“There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. Not even Doctor Who.”
– Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (quoted from memory)
Where was I?
Oh yeah, it’s unfair to pick on ‘Talons of Weng-Chiang’ for being racist because all Doctor Who is racist.
So what do I mean by that?
Well, I don’t just mean that there are lots of stories in Doctor Who that contain implicit or explicit racist ideas, representations, or implications … though it does, and it might be worth going through some of them.
There’s ‘An Unearthly Child’, for instance, which associates ‘tribal’ life with brutishness and savagery, and suggests that tribal people need to be taught concepts like friendship and cooperation by enlightened Western liberals from technologically advanced societies… as if, historically, enlightened Western liberals from technologically advanced societies haven’t been the ones slaughtering tribal peoples. Native peoples, by the way, know what friendship and cooperation are. Sometimes better than us. And we are talking about native peoples in ‘Unearthly’. Because of Europeans’ historic encounters with native peoples as European imperialism and colonialism spread across the globe, we’ve come to associate the notion of tribal people – if we accept that word and what it connotes – with people of colour. And such people, after initial encounters (often amiable), became conveniently reconstructed in the ideological thoughtworld of European imperialism and colonialism as, to borrow Kipling’s phrase, “half devil and half child”. This couplet neatly describes the Tribe of Gum, and shows them to be imagined out of the imperialist ideological tradition. Even if, in an alternative reading, they are the descendants of the people of the 1960s after a nuclear holocaust, they are still a picture of humanity in a savage ‘state of nature’, itself part of the same ideological tradition.
This is a very early indication of the complexity of the issue. Without any overt racial statement or coding, the very first story is found to be an ideological product of a racist tradition arising from imperialism and colonialism.
Then there’s ‘The Daleks’, an almost immediate engagement on the part of the show with something that will continue to be one of its running fixations: the metaphorical representation of Nazism. This story introduces the show’s ubermensch uber-villains, well understood to be metaphorical Nazis, with their creed of racial supremacy and their cries of “Exterminate!” (though they don’t actually do that in their debut), and takes a more or less explicit anti-racist line on its surface. It goes beyond a conventional post-war British triumphalism and explicitly associates Nazism with racism… or at least with its own understanding of racism as a form of parochialism, which chimes with a certain way of interpreting post-Windrush tension in the UK. The irony is that, almost behind its own back, this is a story in which “perfect”, virtuous, blonde, volkisch, Aryan, supermen-farmers are forced to fight a race of evil, mechanically-ingenious, wealth-hoarding, subterranean dwarves who threaten their culture. This, of course, draws on tropes drawn from Teutonic myths via Wagner, which end up in Doctor Who via Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Wells’ The Time Machine. These same myths, which the story recycles uncritically, are freighted with antisemitism; they found their way into the ideology of the same people the story imagines itself to be unreservedly condemning.
More broadly, Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks are clearly intended as a satire of the class system, yet they are also based on eugenics and social-darwinism, and rely upon ideas about racial refinement and racial debasement which are central to the white supremacist ideology of imperialism. ‘The Daleks’ recycles the same issue almost verbatim.
The fact that the Doctor Who’s greatest running villains, on the uppermost semiotic level a metaphor about the evils of fascism, are also constructed partly from racist tropes about Jews, encapsulates the show’s irresolvable split-personality when it comes to race.
Then there’s ‘The Aztecs’, in which a people later decimated by Western imperialism are painted as being in need of the moral tutelage of an enlightened, civilised European woman if they are to escape their fate. Cortez is implied to have slaughtered them out of moral revulsion at their sacrificial religious practices; if they ditched them, maybe Cortez – moral gentleman that he was – would be nice to them. The choice facing the Aztecs is assumed to be Barbara-ism or barbarism. The oncoming fall of the Aztecs at the hands of European imperialists is acknowledged, but excused and downplayed. The story is utterly untroubled by its own assumption of the moral superiority of the continent which will butcher the Aztecs for gold, enslave them, subjugate them, suppress their religion, and all but annihilate their culture.
The deeper logic of “You can’t rewrite history, not one line” is a sad acceptance of the idea that things can only have been the way they were, and that peoples like the Aztecs therefore had to be destroyed so that history and progress could continue. It is difficult to think of a more inherently imperialist perspective.
And maybe I’ve made the point. You don’t have to do much looking. This stuff is everywhere throughout the series. It’s in places fans don’t normally look. It’s not just in the ones we ‘know’ about because there’s some embarrassing face-painting going on. It seems to me that, in many ways, the painted faces are the least of the problem.
You’ll notice I skipped over ‘Marco Polo’. There are all sorts of issues with that story, despite its relatively commendable approach to representing people of a different culture and ethnicity. The same can be said of ‘The Crusade’. While it presents Arabs, and even Islam, with relative sympathy and integrity – probably a lot more than would be standard today, which calls into question the basis of the “of its time” argument in a way that harks back to the last essay – it also resurrects the racist, Orientalist trope of the cruel and libidinous Arab sheik with his harem of sex slaves, in which the white woman will – naturally – be his most desired and prized possession.
