ABW’s TV Corner – Doctor Who

I decided that we needed a bit of lighter fare around here. TV blogging is more fun, even if it’s all about teh race and gender. Plus, you never know if the Hathor Legacy folks are watching…

This post contains some spoilers, but not major plot spoilers. So read at your own risk.

The Doctor and Martha JonesMonths (and months and months) before the debut of Series 3 of the new Doctor Who there was much talk and pictures and speculation and general froofrah about the Doctor’s new companion, Martha. She’s billed as the first minority companion, though elsewhere people have pointed out that this is not quite accurate. In Series 1 and 2 Mickey sometimes traveled with 10 and Rose and in the 1996 movie there was an Asian guy who could technically count. But Martha is the first to be the main companion/star.

Pictures of them in character started to circulate, and I had high hopes. I just liked Martha on sight. For one thing, she’s got a great look. Beautiful girl, nice skin, and (I’ll admit this is extremely shallow) a good skin tone. Martha is representative of a darker hue — not as dark as Seal, say, but darker than Halle Berry — and that made me hope that she wouldn’t just be a ‘Heinlein Colored‘ person.

When the first episode aired, all of my hopes were fulfilled and moreso. Martha is clever. Brilliant, really. She asks smart questions. She loves an adventure. She’s brave and awesome. And the writers do a really good job of acknowledging that she’s Black without making her be All About The Blackness.

Example: in the second episode (Martha’s first trip through time) they land in 1599 and this exchange happens:

Martha: Am I all right? I’m not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?

Doctor: (look of utter bewilderment on his face) Why would they do that?

Martha: Not exactly white, case you haven’t noticed.

Doctor: I’m not even human. Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me.

In the first episode we meet her whole family – one brother, one sister, mother, father, and father’s girlfriend (more on this later). The family is awesome, too. I feel like these are people I might know or interact with.

In episode six Martha’s sister puts together a black tie event for her company. When Martha’s mom and brother arrive, M comments on how good Leo looks (and he does….). He jokes,

Yeah, if anyone asks me to fetch them a drink, I’ll swing for them.

In the same episode, Martha’s mom meets the Doctor and she’s immediately suspicious of him. It’s never stated clearly why she takes an instant dislike. I read it as a combination of things — she thinks that he’s dating or sleeping with her daughter, possibly preying on her since it’s obvious he’s a bit older, and distracting her from her medical school studies. I also think she’s totally suspicious of him because he’s a white dude possibly doing all these things.

It’s casual stuff like that — their acknowledgment without it becoming a stump speech for race issues — that marks the writers as people who Get It. I love people who Get It.

One thing I’ve noticed about Doctor Who (and some other BBC shows) is that the show does not suffer from the “all white universe” syndrome that American SF shows do. No matter if they’re in the present or travel into the future, there are brown people there. Brown people of all kinds — leaders, lackeys, stupid, smart, important to the plot, background filler. There are even some brown people in the past.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Doctor Who (and its spinoff Torchwood) is that there are a lot of interracial couples. In fact, I don’t think any non-white person who is involved in a romantic relationship is involved in a non-interracial one. There’s Mickey, Rose’s boyfriend, Donna and her fiancée, Ianto and Lisa, Tosh and Mary, Martha’s dad and Analise, possibly Martha’s brother and his partner, Milo and Cheen – those are the ones I can think of right now. I’m not sure what this signifies, exactly. It doesn’t make me angry, I just find it an interesting data point. I wonder what it means, if anything?

Jack - JackAnother thing to note is that both Doctor Who and Torchwood have gay and bisexual characters and treat them in the same way. It’s not all about the character’s sexual preference, it’s just a part of who they are. Like in real life. This particular element is probably due to the fact that the show’s producer, Russell T. Davies, created the original British Queer as Folk. He knows that the gays are just like you and me.

So Doctor Who and Torchwood get a big A+ in my book. I love watching well-written SF shows. Add the excellent way in which they incorporate non-white, non-heterosexual characters makes them even better.

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34 Responses

  1. Hey, don’t Brannigan and Valerie count as an interracial couple since, y’know, he’s a cat?

    I thought it was interesting in the Impossible Planet episode that the space crew seemed to include the entire rainbow of UK ethnicities, AND they were all really hot. My friend reminded me that in the future they must have cured ugliness.

    RTD also had an interesting mix of people in Cassanova, also starring Tennant, along with the captian from Impossible Planet. I wonder if this is a BBC trend, or a RTD-specific theme?

  2. Oh, we’re always watching… ;-)

    I’ve heard so many good things about Doctor Who. I really need to get my hands on some of it, I guess.

