Friday 14 February 2014

Doctor Who and Race

Last May, just before Doctor Who and Race was published, elements of the British press went wild with a story about how the book decried Doctor Who as “thunderingly racist”. The reports took portions of the book and quoted them out of context to paint Doctor Who and Race as an over-the-top condemnation of the entire series, making the book look to be something quite different from what it actually is. Doctor Who and Race, edited by Lindy Orthia, is a collection of essays that do look at race in Doctor Who, but the book doesn’t set out to tear the show down. Yes, some of the essays do look at the moments of the programme that have been problematic, but calling an individual moment or story racist does not equal a condemnation of the entire series. But Doctor Who and Race looks at a lot more than just the problematic moments. It also looks at the things that Doctor Who has done right or the moments when the show has attempted things with the best of intentions but has faltered. The essays’ authors are not a group of people who despise and hate the show. Rather, these are people who show a great love for Doctor Who. Indeed, several are well-known names in Doctor Who publishing, including Robert Smith? and Kate Orman. This is a book written by fans for fans. It just happens to deal with a few things that fans might find uncomfortable.

It is true that the words “thunderingly racist” appear in the book. They appear in a sentence quoted in most of the press reports: “Accordingly, 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” (295). The sentence appears near the end of the book’s Conclusion, written by Orthia. Taken out of context, it does look a little like it’s calling Doctor Who a racist programme. However, in context, the sentence is actually referring to the difficulty of loving a show even during the moments when it is thunderingly racist. This is a big difference and it’s important that people understand this when deciding whether this is a book they want to read. Personally, I don’t want to read a book that says Doctor Who is a horrible, racist programme. However, I do want to read one that does not shy away from acknowledging when the show takes a wrong turn—and moments like those absolutely do exist.

There is no doubt in my mind that Doctor Who and Race is a very important book, and one that I think every fan should read. Admittedly, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. These are academic essays, and while there are a large variety of them (in length, style, and subject matter), they are thorough analyses of what may sometimes seem to be minor points. Many of them also don’t shy away from using some specialized academic vocabulary. People not used to this kind of writing may find the essays hard to get into (although the book does open with mostly short essays specifically to help ease people into it), but it’s worth the effort. Doctor Who and Race is important partly because it’s the first book to look specifically at the topic of race in Doctor Who. There have been books devoted to gender (such as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time), queer issues (Queers Dig Time Lords), or a plethora of other topics of critical analysis. Race has also shown up in its intersection with these other topics or in individual essays that are part of a larger work. But race has never held the sole spotlight.

However, there’s an even greater reason that makes Doctor Who and Race and books like it important. It gets us, as readers and fans, thinking about things in ways that we might not have thought about them before. It helps us to question and challenge our own beliefs and opinions. Even if we don’t agree with something the book says, it helps us to articulate, even if just to ourselves, why we don’t agree—and sometimes we might even change our own opinions, either a little or drastically. A book like this can also help teach us about things that we were unaware of or have rarely thought much about before. I know I certainly learned quite a bit about Australia from Doctor Who and Race.

I’ve always felt it important to think critically about anything I watch or read and any book that encourages that gains an immediate plus in my eyes. But beyond that, I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed Doctor Who and Race, and that’s a huge plus, too.

Doctor Who and Race is divided into five parts (plus an introduction and conclusion), each focused on a particular theme. The first two parts consist primarily of short essays of two to three pages in length. Both parts, however, end with a single longer essay. The remaining three parts consist of longer essays. As Lindy Orthia explains in the introduction, this is done “to break down the ivory tower walls policed by word counts, and to expand publishing opportunities for people who do not think in 6000-8000 word academic chunks” (6). In other words, it’s to help bring together the worlds of the academic and the more colloquial blogger, another thing I feel is hugely important. In the end, we’re all talking about the same things. We should be able to talk to each other. Orthia goes on to say, “As it happens, some of the authors who contributed short reflections are academics by profession, and some of those who contributed longer, academic-style essays are not, so the ivory tower walls are crumbling” (6).

Part I is “The Doctor, his companions and race”. The six essays in this section look at the characters of the Doctor and his companions and how race has affected their casting and/or portrayal. In particular, several of the essays look at the role of Martha Jones, often referred to as the Doctor’s first black companion (although as Linnea Dodson rightly points out in “Conscious colour-blindness, unconscious racism in Doctor Who companions”, this designation more rightly belongs with Mickey), and the often-poor handling of her existence as a woman of colour. Other essays look at the Doctor himself, either as a white man (or a character portrayed by a white actor) or, in the case of Mike Hernandez’s “’You can’t just change what I look like without consulting me!’: The shifting racial identity of the Doctor”, how the Doctor has his own unique racial identity. Also appearing in this part is Amit Gupta’s essay, “Doctor Who, cricket and race: The Peter Davison years”, which is one of the ones frequently referred to by aforementioned initial press reports. In it, Gupta draws parallels between the fifth Doctor’s cricket garb and British imperialism. It’s important to note, however, that the essay never makes the claim that this was a conscious attempt to promote colonialism (something that Doctor Who has generally opposed) or that Davison and the production crew were being intentionally racist. It merely draws attention to the unfortunate links between cricket and colonialism.

