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.