At the end of May, there was a controversy surrounding British television series Doctor Who, due to the impending publication of a collection of academic essays titled Doctor Who and Race. Since the volume is out now, I expect the issue to open up again.
This controversy brought out a lot of things I have been turning over in my head since I started watching the revived Doctor Who. Anyways, the press picked up on essays in the collection that describe Doctor Who as propagating British imperialism, being dismissive of Black characters, and demeans cultures that are not industrially developed. Fans of Doctor Who got offended, and the BBC defended itself by saying that Doctor Who is especially committed to colour-blind casting and depicting all of humanity (and since this is a science fiction show, all potential life forms) as equal. The editors of the collection responded to this controversy by reminded fans and the media that not all the essays are critical of Doctor Who.
This Part I will deal with analysis of the episodes’ representations of race and ethnicity, as well as representations of British culture, especially British ideas of tea and Asians. The controversy also has a few instructive lessons on science fiction, media in a global context, and the relationship of academics to everyday life, especially popular culture, and that will wait til Part II (I wanted to post all of it together, but seeing as the essay collection is published already, posting asap on the issue seems important. And also it will cut down the length). Here I will discuss what I have seen of Doctor Who (henceforth DW) but will also briefly talk about a couple more scifi shows: Fringe, Firefly, and, uh, Doraemon, just to put things into non-Western perspective. Most of it will be about race and ethnicity, but some of it will be about gender, sexuality, and cultural consciousness in general, because constructs of race and gender and sexuality are part of cultural consciousness.
This post is NOT meant to be a summary or review of the essay collection, and it was written without having read any of the essays in the collection. Rather, this is what I might have written if I were a contributor to the collection, as a way to think through the issue on my own before reading about other people’s opinions. I’m sure many points below have already been touched on in the essays, and I don’t claim to have thought of them first or anything. Actually many of the issues of Doctor Who and race have already been debated in the media, just not the the extent that they have recently with the publication of Doctor Who and Race.
Bit of a pre-amble on the issue, and on scifi, below
(Sorry, no underlining or italicising for titles as per MLA guidelines. My browser crashed several times trying to post this so I’ll neglect the unimportant stuff.)
Similar issues of scifi and race have already come up in relation to Battlestar Galactica (my post here), whose themes involved race and ethnicity more directly than Doctor Who. However, Doctor Who is a children’s show, which means that the BBC, academics and fans might all be more invested in its representations. It is more an educational tool that might make children more or less tolerant of aliens, whether they be the extra-terrestrial type or the resident immigrant type. I think it is not difficult to see the former as an allegory for the latter in scifi. Science fiction (speculative fiction in general) can do something that general fiction can’t, which is allegorize current earth-bound ethnic relations with an expanded universe of humans, aliens, cyborgs, etc, a context in which the immediate practical interests of one ethnic group (usually ours) can be set aside so as to better deliberate morality (also usually ours). Hence, scifi is a great place for self-reflexivity without people getting angry and defensive. As for the distinction between scifi and fantasy and which one has potential to do this better, I’m not equipped to answer this, though comments are as always welcome. So first off, I’m re-iterating that scifi shows like Doctor Who and controversies they might generate are very important and should not be brushed off as the purview of a few nerds or a few academics angrily punching at their keyboards. Though, in the spirit of self-reflexivity, I’m a nerd and an aspiring academic, so my estimation of the importance of Doctor Who and its controversies might be an over-estimation. More on that later.
One last thing: I believe that the essay collection deals with both the older run of DW and the revived one starting 2005. That might have been where some of the confusion arose that lead to controversy – the 1960s had different takes on identity constructs like race, and academics who were critiquing those older series might have been reported by the press as critiquing DW in general. I’ve only watched the revived one, so I will be evaluating what I think of that one. Although, after the latest season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” I was in DW withdrawal and tried watching the very first episode. In this episode, the first Doctor compares the Susan’s teachers’ incomprehension of the TARDIS to “savages” who cannot understand a train. So, I stopped watching.
As with most controversies (eg controversies about Hetalia, here), I can see this issue of Doctor Who and race both ways, that is I can find a number of examples which support BBC’s statement that DW is colour-blind and committed to ethnic equity, and on the other hand I can also find a number of examples that support the academics’ analysis that DW is imperialist and Black characters are not treated with respect. And because I’m Asian I can find examples of Asian characters that land on both sides of the argument. And aliens. Here goes.
