by Shuheda Ahmed

THE ELEVEN DOCTORSDoctor Who celebrated its 50th Anniversary on the BBC this weekend in the UK and 93 other countries, setting a new Guinness World Record for the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama reaching an audience of 10.2 million in the UK alone not including cinema screenings.

The Doctor: a 1200 year old Time Lord from Gallifrey with a TARDIS that can take him anywhere and anytime. All of ‘Time and Space’ is at his disposal and yet his adventures take place in contemporary England with almost predictable regularity. However, contemporary England as seen on Doctor Who and contemporary England as seen by its every day population are two different things. Doctor Who is just another example of #AllWhiteTV in a medium lacking in diversity and equality.

Peter de Jersey as Androgar
Peter de Jersey as Androgar

‘The Day of the Doctor’ was shown simultaneously across six continents in countries such as Bulgaria, Guatemala, Portugal, Turkey and the UAE testifying to the widespread appeal of Doctor Who among different nationalities and ethnicities throughout the world. This diversity and range however was not reflected by what we saw onscreen. In a 76 minute long episode only one person of colour (Peter de Jersey as Androgar) had any significant screen time allocated. A few others made ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearances in the background but Androgar is the only one that had dialogue or his name in the closing credits.

There were in 37 speaking roles in ‘The Day of the Doctor’; 30 white people (Humans, Time Lords and Sentient Beings), 5 Aliens (Zygons and Daleks), 1 person of colour (Androgar-Time Lord) and one other who was off screen. People of colour are relegated to being all but invisible like the Time Lord with dialogue from off-screen whose race could not be determined.

In terms of representation Androgar’s presence in the episode amounts to only 2.7% of the speaking roles, while aliens receive 13.5% and white people a staggering 81%.

This skewed representation is not limited to the 50th Anniversary episode but is a recurring problem in Doctor Who. The show originally aired in 1963, was cancelled in 1989 and later revived in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the newly regenerated Ninth Doctor. To date there have been 13 incarnations of the Doctor all portrayed by white men.

Time Lords are an alien species from the planet Gallifrey who exhibit humanoid features. The important word to stress in that last sentence is alien. Doctor Who is at its core a science fiction programme. Science fiction allows for the creation of new worlds, new beings, new skills, all of which are accepted by the means of the genre. In a situation where you can literally write anything and it is believable within that universe: the default is still white.  Almost 80% of the Time Lords that have featured in various episodes including ‘The Day of the Doctor’ have been white.

The Doctor’s companion also play an important role in the show; they serve as a stand-in for the audience our point of identification. A large part of Doctor Who’s appeal lies in the possibility that one day we too could be a companion and taken by the Doctor on adventures. New worlds, planets, aliens and new terminology are introduced to the Doctor’s companion as they are to us. Identification is very difficult however when the person on screen looks nothing like you.

‘Old Who’ (1963-1989) featured companions who were exclusively white throughout. Despite the first companion created specifically for the Doctor Who comic strip in Marvel’s Doctor Who Weekly being a black woman. ‘New Who’ (2005 onwards) featured Martha Jones and Mickey Smith as regular companions, the vast majority however, Rose Tyler, Jack Harkness, Donna Noble, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, River Song and Clara Oswald were played by white actors.

Martha and Mickey
Martha and Mickey

Martha and Mickey also received the unfortunate fate of the ‘Pair the Spares’ trope, (now with added racism) despite Martha having previously been engaged to another (white) Doctor and there having been no previous suggestion of an attraction between her and Mickey.

The Doctor has also had numerous other companions for one or two episode arcs such as Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley – Ninth Doctor) Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins – Tenth Doctor) Craig Owens (James Corden – Eleventh Doctor). Again the number of white companions greatly outnumber companions of colour.

‘The Day of the Doctor’ was hugely successful in terms of viewership but it failed just as spectacularly in terms of diversity and inclusion. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor and the 8th (New Who) season at the hands of Steven Moffat don’t inspire great hope that we will see a more accurate representation of the diversity in the UK today.

After Peter Capaldi was announced as the Twelfth Doctor, Steven Moffat quoted in the press said:

It’s absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it… It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it.

Extrapolation would suggest that audiences will also have to wait until it ‘feels right’ to have the Doctor be a non-white male and wait even longer for the possibility of a non-white female Doctor.

Shuheda Ahmed is a 25 year old recent MA graduate in Film Studies specialising in South Asian Cinema and representation of South Asians in Western cinema. Born in Bangladesh, she moved to the UK at a young age with her family. Find her on twitter @shuheda_

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The Day of the (White) Doctor

  1. This statistic you provide sums the disparity perfectly:

    “In terms of representation, Androgar’s presence (as a black character) in the episode amounts to only 2.7% of the speaking roles, while aliens receive 13.5% and white people a staggering 81%”

    Now, why am I not surprised that Aliens had much more representation than non-white characters? Speaking out about the lack of diversity in the media is essential, otherwise we’ll continue to be whitewashed.

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  2. I agree with absolutely everything in this article but this statement: ” Identification is very difficult however when the person on screen looks nothing like you.” This is really problematic. Representation is critical, but not because of this: this statement implies that we cannot identify with other human beings who do not look like us, which fundamentally devalues the idea of communication and inter-race empathy. To really achieve representation, we have to be able to empathize with all people, no matter what color they are. I fully agree that the Doctor Who series has been whitewashed for far too long, but that should matter when it comes to discrimination and white-preference, not when it comes to our ability to empathize with those on screen.

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    1. I completely understand and I think perhaps that sentence could have been better phrased. Empathy of course should not be limited to only those backgrounds and cultures we come from ourselves. I meant to say that the idea that the Doctor could pick me (A South Asian first generation immigrant to the UK) seems more and more unlikely and impossible with every new white cisgender female that the Doctor picks as a companion.

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