The Weird Racism of Doctor Who

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Is Doctor Who a racist show? On the surface, it seems like a silly question. After all, there have been a number of prominent non-white characters. Moreover, the interracial and same-sex relationships in the show are presented as run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrences. Perhaps relatedly, the franchise has a strong reputation for its diverse and well-rounded portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters.

This is one of the great affordances of science fiction. Particularly in a show set in the future (or at least set intermittently in the future, or in an alternate reality), you can take a strong prescriptive position, where the race, sex, or gender of someone’s romantic partner is unimportant or even uninteresting. Whether or not this would be a realistic expectation of how people would act in the real world, you can assert that obviously no one will care in the future. Or you can construct a plausible alternate universe where no one cares.

Basically, in science fiction, you can choose to portray certain aspects of your world not as they are, but as you believe they should be.

So the treatment of race and sexual orientation strikes me as the product of a conscious decision by a show with a progressive agenda. But that just makes the places where the show falls short all the more puzzling.

What do I mean? Well, there are two things, and I’ll go through each one separately. First, while there is a reasonable representation of non-white characters, they are almost entirely of African ancestry. People of South Asian descent (including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) appear infrequently and only in minor roles. This despite the fact that South Asians constitute by far the largest minority in England. Second is that the mixed-race romantic relationships between major characters don’t seem to work out.

First, let’s look at the racial diversity in the show. There are different ways to do this, and I’ve examined four possible approaches. All four give the same qualitative answer: the cast is about 85% white, and among the non-white characters, people of African ancestry outnumber people of South Asian ancestry by a ratio of somewhere between 4:1 and 8:1.

More specifically, a few weeks ago I went through IMDB for the new Doctor Who series (post 2005), and collected all of the (222) characters who appeared in at least two episodes. So, this data is current up to about 2/3 of the way through the new season, but the numbers are large enough that the past few episodes won’t change the results. For the vast majority of characters, it was straightforward to identify them as European, African, or South Asian. Only one actor, Chipo Chung, did not fit this categorization, being half Zimbabwean and half Chinese. For purposes of this analysis, she was given her own category.

Using these categorizations, I calculated the number of characters/actors of each race (where David Tenant counts as 1 European and Matt Smith counts as 1 European) as well as the number of character appearances of each race (where David Tenant contributes 52 appearances by a European and Matt Smith contributes 48 appearances by a European). Each of these was calculated both including and excluding Aliens — characters whose race was not perceptible in the show (Dalek operators, Silurians, etc.). Here are the results for the four combinations: Character Demographics

The code here is blue for European, green for African, mustard for South Asian, and red for Chipo Chung. The outermost ring (appearances by actors of identifiable race) is the one that seems to me to be the best match for what we’re interested in.

Of course, the question is, compared to what? The natural comparison would seem to be the demographic composition of the UK, since it’s a British show, and most of the scenes set on Earth are set there. Here, using the same color scheme, is what that looks like:

England Demographics

The first thing to note is that diversity, overall, is pretty good. By the four different metrics, Doctor Who’s cast is somewhere between 81% and 87% white. The thing that is striking is the difference in the composition of the non-white portion. In England, South Asians outnumber Africans by more than 2 to 1. In Doctor Who, Africans outnumber South Asians by 4.7 to 1 (counting characters) or 8.4 to 1 (counting appearances). That’s a distortion of 10-fold or more.

What about the mixed-race romantic issues? There are three big ones: Rose and Mickey, Martha pining after the Doctor, and Clara and Danny in the season that just concluded. Let’s review.

When Rose first becomes a companion, she is dating Mickey. She sort of gradually breaks up with him and becomes attached to the Doctor. Mickey keeps after her for a while, but eventually gives up. After some regeneration shenanigans, the Doctor sends his doppelganger off to live happily ever after with Rose in another dimension.

Martha is the Doctor’s next companion, and although she has a romantic interest in the Doctor, it is completely unrequited from start to finish. Eventually, Mickey and Martha become a couple in a (different) alternate dimension where they fight Cybermen all the time. So, what we have is two black characters who are in love with white characters, but are rejected by them. The two white characters fall in love, and the two black characters become a couple in what seems to be both of them settling for their second choice (in a dystopian hell-scape no less).

