Doctor Hue : Racial inclusion in Doctor Who
More than fifty years ago, young Asian, Muslim film graduate Waris Hussein directed the first episode of a new sci-fi series called Doctor Who. It was unlikely he knew that the series about a eccentric space traveller in a police box would run almost as long as its journeys through space and time.
Waris would have to wait for more than thirty years to see another person of colour to star in the show. Despite the program focussing on travelling to different worlds and times, the concept of respectful non white racial inclusion was just too alien for the show. Rewatch Talons of Weng Chiang, Pyramids of Mars and Turn Left and you’ll get the idea – stereotyping in full glory.
Over the recent years, the series has taken repeated steps in racial diversity, with more tried and tested formulas than in The Rani’s laboratory. As the Tardis closes for another season, we say farewell to The Master and our other kickass Doctor fondly known to fans as Doctor Ruth. They, as well half the current Tardis crew are non white and some fans have been kicking up a storm at this very fact, calling it forced political correctness.
Current non white team members of Whittaker’s team or fam as she prefers to call them, Ryan and Yaz have been receiving most of the hate from disgruntled fans. Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who has relegated the ‘fam’ to what they really are : companions. Not massive crushes, or space daughters or immortal centurions. Just your average people hitching a ride in space and that is all. While Graham, an older white male remains a favourite from the Tardis crew, his colleague and step grandson are seen as unnecessary characters. ‘But there’s too many people in the Tardis, it spoils the plotline!’ is what some fans use to justify their outrage on diversity ‘being shoved down their throats’. A large Tardis crew went without complaint in the Davison and Tennant years.
The first non white onscreen companion of the Tardis was Asian American teenager, Chang Lee. With a lack of East Asian presence on TV you’d think this would be a great start. However Chang was not on the BBC series but in that film, which not only threw much needed diversity under the bus but everything else including the plot and the Doctor himself. McGann’s incarnation would continue offscreen from there on.
As the show made a real return to BBC production we saw a more racially diverse set of characters. The era of Eccleston and Tennant brought in two main black characters : brilliant programmer Mickey Smith and the sharply intelligent and beautiful Martha Jones. Unfortunately they were both sidelined thanks to a blonde chick, Rose Tyler. Mickey was Rose’s convenient and often ridiculed boyfriend and Martha was the Doctor’s rebound companion following Rose’s exit from the Tardis. The series had no idea what to do with Martha in particular, overcompensating her by moving her from world saviour with ridiculous plotlines, to massive promotions in UNIT then to Torchwood.
Two incarnations later, history repeated itself more tragically with the demise of Bill Potts and Danny Pink, both black and both ending up as cybermen. Danny Pink gave up his life for Capaldi’s companion Clara, and Bill gave up her life for the Doctor himself. Even Martha Jones’ cousin wasn’t safe from the cyber touch, as we were first introduced to Freema Agyeman briefly playing newly converted cyber man, Adeola. Plot line wise as a main character Bill stayed only for one season with an incomplete story about her mum whilst Rose, who stuck around past Donna Noble’s tenure, was reunited with her dead dad twice. Both Clara and Rose also stayed with more than one incarnation of the Doctor while their non white colleagues were assigned elsewhere.
In the Doctor Who spin off Torchwood, sole non white main character, Toshiko Sato didn’t fare any better. Given the title of team geek, a typical role given to East Asians, she was also frumpily dressed, lacked confidence unless under alien influence and her love life sucked. Her closest relationship was with her mum and her work, which is an overused and snoozeworthy stereotype specifically saved for Asian characters. The only other non-white team member, Suzie turned out to be a baddie even beyond the grave and was wiped out in the first episode. Let’s not also forget that Ianto Jones’s black girlfriend was a cyberman too. I think we’re beginning to see a pattern here.
However, spin offs Class and Sarah Jane Adventures handled their non white characters much better in comparison. This could be due to both shows being for younger audiences where it just wouldn’t do to see the blood count for their main characters. Teenagers Ram Singh and Vivian Adeola resonated with their viewers, as they balanced the ups and downs of secondary school while fighting off evil extra terrestrials. Sarah Jane’s team members Rani Chandra and Clyde Langer were younger role models for children sci fi fans, especially from ethnic minorities.
Doctor Who production teams need to take note that it’s not just about how much diversity is included in the show, but how it is used. It can create amazing episodes like Rosa or Demons of the Punjab. Or it can be totally irrelevant and produce equally fantastic shows like Spyfall and Fugitive of the Judoon. Either way, lets hope that they’re finally getting it right this time.