Behind the Times


Doctor Who was (and is) frequently racist in its representations.  Probably no more or less than most other cultural products of our society, but nonetheless...

Now, to deal with the banalities first, I don't accuse anybody involved in making the show of being deliberately racist.  I don't generally know much about their opinions.  When you hear about their views, you tend to hear that they were liberals or soft-lefties.  People reminiscing about working with Hartnell tend to raise his right-wing opinions on race (and other things) as though they were considered unusual.  And that's not the issue anyway.  I'm not interested in making personal attacks on this or that writer or producer. 

The show started nearly 50 years ago... so a lot of it is old, dated, the product of vanished days.  This is often raised by fans who see the problems in certain Who stories but, understandably, are eager to defend them.  Nobody wants to feel that something they love is tainted by racism - that terrible bogey word that stops people thinking clearly because, like so many important words, it's been systematically stripped of its context and has become a Bad Thing that menaces society from without.

I 'get' this desire to explain away racist representations in stories we love.  I get it totally... but I'm against the giving out of passes on the grounds that something is 'of its time'.

E. P. Thompson - in a very different context... in his book The Making of the English Working Class - coined the phrase "the enormous condescension of posterity", to refer to the oblivion into which the struggles of ordinary people get consigned by bourgeois history.  It's a great phrase (which I have previously and idiotically attributed to Christopher Hill!) which expresses something about what is arrogantly forgotten when you invoke 'the times' to excuse reactionary representations.


In the Hammer film, The Mummy, George Pastell plays the sinister Egyptian who brings the Mummy back to life, which chimes with his role in 'Tomb' (and also with the character Namin in 'Pyramids of Mars', another story in which genre semiotics transmit a representation of 'foreign' cultures as sources or vehicles of sinister, uncanny forces which threaten white Westerners).  As I've argued elsewhere, 'Tomb' is racist largely because it is a reworking of the 'Curse of the Mummy's Tomb' type story.  Klieg is the guy who tries to resurrect the Mummy in order to use it.

Those kinds of stories - gothic colonialist fiction of the 19th century which found its way into 20th century pop-culture via movies - carry certain kinds of baggage with them because they stem from British imperial engagement in Egypt. They're about Brits breaking into Egyptian tombs, finding Egyptian mummies, being cursed by Egyptian curses as punishment. They express - quite unconsciously I'm sure - a certain anxiety about colonialism. Beneath the surface they seem to whisper 'we're barging around where we shouldn't be and we're gonna pay for it'. But inherent in such anxiety is fear of the colonised people and their culture. They and their culture becomes a vehicle for the uncanny, the inexplicable, the terrifying, the punishing. As in so much hauntology, it's 'the return of the repressed', repressed guilt in this case, transfered or projected onto the victims. This is the essence of imperialist fiction. Blame the victims. The Indians attack the wagon train, etc.

Now, if you give 'Tomb' a pass for its implicit racism, how then do you praise 'The Tenth Planet' for having an entirely competent, senior, unstereotyped character who just happens to be black? You have to keep 'the times' in mind, but they don't negate contemporary judgements.

Secondly, the usual assumption is that the "times" in which we need to judge things were worse than ours, less enlightened, etc... which is pretty tricky. True in some ways, unwarrantably self-congratulatory in others. And much of the radical struggle of the past is forgotten (or subjected to something like that "enormous condescension" that Thompson was talking about). So, we should be wary of assuming that 'the times' would provide an excuse anyway.

'Tomb' was broadcast in 1967.  To give it a pass on the racism charge because it's 'of its time' is to make the assumption that people in the past were less morally or intellectually sophisticated than us... that you can characterise 'the times' as (ha!) 'dark ages' compared to ours. When you consider the huge strides being made, through the struggles and protests of millions of ordinary people, in 1967, the idea that we have to make allowances for 'the time' starts looking pretty arrogant of us.  We have to effectively cede 'the times' to people like Enoch Powell, whose 'Rivers of Blood' speech was made the following year, rather than claiming 'the times' for the people fighting bigots like him.

