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14 June 2024  •  Arts & Lifestyle

An Adventure Through Time and Race: How does Doctor Who treat POC?

The cherry-picking of racism commentary in Doctor Who still exists.

By Mia Rankin (they/she)
Content Warning: racism
An Adventure Through Time and Race: How does Doctor Who treat POC?

When I first saw the teaser for ‘Dot and Bubble’, I’ll admit, I was somewhat dismissive. Doctor Who has done its fair share of wishy-washy social commentary, and this episode seemed to be one of a million phones-and-social-media-equals-bad type storylines we’ve seen not just on Who, but on so many other sci-fi shows. On top of that, I hadn’t been greatly impressed by this new season. Ncuti Gatwa as the fifteenth doctor is an absolute standout, but I felt his talent was being squandered by painfully bland writing in episodes like ‘Space Babies’ and ‘The Devil’s Chord’. I was ready to overlook this one, accepting the fact that nothing would quite measure up to the Steven Moffat-penned episode ‘Boom’. But there’s something about ‘Dot and Bubble’ that has stuck with me since the credits rolled, and for better or for worse, I can’t shake it off.

‘Dot and Bubble’ follows Lindy Pepper-Bean, a resident of the small human colony Finetime. Sealed beneath a dome, its wealthy residents are addicted to a literal bubble around their heads that virtually connects them to everyone else on the planet. When slug monsters start eating Lindy’s oblivious friends, the Doctor and his companion Ruby Sunday step in to help her. 

On paper, it sounds like a standard commentary on the digital age and social media usage. But then comes the twist: the colony of Finetime is vehemently racist, to the point where Lindy and her friends refuse the Doctor’s aid simply because he is a Black man and they don’t want to be “contaminated”. This third act has been extraordinarily divisive among Who fans: some say it came out of nowhere, while others say they were clued in from the start. It’s supposed to be a “gotcha!” moment, a point where you realise how your biases and privilege have masked how awful the world of Finetime is. But here is where my qualms come in as a person of colour: did ‘Dot and Bubble’ succeed in its commentary and treatment of racism? To be frank, I’m not really sure.

For those who aren’t familiar with Doctor Who, race has been a bit of a sore spot for the show. (As a heads up, I’ll be discussing the rebooted Doctor Who from 2005 onwards and not the classic era, since I’m less familiar with the latter). Besides its lack of diversity up until recent years, the treatment of one character in particular has always rubbed POC fans the wrong way, including myself: Martha Jones. 

Martha Jones was the second companion of the tenth doctor, joining the show’s third series in 2007. Portrayed by Freema Agyeman, she was the first Black female companion in Doctor Who’s history, and the closest thing I had to representation on the show when I was a kid. I started watching Who when I was around six years old, smack bang in the middle of Martha’s series. I soon watched subsequent series with companions Donna, Amy, and Clara, not to mention rewatching Rose’s episodes countless times. When people asked me who my favourite companion was, I often felt inclined to say Martha. I saw myself in her, purely because her skin colour was the same as mine and therefore looked the most like me. I’m not Black, but there were no other prominent POC characters I could latch onto at the time.

As I grew older, I learned about the racist vitriol Agyeman faced during her time as Martha. I discovered how much backlash she received as a result of her character taking the place of Rose, one of Doctor Who’s most universally beloved companions. But this backlash was often rooted in race: Rose was a conventionally attractive blonde White woman whom the Doctor was pretty much in love with. Their parting on screen was emotionally charged (it still made me cry when I rewatched it in Year 12), and so to have Martha – a Black woman who developed unrequited feelings for the Doctor – take her place in the show, many fans were outraged. They viewed Martha as annoying, insufferable, less attractive, and fundamentally incapable of filling the shoes of the White woman who came before her.

The introduction of Martha also meant that for the first time since its reboot, Doctor Who had to consider how the race of one of its primary characters affected their adventures through time and space. And they did so, albeit terribly, in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Martha’s first proper episode as a companion:

Martha: Am I alright? I'm not going to get carted off as a slave or anything?
The Doctor: Why ever would you think that?
Martha: Well, [gestures to herself] not exactly white, in case you hadn't noticed.
The Doctor: Well, I'm not exactly human. Just walk ‘round like you own the place, always works for me.

