With episodes featuring Rosa Parks and the 1947 partition of India, this season of Doctor Who has reached back into history to tell some of the most racially charged stories of the 20th century. It has been a throwback to the show’s original educational roots – but has raised questions about how Doctor Who has handled race both on and off-screen in the past.
Devised in 1963 to bridge the gap on a Saturday afternoon between the sports results and the evening’s TV schedule, creator Sydney Newman always envisaged that Doctor Who would have “a high educational content” and be as much about exploring earth’s past as it was about exploring the universe. William Hartnell’s original Doctor met Marco Polo, Nero and King Richard I among others.
With Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, new head writer Chris Chibnall seems to have deliberately re-amplified that educational purpose. But both episodes have been notable for other off-screen reasons. Incredibly, with nearly 300 Doctor Who stories having made it to screen over the last 55 years, acclaimed children’s author Malorie Blackman is the first black writer the show has ever had, while award-winning Vinay Patel is the first writer of Asian descent to contribute a story.
The approach has not been without criticism, though. Last week the Jeremy Vine show asked “Has Doctor Who become too politically correct?” while Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun, despite saying he hasn’t “watched Dr Who since I was a small boy”, claimed falling ratings were due to the show trying to indoctrinate viewers with lefty dogma. (The current version of Doctor Who is the most popular in a decade.)
There is much to be applauded in the approach taken this year, though, as a sign that the show is attempting to get to grips with how Doctor Who has dealt with race and racism in the past. Earlier this year streaming service Twitch showed most of Doctor Who’s original 1963 to 1989 episodes back-to-back, and it only served to illustrate for a modern audience how the original series had been almost exclusively cast as white people. With the occasional exception of characters like Earl Cameron’s astronaut in The Tenth Planet or Carmen Munroe’s Fariah in The Enemy of the World, there are very few black actors on screen. And when they are, they often fall into the trope of being silent strongmen.
It isn’t only the “classic” era of the series that has prompted questions about Doctor Who’s on-screen portrayal of race. Turn Left (2008) is a story that I absolutely love – but it is framed by the trope of inscrutable and mysterious Asian fortune-tellers, in scenes which a British-Chinese friend of mine has described as painfully unwatchable.
The climax of Peter Capaldi’s final season, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, has also been criticised for the racial subtext on display. In the story, companion Bill is converted to being a Cyberman, and then is told by the Doctor to exercise self-control for the rest of the story to avoid firing the weapons built into her new body. Mel Perez critiqued that approach in a brilliantly thoughtful review of the episode. “I can’t ignore the optics of a white man telling a black woman who is justifiably upset to not get angry because now her anger is dangerous,” she wrote. “I can’t ignore the optics of having a black woman sleep in the barn because she frightens the children … This is our history and this is our present without the excuse of being a Cyberman.”
Some of the established symbolism of the show also looks different through a modern lens. Last month, Constance Gibbs, writer and editor at Black Girls Create and contributor to the Time and Relative Blackness in Space podcast, wrote a thoughtful explanation of how, to white children in the 1960s, a Police Box offering urgent help would have appeared as a welcome sight. That is not, she argued, how it would look to members of the BAME community – and as the show has internationalised its fanbase, especially not to African-Americans in a time of #BlackLivesMatter. “Police officers aren’t a source of comfort, safety and respect in the black community, and many others. The word ‘police’ instills fear,” she wrote. “The word ‘police’ conjures memories of men in uniform murdering black people for doing as little as selling loose cigarettes – or holding a wallet, violating traffic laws, jaywalking, take your pick.”
The new Doctor who cast, from L-R, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Jodie Whittaker and Tosin Cole.
The argument that Doctor Who has suddenly become “woke” or is pursuing a new SJW agenda is nonsense, of course. If nothing else, the Doctor has always been a warrior for social justice. Fighting for the underdog and righting wrongs by peaceful, intelligent means are the essential ethos of the show. This brilliant list of 130 times Doctor Who was just “too PC” prior to Whittaker’s casting shows how much the show’s history has been shaped that way.
It didn’t always get things right in the past. The casting of John Bennett in yellowface as a stereotypical Chinese villain Li H’sen Chang was an extreme low. Likewise, did Mickey Smith, Danny Pink, Clyde Langer and Ryan Sinclair – the four most prominent young black male characters to feature in the Doctor Who universe – all have to come from some form of broken home with an absent father? A more diverse writing team may have at least noticed that recurring pattern.
But the show should also take care with this approach. It is brilliant to have a black woman writing about the actions of one of the most famous and impactful black women of the 1950s. It is brilliant to have a talented playwright of Asian descent addressing the way Britain treated India after the end of the second world war – and to avoid the jolly old heroic imperial Churchill cliché we saw on screen in Matt Smith’s time. But are we in danger of seeing a Doctor Who that hires writers of colour when it wants to tell stories of colour, and nothing else? I guess we’ll find out when the roster of writers for the next, seemingly delayed, season is announced.
At the end of Rosa, my nine-year-old daughter burst into tears about how awfully Parks and the other black characters had been treated, sparking a discussion at home about racism in America and the UK, how it was in the past, and, as Yasmin and Ryan had explained on-screen, how it continues and affects people with their colour of skin in the present day.
Educational job done on that score at least. I expect all these years later, Sydney Newman would have been proud that the Doctor Who format he helped devise was still having that power over what he described in the original briefing notes for the series as “the most critical, difficult, even sophisticated audience there is” – children.
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