There was lots of casual racist stereotyping when 'Tomb' was made, but there was also the civil rights movement, Black Power, Martin Luther King Jnr., Malcolm X.  There were also millions of people fighting racism, protesting against various forms of institutionalised discrimination, struggling for equality and dignity.  So maybe, looked at another way, 'Tenth Planet' was a little more "of its time" than 'Tomb'! We should give 'the times' their full credit, which is to say that we should give the people of 'the times' their full credit.  This also helps us avoid the smugness inherent in shows like Mad Men, which looks upon the past as a time of crude backwardness compared to our auto-putative present-day olympian liberal enlightenment (while also, by the way, hypocritically sniping at old-style sexism while constantly using its actresses to titilate the audience).

'The Tomb of the Cybermen' is a cultural artifact from a declining imperialist society which represents vaguely-defined Eastern and/or dark-skinned generic 'foreigners' in a negative way (i.e. as fanatical, calculating, deceptive, callous, megalomaniacal, violent, ruthless and/or stupid) in contrast to a host of Brits and Americans who are depicted as essentially well-meaning and some of whom end up the victims of the foreign baddies.  But, just as we'd be wrong to glibly label the 'time' which produced it as backward, we'd also be very wrong to think that our own 'time' is that superior.  Britain is still, after all, a declining imperialist culture with a society massively deformed by racism of various kinds.

Disliking the Unlike

Who frequently challenged - or thought it challenged... or set itself the task of challenging - racism.  It first explicitly set itself such a task in only its very second story, 1963's 'The Daleks'.

Now, 'The Daleks' is a weird one. Looked at one way, the Daleks are Nazis (as externally crippled as they are internally), irrationally trying to destroy the Thals simply because they're different. This is very simplistic. We can't, for instance, equate the Thals with the Jews because the Thals really were the armed and violent enemies of the Daleks, whereas the idea of Jews as hostile persecutors of Germans existed only in the febrile Nazi fantasy world.

Also, as a diagnosis of racism it is very stupid. Racism isn't just fear of the different or the stranger. Indeed, 'The Daleks' makes it clear that it's more than that, despite Ian's speechifying. For instance, as well as making the Daleks and Thals opposing sides in a war that virtually destroyed the planet, the story also has their mutual welfare impossible because of the Daleks' need for radiation.

Besides, the deeper causes of racism (i.e. slavery, imperialism, social inequality, divide-and-conquer policies by elites) remain untouched by the story.

On the other hand, you can look at 'The Daleks' as a story about the evil troglodytes (the Daleks are very deliberately made into diminutive underground dwellers) who persecute the virtuous, noble, enlightened, tall, Nordic types.. i.e. as the Wagnerian, anti-semitic version of Norse mythology. Unpleasant as it may be, the story makes much more sense that way (purely as a text, I mean).

How did this happen? Perhaps because the story is so indebted to Wells' The Time Machine, which is itself indebted to this fusion of Norse myth and Wagnerian opera. (Well, I think the story is more indebted to the George Pal movie than to the actual book... but the movie carefully removes Wells' subtext about the class struggle, thus making the Blondes-persecuted-by-evil-trogs side of things even more obvious.) 'The Daleks' even makes the nasty underworlders into scientists and technicians, which is an Age-of-the-Atom/B-movie reiteration of the Niebelungen/Morlocks as industrious villains, working at fiery forges.

I think it's rather telling that an attempt at a moralistic allegory about racism, from a liberal perspective, degenerates into (at best) a silly parable about inherent xenophobia or (at worst) an accidental social-Darwinist tale with quasi-fascist undertones.

Sacred Bob, 'Talons' and Fish

It's essential to understand that a story can be racist in its representations without either containing any explicit, ideological racism, or being deliberately written with a racist message. Hence, 'Talons' and 'Two Doctors', both of which are problematic texts for anyone bothered by racist cultural representations.  (Parenthetically, I've recently encountered someone who manages to remain unconcerned by racist cultural representations via the simple expedient of disbelieving in their existence... which would be admirably bold if it weren't so obnoxious and idiotic.)