The entire trope of the aliens (literal or metaphorical) becoming enraptured or fascinated by the Doctor’s white companion pops up repeatedly, from ‘The Crusade’ to ‘The Time Warrior’ to ‘The Two Doctors’ (in which it is also queered, because that story just can’t stop itself). This is Doctor Who’s version of an old racist trope of imperialist fiction, seen perhaps most famously in King Kong. The natives instantly and instinctively recognise the objective superiority of the white woman (or even boy) as a possession.
This sort of thing is, to be sure, not necessarily based on outright or conscious racism. The show, like much cultural production, relies on recycled ideas about groups. And the groups aren’t always people usually understood to be people of colour. In ‘The Massacre’, for instance, we get a stereotypical picture of a machiavellian Renaissance Catholic ruling caste, embodied in Catherine de Medici. But this is the first of many oversimplifications we can dispense with. The argument isn’t that racist representations are some kind of thing apart, a perversion of decency, unique in textual strategies. Racist representations work in much the same way all representations do in texts. And texts tend to organise representations according to received ideas, precisely because these ideas make ideological sense to the creators and audience. This, in turn, is because they are based on prevalent power relations. And one of the most pernicious ways in which power is hierarchically arranged in our culture is racially, with racism as its emergent and organising logic. Race being a social construct, it has fuzzy conceptual borders, which is why different groups – ethnic, religious, etc – have been ideologically constructed as racially distinct, or partially so, in different places and times, according to the economic needs of the local ruling classes.
Even the stereotype of the machiavellian Catholic stems from such relations, and can be historically traced. As it happens, this is a particularly good example, as we can trace it back directly to English Renaissance drama, most particularly – in this instance – in Christopher Marlowe’s own play on the same events, The Massacre at Paris. (As it happens we will be returning to Marlowe, and Renaissance drama generally.) That isn’t to say that Marlowe invented it. He himself was utilising textual strategies based on established ideas. But Marlowe allows us to track the history of the representation directly back to the Reformation, the rise of British imperialism in the Early Modern Period, the rise of Protestantism which expressed the rise of the new capitalist epoch in Europe, etc.
The point is: such representations, be they directly racist in today’s sense, or less directly so (though anti-Catholic bigotry is its own form of prejudice and is far from dead), are to be found permeating the texts produced by cultures which rest on such relations of repression, suppression, and oppression. (And yes, Catholic countries in which Protestants were oppressed had their own texts in which Protestants were demonized. That proves rather than damages my point.)
And we can go on. We can go on a big tour of terrible representations. We’ll have to make regular stop-offs all the way through the series.
At ‘The Sensorites’, for instance, with its eponymous aliens based on stereotypes about the Chinese, with their static and unchanging culture based on formality and conformity, and their inscrutable faces – interchangeable to the point where even they cannot tell each other apart except via formal clothing. The Sensorites are treated with relative respect in comparison with other alien cultures in the series, and the story’s conscious message is clearly meant to be a plea for understanding and peaceful coexistence. Even so, we are watching a literally alien ‘other’ constructed from stereotypical ideas about an entire ethnicity. We are watching the use of signifiers linked to the Chinese to express exoticism and difference so extreme it is literally non-human. Moreover, this strategy implicity constructs the ‘human’ as being non-Asian, or European… and, as such, in this system of ideas, white.
‘The Sensorites’ is, as it happens, a particularly useful story to look at. It is famously the foundational story in that strand of Doctor Who which rejects the inherent link between the visibly alien and the monstrous. It is key to any discussion of Doctor Who’s real and justifiable claim to be part of a progressive tradition. Even so, in its metaphorical system, the story expresses the concept of humanity via white Europeanness, both explicitly and by default, precisely because it expresses the concept of the alien via Asianness, which it places into opposition.
More broadly, the story reenacts the white European experience of having been the explorers encountering the ‘other’. This is itself an ideological expression of Europe’s history of imperialism and colonialism, and its construction of the victims as racial subalterns. This is still the context of the reenactment, even if the white supremacism is formally removed. The entire history of modern imperialism and colonialism is thus fodder for the show’s project to comment from a liberal perspective. Yet in its initial foray the show makes it clear that it will comment from a specifically white European perspective, the superiority of which is assumed. The show’s narrative on this issue is to be a narrative of, by, and for the culture which conquered. And how could it be otherwise, given that the liberal perspective is the same one which ideologically underwrote European imperialism and colonialism?
This is most clearly shown in the way in which, for all that is depicts the contact between Sensorites and humans as being initially disastrous for the Sensorites, it asserts that this was temporary and initial stepping stone on the way to universal progress. Also, the initial disaster was an accident, a tragic failure of good intentions, caused by the shortcomings of both sides. Moreover, the shortcomings on the part of the humans – representing white Europeans – are caused by mental breakdown, which is implied to be caused by their contact with the exotic culture of the aliens – representing Asians.
