#18 Doctor Who and the nostalgia for Empire

Yesterday, during lunch-time I watched a rerun of the sci-fi time-traveling TV show Doctor Who, season five episode one where the newly regenerated[1] Doctor saves planet Earth (yet again) from an alien species, the Atraxi, whose fifteen spaceships hovering above the atmosphere intended to boil the entire planet to kill their escaped form-changing convict. As a (former) fan of the Doctor Who series, I have seen this episode at least five times in the past few years: it was my favorite episode played by my favorite incarnation[2] of the Doctor, Matt Smith. But yesterday I couldn’t stand watching more than ten minutes of the show. I couldn’t stand yet another “white savior” narrative.

On its surface, the Doctor Who series portrays more diversity than most TV shows out there: Martha, the season 3 Doctor’s companion is black, so is Mickey another recurrent character; there have been many mix-raced couples in the show’s story-line and in one episode of season 6 the future (3000 AD) queen of England is black! But throughout its 40 year history the protagonist: the Doctor, the time traveling alien from planet Galafrey in his various incarnations (regenerations) has always been a white man. This IMO makes all that diversity in Doctor Who episodes mere tokenism:

And it makes me feel like Doctor Who is yet another in a long line of TV Serials and Hollywood movies that perpetuate the racist myth that (only a) white man can save the world[3].

The ubiquitous “white (man) savior” narrative makes my blood boil. It is a veil designed to shroud the actual facts of our history. For us POCs the white man has not been a savior but a force of destruction. He has destroyed our religions, our culture, our heritage, our way of life. He has impoverished us, enslaved us, butchered our ancestors like cattle. He has committed crimes (against our humanity) that boggle the mind: the genocide of the indigenous people in North and South America, the plunder of Africa, slavery, the colonial occupation of most of the world in the 1900s, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the British Raj in India — to name just a few.

When I think of my heroes — Gandhi, Mandela, Malala, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Wangari Mathai — not a single white man comes to mind.

Perhaps in the coming seasons the producers of Doctor Who will cast a black actor as the Doctor, would that solve my issues with the show? Would a black man saving the universe solve my problem?

Sadly, no.

I have greater problem with the show, one that overshadows its white savior issues. It is the stench of nostalgia for the British Empire that pervades Doctor Who; the same nostalgia, which is blamed for the infamous Brexit vote. And as an Indian whose ancestors suffered two centuries of British colonial plunder it deeply offends my sensibilities.

The “great” Winston Churchill is a recurring character in Doctor Who episodes. He is deified as a British hero and constantly does heroic things in Doctor Who episode like for example in season six he fights the evil Daleks, as well as the Nazis at once. But in real life (and real history) Winston Churchill, the WW2 war hero, and his aides were monsters who racist policies caused the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed three million Indians[4]. Churchill’s response when notified of the Bengal tragedy was: “I hate Indians, They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

In the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who titled The Day of the Doctor, the head of secretive UNIT on entering the Black Archive (a storehouse full of alien technology) quips, “No one can know we have this (a time-traveling watch), not even our allies.”

“Why?” asks her companion.

“Think about it, Americans with ability to rewrite history. You seen their movies.”

Clever. Typical wry British humor that seems to compare the British and the present-day American empires, and imply that although it is America who rules the world today, the British were far better at it.

No, they weren’t[5].

In the 5000 years of Indian civilization, the greatest tragedy that had befallen the Indians (who constitute 1/6th of humanity) was the British Empire, and unabashed glorification of that empire in Doctor Who made me write that show off my life.

[1] Every two or three seasons the Doctor dies and is regenerated into a new body (new actor, new personality).

[2] Every Doctor Who fan, a Whovian, has their favorite Doctor incarnation. My favorite is Matt Smith who played the Doctor from seasons 5–7.

[3] https://twitter.com/ConstanceWu/status/759086955816554496

[4] The ugly Briton. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2031992,00.html

[5] Britain should stop trying to pretend that its empire was benevolent. http://theconversation.com/britain-should-stop-trying-to-pretend-that-its-empire-was-benevolent-59298