I don't think Bob Holmes set out to do anything but play around with genres, stock characters and familiar associations... but the fact that he could play around with stock characters and familiar associations that carry racist implications (from things like Fu Manchu and Bulldog Drummond and popular stereotypes), possibly without ever realising how some of this stuff could be interpreted, says something about the culture that he was living in, and in which we still live. The stuff we take for granted and see as harmless can be as revealing as the stuff we revile.

We simply take it for granted when evil is depicted as emanating from Asian or African culture in 'Talons' or 'Pyramids of Mars'. We simply take it for granted that the base, impulsive, cruel, primitive Androgums are depicted in terms of racist stereotypes about heavy-browed, big-nosed, red-haired people. I don't think it means that Holmes was a racist, or that we are... but it does mean that we live in a culture that propagates and implicitly tolerates racist representations. But then, this is an imperialistic society, with a cultural inheritance from colonialism. What else can we expect?

I don't think the team who made 'Talons' deliberately sat down to take the piss out of the Chinese. Nor do I think they were ignorant. These are self-evident trivialities and one shouldn't have to even bother to say them.

I think the production team created a story that, like many stories during their era, was a reiteration/adaptation of classic, gothic genre fiction. They'd done Mary Shelley and Rider Haggard (via Hammer) and now they were doing Sax Rohmer/Conan Doyle (again, via Hammer). Thing is, the Fu Manchu novels are racist in their depiction of Chinese culture as a source of criminality, fanaticism, the uncanny, the decadent, the perverse, the sensual, etc. Orientalism; the cultural interpretation and representation of the East as defined by such alien traits, as antithetical to the West in sinister or enigmatic ways. This is a cultural facet of imperialism (and we are still an imperialistic culture... albeit not one generally involved in direct colonialism anymore). And you don't have to be a racist in a straightforward, ideological, explicit way in order to have imbibed some of these assumptions.

In fact, Holmes seems aware that he is skirting around racism in 'Talons'.

Chang is a 'yellow peril' villain, an embodiment of the guilty transference which leads to white colonial cultures creating nightmares about being preyed upon by evil orientals.  Chang abducts loads of young white women and takes them to be murdered, never expressing any remorse.  Moreover, Chang's abductions carry hints of the sexual.  There seems to be no reason, on the face of it, why he and Greel must acquire girls, still less "plump, high-spirited" ones.  Chang abducts a woman who is clearly implied to be a prostitute.  And so on.

But Chang  at least seems like a proper character, which is more than can be said for any of the 'foreign' villains in 'Tomb', or Namin in 'Pyramids'.  Chang is a man of personal dignity and great intelligence who plays the stereotypical 'Chinaman' and replaces his 'r's with 'l's for the delectation of an audience who are enjoying exactly the same 'othering' of the Chinese that the story trades in, with Chang's own collusion. Unlike Kaftan (Kaftan!) and Klieg, Chang has an origin, a context, a background, an identity. His racial predicament is contextualised within the British imperial system, with all the references to "punitive expeditions" and his veneration of "the Queen-Empress".

Holmes makes Chang decidedly more intelligent than many of the Westerners, uses talk of the Chinese being "mysterious" and "enigmatic" as a sign of Lightfoot's silliness, has an explicitly racist policeman, has Chang knowingly and covertly mock the racism of the music hall audience, has the Doctor asking if Chang is Chinese a few moments after Chang has said, drily, "I understand we all look the same", etc.

Also, the central evil in the story is a Westerner, a war criminal from an imperialist European power defeated by "the Filipino Army". The Filipinos are a people devastated by almost forgotten Western imperialist aggression. And Greel is implicated in war crimes common to both European and Asian variants of fascism.