This exchange is utterly infuriating, particularly as at this time, the Doctor’s tenth incarnation was portrayed by David Tennant – a White man. Of course he can walk around like he owns the place, because people who looked like him did. On top of that, his advice becomes irrelevant seven episodes later in ‘The Family of Blood’, where it’s 1913 and the Doctor must become human to save lives. While he assumes cover as “John Smith”, Martha is forced to take cover as a maid, because of course, it’s the only role that a Black woman can assume at this time that makes historical sense. How is she supposed to walk around like she owns the place when the racist systems of the past deny her that right in the first place? Especially as she sits there, watching the Doctor fall in love with yet another White woman, who tells Martha, a medical student that “Women might train as doctors, but hardly the skivvy. And hardly one of your colour”. 

It’s clear to me that during Martha’s tenure, Doctor Who decided to pick and choose when it wanted racism to affect its POC characters. But that’s not how it works in real life. We don’t get to choose when racism affects us. All my life, even as a child, whenever I considered what would happen if I got to time travel with the Doctor, my race was always the first thought that came to mind. If we went somewhere, or to a certain time period, how would I be treated based on my appearance? It’s doubly clear to me that the writers of Doctor Who don’t consider this at all, because that writers room is as Caucasian as hell.

Enter Ncuti Gatwa: a refugee of the Rwandan genocide, Gatwa’s family settled in Scotland in the 1990s. You may have seen him in Sex Education or Barbie, but he’s made history as the first Black and openly queer actor to lead Doctor Who as the titular fifteenth incarnation. It seems obvious, then, that his episodes should explore this intersection of his identity and how it impacts his experience as the Doctor – a two-hearted alien with a blue box that can travel through time and space – differently than his previous incarnations, all fourteen of whom have been White. While Fifteen is an openly queer doctor in his self-expression and behaviour, ‘Dot and Bubble’ is the first one to explicitly tackle the new incarnation’s race. 

In previous years, Doctor Who has tried to become more diverse and inclusive, and has done so with varying results. The Chris Chibnall era saw more POC companions following Bill Potts, the 12th doctor’s Black and openly lesbian companion. There’s Yasmin or “Yaz”, a woman of Pakistani descent, and Ryan, a Black man who was raised by his Nan his whole life. Together, they make up two thirds of the Thirteenth Doctor's (played by Jodie Whittaker) companions. Unfortunately, they have as much personality as a soggy paper towel. On top of that, it’s deeply amusing - albeit for all the wrong reasons - that during series 11’s ‘Rosa’, Yaz proudly declares to Ryan that “I can be a police officer now because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me.” It’s interesting to me that Rosa Parks, a Black woman who was the figurehead of a civil rights movement fundamentally and ideologically opposed to the police, would be considered responsible for Yaz being able to join an institution that is still complicit in systemic racism – particularly against Black and Indigenous peoples – to this day.

‘Dot and Bubble’ was written by Russell T. Davies (aka RTD), the current showrunner of Doctor Who and the original showrunner between 2005 and 2010. And the thing is, when RTD gets it right, he gets it right - the 2008 two part episodes ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’ are some of the most gripping Who stories I’ve ever watched. 

But he can also get it really, really wrong. 

Endings aren’t always his strong point, and sometimes his plots are more confusing than clever. But it’s also important to note that he is a White man. In ‘73 Yards’, the episode prior to ‘Dot and Bubble’, one of his characters tells Ruby that she’s a bit racist for thinking that Welsh people are all “away with the fairies” and believe in ghost stories. I had to roll my eyes at that one. White people love to think that you can be racist against a nationality. Next time I have to mark down my race on a form, I’ll put down ‘Welsh’ instead of Asian. Got it, Russell.

To RTD’s credit, I do think ‘Dot and Bubble’ did a lot of things right. Most importantly, regardless of how I feel race was handled, if an episode of Doctor Who is going to make White fans sit up and actually consider their privilege and biases, then I think it’s a decent episode in its own right. I’ve seen so many White viewers talking about how ‘Dot and Bubble’ opened their eyes to the more subtle forms of racism they’ve never been taught to recognise. I think that is fantastic. 

Despite my initial concerns, I also found the episode to be a great commentary on social media. It’s more focused on social media bubbles and the echo chambers found on platforms like Twitter (now known as X). It brings to light how these bubbles - both on the left and right - leave people unable to form their own opinions, relying on herd mentality to decide what is morally right and wrong. Lindy is so dependent on this bubble - literally and metaphorically - that she can’t even walk without it telling her which way to go. Moreover, ‘Dot and Bubble’ depicts that desensitisation we develop after spending so much time online. Lindy watches her friends being brutally mauled and eaten alive, only to immediately retreat into her bubble and scroll through her feed. It’s more relevant than ever, especially when I open an influencer’s Instagram story where one slide is a horrific news article about Gaza and the next to immediately follow is some giggly video of them reviewing a sponsored product. It’s utterly jarring, and RTD does a great job of creating that feeling.

