Dr. Who and Race, edited by Lindy Orthia, Wilmington, NC: Intellect, 2013, 318 pp, ISBN9781783200368

Academic publications regarding Doctor Who have increased in recent decades, exciting not only fans of the show but also scholars who study social justice through interconnections of science-fiction and reality. Doctor Who and Race is an edited volume of 22 chapters exploring perceptions, observations, and often problematic representations of race and ethnicity in the long-running science fiction television show. The main character of Doctor Who is simply known as the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who uses a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension/s in Space) to travel anywhere in space and time, frequently with a human, (usually white, with one exception) female companion. Within the show, time is considered to be non-linear and instead of dying, the Doctor regenerates into a new physical form (always white) in which he remains a Time Lord but appears phenotypically different from his previous form. The Doctor is primarily non-violent in his conflicts with nemeses throughout the show; while exceptions exist (the Doctor has taken the lives of others, in cases of rage, duress, and extreme necessity), his “weaponry” consists of a Sonic Screwdriver, psychic paper, and extreme intelligence and reasoning skills, all used in a manner that rarely inflicts significant harm on another being but rather manipulates them mentally and physically. The Doctor’s often pacifist approach to conflict may contribute to the show’s ability to disseminate messages of peace and social responsibility in a context of using logic and rationality to solve conflict rather than violent force.

Orthia’s main goal for the book is to present a collection of essays that explore positive and negative representations of race through episodes of Doctor Who. The essays are arranged into five thematic sections: Part I, titled “The Doctor, His Companions, and Race,” concentrates its focus on the whiteness of the Doctor and his interactions with his mostly white companions and Martha Jones, his only black companion to date. Part II, titled “Diversity and Representation in Casting and Characterization,” moves on from the main characters and shifts focus towards the show’s writers and their portrayal of race through the plotlines. Part III, titled “Colonialism, Imperialism, Slavery, and the Diaspora” shifts focus to include racial analyses of aliens, foreign bodies, and foreign lands within the show, including problematically stereotypical representations of Aztecs, forced slavery of an alien race known as the Ood, and Western imperialism and postcolonialism as seen through the show. Part IV, titled “Xenophobia, nationalism and national identities”, discusses the show’s commentary and impact on discourse of nationalism, cultural association, and the racial state. Part V, titled “Race and Science” presents examples of interconnections and contestations of race and science as shown through episodes and characters in Doctor Who, such as the alien race of Daleks, creatures who desire a pure race that free from imperfection, and without hesitation kill mutants in the name of racial purity (and, as the chapter author notes, not unlike characteristics of Nazi Germany).

Important conclusions of the chapters, and collectively, the book, are that Doctor Who, since its birth in 1965, has presented both prolific and problematic commentaries on race. Chapters such as “Conscious Colour-Blindness, Unconscious Racism in Doctor Who Companions” (Chapter 3) and “When White Boys Write Black: Race and Class in the Davies and Moffat Eras” (Chapter 8) discuss how the show has historically, and even within the last decade, contributed to status quo discourse and hegemony surrounding white normativity. However, on a more positive note, other chapters highlight how the show has contributed to the creation of new, progressive discourse surrounding race, exploitation, and classism, as seen in “The Ood as a Slave Race: Colonial Continuity in the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire” (Chapter 13). Collectively, major subjects explored by the chapters include microaggressions, shifting racial identity, interracial romance, slave ownership and exploitation, religion and racism, eugenics, and scientific observations on race, all presented through a lens of science fiction plotlines and alien invaders. Although presented through a fantastical lens, the book chapters create useful discourse around racial politics in the show that mirror real-world social struggles. 

A weakness (but perhaps, also a strength) of the book is a high quantity of short chapters. Some chapters are as short as two pages, introducing topics of contested race and ethnicities within the show, but their length inhibits many of the authors from conducting a deep analysis of the subject material and in some cases, even a convincing argument. However, approached another way, scholars looking for research topics involving Doctor Who and race may use this edited volume as a theoretical background and primer for further qualitative and quantitative analysis that expands upon the chapter topics. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for viewers of Doctor Who and readers interested in science fiction, and those who are interested in reading further case studies of perceptions and representations of race through the media. Previous viewing experience of Doctor Who is not required; each chapter provides a brief summary of the episode, characters, and contexts to allow non-Doctor Who viewers to digest the material and understand how the concepts relate to real-world race relations. 

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength and contribution to Doctor Who studies and broader studies of science fiction is that it reiterates how real issues of social justice, discrimination, racism, and classism can be studied through fantastical plotlines and characters. Although each chapter discusses these themes within a fictional television program, the authors (using simple, accessible language) are wise to connect these themes with historical and current discourse taking place around these real-world issues. Orthia achieves her purpose of presenting a holistic collection of perceptions, observations, and analyses relating to race within Doctor Who. The book will leave readers with an increased ability to critically watch the show and perhaps become a more active viewer in recognizing the show’s representations of race, ethnicity, xenophobia, and domination through a lens of science fiction that often prolifically reflects reality. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Type: 

Book

Author: 

Hannah Carilyn Gunderman