So it’s happened. Matt Smith, the latest incarnation of everyone’s favorite Time Lord, will be leaving Doctor Who at the end of the year. Goodbye to the Fezes and Stetsons. Oh, and did you hear there’s a book coming out that calls the series “thunderously racist?” Ruh-roh! Get ready for some Racey-Wacey-Timey-Wimey stuff.
Art courtesy of Geek News Network.
On Matt Smith…
When I heard the news of his impending departure I mustered up a curious, “huh.” That was really about it. I was one of those who took a while to get used to Smith’s quirky role as the Eleventh Doctor. Tell the truth, I was crestfallen at the loss of the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, who I thought did a superb job, likely the best of the so-called “Nu-Who” Doctors after the franchise return in 2005. Not that I didn’t like Smith. He grew on me eventually–especially his take on a darker Doctor who could go from quacky to frightfully quick-tempered in a moment.
But tell the truth, I had grown weary of some of the Eleventh Doctor plot lines. I know this isn’t polite to say among Whovians, but the Ponds were endearing until they became insufferable. When they jumped off that building, a part of me was sad. Another said, thank God. I can accept plunger-terrifying Daleks, but android Rory who sits through time for 2,000 years as a Centurion and comes out the other end essentially “the same guy” (no real personality change after experiencing 2,000 years of existence guarding a friggin’ box containing his catatonic girlfriend) is just a bit much to swallow.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the past few seasons with Matt Smith have been a total wash. I thought overall he did make a good Doctor. There were parts of the Ponds storyline that I liked, such as the indomitable River Song. Got to see lots of Weeping Angels. And the introduction of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax was pure genius. (Get them a spin-off already!) Still, something has been “off” lately with the series under the direction of former writer Steven Moffat, who has turned the show into a fairy tale fantasy full of “timey-wimey” stuff–less than some interesting space-time bending science fiction. And that’s not necessarily bad once in a while; but every episode can’t have the sentimentality and depth of a Christmas Special. I had hoped the addition of the Impossible Girl Clara Oswald, whose introduction was handled well, would cure whatever has been ailing the series of late. But so far, no such luck.
The departure of Matt Smith however leaves open some interesting possibilities. Despite all the rumors of Moffat stepping down as show runner, seems he’s going to be here a bit longer. And with Smith gone, this leaves open the biggest question for Whovians–just who is going to become the new Doctor?
Let’s get racey-wacey….
Everyone familiar with Gallifreyan physiology, knows that Time Lords regenerate–meaning the Doctor we’ve been seeing since the show’s origin has essentially been the same guy, only with different faces and personalities. So far the only thing all of these different Time Lords have had in common, is that they regenerate completely as white males with British accents. While we’re reminded quite often that Gallifreyans are an alien species with two hearts, they seem to take whiteness, masculinity and Englishness as a default.
This past week, before the Matt Smith news was released, websites were abuzz about a new book called Doctor Who and Race. What leaped out at you in the articles was that the book called the show “thunderously racist” for outdated portrayals of non-Western cultures, what it termed a “dismissive” attitude towards the Doctor’s black companions and the lack of diversity in the role of the Doctor. In the typical knee-jerk reactions of the geek-o-sphere whenever race or gender comes up, Whovians came out of the wood works, declaring such a claim preposterous. Naturally, some fans took to sending out racist and sexist tweets about the whole affair. Because nothing says “hey don’t call that thing I love racist,” than then using racism in its defense. Brilliant. Some however, managed to keep it classy, merely clutching their pearls and retiring to their fainting couches to show their outrage. David Wharton over at the usually sensible Giant Freakin Robot, takes the prize for perceived white male umbrage–declaring the entire notion of Doctor Who having racist overtones as something out of the satirical Onion.
Describing the very title of the book as “ominous” (because any discussion of race supposedly scares the beejeezus out of Wharton worse than the Vashta Nerada), he calls the question of why there hasn’t been a Doctor of color “dumb” and those who bring it up a bunch of self-righteous “nimrods with too much time on their hands.” He then gives us such brilliant gems as “how about we just let the show focus on finding the right actors,” and tells the critics until they’ve managed the Herculean task of tackling every other white male lead in science fiction, they’re being unfair and mean with their “angry letter writing” on Doctor Who. He’s so funny, he notes wryly that Superman has never been played by a “Chirpa, Aborigine or Sioux”–because ethnic groups with a history of genocidal treatment always work very well when making jokes about claims of racism. Somebody graduated Whitesplaining 101, with honors.
