Martha Jones and the Culture of Casual Racism

There’s a lot of opinionated posts out there on Martha Jones. Some people think that she was the worst out of all of Ten’s companions, and some people think she was drastically underrated, but almost all the opinions on Martha center around her race. Martha was the first major companion of color on Doctor Who (Mickey Smith, a previous companion of color, only traveled with the Doctor for three episodes).

And to be fair, Doctor Who had its share of racism problems with Martha—for example, when Martha and the Doctor land in 1599 in “The Shakespeare Code”, Martha asks the Doctor if she’d be all right walking about London. The Doctor responds “Just walk about like you own the place, works for me”—ignoring the fact that it mostly likely works for him because he’s taken the form of a white male.

Martha Jones, resident BAMF.

Martha Jones, the heroine of this story.

I used to think that Doctor Who had done a terrible job portraying racism with Martha, but after rewatching Series 3, I started to change my mind. Yes, Doctor Who hadn’t portrayed much overt racism with Martha, but perhaps that was the best option from a storytelling perspective. I wouldn’t have wanted the show to smack the viewer over the head every episode with “We are in the past! Look at this racism!”, and I also wouldn’t have wanted them to avoid taking Martha into the past, so I think the writers managed to strike a fair medium between the two. What Doctor Who did show us was a fairly accurate portrayal of casual racism.

What do I mean by casual racism? I mean sentiments such as thinking people of mixed race are “so exotic”; assuming that all Chinese people can sew because they’ve all worked in sweatshops, and saying things like “I’m not racist, but a black man as president isn’t a good idea” (sidenote: if you preface anything with “I’m not racist but…” it’s a surefire hint that whatever follows will definitely be racist). Casual racism is anything that’s not intended to be offensive, but ends up being so anyway. I’m not saying that casual racism is more or less hurtful than overt racism—it’s all racism, and it’s all hurtful. Casual racism is, however, less noticed, and thus, more insidious.

Also, this is a photograph of British graffiti from 1972. Joan Redford almost certainly held casually racist attitudes in 1913.

Also, this is a photograph of British graffiti from 1972. Joan Redford almost certainly held casually racist attitudes in 1913.

In “Human Nature”, which takes place in 1913, nurse Joan Redford tells Martha, “Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color”, casting a negative light on Martha’s at-the-time working-class status and her skin color. In a discussion with blogger K. Tempest Bradford, scriptwriter Paul Cornell said that women and women of color were indeed becoming doctors in 1913. Other bloggers then took up arms to claim that if so, the statement was inconceivably racist of Joan, a character who the Doctor loved and who must therefore be a good person.

The problem is, Joan lived in a culture where overt racist comments, such as the one made by schoolboy Jeremy Baines to Martha earlier in the episode, were most likely quite common. Even if women of color were becoming doctors in 1913, society as a whole might not have approved of them, and that disapproving attitude would have fed into the culture and acceptable statements of the time. I’m sure Joan wouldn’t think of herself as racist, but the fact is, because she holds these subconscious ideals, she is. She was most likely being casually racist without realizing it.

A similar thing happens in “The Shakespeare Code”, set in 1599. When Shakespeare meets the Doctor and Martha, he asks the Doctor, “Who are you, exactly? More’s the point, who is your delicious blackamoor lady?” Here Shakespeare is using “blackamoor”, an accepted term at the time, to describe Martha. Throughout the episode, he feeds Martha a series of increasingly sappy lines to try and get Martha to like him, and it seems like Martha is flattered by the attention. While I appreciated that in the end, Martha is implied to have been the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” sonnets, Shakespeare’s attitude toward Martha is less likable. Shakespeare only ever asked Martha about her “exotic” appearance and about “Freedonia”, her fictional homeland, which taken together makes Shakespeare’s attraction to Martha seem less flattering and more a form of Othering—i.e., Shakespeare only liked Martha because she looked new and different, not because he liked any of her personality traits.

"I guess I'll be happy that some guy wants to bone me, because why not, right?"

“I guess I’ll be happy that some guy is coming on to me, because why not, right?”