  3. The first two series are out on DVD now, I think. I’m downloading series three with torrent (as I did with 2). I’m sure you can find a complete Series 1 and 2 on a torrent site somewhere. Or, if you’re coming to WisCon, we can have a conversation…

  4. I seriously thought I was the only one who covered Doctor Who who acknowledged the brillance of Freema’s inclusion of Doctor Who.

    I must warn you thou, she is more of a Star Trek fan.

    Cheers, and I’ll put a link to your blog on mine.

  5. I am going to be at WisCon, yes! (and I’m so excited and ready to go that I can hardly stand it. I need a feminist sf con more than once a year, I think…)

  6. Revena – Then I’ll bring you a nice present :)

  7. Are you based in the UK? (I’m new to this blog.) Latest figures are that a quarter of all London children have parents of different cultures/ethnicities.

    One of the oddest things I find in the US is how rarely I see “mixed” groups of young people. When I taught in Baltimore I was shocked how the classroom divided by colour, I’d never seen that before (although I should add, that in the UK my classroom always divides by sex, which didn’t happen in the US).

  8. I have to agree I love Freema. Although I really liked her in the pilot, my love solidified in the second with the quote you provide. As soon as she was worried about being carted off, a part of me stood up and screamed “YES!” because that’s exactly what I was thinking when they popped up in the past. She’s being written as a black woman not as someone who just happens to be black and that’s one of the reasons I have so much love for her.
    I haven’t seen the last couple of episodes yet but now I’m really excited to see the familial reaction to the Dr.

  9. Farah,

    I may be horribly wrong about this, but my understanding is that most people of color in the UK are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. That’s also true for many PoCs in the US, but most people of African descent in the US are the descendants of slaves. That leads to some major historical differences in the way that whites and blacks have interrelated here, of which the lingering effects (e.g., kids’ tendency to self-sort by race) are still very much felt.

  10. Farah – No, I’m American. And, you’re right, race mixing is still something we have yet to figure out here, and that plays out in our television.

    I used to watch a soap opera called One Life To Live. This was in the early 90s, maybe even late 80s. There were these two black people, a man and woman, who’d been on the show for several years and were, of course a couple. The only black people in town, I tell you! Obviously, they had to be together. then the show brings in another black guy and it was immediately clear that the new black guy and the old black guy were about to get in a soap opera fight over the black woman. Why? Well, who else was this new black guy supposed to hook up with? Certainly not any of the white women! And God forbid the black woman should want to hook up with a white man. Great Jefferson’s Ghost!

    At one point during this particularly stupid storyline, the black woman says to the old black guy “Why does everyone assume that I want to be with either of you?” and that’s about as close as the show ever got to acknowledgeing the racial politics of the whole thing.

    Now that I think about it, this must ahve bene in the early 90s. because shortly after the black woman and the old black guy left the show, the new black guy’s ex-wife showed up and she was white. I think they may have even said she was Jewish, but later they dropped that (maybe?). I guess it’s baby steps. Obviously the new black guy couldn’t actually BE with a white woman, but it was okay to show that he had once been married to one.

  11. wow. that is impressive treatment. i’ll keep an eye out for those dynamics. great post.

    and the “and we shall march” link is great! i’m gonna keep an eye out over there, no doubt.

  12. Hooray for Martha!

    As somebody who socialises (if that’s the word) with old school Who fans, some of the criticisms launched at her have been horrible. “This is just PC gone mad”, “She should shut up and do what she’s told” etc. People have even theorised that, because she’s black, she must be related to [black character from another episode, possibly broadcast over forty years ago], and this will form part of an ongoing story arc. (Chang-Lee, the guy from the telemovie, was likewise referred to as an “idiotic kung-fu tag-along” by somebody with an official connection to the original series).

    The interractial relationship between Martha’s father and his girlfriend came in for a similar oh-God-why-do-I-have-an-account-on-this-forum reaction, in which they accused the show of sending the message that all white women are evil homewreckers.

    If people like this are getting pissed off, then they must be doing something right.

    I’m sad we haven’t seen (and most likely aren’t going to see) as much of her family as we did of Rose’s, since there’s far more of them and they have a totally different dynamic. I’d gladly watch them *without* monsters. Maybe next season.

    (For the sake of pedantry: A few years before the new series was announced, the BBC did a one-off Doctor Who animated story called “Scream of the Shalka” in which the companion character, Alison, was black).

  13. Chrysilla – Branigan and Valerie are an interspecies couple, a whole other dynamic ;)

    Richie – Hearing this makes me kind of glad I wasn’t involved in Who fandom up until the new series came out.

