By Guest Contributor Anoosh Jorjorian
When I was 13 years old, my best friend introduced me to Doctor Who. Growing up as a brown girl in a predominantly white neighborhood in Sacramento, people would ask me, “What are you?” When I explained that my family came from Armenia and the Philippines, I might as well have said they were, like the Doctor, from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. The show played perfectly to my fantasies of escape into wider possibilities. Yes, funny smart man with your English accent, please whisk me away in your blue box as far in space and time as I can get from 1980s Northern California.
Nearly two decades have passed since I first watched the show, but on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, to my eyes, the show looked a bit… like 1980s Northern California. “The Day of the Doctor,” the episode marking the special occasion, was simulcast globally in 94 countries, an official Guinness World Record. So why was so little of the world in it? I had expected the diversity of the audience to be reflected on the screen, but instead the episode seemed Anglo in every dimension.
I monitored #DoctorWho50th on Twitter but couldn’t find many people of color livetweeting the simulcast. The few that did seemed to have “the feels” like everyone else. No one mentioned race. With Matt Smith’s tenure in the title role ending on Wednesday, I turned to Facebook to find more Whovians: friends, friends-of-friends, and strangers, mostly Americans, mostly people of color. What did they think about the whitewashed “Day of the Doctor”?
The most strident objection came from Nathan Taylor, who is himself white: “The 50th was a fun show. But damn it was white! Seriously, like 90 seconds of aggregate POC screen time at most, and no speaking roles? Really, BBC?”
Most Whovians of color I talked to seemed less bothered.
- “I loved the 50th,” wrote Joe LaRue, who is mixed Anglo/Filipino. “I can’t remember seeing a single non-white face in the entire thing, however, though I can’t say it affected my appreciation of the episode.”
- “Were there any characters of color in the piece? I don’t think so,” responded Amani Rushing, who is African American. “I didn’t like the special any less. I think that as a person of color I am so used to seeing myself not represented that sometimes it doesn’t even faze me.”
- Adrianne Traylor, who is also African American, summed up a general feeling of “I liked it, but…” when she wrote, “I enjoyed the 50th ep. [It] had excitement, pathos, humor, warmth, and set up interesting implications for the Twelfth Doctor. As for people of color in the episode—huh? There was one Time Lord of color, and you could have blinked and missed him. I didn’t even catch his name, if it was even given. Typical Moffat world, populated primarily by white people. Sigh…”
The fans of color I talked to seem to forgive the show for its low diversity because it is so very English. After all, it isn’t just a product of the United Kingdom, a nation that is 86 percent white, but a representation of it. The Doctor ostensibly has all of time and space at his fingertips, yet he pops up in England an awful lot. As African-American fan Lisa Jackson wrote, “In general I would not look to a show from a mostly white country to show me a lot of people of color.” LaRue added, “Perhaps I give Doctor Who a general pass by way of it being an unapologetically British show, and to my mind, England is the whitest of the white countries.”
The attention the show gives, or doesn’t, to race could also stem from cultural difference. Mei Chin, a Chinese American living in Ireland, observed, “There aren’t public ethnic-English identities in the way that I feel like there are public ethnic-American identities. My friends in London have always been more racially diverse, but there’s a pressure, when you’re mixing, to not insist on your race and what it represents.”
But although we may think of Doctor Who as made by and for the U.K., the simulcast demonstrates that the BBC is looking to recruit viewers beyond their island nation, particularly in the United States. The program is one of the top three franchises of BBC Worldwide, and the U.S. is one of the show’s largest markets.
Gwynn Compton argues at WhatCulture that the BBC’s exportation of the show – including casting John Barrowman and landing the TARDIS more often in State-side locations – is a shrewd financial calculation: “given that the BBC can’t make money off advertising revenue in the U.K., this push to convert the sizable science fiction audience of the U.S. into Doctor Who fans who are willing to pay money for episodes, is pure business genius.” The fact that “The Day of the Doctor” made $4.7 million in American cinemas over the three-day period surrounding its airing also bodes well for a feature-length movie.