And then there’s the Doctor. Remember what I said earlier about prefacing a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…”? The Doctor’s attitude towards racism is basically one gigantic “I’m not racist, but…” preface. Doctor, please, that doesn’t actually excuse any of your actions. Yes, he was just getting over Rose, but just because he was in a bad place doesn’t give him carte blanche to be a dick to other people.

The Doctor constantly treated Martha as second best, by telling her he’d take her for “just one trip” at first, by never letting her choose where she wanted to go, by never giving her the credit she deserved (or enough credit—just a “thank you” after the entire “Family of Blood” debacle?!). Other researchers have brought up the point that Martha is always taking care of the Doctor, whether it’s helping him hide (and later realize) his identity in “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”, getting a job in a shop in 1969 in “Blink” to support herself and the Doctor, or risking herself to get food for Jack and the Doctor in “The Sound of Drums”. Why is it that Martha was the one who was always sacrificing herself and her wants to those of the Doctor’s? Why is a subordinate caretaker role the only role acceptable for a black woman?

"No need to ask who you are. The famous Martha Jones. You're a bit of a legend. Martha Jones, they say, she's going to save the world..."

“No need to ask who you are. The famous Martha Jones. Martha Jones, they say, she’s going to save the world…”
- Tom Milligan, “Last of the Time Lords”

Additionally, as a character, Martha suffered from incredibly erratic writing ranging from “great” and “okay” to “shoddy” and “wow, so, so shoddy”—sometimes whole scenes were written in which the only thing she was allowed to do was pine over the Doctor. (See: the end of “The Family of Blood”; most of “Gridlock”, etc.) With writing that inconsistent, and with Martha looking to edge in on a ship (Doctor/Rose) that was almost universally adored by fandom, it’s understandable that many viewers disliked or outright hated Martha.

But I think that dismissing Martha due to romantic complications or bad scripts discounts the overall impact of finally having a person of color as a major companion. Series 3 of Doctor Who depicted a depressingly accurate view of the world—a world in which people of color are tolerated, but not fully accepted. The viewers’ reactions against this depiction of reality reveal their own subconscious stereotypes to themselves and to others.

“I spent a lot of time with you thinking I was second best, but you know what? I am good.”
– Martha to the Doctor, “Last of the Time Lords”

Yet if this view of the world depresses you, consider this: Martha was the one companion with agency of her own prior to meeting the Doctor, the Tenth Doctor’s only companion to not come from a working-class family, and she was the only one of the Doctor’s companions in the entirety of the Doctor Who reboot to walk away from the Doctor of her own power. Freema Agyeman, Martha’s actress, has said that young black children write to her and say that they want to be like her when they grow up. And for these children, children who might be disheartened by Doctor Who‘s casual racism, Martha showed that even in a casually racist environment, you can still be successful—and maybe even save the world.

36 thoughts on “Martha Jones and the Culture of Casual Racism

  1. Wow, I completely missed the racism revolving around this character. I must not have been paying very close attention as I inhaled the episodes as fast as possible. She definitely wasn’t my favorite companion, but then again I haven’t really loved any of the doctor’s companions.

      • Personally I missed the racism to and was more upset by the constant under cutting of this strong character with the “Doctor please love me routine” she deserved for more than that. I did like Rose (still have not finished Martha arc yet) but the more I have watch Martha the more like lean toward her character. She was also quicker to be independent than Rose was. As for Donna, I know she rates highly with most surveys I have seen but she is my least favorite character period in Doctor Who old and new not just least favorite companion. Even the really bad old ones at least were ignore-able Donna just grates my nerves in every episode I have watched with her.

    • The companions in New Who have been REALLY overstaying their welcome. The Doctor supposedly needs companions to possibly keep him from becoming a deluded megalomaniac or perhaps like the Master, BUT their stays aboard the TARDIS should be limited, like River Song’s & Jack Harkness’.

  2. Congratulations on this piece. Amazing. I never really thought of the racism of her season like that. Martha is my favorite new companion. She was just a brilliant character and it sucks that she gets treated the way she does by the show and the fanbase.

    • Thanks very much for reading! Martha and Rose are my favorites, and while Rose does get her fair share of haters, it seems like no one gets hate like Martha. Disheartening, to say the least.

