From the moment I happened upon Matt Smith dipping fish fingers into custard on an iTunes promotion, I knew I would love Doctor Who. But I wasn’t prepared for how much. No other show has so often made me feel like the world might just be okay.
However it’s still a bit of a rarity to see myself represented on screen, and despite the show’s 55 year history it will only have its first writer of Color in the upcoming series 11. In a show that is so often in touch with relevant issues of our time, it’s disappointing and even hurtful when it fails to address the nuanced struggles of the marginalized groups and minorities who watch and adore it. Despite this lack of behind screen representation, the show has turned out several thought provoking characters of Color, although much is still missed in the overall picture.
Undervalued by Rose, the butt of the jokes in the TARDIS, Mickey was left with more than a little time to consider what the universe had to offer by the time Rose and the Doctor returned to the Powell estate. Despite being dubbed ‘Mickey the Idiot’ by the Doctor, he had skills, and assisting the TARDIS team in their shenanigans made him realize that maybe the simple life wasn’t for him after all. So. he took a deep breath and decided to retroactively accept the Doctor’s offer to join the crew, only to have it immediately made clear by Rose that his presence was anything but welcome.
He joined to learn; to explore and discover things within himself that he had only begun to scratch the surface of on his earth-bound gallops. But he was ignored, figuratively invisible as he held a button for half an hour because the Doctor literally forgot he was there. They mocked him as if he was at fault for following orders – but when the Doctor tells you to do something, you do it. He just doesn’t usually forget you exist in the middle of it. But like the ‘insignificant little power cell’ that ended up restoring the TARDIS in Rise of the Cybermen, he had infinite potential that with the right encouragement would save worlds. He realized this and, not unlike Martha decided to leave a vaguely toxic environment to stay where he could become his best self. When he returns in Army of Ghosts there is a change in his countenance. He’s confident, fiercer, harder and almost indistinguishable from his parallel self, Ricky. This new man is most certainly different. He fits so neatly into the box of performative masculinity often associated with Black men, and I wonder why his gentleness had to be sacrificed for it.
“But how does it travel in time? What makes it go?”
“Oh, let’s take the fun and mystery out of everything.
Martha you don’t want to know, it just does.”
Martha’s opening words on her first TARDIS trip prove her keen mind, but the Doctor is unreceptive to this. The curiosity and brilliance which he praised in countless others before her (a certain beautiful French aristocrat comes to mind), are seen as bothersome and fun-sucking here. Perhaps he is resistant to a companion who doesn’t see him as a magical anomaly, but acknowledges that there must be some logic behind the smoke and mirrors. I remember being taken aback the first time I witnessed it, confused as to why my Doctor, kind hero and encourager of curiosity and questions galore, would ever discourage constructive inquiry. If I, a Black woman of eighteen at the time, was wounded by his response, imagine the effect it could have on younger viewers of Color. Mickey wasn’t clever enough, but Martha was a killjoy; who must they become to be worthy of respect?
“If you don’t mind my saying, you seem a little familiar with him.
Best remember your place.”
Something else I found startling as a new Whovian was the overwhelming vitriol in the fandom directed at her character. Yes, many bristled at the thought of anyone new taking centre stage after the passion that Rose incited, but the more I saw, the more the general disdain looked much less wholesome. How dare this intelligent, (slightly) more age appropriate woman fancy the Doctor? What gave her the right? But whether or not she was liked, she taught the Doctor, viewers and the future writers of the show much more than they could have anticipated. The Doctor learned not to dismiss his companion’s worries as they walked through times that were not made for them, in a world whose prejudices they were all too familiar with. His failings with Martha became his triumphs with Bill.
“Oh I bet you are. I know your type.”
Unlike Mickey, Danny was actively pursued by Clara, removing the problematic notion that she was his prize. However, Danny was constantly assumed to possess the type of masculinity that Mickey aspired to, despite consistent evidence to the contrary. Clara uses this to her advantage to shade the Doctor’s perception of Danny when she’s lying (to both of them), characterizing him as over-protective to the point of being controlling.