Can Who continue to expand its audience with such a homogenous cast into a nation where only 63 percent of the population identifies as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino”? Five states are already “majority minority,”and while Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico might not accurately reflect the rest of the country, California and Texas are considered harbingers of future America. I would argue that the BBC needs to pay close attention to prevailing media trends in the U.S. as they contemplate that question.
In October, UCLA published a study that showed that “[American] television viewers are more likely to watch shows that employ racially diverse casts and writers.” The researchers analyzed 1,000 shows during the 2011–2012 season and found a correlation between diversity and viewership. Shows with 35 to 40 percent people of color in the cast performed best, while shows where people of color made up 10 percent or less of the cast performed worst.
But it isn’t just scholars who are taking note of these shifts. American media companies are scrambling to cater to Latinos, the largest minority group in the U.S. Last year, ABC merged with Univision to broaden its market. This year Fox executives, taking an even wider view, cited diversity as key to their financial planning in an invitation-only event called “Seizing Opportunities.” As quoted in Deadline, Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Early told the assembled group of executives and insiders, “Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business.”
If the BBC wishes the Doctor to become the hero for the whole planet, focusing on the U.S. could be smart strategy because so much of the rest of the world lives here. Several countries included in the simulcast—Argentina and Mexico, Nigeria and Ethiopia, South Korea and Indonesia, Turkey and Kazakhstan, to name only a few—are represented in the city where I live, Los Angeles.
Yet it isn’t just true for large American cities like New York and Chicago. For those of us who live in cosmopolitan places — and urban migration is a global phenomenon — diversity is an everyday feature of our lives. This holds true even in “the whitest of the white countries”: with 42 percent of the population identifying as non-white, London’s demographics are starkly different from those of England at large.
Even places most Westerners might not think of as cosmopolitan contain remarkable diversity. For example, Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa (where I lived in 2000) not only is home to people from all over Africa from such culturally disparate countries such as Morocco, Sierra Leone, and Congo, but also Lebanese, Syrians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, French, Dutch, and Canadians. (The media they consume includes Mexican telenovelas and Bollywood films.)
Certainly people can, and do, live in homogenous enclaves within heterogeneous cities, but there’s no denying that the present is mixed, and the future even more so. In many urban areas, the non-white population is expected only to rise. A show that purports to travel to the future ignores that reality at its own risk.
Certainly those who create Doctor Who can argue that, after 50 years of an almost entirely white show and the success of the whitewashed special, the present formula works. Why mess with it? Former Who fans who have stopped watching the show have answers.
- “Part of the reason that I have taken a break from the show is how it handles women and race,” the blogger Whiskeypants, who identifies as multiracial Jewish, wrote. “Part of me really wants to keep watching and enjoying, and part of me wants to stop being so damned disappointed in it.”
- Tanya Merchant, who is white, explained, “I dislike the Clara choice so much that I still haven’t watched her portion of season seven in full. I’m willing to give the 13th doctor a chance, but I would like to see more diversity across categories—more queer representation, different roles for women besides ingénue pixie dream girl, more people of color, people with diverse body types, different faiths (how about a non-exoticized Pakistani companion?).”
- M. Lau, an Asian-Australian, articulated the dangers of an ever-shifting competition: “If Doctor Who doesn’t diversify, I have zero intention of starting it up again. I’m time-poor, and I would rather spend my time and effort and money on shows that aren’t 99 percent white (see Elementary, or Person of Interest, or Sleepy Hollow). There’s so much whitewashing/erasure, or colourface, or stereotyping, that I’m not bothering with shows that don’t even attempt some degree of intersectionality.”
