Racegate: Rising above the Daily Mail

James Colvin offers his considered opinion on the press storm surrounding forthcoming book Doctor Who and Race.


Doctor Who. Racism. Big topic.

As Christian has graciously conceded, Kasterborous “found itself caught up in a froth-mouthed, pitchfork-wielding mob” over this, instigated by none other than the Daily Mail.

This is easily done of course – and by acknowledging as much, Christian and Kasterborous get a great deal more respect from me than any of the many fansites, blogs and even mainstream tabloids and broadsheets that have failed to do so. It’s really important to recognise when something like this has happened and have a bit of a think about why.

The ridiculously eloquent Philip Sandifer has explained the background of the whole media blitz – and his whole post on the topic is essential reading.

Firstly: of course Doctor Who has been racist on occasion. As Sandifer points out in his article, it’s (so far) been about a white male visiting other cultures and fixing their problems for them. Further to this, it’s a mainstream entertainment from a post-colonial country. Our culture is so steeped in racism (to varying degrees of severity) that it would be astounding if a long-running television series had managed to avoid ever being even slightly racist at any point.

[pullquote align=”right”]Our culture is so steeped in racism (to varying degrees of severity) that it would be astounding if a long-running television series had managed to avoid ever being even slightly racist at any point.[/pullquote]Examples: obviously there’s Li H’sen Chang. But there’s also Tlotoxl in The Aztecs, who’s investment in (a misconstrued) version of his own values of his own time is portrayed as inherently villainous – even when he’s right about the heroes lying to them all. And Toberman in Tomb of the Cyberman – a transparent racist stereotype of a physically strong and mentally limited black man. More recently, there has been a lot of debate over the characterisation of Mickey and Martha. In The Shakespeare Code, when Martha asks if she’s going to have a hard time as a black woman in 16th century London, the Doctor dismisses the problem, saying if she just breezes about like she owns the place, she’ll be fine. Obviously, this would not have been the case – and suggesting so kind of sweeps under the rug the whole issue of race at a time when the British were literally enslaving black people.

Whether or not you are convinced by these arguments is almost beside the point. Considering these viewpoints in a reasoned manner is imperative. As Sandifer points out, “the only people with something to gain by treating criticism of racism and colonialism as an outright and no-holds-barred denunciation of British culture are the people who want British culture to remain racist and colonial”.

You can recognise this and still love Doctor Who. I’d argue it deepens your appreciation for the show, if you are willing to acknowledge its faults and – crucially – expect better of it.

I love Doctor Who – and especially the twentieth century stuff. It often had an amateurish execution, combined with noble, Reithian intentions, which gave it a kind of communal abstraction that approached a shared folk culture. The nature of the programme is obviously different in the 21st century, but this kind of widely-viewed mainstream entertainment show still leaves room for people to bring their own agenda to it.

All of which means, as fans, we shouldn’t be blind to the complications that can be present.

Want to know why I think this matters so much? Please have a read of this short blogpost by Racialicious.

In particular look at the highlighted tweets to editor of the Doctor Who and Race book, Lindy Orthia. This is completely unacceptable, knee-jerk misogyny and racism from people who are happy to shut down consideration of a television show – and they can’t possibly have read the book.

So let’s rise above that – and let’s do so by not blindly dismissing complaints against instances of racism, sexism and so on. The show demonstrably has been these things on occasion, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s give serious consideration to the uglier parts of the show – especially in classic serials that might be your personal favourites like Tomb or Weng-Chiang.

To dismiss such issues would be to share an impulse with Ian Levine, who said that when John Nathan-Turner was producer, “things went on that were horrible, corrupt, too awful to discuss”. However, despite being in a position to do something about it – or at the very least wash his hands of involvement in it – turned a blind eye in order to continue being close to the show and loving it without complication. Sandifer pointed this out in another blogpost on the comics and yearbook of the Christopher Eccleston run.

Doctor Who‘s central message isn’t a negative or racist one, and it hasn’t been racist all the time. So let’s celebrate the aspects of the show that are positive and loveable, but not ignore or apologise for the parts that aren’t. I’m very much looking forward to reading the book, and I’ll be interested to read what Christian has to say about it when he reviews it.

To close, here’s an elequent and balanced response to the press attention from the Doctor Who and Race book, Lindy Orthia.


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