This is a variation on the victim-blaming narrative which will recur throughout the imperialist and colonialist fiction of Europe: the narrative of the white man, the explorer, driven mad by his contact with the ‘other’, that is the culture of the colonised. The savagery of European imperialism and colonialism is then, to the extent that it is recognised at all, a product of the Europeans’ contact with the colonised place or people. It is a key psychological and ideological way in which the European consciousness has rationalised its own inherently contradictory claim to represent progress through empire. It is a central idea to gothic and horror fiction, explicitly or cryptically. It is expressed in Edward Lucas White’s ‘Lukundoo’, for instance, which I once read for you. It recurs repeatedly in Doctor Who, which draws on this same gothic/Weird and horror tradition. In ‘Planet of Evil’, for instance. Professor Sorenson (an explorer, a figure of Western rationalism, with a good nordic name) is driven to madness and savagery by his contact with an inexplicable planetary ‘dark continent’. Its most famous literary expression – from which ‘Planet of Evil’ surely draws – is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the European, Kurtz, is driven mad by his journey into the centre of Africa, and his infection by its inexplicable savage otherness.
Heart of Darkness is both an anti-imperialist text and a rabidly racist one. We’ll come back to Heart of Darkness, because this paradox will prove to be very relevant to our discussion of Doctor Who… indeed, we can already see the same paradox at work in ‘The Sensorites’ and in several of the other stories already mentioned.
Continuing our exploration up river into the darkness, we’ll have to stop off at ‘The Ark’, with its colonialist commentary on the folly of (dark skinned) savages revolting and trying to run things themselves, with disastrous consequences… a take appearing contemporaneously with the civil rights movement. And at ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ with its reliance on Chinese stereotypes as part of its ambivalent evocation of the signifiers – themselves often drawn from the imperialist imagination – which littered an early-20th century middle-class British childhood. We’d definitely have to pause over ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, with its evil generic foreigners (one of whom is called ‘Kaftan’ for fuck’s sake!), and its silent and apparently mentally-impaired black muscleman. Then there’s the ‘The Web of Fear’, mentioned at the top of last essay, with its various racial and national stereotypes. And, before that, ‘The Enemy of the World’, which takes the then-topical figure of the revolutionary ‘third world’ hispanic leader and, in line with cold war paranoia and condescension towards the colonial world in revolt, casts him as a machiavellian dictator, leading deluded manichean utopians, and holding the keys to global devastation.
‘Colony in Space’ reflects on the crimes of imperialism, explicitly linking it to capital accumulation. But because it treats the issue via a recycling of the settlers vs railroad men strand of the Western genre, the conflict it examines is between the rival claims of (human, i.e. white) colonists and (human, i.e. white) corporate raiders. The ‘Indians’ are present as aliens constructed of stereotypes of Native Americans. They are mute, primitive, sullen, unpredictable, and unreasoningly violent in the wild, but domesticable via the kindness of the humans. They’re okay when they learn that their place is as servants, or in the background silently consenting to their displacement by invaders. It is taken for granted that their claims are meaningless. Whatever was consciously going on in anyone’s head during the making of this story, the story still rests on and perpetuates racist assumptions.
‘Day of the Daleks’ recycles the anthropomorphic apes of Planet of the Apes, turning them into the Daleks’ simian servants the Ogrons. The Ogrons are the same stereotype which gave rise to Toberman, reimagined in monster form. They are just one of the show’s dark or brown skinned aliens (Monoids, Sontarans, Sea Devils…). Planet of the Apes itself engages in a world-turned-upside-down satire of the civil rights movement, with black people implicitly represented as apes. This is probably less to do with conscious racism than the influence of Wells; the story draws on The Time Machine by showing a future world where the unjust social relations of our time have become flipped owing to the influence of darwinian evolution acting on the social injustice. As a result, it recycles the same problem that destabilised the intent of Wells’ parable at the foundation of 20th century SF. The Morlocks are the oppressed working classes, yet the story makes it clear that their oppression has made them evolve into monsters. Primate-like monsters, at that. (The story describes them as like lemurs, but the movie version noticeably makes them more simian in outline.) This may be born of injustice, but that doesn’t make them any less monstrous. And they now prey on the Eloi, themselves the product of evolution transmuting the pampered and effete ruling classes into helpless child-people. In the same way, Planet of the Apes satirizes the racial injustice of its time by depicting the horror of such injustice flipped – and, somewhat more hamfistedly than Wells, allows itself to free-associate with evolutionary theory and racist associations until literal apes come to stand for the world’s insurgent people of colour. But in that film the apes are at least genuinely intelligent and civilised. ‘Day of the Daleks’ just recycles the brown-skinned humanoid apes of the film and makes them grunting, obedient, primitive servants.
This will be exacerbated in their second appearance, in which they are revealed to also be the terrified, superstitious worshippers of a weird animal on their home planet. Essentially: they are cringing, tribal, ooga-booga-men who have learned to happily serve the technological imperialists who have enslaved them into the only work they’re fit for.
In the same story, written by Malcolm Hulke, the Cold War is ostensibly satirized in an allegorical ‘space war’ between two spacefaring empires, that of Earth and that of the reptilian Draconians. Racism, seen in the humans’ use of “dragons” as an “impolite term” for the Draconians, is frowned upon but the race being stigmatised is both genuinely racially different (we’ll come back to this point) and a caricature of the Japanese, but with some features of Chinese stereotypes. As is often the case when SF uses the ‘oriental’ to signify the alien, the version of Asian peoples and cultures being summoned up is an incoherent mish-mash of various cultures, as distinct from each other as the Norwegians are from the Italians or the Serbians. (c.f. The Klingons… who, it should be noted, start off as machiavellian crypto-Asian, crypto-communist schemers with Fu Manchu-style facial hair.)