Until the season finale aired, I was holding out hope that the mixed-race romance between Clara and Danny would reach a happy conclusion. Instead we got a pattern similar to the other two. Danny was devoted to Clara, but while she loved him, her primary commitment was to the Doctor. The fact that Danny was and would always be playing second fiddle was spelled out in pretty explicit (and heartbreaking) detail in the finale.

Now, three is a small number, and you can always argue that this is just coincidence, rather than some systematic racial thing. I’m sure a dedicated enough Doctor Who apologist could rationalize the racial composition of the show as something unintentional. Or that we should cut them some slack because of all of the things the show does right.

What bothers me most, though, is that these patterns exist in a show that seems to have made a real effort to be careful about race, making me think they point to something really taboo. That despite a progressive agenda and a conscious effort to portray racial diversity, there are a couple of places that the show is unwilling or unable to go.

On the absence of South Asians, here’s the most generous theory I’ve come up with. Globally, American media has enormous reach and influence. Traditionally, having a diverse cast in American TV was more or less synonymous with having some African American characters. Only quite recently have other ethnic minority groups started to show up on TV in large numbers. So, maybe there’s a naive but deeply rooted notion in the minds of British producers that “diversity = black”. Maybe they’re unconsciously basing their model not on British society, but on American TV and movies of twenty years ago.

A less generous (but more plausible, in my mind) theory is that the show is simply avoiding engagement with the strongest form of British racism. My own experience, anecdotal though it is, is that most white British folks don’t really harbor negative racial stereotypes about immigrants from Africa — or immigrants of African descent from the Caribbean. However, attitudes toward South Asians are a very different (and offensive) story.

I have had multiple interactions that went something like this. British person talks about how racist Americans are, citing the treatment of African Americans. British person takes up moral high ground, citing their own open views towards Africans. British person says some really awful racist crap about Pakistanis or Indians — the sort of thing you never heard in public in post-Archie-Bunker, pre-Twitter America. When hypocrisy is pointed out, British person defends stance, saying something like, “You don’t have them. You don’t understand what they’re like.”

So, theory B is that if Mickey and Martha and Danny had all been Pakistani, Doctor Who might have alienated much of its British audience, including some people who self-identify as liberal. Or at least the producers feared that would happen. So, they cast black people for diversity, but avoid the racial group that is the focus of the greatest antipathy in Britain.

Similarly for the romantic relationships. Maybe it’s just coincidence that a white couple, Amy and Rory, get a happy ending (even if they do have to endure an insufferable series of World Series wins by the Yankees), while the mixed-race relationships fail when the white person just doesn’t feel quite the same way.

Or maybe the producers (rightly or wrongly) worry that Britain is not quite ready for a successful, normalized mixed-race couple, at least not one involving one of the show’s stars.

Or maybe the producers would say that this was just who the characters are, that it just would not seem right for Clara to go all in on her relationship with Danny. That given everything we’ve seen Clara go through, she would not be able to separate herself from the Doctor in that way. Fine. Perfectly defensible. But maybe if they had made Danny white, it would not have felt out of character to them.

Anyway, if Russell T. Davies and/or Steven Moffat are regular readers of the blog, I would invite them to share their take(s) in the comments.

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17 thoughts on “The Weird Racism of Doctor Who”

  1. Without spoilers, agreed. Generally positive about season 8, although I’m so tired of the mocking of characters of color. (Mickey, Danny, the Army guy on the plane.) Then again, if you consider the overt racism in “Talons of Weng Chiang,” the show has come a long way. Just acknowledging that gender change isn’t a big deal is a very huge thing to portray in a pre-watershed show.

    But that’s not to erase the problems with it, either. I’m with you in my interaction with people from the UK. We have very, very different understandings of race. (I tend to hang out and read things like Crunk Feminism and Hood Feminism, so a lot of these issues are forefront in my mind.)