Part II looks at “Diversity and representation in casting and characterization”. The essay that perhaps most stands out in this part is Kate Orman’s “’One of us is yellow’: Doctor Fu Manchu and The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, and this is for the simple fact that it looks at the one story that most likely first comes to Doctor Who fans’ minds when someone mentions Doctor Who in conjunction with racism. Orman looks at more than just the story and its casting of a white actor to play a Chinese role (as well as its attempts to be racially aware along with its other problematic areas). She also looks at the fan reaction to the story and the attempts by fans to prove that it’s not racist in order to show that they themselves are not also racist:
Paradoxically, the intense moral opprobrium attached to calling something “racist” helps to obscure the presence of racism. If racism is anathema, then when a story we cherish contains racially charged elements, we must show that it’s not really racist—and neither are we for loving it. (85)
Lindy Orthia also quotes these same lines in the book’s Conclusion, singling out the difficulties faced when trying to discuss race and Doctor Who (or race and anything else widely loved). It also explains (although certainly doesn’t excuse) the over-the-top reactions of the press to this very book’s existence.

If I have any criticism of the essays in the first two parts, it’s only that the shorter ones often feel too short. They seem to end just as they’ve gotten started and just as they’ve piqued my interest. However, this is a pretty minor complaint, and their shortness definitely does make them a good entry opportunity for people not used to reading longer, academic essays.

The four essays of Part III discuss “Colonialism, imperialism, slavery and the diaspora”. Leslie McMurtry’s “Inventing America: The Aztecs in context” looks at how this well-loved first Doctor story attempts to be enlightened and criticize the actions of people like Cortés, but still bases its understanding of the Aztecs as a people primarily on the writing of Cortés and his contemporaries. Both Erica Foss’s “The Ood as a slave race: Colonial continuity in the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire” and John Vohlidka’s “Doctor Who and the critique of western imperialism” examine how the show has used allegory to criticize imperialism and the subjugation of other peoples. Vanessa de Kauwe’s “Through coloured eyes: An alternative viewing of postcolonial transition” is a perfect example of how the topic of race can be open to many interpretations. It looks at one of editor Lindy Orthia’s previously published essays (“’Sociopathetic abscess’ or ‘yawning chasm’? The absent postcolonial transition in Doctor Who” published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 45, 2, (2010), 207-25) and offers an alternative interpretation of the subject matter. It is, perhaps, a little unfortunate that Orthia’s essay does not appear in this book, but de Kauwe makes clear what Orthia’s points are when offering her own alternative theory.

Part IV: “Xenophobia, nationalism and national identities” opens with the essay that I found one of the most intriguing in the book, Alec Charles’s “The allegory of allegory: Race, racism and the summer of 2011”. I have to admit, it took me a little while to get into this one. The text is dense and not an easy read. However, once I adjusted to the style, I was hooked. The essay offers the fascinating suggestion that the concept of racism itself is an allegory, and thus the use of allegory (in Doctor Who or other programmes) to comment on racism is, ultimately, an allegory of an allegory, but this very fact makes the fantasy story more rational (and consequently, more validated) as the fantasy story is aware it is allegory, while racism remains unaware. The other essays in Part IV look at Doctor Who’s treatment of Nazism and World War II (Richard Scully), religion (Marcus K. Harmes), and the Australian national identity (Catriona Mills).

The final part contains three essays on “Race and science”. The one that really sticks out for me here is Rachel Morgain’s “Mapping the boundaries of race in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood”. In it, Morgain examines how even 21st-Century Doctor Who still has never allowed the Silurians to name themselves. While the show acknowledges the problem with the name “Silurians” (being scientifically inaccurate), it never offers what they call themselves, instead enforcing upon them the term, homo reptilia. Not only is this name also scientifically inaccurate, it is also still one of human creation. So while stories involving the People (as Morgain chooses to call them in absence of their own name for themselves) are generally allegories and critiques of real-world inter-racial relations, they fall into the real-world problem of western culture enforcing its own labels on other peoples. The other two essays in Part V include Kristine Larson’s “’They hate each other’s chromosomes’: Eugenics and the shifting racial identity of the Daleks” and Orthia’s own “Savages, science, stagism and the naturalized ascendancy of the Not-We in Doctor Who”.

I have not been able to mention every single essay in Doctor Who and Race (especially many of the short essays at the beginning) or even go into detail about all the ones I do mention, but that shouldn’t in any way indicate that I think of the unmentioned ones as somehow lesser. Every essay provides a little something to open up people’s minds and to get them thinking. And thinking is a good thing. Discussion and analysis are important, and Doctor Who and Race is an important book. Just because we, as fans, love something, it doesn’t mean we should shy away from discussing the parts that might make us uncomfortable. As Kate Orman says in her essay (and Lindy Orthia also quotes in the Conclusion), “because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings” (95). As Orthia concludes, “Let us then, in our love and our critique, be bold” (295).


  1. I agree completely. Doctor Who is a legend! I ordered a review of the topic of race relations here . And besides, I realized this book. All this made a huge impression on me.

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