Tags: doctor who

martha and hath

(no subject)

I remarked a while back about how the presence of COC is used to indicate that we're in the future (or at least not in the past!). In Frontier in Space (1973), Earth has a female leader, and the Info Text subtitles on the DVD explain: "The script emphasises that the President's gender should simply be taken for granted. 'Nothing "Women's Lib" about her: that battle was won long ago and she is not the first woman President.'" (That contrasts with previous stories, in which the future includes female scientists etc, but their gender is always commented on.)

And then there's this guy, and the Info Text's dry remark:

That's Louis Mahoney, more recently seen as DI Billy Shipton in Blink. The newsreader has a prim English accent, but is this the UK news or the World news? Is he meant to suggest a racially integrated future or an international future? Bit hard to tell from three lines, really.

Interestingly, on the rare occasions when non-white actors are cast in the original Doctor Who, their race is almost never directly remarked upon. I think this tells us something about what viewers were comfortable with: there was nothing untoward about talking about a woman's appearance, or baiting women's libbers, but race was something One Did Not Mention If One Could Possibly Avoid It. In the new show, where COC are plentiful, race is also almost never mentioned (for example, Mickey's is nodded to just once, when another Black character calls him "brother" in Rise of the Cybermen). Does that stem from the same nervousness, or does it reflect a more relaxed attitude?

ETA: I think the BBC newsreader to which the Info Text refers is Moira Stuart. Britain's first Black newsreader, Trevor MacDonald, debuted on ITV in 1973 - the same year that Frontier was broadcast. Or was he the first? Barbara Blake Hannah describes her harrowing experiences as a TV reporter starting in 1968.

The Schematism of Abstractions, or, The White Guy Died First

Recently I came across a great point in a book about Ancient Egypt. The author was warning against simplistically equating gods and myths from different cultures: he said that comparing gods is only meaningful if you can say how they're different as well as how they're the same. 1

You could apply this to, for example, the careless conflation of different Native American cultures, or the attitude that COC are somehow equivalent or interchangeable. But I also thought of TV Tropes3 and its catalogue of recurring plot devices and character types. It's insightful and entertaining, and sometimes quite eye-opening. But it worries me a bit, because fans have a habit of trying to cram complicated, sprawling, messy, imperfect stories into sharply-defined little boxes. 2

One of the most famous Tropes, and one I've talked about here quite a bit, is given the name Black Dude Dies First. Although the blatant shredding of the token minority character is hard to get away with these days, one of the trope's causes is still very much in effect: the casting of non-white actors in supporting roles, rather than at the centre of the story. That means less screen time for actors and characters of colour, and because those characters aren't central to the story, it makes them more expendable.

So the trope is genuine, useful, current, no question. But if it's simplistically applied, in a litmus test fashion, it's going to obscure important details. For example: in the 1977 Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (an absolute cracker, one of my favourites) a white guy dies first. Here he is:

That's Rob Edwards as Chub in episode 1, just realising the trouble he's in. The Black character, Zilda (Tania Rogers) is fourth to be bumped off by the eponymous robots. (Possibly fifth - another character vanishes at about the same time.)

With no more information than how well the story matches the trope, you'd miss crucial details on the story's handling of race. Third to perish is Cass, played by Indian-born actor Tariq Yunus - a reminder that the disposable COC is not always African-American. You'd also miss Zilda's rather interesting back story: she's is an aristocrat fallen on hard times (a possible inspiration for the African future of the NAs?) and the object of lust (or love?) of the mission's commander - who she holds responsible for the death of her brother.

Nice hat. But anyway, I think the most important thing you'd miss would be one of the underlying causes of the Trope. Plenty of white guys get killed in the first two episodes, but so do both COC, and the survivors have the final two episodes to themselves. As still happens today, actors of colour have been relegated to supporting roles; whether or not they live or die, the centre of the story is white.4


Ye notef of ye foote.

1 "We question that generic features are the most significant; to emphasise them, or to direct our inquiry towards them, seems to us risking a distortion of historical reality by the schematism of abstractions." - Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods

2 Think of Doctor Who canon debates, in which fans insist on creating a single, consistent history out of a self-contradictory narrative carelessly thrown together over decades by dozens of people!

3 The collection of Race Tropes is a genuinely useful resource. Be warned, though, that you're looking at a Wiki - proceed with caution. (Also be warned: the site's just as addictive as you've heard!)

