Opinion dw-talons-chang

Published on June 15th, 2013 | by James Colvin

Racegate: Rising above the Daily Mail

James Colvin offers his considered opinion on the press storm surrounding forthcoming book Doctor Who and Race.


Doctor Who. Racism. Big topic.

As Christian has graciously conceded, Kasterborous “found itself caught up in a froth-mouthed, pitchfork-wielding mob” over this, instigated by none other than the Daily Mail.

This is easily done of course – and by acknowledging as much, Christian and Kasterborous get a great deal more respect from me than any of the many fansites, blogs and even mainstream tabloids and broadsheets that have failed to do so. It’s really important to recognise when something like this has happened and have a bit of a think about why.

The ridiculously eloquent Philip Sandifer has explained the background of the whole media blitz – and his whole post on the topic is essential reading.

Firstly: of course Doctor Who has been racist on occasion. As Sandifer points out in his article, it’s (so far) been about a white male visiting other cultures and fixing their problems for them. Further to this, it’s a mainstream entertainment from a post-colonial country. Our culture is so steeped in racism (to varying degrees of severity) that it would be astounding if a long-running television series had managed to avoid ever being even slightly racist at any point.

[pullquote align="right"]Our culture is so steeped in racism (to varying degrees of severity) that it would be astounding if a long-running television series had managed to avoid ever being even slightly racist at any point.[/pullquote]Examples: obviously there’s Li H’sen Chang. But there’s also Tlotoxl in The Aztecs, who’s investment in (a misconstrued) version of his own values of his own time is portrayed as inherently villainous – even when he’s right about the heroes lying to them all. And Toberman in Tomb of the Cyberman – a transparent racist stereotype of a physically strong and mentally limited black man. More recently, there has been a lot of debate over the characterisation of Mickey and Martha. In The Shakespeare Code, when Martha asks if she’s going to have a hard time as a black woman in 16th century London, the Doctor dismisses the problem, saying if she just breezes about like she owns the place, she’ll be fine. Obviously, this would not have been the case – and suggesting so kind of sweeps under the rug the whole issue of race at a time when the British were literally enslaving black people.

Whether or not you are convinced by these arguments is almost beside the point. Considering these viewpoints in a reasoned manner is imperative. As Sandifer points out, “the only people with something to gain by treating criticism of racism and colonialism as an outright and no-holds-barred denunciation of British culture are the people who want British culture to remain racist and colonial”.

You can recognise this and still love Doctor Who. I’d argue it deepens your appreciation for the show, if you are willing to acknowledge its faults and – crucially – expect better of it.

I love Doctor Who – and especially the twentieth century stuff. It often had an amateurish execution, combined with noble, Reithian intentions, which gave it a kind of communal abstraction that approached a shared folk culture. The nature of the programme is obviously different in the 21st century, but this kind of widely-viewed mainstream entertainment show still leaves room for people to bring their own agenda to it.

All of which means, as fans, we shouldn’t be blind to the complications that can be present.

Want to know why I think this matters so much? Please have a read of this short blogpost by Racialicious.

In particular look at the highlighted tweets to editor of the Doctor Who and Race book, Lindy Orthia. This is completely unacceptable, knee-jerk misogyny and racism from people who are happy to shut down consideration of a television show – and they can’t possibly have read the book.

So let’s rise above that – and let’s do so by not blindly dismissing complaints against instances of racism, sexism and so on. The show demonstrably has been these things on occasion, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s give serious consideration to the uglier parts of the show – especially in classic serials that might be your personal favourites like Tomb or Weng-Chiang.

To dismiss such issues would be to share an impulse with Ian Levine, who said that when John Nathan-Turner was producer, “things went on that were horrible, corrupt, too awful to discuss”. However, despite being in a position to do something about it – or at the very least wash his hands of involvement in it – turned a blind eye in order to continue being close to the show and loving it without complication. Sandifer pointed this out in another blogpost on the comics and yearbook of the Christopher Eccleston run.

Doctor Who‘s central message isn’t a negative or racist one, and it hasn’t been racist all the time. So let’s celebrate the aspects of the show that are positive and loveable, but not ignore or apologise for the parts that aren’t. I’m very much looking forward to reading the book, and I’ll be interested to read what Christian has to say about it when he reviews it.

To close, here’s an elequent and balanced response to the press attention from the Doctor Who and Race book, Lindy Orthia.