Many current Whovians of color are willing to overlook a certain quaintness in their beloved show, but there’s no guarantee how long their tolerance will continue, or that a similar show with more diversity won’t poach its viewership. Margit Edwards, who is half black and half white, confessed, “I generally watch the good Doctor with my filters turned off as much as possible because I really just want to be entertained. But that is not say that there are times that the ongoing narrative of Britain as this plucky little island-that-could does wear on me.” Chris Hsiang, a hapa Whovian, wrote, “I’d really like to see some far-flung human colony in the Whoniverse that isn’t so damn Anglo. Where’s Nova Tenochtitlan or Planet Timbuktu?”
Each regeneration brings up the possibility of a Doctor of color or a female Doctor, although it seems unlikely as long as Steven Moffat is at the helm. Over time, the predictability of another white (and straight and cis-gendered) man can bring discontents within the Whoniverse to the surface. Traylor wrote, “I didn’t think I really wanted the next Doctor to be a person of color…until they announced Peter Capaldi. I adore him and think he’ll make a great Doctor, which is why I was so surprised at how disappointed I was. I think it matters.”
Of course, if and when Doctor Who includes more characters of color, it brings risks as well as benefits. When audiences’ racial expectations are disrupted, some fans can become angry or resentful—the transition of The Hunger Games from page to screen is the quintessential example. Amongst Whovians, Martha Jones is somewhat notorious as a disliked companion, a phenomenon that could hardly be free of some racism.
But characters of color can annoy fans of color as well. Some portrayals in the reboot made me wince—I will forever loathe “Turn Left” because of the stereotyped Chinese background characters (which were terrible enough the first time in Old Who with “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”). Because the percentage of characters of color in film and TV is still disproportionately low, every portrayal can be loaded. “There are so few POCs in fiction that having one is super noticeable, and having them leave is like the world ending,” wrote Lau. “And that’s not even going into how somebody is characterized.” It’s a fine line to walk: too negative or stereotyped, and people of color will react with wrath (as with Mickey Smith); too noble, and viewers might find the character too bland (as some did with Martha Jones). And when those two characters marry each other, well… “I rolled my eyes mightily,” remarked Hsiang.
The challenges faced by a Doctor of color could place strain on the existing writers, who seemed unable to fully grapple with Martha’s position as a servant in 1913 nor the racism she would have faced in Shakespeare’s England. A truly diverse Who would require people of color behind the scenes as well before the cameras. It’s more difficult to save the day from the position of a slave or an indentured servant, but solutions might be more apparent to writers who have experienced actual marginalization. The UCLA study noted that, amongst cable shows, the correlation between diversity and success strengthened when the demographics of the writing room were taken into account.
There’s no reason Doctor Who can’t be diverse yet still authentically English. Merchant observed, “I think that casting a person of color as the Doctor could make a realistic statement about how the idea of who is British has changed (with doner kebab and chicken tikka masala as national dishes, it is not hard to argue that people of color are vital parts of the fabric of British culture.)”
“I think it would be great to have an iconic English character be South or East Asian, African, or one of the other immigrant groups that has made England its home,” Rushing wrote. “I think it could say a lot about what it means to be English in this century where America has a black president.”
Chin sounded a hopeful note: “I do think that Doctor Who has the potential to move towards a cast that resembles a Zadie Smith novel in the future.”
Bringing in characters and writers of color can bring new relevance and emotional depth to the series. One of the recurring themes is exile and belonging. At a time when nearly every nation on earth is having fraught conversations about immigration, borders, homeland, and citizenship, Doctor Who could use its international reach to explore these questions (as the Doctor searches for Gallifrey), just as Battlestar Galactica interrogated terrorism, state power, and militarism.
Although Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the next Doctor begins on Christmas Day, the show has other opportunities to be more inclusive. Eddie Nwabuoku, who is mixed Nigerian-American, wrote, “The Doctor’s race isn’t as important to me as is the depiction of a much more broad racial spectrum of the characters within it.” And, I would add, the writers behind it.
With the global broadcast, the show’s creators have greatly enlarged the Whoniverse. Yet what is undeniable is that many of us still feel left out. Rushing asked, “Isn’t Doctor Who the protector of everyone on earth? I might be black, but I’m on earth too.” All we ask is that they make it bigger on the inside.