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Doctor Who and Race - don’t judge till it’s published
by Lindy Orthia

 

The book I have edited, Doctor Who and Race, which will be published in July, has received a lot of attention in the media and on blogs this week.
 
Almost all that attention can be sourced back to one newspaper article about the book.
 
Since the book has not been published yet, almost no one has actually read it. This has meant that almost everything written about it has been a distorted, false view, based on third- or fourth- hand information.
 
I don’t particularly want to talk about the book in depth until it is published. I prefer discussion and debate to be based on facts not hearsay, so I would like to talk about it once people have had a chance to read it.
 
But I do want to clear up some misconceptions about it now.
 
1. Not just criticising Doctor Who
 
First, and perhaps most importantly, the book contains very diverse views about race and Doctor Who.
 
Only a subset of essays are critical of the program’s casting decisions or its representations of race-related subject matter.
 
Others celebrate the ways Doctor Who has been cast with respect to race, or how its stories have shown racism, slavery and colonialism to be deeply wrong.
 
Still others don’t lean one way or the other, but instead merely document and reflect on some of the ways Doctor Who has engaged with race.
 
This diversity of opinions will be very clear to anyone who reads the book - stay tuned for when it is published.
 
2. Not academics versus fans
 
Second, an ‘academics’ versus ‘fans’ dynamic has been falsely constructed this week, as if the book’s authors are all navel-gazing academics picking on a thing that fans have no problem with. This is plain wrong.
 
All the book’s contributors are regular viewers, and almost all identify as fans. (And incidentally, academic fans, like other fans, are capable of dissecting something without losing the love.)
 
In addition, about half of the contributors are not academics. That was always the intention of the book as you can see at the original book blog. Anyone in the world who came across the announcement calling for submissions was welcome to submit a short or long essay for the book on any aspect of race and Doctor Who that took their interest (and the blog saw over 3000 visits from 43 countries while submissions were still open). Everyone who ended up contributing to the book did so because of a deep love, abiding interest and/or serious commitment to the program. Some have written in an academic style and others have not.
 
I myself am a fan and have been watching Doctor Who since 1979. I am also an academic by trade. But my job was not my primary motivation for editing this book, since I teach science communication, not race studies. This book was, for me, a labour of fan-love, as well as a work of academic interest. It emerged from the fact that a lot of people were already blogging about Doctor Who and race, so it seemed an opportune time for a book on the subject.
 
3. Newsflash - newspaper quotes someone out of context
 
Third, my sentence that has often been bandied about this week - “perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is the problem, privately nursed by many fans, of loving a television show even when it is thunderingly racist” - has been taken thunderingly out of context.
 
In the book this sentence comes towards the end of my conclusion chapter, in a section which discusses the fact that many people who study Doctor Who are also fans, and so are personally invested in what they study and write.
 
The sentence is not stating that Doctor Who is thunderingly racist. The sentence is saying that fans often feel inner conflict at those times when Doctor Who has moments of racism, because we love the show but don’t love racism. An example is the Doctor’s line in Doctor Who’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, in which he talks about ‘the savage mind’ of ‘the Red Indian’ - the episode may be 50 years old, but we still watch it today, and the line still sits uncomfortably because of its casual racism. My reflection on this is simply asking how we should best deal with that discomfort.
 
I end the conclusion by quoting from Kate Orman’s essay in the book, in which she says: “because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings.”
 
I hope that this is true, and that future discussions about this book and its subject will be considered and thoughtful.
 
4. Don’t judge till it’s published
 
The final point I want to make for now is: wait until the book is published, read it, and make up your own mind about it then.
 
I established a blog to accompany the book precisely to enable considered public discussion and debate on this topic. There have already been many bloggers over the past several years who have discussed race in Doctor Who eloquently and sophisticatedly. I hope the book’s blog will serve as a referral point to those other blogs, as well as a place for new discussions.
 
Those discussions may include criticisms of Doctor Who and Race. But please read the book first.
Posted by Lindy Orthia at 11:06 (3) comments
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Anonymous  Said...

Since an abstract concept like racism cannot literally thunder, I suspect the phrase "thunderingly racist" was selected to be provacotive. It succeeded; it provoked. 

May 29, 2013 21:57
Rosalita Moog  Said...

First  I would like to say that I like to point out the "Tokien of the Week" for Doctor Who episodes. I love the show but the use of non-whites is just pitiful at times.

May 30, 2013 22:05
Liz Pullen  Said...

 You have to see that your audience for this book will be Doctor Who fans,  not students of critical race theory. Some readers will give you a fair hearing but there is going to be some blowback, perhaps substantial blowback. 

This nuanced response you offer is great and very appropriate and it's wonderful that you seriously consider the criticism you're hearing without being defensive or dismissive. I hope this column gets some decent circulation.

My primary concern is criticism could be ahistorical. Doctor Who shouldn't be considered in isolation from other, similar programs on the air at the time. It should be measured against some ideal program that never has and will never exist (and especially didn't exist in the 1960s).  The criticism about the term "savages" is understandable but it helps if you're aware that it was the standard term for Native Americans in the popular Westerns that aired during that decade. That doesn't just excuse it but, like any cultural artifact, Doctor Who represents the society that produced it at the time it was produced. I hope the authors kept the context of the work in mind.

June 2, 2013 00:19