As BBC states, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith. Martha is definitely a good example of where DW handles race pretty well. As a character, she is knowledgeable med school student, resourceful companion to the Doctor, and I would say a resilient and wise woman at the end of her journey, recognizing that her life cannot always revolve around the Doctor (especially since he doesn’t return her affections), continuing work for UNIT and helping to save the universe at the end of Season 4. I don’t think she is a stereotype of Black women, especially since she isn’t particularly sexualized. At least I don’t see it – Rose and Martha, and more recently Amy, all had their fair share of revealing outfits and not. Donna is slightly older and temps at offices, so she’s out of the comparison.
Parts of the story that happens around Martha are also well-handled. One alternative to putting up ethnic stereotypes in the media is to put up ethnic minorities who are “just ordinary people” or characters who obviously go against the established stereotype, eg a Chinese person who’s not good at math, or an affluent, meek, and law-abiding African American. However this approach has also been criticised because at times it does run against realism. In the case of math it’s not so important, but the argument is that an affluent, meek and law-abiding (let’s abbreviate this set of traits “AMLA” for now) African American eclipses thousands of African Americans who live in poverty, develop resourceful solutions to survive, and have the law constantly on their backs, through no fault of their own, a social situation that the AMLA African American character seems to have transcended through the American favourite of pulling himself up by his bootstraps or somehow achieved without explanation. Anyways, the point of that detour was that sometime characters are not stereotypes but they can still be problematic if they totally ignore race or the realities of ethnic inequality.
This issue has come up for the 2-parter “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks” (S03E4-5)where the charismatic leader of the 1930s New York destitutes living in Central Park’s Hooverville is an African American man named Solomon (above). I remember reading praise for his character, but with someone commenting that realistically an African American man during those hard times would hardly have been elected leader. Personally I agreed with this one – he would probably have been seen as competition by the White working class and chased out of Hooverville. But anyways, the response to this criticism was that a scifi show that puts Daleks in Manhattan in the 1920s hardly needs to follow historical accuracy on other fronts. I can also see the point of this argument – why only speculate about the future in scifi? Though, since the two episodes also focuses on how the Daleks can potentially change their racist doctrine, there could be a corresponding change/development in the human community going from intolerance of an African American leader to an acceptance. That would probably have made the episodes too complicated, so settling on humans already achieving ethnic equality is probably the next best thing.
Anyways, with Martha in DW, she manages to go against stereotypes of Black women and her part in the story generates race-related situations or at least anecdotes. A favourite would be the 2-parter story “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” (S03E8 and 9), where Martha is posing as a servant for the human-ized Doctor as they stay in a boarding school in 1913, hiding from aliens hunting the Doctor, who are tracking him by sensing his Time Lord essence. Martha faces outright racism and dismissal from the students at the school and other staff (one nasty student asking her how she can tell if anything’s clean with dark skin, the matron telling her that a woman can never be a doctor, and even if one day they can, “hardly one of your colour”), and the townspeople (the war veteran at the community dance event telling her to use the servants’ entrance). The general tone of these episodes is that the matron’s understanding is limited despite her good intentions otherwise, and the boys can be just plain evil, and children should not be like them. Aside from these two episodes, as a fan I loved how she was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets (though Sonnet 18’s dedicated not to the Dark Lady but actually the Fair Youth, but never mind), but with an accompanying facepalm from both her and Doctor that Shakespeare’s names for her (Blackamoor, Ethiop girl, Queen of the Afric) are “political correctness gone mad” (S03E02). For me this would teach children a far more subtle lesson than “negative stereotypes are bad.” It also potentially teaches children that even positive stereotypes are bad and that trying too hard to make up for stereotypes with political correctness can also derail.
