Is Doctor Who “Thunderingly Racist?”

In the last couple of days a media buzz has brewed up about two hot topics and how they are…

Jonathon Carley

Contributor

Dr Leela

In the last couple of days a media buzz has brewed up about two hot topics and how they are connected, Doctor Who and Racism.  A collection of essays is due to be published very soon named ‘Doctor Who and Race’, analysing as you can expect overarching themes and attitudes of racism and how the programme, first broadcast 50 years ago in 1963 is based on outdated values.  While we have seen similar arguments made against the programme on the subject of anti-feminist attitudes in ‘Doctor Who: 7 Ways to Annoy Women’, which can be found here; and is quite an interesting read, some of the snippets that have been published by the press about ‘Doctor Who and Race’, the credibility of some of the arguments is variable.  Branding the show ‘Thunderingly Racist’ is a bold statement, but is it justified?

The primary argument is the limited number of black, Asian or other ethnic actors appearing in the cast of the show and the attitudes directed at those that do.  A leading observation is made towards the casting of the Doctor and why he has always been white.  Why not an Asian or black actor?  Prior to Matt Smith’s casting, rumour was that Patterson Joseph was linked to the role of the Eleventh Doctor, however this never came into fruition.

The same argument has been made about why the Doctor has never been a woman. I’m not dismissing these arguments but the bottom line with any casting has to be, are they right for the role, be it the Doctor or any character. There have been 6 James Bonds and each time they have been cast as a white, British, male and only recently diversified by casting an actor with so much as a different hair colour. Admittedly the character of the Doctor has had twice as many openings but on each occasion the lead actor has been cast based on how they meet the vision of the role for the producer at the time.

That may sound like I’m blaming each producer, but they have made their casting decisions based on who was available, who was interested and again, who was right for it.  In recent times especially it is hard accept that the absence of a black actor as the Doctor is down to discrimination.  But conversely, caving in to pressure to cast an ethnic actor as the Doctor just to make a statement, would be a move that would please the minorities but would it be for the overall benefit of the programme?  I’m not saying an ethnic actor or actress should not be cast as the Doctor, but it should not be soley for the case of making a political statement, but considered equally for the role just as any other artist.  We mustn’t forget that we have had two scottish actors play the Doctor and Christopher Eccleston boldly chose to play the Doctor with his native accent.

Indications of changes in the times is evident in the constantly changing supporting cast.  ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ gave us an all black supporting cast with the Van Baalen brothers, series 7 has shown Clara Oswald child minding Angie and Artie Maitland at some point in most episodes and they too were given leading roles in ‘Nightmare in Silver’.  We have also had two major companions who are black, Mickey Smith and Martha Jones plus her family who appeared heavily in series 3, however the argument levelled at these characters is the Doctor’s dismissiveness to both of these.  Mickey, initially dubbed ‘Mickey the Idiot’, soon proved himself to be a hero on multiple occasions.  Martha Jones’ storyline was based around her unrequited love for the Doctor.  In these cases, the dismissiveness of the Doctor is not based on the colour of their skin, but rather in the former case because Mickey was a massive goofball, and latterly because the Doctor does not understand love in human terms and was pining for Rose.  If these characters were white, the storylines would be no different but of course without the presence of black actors the show would be wide open to heavier criticism because of this.

It is picked up on in Martha Jones’ case in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ how the Doctor dismisses her concern about her skin colour in Elizabethan England, a hint at the slave trade, which admittedly by bringing up, the show acknowledges and is enough to challenge and contrast attitudes between then and now, but this is seemingly not enough as the episode didn’t go off on a wild tangent about the Doctor on slavery and not stepping in and tackling the big issue there and then.  That is a standalone episode in itself, which the show could certainly tackle sometime, perhaps with an appearance from Abraham Lincoln?

We have also had companions in the past from Australia, America, Scotland, other worlds even.  Also aren’t we forgetting, the show is produced in Wales and has done enormous things for the exposure of Wales as a country and its people, who are themselves often unfairly overlooked.  If that isn’t diversity, I don’t know what is.

