Rose Tyler. Martha Jones. Donna Noble. Amy Pond. Clara Oswald. Bill Potts.
And then there was … Yaz Khan.
At long last, in Doctor Who’s 57-year history and since its television revival in 2005, the Doctor is finally traveling the galaxies with the first female companion of South Asian descent and her name is Yasmin Khan, better known as Yaz!
Meet the Doctor’s new friend, Yaz #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/7WD8zCYOGm
— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) July 16, 2018
Portrayed by Mandip Gill, Yaz joined the show with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor (another major milestone) in 2018 and her significance cannot be overstated. Not only is she the first South Asian female companion to the Doctor, but she’s a Pakistani Muslim — an underrepresented identity that is often subject to poor treatment in both fictional stories and real life.
It matters a great deal that Yaz is here now playing a central role in such an iconic television series.
The First South Asian to Be a Companion
Yaz is hardly the first South Asian character on the show, which is a credit to Doctor Who’s efforts towards inclusion and diversity. Notably, the notorious Master is now being played by British-Indian actor Sacha Dhawan in his newest incarnation.
But while she may not be the first South Asian character, she is the first one to hold the coveted position as an official companion to the Doctor. And that’s what makes it such a big deal!
It is quite a powerful experience to follow Yaz along on her journey and to bear witness to her complex humanity and growth, especially when you consider her position in life as a Brown woman living in the UK. She’s fiercely independent and courageous, tremendously loyal to her friends and family, determined and hardworking in all her undertakings, and filled with compassion to no end. And yet she still has her flaws and room to grow as a person but that’s what makes her so delightfully relatable and human.
Graham’s Ode to Yaz (This speech 💔💔) #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/I8PZKIsC7L
— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) August 10, 2020
What Makes Yaz So Awesome
Much can be said about Yaz and how important her character is but here are a few highlights that offer a glimpse into who she is.
Defies Cultural Expectations
Yaz works as a junior police officer in her hometown of Sheffield, England. It’s a stable job and she’s pretty good at what she does. She’s known for her ability to deescalate tense situations and helping those in need overall. She’s got a promising future ahead of her and there’s opportunity for promotion and yet it’s this same job that she leaves behind to travel the universe with the Doctor.
Yaz Khan, played by @MandipGill. #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/8uIrlTc2dT
— Doctor Who on BBC America (@DoctorWho_BBCA) November 11, 2018
Coming from a Brown family and culture known to prioritize good careers and dismiss notions of flight of fancy, Yaz boldly defies expectations when she puts her job to the side for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the galaxies and follows her heart. Not an easy decision but she does it and for a Brown girl like her, it’s pretty damn revolutionary.
Not Your Typical Brown Narrative
Also shifting the typical narrative surrounding Brown diasporas like Yaz’s, her character is given a storyline that centers her struggle with depression and mental illness. In the episode “Can You Hear Me?”, we see Yaz in what is one of her lowest moments, lost and hopeless; but we also see her get the help she needs as others in her life come to her aid with compassion and understanding.
Not only does this powerful instance address mental health and its importance to an international audience via Doctor Who but it does so in the context of Yaz’s South Asian culture wherein mental health is so deeply stigmatized and not often spoken about. This is such a great example for Brown viewers to witness as it emphasizes that there is no shame in openly talking about mental health and it’s ok to not be ok. A vital message like this couldn’t come at a better time as we are slowly but surely destigmatizing mental health and learning to prioritize it.
Exploring Brown History
This Sunday on #doctorwho Yaz explores her Grandmas past during the partition of India 1947.
“Demons Of The Punjab “ is written by @VinayPatel and directed by @JamieRossChilds featuring my now friends @shanezaza @amita_suman @hamzajeetooa pic.twitter.com/wWQYcGKjtv
— Mandip Gill (@MandipGill) November 7, 2018
We also get to learn about her struggles with bullying, racism, and her overall experience navigating the world as a South Asian woman of Muslim faith. Particularly of note, her Pakistani heritage and history are also brought to the forefront in the episode “Demons of the Punjab”, in which we learn a little more about her family and how the 1947 Partition of India affected them.
This episode is especially impactful as it shines a light on a very significant moment in world history that is often neglected in whitewashed historical narratives. Stories centering Brown people and our histories in this way are still a rare occurrence, which makes it even more special that something as important as Partition can be highlighted via Yaz’s own family history.
Furthermore, with Yaz comes the increased normalization of her Brown family and their lives on screen, not something we see very much yet in the average TV show, and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Anyone for tea with the Khans? We've brought biscuits. #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/oUElr184Zt
— Doctor Who on BBC America (@DoctorWho_BBCA) October 25, 2018
Seeing Myself in Yaz’s Narrative
Now generations of Brown geeks who love Doctor Who, myself included, can finally look at Yaz as a main character and companion, see parts of ourselves in her and the Khan family, and even live vicariously through her on her many adventures in time and space. We too can believe that traveling through the stars is possible for us and that there is a place for us in that unforgettable blue police box (if you believe in that kind of thing). Of course, we didn’t need Yaz to assure us of these things, but having her as a visible representation of it makes a great difference.
Yaz Khan: the best person we've ever met. #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/wHSh4a1rUQ
— Doctor Who on BBC America (@DoctorWho_BBCA) March 2, 2020
I could go on about how amazing Yaz is, but the bottom line is this: Yaz’s presence undeniably opened the door even further for the inclusion and normalization of more Brown characters and stories. Now that’s a major win not only in Doctor Who history but in pop culture as a whole.