It's a complex matter in 'Talons', unlike 'Tomb' which is really quite crude; but there are similar background reasons for the racism in both stories. Racial tropes piggyback their way in on the backs of the literary and cinema sources being raided and pastiched. In 'Talons' its largely 19th/20th century gothic/colonialist pop fiction, as in 'Tomb'.  But still, the story has no Chinese character who isn't a nunchuk-weilding thug, a snivelling dupe or a white girl-abducting svengali.  And the (very inauthentic) representations of Chinese culture make it clear that it's a source (or at least a vehicle) of the alien, the perverse, the cruel and the vicious. This isn't because Holmes was a racist but because he is creating a pastiche out of genre fiction that was written in the context of racist, imperialist cultural assumptions.

A lot of perfectly nice, liberal/lefty people can be found doing the same thing. Monty Python end The Meaning of Life with a legend asking for all "fish" to live together in tolerance, peace and harmony. The Pythons are/were all nice guys, liberals, etc. Yet take a look at some of the representations of black people in the TV series. There's one sketch in which the 'Batsmen' of the Kalahari play cricket against England and massacre the entire English team. Now, the actual 'Bushmen' are not murdering savages who slaughter white men with spears. The Pythons created that sketch out of racist associations (i.e. black tribesmen are primitive cannibals, etc) that they probably imbibed with the kind of fiction that they all grew up with, and which Palin and Jones later mercilessly parodied in Ripping Yarns.

Barabbas and Bananas; Shockeye and Shylock

In 'The Two Doctors', the Androgums are depicted as an irredeemably inferior and savage people. And this is also represented in racist terms.

For a start, there's the line about monkeys.  This is probably intended to tie in with the story's evidently-deliberate subtext about animals and meat; more broadly, the control of species for use by other species.  However, the line takes on different valences in a tale that slides into saying something about more or less 'advanced' races.  The intent is to push an anti-meat message - one could hardly call it a 'subtext' - by making the Androgums into the embodiment of that aspect of humanity that preys upon other living things.  But, as with 'The Daleks', while the intention is to create a finger-wagging moralistic message, the effect is reactionary.  The business with the monkeys is very clumsy, since it evokes very well-established and hugely unsavoury racist slurs.  The wider implication of the story is to imply that the Androgums are, by their very nature, incapable of moral or intellectual equality with superior peoples like Third Zoners, Time Lords, or even humans.

In light of the way they are characterised, it's all the more unfortunate that the Androgums are depicted as impulsive, base, reflexively cruel, red-haired, heavy-browed, big-nosed, warty, etc. These are racial stereotypes that have been used against many groups, most especially the Irish and the Jews.

Marlowe's Barabbas, for example (the well-poisoning, nun-slaughtering, machaivellian Jew from The Jew of Malta), would probably have been depicted on stage with a big, comedy false nose and a ginger fright wig... as would Shakespeare's considerably more complex and sympathetic Shylock, disconcertingly enough.

Interestingly, Marlowe's play can also be read as an incipient critique of the new, emergent capitalist society... and, in the course of the story, Barabbas' villainy lays bare the hypocrisy of the Christians around him... which chimes with 'The Two Doctors', in which the behaviour of the Androgums has the effect of highlighting the cynicism of the Third Zoners and the Sontarans... and even of the Time Lords!

So, do we see in Shockeye the re-encoding of the stage 'machiavel' of the English Renaissance theatre?  The 'Vice' who is relished for his own villainy but is also a kind of dramatic highlighter, showing up the (often less than pure) moral condition of the other characters?  Is, then, the unfortunate hint of partly-archaic anti-semitic stereotypes a kind of echo of Barabbas and Shylock?  I can't help noticing that 'Shockeye' does actually sound a bit like 'Shylock'.

Nobody seems willing to defend 'The Two Doctors' on the grounds that it's 'of its time'.  No racist TV conventions in the 80s then?  I think you'll find otherwise.  However, what's potentially more interesting is that one might be able to mount a 'defence' on the ground that, rather than being 'of its time', it's actually sorta 'of another time', namely the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  Of course, this doesn't ultimately excuse the production team of clumsiness in not noticing what they were saying, but it might just contextualise Shockeye enough to make him interesting again.


