Freema Agyeman was always going to have a difficult time with Doctor Who fans and the public. Chosen to replace the immensely popular Billie Piper as the Doctor’s companion, Agyeman had big shoes to fill when stepping into the role of Martha Jones back in 2007. She rose to the challenge, but it wasn’t always easy, in part because of racist abuse.
Agyeman debuted as Martha during Doctor Who‘s third season, David Tennant’s second year in the lead role. This period was remembered for the “Vote Saxon” storyline and viral marketing campaign, with many fans believing that the show reached new heights as it reintroduced the Doctor’s archnemesis, The Master, as played by John Simm.
Speaking at Ofcom’s Diversity in Broadcasting event as part of the UK’s National Inclusion Week, Agyeman said that her life was changed by being brought into the national spotlight, with viewership for the third season reaching almost nine million viewers at its highest point.
“It is a game changer. My life changed completely overnight.” said Agyeman, who said that she had “gone from obscurity to people knowing who you are, in a good way.”
But not everyone was pleased with the season, particularly with the casting of Agyeman as the Doctor’s first Black companion. And although Agyeman said she had a “great time” on Doctor Who, she has mixed feeling overall about her run, saying that the experience had been both “good and bad.”
What I didn’t anticipate – and maybe I was naive – was the racism from certain sectors of the fanbase. There was criticism leveled towards my contribution for other reasons, which I could handle. I could rationalize those away. I’m an artist; no one’s going to like your work all the time; people are entitled to their opinions; it’s all subjective. But the racism… yeah, I couldn’t rationalize that.
Despite the negative comments from some fans, Agyeman says that she is proud of being the first Black companion on the series, having paved the way for the likes of Pearl Mackie (Bill Potts) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
And then we aired, and I didn’t even mind that there was so much on the fact that I was the first black companion because I was. It never bothered me at all. It was something I was, and still am, so proud of.
While Doctor Who has had several Black or Asian companions since the show returned in 2005, the leading role of The Doctor has always been played by a white actor, although fans and even previous Doctors are publicly campaigning for the part to be taken by a person of color. Some of the names in the mix include Richard Ayoade, Lydia West and T’Nia Miller.