  3. The casual racism in the fish and chips scene from SOD is especially concerning. Perhaps because I doubt RTD gave it a second thought when crafting the scene. Of course, Martha would go out to get the food. There’s no logic behind it — she’s just as wanted by the police as the Doctor and Jack, and of the three, is less capable of defending herself (no sexism here but she doesn’t have a handy sonic screwdriver or immortality). And if time is a factor (the Doctor or Jack needing it to formulate a plan), it’s not stressed on screen. There’s also the reality that if three people are public fugitives, the black woman is the most likely to be spotted.

    Oh, and Martha’s family has just been captured by a psychopath. Instead of comforting her, the Doctor — the supposed hero of the show — sends her out for food. Do we think RTD would have written the same scene with Rose?

    I frequently wondered *why* Martha loved The Doctor, and this scene is just one of many examples of The Doctor having limited affection for her. She can certainly admire the dashing heroic Time Lord and enjoy the adventures they have, but it bothered me that she wasn’t presented as mature enough to not fall for someone who clearly didn’t care about her. Yes, it happens, but there’s no real arc for a character to realize she shouldn’t have a crush on a rock star who otherwise doesn’t know she exists,

    Compare this to Rose, who is clearly shown to fall for someone who loves her, who treats her as if she hangs the stars.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s been said (by Moffat, surprisingly) that the Doctor isn’t the main character of the show–the companions are, and that’s certainly true in that the companions are the ones who get the meaningful and fulfilling character arcs. Rose and Donna choose to travel with the Doctor in search of more substantial lives–Rose is an unemployed shopgirl when she meets Nine, and Donna’s a temp who’s thoroughly convinced of her own worthlessness when she meets Ten. Both are of the working class. Martha, on the other hand, is from an upper-class family, is the center of reason for her own family, and is well on her way to becoming a doctor and having a meaningful career of her own before she meets the Doctor. She chooses to travel with the Doctor only out of a love of adventure. Given that, there’s no easy coming-of-age story for her to slip into; she doesn’t need the Doctor in the same way that Rose and Donna do. So I suspect that’s why the writers decided to give her the spurned rebound plotline as a sort of pseudo-fulfilling character arc–even though, like you say, it makes absolutely no sense for her to love someone who treats her like she’s less than nothing.

      • Moffat’s comment harkens back to the show’s creation — in which the Doctor is a mysterious character and most of the action came from the companions. The First Doctor story “The Aztecs” is a good example. Barbara’s actions set things in motion, and Barbara’s failed goal is the backbone of the story.

        I agree about Martha’s storyarc compared to Rose and Donna. I think it’s important for creators to consider the larger impact of their work. After all, a story is essentially a form of communication between the author and the audience. It’s not enough to have the first “black” companion and broadcast that fact. You should also be aware of what that means to the black female viewers who see themselves as Martha.

        Ironically, if Martha had been exceptionally snooty and obnoxious, the resulting season would have had a more effective “coming of age” story. She would have learned humility by traveling with the Doctor and living on the margins of society during the Year that Never Was (I imagine a Cordelia Chase-type evolution). But that wasn’t how Martha was presented. And that’s not really the story you want to tell with the first black companion… especially after how Mickey was depicted.

        Now Martha’s legacy is that she is the least impactful of all NuWho companions (Rose, Donna, Amy, River, and now Clara).

          • It also occurs to me that the more popular of The Doctor’s companions are working-class or lower middle class people (Rose and Donna). Whether that’s intentional or not, it allows us to “root” for them. Martha’s family was upper middle class and hit all the appropriate negative notes (estranged parents, flighty sister, austere mother). There’s no Wilf or Jackie among them.

            Much of what we associate with “race” is closely connected with “class.” Rose and Donna hit more of the “ethnic” notes than Martha. Jackie and Donna especially I can picture played by black women (especially in the U.S.). Of course, that “sassiness,” which might come across as a stereotype if the actors are black, are somewhat more acceptable from white characters. Martha can’t escape her race — it’s always there — but she must also be the “perfect model” of it in a way that a black Donna would not be allowed. And I would have LOVED to have seen a black Donna give Joan what for in HUMAN NATURE/FAMILY OF BLOOD.