    1. Agreed about the mocking. I’ve found that bothersome as well, but I found it harder to make a clean argument about it, as it gets more into tone. Mickey, particularly at the beginning, is portrayed as a buffoon and a coward in a way that almost seems like a vaudeville-era racial stereotype. In the current season, the Doctor is ruthless in his mockery and dismissiveness of soldiers, but the only three I remember him really laying into are Danny, the guy on the plane (who was so exicted to meet him!), and the woman from the future whose brother was killed. All three are characters of color. He gives none of that attitude to Kate or the Brigadier — despite the fact that both are arguably much more deeply military — in fact, he’s downright laudatory towards them.

      And absolutely, the show has evolved a lot since the original series, which I don’t think had any notion that racial stereotypes were even a problem.

      Just imagine how awesome the world would be if everyone hung out and read things like Crunk Feminism and Hood Feminism!

  2. There’s one you missed, Jon: when Donna first appears on the show, she’s about to marry a black man. Not only does it not work out, it turns out he’s been scheming to take over the planet the whole time.

    1. Excellent! Thanks Nathan. I had totally forgotten about that one. She sort of runs away, which fits with the pattern of the other three that I mentioned, but then, as you say, this one actually turns out to be much worse than the others, because he’s EVIL!!!

      1. You also missed that fact that Donna gets married to a black man in The End of Time. With her mind was wiped by The Doctor, so doesn’t remember her time in the TARDIS and it doesn’t kill her, Donna Noble is one of my favorite companions. She seems to have a special affection for the black man.

  3. One area where this analysis could have improved is with the inclusion of Dr Who’s spinoffs, in one of which (the Sarah Jane Adventures) a British-South Asian character and her family were major characters.

    I think the obvious reason for the disparity in the demographics is not that Dr Who is apeing American shows, but that as a show very explicitly designed with an eye firmly fixed on the export market (and as one of the BBC’s largest exports) – and that set itself the particular task from 2005 onwards of breaking into the American market – black characters were just felt to be more marketable abroad.

    Undoubtedly racist issues need to be addressed in the UK, and highlighted, as the society is much less open in the media about interracial problems of all kinds than America. But British domestic TV and radio is far from short of, often high-profile, shows featuring South Asians in prominent roles, Goodness Gracious Me and the assorted British films focusing on Asian characters being the best-known.

    1. I’ll have a look at the spinoffs. I’m guessing that if we combine the whole contemporary franchise, it will still come up lacking. I would love to know if the racial composition of the show was a deliberate choice. But like I say, the composition looks to me a lot like American TV of, say, 25 years ago.

      That’s good to hear about the British domestic TV shows. The inclusion of at least some black characters, but almost no South Asian ones, is a pattern I had noticed on a number of shows, but maybe that’s a function of what makes it over here.

  4. So I was blissfully enjoying one of my favorite sci-fi series of all time and then this happened…my young Asian roomie (who started watching the series because I said it was epic) comes down stairs and says “I like it but there are no Asian people anywhere in it.” I’ve seen every season multiple times and I was so swept up in the stories that I did not even notice the ommision until he said something. Then I started thinking and not only are there no Asian people there are no stories set in Asian cultures that I can think of. I would love to see a story set in Angkor Wat (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668), or amongst the Terra Cotta Army in China (http://goo.gl/ETMJd8), or in a future Japan or new new new new Bombay. The show came to the old west in the US and missed an opportunity to incorporate native American cultures. Granted assimilated people of african descent are in it but nothing of African or South American culture is explored. There was a quick shot of the Taj Mahal but I would love to see what the writers could do with a story that incorporates the pantheon in India, or a story that revisits Petra (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/326) when there were swimming pools in the desert. I would also like the writers to take us to entirely new world more often. I love it when they do “What if’ scenarios that explore societies that might exist someday. This article made me think about the message the characters of color are sending. SPOILER ALERT River Song was a young black girl at one point, but she was always in trouble and Amy had to take care of her. Martha was a doctor but her family drove her nuts and her role was one of complete servitude and she got little attention in return for her devotion. In the episode with the family of blood, they could believe time travel but not that a black girl could be a doctor. Then when the doctor is back in his right mind he still invites the one he barely cares about to come travel with them, as Martha stands by waiting. In the shakespeare episode the Doctor is lying next to Martha thinking about Rose. Then when Martha has a chance to kiss a historical figure, instead of making it an exciting warm moment and a reason to travel in time. It is wrecked with Martha complaining about bad breath. Mickey was also just a servant to Rose getting nothing in return for his devotion. He also unleashed the Daleks with a touch, ran away a lot and I do not see anyone dressed as Mickey (what a name) at Comic Con. The good news is there is still time to write more stories. I think some of what is happening is related to time schedules and budgets. It is far easier to shoot in Cardiff than it is to go to Jordan and shoot at Petra. (Though sound stages and CG are magical combos) Doctor Who is still one of my favorite shows, I am looking forward to the new stories. Perhaps articles like the one you have written will inspire the writers to add Asian characters and settings to the show. The language in the classic doctor that seems so harsh and belittling to women probably seemed quite normal to them at the time. Every art form is in some ways a reflection of the time it is created in. I think we are living in wonderful times where the omission of cultural from a show we love stands out, primarily because the creators of the show seem like they are really making an effort to be sensitive and inclusive. Maybe we can crowd fund for a DVD set of episodes, it would be cool to have our names in the credits. 🙂