Richard Pilbeam 5 years, 3 months ago

That's what makes The Two Doctors such a frustrating story; for two episodes it seems to be deliberately highlighting how cynical and hypocritical everyone involved is: the Time Lords harp on about the laws of time while breaking them by sending the Doctor back into his own past; Dastari's racist view of Androgums prevents him from seeing that Chessene is plotting something; Shockeye's lines about "lesser races" mirror the way people see him; the Sontarans look down on everyone; the Doctor's infection from Androgum DNA makes him talk like a cook rather than a space monster; It's icky that Styke eats a rat, but butchering livestock is acceptable; Oscar sticks moths on pins and ends up getting stabbed himself... that aspect is actually very rich, and more more interesting than the non-plot about the fucking briode nebuliser.

Pity they abandon this wholesale for the Godawful "the monsters are bad 'cause they're bad" ending.

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Anonymous 5 years, 3 months ago

Again excellent analysis Jack-particularly on Two Doctors.

I remember reading an even worse line that was deleted (check the production subtitles on the DVD) where the Doctor tells Peri that the Androgums have been a slave race for thousands of years. When Peri says something like "How horrible" the Doctor says No, this has given them plenty of years to get used to it!

Couldn't believe my eyes when I read it.

Deeply problematic script-frustrating because Holmes' obvious skill.

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Jack Graham 5 years, 3 months ago

Richard - yes, I agree, '2 Docs' is a frustrating story exactly because there are so many potentially interesting noises in it.

Sadly, it's a bit like Moffat's style nowadays. 'Tell' the audience one (noble) thing, 'show' them other values in operation. 'Tell' them "there are no unimportant people," sayeth the Doctor; 'show' them the Doctor prepared to play with people like a self-appointed god and let the irrelevant rabblement rot in the freezers. Which would be interesting ambiguity... if it weren't for the fact that the story evidently forgets about the double standard and doesn't expect the viewer to remember either. Moffat does this constantly now.

'Two Doctors' does the same thing... though, interestingly, it kind of does it the other way round. The story 'tells' us that the Androgums are scum but 'shows' us that nobody else is much better... which would be interesting ambiguity, if it lasted. But the Androgums *are* ultimately supposed to be 'worse' in various ways. The Sontarans look better by comparison by virtue of their stupidity vs. the effective Androgum machiavellianism. Dastari has an abrupt change of heart and is instantly forgiven (for conspiracy in mass murder!) by our hero/es. And the Androgum villainy is linked to their unthinking baseness... it's *instinctive*. It's something they can't help. Other people might be bad, but the Androgums are animals.

This is probably why - aside from the echoes of archaic anti-semitism - the story reminded me of Barabbas and Shylock. It's true, both these Jewish machiavels show up the hypocrisy of gentiles, but ultimately - in both plays - we're invited to consider the Jews as intrinsically worse.

And then you have the fact that, as Anonymous said (thanks for dropping by Anonymous - I understand there's a film about you now?), they're a slave race who evidently are naturally fit for nothing better. I wouldn't mind the Doctor's line about them being "used to" slavery being reinstated, if it were contextualised later, if the Doctor were forced to reconsider, if the Androgums weren't finally shown to be just beasts. But nothing like that happens. It's very odd that, in a story that deliberately sets out to make the case against the exploitation of animals for meat, the writer creates a storyline whereby one set of sentient people are depicted as inferior, unthinking creatures who can and should be preyed upon because it's their "just desserts".

The story fails to notice these double standards and evidently doesn't expect the audience to notice either.

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Jack Graham 3 years, 11 months ago

I'd write this somewhat differently now. I think the gist holds up, but I'd be less soft on some of the stories I mention. Especially 'Talons'. Especially with regards to the hedging around whether the writers/programme-makers were racists. If you say or write or do something racist, then you're a fucking racist, aren't you? Duh, Jack. Duh.

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