But he’s in decent company. BBC itself responded swiftly, calling the claims by the book “ridiculous,” attempting to paint the authors of the work as out-of-touch extremists, and trotting out the show’s once recurring black figures as examples of diversity–all TWO of them. Yes. Two. As in there’s one. And oh look, there’s another one–Freema Agyeman and Noel Clarke, who played the Tenth Doctor’s companion (Martha Jones) and sorta-companion (Mickey Smith). David Wharton over at GFI is certain to depict Martha Jones front and center on his post, stating that he never saw the show treat the black characters as “dismissive.” And even if Mickey was sometimes the butt of a joke, the Doctor was more concerned with “the content of his character, not the color of his skin.”
Protip. BBC, if someone from a marginalized group tells you they see some form of racism or bias in your fictional work, do NOT trot out your TWO examples of diversity. It’s the equivalent of saying “but my best friend is black,” except in this case, YOU created your only fictional black friends (all TWO of them) and are using them in defense. Mr. Wharton, do not, under any circumstances, quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make a point in which you are being dismissive about claims of racism. It’s kinda disgusting.
So what’s the verdict on Doctor Who’s racey-waceyness? Complicated. For most of the show’s history, it has been extraordinarily white–with a few glimpses of color, but mostly marginal. Unless you count the hilarious spoof of the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation on the The Real McCoy comedy show, featuring some indignant yardie Cybermen. And that entire satire seems to have been finding a way to poke fun at Doctor Who’s cultural myopia.
The book in question seems to cover the full length of the series, where I can recall a few episodes with questionable portrayals of non-European cultures or their symbolic alien stand-ins. As the book recalls, the first episode ever of Doctor Who gave us quotes like “the savage mind” of the “Red Indian.” And what about that famous “Mighty Kublai Khan” episode? Umm, I think your Mongol Emperor is a white dude in yellowface. That’s gotta be worth at least an article.
Of course, Nu-Who has managed to throw in a good deal of background diversity. The worlds visited by the Doctor and his companions aren’t always lily white any longer (when they’re humanoid). And neither is Britain for that matter, which is shown as a multicultural society. The future also boasts diversity, with an episode of an Earth where India seems to be the preeminent world power and in the 31st century the Queen of England is a woman of partial African descent. Yeah, it only took a thousand years, but who can front on Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth X declaring, “I’m the bloody queen mate!” Doctor Who also can say it has the first inter-species lesbian relationship, in Madame Vastra and Jenny. Then there was all that was going on with Captain Jack Harness–definitely transcendent.
But such recent valiant attempts doesn’t place the several decades of Doctor Who above criticism. And there’s still much to quibble with in its modern-day form. Mickey Smith’s barrier breaking role was always bittersweet. Here was the first major black character in the series, but there was something “discomforting” in watching the sidekick to the sidekick bumbling around as a lovesick puppy. He seemed less companion and more K-9, the Doctor’s mechanical pet. Even actor Noel Clarke, who played Mickey, admitted that he began as little more than a “clown.” There’s an episode where he seems to realize what we queasily suspected all along. “Oh my god,” Mickey says,” I’m the tin dog.” The only saving grace was that Clarke was allowed to mature the character into a hero later on in the series, something black actors and actresses have long been forced to do.
Then there are the ways in which Doctor Who at times simultaneously creates diversity, without any of the “messiness” of dealing with issues of race/difference–at least not our real world varieties. So it makes it at once refreshing to see black faces among 18th century French courtesans (which was not out of the question) or in 1930s New York, but oddly unrealistic that they aren’t troubled by a hint of racism or bias. Then again, Vastra–all horny ridges and green scales–is running around Victorian England covered up with little more than a veil. Who exactly is she supposed to be fooling??? Cue the talk of a perception filter in 3, 2…
Probably the laziest introduction of race has Martha Jones and the Doctor popping into 16th century Europe in the Nu-Who “The Shakespeare Code.” She asks the Doctor: “Am I alright? I’m not going to get carted off as a slave or anything?” The Doctor, ever clueless, replies, “Why ever would you think that?” Martha fills him in: “Well, not exactly white, in case you hadn’t noticed.” The Doctor retorts dismissively: “Well, I’m not exactly human. Just walk round like you own the place, always works for me.” Turns out that does the trick. Except for being called a Moor every now and then, Martha’s race problems are solved. Turns out racism and slavery–just a state of mind. Silly Negro! It’s all in your head! Doctor knows best!