She meant no harm besides a days work in slight manipulation, and it certainly couldn’t have fallen on better ears than the Doctor’s who was hardly listening, but often what seem like fairly harmless white lies have had dangerous implications for Black men throughout history. You only have to type the name Emmett Till into a search browser to see one of the most horrific examples the ramifications of such a small lie can have. Throughout history, even to this day, White lies largely hold more power than Black truth. If Clara had been careless enough to spread these inaccuracies of Danny’s personality to others, and one day she didn’t come back home, Danny would most likely have found himself in a well of hot water, similar to that of Mickey in series one. He was the prime suspect in Rose’s disappearance for twelve months, but upon confronting Jackie, Rose and the Doctor with his justifiable anger, not only is he denied the dignity of an apology from Jackie or Rose, he is then called an idiot by the Doctor. Although Danny was an interesting example on the variations of masculinity, I would still be reluctant to say that Doctor Who has done particularly well in its treatment of Black men. I’m looking forward to series 11 in hopes that this changes with Ryan.
“Most people when they don’t understand something they frown. You…smile.”
With that sentence Bill not only became the first companion of Color that was never at any point treated like a burden, but she also became the first from a very long line to be specifically chosen. Not just thrown together with the Doctor by chance and precarious circumstances, not a mystery to solve. On a sunny day in a comfortable office with no looming threat peeking ‘round the corner, the Doctor looked at Bill and said, ‘You. I want you.’
“My mum always said, ‘with some people, you can smell the wind in their clothes”
On a snowy Yuletide evening Bill sits in the Doctor’s office and invites him into her head, where she frequently converses with her late mother. You get the feeling that this isn’t a normal exchange for Bill. She utters the words with enough comfort in the Doctor’s presence, but her eyes briefly flit askance, indicating her lingering shyness. But he’d established a trustful relationship with her; she knows her thoughts are free to move and stretch in his company. The gentleness of this exchange strikes such a wonderful chord with me. The issue of freedom of expression in Black youth is a prevalent one. One discourse in particular discusses the whimsy of Willow and Jaden Smith, who are often mocked for their abstract blend of philosophical and scientific ideas, which are really just the product of an excellent education paired with ripe, creative minds. As Twitter user Son of Baldwin states:
‘Sometimes I think we hate Jaden and Willow Smith because they are free black
children and we don’t know what free black children look like.’
The Doctor gives Bill a similar education as her tutor, teaching her about the interconnectivity of the universe, never letting her forget that “…Everything rhymes.” So often Black children (people in general, really) are dismissed or called mad for having unique ideas, or possessing a slightly larger dose of oddity. Their Blackness is then called into question by those in and outside their community alike, the latter of which use the oft uttered micro-aggression ‘But you’re not really Black’. As a lifelong oddball myself, I found my heart pleasantly aching at the recognition of another ‘Free Black Child’ in a story I hold so dear.
“Look! There’s Bill! Dead, dismembered, fed through a grinder and squeezed into a Cyberman, doomed to spend an eternal afterlife as a biomechanical psycho-zombie. It was hilarious! …Ripped out her heart, threw it into a bin and burnt it all away”
I honestly loved the series 10 finale. The crisp, eeriness of the cinematography and set, the chilling music, and the excellent dialogue that kept you rapt, though the plot is a slow, steady unfurl. But despite all of that, my stomach churns every time I hear those lines. The lucidity and grotesque violence in the description of her death are incredibly jarring. We don’t live in a particularly squeamish time; I myself enjoy a fair bit of action and non-gratuitous violence, but continuously seeing the apparent relish with which writers victimize Black and queer women, usually to deepen the pain of a White protagonist is exhausting. The Whoniverse now has an interesting track record of turning Black characters into Cybermen. There’s Danny Pink, and in Chris Chibnall’s Torchwood episode Cyberwoman not only is a Black woman (the girlfriend of a protagonist) the titular character, but she is also hyper sexualized in way that is almost comical, if blatant fetishization ever could be. However, this quite literal othering of Black characters didn’t slide firmly into place until Bill.