4 There's heaps of other interesting stuff going on in the story, too. The robots have a colour hierarchy: the silver Super Voc at the top, then the green Vocs, and at the bottom, the black Dums. The twist is that one of the Dums is in disguise, and can not only talk, but is a detective with a deadpan sense of humour. The crew take no notice of the robots around them, and don't even consider them as possible murder suspects; D-84's disguise as a silent menial is perfect, taking advantage of their assumptions. OTOH, he dies heroically. OTOH, his white partner loses his mind and becomes useless. Try to apply simple rules of thumb to that lot and you're not going to get anywhere! :)
redheads vs racism


The War Games DVD has a little documentary with makeup artist Sylvia James, in which she talks about the yellowface used in The Abominable Snowmen: "I think we used hair lace lifts at the side of the eyes just to pull out a little bit so that they would look as though they were from Nepal or Tibet." And here's a picture:

I think the same trick must have been used for Cho-Je in Planet of the Spiders:

(Ta to DWIA for the screencap.)

It's not convincing (especially nowadays, when we have a pretty good idea of what a Tibetan Buhddist monk looks like), but it is more subtle than Li Hsen Chang's prosthetic forehead - and obviously less restrictive to the actors' expressions!

ETA: I'm pretty sure nothing was done to Michael Gough's face when he played the eponymous Celestial Toymaker. He doesn't put on a cod accent, either. So why does the Toymaker wear a sort of mandarin costume? I'll see if I can find out. (ETA ETA: According to DWM 196: "Since the [Trilogic] game originated in ancient China, it was decided to have the Toymaker himself dressed as a mandarin." Nothing more to it than that!)

OTOH, I think Kevin Stoney has had the hair lace lift treatment for Daleks' Masterplan:

(DWIA again.)
redheads vs racism

More on the Chinese in Doctor Who

I'm coming to realise that a big hurdle when discussing racism is that we tend to judge how racist something is by our gut reaction to it. (Everybody does this to some extent, but I'm particularly thinking of White people like me.) We turn to our feelings: does this disturb me? This is natural enough, but if something doesn't upset you personally, it can be very difficult to see why anyone else would make a fuss about it.

But our gut reactions are very individual; they're programmed by our experiences in life, and obviously, those experiences are going to be different not just from one person to the next, but from one group of people to the next. This is why it's so important to find out what, for example, Chinese people living in Britain think about the representation of Chinese people on the telly. We can't completely rely on our own feelings about what counts as racist and what doesn't, when reacting with hurt and anger is appropriate and when it isn't.

So to get that perspective, I'd like to quote from The Chinese in Britain (cite below), which touches briefly on the issue of representation:
"David Yip, Britain's best-known Chinese actor... 'despairs at the stereotyped image that he, as an actor, was expected to perpetuate'. Several dozen British Chinese participants in a drama workshop that Yip ran in 1992 were similarly angry and frustrated... British Chinese authors, painters, and performers seem more concerned about racial stereotyping than their counterparts in other ethnic minorities. Resentment at media transmission of offensive images of 'orientals' - as inscrutable, exotic, cruel, mysterious, and so forth - is a recurrent theme of British Chinese writing and creative output." (pp 349-350)
These reactions are much more recent than, say, Talons of Weng-Chiang. Both exclusion and stereotyping are a continuing frustration for British Chinese performers: in 2002, Yip continued to protest the "invisibility" of British Chinese people on TV, and at a 2004 theatre seminar, East Asian British actors expressed their frustration that White actors continue to "yellow up" for Asian roles. The Chinese in Britain quotes David Yip as saying: "...we have lacked a voice to express and show our diversity." That means that when Chinese characters have appeared on British TV, those characters are most probably there because a White person decided to include them - and decided how they would be portrayed, and whether the part would go to a Chinese actor or a White one.

The saddest thing is that new Who hasn't done any better than old Who when it comes to exclusion and stereotyping. There are almost no East Asian characters in the new show, and only three small Chinese speaking parts - one of which is the exotic, mysterious, and cruel fortune teller of the exotic and mysterious Chino-Planet of Shan Shen. Eek.

(Next up, I think: a survey of East Asian characters in the old and new series.)


Benton, Gregor and Edmund Terence Gomez (eds). The Chinese in Britain: 1800-present: economy, transnationalism, identity. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
racism bites

"One of us is yellow."

Right: I want to talk about Chinese characters in Doctor Who. This will take more than one posting!

To start with, I want to talk about "yellowface" - that is, casting White actors in Asian roles, using makeup and prostheses to make them look the part, generally with a resounding lack of success. It's an issue Who fans have to face squarely; there's only one example in the whole series there are only a handful of examples in the show, but one of them happens to be in one of our favourite stories.

Figure 1. Honourable master is kind to bestow praise on humble
Chang's miserable unworthy head, etc etc etc.