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6 Responses to Racegate: Rising above the Daily Mail

  1. avatar Ivriniel says:

    Then there is the issue that there were plans to paint Louise Jameson’s skin brown in order for her to play Leela. The idea was dropped, but looking at early publicity photos where the body paint was applied, you get the sense that they only refrained from doing it because it looked really fake, not because anyone considered how problematic this was.

  2. avatar STLShawn says:

    I’m simply tired of “ancient” ideas of racism being placed under modern scrutiny. Things were what they were and we can’t change them, all we can do is be sensitive of others going forward. the world is a different place now then it was, people are different, ideas of race are different.

    I’m sure this book will make money. It is an easy topic to write about and get people to buy into, but with modern culture and modern ideas on the equality of all humans, it’s a shame that someone would use race and “shock” to sell a book. It’s like selling a book on why Christians are under attack in a conservative Christian area, or selling books on why western culture is evil in a fundamentalist Islamic state. Personally i find this radicalism appalling. Everyone who participates in fear and hate mongering for their 2 minutes of fame should be ashamed of their behavior.

    We live in a diverse new world, let’s celebrate this diversity and keep moving forward.

  3. I agree with James. We have to see Dr Who in the context of the times in which it was made, and the kind of society Britain was in the 60s and 70s. For instance the Black and White Minstrel (which for younger readers was a BBC light entertainment show in which white singers “blacked up” as black people) ran until 1978 at teatime on Saturdays – and was very popular. i’ve been watching Dr Who since 1963. Having recently re-watched many surviving episodes I can now see things which it wouldn’t have ocurred to me as a teenager to question at the time, eg the cliched depiction of black men in Tomb of the Cybermen and Terror of the Autons. Britain has changed ( though this change had to be fought for, sometimes at considerable cost) and so thankfully has Dr Who…

  4. avatar TimeChaser says:

    I.m not sure the idea of the Doctor as ” a white male visiting other cultures and fixing their problems for them” put forward in this article is 100% valid. Yes, he looks like a white British male, but he is also and ALIEN, remember? He’s as much an outsider as anyone of a minority would be, no matter what he looks like. He doesn’t see other people like we do, he sees the infinite diversity of the universe. Its short-sighted to say the character itself is racist only because he’s ever been played by white people.

    • avatar n says:

      I agree. The Doctor frequently displays, in the whole history of the show (it’s just emphasised in the post-2005 series as it is a ‘doctorish’ trait) a love and respect for all species and races, no matter what they look like, unlike in many other sci-fi shows where any aliens are treated with suspicion. The Doctor is by nature and by his actions a person who just wants to help everyone. It’s not a racist ‘white man helps incompetent minorities’ message, he just nobly wants to help- it certainly doesn’t indicate that those minorities are lesser,just because someone wants to help them solve a problem. In fact The Doctor saves whole planets, indiscriminately. ‘Sees the infinite diversity of the universe’ sums this point up perfectly. I won’t deny that Doctor Who has sometimes been racist, yes, and sexist too- but you can’t deny th fact that it has also spoke against it a lot more.

    • avatar Mugen Pharoah says:

      I agree with your closing statement, Timechaser, but if you detach yourself from the narrative you can’t really argue that you don’t have a white guy in old world English dress going around solving the universe’s problems – it’s a clear analogue for a perception of the British Empire and ‘white man’s burden’ to bring civilisation to the world. It’s similar to how Batman is sort of a Republican fantasy of the benevolent billionaire who takes it to the criminals bypassing the law. Remove the fictional context of the Doctor’s character and you have a symbol of old world imperialism.

      Yes, as fans we all know the Doctor is a 450 – 1100ish year old alien, a renegade and a moral figure who fights for justice. Saying that we do now have a Doctor who is happy to describe Sontarans as potatoes – as if it’s OK to use physical racial characteristics as a joke – that seemed to jar to me…even though Strax isn’t obviously human it sort of suggests it’s OK to mock your friends in this way. It felt cheap and wrong – and – out of character for the Doctor.

      Doctor Who reflects the time it’s made in. The Doctor Who of 2063 will reflect the society of 2063. Doctor Who of 1963 is very much of its time, and the series of today reflects ours.

      I think the point here is that Doctor Who is only ‘racist’ insofar as it being the product of a Western culture where centuries of empire cast a long shadow, and to use a mixed metaphor, reverberate through popular culture.

      Compare Doctor Who with some contemporary TV of the sixties and seventies and you will see overt racism though. If you boil Doctor Who down to its core , you see a show that is clearly, at heart(s), anti racist. It could probably have done better in its handling of race in the past. It’s very easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight though.

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