“I warned you, Julius!” – Doctor Who, Twitch and race
I said that I’d love to see a long read or essay about Doctor Who, race, and the reaction of people watching the show on the current #DoctorWhoOnTwitch marathon, but that I wasn’t the best placed person to write it. So this isn’t that piece. But I did want to write out more fully a few of the thoughts I’ve had about the representation of diversity in classic Doctor Who.
As we’ve got into the Pertwee era, the Twitch chat has begun to rub up against the fact that across the first two decades of Doctor Who there are hardly any characters who aren’t white, and of the few there are, a couple fall into very obvious and crude racial stereotypes. Toberman in Tomb of the Cyberman, although a hero at the end, is a mostly silent servile black man, only utilised for his brute strength. Whose corpse they just leave lying on the floor at the end of the final episode.
Captain Chin Lee in The Mind of Evil is an inscrutable oriental mystery.
And while “I warned you, Julius!” might have become a catchphrase for the marathon, that actual opening scene in The Web Of Fear is an excruciating watch because the Julius Silverstein character is an absolute pile-up of anti-semitic tropes from the name down.
When you point all this out, a common reaction is for people to say things along the lines of “Well, that’s just how it was” and “you have to understand it in the context of the time.”
I understand that reaction, and why people say it.
But this, to me, is what the context of the time was.
I grew up with amazing role models on TV in Doctor Who in the 1970s. Who can say which came first – me watching Doctor Who, or my passion for space and gadgets and monsters and mysteries and computers? I’d go as far as to say that, yes, the Doctor has also been an influence on my moral and political framework.
But not all of my classmates had that in the seventies.
The black British and British Asian kids in my school in the 1970s seldom got to see people who looked like them in Doctor Who. And on the few occasions when they did, they were on screen as villains or slaves. In the Mind Of Evil the only black person is a silent chauffeur. The casting of that episode is so white that HM Prison Stangmoor may have been the only seventies prison in England not to have a single black inmate.
And watching the first few years of the series condensed into the timelash of the Twitch marathon has only made that even more obvious. When a black face appears in Terror Of The Autons, not only is it the first one we’ve seen for several stories, it is Roy Stewart, who was Toberman, again playing a silent strongman. But this time in a leopardskin loincloth for good measure.
Yes, there absolutely was more diverse casting in some Doctor Who stories in the 1960s and 1970s than you’d see on other programmes. And yes, in individual stories, like Fariah in The Enemy Of The World, a US army captain in The War Games, or Earl Cameron’s astronaut in The Tenth Planet, people of colour were very strong characters. But that’s three named speaking parts in about a decade’s worth of Doctor Who. And “Well at least it wasn’t as racist as the Black And White Minstrel Show” is a very low bar to be asking the show to clear.
Now I understand why saying this upsets people. I understand that when you love something as much as we fans love Doctor Who, it’s painful to address the idea that it has these flaws. That the criticism feels personal. That there is a reflexive urge to shut out the criticism and defend what was on the screen.
But when I say The Talons of Weng-Chiang is racist, I’m not saying that you are a racist for watching it. Or that you are racist for saying that it is a great example of a gothic horror Doctor Who story. I’m not saying the cast and crew went out of their way to intentionally create something offensive. But it is full of racist tropes, and arguing that they aren’t there, or that we shouldn’t acknowledge that, isn’t the way forward for fandom.
I genuinely think #DoctorWhoOnTwitch has been the most wonderful thing to happen to our fandom since the series was revived, I really do. The waves of love for the characters during the Hartnell and Troughton era was wonderful to see. The memes generated by the Twitch trailers have made me cry with laughter. The chat, which I thought was going to be toxic, has been a joy. I’ve even let my eight year old have control of the phone and join in the chat while we were watching old Troughton and Pertwee episodes as a family. The chat was fun and child-friendly enough that I felt comfortable having it streaming down the side of the screen on the front room TV screen, and there’s not many bits of the internet you can say that about.
But the one sour note for me is not people pointing out that the past was racist, it is the people being belligerent in claiming that it wasn’t, that this is just how it was, and ordering people to stop discussing it.
Please, I implore you, don’t do that.
Discussing race representation in Doctor Who doesn’t take away your childhood. It doesn’t stop you watching your DVDs. And above all, it doesn’t make you personally someone I’d call a racist.
So why not take a step back to listen?
On that Twitch channel there are young people seeing a show made in the context of then, watching it in the context of today. Listen to how it appears and feels to them. It’s been brilliant watching people realise that characters like Zoe and Liz and Jo were much stronger and bolder than the pop culture stereotype of “the Doctor Who girl” would have you believe. But just as much as new viewers are discovering that, which we always knew, we can take a moment to reflect that a show that was mostly made by white people, with a mostly white fandom, was at best sometimes tone-deaf about racism, and at worst really indulged some crude racial stereotypes.
And if you don’t want to listen to the people on Twitch for their own sake, then listen for the sake of my 1970’s classmates. For years and years they almost never got to see anybody who looked like them on Doctor Who be scientists or soldiers or leaders or heroes, or even just people in the background of the crowd. Let’s not pretend that didn’t happen and didn’t hurt.