            That two-parter also reminds me of the Doctor’s callousness when taking Martha to a past where her race could have put her at risk (THE SHAKESPEARE CODE, arguably DALEKS IN MANHATTAN, though race seems ignored in the episode). It would have been interesting — and I’d like to think more in character — if The Doctor had been intentionally taking Martha to culturally “safe” places (the far future of Earth or the past of different planets) so the materialization in HUMAN NATURE/FAMILY OF BLOOD would have revealed some degree of previous consideration from The Doctor.

  4. I pretty much dislike all of the Doctor’s companions, mostly because they seem to overstay their welcome. I would prefer a Doctor Who like the 10th Doctor’s specials, where he finds a new interesting person in each episode and they’re gone by the end, or at most by the end of the following episode. It seems to me that the Doctor being a Time Lord, he could travel with any number of interesting species from any point in the history of the universe, yet he seems dully fascinated with early 21st century British women (and men, in Rory’s case). Also he seems to alternately praise and demean humanity depending on his mood, calling them “stupid apes”, then praising them for their imagination and drive.

    He also seems more than willing to completely forget about his Companion, whoever it may be, at even the slightest hint that another Time Lord could possibly join him.mhisntears over the Master were slightly jarring given how little reaction he had to quite probably never seeing Rose Tyler again. Also the easy way he slipped into overt racism in “The Family of Blood” (“The nerve! The absolute cheek!”) makes me think that even locked up inside the Doctor there is a bit of very human disdain for non-white, non-British people. Otherwise, why regenerate into a good-looking white British male every regeneration? when is been suggested that regeneration is a choice (The Master’s death) and its been suggested that the regeneration can be wildly different each time (he always seems surprise that he’s still male, or even that he has two legs and two arms each time, yet his regeneration shave been largely non-variant the last, oh, 9 times).

    Wow, this got wildly off topic.

    • I’m not sure if I agree with you, but you definitely have an interesting opinion. I can easily imagine the show only doing one-episode companions and being just as good as it is in it’s current state. I do strongly object to the fact that all of his companions always come from the ‘present day’. I was so hopeful watching The Snowmen. I thought we would finally have a companion from a different time period. So much for that. For the record: Time Lords are always humanoid, and physical characteristics probably aren’t subject to willful change.

      • True, but they’re only “always humanoid” as a conceit of the writing, I think. I seem to remember the 9th Doctor mentioning that he could end up being something completely different, but now that I think about it I think he made some throwaway comment about “having two heads” and that read for me as regenerating as a non-human figure.

        I think part of the reason I’m never totally sold on the Doctor’s companions is simply that – they’re just mildly boring. Another human from another part of modern day England, lovely. Why couldn’t one of Chan-to’s race be a companion? And yes, I understand the concept of an “audience surrogate”, but hardly anyone at all throughout the series seems to know what the hell the Doctor is on about most of the time anyway. Having a human companion is understandable in the context of it being a show (“we need good looking people with mass appeal to keep people watching”) but in terms of science-fiction it feels more Hitchhikers Guide than anything of substance – everyone, everywhere, everywhen is mildly British in nature.

        I could be completely over thinking it.

        • The 1st and 2nd Doctors each had companions from different time periods. In fact, after Ben and Pollu left, the 2nd had none from the present day. The 3rd was Earth-based, so the options were limited, but the 4th and 5th had non-human, non-present day companions. Once Peri arrived, we were stuck with the current formula.

          However, Jamie, Leela, and Romana are among the most popular companions. Yes, Sarah Jane Smith has special appeal, but the facts bear out that companion diversity had worked in the past.

          • I’ll admit my familiarity with the Doctor is pretty recent. I only had that passing cultural knowledge of the Doctor most sci-fi fans did – I knew about the Master, the Daleks, the TARDIS, though only vaguely.

            From the sound of it I may like the early Doctors more when I get a chance to journey with them than the later Doctors.