In The Doctor Falls, a small girl with afro-puffs vaguely reminiscent of a younger her, brings Bill a mirror and says, “Everyone’s too scared to talk to you, but I’m not.” Bill turns it over and sees not herself, but what they made her into. She is not a monster, she never could be, but the mirror is telling her otherwise.
“This won’t stop you feeling the pain, but it will stop you caring.”
The surgeon’s discomfiting words are staunchly reflective of the historical global oppression of people of Color, and the often implemented strategy of dehumanizing them to the point where they no longer cared about their suffering. As Frederick Douglass stated in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
“I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one…he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”
Unlike Oswin from Asylum of the Daleks, or Clara in The Witch’s Familiar, Bill did not have an elaborate world created in her mind to mask the pain, nor was willingly stepping into or even consciously aware of her alien exterior. She was killed; her insides violently wrenched from her, and remade into their image. The Doctor theorized that Bill’s time spent living under the Monks’ fascist regime taught her to hold onto herself, but she already knew how to do that. When you grow up hearing that you shouldn’t be who you are, you cling onto yourself a little tighter than most.
D: “Bill, I’m sorry but you can’t be angry anymore. A temper is a luxury you cannot-“
B: “Why can’t I?! Why can’t I be angry?! You left me alone for ten years! Don’t tell me I can’t be angry!”
D: “Because of that, that’s why. Because you’re a Cyberman.”
B: “People are always going to be afraid of me, aren’t they?”
Despite the violence of Missy’s words from the previous episode, it was this moment that pricked me the most from the finale. The Doctor, champion of rage, forbidding the righteous anger of a Black woman. ‘The Angry Black Woman’ is such a pervasive myth throughout history that it’s become its own problematic trope in media. From Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman reinforcing the idea within Black culture, to countless works using Black women’s anger as a gimmick or comic relief, it persists, reducing the outrage of a century’s brew of sexism, racism, as well as personal baggage into a punch line.
Once more humor becomes the socially acceptable tool to assuage the fear of those around, an irrational fear which ironically they have conjured themselves. Somehow The Doctor Falls manages to slip into a faux pas of metaphor; an attempt at a touching, bittersweet scene, becomes a work of Afro-surrealism gone wrong. Bill is shot, stripped of her agency, brutalized, othered and then told that she cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of her anger. However, when your very existence is called into question, and your life is at constant threat, anger is not a luxury. Harnessed properly it becomes a tool to ensure your progress and eventual triumph. But Bill’s anger never is harnessed, until the Doctor, persistently in the form of a White man, tells her to direct it at an obstacle he sees fit to be removed.
To Moffat’s credit, and my immense relief, Bill was not wasted and fridged like so many queer women and women of Color before her, but was instead restored with a warmth and beauty that brought tears to my own eyes. It was wonderful to see her character get an ending she deserved, her months of studying the universe with the Doctor a precursor of the infinite adventures to come, and an easy way back into the narrative should a future writer ever want to bring her back. And yet, I couldn’t help being struck by one last troubling thought. In a world where White women’s tears have repeatedly been a rallying cry to violence against people of Color, and the tears from women of Color are dismissed, it was Heather’s tears, not her own that saved her. Perhaps it’s intentionally left for the audience to interpret whether the tear she cries in the closing scene of World Enough and Time is nothing but an echo of her former self shown for our benefit, or one of Heather’s tears. But regardless, it holds no power. It doesn’t save her, it merely illustrates the depth of her suffering.
With series 11 approaching, I am so recklessly optimistic for the future of this show I adore. I know that with each passing day, we get closer to a world where everyone will be able to see themselves in these mirrors of media we make for ourselves. I’m crossing my hearts that it’s soon.