This collapsing of radically different cultures into one homogenous Asian – or, less politely, ‘oriental’ – culture is racist in itself. The use of such signifiers to construct the ‘enemy’ in ‘Frontier in Space’ can be seen as undercutting the supposed Cold War allegory, making it all look more like a reflection of then-topical Western antipathy to the rising economic power of Japan, and also – again incoherently – communist China. If we continue to view the story as also a Cold War satire or allegory, then it buys into – in a rather garbled form – the longstanding racist construction of communism as ‘Eastern’ or ‘Asiatic’. Almost from the very start, communist movements were characterised in the West as ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’, stemming from or influenced by the culture of the East. This only intensified after the Bolshevik revolution, with much pontificating about the ‘Eastern barbarism’ of Lenin et al, opposed to the ostensibly civilised West. And this was only a revival of older ideas, arising from and justifying imperialism against the peoples of the East. The discourse around the Eastern or Oriental threat of communism was riddled with antisemitism, by the way, with ‘the Jews’ constantly constructed as an alien threat from the East which carried subversion and revolution like a virus. The same idea which appeared in a relatively diluted (but still recognisable) form in the pronouncements of Winston Churchill would later form the basis of the Nazi conflation of Jews with Marxism or Bolshevism.
This is all even more uncomfortable when we remember that the Daleks can legitimately be read as constructed partly from antisemitic tropes about evil, scheming, ingenious, burrowing dwarves. In ‘Day of the Daleks’, the Daleks look at least as much like communists (as the term is generally understood) as they do Nazis, enslaving the Earth of the future to a totalitarian regime of state-run factory production, surveillance and informants. This reading is reinforced by the repeated emphasis in the story on the potential for ‘World War III’ to erupt along the “Russian-Chinese frontier” or if “the Chinese delegates” refuse to attend a peace conference. The deeply-70s, fatigue-wearing, guerilla/terrorist/rebels who unwittingly cause the war and subsequent Dalek takeover by trying to change the world for the better are another indication that the story is an anti-communist parable. If the Daleks here are readable as machiavellian communist-Jews (which is definitely a stretch, but one grounded in associations which definitely do exist between various interacting representations the show is using) then that makes the Ogrons into their moronic puppet/servants. It’s the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, beloved of Nazis old and new. It’s George Soros moving Black Lives Matter around on the game board in the evil undersea villain base that he probably has. It doesn’t help us escape such a reading that, in ‘Frontier in Space’, the Daleks are again secretively using the Ogrons to ferment a war between powers representing the West and the East (or democracy and communism, or whatever) so that they can then step in and take over. It’s the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Skaro.
(Oddly, one of H. G. Wells’ foundational works of science fiction, one with profound relevance to the genre’s inextricable entanglement with imperialism and colonialism, is referenced in ‘Frontier in Space’… but it’s not The Time Machine; it’s The War of the Worlds. But again, we’ll come back to that.)
‘Carnival of Monsters’ features an underclass of slaves – Functionaries – who are characterised as racially divergent from the rulers of Inter-Minor, and seem to be as stupid and brutish as their masters think they are, milling around like cattle and communicating in apelike grunts. In short: they are enslaved based on their ethnic difference, and that very difference is depicted as genuine inferiority. Speaking of apelike grunting, there are the native Exxilons in ‘Death to the Daleks’. One group is civilised, but they are implied to have risen above their fellows, who are chanting, simian, dark-skinned, ooga-booga men with spears who want to sacrifice the first white (i.e. human) woman they meet to their giant city-god (as opposed to their giant ape-god).
And there we have just the most obvious examples from the first three Doctors. Shall we talk about the Orientalist racism inherent throughout ‘Pyramids of Mars’? (Oh look, I already did. And again.) Shall we talk about the problems raised yet again by the depiction of tribal people in ‘The Face of Evil’, without even touching on the early publicity shots of Louise Jameson which appear to show her in blackface? And look, we’re up to ‘Talons’, which stands revealed as merely being another in a line of stories, part of a tradition.
But let’s keep going. Because it crops up where we don’t expect or want it.
You can read the Collector in my beloved ‘Sun Makers’ – a story which, contrary to popular fan wisdom, I maintain is near-impossible to read as a right-wing whinge about taxes – as a stereotypical Jewish capitalist. ‘The Power of Kroll’, which covers much of the same territory as Avatar would later cover but in a significantly less racist manner, still contains insulting stereotypes about the Native Americans whom the ‘Swampies’ are so clearly meant to represent. It’s worth noting that, as with similar stories from the show’s past, it does this even as it shows great sympathy with historic injustices suffered by native peoples, and explicitly – at times near radically – attacks the same imperialism and colonialism which is the source of the stereotypes it trades in. ‘The Creature from the Pit’ has a greedy criminal semi-villain clearly based on Fagin.
Even poor old ‘Meglos’, a story generally considered so ridiculous that is constitutes, as Lawrence Miles once put it, a “rite of passage” (I quote from memory) for people who are going to persist in identifying as Doctor Who fans, contains racist assumptions in the casting. You’ll notice that the civilised people of Tigella, Savants and Deons alike, are all white, whereas care was taken to cast engage in multi-ethnic casting when assembling the actors who would play the piratical Gaztaks.