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  6. Very true.
    And the hate Martha(on one poll, her, then Mickey rated the least favorite companions–that’s got to be because of racism) gets is terrible. There is definitely racism among the fans, sad to say. Part of the reason as probably also that she actually walked away from the Doctor, instead of refusing to leave. Which really was a very, very good decision.
    She was pretty epic in my opinion. The hate she gets really annoys me.

  7. I loved Martha, she’s one of my faves to be honest!
    Although I hadn’t thought about the racism, you opened my eyes to it, but I still think Martha is one of the strongest companions, Yes she is hopelessly in love with the Doctor who doesn’t care for her in that way at all, nor does he become particularly close to her as a friend (compared to other companions) but she is really one of the few female companions who was doing something “real” with her life BEFORE she met the doctor (studying to be a doctor rather than just moping about doing whatever (rose/donna/amy etc) and she also went back to doing something that mattered AFTER she left the doctor, like working with torchwood/fighting against alien attacks. Sure the Doctor doesn’t really approve of her doing so and he might be right in certain aspects but doesn’t stop her doing it…

    On an slightly off topic side note: I do agree with what you write about casual racism, however I also think that sometimes we tend to “make” racism appear where it might not have been or been intended to be.

    You can pretty much find anything to be racist/offensive/ or some form of sectarianism if you look hard enough and are willing to find it. Not saying that you are not right but sometimes I think people need to stop trying to make things an issue where there wasn’t one to start with.
    There is such a thing as being too politically correct, it will then just end up going the other way and actually become the very thing you might be trying to avoid/overcome.

    • Hi Malin, thanks for reading and commenting. I think we too often see the phrases “You’re being too sensitive” or “Stop thinking so much about it”–the problem with these phrases is that they put the onus of blame directly on the whistleblower, which lets the actual creator of said problematic media get off scot-free. So I think your idea that “one can be too politically correct” is only relevant in context. The Doctor in the form of a white British male and Martha as his first black companion cannot be considered outside of its historical context (that is, centuries of slavery, subjugation, and discrimination against one race by the other) because anyone who’s watching the program is going to come to it with preconceptions about people of color which are born of that historical context.

      Where race is concerned, saying “I don’t see race” isn’t helpful because it erases an actual problem and prevents any constructive dialogue–saying “You’re just too sensitive” usually implies that the conversation is closed. Can a staff of white authors write good plotlines for characters of color? Of course–if they consider the inherent privilege with which they themselves view the world and write with some amount of empathy and forethought. Unfortunately, writers who come from privilege rarely seem to be in the habit of considering their own privilege, and as such I find that mountains are rarely made out of molehills in race and gender studies. Having said that, if the writers’ intent was to make Martha a strong character who could stand up to racism and still save the world, then I think they succeeded–but even if they didn’t intend to, they wrote the Doctor and his compatriots with casually racist attitudes towards Martha, and that’s problematic and deserves to be talked about. And if they truly thought no one would interpret Martha’s series from this standpoint, then one has to ask, in our society, just how deep do the roots of casual racism go?

  8. I didn’t think they showed enough racism when they went into the past, but at the same time I’m happy they didn’t. Martha was one of my favorite companions, and the 10th doctor is by far my least favorite of the ones from the current show. I think 9 would of handled her much better on screen. Maybe they should have showed Jack and Martha have a little bit of on screen romance rather than have Martha always wishing the Doctor noticed her? Sort of like Donna and Jack had a small scene where she was attracted to him. I think the most reason people may not like Martha is because they were still too into Rose.

    Martha does get her happy ending where they show her married to Mickey and Ten does save them both. In that moment you know he did care about her.

    I really don’t see why 10 is considered so popular. He was ok. He was whiny at the end (like the whole last season with him I struggled to get through it due his melodrama) and in the beginning I didn’t like how he treated Martha (though I’m glad he didn’t fall for her right after Rose.)

