You might have come across a recent article in the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail, which heaps condescension on an anthology called Doctor Who and Race. As it so happens, this is a new anthology about the forms of racial representation encountered in both classic and reboot Doctor Who. I can’t say we’re purely unbiased towards it, as our own Lady Saika was published in this, but it’s certainly a book you ought to read for yourself and develop your own opinions on. It’s sure to be thought-provoking, and as the Daily Mail has attested, it’s already proven itself controversial.
Specifically, the article attempted to make a distinction between what fans think and what academics think, saying:
Fans dismissed [the book’s] criticisms. Sebastian J Brook, editor of Doctor Who Online, said the show ‘embraced rather than divided’. He added: ‘I think the suggestion the show is racist is ridiculous. Doctor treated Martha Jones no differently from the way he treated any other character.’
Which is a load of crock, if you ask me, and I’m assuming you are asking me because you’re reading this post (or maybe you’ve read this one). If there were a Venn diagram of Doctor Who viewers, the circles for fans and academics would definitely overlap. In fact, I would say that no academic writer would ever spend any time writing a peer-reviewed article in an international anthology unless he or she were a fan of the topic. So the idea that “fans” somehow hold a truer appreciation of Doctor Who than “academics” is both inaccurate and misguided. There’s more than one way to appreciate a television program, and all of them are valid.
The anthology isn’t, as it’s been implied, an attack on Doctor Who; in fact, it neither asks nor answers the question “Is Doctor Who racist?” It does, however, address the cultural significance of race as seen through a popular television program, and it does address the connotations of the word racist. As contributor Kate Orman says in the anthology:
“Paradoxically, the intense moral opprobrium attached to calling something “racist” helps to obscure the presence of racism. If racism is anathema, then when a story we cherish contains racially charged elements, we must show that it’s not really racist—and neither are we for loving it.”
In other words, no one wants something they love to be called “racist”, and calling something racist doesn’t help advance progressive dialogue about touchy issues like race. This book is attempting to analyze the current state of race within Doctor Who in the hopes of better and more accurate representation in the future. It offers a pathway into thinking critically about all aspects of racial representation present in Doctor Who, from casting and characterization choices to a historical perspective on colonialism and slavery. It even has a section which mostly analyzes the Daleks and eugenics—because the way to make the Daleks even more terrifying is definitely by comparing them to Hitler’s Final Solution. If academia’s not your cup of tea, the anthology bookends sections of academic essays with essays which are more informal and blog-like in tone, so it’s easy to escape from the ivory tower and wander round with the mundanes.
If you like Doctor Who and you like thinking about what the program means outside of its little television box, this is the book for you. You can read more about the book here, buy it here if you’re in the U.K., and pre-order it here if you’re in the States.