  5. East Asians/Orientals have it worst. The only notable character in the uk series is Lorna (portrayed by Christina Chong) and shes half British half Chinese. Notice how she easily died.

  6. I noticed this trend, but also for E. Asians in North America. If they are present in Science fiction, they are definitely female of mixed descent. And they are relegated to a minor position with absolutely no relevance – or they are often relegated to w/e stereotype to downgrade their original culture. Despite being overrepresented in the sciences, etc… they are never even represented as such for science fiction roles. They are always relegated to minorities of African descent.
    Either that, or E. Asians are portrayed as SE asians – which are of a completely different cultural background.
    For South “Asians”, they fit into a similar but non-identical situation.

    It seems there are only a few categories of people that fit into their casting decisions in Sci-Fi. Either you’re white, you’re black or you’re an “asian” female romantically involved with some side character – black or white.

  7. I found your article when I searched about ‘Doctor Who and Racism’. I’m watching reruns of the original series, and was reading that The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) is one of the most controversial episodes, for its stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese, having a Caucasian actor playing the villain in yellow face and other Chinese characters as labourers or tong members. I can remember enjoying watching it in the 70s, but was unaware of the problematic aspects of it. It was mild compared to some of the jaw-droppingly racist, homophobic and sexist 70s British TV shows. Doctor Who, and British society has certainly moved on. I consider that the producers of DW have set out to make the show as inclusive as possible, but there are still inconsistencies. I don’t know why Asians are not included so much. I have to disagree that most white British people have little prejudice about people of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage, but are markedly prejudiced against (South) Asians. In my experience the reverse is true. I think it is more likely, as you suggest, that the producers have an eye to the US market and think that having more black characters will sell better. That would not surprise me. Compared the the original series, the show has an immediate global reach and the producers must take that into account.

  8. I kinda picked up on the racism, that’s why I googled it and found this post. Ecspecially the first season with Rose and Mickey, where Mickey was portrayed as a buffoon. Being a white American I have to say unfortunately I didnt pick up on the exclusion of Asian/Oriental. Will be watching more closely in the future

    1. -Bill who – “Oriental” refers to objects and locations not people. So lumping the words “Asian” and “Oriental” into one – “Asian/Oriental” – to refer to people of Asian descent is actually quite insulting.

  9. I was a huge Doctor Who fan. Revisited the show last year and it didn’t sit well with me. Immediately I asked why are all the Doctors white British males? The new show could branch out and have actors of different ethnicities portray the Doctor. But it hasn’t. The notion that a white male with a British accent is the only salvation of the world is disturbing.

  10. Agree with most of the things you pointed out, but Donna did marry Shaun Temple at the end of her run. Also, I was pretty sure that Martha and Mickey were fighting Sontarans, not Cybermen (I only watched the show though…so if there’s something else I missed, sorry about that)?

  11. I thought about how there are no Asian characters in Doctor Who at 1 am when I really tried to find a character I only found Tosh (Toshiko Sato) who was a scientist in series 1 and played a big role in “Torchwood” a spin-off of DW. So in the future i’d like to see an Asian companion. It’s time.

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