George Ivanoff’s essay in Doctor Who and Race nominated for Ditmar award

We are pleased to announce that George Ivanoff‘s essay published in Doctor Who and Race has been nominated for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review in the Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) Awards for 2014.

Congratulations to George – we hope you win!

The preliminary ballot is viewable at  http://wiki.sf.org.au/2014_Ditmar_preliminary_ballot.

Read the full text of George’s essay below.

That was then, this is now: How my perceptions have changed

The past, they say, is a different country. They did things differently back then … especially on television. Television programmes from the 1970s were very different from television programmes made today. Techniques and technology were different. Society’s morals and expectations were different. As a long-running series, spanning the decades from the 1960s through to the present day, Doctor Who is a perfect example of this.

GeorgeWithDrWhoBook_web

The differences are not only evident in the actual programme itself, but in the viewer expectations. My reactions to watching Doctor Who as an adult are different from when I was a child. Watching Doctor Who for the first time in the late 1970s, I did not notice the wobbly sets, the strings and the dodgy camera work. I did not see that some stories were progressive, while others reinforced stereotypes. All I saw was the marvellous adventures of a time-travelling alien in a police box.

No two stories illustrate this more clearly to me than The Mutants and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Separated by five years – the former broadcast in 1972 and latter in 1977 – they are completely different in approach to the issue of race. Christopher Barry, perhaps picking up on the racial issues of the story he was directing, chose to perform a rare piece of ‘colour-blind casting’, having a black actor, Rick James, play the part of Cotton in The Mutants. In The Talons of Weng-Chiang director David Maloney cast Caucasian actor John Bennett as the Chinese magician Li H’sen Chang. Of course, the story itself depicts Chinese people in a rather stereotypically unflattering light, using them only as villains: it’s all opium dens, gangs and the abduction of young women.

Viewing these two stories as a child of 11 years, I did not see these differences. To me at the time, they were both equally exciting and entertaining. All I saw was the adventure and the monsters and the Doctor fighting evil. I did not notice the parallels to South Africa’s apartheid policies in The Mutants, and I did not see the racial stereotyping in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And I didn’t even notice that Li H’sen Chang was a Caucasian actor in make-up. But I did not live in a multicultural community. I lived in a very white, middle-class Australian suburb, I went to a very white, middle-class, Catholic primary school and I socialized with white, middle-class kids. Racial differences were not uppermost in my mind at the time, and so I did not notice them in the programmes I watched on television.

But, with experience, perceptions change over time. I went to an independent secondary school with a significant intake of overseas Asian students, particularly from China. And then I went to university and my horizons were broadened even further by the racial mix of the student body. Then I entered into the real world, the workplace again providing me with exposure to people of different ethnicities (particularly my first job as a sales assistant).

Re-watching those Doctor Who stories recently, as an adult with a very different view of the world, my reaction to them was quite different.

I started off with The Mutants. Despite a few minor hiccups, I thought it was a well-written, intriguing story. Colonialism and the treatment of native peoples were clearly the main thrust of the story, and the thinly veiled references to apartheid in South Africa were glaringly obvious. It was, in many ways, a story well ahead of its time, in terms of what a family-oriented television series was willing to tackle; and it probably got away with it because it was science fiction and therefore removed from reality in the minds of most people, particularly BBC executives. I was also struck by the ambitious nature of the production. Even though it did not always work, it aimed for an epic quality with its location shooting, its set design and costumes, and its more complex than usual special effects. Given these ambitious elements, perhaps the ‘colour-blind casting’ is not such a surprise, as the director seemed willing to take risks.

Then, watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang, I was struck by the contrast. Even though it was made five years later than The Mutants, the views it put forward were so far behind. People often dismiss the casting of a Caucasian actor as a Chinese character as being the done thing at the time.[1] And yet, the director would have had the power to cast as he saw fit – as Christopher Barry did, casting Rick James in The Mutants; and as Timothy Combe did in The Mind of Evil in 1971, when he cast Chinese actress Pik-Sen Lim as Captain Chin Lee. So David Maloney probably could have cast a Chinese actor if he really wanted to.Knowing all this, watching it as an adult, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the writer and director. Yes, they were making this story at a particular point in time, when racial stereotyping and racist casting were not only accepted, but were the norm in mainstream British culture. They weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. But that’s the point: they made the choice to go with the flow. The writer could have chosen to avoid racial stereotypes, but he didn’t. The director could have chosen to cast a Chinese actor. He certainly found it acceptable to cast Chinese extras – but a Chinese lead actor?

Beyond the disappointment and the awareness, I also found myself watching this story with a slight sense of guilt. Despite the casting, despite the stereotyping, I still found myself immersed in the story, being carried away with the adventure and enjoying it all a great deal. I even found myself appreciating John Bennett’s performance, despite the ‘yellowface’. The fact of the matter is that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a well-written and well-produced Doctor Who story. And even though on an intellectual level I can abhor the decision to cast a Caucasian actor, I can recognize that individual actor’s talent and the subtle and layered nature of his performance.

All this then begs the question: how should current audiences view past examples of the depiction of race? Should we condemn the poor examples, as we praise the forward thinking ones? Or should we accept the poor ones as products of their time?

I enjoyed watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. As a Doctor Who fan I will, no doubt, watch it again. And despite that slight feeling of guilt I will, no doubt, enjoy it again. And I’m reasonably comfortable doing this because of context. But if the current series of Doctor Who were to present me with such blatant racism, I would like to think that I would switch it off.

Note

[1] e.g., “A Caucasian actor, John Bennett, portrayed Li H’sen Chang, using make-up and an accent, a practice probably not acceptable today, but more widespread in 1976, when The Talons of Weng-Chiang was made and aired.” Anon., “Li H’sen Chang”(n.d.), TARDIS Index File. Retrieved 19 August 2012 at http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Li_H’sen_Chang; and “[…] casting a Caucasian actor as the Chinese villain. But that’s kind of a product of the times, I guess.” Christopher Barry, comment to “Dr. Who: The Talons of Weng Chiang” (11 April 2004), El Skin Project. Retrieved 19 August 2012 at http://www.exisle.net/ESP/mb/index.php?showtopic=14852.

 

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