Doctor Who and Race

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Apparently a new book is out (or perhaps is about to come out), analyzing Doctor Who and race, and it has angered someone at the BBC enough that they've come out with a response to the charge that the show is "thunderously racist". The article gives no further information about the book, but a quick Google search turns up this site that seems to be intended to promote the book. This seems to be the call for papers, giving a sense of what the publisher or editor wanted the articles to be like before any of them were written.

I have two thoughts. One is that the pushback from the scifi blogs and from the BBC, pointing out ways Doctor Who is racially forward, seem to me to be generally accurate. Consider the contemporary show especially. Martha Jones was by far the most intelligent of all the recent companions, and she's black. She was a medical student, even, and she eventually became a doctor. The other recent companions have mostly been working-class women with much less education. They dealt with the inter-racial relationship of Mickey and Rose as if that were perfectly normal. There have been plenty of guest starts, and those of non-white races have not seemed to me to be remotely racially stereotypical in most cases.

There might be racially insensitive moments of the original series, reflecting those times (meaning that it's not any more racially-insensitive than anything else in those days). The show started in the 1960s, after all. There were several early serials where the reality of the available actors in the UK at the time required that they use white actors to play Aztecs or the soldiers of Genghis Khan. If you did something like that now, you'd better do it right.

Some say the SNL portrayal of President Obama by a white actor was much more successful at this than most instances of blackface. It remains to be seen whether Johnny Depp will get away with his Tonto in the Lone Ranger later this year. But in the 1960s, when the actors you had available were all or mostly white, you had to make do with what you have, and the issue is mainly not who's playing the characters but whether they act in a way that furthers harmful stereotypes. In my judgment, most such instances on Doctor Who do not, at least where I am in the series now, which is 1971, with a smattering of episodes throughout the later Doctors and then the new series through the early sixth season.

As for the claim that primitive cultures are portrayed as savages, all you need to do is look to the second serial, The Daleks, where the Thals, who had gone primitive after centuries of post-apocalyptic avoidance of technology, were anything but savage. It was The Doctor who convinced them to overcome their pacifism and fight back against the Daleks. There was even the serial called The Savages, where the idea that they were savages was held by the dominant technological society in that world but turned out to be false, and at the end they have to learn to live together in harmony. And those examples were both in the 60s.

The reality is that a long-running show like Doctor Who will eventually display the prejudices of its times, but it has many, many moments of breaking away from those, and it often has done so in creative and helpful ways, using alien races as analogies for human racial relations or for colonial or slave relations. It's perfectly legitimate to point out ways Doctor Who has assumed cultural superiority of certain groups and such, assuming it has done so in the particular cases. It's fine to point out ways the show has represented stereotypes when it has done so. But it does not do to make blanket statements based on a few individual cases about the show as a whole, especially if the current show is implicated in problems with past representations. And if you talk about Doctor Who now, it doesn't make any sense just to point to examples from decades ago.

So that's my first thought. The reaction of Doctor Who fans and the BBC to the charge of racism seems to me to be largely correct. The show doesn't seem to deserve the label "thunderously racist". The criticism seems to me to be ill-informed.

But that brings me to my second thought, which is that the knee-jerk reaction doesn't strike me as very informed either. Take a look at the call for papers, and then go to the site promoting this new book to see what the various articles in the book are actually doing. Here is a list of the main points for each chapter


