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.…

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