On the other hand, I think there are also problems with Martha’s character. To be fair, she is not defined by her unrequited love for the Doctor, and it is understandable that he has just lost Rose, however I was still uncomfortable that a non-White female character spending a lot of time onscreen pining after a White man, which is what the Doctor looks like even if he’s not human. This visuality makes a difference: during “The Shakespeare Code,” when Martha is concerned that she might be carted off as a slave because she’s Black, the Doctor responds first with incomprehension and then “and I’m not even human. Just walk around like you would any other place. It works for me” (image above) This seems to be logical except that the Doctor can walk around with the privilege of a white man because he looks like one, but his attitude that his strategies of passing would work for Martha is rather presumptuous. To make an extreme argument, it’s almost having your cake and eating it too – having a certain degree of otherness to the Doctor to suggest that the show is tolerant towards otherness, without actually having to address otherness because people don’t perceive him as other. Granted,” The Shakespeare Code”‘s main theme is about the power of words and stories, which I find well conveyed, however it does seem implausible that Martha could walk around Elizabethan England without getting harassed. After all, Othello is the “Moor” of Venice, not London, and if I remember my undergrad Shakespeare classes, Italy’s place in the Elizabethan English imagination was kind of an exotic hodgepodge that was exotic precisely because it wasn’t like England. Also, I understand that the Doctor’s first reaction of confusion might be to mirror young audiences’ surprise about slavery if they don’t know about it already, but for the Doctor, who has observed and participated in all of human history, to not know about the slave trade is also implausible. This issue could have been taken care of by the Doctor recognizing that Martha’s skin colour poses a danger to her and then using a perception filter on her so that people around them won’t really recognize that she’s Black. This won’t even impact how Shakespeare sees her, since he could see through the psychic paper’s trick.
And then there’s Mickey. Some people believe that the first Black companion is not Martha but Mickey, so he has that going for him. However I have a feeling that the “dismissal attitudes towards Black companions” that the press says that the academics have seen in DW might be about Mickey, because the Doctor is really not very nice to him to start with. For example, in the pilot episode “Rose,” the 9th Doctor doesn’t seem to really care whether Mickey’s been killed by the Nesteen consciousness or not, and when Rose finds him alive and runs to help him, the Doctor sort of rolls his eyes. Though the Doctor sort of has a dismissal attitude of 20th and 21st century humanity in general (“these stupid little people have just learned how to walk”), he especially likes to, well, to use British English, to take the mickey out of Mickey. In S02E03, as the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigate a school for producing record student results, Mickey stumbles into a closet full of vacuum-packed rats and screams, and the Doctor accuses him of screaming like a 10-year old girl with pigtails (don’t even know why that’s relevant). Anyways, at first Mickey’s character is, as he puts it, the tin dog of the group (a reference to him having a supporting role like the robotic dog K-9, in the same episode), and in S0S04, when Rose objects to the Doctor wanting to keep a horse that has stumbled into a spaceship, the Doctor replies, “I let you keep Mickey.” So Mickey is likened to a tin dog and then a pet horse.
Moreover, his character is often the one providing comic relief, for example in S02S04, while Mickey, Rose and the Doctor are on a spaceship, we see Mickey through the ship’s cameras where his face is distorted to look comical. Rose: “You’re not keeping the horse!” Doctor: “I let you keep Mickey.”. Since there is a long history of Black characters used as comic relief (or, in other words, laughing at Black people), such as blackface minstrelsy, Mickey as comic relief is just repeating a stereotype. Incidentally, I learned just last year that the character of Mickey Mouse has roots in blackface minstrelsy, which explains the white part of his face around his features. I’m pretty sure the Doctor calls Mickey “Mickey Mouse” at some point, and the writer, actors, and production team on that episode probably had no idea about Mickey Mouse’s origins. Anyways that just makes Mickey’s representation in Doctor Who a little worse. He does comes to his own in Season 2, staying on to clean up the mess of the cybermen, and again at the end of Season 4, so arguably the earlier quips about his uselessness are in place to accentuate his later character development. However, arguably you can have character development without the characters being a laughingstock the begin with, examples being Rose and Martha. Again, Donna’s sort of out of comparison because Catherine Tate is a comedian to start with .
Also, returning to a problem of romance similar with Martha, he’s basically a Black man losing a girl to a White man. Not only that – at the end he ends up with Martha, and despite Jack Harkness’s sexual flexibility covering all genders and all life-forms, we don’t even get any interracial couples at the end. Personally I feel that his relationship with Martha came out of nowhere – we see Jack, Mickey and Martha walking off, and the next time we see Mickey and Martha they’re married. Granted that as both ex-companions and experience fighting hostile aliens, they have a lot in common, however I can’t see their personalities meshing and there was no development in this regard. I suppose an argument is that BBC left it up to fanfiction writers.
