How Doctor Who Gets Inclusiveness Right (EDITORIAL)
The beauty and magic of science fiction and fantasy art lie in the fact that authors and artists have the power to create new worlds, even entire universes, full of stories that give readers, viewers, and listeners a front row seat to intergalactic wars, narrow escapes from imploding stars, and the chance to witness fallout from dueling families of witches, wizards, and warlocks. When done well, science fiction and fantasy writers transport fans from the sidelines to the frontlines, making us all feel like we’re a part of the stories on the page and screen. However, more often than not, women and people of color are relegated to the margins in these genres, if they are included at all.
When women and people of color are actually included in prominent roles they are usually reduced to one of several pre-established and overused archetypes. Morpheus as the Magical Negro in The Matrix Trilogy, The Walking Dead’s Michonne as the Angry Black Woman, and the countless White women who portray the manic pixie dream girl in quirky romantic comedies and sit coms are only a few examples of pop culture’s inability to portray non-white males as fully human. Inclusiveness is as elusive to the makers of popular science fiction and fantasy art as that last Horcrux was for our favorite Hogwarts trio. How then, does The BBC’s Doctor Who, get it right when so many others pieces of fantasy and sci-fi genre art get it wrong?
The modern incarnation of Doctor Who follows The Doctor, a time and space traveling alien who has two hearts, a sonic screwdriver, and a blue police box that’s bigger inside than out, on his adventures from one corner of space-time to another. The Doctor, the last surviving member of an alien race called the Time Lords, is almost never without a human companion or two. His companions are most often youngish, White, and constantly in need of rescuing. The companions usually regard The Doctor as a cross between a heartthrob, a God, and a sad clown. The show is basically a road trip through reality. There’s no map. There’s no plan. There’s only the journey.
My favorite of The Doctor’s companions, and one of only three who demonstrate the capacity for independent thought, is Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman. Martha, much like many of The Doctor’s other companions, is infatuated with him. She follows him on his adventures through space and time, and on more than one occasion, rescues him from his enemies, and from himself. She does this because she loves The Doctor; however, her love for him is unrequited. The combination of her unrequited love and the fact that trouble follows The Doctor like Monday does Sunday, makes her the only companion to voluntarily leave The Doctor. She is the Doctor’s only Black companion thus far. She isn’t a Jezebel, a Mammy, a Saphire, or an Oracle. She doesn’t roll her eyes excessively, pop her gum, or say “oh no he didn’t” even once. Martha is a medical student but she isn’t perfect. She was actually the partial cause of an alien invasion once. Basically, the character is just written as a person who happens to be both female and Black. She isn’t an amalgamation of stereotypes gleaned from the surfaces of the Black Planet. She’s a human being, no more, no less. Her relative ordinariness is what makes her so much fun to watch and what makes it possible for Black Whovians to see ourselves as a part of this universe.
Martha’s presence on the show is probably most significant to Black and female Whovians who find the lack of agency of so many of The Doctor’s other companions annoying, but she isn’t the only example of how Doctor Who gets inclusiveness right. Another of The Doctor’s occasional companions is an immortal pansexual Time-Pirate turned hero named Captain Jack Harkness. Captain Jack flirts with, and presumably gives The D to, anyone that moves; human, alien, male, female, or other. He’s basically James T. Kirk minus the misogyny with a heaping spoonful of omnisexual hippy-dippy free love thrown into the mix. Captain Jack loves the ladies, and the gents, and the Silurians, and the Judoon, and…I think you get the picture. Jack’s sexuality is a part of his character, but it isn’t what defines him most significantly. His heroism is his major defining quality. His sexual preference is noticeable because he is one of only a few characters in comics, movies, or television who are open about not being heterosexual. Doctor Who portrays Jack’s lifestyle as normal for him, as it should be for anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual.
Martha and Jack aside, there are other character with smaller, less significant roles in The Doctor’s world who simply portray normal people. Amara Karan plays Rita, a Muslim physician on The God Complex episode who is bright, beautiful, funny, and would have made for a great companion for The Doctor had she survived their encounter. Noel Clarke plays Mickey Smith, a long-standing cast member who is, for a time, in an interracial relationship with one of The Doctor’s first companions. Donna Noble, played by British comedienne Catherine Tate is a comparatively older female companion of The Doctor’s who refuses to sit idly by while The Doctor makes all of the decisions. Finally, let’s not forgot the incomparable River Song played by Alex Kingston. River, another comparably older woman, is The Doctor’s wife, his intellectual equal, if not superior, and regularly kicks ass, takes names, and steals scenes every time she makes an appearance on the show. All of these characters, and many more that I haven’t mentioned, defy stereotypes commonly ascribed to their racial, ethnic, gender, and age groups by the ancient pop culture gods. They are all portrayed as nuanced human beings on adventures with The Doctor. There’s something wonderfully ordinary and magical about that.
As much as I love the show and what the show runners and writers are trying to do to create an inclusive fictional universe occupied by The Doctor and his companions, it is not without faults. The show’s titular character, The Doctor, has always been played by a White male even though the show’s mythology has a built in inclusiveness clause for The Doctor in particular, and Time Lords in general. The recent web short, Night of the Doctor, explicitly states that The Doctor, and other Time Lords by extension, may switch genders when they regenerate. The show’s mythology also shows, through River Song’s final regeneration, that Time Lords can switch race as well. They can’t be American though. Shout out to the stars and stripes, but I want my Doctors to remain British. The recent reveals about Time Lords being able to switch genders, and the old reveal about Time Lords being able to change race, leave me hopeful for the future of Doctor Who.No shots to Peter Capaldi, who I’m sure will make for an exciting new take on our favorite Time Lord, but I’m ready for The Doctor to regenerate into someone who could look like me. Or my wife.