This is of course the baddie Li H'Sen Chang in the 1976 Tom Baker story The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a consistent poll-topper. The character is played by White actor John Bennett1. Despite looking rather like a cut-price Star Trek alien, Bennett escapes with his dignity, partly because Li H'Sen Chang escapes with his: the character repeatedly uses the racist assumptions of the English people around him for his own purposes, cloaking himself in the "Chinaman" stereotype as easily offstage as he does onstage.

But I'm afraid that's the kindest thing I can say about the story. Actual Asian actors are relegated to the role of fanatical Tong members. The Doctor's spoken "Chinese" had a Chinese-Australian friend of mine and his family falling about laughing2. And I'm reasonably certain that the rather sad-looking symbol on Chang's magic cabinet was copied from a restaurant menu.

Anyway, here we see the two problems with yellowface: firstly, it makes fun of Asian people. That's obviously not the intention with Talons, but it's still the effect: Chang is just another rather silly-looking monster played by a man in a rubber mask3. And secondly, it keeps Asian actors out of work, and stalled in their careers, by reserving leading roles for White actors.

Now. Fandom (and indeed people generally) have a tendency to think of things as either completely good or completely bad. A story (or a person) is either racist or not racist, either irredeemably offensive or squeaky clean. This attitude is a mistake. Most stories, like most people, contain a mixture of prejudice and more enlightened ideas. But because of this either-or thinking, it's difficult for fans to acknowledge the racism in Talons. It can't be both a classic and racist. Can it?

The use of yellowface in Talons is defended by fans in a number of ways. Bennett's performance is pretty terrific, and Chang is sympathetic; the English characters are also stereotypes4; the whole story is a pastiche of Victorian fiction; it was common practice on TV at the time5; and that there were no Asian actors available who were suitable for the part.

Even at the time, yellowface was not cheerfully accepted by all viewing audiences. In 1982, DWM reported that TVOntario declined to repeat screen the story after the Chinese community expressed concern. [ETA: outsdr helped me track down the full story from DWM 71. TVOntario is an educational network; broadcasts of Who were followed by a five-minute discussion chaired by SF legend Judith Merrill. Members of Ontario's Chinese community were shown the story privately before its planned broadcast. Their concerns about its racism influenced the decision not to screen it. The station considered asking Chinese community members to discuss the story with Merrill, but realised they'd need to do it for all six episodes, for six nights running.]

The question is: how did Bennett come to be cast? Were there auditions for the role, and if so, were any Asian actors considered? Is it true that few Asian actors were available - or is that just the impression we're left with by their absence from the screen? In what way was Bennett more "suitable"? I've been poking through DWMs, books, and Web sites all day without being able to find any details.

So that leaves me with so many questions. If it was a question of Chang's age (Bennett was in his early forties), why not cast a younger Asian actor and put him in ageing makeup6? It might look just as unconvincing, but at least he'd be able to use his eyes and forehead! Bennett's rubber forehead is always smooth, robbing him of expression; according to DWM's Complete Fourth Doctor special, he had to take care "not to blink his eyes beneath the rubber eyelids applied to his face". (And what was Burt Kwouk doing that week?) Alternatively, why not just have Bennett play the role as an Englishman who has returned from many years in China?

Figure 2. An expression which Mr Bennett would have been unable to produce.

Anyway, I'll keep looking for the skinny on this. But looking round the net, it's clear that a lot of fans do cherish the story while also acknowledging the racism of Chang's rubber face. If we can acknowledge that lolarious giant rat, without dismissing the entire story as worthless rubbish, then I reckon we can acknowledge the racist elements too.

More on this subject later. (If I don't go and do the washing up it's going to walk off!)

1 There are also White stunt performers in yellowface; they're uncredited, but are briefly visible in episode 1, when the Tong thugs flee the police whistle. Thankfully, Asian actors are used when a closeup is needed.

2 I wonder if it was any better in Mind of Evil. For that matter, how's his Tibetan?

3 If, like me, you've been watching this story all your life and Li H'Sen Chang just looks like, well, Li H'Sen Chang, try comparing him with any of the actual Asian actors in the story; the difference will jump right out at you.

4 Not to mention the drunken and superstitious but loveable Irish stagehand!

5 There's an indescribably awful example in 1977 New Avengers episode Trap.

6 How about Tony Then, who plays Chang's stage assistant, Lee? Watch him in the background in the scene where cabbie Buller confronts Chang - he's acting his socks off! (John Wu, pulling the face above, gives good value too, even without any lines.)