Another argument would be that the show needed comic relief, and since you can’t laugh at main characters like Rose or the Doctor, you go to the next-of-kin and laugh at Rose’s boyfriend Mickey and at her mother Jackie. And Jackie is White, so it’s not like the show only uses Black characters as comic relief. And the BBC just happened to cast a Black actor as Rose’s boyfriend. And Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor isn’t because she’s Black and he’s “White” but he would behave in that way to any companion that came after Rose, and the BBC just happened to cast a Black actress as Martha. I understand that this might really be the case, however this might reveal a problem about colour-blind casting. Similar to the problem of race neutrality not reflecting or making up for real world ethnic inequalities, colour-blind casting can be a problem if it really is blind. Colour-blind casting, meaning that casting directors don’t consciously slot actors into ethnic stereotypes, implies that things will come out balanced. However, decisions can be unconscious and require colour consciousness to balance them out. What if the casting directors, influenced by a history of Black characters as comic relief, unconsciously chose Noel Clarke as “best” for the role of Mickey because he was Black? I’m not saying that’s the case, I’m just taking issue with the BBC’s implication that colour-blind casting is a solution to ethnic problems in casting.
And starting in the 5th season with Steven Moffat as the showrunner, there aren’t any significant recurring characters of non-White races, however a few minor characters can be important to comment on. First, in the second episode of Season 5 we have a future Queen of England, “Liz 10,” who is played by Sophie Okonedo (above). Since the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton just went by last year, there were some comments that for the first time, someone in the British royal family was marrying a “commoner.” Liz 10’s possibly mixed-race character implies that at some point in the future, someone in the royal family marries a Black person. Since the aristocracy of Great Britain does not have any non-White individuals at present, this hypothetical future Black person would probably be a “commoner” as well. I’m not sure that the child audiences of DW would necessarily grasp this, but personally I thought this was a bold move to make.
The other three Black characters I can think of off the top of my head, though, don’t necessarily make any imaginative interventions of this sort. First would be Colonel Manton in the Season 6 mid-season finale (S06E07), “A Good Man Goes to War.” I actually thought that Danny Sapani did a wonderful job at giving Colonel Manton a commanding and dignified demeanor, especially how he restores order among his soldiers after the Doctor sets them against each other, however that comes to nothing as he’s on the “wrong side” (fighting against the 11th Doctor) and the Doctor goes on a rare angry rant about how he wants Colonel Manton to be known as “Colonel Runaway” in the future. Then there’s River Song’s previous incarnation, Mels, played by Nina Toussaint-White. There was a lot of praise from the press about how Touissant-White brought life and energy to her character, and I agree, however I’m bothered by the association between her character and crime and misbehaviour, basically all through her childhood, mouthing off to teachers, stealing cars, etc, with Amy needing to get her out of jail at one point (below). Going back to the Russell T. Davis era, I was thinking of the Black family in S02E11, “Fear Her,” where mother isn’t exactly sorry that her husband has died because he was abusive to both her and their daughter, and part of the story is the daughter trying to move on from the fear of her father. I understand that River Song was brainwashed and trained to become a psychopath so she could kill the Doctor one day, however it is at this kind of juncture that colour-blind casting needs to be actively rethought. Toussaint-White is a powerful actress and great for a pre-Doctor River Song, and colour-blind casting would cast her instead of casting a White person (which would maintain continuity with River Song). However, do we want to cast a Black actor as a teenage psychopath, when Black people are already associated with crime? Similarly, for “Fear Her,” do we want to associate Black people with domestic violence and dysfunctional families? To me Colonel Manton and teenage Melody Pond are instances where the Black actors performed wonderfully in their roles, but were limited by how their roles were written, and I don’t know what the writers were thinking of in “Fear Her.”
Leaving race aside for a moment – I also think that there is a problem with gender in Doctor Who, despite the inclusion of strong women like River Song and Martha Jones. It seems that people who fail to be “the best of humanity” have often been women in recent years, and not because they were indecisive or passive. For example, Harriet Jones, who blew up the Sycorax even though they were retreating (Christmas Special between seasons 1 and 2), Ambrose who murders a Silurian soldier (who was also female, while Ambrose’s father and husband were sort of the hapless sort), and Miranda, who sparks conflict with the Flesh in S06E5-6. While many of the minor male characters were just hapless, these women seem to be portrayed as failed humans precisely because they were too opinionated and too ready to act. Also, I’m still not sure about Amy’s character. Despite being feisty and strong-willed, she often doesn’t actually contribute to solving the problem. This bothers me, but I haven’t thought about this as much as I thought about race and ethnicity.
Another complaint from the essay collection was not necessarily about race per se, but about how Doctor Who situates itself relative to culture. Something about the Doctor loving cricket being an indication of the show’s British imperialist tendencies? Again, the book just being released means I’m not sure exactly how the argument goes.
