Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Where's the Racism?

How they resisted calling the latest episode of Doctor Who "The Daleks Take Manhattan", I'll never know.

The thing that struck me about the reaction ("on the boards" as they say) to this episode is all the talk about racism, or lack thereof. New Who has been rather diverse when it comes to presenting minorities, and while half the world screams "Gay Agenda!!!", I just shrug. It's easy to accuse Russell T Davies of pushing the so-called Gay Agenda. He was the creator of Queer as Folk, after all. But why no prejudice against black people in New Who?

It sounds terrible when I put it like that, doesn't it? But that's exactly what has many viewers crying foul. We currently have a black companion who has no trouble walking around 16th-century London or 1930s New York. And further, RTD has shown us black people in Versailles and other historical locales. Daleks in Manhattan calls attention to it with a hand-waving speech about Hooverville being egalitarian. Money is the great equalizer. Or poverty is.
The show proposes this unprejudiced view of history for laudable reasons. Classic Doctor Who was NOT very diverse in its casting, with many minorities being represented by white men in make-up.
More enlightened times call for more enlightened choices, and so what if they aren't historically accurate? (Not that we would really know what was acceptable in Elizabethan London among the theater folk.) But I prefer onscreen, in-story explanations.

I could try to go through each example, show how it's not a mistake in that specific case and rack up the no-prizes, but I'll cast the net wider with a couple theories. In Martha's case, it may be as simple as the Doctor's telepathic good will (which I mentioned at the start of Doctor Who Week) keeping her safe. Good-hearted people automatically respond well to the Doctor and his companions, no matter who they are. Not that I believe for a second that Frank in this week's episode wouldn't be friends with Martha on account of his being from Tennessee. When I hear this sort of thing, I have to wonder just where the prejudice actually lies.

But the Doctor's telepathy doesn't explain a black courtesan in 18th-century Versailles. Or black people on the same street as whites in a 1950s suburb. Or a black man leading a shanty town in the middle of Central Park in 1930. Well, I don't think it's that far-fetched myself, but let's say I believe that historically, those people who not have been allowed those roles. This isn't our world though. It's the Whoniverse.
We can accept that Britain is more of a super-power than the U.S., and that it has an active space program, but we can't believe the attitudes towards blacks presented on the show? Think of the Doctor's world for a minute. We've got a 1000-year-old Time Lord travelling through time and fixing wrongs, championning freedom and decency wherever - WHENEVER - he goes. And he frequently allows 20th-century humans to tag along, with all their anachronistic attitudes and politics. What is the impact of Rose telling Nancy Britain does not fall in WWII? Probably not very much. What about a 1000 such trips, by dozens of "enlightened" companions, all of them saying things they probably shouldn't? A nudge here, a poke there, people being inspired by the Doctor and friends all over the timeline, and next thing you know, you might just have a more ethically advanced history. But I could be wrong...

Other thoughts on Daleks in Manhattan:
-I didn't know about the shanty towns in Central Park, but looked it up and it's real. That really shocked and surprised me. Even touched me. In fact, the first half of the episode really struck a cord (kind of reminded me of the Deep Space 9 episode "Past Tense"). I was even sorry to see the Daleks show up.
-These were some of the best American accents I've heard on the show, so much so that I was wondering if they actually filmed in the States. Talullah's faux-Chicago was pretty terrible however, and I find myself disliking the character in the extreme.-First half of the episode had some heart, but overall, I haven't warmed to this one yet. Daleks made over to look like Scaroth... it's a bit of a dead end, really.
-More religious references what with Solomon splitting bread in half.
-The Ghost of Rose: Not mentioned by name for the first time this Season, she was still present when the Doctor saw the Daleks were back. "They always survive, while I lose everything." Nothing worse than a sacrifice made in vain (three times now).
-Scene I could have done without: Which to choose, which to choose? Anything with Tallulah could have stood some trimming, for example. Her beau Laszlo acted so creepy in the opener that I wondered if he was up to no good, and then the reunion in the sewers where she can't even recognize his voice. Yeeech.
-Favorite line: "This day is ending. Humankind is weak. You shelter from the dark. And yet, you have built all this." Wistful Daleks! Only in the Cult of Skaro...

Doctor Who Week Celebration Extra! This space reserved for other Doctor Who posts today.
-I'm glad to discover's Tonpo's blog, Resistance is Futile, soon to be added to my side-bar. His contribution to DWW: A good long post about Martha Jones!

1 comment:

TonPo said...

Been loving Doctor Who Week thus far.

Do have to agree with your theory on a more enlightened history. Fantastic/speculative fiction can often be the greatest cultural lens through which we can view some of societies greatest flaws and triumphs. But too often, people get hung up on certain cultural inaccuracies, or things that they find to be unbelievable that they miss the entire point of the story. This episode is not about racism. When Doctor Who addresses racism, you will know.

I actually liked the Human Daleks resemblance to Scaroth, even if the top of its head looks surprisingly like a Babboon ass. It was pretty cheesy, but I always appreciated that about the Daleks. Growing up, I never found the Daleks that terrifying. I was mostly convinced by the amount of contextual terror they attracted. I didn't get that from this episode.

Haven't gotten around to blogging about the new season much, but I did comment a bit on my feelings towards Martha here.

Want to talk about "Gridlock" and "Daleks Take Manhattan" simply because there are a lot of funny NYC in-jokes in the episodes that I thought were worth mentioning.

One, which I don't think anyone has really covered, is that the highway, rather than being a metaphor for the internet, seems more analogous to NYC's neighbor, New Jersey. The entire state is covered in highways, and having grown up there, I can attest to the fact that it is in fact populated by lots and lots of killer crabs.