I brought this up at Gallifrey Base once, and the point was dismissed… but nobody could explain why there were no black Tigellans. It is, of course, easy to come back with “Well, pirate bands often were multi-racial!” and this is true. In the same way, it is easy to come back at criticism of ‘The Aztecs’ with “well, people then believed Cortez killed them because he was shocked by their sacrificial practices!” But do the stories interrogate this? ‘The Aztecs’ tacitly backs up the belief. Autloc is “the extraordinary man” and Tltotoxl the norm. Does ‘Meglos’ introduce into its depiction of piracy any of the historical nuance that sees actual pirates often freeing slaves on slave ships and thus enlarging their crews? No, ‘Meglos’s pirates are a straightforward bunch of idiotic-but-dangerous comedy criminals. There is no sense in which the people of Tigella represent an oppressive society from which piracy can sometimes be an escape or rebellion. Whatever may have been true outside the text, within it what we see is a simple story of civilisation versus degeneracy. That’s why the uniform pink pallor of the Tigellans, contrasted with the various (silent) hues of the Gaztaks, bespeaks racist assumptions. Ethnic diversity is a way to signify criminality. It’s that simple.
‘Four to Doomsday’ is a bizarre shitshow of good intentions leading to the usual place. ‘Kinda’ likewise, with its preternaturally wise, spiritual, and morally elevated natives (played by white people, natch), and its imperialists driven mad by their contact with the jungle and its inhabitants. Remember the trope we encountered in our discussion of ‘The Sensorites’ and ‘Planet of Evil’? There it is again. ‘Kinda’, it is true, does not leave these issues unquestioned, and its depiction of the interaction between colonialism and madness is more nuanced and radical. It is more than possible to read the story as representing colonialism as a form of madness in itself, only exacerbated by the inability of the colonialist to comprehend the world he has crashed into – precisely because one needs to not comprehend something fully, especially not something with thoughts and feelings of its own, if you’re going to crash into it. ‘Kinda’ is a genuinely complex piece which questions some fundamental assumptions of Western modernity, not least our conceptions of time and history – conceptions themselves based on imperialism and colonialism. A full discussion of this one story would take far too long, and be far outside our scope. But it’s worth reiterating that even here, in arguably Doctor Who’s most sophisticated engagement with the issue of the relationship between native peoples, tribal societies, the concept of race, imperialism, etc, the show still assumes the viewpoint of the European encountering the ‘other’, still assumes the right to represent the people conquered by European imperialism and colonialism for the consumption of European audiences, still assumes the right to erase people of colour from their own stories, and the right to appropriate aspects of non-Western religions (and plaster crude pop-Christianity on top of them), etc.
Somewhat less complicatedly, ‘Black Orchid’ likewise goes full Heart of Darkness all over again in its depiction of a Western ‘explorer’ ruined, driven insane, and turned savage by his contact with native peoples, despite his acquisition of a nobly devoted native servant. As in Heart of Darkness, there are elements of critique aimed at the Western ‘explorers’, but ultimately the fear and loathing of the places and people he explores is the overall import of the story.
Via a little stop off on Varos to note Sil’s silent black BDSM servants, and the fact that the place is clearly meant to be a settler-colonial society akin to Australia but nobody ever talks about aboriginal people, we arrive at the horrendous mess that is ‘The Two Doctors’, with its depiction of the Doctor as a genetic determinist and scientific racist (“Give a monkey control of its environment and it’ll fill the world with bananas!”) who correctly recognises the inherent inferiority and savagery of an alien race constructed from various stereotypes of peoples conquered by British imperialism, and – perhaps most distressingly – stereotypes about Jews. Told you we’d end up back at Marlowe and Early Modern theatre. The Androgums are drawn from the wicked, machiavellian Jew as depicted by Marlowe in The Jew of Malta, and – in a somewhat more nuanced but still nasty way – by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. (I went into this issue in detail in this essay, including some complexities I won’t go into here) And, from the sublimely horrible to the awkwardly ridiculous, we have the Woke AF (for the 80s) McCoy era, in which every black person is magical and/or musical.
Such overt issues arguably become rarer in the new series, made as it is in a superficially more sensitive post-millenium Britain, but we still get eruptions, such as an entirely black crew of moronic space garbage men, and a greedy evil capitalist called ‘Solomon’.
It’s probably an idea to look at a paradigmatic example, so let’s go to one of the most outstanding – for both dramatic/aesthetic quality and political engagement – stories of recent years. ‘The Zygon Inv’ (as I call it), consciously structured as not just drama but also as an openly left-liberal political intervention regarding issues like ISIS and immigration, nevertheless reproduces the inherent problems of liberalism, and – at the very least – unconsciously reproduces many of the assumptions about Muslims and immigrants that it consciously wants to challenge. Note how, in savvily tackling both ISIS and immigration together, having noticed that they are ideologically linked in British political discourse in 2015, the story reproduces the ideological linkage, critiqued in superficial terms but intact on a deep level. The story is not ‘racist’ in any simple way – indeed, it takes almost exaggerated care to avoid anything of the sort – and yet its entire worldview is that of the white British liberal looking at the ‘issue’ of Muslim and immigrants from, as it were, the outside. It presupposes the right and ability of that perspective to clarify the issues.
