Some of you may have had the “luck” of seeing the media shitstorm whipped up around Intellect Books’s forthcoming anthology Doctor Who and Race, edited by Lindy Orthia. If not, it’s exactly what you’d expect; the Daily Mail got a copy and decided to run a typical Daily Mail article in which the bizarre leftist intellectual attack on an upstanding British tradition is exposed to reveal the menace of the… whatever, really. (Obviously the Daily Mail likes Doctor Who today, since attacking academics is more important than making the BBC look bad. They can always go back to hating Doctor Who later, after all.)
I was one of the peer reviewers for the anthology, and while it would be inappropriate for me to offer a full review of the book, not least because I saw an older draft of it, I am in a position that virtually nobody else commenting on this kerfuffle is in that I’ve actually read the thing, as opposed to just the Daily Mail article. So after checking with Ms. Orthia that opening my mouth would be OK, I figured I’d weigh in.
First of all, absolutely every story on this is a retread of the original Daily Mail story, which if you really want to read you can find here, but be sure to swab your monitor down after. To be fair, pissing off the Daily Mail is the very definition of picking the right enemies, and I’m frankly jealous of Ms. Orthia for pulling it off. So the bulk of this should surprise exactly nobody. Still, let’s make a few observations. First of all, let’s note that the two essays singled out in the Daily Mail article are, in fact, the first two in the book. It’s not even clear the Mail received the entire book – the first ten percent of it would be sufficient to write the takedown they mustered. So actually, maybe I actually am the only person in this kerfuffle who’s read the book.
The Daily Mail’s screed objects to two essays, both in the first four of the book. The first, by the blogger Fire Fly, is admittedly problematic. In fact, at least in the version I read, I found it a terribly weak essay that systematically overstated its claims. It’s a reworking of a blog post, and it reads like one – a polemical screed of the sort that’s perfectly sensible as a discussion-starting bomb lobbing on the Internet. As the opening chapter in a pop-academic anthology presumably aimed in part at Doctor Who fans, it’s a… poor choice, and one that absolutely everybody should have expected to cause exactly this reaction.
But crucially, it’s one essay, and the only one that’s anywhere near so polemical. The other essay criticized, Amit Gupta’s look at the use of cricket as a signifier in the Davison era, is utterly tame, and it’s almost funny to see the Daily Mail lay into it. It is, in effect, a primer on the status of cricket as a cultural signifier in the early Thatcher years, and something it is nearly impossible to work up any meaningful objection to.
And, of course, there’s a requisite out of context quote from Lindy Orthia herself that is made to sound as though she is saying the whole of Doctor Who is “thunderingly racist” when in fact she is asking how to love the show in the specific moments in which it is, in fact, thunderingly racist – moments which unequivocally exist.
The book is not, in other words, some takedown of Doctor Who on the grounds that it is racist. It’s a book that was inevitably going to be misrepresented that way – and this is something I brought up in my peer review. But the book isn’t that. It’s a bunch of people, most of whom love Doctor Who, working through what are, in fact, some serious issues with the program. Of course a show about a white man with a British accent who explores alien civilizations and fixes their problems for them is going to have some serious race issues. Because, you know, so did white British men who explored and “fixed” the problems of foreign cultures.
Let us, in other words, remember that 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. Which is to say, yes, the Daily Mail. And here we get an awful moment of allying them with the fannish tendency to resist criticism of the thing they love. Because, of course, that’s fandom all over – desperate to be allowed to love Doctor Who without complication. So we have a desperately ugly alliance designed to shut down all consideration of the book before anyone reads it.
Tragically, this is a book that a lot more people should read than actually will. And if anyone had the sneaking suspicion that the Daily Mail was viciously poisoning the well with outright misrepresentations, well, congratulations. You called it. This is actually a book that tries to move beyond the knee-jerk desire that we all have to defend Doctor Who. It’s a book that exposes what it is that those of us who want to offer redemptive readings have to redeem. It’s a good book. It deserves a fair hearing and an intelligent debate. And I’m gutted to see that it’s going to spend months where the only people talking about it are the Daily Mail and people copying it.
So I’d like to end by talking about an absolutely wonderful essay in it. Unsurprisingly, it’s Kate Orman’s. The book is a mix of fan and academic contributors, and Orman’s is notable for being a fan essay that’s as well-argued and meticulously footnoted as the best academic contributions. It’s eminently publishable in a proper academic journal, and is the most thorough archeology of the racial issues in The Talons of Weng-Chiang I’ve seen to date. It doesn’t spare the story – and why should it, given that Talons is, in fact, thunderingly racist. But it also gives the story real and searing criticism that goes beyond the yellowface performance of John Bennett and instead looks at the entire cultural tradition that Talons comes out of, locating the racism not in a dodgy and ill-advised prosthetic but in an entire literary tradition. It’s intelligent. It’s significant. It’s critical, but eminently fair. And it’s written by someone whose love of the program is beyond question.
That’s the book I peer reviewed. And fuck the Daily Mail for lying about it.