1. The Tenth Doctor period is racially-inclusive but nevertheless unconsciously portrays race in ways that that negatively affect people of color. (I'm sure there's probably some of this. I might disagree with a lot of the details or with the extent to which this is true, but I'd have to read it to see.)
2. This looks at two Martha Jones episodes involving time travel, where the writers ignore how a black character would have been perceived and treated in those times. (I imagine this criticism is probably fair, up to a point. I seem to remember that one of those episodes did, in fact, address that issue.)
3. The third argues that companions of color are treated consistently worse than other companions. (If we're talking about the new show, I'd say that's ludicrous, for reasons I gave above, but I'd be open to hearing the arguments.)
4. This chapter is about the Fifth Doctor's cricket uniform and the history of cricket and race. (I'd have to say I'm unqualified to say anything about this, because I know nothing about this history, but I have to wonder if this is a stretch. Is it true that merely wearing a cricket costume is racist? I'd have to see the reasoning, but I'm skeptical.)
5. Here we have what, from the description, seems like it might be judging the show as doing something racially positive. The Doctor is an outsider, and yet he's the moral compass of the show, allowing the show to engage in self-criticism about our own society. It involves role-flipping, with the outsider running the show. There's even a parallel with Obama in the White House. (Again, maybe there's somewhat of a stretch here, but this doesn't seem to be making any obvious claim of racism in the show. It seems the reverse.)
6. The assumption here is that the Doctor is a metaphor for changing British cultural identity. Given that, it's problematic that he's always been played by white dudes. (But isn't it a bit tendentious to assume that's the primary driving force behind what the Doctor represents to begin with? Hardly a strong basis on which to rest such a sweeping criticism of the show. That can be so even if it would be nice to have a non-white Doctor at some point.)
7. Here there's some attempt to point out that the interracial relationships of the Davies era are no longer prominent under Moffat. (This one strikes me as true, but keep in mind that Moffat had one couple as companions for most of his tenure and then only one further since, and Davies had three companions over four seasons, with a number of minor characters in the recurring cast, because of how he was doing the overall story arc, and Moffat hasn't had recurring cast members at all, at least in what I've seen, and the ones I know of from later in his tenure are aliens.)
8. Davies' characters of color are more fleshed-out than Moffat's. (That's because they're ongoing characters.)
9. Asians are somewhat underrepresented on the show and how to avoid problems in cases where they did appear in the past. (Maybe on the flagship show this is true, but Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures had main characters who were Asian, and they seemed to me to be good portrayals. I assume the past mistake that takes most prominence in this chapter is The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which I haven't seen.)
10. This compares a good instance and a bad instance on the original show. (I haven't seen either story.)
11. This is simply a criticism of the use of yellowface in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. (Which again I haven't seen.)
12. This looks at The Aztecs, from the 1960s, pointing to some stuff in Christopher Columbus and other historical records that contemporary scholars disagree with but that informed the show. (I can express only ignorance on the issues in question. I think there's a tendency in scholars to downplay the bad elements of cultures that were disturbed or wiped out by white colonists, such as the Aztecs' cannibalism and human sacrifice. I have no idea if this has to do with that, in which case I'd be strongly resistant to the criticism. But for all I know it's a legitimate improvement in our understanding of the Aztecs.)
13. The treatment of the Ood as slaves is of a piece with how humanity has behaved in our actual past, and there's even reason to think we'll continue to behave this way in the future. (The first claim seems right. The second might require more argument and information than we actually have, especially given that the tendencies that have led to colonization and slavery have largely been driven in other bad directions, which is much better even if still very bad.)
14. This chapter looks at four stories in the original series that dealt with colonization themes, immigration, and the fall of the British empire through analogical portrayals of other, similar, situations, arguing that the different stories reflect different (and inconsistent) attitudes about these issues. (I haven't seen any of these stories, but the idea that different themes in different directions are represented in stories from different writers at different times is certainly plausible.)
15. This seems to be a criticism of certain critiques of apparent stereotypes as ignoring the perspective of the post-colonized peoples of post-colonial societies. I think the idea here is that the debris left over after colonization is gone leave a more complex situation that analyses of stereotypes can give you, and it takes having such a perspective to see certain things. (I have seen the serial in question, but I'd have to see the details of the proposal to see if it seems right to me. But that serial seems to me to represent a common phenomenon identified by Miroslav Volf in his Exclusion and Embrace. The oppressed group manages to free themselves and then oppresses the oppressor. I'm not sure how the author of this chapter handles that theme or any other. I liked the serial and had a moderately positive impression of what it was doing as social commentary, so I'm curious whether the author is getting at something similar or something very different.)
16. This has to do with one season of Doctor Who and one season of Torchwood, arguing that certain views of race riots in the UK in summer 2011 (from right-wing media and from these seasons of these two shows) lead to the view that race is an illusion. (I have no basis on which to evaluate this, not having seen either season of either show and not being privy to the particular media commentary.)
17. This looks at the Nazi-Dalek analogy, arguing that the analogy has more been driven by entertainment values and a need for portraying the Daleks as the ultimate evil than any desire to get the Nazis right. (Terry Nation really did have fascism in mind with the Daleks, as I understand it, but I don't think he meant to portray the Nazis specifically. It's certainly true that over time other writers played fast and loose with the analogy, but I think Nation himself was interested in drawing the parallel between fascism in the Daleks more directly, even if it wasn't always his main concern. There's probably a lot of historical importance here, but it's only indirectly about race, I would guess, and I'm not in any position to guess about the details without reading it.)
18. This looks at English ethnicity and the Church of England as racial identities, pointing out ways a few stories challenged the notion of English identity. (I haven't seen these particular stories, so I can't comment on how accurate it is to them. The idea that English identity is particularly racial rather than ethnic seems to me to be a mistake, however, and is probably put that way to justify its inclusion in this book. I do note that this description seems to treat the show in a positive way.)
19. This chapter analyzes short fiction in the extended Doctor Who universe written by Australians about the Doctor in Australian locales to look at Australian identity. (This is not about the show at all, and I know little about the issues it deals with. But it doesn't seem to be clearly negative about the fiction it looks at.)
20, This looks at the Daleks and eugenics. (Nothing here negative about the show, judging by the description.)
21. A look at militarism, xenophobia, and other issues raised by the various Silurian episodes. (Seems to recognize what the author sees as forward thinking in the show. Again, nothing here critical of the show.)
22. A criticism of the notion of stages of progress from savagery to civilization, the notion that it's wrong for time travelers or interplanetary travelers to interrupt the natural evolution of this progress, and the role such ideas play in legitimizing the European Enlightenment and the assumptions of Western superiority today. (I imagine I'd agree with much of this, especially the parts that would apply to the Star Trek Prime Directive. Most of the moral grounds given to defend such a notion seem to me to be ludicrous, and a particular Enterprise episode stands out in my mind as just plain awful on that issue. In Doctor Who, however, often the reason not to interfere is because the past shouldn't be changed. In the early days, e.g. The Aztecs, it's more that it metaphysically cannot be changed, which is the right reason, although not a moral reason not to act, but simply a reason not to try to change what you know to be true about the past, but they quickly departed from that in later First Doctor episodes, only to return to it occasionally, e.g. in Blink, where the episode makes sense only if the past cannot be changed.)

