Don’t judge till it’s published

Doctor Who and Race 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, or for now check out the essay Abstracts.

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 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.

Originally published on Intellect news blog


A very good googly – race in Four to Doomsday

Doctor Who and Race the book encompasses celebrations as well as criticisms of Doctor Who’s engagement with elements of race.

Taking the latter perspective, I’d like to smash the proverbial bubbly on this blog with a critical revisitation of something many Doctor Who fans are familiar with. It’s the scene from 1982’s Four to Doomsday that may be the most infamously awful race-related moment in the history of Doctor Who.

In it Tegan, the Doctor’s white Australian companion of the era, holds a fluent conversation with a man from an unspecified Indigenous Australian nation, from a time 35,000 years before the present:

Kurkutji:           Kularlaga yintanga Kurkutji. Ngintawungana yintanga?
Tegan:               Angilawa yintanga Tegan.
Kurkutji:           Tegan. No-ango pongkupo.
Tegan:               Pongkupo. Maka nyimp-ija?
The Doctor:      You speak the dialect?
Tegan:               Well he’s an Australian Aborigine.

There are few Australians who wouldn’t laugh, cringe or weep at this scene, and it has incurred the wrath of many a blogger. The representation of Australians both Indigenous and non-Indigenous betrays the Doctor Who production crew’s ignorance of – or lack of concern for – several important things.

The important things

First, there are hundreds of Indigenous Australian languages, so describing any merely as ‘Australian’ is plain wrong. Each language is linked to a small region of the Australian landmass, so the likelihood of Tegan even knowing which language Kurkutji was speaking is very low. Other fans have often commented on this.

As it happens, the language is Tiwi – I know that thanks to Janet Fielding’s commentary on the BBC DVD release of the serial. But Tegan almost certainly wouldn’t have known it, since Tiwi is spoken on Bathurst and Melville Islands, off the north coast of Darwin – about two and a half thousand kilometres from her home town of Brisbane as the crow flies.

In addition – as anyone who has read a word of Shakespeare knows – languages evolve through time, particularly through 35,000 years of it. Lots of people have commented on this too.

The Doctor calling Kurkutji’s tongue a ‘dialect’ is a diminution of the language to the status of ‘regional variant’, denying its distinctiveness and that of the Indigenous nation it is associated with. This is historically typical of the way Europeans and white Australians have presumed  Australian Indigenous cultures are homogeneous. Perhaps in recognition of this, Terrance Dicks’ novelization of Terence Dudley’s script corrects the line to “You speak his language?”

And most strikingly, the vast majority of non-Indigenous Australians don’t speak a word of any Aboriginal languages, let alone fluent sentences. As a non-Indigenous Australian trying only to transcribe the conversation for this review, I struggled for many hours even once I knew it was Tiwi. My transcription as it stands is still probably wrong in places even though I tried hard and was helped by Jenny Lee’s wonderful Tiwi-English Interactive Dictionary and C. R. Osborne’s 1974 book The Tiwi Language. (Corrections welcome – it’s about time someone on the interwebs transcribed this conversation accurately.)

Bloody silly

For these reasons, the conversation as represented in Four to Doomsday is nigh impossible, and Tegan’s shrugging explanation ridiculous. Janet Fielding, herself an Australian, explains on the DVD commentary that she raised some of these problems when filming the serial. Her objections caused the production team to change Kukurtji’s dialogue from generic ‘Aboriginal’ (god only knows what that script looked like) to a real language – they consulted the BBC language unit, who chose Tiwi.

Perhaps most frustratingly, as lots and lots of people have commented, the scene is also inconsistent with Doctor Who’s own science fiction lore, because the TARDIS should translate the conversation into a common tongue. The TARDIS successfully translates the words of Bigon from Ancient Greece, and Lin Futu from Ancient China – some fans have conjectured that Kurkutji’s language is just too old or too complex, but I don’t think anyone takes that explanation seriously. (Incidentally, the Mayan characters in the story don’t speak at all. Perhaps this is merciful, given the rest, but it also further silences a dispossessed people.)

How then are we to interpret this state of affairs? Should we read the scene as a naïve attempt to engage with Tegan’s antipodean origins? As a commendable acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians’ sovereign occupation of the Australian continent since time immemorial? A tongue-in-cheek fantasy that wryly highlights white Australians’ ignorance of the peoples their ancestors dispossessed? Is it racist? An innocent mistake? Or just lazy writing?

Not just Kukurtji and Tegan

In trying to answer such questions we might note that Four to Doomsday doesn’t limit its questionable representations of race to Kurkutji and Tegan. Admittedly it did a better job than most twentieth century Doctor Who at giving work to actors who weren’t white. But other aspects of it were not so positive.

Notably the story stereotypes the ethnic groups it depicts in terms of their belief systems and the type of labour they are good at. The atheist Greeks are naturally good at maths, the Chinese work with robotics, and Kurkutji’s mystical people are skilled at gardening. (The Mayans aren’t seen doing any labour, but since they all appear to be women, perhaps we should imagine them doing the cooking. But let’s leave gender politics for another occasion.)

The Doctor plays the ‘doddering imperialist’ embarrassingly well in this story. When Lin Futu introduces his name with the statement, “I am Lin Futu”, the Doctor’s unfortunate ‘joking’ reply is, “Well, I’d never have guessed it, you look in the best of health to me.” The Doc also seems blissfully unaware of the racist implications when he proudly claims to be friends with sixteenth century slaver and imperialist, Sir Francis Drake.

And it goes on – the Doctor later boasts of his cricketing prowess, declaring he “used to bowl a very good Chinaman” – a strangely gratuitous line, admitting its guilt by his uncertain glance at another Chinese character. A ‘Chinaman’ is a spin bowling technique, named for a West Indian cricketer of Chinese heritage, Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong. Apocryphally, after Achong’s bowling saw England’s Walter Robins stumped in 1933, Robins exclaimed, “Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman.” Terrance Dicks clearly felt this reference was  inappropriate for the novelization, changing the Doctor’s line to the innocuous, “I used to bowl a very good googly.”

The pathetic thing is that in Black Orchid from the same year, also written by Terence Dudley, the Doctor actually plays cricket, describing his bowling pace as “fast” – in other words, not a spin-style ‘Chinaman’. This renders the ‘Chinaman’ comment all the more questionable. And with it, perhaps, all the other race references in Dudley’s script.

Discussion is welcome below and stay tuned for Amit Gupta’s essay in Doctor Who and Race about the imperialist implications of the Fifth Doctor’s Victorian cricketer persona.

Why the jelly babies?

Orthia jelly babies paperbag small

Here’s why the cover of Doctor Who and Race features an image of jelly babies in a white paper bag:

[Doctor Who‘s] consistency in what humanity looks like constructs human diversity as an unremarkable and timeless fact. It casts racist attitudes as threatening, but in the grand scheme of human history, anomalous. The urge to a cosmopolitanism of “many colours one culture” is thus naturalized and essentialized. There are no deep power relations; there is only eternal humanity, different in colour but united in all other respects. This is no melting pot, it is no salad bowl. The appropriate metaphor comes from Doctor Who’s most famous foodstuff: humanity is so many coloured jelly babies inside a colourless (white) paper bag.

– quote from a 2010 paper published by Lindy Orthia in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, p. 215

Photo by Lindy Orthia