Doctor Who's Narratives on Race Have Improved — But Have a Long Way to Go
One of the most captivating tropes in the history of storytelling is time travel. This is, no doubt, why the British television series Doctor Who has held people’s interest through its 50+ year run. Exploring the great unlimited possibilities of the future, escaping to a world better than your current reality, or seeing history unfold for yourself in real-time are ideas that are fun to ponder. But these ideas are usually more complicated for people of color, particularly for Black people in western culture. What does it really mean to be a Black person in an English village in 1913, to be the only Black person on a cargo ship in the future hurtling towards the sun, or for a Black person to encounter another life form they’ve never seen before?
Fan-boys and girls — usually of a fairer complexion — will say that shows such as Doctor Who are just fun romps through time. “It’s not that serious.” “Why can’t we just sit back and enjoy it?” In a story where random characters explore time, and are simply solving the mystery at hand, sure we can enjoy it. The simpler plot points of The Ninth Doctor’s run are some of my favorites. It is certainly easier to watch a straightforward adventure in which everybody lives, rather than contending with the heavy ideas of racism, systemic injustice, representation, etc.
However, New Who has rarely been just about solving the mystery at hand, which creates a different viewing experience. In the canon, the writers have explored narratives surrounding homosexuality (Madam Vastra and Jenny), sexism (“The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”), sexual fluidity (Captain Jack Harkness), colonization (most recently “The Empress of Mars”), interspecies slavery (“The Planet of the Ood”), and more. All were often told with skeptics built into the plot. The show tells these nuanced stories, interwoven with the Earth and history we, the audience, understand. The show should assume that our understanding of that history will influence how we view the story.
In the Season 3 two-part episode “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” the Doctor and Martha Jones, a Black doctor herself, end up hiding in an English village in 1913. The Doctor takes on a new identity, in turn forcing himself to forget his true identity. This leaves Martha, his Black companion, alone to fend for herself in 1913 England. This was smack in the middle of the Jim Crow era in the American South. And in England, already escalating racial tensions would soon hit a fever pitch following World War I. This increased tension would result in race riots, most notably the riot in 1919 Liverpool that resulted in the death of an innocent 24-year-old Black man named Charles Wootton at the hands of a mob. Through the perspective of a Black person, leaving Martha, a Black woman, by herself in a climate so violent against people of color is troubling. The show does allude to the racial tensions with people calling her “girl” and not believing someone like her could be a doctor. But it never delves into how compromising a position the Doctor left her in. The writers never address it, nor do they seem to understand it.
In the different, more innocuous episode “42,” The Doctor and Martha find themselves on a cargo ship sometime in the future hurtling towards the sun. They have only 42 minutes to save themselves and the crew on board. This is a pretty standard Doctor Who plot, as is the theme that humans are full of potential. Humans continue to progress, intermingle with various species and spread throughout the universe. This is what constantly draws the Doctor to Earth. This episode, which presumably takes place in the fairly distant future, has only one Black character: Martha (until the end when she gets a phone call from her mother). If humans have progressed and experienced cultures beyond their own planet, it seems like a mistake that on this a cargo ship there are only white humans.
The show has improved on some of these models with time. Take for example the season 10 episode “Thin Ice” which takes Bill Potts, another Black companion, back to 1814 London. When Bill points out that “slavery is still totally a thing” the Doctor very somberly replies, “Yes. It is.” Later in the episode when Bill is met with racism, the Doctor goes so far as to punch the perpetrator in the face. This is surface level commentary that is enough for what the story necessitates within the episode. However, it isn’t revisited later in the season, to the detriment of Bill.
Two episodes later, the cracks begin to show through the inadequate storytelling of a Black person traveling in time. In “Oxygen”, Bill and co. land in a seemingly abandoned space station with artificial gravity and no oxygen. She comments that “it doesn’t feel like space.” As the episode progresses, they find others on the station. Bill, a Black woman from 2017 Earth, is struck by seeing a blue person (presumably alien), Darren, for the first time. She balks at being called racist, explaining she’s usually the one oppressed. Darren (pronounced dakh- r̃in), doesn’t understand why, suggesting humans no longer discriminate based on human race. Nardole even goes so far as to tell him that “some of his best friends are Bluish”. This is all done for laughs mainly at Bill’s expense. It creates this false equivalency, telling the audience that what might be seen as racism may often just be a difference of perspective. It ignores the power dynamics and oppression that fuel racism on Earth. It ignores the fact that humans have this reaction in the face of different races, despite having known of their existence leading up to the encounter. It doesn’t tell us how we got to a "post-racial" society that still somehow discriminates against other alien races. Bill isn’t far off the mark when she says “it doesn’t feel like space."
Not to mention, Doctor Who has written about current prejudices existing in the future before. In the two-part episode “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” we see that nuanced sexism still exists. A side-plot that takes place during this episode is that of Miss Evangelista. Because she is pretty and not particularly intelligent, the group, except for Donna, doesn’t see any value in her as a person. They ignore her, ridicule her, and discredit anything she may have to offer to the mission. She ultimately dies as a result. After her consciousness is then uploaded into a virtual world, Miss Evangelista is able to help Donna with her newfound intelligence. Even before she becomes intelligent, the audience sees that she is curious and very eager to help. Miss Evangelista remembers how Donna had seen that value in her and now acts upon the value she always had. The episode, though clumsily, shows that traditionally feminine unintelligent characters still matter as people and should not be discounted.
So, does it matter when telling a time-travel story if the writers include narratives about race? Is it really that serious? If the story is going to confront social issues of our real history, while still building a believable universe, then yes. If a show can have a subtle nuanced narrative on sexism in the future, it should be able to apply those principals to narratives on race in the past and future, especially for a Black companion. It should not treat interspecies racism against a blue person committed by a Black character as a punchline. A punchline whose intent becomes more sinister when considering that, that same Black character is later shot and killed by a blue man calling to mind real-life conflict between blue police forces and Black people's lives. It’s jarring and it’s lazy. In order for everyone to truly be able to “sit back and enjoy,” race needs to be written with the same social nuance that exists within the rest of the universe, even if it is just a fun romp through time.