This is troubling, not least because of the story’s presentation of itself as offering a radical moral settlement while nevertheless foreclosing on any idea that the oppressed have a right to conduct radical liberation struggles. Indeed, it doesn’t just foreclose on their right to do so, it forecloses on the idea that to do so could ever be necessary, that any desire to do so could ever make political or moral sense. It literally infantilizes those who might disagree.
In this, the story follows the venerable tradition of such liberal interventions in the history of Doctor Who, most especially the work of Malcolm Hulke. A one-time member of the Communist Party, Hulke’s work nevertheless exemplifies a liberal political attitude, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. The problems of liberalism are not our focus here (or are they?). Suffice to say, it stems from, and expresses, the logic of capitalist modernity from the standpoint of the upper classes of the countries which originated and dominated it, and thus expresses a form of liberty based on private property, and on the various horrors – enclosure, industrialism, proletarianisation, imperialism, colonialism, racism, etc – which permit of capitalist private property, upon which it is built. Even the greatest liberal philosophers, men like Kant and Locke and Hume and Mill, the fountainheads of the tradition, men whose work often expresses profound and laudable attachment to individual freedom, human rights, political progress, and tolerance, are also attached to ideas of scientific racism, which divide humanity into hierarchical racial strata, and end up defending, to one extent or another, the conquest and disenfranchisement of people of colour. The two sides of liberalism are not extricable, precisely because the very developments which permit of progress in one area are built on horror in another. This inextricable two-sidedness mirrors the progress of civilisation itself. The fact that the racism and the progressiveness in Doctor Who literally cannot be teased apart is a cameo of this.
The point here is that Doctor Who consistently reproduces the ‘two faces’ in what is (almost) its most radical tradition, and certainly its most hegemonic left-tradition. For instance, ‘The Zygon Inv’ is directly in the tradition of Hulke’s ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, which is about the clash between modern humans and a reawakened intelligent reptilian species which evolved on Earth before mankind. While the story is not simplistic in its set-up – it is, for instance, deliberately opaque as to whether we or the Silurians are the ‘immigrants’, and it leaves it possible to view the matter either way – the story ultimately collapses into a kind of apologia for racism in its suggestion that ‘fear of the other’ is an innate human propensity, hardwired into our genes.
When confronted by the Silurians, humans (well, working class humans anyway) revert to terrified neolithic grunting. Even the educated middle classes get whipped up into murderous xenophobic hysteria. Indeed, most of the Silurians feel the same way in response to humans, which suggests that genocidal chauvinism is a reaction innate to all civilised beings, if not almost all sentient beings.
By the way, if we take the Silurians to stand for people marginalised by colonialism, then not only are we repeating the same strategy which implicitly expresses white Europeanness as ‘humanity’ with people of colour encoded as aliens (see above), but we are also engaging in the kind of bothsidesism which responds to Black Lives Matter with “All lives matter!”, which led – for instance – the makers of Disney’s Pocahontas to draw a parallel between the xenophobia of the white settlers and the supposedly equally unreasoning xenophobia of the Powhatans.
This is recognisably the tragic liberal view, which is a kind of reification of liberalism’s own divided attitude. And it depends upon so much abstraction, so much removal of historical and material factors, that it amounts to a denial of the real substance and meaning of racism, and thus to an excuse for it on the grounds of melancholy existential inevitability, be it expressed as original sin or biological determinism.
Let’s go back a bit, just to show that what we’ve looked at so far by no means represents all there is to say.
I’ll zero in on stories I haven’t mentioned yet, stories I love. It’s harder for me to think of a Doctor Who story I love more than ‘The Mind Robber’. Aside from its many charms, I happen to think that – under the hood – it’s an astonishingly radical story about commodity fetishism. But even here, we find issues. Because ‘The Mind Robber’ does something young-me never noticed, never even considered, as he watched the VHS on a tiny portable TV in his bedroom. Yet it’s so obvious… or should be. ‘The Mind Robber’ sets itself in the Land of Fiction, where all fiction comes to life, and it erases all non-European fiction. Fiction – and thus, in this story, the entire imaginative faculty of mankind – is implied, by default, to be an inherently European thing. It amounts to an implicit denial of the imaginative faculties of non-Europeans. Was that intended? Of course not. It is simply the product of normative assumptions and cultural supremacism which are themselves built on imperialism. The same kinds of assumptions which mean we simply take it for granted that an English explorer is entitled to bring Egyptian tombs back with him to his country house, while an Egyptian (i.e. a fanatical, gibberish-spouting man in a fez) is a bastard for even being there.
Let me talk about another story I treasure, and which I think is astonishingly radical: ‘The War Games’. It’s a revolutionary anti-imperialist parable. But it tidies up the history of warfare. It centres European history and erases the rest. It leaves out the colonial and imperialist wars, the wars of conquest. Where it shows wars of empire, it strips them of context, empties them of detail. It denies the War Lords’ belief that humans are just naturally vicious, and yet also seems to enjoy flirting with this cynicism, and the very contextlessness of its depiction of history supports the view by default. The meta-imperialism of the War Lords is a critique of imperialism in general, but not of any specific imperialism. It thus tacitly excuses, effaces, and erases as much as it criticises. A general moral point – albeit a radical one – swamps a specific political critique.