(no subject)

Fer yer interest: I've posted the links I bookmarked while writing the Time, Unincorporated essay over at kateorman - stuff on race and the Beeb, UK history, and US culture, especially the media representation of African American women.

In a resulting conversation, I realised my motive for keeping this lj. It's not to please others (though it once was) and it's not as though I'm going to save the world with these few scribbles. The reason I blog this stuff is because learning about race and racism expands my understanding of the world - of history, politics, and people. It is, in short, pure self-interest, and I highly recommend it! :)
martha and hath

Who lives and who dies 2005-2008

I'm writing an essay for Mad Norwegian's Time, Unincorporated series of books. I've accumulated a pile of links in the process which I'll post here fyi. In the meantime, though, the essay prompted me to revise my "who lives and who dies" list of supporting characters in the new Doctor Who. I've checked it against the DVDs and made some changes and corrections. The list comprises seasons 1-4 and The Next Doctor and is of course rife with SPOILERS.

Collapse )

Total characters: 394
Total White characters: 322 (82%)
Total Black characters: 54 (14%)
Total Asian characters: 6(1.5%)
Total Desi characters: 12 (3%)

White mortality rate: 119/322 = 37%
Black mortality rate: 22/54 = 41%
Asian mortality rate: 1/6 = 17%
Desi mortality rate: 7/12 = 58%

A tally like this is not some sort of a litmus test for racism. It addresses only two specific questions: what proportion of the cast, and the corpses, isn't White. There are complicated, qualitative issues of representation that maths can't tell us anything about.

As always, your comments (especially any corrections) are very welcome.
redheads vs racism

Doctor Who casting

Doing a bit of research on exactly how casting works in the new Who. Jon pointed out an interview with casting director Andy Pryor in DWM 376. From his remarks, it's clear that the series producers are involved at all stages of casting: it's a back-and-forth of suggestions between Pryor, RTD, Phil Collinson, and Julie Gardner. IIUC, the casting of smaller roles is generally done by audition. (I was interested to learn that Billie Piper won the part of Rose on the strength of her audition.)

For your interest, a couple of quotes from the interview:

"It's incredibly important to reflect the world that we live in, but we'd never cast anybody from an ethnic background if they weren't up to the part, because that'd be insulting to them, and to the audience, and to the show. But it's partly set in contemporary London, and partly on other worlds, on a futuristic Earth; I remain truer to reality when it comes to the historical stuff, because it would look slightly odd - tokenistic - if you cast an actor unbelieveably. But walk around London on any day of the week, look at the proportion of non-white faces that you see, and then watch TV drama and see what the proportion is - I don't think that it matches up. The scripts never specified that Mickey was a black character, but I knew that there was that choice, and Noel had the gravitas to make it work. Similarly, Freema is the first black actress to be cast as the companion, but that played no part at all in her getting the role. It was just that she was so fantastic, and we all loved her."

"Around the time that we were shooting [Army of Ghosts], Russell was thinking about the next assistant. We'd had our eye on Freema ever since she auditioned for the part of Sally in The Christmas Invasion, and he was watching the rushes, thought she was great, and we thought that we could make this work... I felt that we shold cast somebody who was relatively unknown in the audience's eyes [rather than following Billie with another 'big name']."
Still on casting, Collapse )
redheads vs racism

(no subject)

While I'm here, I'll post some of my perpetually backed-up collection of links.

First some Doctor Who-related news. Firstly:

Doctor Who's Noel Clarke features in black actors photography exhibition

And secondly - if you'd like a peek at Captain Magambo's return, there are lots of photos from the Doctor Who Easter special, Planet of the Dead, over at The Medusa Cascade. Beware SPOILERS, of course!

Some other stuff:

India's "Untouchables" win a landmark equality ruling: "An appeal court judge in Jammu and Kashmir ruled all Indians were worthy of respect and entitled to a good reputation, regardless of their wealth or social status... Dalits have been killed for drinking water from the same well as their caste "superiors" or for complaining when their daughters are raped. In this context, the court ruling has been hailed as revolutionary."

Hollywood's Racial Stereoypes: Why They Do It. This satirical piece is brief and to the point: it's laziness. "Even better, packing your script with insulting stereotypes can often baffle your critics into a sort of stunned, drooling silence as they try to figure out what message you're trying to convey."

African Australians face 'racist abuse': "A national inquiry will examine the racism and exclusion faced by Africans, amid fears that media stereotypes, such as the portrayal of African youths as violent gang members, are fuelling discrimination. [It] will provide the first national picture of the health, education, housing and employment barriers experienced by Africans, many of whom came to Australia as traumatised refugees."