The ending of ‘Dot and Bubble’ is also, for the most part, brilliant. The people of Finetime, blinded by their racism, refuse the Doctor’s help and in turn, unwittingly resign themselves to their deaths. I’m glad RTD chose this route: not every episode of Doctor Who or racism allegory should end with the two parties hugging it out. It’s the television equivalent of a notes app apology. I love Ncuti Gatwa’s acting here in particular - when he realises they simply won’t accept his help, he lets out a soul-destroying scream of anger and frustration. When I heard that scream, I felt it deep down inside, and a part of me immediately recognised how he felt. It wasn’t sadness, it was pure rage. 

In some ways, I understand why RTD made the Doctor offer his help to a group of White supremacists. It’s in the Doctor’s character. The Doctor is supposed to offer help, because that’s who the Doctor is: compassionate, peaceful, forgiving. But the Doctor has always historically been White. The bigotry of those he tries to save has never been hurtful because it’s never personally affected him. But Fifteen is a Black incarnation, so why would he respond in the way his White predecessors did? As POC, we are seldom given a chance to be angry. It’s not our job to forgive the people that oppress and hurt us. I strongly feel that Gatwa’s Doctor should be given more space to be angry, because in that moment I felt just as infuriated and frustrated as he did. Fifteen should be given more than a scream, more than silent tears of rage. POC do not owe White people comfort or peace. We do not owe them anything.

In the end, it all circles back to simply having lived experience in the writers’ room. Why is RTD, a White man, deciding how the Doctor should react? What particularly enrages me, however, is the smugness with which RTD speaks of his writing in this episode. "Will you be 10 minutes into it, will you be 15, will you be 20 before you start to think, 'Everyone in this community is white'?”, said RTD in an interview on ‘Dot and Bubble’. “And if you didn’t think that, why didn’t you? That’s going to be interesting.”

Of course I noticed everyone was White, but I didn’t think anything of it because it’s always been like that in Doctor Who. Sure, it’s gotten considerably more diverse in the past few years, but the damage is done. It’s going to be a long time before I watch an episode of Doctor Who and find the all-White cast to be out of place. And on top of that, watching RTD pat himself on the back for great social commentary is infuriating, because he was the showrunner during the Martha Jones era – a time where racism and the show’s treatment of its Black companion was absolutely pathetic. Where’s the acknowledgement of your past, Russell? How can the Doctor, as a Black man, still be okay with his previous actions as a White man, now that he can properly understand and experience what Martha went through?

The cherry-picking of racism commentary in Doctor Who still exists, too. How is it that Fifteen time travelled to 1960s Britain during ‘The Devil’s Chord’, an environment that was infamously hostile towards people of Black, South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, and experienced no racism whatsoever? I understand that it’s chilling to have racism be a future issue, not a past one, but the Doctor’s identity as a POC needs to be woven into his character and his experiences, both the good and bad. It’s a tough thing to do, but if Doctor Who could be bothered to hire POC writers, it wouldn’t be a struggle to authentically convey the nuances of our lives on screen. If you’re going to push for diversity on this show, put your money where your mouth is and actually hire a diverse group of writers.

In some ways, I think ‘Dot and Bubble’ is a great episode. But at the same time, there was still somewhat of a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. For Russell T Davies and the show to pat itself on the back in ‘Dot and Bubble’ after everything they’ve done in the past ten years, I feel nothing but hollow. I’m glad that Doctor Who is starting to go in the right direction, even if at times the sceptic in me wants to say it’s too little, too late. 

I hate that I can’t fully embrace ‘Dot and Bubble’ as so many other Whovians have, because a part of me feels like I can’t fully forgive. Not yet. And maybe that’s just on me – I always get fired up and passionate when it comes to discussing race and microaggressions in my favourite shows or books, because as a child I never had the words to express how these things made me feel. But now I can, and what I want to say is this: I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I’m tired. Doctor Who isn’t perfect, especially when it comes to its treatment of race. It’s going to be a long time before I forgive, even if we’re finally getting on the right track. What can I say, I’m not as magnanimous as the Doctor, y’know? I’m only human, after all.


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