Cricket doesn’t show up a lot in the revived series, however tea certainly comes up a lot as a signature of British culture. Something like this is what makes DW a very British scifi show, because even though Americans drink tea, it’s not such a part of American culture that it needs to be repeatedly mentioned, even to laugh at it. To be fair, in whatever context cricket came up, tea comes up ironically as a way to laugh at how British people seem to think that tea is the solution to all physical and psychological ailments. For example, Rose’s mother brings tea on board the TARDIS during the Christmas special, while the new 10th Doctor is still unconscious from regeneration. Mickey comments, “Tea. We’re having a picnic while the world’s coming to an end. That’s very British.” However tea ends up being exactly what the Doctor needs to regain consciousness, so its therapeutic value seems to be restored at the end of the episode. This contributes to the same issue mentioned earlier, that the Doctor is non-human but this total otherness is gotten around by his appearance being that of a White man. In this case, while his biology is non-human, this is gotten around by him actually needing tea, making him more like “us,” or more like the British. Especially since that the Time Lords are life-forms superior to humans (technologically, of course, but also cognitively, in that they can sort of see all of space-time laid out before them, and also biologically, having 2 hearts and able to cheat death a certain number of times by regenerating), basically in having tea being what the Doctor needs is having a part of British culture being validated by a superior alien culture. If Cricket is associated with British imperialism, I can’t think of any current food component more embroiled in imperialism and colonialism than tea. Maybe coffee, or tobacco. Or bananas… or cotton…well actually a ton of things, which is actually quite telling of how Western culture has gotten to where it has. Anyways, why tea is so British isn’t interrogated, just that Time Lords need it too and it does have therapeutic value despite jokes being made about it.
Another time that tea comes up in the Moffat era is in S06E11, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory are pulled into a maze-like place that looks like an 80s hotel, with other people trapped inside. One of them is Rita, who seems to be a medical school student or a nurse, and who identifies as Muslim. First of all, I really do like her as a character and I think audiences are meant to, as when the Doctor seems to evaluate her as a potentially more resourceful companion than Amy and tells Amy jokingly that she’s fired. Her identity as a Muslim is also handled well, as when the Doctor guesses that she’s Muslim, she jokes, “Don’t be frightened.” Her strong Muslim faith is also figured strongly in the plot, as it helps her accept her demise in a dignified manner (I suppose, though, her faith is what gets her killed, though every kind of faith gets people killed in that episode, so it’s not like the story was hinting that being a Muslim would make someone especially in danger of getting killed). Anyways, as everyone is running around confused and terrified of a minotaur-like creature, Rita offers to help everyone calm down with tea, and also says that “I’m British. It’s how we cope with trauma” (above). I find this slightly at odds with her identifying as a Muslim. Obviously I’m not saying that Muslim people don’t or aren’t supposed to like tea, and I’m also not saying that there can’t be hybrid identities. However I find it a bit of a mystery why a devout young Muslim woman would necessarily subscribe to the specifically British culture around tea. If she thinks that the hotel is Jahannem (something like Hell in Islam) and her faith is powerful, why would tea still be what she uses to cope with trauma? Or, in other words, tea seems like a universalizing component of British culture in this episode, again without interrogating its associations with imperialism and colonialism.
To return to Shakespeare for a moment, it’s obvious to see that the literary figures featured in Doctor Who are often the canonized White people, such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I suppose Agatha Christie was a good choice as a woman writer of genre literature, but we’ll never see the Doctor and his companion visiting, like, Salman Rushdie or something.
Otherwise, in general I do find the new Doctor Who rather Britain-centric (though one thing I find more accessible about the Steven Moffat era is that it focuses less on Britain ), and this comes up when it makes quips about Americans. I’m all for people making quips about Americans in other media because so much of global media is controlled by Americans, but anyways. First, during the same Christmas special with all the going-ons about tea, the Sycorax are on the verge of invading Earth and Harriet Jones, prime minister of Great Britain, gets a call from the president of the US saying he wants to take command of the situation, which she responds to with “He’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.” In the first episode of Season 6, where the Doctor lands in President Nixon’s office but is confident that he won’t be shot, River Song runs out of the TARDIS to remind him that “They’re Americans!” The implication is that Americans are a violent culture and the British are not. However, given Harriet Jones’s actions at the end of the episode, where she orders Torchwood to fire on the Sycorax ship when it is retreating, puts this into doubt. Of course, the Doctor disapproves of her actions, and the audience is meant to as well. However there remains something of the tragic hero in Harriet Jones, as her decision to fire on the Sycorax ship comes from the conclusion that humanity needs to show the universe that it can defend itself, even without the Doctor, which in of itself is a valid conclusion. She also sacrifices herself to defend Earth from the Daleks at the end of Season 4. Given the quips about American tendencies for violence in DW, Harriet Jones’s actions are represented as a personal failing rather than a cultural one. However, given real life situations like Tony Blair buddying up with Bush for military action in Iraq, it’s pretty obvious that one human culture, especially those in industrialized Western societies, isn’t significantly more pacifist than another culture. Maybe Canadians. Anyway, an extreme argument could be that DW is erasing a history of British violence by displacing it onto Americans, while rationalizing it as needing to teach children about pacifism.