And again. ‘The Macra Terror’ critiques authoritarianism but reverses the poles of such authoritarianism as it actually exists in the actual history of actual settler-colonial societies. In ‘The Macra Terror’, the authoritarianism is imposed from without upon the colonists. It is taken for granted that it is morally permissible, necessary in fact, to commit genocide, without much inquiry, against creatures who – for all we know – are the natives on the planet where the humans have settled. Whatever else the story is about – and it’s about a lot of things – it is partly about relitigating European colonialism’s record of genocide against native peoples, with native peoples themselves transfigured into phantasmic, gothic/Weird inhumans. More-or-less exactly the same thing will happen again in ‘Frontios’, which is yet another reiteration of the idea of the outpost of civilisation – with all the implications that carries – on the frontier.
This is of course, in miniature, the project of so much of the Troughton era. The ‘base under siege’ paradigm comes from somewhere. It might help us understand it if we use the word ‘fort’ instead of ‘base’. ‘Fort under siege’ stories are stories about outposts of humanity and civilisation, standing against infiltration and attack by the inhuman and uncivilised. It’s the trope of the island of rationality, surrounded and threatened by exterior alien evil.
This is what Tom Engelhardt once described as the “wagon train and the swarthy hordes” paradigm, and goes back – via everything from SF to cop shows to Stagecoach – to the racist ideology which legitimised the genocidal conquest of the West by European settlers. Whatever else is going on in some of these stories – and it is far from simple – this is where the basic framework comes from.
We Who-fans love Troughton’s speech about how “there are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things, things which act against everything that we believe in; they must be fought”, and we love to assume that those “terrible things” are always the things that we don’t like. And sometimes they are. But the basic framework of the thought itself is imperialistic, not because it is imperialistic to oppose “terrible things”, but because it is always the logic of the imperialist that whatever their empire is up to is moral and defensive, and whoever it is fighting is evil and degenerate. And, historically, most modern empires – and certainly the ones which had most influence on Doctor Who – have tended to be built on piles of the tortured and murdered bodies of native peoples, people of colour, people constructed as racially different and inferior.
Of course, if you’re the sort of person who defines racism as KKK-membership or nothing, none of the above is likely to worry you. But most engaged people now understand, as a baseline minimum, that racism is far more than just conscious negative prejudice. It is a social structure, with a corresponding system of ideas (we can argue about the exact relationship of the one to the other elsewhere), and it imbricates almost every aspect of life in societies like ours, manifesting in everyone’s lived social experience. As Lyndsy Ellis once put it with admirable clarity (in the video where I found out about Pocahontas): “the legacy of colonialism is baked into every facet of every culture on the planet”.
Another possible objection to all this is that there are counter-examples. True enough. But, as is always the case with racism, the presence of a drop of black is enough to pollute the white.
It will also be objected that other groups are subjected to stereotyping in the show. Americans (white ones anyway) in ‘The Gunfighters’. Vikings (i.e. Norwegians) in ‘The Time Meddler’. True. But we have to always remember the nature of such stereotypes. Even if negative, do they imply that the subject is less than human? And then there is the wider historical and social context in which they appear. British stereotypes about (white) Americans and Norwegians don’t evolve from largely oppressive structures reliant upon ideological justifications which dehumanize the oppressed. They don’t emerge from history like that of trans-atlantic slavery. Nor do they contribute to oppression in the text’s social present. No Americans will have been in danger of being materially oppressed or victimised in Britain because of Doctor Who’s brief dalliance with cowboy tropes, precisely because those tropes are not part of a system of oppression. If anything, they tacitly reinforce white supremacy by reproducing the racial myths attendant on the cultural idea of the American West, ‘manifest destiny’, etc. The tropes in question may not always portray white Americans flatteringly, but they all rest upon their assumed rightful dominance of the West. Indeed, these assumptions are inherently being recycled every time we see SF stories about humans (usually meaning white people) expanding across space and colonising other worlds. The tropes being played with are foundationally based on white supremacy, both as an actual social system and a system of ideas.
Arguably, both ‘The Time Meddler’ and ‘The Gunfighters’ deconstruct the stereotypes upon which they rest – at least to a certain extent. This is also true of ‘Talons of Weng-Chiang’. But the continuity of approach here shows that the textual strategy of ‘deconstruction’ (in the loose, non-Derrida sense) is not actually related to issues of racial sensitivity. In short: ‘Talons’ doesn’t make its (rather half-hearted) efforts to deconstruct Chinese stereotypes because it is dealing with stereotypes that are part of an oppressive racial order; it does so because a certain degree of deconstruction is built into the very textual strategy of utilising stereotypes and tropes in the first place.
This is, as it happens, central to Doctor Who’s approach. It represents a journey through time and space via a journey through recognisable texts, a series of genre pastiches. The deconstructive aspect of its textual strategy is built-in to the very foundation of the series, which is the concept of a linking character/conceit which permits the continuity of one or several characters exterior to the genres being evoked to travel within and between them.
