Aleppo in Syria (“Can You Here Me?”) and Lake Geneva in Switzerland (“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”). Season 13 brought the TARDIS crew to the Crimea (“War of the Sontarans”) and the Great Wall of China (“Survivors of the Flux”). Chibnall’s final set of specials returned to China (“Legend of the Sea Devils”) and took the TARDIS to Russia and Naples (“The Power of the Doctor”).
Chibnall’s era as showrunner represents a high point for Doctor Who in terms of diversity — diversity of location, diversity of cultures explored, and diversity of people the TARDIS crew encounters. It shrugged off the geographical myopia that left the TARDIS never travelling too far afield of the British Isles, and made the adventures worldwide. It was not a shallow display of virtue signalling, but actual proper diversity.
Unfortunately, despite better writing, the casting of Nathaniel Curtis as Sir Isaac Newton is a warning sign that the geographical myopia has returned. Curtis is a talented actor who could have been used to portray a significant historical figure such as the Buddha or Ghandi. The TARDIS could have crash landed somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. But, it didn’t — it went with a well-known British historical figure, and wasted Curtis in the process.
And the tragedy of this is that Doctor Who could have done so much better. The geographical diversity under Chibnall combined with the writing of Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat would be spectacular. And the world is filled with untouched historical events for the TARDIS crew to explore. It can — and should — be travelling to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It should be using the UK’s diversity of actors to explore the world as only Doctor Who could, not wasting them in shallow race-swapping.