Personally I wouldn’t go so far, but what disturbs me more is how Harriet Jones assumes that she could speak for Earth, if the President of the US is not fit for this job. When the Sycorax asks for the leader of Earth, she steps forward, despite 1/3 of all of Earth’s population being hypnotized (more or less) by the Sycorax. When she is teleported onto the Sycorax ship, she is given the choice of having the 1/3 of the human race kill themselves or having 1/2 sold into slavery (above). All through this process, there was nothing like “Earth doesn’t work this way” or “I need to consult the leaders of other countries first.” Saying so wouldn’t even have changed the plot, as Rose and the Doctor are also teleported onto the ship soon after and the Doctor takes over the situation. In addition, Harriet Jones characterizes the Guinevere I space probe as “This country’s limitless ambition, British workmanship sailing out there among the stars,” and I have a feeling that the audience is suppose to agree at this point. To me this is still the remnants of British imperialism at work – the space probe can be seen as a 21st-century equivalent of ships from Europe in the “Age of Discovery” in the 15th and 16th centuries. And if it finds any alien life forms, Britain will speak for Earth, thank you kindly. Thankfully DW isn’t like this all through the other seasons, though. In S05E09, when miners in Whales stumble upon a civilization of Silurians under the Earth’s crust (Silurians are evolved from lizard species in prehistoric ages rather than from mammals like humans were, and went into hibernation because they believed that an asteroid was going to destroy Earth), the Doctor says that he doesn’t represent humanity but Amy Pond and Nasreen Chaudhry are good representatives to bargain with the Silurians about how to potentially share the Earth. It was nice to see that while saving the Earth multiple times, the Doctor here doesn’t presume that he could represent human interests. (As a way to apply this scifi story to current events: as of writing this, we are still in the midst of the Edward Snowden issue. Apparently one of the arguments against him was that it was unconstitutional for random 29-year-olds to decide what national secrets to reveal, but supporters of Snowden argue that the American Constitution ensures that lone dissenters still need to be heard even if they are average folk.) This doesn’t mean that everything’s right with this episode, though. Amy’s solution for sharing the Earth was to ask the Silurians to live in areas that are uninhabitable for humans. While I’m sure the Silurians have terraforming technology or something along those lines, Amy’s assumption that they could survive in those places humans can’t is strange, especially since the underground environment resembles a rain forest. More importantly for race and ethnicity though, asking the pre-existing Silurians to live in the Sahara Desert it sounds disturbingly like exploiting the land’s resources while herding Native North Americans onto reservations. Being British, perhaps the Doctor Who team didn’t pick up on this similarity.
Going back to race and ethnicity, though, it is interesting to see that the representation of race and ethnicity in DW is also very embedded in British specificity when we look at how different Asians are represented. First of all, while there are more South Asians (including an Indian Space Agency in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (S07E02), Torchwood scientist Rajesh Singh in the finale episodes of the 2nd season, Solana in S04E02, the housekeeper Miss Chandrakala in S04E07, Nasreen Chaudhry in S05E8-9, and perhaps also Rita in S06E11 and Martha’s colleague in S03E01) there are very few East Asians. I can only think of 3 characters in all 7 seasons of the new DW, which is Toshiko Sato from Torchwood before Torchwood was a show (in S01E04), Lorna Bucket in S06E07 , Alexei in S07E06. Lorna Bucket is a soldier in the army of the Church in the future (which is something I often wonder how Christian critics of Doctor Who would handle), and she looks mixed race and the character isn’t from Earth, so that was a nice inclusion. However, Alexei is a computer tech guy, and Toshiko is a lab technician, which seem to be instances of rather stereotypical casting. I’m not necessarily criticising the lack of East Asian characters, not yet anyway, because to me they are just indicative that Britain understands Asia differently from Americans. In North America, if one says that someone is Asian, the listener would most likely think of East Asians first. However, Great Britain used to hold imperial power in South Asia, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still a part of the Commonwealth, with and so South Asians might be more familiar to the average White British person than East Asians. (However, from a quick look at a poll reported on Wikipedia’s page on England, there has been an increased number of Chinese immigrants.) Leaving aside DW for a moment, I remember reading The Grey King (by Susan Cooper, published in 1975 and set in Wales) in elementary school and feeling very glad that a character criticizes some children for calling new South Asian immigrants “Pakis.” So, without a lot of knowledge on the issue, I’m going to tentatively say that the representaion of South Asians in British media is, if not decent, at least prevalent.
