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.
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.
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.
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?
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.