The one Nu-Who exception I can recall that manages to at least address racism (and class) as an issue, is the episode “Human Nature,” where Martha Jones plays a maid for snooty prep school blue bloods. Along with derogatory statements made towards a lower class white serving woman, they also make a singular derogatory remark about Martha’s skin color. Otherwise, the Doctor manages to transcend time and space but never arrives in the midst of such horrors of racial exploitation like the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Certainly, in its extolling of all things English, the Doctor never has to deal with anything like British Empire and colonialism–or at least it doesn’t appear to come up while he and Queen Victoria are running from werewolves. Rather, all such thorny matters are left to abstract symbolism like Ood or anti-imperial episodes like “The Monster of Peladon.” The Doctor is the epitome of triumphant western humansim, with all its arrogance, self-proclaimed superiority and blindness.
So yeah, there’s a lot regarding issues of “difference” in the Who-verse a book like Doctor Who and Race can tackle. They’re certainly not the first to do so. One of Doctor Who’s initial directors, Waris Hussein, has spoken out numerous times on the issues of gender, race, ethnicity and difference that confronted him in the early series. It seems the First Doctor, William Hartnell, was a stuffy Englishman who was a bit concerned about working with womenfolk on screen, much less blacks and East Asians on the set. Heck, we could spend a great deal of time analyzing the role of Ping-Cho.
And what about that “thunderously racist” comment? Turns out, as the editor of the book has stated, that quote may have been “taken thunderingly out of context.” Because guess what, NO ONE HAS READ THE BOOK. That’s right, the book that has the likes of David Wharton shivering beneath his covers like a young Amelia Pond, hasn’t even been released yet. Some have decided to merely take that one quote and run with it, perhaps as a way to poison the well of discussion before it’s even begun. Preemptive war. How typically Sontaran.
In a recent blog post called, Don’t Judge till it’s published, the book’s editor Lindy Orthia tries to set the record straight:
…my sentence that has often been bandied about this week – “perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is the problem, privately nursed by many fans, of loving a television show even when it is thunderingly racist” – has been taken thunderingly out of context. In the book this sentence comes towards the end of my conclusion chapter, in a section which discusses the fact that many people who study Doctor Who are also fans, and so are personally invested in what they study and write. The sentence is not stating that Doctor Who is thunderingly racist. The sentence is saying that fans often feel inner conflict at those times when Doctor Who has moments of racism, because we love the show but don’t love racism. An example is the Doctor’s line in Doctor Who’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, in which he talks about ‘the savage mind’ of ‘the Red Indian’ – the episode may be 50 years old, but we still watch it today, and the line still sits uncomfortably because of its casual racism. My reflection on this is simply asking how we should best deal with that discomfort.
Yep. Nothing like getting yer knickers in a bunch over some straw men, and not the cool kind like the ones who chased the Doctor in “Family of Blood,” but the silly meaningless kind. Orthia goes on to point out that it’s incorrect to reduce the book to merely a criticism of Doctor Who. Rather, it’s meant to further discussion, “because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings.”
And that brings us back to the beginning. With the coming departure of Matt Smith, we’re going to be due for a Twelfth Doctor. Who will take that role? Another quirky, quacky white Englishman? How about a quirky, quacky Englishwoman? And no, Donna Noble does not count. Don’t make me feed you to the Face of Boe. Or how about a quirky, quacky English Black or Asian man? Or woman? Certainly, unless one were to believe the tired excuses for white-washing, there are enough actors and actresses good enough for the role beyond the recent trend in young skinny white dudes. Chances are, I’ll continue to watch the Doctor–no matter who takes up the role. But it would go a long way if after endless eons of white male regenerations, our hero decided it was time for a bit of diversity.
Because even Time Lords have to catch up with time, eventually.
Well done. Balanced, fair and completely on the mark. You don’t have to have read the book to notice something was a bit off. As far as I am concerned, Martha Jones was a GREAT character and a far more useful companion than Rose Tyler. (No matter what other more biased Whovians think).
I really enjoyed this thought-out post, reflecting on race in Doctor Who. It gave me a lot to think about that I hadn’t really thought about before.
The quote you shared reminded me of my reaction to reading Peter Pan and the way “Red Indians” were depicted there. I felt uncomfortable reading when it basically said Peter Pan was a great leader for them, or something to that effect, amongst other things. And since I was reading it to my son, I didn’t really know how to handle talking to him about such things.
Also agreed with you about Matt Smith’s storylines. I watched them, but I was growing increasingly “meh” with them. I liked a few episodes here and there, and the cross-species lesbian relationship you mentioned, but I’m ready for the show to go somewhere new again.
This piece was cogent, wertiwl-lten, and pithy.