The relative distance of East Asia to Britain does become a problem, however, in an episode like S04E10, “Turn Left.” In this episode, the Doctor takes Donna to a planet ostensibly inhabited by future descendants of Asians, most likely Chinese (above), where Donna gets her fortune told. However the fortune teller actually sics a giant beetle-like creature onto Donna to eat away at her past. I found this episode rather offensive to East Asians for multiple reasons. First is the architecture of the planet – it is supposed to be a society of the future, however it looks like China in the 1600s (there’s even one extra with a queue). This represent a common complaint about non-Western cultures in scifi, which is that while Western cultures are imagined as continuing to develop technologically, non-Western cultures are imagined to be distinct only by virtue of their traditions, and hence even in the future they look traditional. Another point related to this is that the brief street scenes in the episode show Donna and the Doctor being offered various foods and items from merchants in charts. Basically, in addition to the inability to represent Asian-specific modernity (and futurity), this episode also shows the inability to imagine Asian culture as something other than a tourist economy offering stuff to White visitors, which is probably what tourists in Asia see, Or the inability to imagine an Asian society that doesn’t look like a Chinatown, which has developed a tourist economy for sustenance. Third, the whole fortune telling thing recreates the figure of the mysterious and inscrutable Asian, again based on some sort of tradition, plus a dose of threat as the fortune teller is trying to prey on Donna (below – and this is the fortune teller’s expression for most of her appearances. Another example of good acting but limited by the part). Fourth, speaking characters all speak with an accent. The TARDIS translation matrix translates Latin into English without a Latin accent in S04E02, “The Fires of Pompeii,” so I’m not sure why an “Asian” accent remains in “Turn Left.” And that Pompeii family is made out to resemble a contemporary generic Western family too, with the husband going for class mobility and buying big art to show for it, a slightly emo teenage son, sibling rivalry, etc. No such similarities for Asians.
This was just one episode in Doctor Who, however I see this kind of representation of East Asians elsewhere. In Sherlock, also run by Steven Moffat (together with Mark Gatiss), the second episode of the first season had Chinese tea sets in the British Museum, mysterious symbols related to international underground trafficking, and Chinese acrobats/ninjas/triad members who perform cruel and unusual means of torture on Watson’s girlfriend. Despite the Sherlock series being very smart, the thoughtlessness of Asian representation in this episode dumbed it down ideologically. Similarly, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (also called LXG, and I mean the comic by Alan Moore, who is British, not the movie, which was Americanized in part by the addition of Tom Sawyer), a large portion of the first volume had to do with Chinese underground activity in the limehouse district of Victorian London, plus an appearance by Fu Manchu. Given the more complex and sensitive treatment of Jekyll/Hyde in the comic and the expanded role of Mina Murray, I was especially annoyed that Fu Manchu wasn’t really altered form his character in the novels and remained a villain played straight, out to take over the British empire. Possibly fuelling anti-immigration debates in England, don’t you think? This seems to be an inherited image of Chinese people that is particular to the British.
In fact, this idea of Victorian-era Chinese criminals in Limehouse is also in Doctor Who, just not in the episodes. Apparently the character of Jenny Flint, feisty Victorian-era Cockney girl and accomplice and romantic partner to Madam Vastra, met Madam Vastra while Vastra was saving her from Chinese gangsters (this is from The Brilliant Book 2012, which I read on the DW Wiki). This was the most disappointing instance of bad representation in Doctor Who for me, because I love Jenny and Vastra as a couple, especially since the production team was pushing queer inter-species romance with them (Vastra is a Silurian). Race was even brought up for Vastra and Jenny – in “A Good Man Goes to War,” Vastra quips that mammals all look the same to her, which offends Jenny, and Vastra apologizes. To me this is like addressing stupid comments like “All Asians look the same.” The back story of how Jenny and Vastra meet is disappointing because the they really do seem to be an example of how Doctor Who can transcend conventions related to race and sexuality, until it relies on vilifying Chinese people to bring the two together.
