Some Doctor Who Fans Like Their Racism Bigger On The Outside

By Arturo R. García

Promotional poster for “Doctor Who.” Image via crimsontear.com

Calling this past season of Doctor Who uneven might be doing it a favor. Presented as two separate seasons marked by a change in companions for the Eleventh Doctor and capped by the prelude to the show’s 50th anniversary special in November, critiques of the show under Steven Moffat’s watch got louder than ever. That discussion, we hope, will only get louder when Doctor Who and Race is released in August.

Edited by Dr. Lindy Orthia — who has published several academic works dealing with the shows including one on Who’s “inability to acknowledge the material realities of an inequitable postcolonial world shaped by exploitative trade practices, diasporic trauma and racist discrimination” — the anthology will feature more than 20 essays explicitly tackling several aspects of the show’s presentation (and, one presumes, lack thereof) regarding issues regarding racial issues.

Naturally, some people are out to silence her efforts before the book’s even released. Warning: Misogynist language just under the cut.

These were the responses to Orthia’s announcement earlier this month of the release date and that the book’s royalties were being donated to charity:

And remember: Doctor Who fans are supposed to be the smart ones. This guy below sent the same tweet to Orthia on consecutive days:

The UK-based site Digital Spy didn’t help matters when it made this claim, seemingly sight-unseen:

A new collection of essays titled ‘Doctor Who and Race’ claims that the sci-fi program is racist for failing to cast a black or Asian actor as the Time Lord and accuses the title character of being dismissive of black companions.

Now, do you get that impression from this abstract for Roseanne Welch’s “When white boys write black: Race and class in the Davies and Moffat eras”?

This essay discusses the different ways former “Doctor Who” show runner Russell T Davies and his successor, Steven Moffat, handle race in writing the show. It concludes that while Davies’ characters of colour (Mickey, Martha and Rosita) are all three-dimensional, sexualized human beings, Moffat’s (Liz Ten, Mels and Rita) tended toward more one-dimensional, Talented Tenth types.

Or this one for Stephanie Guerdan’s “Baby steps: A modest solution to Asian under-representation in Doctor Who“?

This essay points out the lack of previous Asian representation in both the casting choices and storylines of Doctor Who. It goes on to suggest some small steps that could be taken to rectify this lack while also keeping in mind some of the BBC’s previous racial faux pas.

Methinks DS and the BBC doth protest too much. The network responded by citing the casting of Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones and Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith — both moves that occurred during the Davies era.

Digital Spy and other outlets also seized on a statement by Orthia that, “the biggest elephant in the room is the problem privately nursed by many fans of loving a TV show when it is thunderingly racist.” She elaborated on that remark in another statement:

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.

I end the conclusion by quoting from Kate Orman’s essay in the book, in which she says: “because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings.”

I hope that this is true, and that future discussions about this book and its subject will be considered and thoughtful.

It would seem that, despite their self-appointed reputation, these Who fans aren’t interested in that.

[h/t The Mary Sue]

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    I am not a fan of Doctor Who. I did watch when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor for his brief time and then I came back when they had Martha! Loved Martha but I was so sadden by the racist crap that “Whovians” as they like to call themselves were spouting.
    What annoys me is that Whovians really think that they are so ahead of the curve and intelligent for watching and like Doctor Who. I find that rather silly to be honest.
    I will mos def check out this book because I have always found the show a tad sexist and racist.
    Thanks for sharing this. : )

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    Two ideas
    1. My guess is that it’s because Doctor Who is not just a show in the UK, but practically its own religion, it would be like doing a book about Football And Racism.
    2. My other guess is that Doctor Who fans think of themselves as more progressive than most people, so mentioning racism freaks them out.

    • aboynamedart

      I’m with you on No. 2, for sure. That’s an attitude that pervades many fandom communities. One complaint I read on another forum amounted to, “Why are we picking on Doctor Who and not ‘meathead television’?”

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        If you want to have some fun and watch people squirm, bring up the issue of colonialism in Star Trek…

  • QueerFatstronaut

    I am a fan of Doctor Who, but I am also highly critical of the various -ism fails. Thank you so much for featuring this book! I will be sure to pick it up when it comes out!

  • Robert Alexander

    Hello,

    As a Dr.Who fan I would just like to say that I greatly
    appreciate the tone of this article, particularly the use of ‘some’ when
    describing the reaction.

    This is an issue that has not gone
    unnoticed within fandom circles. There was quite a good documentary
    released on a Dr.Who DVD dealing with this in regards the old (pre 2005)
    series:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh6iY38Ldgs

    Dr.
    Who as a show rarely deals openly with these issues and often is happy
    to go with prevailing ‘mainstream’ sentiment – as such in often provides
    an interesting reflection of social politics. Dr.Who multimedia (books,
    comics, audio plays etc) on the other hand very often openly discusses
    such things, but I would imagine such arcane sources fall well outside
    what it is reasonable to expect for media/social theorists and
    researches to subject themselves to! Especially as most people experience it
    just as a T.V show.

    As for the comments by other fans shown above
    – well, it is a good indication of some unsavory stratum in that is all to frequently visible. How much
    of it is particular to Dr.Who fandom and how much a reflection of larger
    problems in western online culture I don’t know.

    As for the book
    itself I welcome it, as regardless of how much I will agree with its
    contents the issue as a whole is not something I would feel able to
    raise (beyond stating it exists) as it falls outside of any direct expertise
    or experience I have (and I imagine the same is true for a lot of other
    Dr.Who fans).

    • aboynamedart

      I haven’t caught all of the Seventh Doctor’s episodes, but I have read reports that that series, in particular, did address some more political topics. As to how much racism and sexism is “particular” to Who fandom, I’d like to suggest that the community is not exempt to it, going by the reactions to Martha Jones.

      Moreover, if racism and sexism are known quantities in the community — there’s a story, perhaps apochrypal, of fans openly moaning at the idea of a woman as the Doctor during a Moffat panel at a convention — then where is the community self-policing to get those elements out?

    • Robert Alexander

      It all depends on the tastes of who is in control the show – Early 70′s producer Christopher Barry was an environmentalist so you got stories looking at that topic. Late 80′s script editor Andrew Cartmel was a radical so you got stories dealing along that line. But both examples are hardly extraordinary for their times with such subjects common parlance in the centerist left of the time (to which broadly most, though by no means all, of the creative crew of Dr.Who belong).

      Dr. Who has never had a mission statement akin to Star Trek’s, just its remit of being a Saturday adventure tea-time show for kids with enough depth to appeal to adults too. until recently it was never thought of as a ‘prestige’ show either and for most of its history it was something people did at the middle point of their career.

      Its the nature of the show, its need to have a new setting every week with a new guest cast that made it become a potpourri of popular sci-fi, drama, ideas with in which the attitude of its creative staff, BBC culture and British culture can be found.

      As for policing Dr. Who fans – all I can say is that in the past I’ve tried to call people out on things they’ve said in forums, though these days I’m not much of a one for forums. As for general policy i’m sure the contact details for those who are most involved in running the convention trail are available if anyone wants to ask them. The official sources, Dr. Who Magazine, BBC internet content etc would have to follow their companies policies regarding what is and what is not acceptable.

      • aboynamedart

        And, going by the abstracts, it would seem the anthology would explore the structures that were reinforced, consciously or otherwise, by the policies of the various showrunners. But I do appreciate that you’re open to reading it.