    I actually felt the whole Martha’s dad/Analise relationship reflected more negatively on black men than white women. After all, lots of guys dump their wives for a bimbo when they hit ‘maleopause’, as my friend calls it. But there’s an added layer of WTF when a black man dumps his black wife for a white woman. At least in America – I don’t know how the poltiics of that work in the UK.

    But it’s clear that Martha’s dad is an idiot in many and various ways, making him fun to watch.

  14. I noticed this in UK shows and movies as well.
    The recent “28 Days Later” was the same way-when I went in I never expected to see a black female lead in a big horror movie. I notice now that “28 Weeks Later” has a very diverse cast as well.
    I love it!
    I totally wish we would do that here.

  15. I adore Dr. Who; I’ve watched it since I was three or four. Love the new stuff (though I do miss the six hour story arcs; I understand WHY they’re doing an hourly format instead of the four to six hour format shown in hour increments, but I don’t LIKE the effect it has on nuances), but I haven’t seen the latest season. Martha sounds ace, though. I adore the new trend of companions not being largely useless rescue-fodder. Makes it more interesting.

    I’ve never been involved with fandom, though, outside of reading the wank about Rose (whom I also adored). I’m sorry to hear they’re such asshats. 8(

  16. I’m pleased to read that this Dr Who has been getting good reviews!! As a UK tax-payer, I’m glad to see that the BBC is appreciated!
    A note to a previous comment: Race in the UK is predominantly post-colonial: Firstly, slavery had been ‘done away with’ for a while (200 yrs), yet the consequences of slavery still persisted and continue as a discriminatory issue in what ws known asa the ‘the mother-country’. Secondly, in the UK (a small island) there was no room for a plantation system — our addiction to sugar and coffee ‘had’ to be supplied somehow. Thirdly, the first large ‘influx’ of the Carribean immigration was in the early fifties, and there are still problems in integration and understanding in the UK.

  17. The white guys in the fandom over at Outpost Gally who sit there and complain she was casted for PC reasons showcase the very reason it’s so hard for us to get roles.

    We are automatically seen as PC if we are included.

  18. [...] And in television, The Angry Black Woman wrote a post about Doctor Who: [...]

  19. [...] The Angry Black Woman talks about race in Dr. Who at ABW’s TV Corner. [...]

  20. With each episode I love the character of Martha Jones and particularly the casting of Freema Aygeman more and more.

    She is so smart, curious, and not a cookie-cutter woman (as far as her body shape). As a WoC, it does feel good to get involved with the world of Doctor Who – as opposed to the “I really don’t belong here” feeling that I get when I watch Battlestar Galactica.

    As a parent, I realize how much of my kids’ understanding of the world are shaped through media – how much colour and class are very important parts of even cartoon shows.

    I watched Martha’s debut episode with my son for the first time last night and realized that Martha’s role on Who is even more important than I wanted to acknowledge: As a 36 year old woman I feel as though *I* am visible when I watch Freema on screen. I can only imagine how that would feel if I were a 12 year old.

    Although it’s too much to hope for, I do hope that American television production companies will look to the success of a multi-racial/multi-ethnic world such as the one portrayed on Doctor Who and start making better tv (especially better SF tv!).

    I’m so glad I found your blog, you have a great voice and so many wonderful insights!

  21. I just started watching the first (new) season of Doctor Who, so I’m glad to hear good things about the third season. Maybe this show won’t betray me in the third season like so many others have!

  22. Bit naff to comment on an old post I know, but still.
    One of the things to remember when dealing with ‘old-school’ Who fandom is that they love to hate the show, especially when it’s new. If they don’t dislike it, they’ll make up things to hate, to fit in. There have even been people complaining that the sets and effects are *too good*, and that it ‘doesn’t fit’ with the old stuff.
    While I love the show I tend to keep well out of the fandom because I just got so sick of the delight with which so many of them would go on at length about everything which is wrong with the show…and then wonder why they were teased for being fans.

  23. As somebody who socialises (if that’s the word) with old school Who fans, some of the criticisms launched at her have been horrible. “This is just PC gone mad”, “She should shut up and do what she’s told” etc.

    You know who I’d really love as the Doctor? Colin Salmon.

  24. Wandering by at a very late date, but just wanted to note that not all “old school” fans are unhappy with the casting of Martha.

    I’ve been a fan since the very beginning, and I was so very excited to see, first, that the universe of Doctor Who has finally learned about diversity, and two, that Martha is who she is. It’s been a very long time in coming, and I’m very happy that they do seem to “get it” with respect to race.

  25. i dont understand why so many of us whites are obessed with hating BLACKS…I MEAN WHAT IS THE POINT?

    WHAT IS IT GOING TO ACHIEVE?