I’m not saying that Americans have a better understanding of East Asians or that it hasn’t had Fu Manchu ideas about Chinese people, but because of the history of indentured labourers, internment, and Asians in particularly professions, America has different stereotypes of East Asians. In addition, because there are more East Asians in America than in Britain, plus having a history of activism around representation, typecasting, and the like, I can’t see an episode like the 2nd one of Sherlock being released without protests or petitions. American television might be slightly better at representing ethnicities because of this, for example Asian characters in Grey’s Anatomy (though I remember reading an essay that said Sandra Oh’s character is the stereotype of the overly technical Asian doctor whereas other White doctors were more spontaneous), Lost having Kwon Jin-soo and Kwon Sun-hwa. Sadly, two American scifi series I actually watched every episode of didn’t have many Asians in them either, which are Firefly and Fringe. For Firefly this is especially annoying as China is supposed to be one of two world powers. Anyways, obviously this series is very American because its premise is what would happen if revolutionary fighters lost something like the War of Independence, with the good guys still fighting for personal agency and political self-rule.
For Fringe, my main complaint isn’t the lack of recurring Asian characters, but the weird optimism that the show ended on, which I attribute to its American cultural locus. I know it was a rushed ending and the fifth season barely made it on air, but it contradicts what the characters ought to have learned from everything that came before. Anyways, in Fringe, the premise of all the problems is that the fringe scientist Walter Bishop upsets two whole parallel universes because he crossed between them to save his son. At the end of the show, he takes a boy into the future to wipe out the Observers, who are vastly intelligent but emotionless people that humanity develops into some time in the future, which come back to the present day to invade humanity. For me, Walter and everyone else should have learned about the butterfly effect by now, which is that trying to fix a problem could potentially create a larger one, and one should not play God. Hence, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to anyone that trying to wipe out the Observers could potentially create an even bigger problem. The reason I feel that this is very American is that this seems to be how America as a nation operates – it continues trying to right wrongs all over the world even though it has been faced with disasters in the past such as the Vietnam War. America as a nation that continues hoping that it could be the hero, and so the ending of Fringe is with the Fringe team not heeding the lessons of the past and going off to help humanity and be heroes.
One might ask, which adventure story does not end on continuing resistance against domination and heroic optimism? This question does have a point. However, for example The Water Margin, one of the 4 Chinese classics, actually has rebels co-operating with the government to put down other rebels and all rebellions mostly put down by the end. Although I haven’t read any academic articles about this, I do believe that one reason this story is propagated by the Communist government is that it both lauds resistance against corrupt bureaucracies, which the Communists in China began as, and simultaneously lauds the ability of a government to pacify rebellion by using rebellion wisely and staying in power that way, which is what the Chinese government is trying to do. The lesson from this example is not that the Communist party is wrong in promoting literature this way (although I do think it is), but that every culture promotes certain values in literature and often within the culture itself, audiences take those values for granted. Although they might appear to be universal, the values promoted in scifi shows like Fringe and Firefly are very American.
From these examples (plus the Hollywood adaptation of LXG adding Tom Sawyer) it is obvious that science fiction is very much embedded in the culture in which they are created. Just another non-Western example to make my point – if Chinese people are villains in Doctor Who and Sherlock, then American are the villains in Doraemon. In the story about Nobuta finding a fossil of a dinosaur egg and hatching it with Doraemon’s time-reversing technology, the evil dinosaur poachers who are after his dinosaur are portrayed to look like bandits from American Westerns. Just like how the DW episode “Turn Left” establishes an future Asian/Chinese culture based on visual cues without saying what Earthian culture it derives from (lol, since there’s a New New York, is this supposed to be New Beijing?), Doraemon also establishes a future culture that resembles Americans without saying they are Americans. So, I’m not sure whether the essay collection on Doctor Who and Race will cover this, but if Doctor Who is racist, it is not just racist but racist in a very British sense.
That’s all for now. I would like to read the collection before posting Part II, so hopefully I can find a copy and get to Part II soon.