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  10. I absolutely agree with everything you said in this post. I felt that racism throughout the series and it bothered me so much. Especially, in “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood.” I understand that it was timely and the characters are acting as a product of their time. Even after The Doctor became The Doctor again, he didn’t apologize for his comments to Martha. What I love about this post is that you’ve brought up something other fans might have missed because they didn’t see it. I wonder is it because I’m not part of white privilege society that I noticed this more than others because I see it more daily life. Fans might dismiss the racism because they just don’t see it. It’s still crazy to me that no one really noticed the racism in season 3, no matter what color you are.

    I believe Martha was the best companion the doctor could have ever found (I have not watched passed series 3, but from the blogs and post I feel like no one can compare). There is no way Rose could have handled the situations Martha had to. Rose couldn’t live without the doctor saving her. I only remember a few times where Rose did something on her own and that’s for 3 whole seasons. Martha on the other hand I only remember her contributing and showing her strengths. I don’t remember him ever saying thank you to Rose or expressing his fear with her like he did with Martha. I think he actually trusted Martha a lot more then Rose. Sure, he believed Rose could do anything. But The Doctor knew Martha could do anything.

    If Martha wasn’t overshadowed by Rose’s character, then The Doctor could have seen how brilliant she really was. But I’m glad Martha had the courage to get out. Intelligent, courageous, and beautiful. Martha was the perfect companion.

    Thank you for this post!

  11. This is a great entry and thank you for writing it! Martha has always been my favorite companion but this has always bugged me about the Doctor’s treatment of her. The only thing I disagree with here is the idea of Doctor/Rose as a universally beloved ship. I have always been, to put it nicely, as far from being a fan of this ship as is humanly possible and most of the Whovians I know and watch with feel the same way.

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  13. First of all I love Dr. Who, but I don’ like the way that the black characters on the show are portrayed. Moreover, I think Martha was a great companion. I also felt that she was given a “raw deal” for most of her tenure on the show. I did hate the way Martha “pinned” over the doctor and worshiped his every move. Furthermore, I feel that besides Mickey ( whose character I hated the way he was portrayed) Martha lacked the depth of character development that many of the companions both before and after her received. Maybe the writer just did not really now how to write for am attractive middle class black woman.

  14. This is a very well written article and it expresses a lot of what I have felt, things I’ve said to others, and things I wish I could say in words that made sense to other people.

    My friend and I started a blog called Black TARDIS meant to discuss not just these issues, which are of extreme importance, but to really talk about the experience of being a person of color in the fandom and having to deal with people who are dismissive of not just the characters of color, but of the disappointment POC fans feel toward the show and the fandom.

  15. Pingback: Martha Jones and the Culture of Casual Racism | Black TARDIS

  16. I think most of The Doctor’s companions have been sticking around a ** LITTLE too long ** lately. I think they should be limited to a couple of episodes, then they leave for a while, then make a return appearance perhaps a season or 2 later. Jack Harkness had limited appearances on DW, then he spent most of his time trying to keep Torchwood working smoothly. He was notable for being The Doctor’s first openly ” Gay / Omnisexual / pansexual ” semi – regular companion ( as well as the 1st to be virtually immortal. You could chop him up, put him through a wood – chipper, put THOSE bits through a blender, incinerate them after, & he’d still return to life ), they’d never had one who wasn’t heterosexual before. Also the 2nd to use a faux – American accent ( even though John Barrowman is Scottish ) after Peri Brown.
    Anywho – The Doctor needs companions ( From his ” grand – daughter ” Susan to Rose to Amy & Rory AND occasional visits by Jack H & River Song ) to keep him from getting delusions of grandeur & / or near – godhood. Maybe they needn’t be so overly long – like this posting will be if I keep going. :)

  17. I think that the Doctor learns something from every companion. He was very wrapped up in himself , especially after loosing Rose. I think that Martha taught him that not everyone needs him to save them. Martha had her life together and by walking away from him, instead of pining after him to boost his inflated ego, it was kinda a subtle way of saying “get over yourself”. As for the race issue, I think they did a good job at reminding the audience that it existed without making it too central to the story. Also, I think it’s ironic that Mickey and Martha ended up together since Rose and the Doctor both strung them along for their own ego. The Doctor said that she was just a friend, but he never really treated her like he did Donna. I think he was colder to her because she didn’t need him and didn’t flatter his ego to be the savior of the Universe.

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