There is a repeated strain of stories which aim to satirize or critique imperialism. Indeed, this is among Doctor Who’s noblest traditions. But even here we tend to find the actual victims of imperialism erased. And not simply because we are dealing with allegory. Stories like ‘The Rescue’, ‘Colony in Space’, and ‘Kinda’ represent imperialism as occurring to space and/or the future, to aliens rather than to the actual colonised and subjugated peoples of the real world, and the actors playing the subjugated aliens tend to be white, erasing people disproportionately likely to be people of colour from their own stories. This is a result not just of entrenched hiring policies, but also of a strange kind of weirdly recurved sensitivity, where the idea of hiring actors of colour to play such ‘aliens’ probably seems too ‘on the nose’ or potentially offensive. This very sensitivity is evidence of an appropriative feeling of entitlement, in which it is for the white programme makers to pontificate on these matters as if they primarily concern the culture of the imperialists, and for the people of colour to be the passive receivers of the imperial society’s judgements. The presence of actual people of colour in the representation would be perceived as scrambling the allegory by bringing in unwelcome specifics. This sucks history itself – i.e. the actual histories of oppressed lives and bodies of people of colour – out of the representation, rendering it likely to become a kind of ahistorical morality play, dealing in generalities rather than actual historical injustices. Like the term ‘people of colour’ itself (which I use for want of anything better which makes my meaning clear while also being generally agreed to be polite), the feeling that people of colour must be kept out of the allegory rests on the perception of whiteness as neutral, as an absence of colour, a blankness. This is an assumption that is taught to and imbibed by almost everyone growing up in our society, and in Euro-American capitalist/imperialist culture generally. It stems from, and is foundational to, white supremacy, even in an era when it is generally no longer legally codified, and is formally rejected by the majority. It is why cops tend to perceive a black suspect as being more threatening, more potentially dangerous. His or her blackness is perceived as an extra element, a presence or feature, and thus a meaning, not present in white suspects. For historical reasons, we still live in a society built on keeping large numbers of people of colour in a position of economic and political subjugation, and this colours our perceptions of those people, and of the meaning of the quality they are perceived to possess which white people don’t. To see such perceptions in action, one only has to look at the fact that Barack Obama, the child of one white and one black parent, was accounted the first black President. In the same way, overt racists don’t perceive ‘miscegenation’ (i.e. ‘interracial’ breeding) is diluting both races, but only as diluting the white race. The whiteness is perceived as the default setting, the condition of purity, the absence which becomes polluted by the presence that is ‘black blood’, etc. It is why the overt racists conceptualise the mere increased presence of people of colour in ‘the West’ as a signal of ‘white genocide’. Obviously, we’re talking on a different register of nastiness, but similar assumptions are operative in the casting choices which refuse to put people of colour into allegorical stories about imperialism. Now that such casting practices are finally being partially eroded, and we tend to see non-white faces in neutral settings in Doctor Who, we find that same perceptions animating those who complain about black Kaleds and black extras in the crowd in ‘Thin Ice’. The mere presence of non-white faces is felt to be unwarranted, an intrusion, and one which disrupts the verisimilitude. Gatiss had to be reassured that there was at least one black soldier in the British Army during the Victorian era before he could reconcile himself to black soldiers in red coats on Mars. There is an extent to which I understand a version of such concerns. Neoliberal anti-racism, manifested in egalitarian hiring practices, which then put black soldiers in a Kaled army meant to symbolise Nazism, or a British Army meant to represent racist imperialism, feels like a different kind of rewriting, neutralising, and de-contextualising of history. But that’s a separate issue really, and we shouldn’t get the issues mixed up.
Even when a story feels oddly aware of the irony of its erasure of black people, even when it makes some kind of move to address the issue, the issue remains. For instance, ‘The Mutants’ is clearly intended to be a parable about apartheid and the legacy of imperialism, yet the subjugated native Solonians are all played by whites. The story does what Marxism is so often accused of doing: it ignores the actual bodies of people of colour, and their actual classification by racist ideology, as independent axes of oppression. Showing a strange semi-self-awareness, the story features a black character called, of all things, Cotton. But he is a member of the oppressing race, and they, in contrast to the aliens who stand for the colonial people of colour, are diegetically described as humans. Even as the story sympathises with the conquered, it both whitewashes them and dehumanizes them – literally. There is clearly no question of calculated malice. On the contrary, the writers of ‘The Mutants’ specifically set out to satirize and critique apartheid. But the strange incoherence generated by the workings of the SF schema puts a black man both outside the category of a conquered slave, and diegetically among the humans.
The problem – and it is a problem because it generates ahistorical confusion which entails erasing, patronising, and dehumanizing people of colour – is in the entire structure of SF storytelling, most especially in two interrelated aspects, both of which have been repeated refrains throughout this essay: the implied overarching viewpoint of the white observer integrated in an imperial culture; and its reliance on an internal discourse of ‘humans’ and ‘aliens’, which is inherently about what we call race.
And here we get to the wider point. Because it really is unfair to pick on Doctor Who especially for being racist. Because Doctor Who is only one part of a cultural tradition, an entire civilization, steeped in racism.
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