We Need Heroes Who Can Remind Us That Heroism Is Fun

Ever since Ncuti Gatwa was named as the latest star of Doctor Who, I’ve been watching compilation videos of Gatwa’s performance in the Netflix series Sex Education and getting more and more convinced that Gatwa will bring a whole new, much-needed energy to Who.

Gatwa has an immediate star quality, absolutely owning the screen in a way that feels immaculately GIFable. I’ve become enthralled by his manic turn as Sex Education’s Eric, a young queer person dealing with crushes, budding sexuality and friendship, along with homophobia. I can’t help imagining Gatwa bringing the same infectious, twinkling energy to the role of the Doctor. And most of all, I can tell that he’s going to have loads of fun with the part—and we need heroes who are having fun, now more than ever.

Our fictional heroes are usually at their best when we can tell they’re enjoying a life of adventure. Lately, we’ve had plenty of heroes who mope and sulk and complain about the burden of heroism, including a parade of gloomy Batmen. What I’m craving right now is heroes who save the world with a smile on their face.

To be sure, part of my jubilation at Gatwa’s casting stems from his status as the first Black actor to star in the series. (Jo Martin recently guest starred as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, but she never got to star in her own adventure.) We all deserve to see ourselves as time traveling wizards, and we can’t build a better world in the future unless our children can see varied images of heroism in the present. But I would be thrilled about Gatwa regardless, after seeing the irrepressible energy he brought to playing Eric. It’s easy to envision him cracking jokes with total aplomb, as he dashes along the show’s trademark gunmetal corridors, pursued by some monstrous beastie.

I feel like one of the things Doctor Who needs right now is a massive infusion of joie de vivre—no shade to the current creative team, but after a very upbeat first season, Jodie Whitaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has been seeming increasingly glum and depressed, as she’s struggled to make sense of a series of baffling revelations about her own past.

Indeed, Doctor Who has survived this long but encompassing a wide variety of tones. But my favorite times in the history of the show have been those when the Doctor seems to be having a grand old time—no pun intended—facing down evil tyrants with a cheeky grin. One of my favorite quotes from the series comes from the 1973 story “The Time Warrior,” in which the Doctor is asked “Are you serious?” The Time Lord responds, “About what I do, yes. Not necessarily about the way I do it.”

Back in 2008, when I first met brilliant TV writer and all-around creator Javi Grillo-Marxuach, I interviewed him about The Middleman, his graphic novel-turned-TV show. And he told me that The Middleman was standing against “the idea that heroism is ultimately tragic, which I think is the dominating trope of most scifi shows that I watch.” He added:

Doctor Who is an example of a show that doesn’t go there that much, a show that doesn’t say being heroic will destroy your life. Doing the right thing will not kill you, will not destroy your friends. A lot of popular culture insists on sort of a pornography of despair.

Meanwhile, I’ve been loving Anson Mount’s performance as Captain Christopher Pike, first in Star Trek: Discovery and now in the spin-off show Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. In spite of a grim storyline where Pike is faced with a vision of his own future, Mount has brought what I can only describe as glee to being the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, reveling in the opportunity to boldly go where no one has gone before.

The original Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, was a sulky sad sack who did nothing but complain about how much he hated having the best job in the universe. All that adventure and exploration, all the amazing new discoveries and chances to make a real difference, are just a major drag. Hunter’s Pike wants nothing more than to quit Starfleet and ride horses. Or maybe he could go into business as an Orion trader. (Hearing this, Dr. Boyce is startled: “You, an Orion trader, dealing in green animal-women slaves?” And instead of responding that of course he would never dream of becoming a slave trader, Pike replies that this is just one option he’s considering.)

So it’s especially bracing to see Mount’s version having the time of his life. Not only that, but you can tell that this new Pike’s joyful heroism rubs off on the rest of his crew, who all radiate pluck.

There is a great power in standing up for what you believe in, in the face of fear and doubt and misery. But when our heroes can fight joyfully, instead of dourly, it’s even more inspiring because it reminds us that doing the right thing can be enriching and can bring us happiness, even when it comes at a cost. Doctor Who has always been a show that reminds us to take pleasure in saving the day— and I’m very excited to see Ncuti Gatwa continue that tradition.

This article was originally published at Happy Dancing, Charlie Jane Anders’ newsletter, available on Buttondown.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater Than Death and Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, the first and second books in a new young-adult trilogy, along with the recent short story collection Even Greater Mistakes. She’s also the author of Never Say You Can’t Survive (August 2021), a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, the Boston Review, Tor.com, Tin House, Teen Vogue, Conjunctions,Wired Magazine, and other places. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

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