    WILL BLACKS DISAPPEAR IF WE HATE THEM….
    I MEAN THERE IS so MUCH HATRED IN THE WORLD…

    one white man i know buys bananas to throw at the tv screen everytime he see’s a black on tv…then his wife has to clean the screen afterwards…

    another thing many people dont realise is that there will blacks on other planets…why?

    because planets are round and there will always be a temperature differential…

    many whites want to return to golden age in which everyone they see is white as they think it will be paradise whithout blacks…

    many whites want to go to a white only planet…

    whites in south africa will become black in a thousand years and also in australia…

    blackness is caused by melanin in the skin to protect against uv radiation.

    it’s like like a permanent suntan lotion.

    a multi billion dollar industry exists to tan white people.

    many whites go to beaches to get tanned…yet they call asians/blacks who hava a permanent tan n*****s.

    why?

  26. I like Martha, its great to see some diversity in television period.

    I just thought it was odd that the doctor never showed as much interest in her. He is reticent to take her on as a companion while falling in love with another woman and inviting the rude ‘runaway bride’ to be a companion.

    Perhaps it is perception, but it would be nice to see Martha’s character become a real interest and more important. She almost feels like a lackey or side note most of the time.

    Too often black women and Asian men are desexualized into these impossible or passing interests that can never be for some reason. Ive watched black female character on US television almost have no dating life and remain not an option for white leads or forced to date only within their own race.

    I guess I dont understand this and it seems to be playing itself out again on this show. Any insight welcome.

  27. Observatory88, hoping ABW doesn’t mind me jumping in, there have actually been some heated discussions lately about race and pervasive racism in the new “Doctor Who”. Mostly circling around the treatment and depictions of Martha Jones and, from the last two series, Mickey Smith. Discussing some possible symptomatic issues with depiction of these particular characters, characters of colour in general, how they’re treated by the Doctor and in comparison to other (non-COC) companions. Also some discussion if this is possibly a recurring issue in Russell T. Davies work. Specifically, the characters Bellino in “Casanova” and Donna Clarke in “Queer as Folk”.

    Some links (be forewarned, if you’re a non-UK viewer, there are spoilers for the entire third series run in these discussions):

    http://community.livejournal.com/lifeonmartha/259659.html

    http://community.livejournal.com/lifeonmartha/268192.html

    http://spiralsheep.livejournal.com/147388.html

  28. First publicity pics of Freema from the currently-filming season 4 have been posted:

    http://freemaagyeman.com/news/

  29. [...] unusually – the very context of race and race relations is altered. Power dynamics can be shifted (Martha Jones from Doctor Who and Torchwood, anyone?*), sometimes even made void and null (Ursula LeGuin). The point was that Speculative [...]

  30. I think most of the reason why there are so few interracial couples on American TV, I’ll include gay couples here too, probably has a lot to do with the Bible. There is a strong view in the Christian community (at least the ones I was involved in for years) that non-whites, and specifically blacks, are not to be coupled with because God made them black as a punishment. (There’s a verse they quote but I’m too lazy to look it up.)

    The gay situation has a lot to do with that element as well. The people making TV are only now people who do NOT have that as a pervasive belief, but it is hard to get it past the Producers who probably don’t even realize they have this view from the indoctrination of their pasts.

    Well, that and the fact that slavery is still a fairly fresh scar, and segregation is also pretty recent. The generation that would have no recent connection to what we could call the fairly recent “abolition” of slavery (even though there is still institutionalized slavery due to class and economic conditions, but that, I think, doesn’t have much sway in this discussion) won’t be around for a hundred years. By then, this problem should no longer exist as anything more than an embarrassing footnote.

  31. [...] the remarkable number of feminists who are interested in science fiction generally, and the positive reception the recent Doctor Who series have elicited, I am disappointed to have found no analysis or even recognition within the feminist blogosphere [...]

  32. You might be interested to hear that actor Patterson Joseph is being actively courted to be the new Doctor.

    http://rhbfictions.blogspot.com/2008/10/2011-new-doctor-who-paterson-joseph.html

  33. Good point about planets being round and thus…a range of different skin colours likely.

    However…why do we seem to see a racial profile of alien/far-future society as, while mixed, always roughly in a proportion of black/white etc reflecting that of the country where the show is filmed. In the case of DrWho (filmed in Britain) and Star Trek etc (in USA) we thus get a black minority all the time (with more whites). If we are going to make our alien races/future societies mixed (as we should), how about making the racial mixes a little more varied and different to the racial mix we see in everyday modern society.

  34. andy,

    globally, just in terms of numbers, whites are in the minority. so, in a show that travels to other planets, even ones settled by humans, why should there be mostly white folks around when they’re generally outnumbered?

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