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There are some suggestions that are just baffling such as how the 5th Doctor, Peter Davison’s cricketing costume and cricket loving character implies the Doctor ‘portrayed the amateur English cricketer of the 19th Century when the game was characterised by both racial class and distinctions.’.  Amit Gupta a contributor to the collection goes on to say, ‘Cricket also had a role in maintaining the status of British imperialism through the exercise of soft power as it was successfully inculcated by the colonial elites.  Davison’s cricketing Doctor once again saw the BBC using Who to promota a racial and class nostalgia that had already outlived its validity.’ Who has ever watched the first episode of ‘Black Orchid’ and been offended by the jolly cricketing scene.  It is probably the least offensive story in the show’s history.  It’s more of a statement about the outdated values of cricket than the show as a whole.  This argument suggests every British Cricket fan is a racist.

Other arguments that carry a greater deal of weight are abound over the stories ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ where Hitler was locked in a cupboard for comedic effect rather than tackling the holocaust.  While that was a trivial presentation of one of the greatest dictators in modern history, it is probably something a little too heavy to tackle on a Saturday teatime and something that needs to be dealt with, with a lot more tact than perhaps ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ did.  Plus with World War II on the school syllabus, dramas, documentaries and the History Channel all over the media, it’s not really something that would benefit from being presented in an entertainment, tea time, drama like Doctor Who, after all, what exactly can the Doctor do?  This was the main objection the Doctor had, the fact that they couldn’t interfere with such a difficult time in history, as bad as Hitler was, which was a point that wasn’t presented as clearly as it could have been.

Another story, largely applauded by Doctor Who fans, ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ came under fire for making up actor John Bennet as Chinese showman Li H’Sen Chang.  A massively controversial move by modern standards, yet a sign of the times.  After all, the number of well known Asian actors working in TV, able to carry a leading role through 6 episodes at the time would have been a lot smaller than now, not that I’m saying there weren’t any at all, but casting for that role would have been difficult yet not entirely defendable.  That said many Asian actors were used as supporting artists in the story itself.

Finally the Doctor’s attitude to primitive societies and civilisations is slammed, broadly and specifically.  Broadly the Doctor is said to dismiss cultures less developed than his own.  Consider this is a man who can change his face, has two hearts, is from a planet that pioneered time travel and harnessed the power of black holes, fair to say he is a little bit ahead.  So more or less everyone is beneath him technologically.  So to say that he shows distain for primitive civilisations and indeed humans is unfair.  He may show frustrations at times, with the absence of articles or understandings he takes for granted, which ease as he learns about the people he meets and that their technological abilities do not define them.  This is called character development.  The Doctor once said ‘As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.’.  Leela is the specific example given on this topic, dubbed a ‘savage’ which to the Doctor she no doubt is, killing and assaulting people (which is not mentioned) but he names her this as a subversively affectionate way.  He knows full well she is much more than that and is an intelligent, brave and strong and in many ways sophisticated person who he invests great trust in, even if sometimes he disapproves of her methods.  This shows a serious misunderstanding of the character relationships and developments in the series and the message that is presented is distorted into a negative one.

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The Doctor is the representative of progress, perhaps the ultimate progress.  He has come so far and seen so much, he does at times forget that his people were once as primitive as us or Leela.  But as he travels and meets them, he learns again and understands, appreciating the value of life, people and harmony and that there are other ways of doing things to move forwards and better ourselves.  So a hostile statement about the show from Lindy Orthia who has compiled the essays on this subject ‘The biggest elephant in the room is the problem privately nursed by many fans of loving a TV show when it is thunderingly racist.’ is on shakey ground to say the least, especially suggesting that all fans are secretly aware of how racist the show is. It says more about finding a problem that perhaps isn’t there as well as holding it accountable for being created in a time when attitudes were very different.  The Doctor was never created to be a perfect character or to personify perfection to be achieved one day and how everyone and everything is beneath him, but quite the opposite.  He is flawed despite everything, always travelling, always learning, always thrilling, regardless of colour, creed or culture, anyone can be a hero, triumph over tyranny and be the very best any human being can be.  The show wouldn’t have lasted half as long without this.

Criticisms over violence, anti feminism, politics and other controversies have been levelled at the show at some point or another but it is exceptionally difficult to perceive the programme as ‘thunderingly racist’.  Although the anthology of essays has yet to be published, if the above points are anything to go by, it has a lot to do to justify the argument it is trying to make.

What do you think?  Is Doctor Who racist?  What could the show do to dispel these suggestions?  Let us know in the comments.