I'm sure different people will evaluate the success of these various discussions of the show differently, depending on their views of race (and not just on their views of the show). But it seems to me to be wildly inaccurate to what the book is about to claim that the book accuses the show of being racist. Some chapters, indeed many chapters, point to problematic elements in the show, especially the original show. Some of these are serious criticisms. Others are much more minor. But most of them don't reach anything like the idea captured by "thunderously racist". Presumably one of the authors did use that expression, but it's as unfair to this book to attribute it to the book as a whole as it is to the show to attribute its most problematic racial elements over the years to the entirety of the show or to miss the complexity of all the good racial thinking the writers have done (and have promoted among viewers). The book seems to be a mix of different views on the show, some positive, some negative, and some mixed. As we should expect of critical race scholars, more is negative than positive, but much of the negative is nothing like how the media articles and blog posts I've seen have portrayed the book. So it's hard for me to express much outrage at this, even if I think some of the treatments are overstated or even outright wrong. It looks like a decent scholarly work, worth engaging with, worth considering, and at times worth critiquing.

1 Comments

I'm a big, big, big Doctor Who fan, especially the modern one and especially under Davies, and I find the charges related to Martha's character ridiculous. They correctly pick up on something, that Martha is not treated as well as other companions. However, it's not because she's black, she's just not Rose Tyler. They bring attention to the fact that she's not blonde like Rose (or her father's girlfriend). For he who has ears to hear you can tell that we are supposed to see the Doctor's treatment of her as his biggest mistake. He didn't treat her as she deserved. We are supposed to recognize that Martha got a raw deal.

Also, as you correctly note, she is by far the most capable companion. There's absolutely no denigration of her on account of her race.

In the two episodes with Martha in past history, one clearly deals with the issue of race (Family of Blood) and it's one I've wanted to spend more time on. I think they're making a political statement of some sort, I just can't tell exactly what it is - but it certainly casts racism negatively. The second is the Shakespeare Code and there the Doctor dismisses Martha's fears of facing racism. I could see how that line could offend, but I view it as more of a mistake (and the intent I think is specifically to paint Shakespeare as open-minded than to make a sweeping generalization about 16th and 17th century London) on Davies part than a pattern worthy of crucifixion.

You also nail your point in discussion of the Ood. The episodes are clearly arguing against colonialism and are overtly opposing the oppression of the poor and weak in southeast Asia that is currently happening. It also, in my opinion, subverts notions of value based on capability or status (when brought into conversation with the Robots of Death episode). I think it's a beautiful story of liberation.

Perhaps Davies "fault" isn't being more overt in his opposition to racism? Davies is gay and most of his career has been spent writing about that. Clearly, that's the agenda he's pushing, especially with Captain Jack (Moffat is even more overt here). Regardless of how one feels about the agenda he chose, does he have to push everyone's agenda?

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