Pearl Mackie as Bill

I discovered that Doctor Who’s new assistant will be black woman, played by Pearl Mackie. It made me think of why I stopped watching the program after loving it for years. I truly hope her character, Bill will have a positive time with the series, without the problems in writing and characterisation Martha Jones had.

There’s a book entitled, “All the women were white, all the blacks were men, but some of us were brave.” It is about the way black women were written out of the civil rights movement in the U.S. This title speaks to my own thoughts on the invisibility of women of colour in many areas, including fiction.

To have a black man in command of Deep Space Nine is a breakthrough. To have a white woman as Captain of Starship Voyager remains a big deal, but when it comes to women and femmes of colour, things are hardly different from the 1960s when Uhura sat on the bridge of the Enterprise.

But this is about Doctor Who, not Star Trek.

I grew up in 1970’s Britain, and like many other children, I hid behind the sofa every time the familiar theme music of Doctor Who rang out of the black and white television set on Saturday evening. Saturday evening also meant having my Afro hair plaited and tamed for church on Sunday. Black girls had to behave and be dressed appropriately. Black girls had a whole set of rules to live by, and having adventures was not on any list I ever saw. I may have been too young to appreciate the feminist script of Sarah Jane, but I knew I admired her. The spirited female companions Tom Baker’s Doctor travelled with we’re all strong and full of good sense. In the 1970’s, that was still a rare thing to see on television.

It was in 2007 that I first saw a recurring black woman character on Doctor Who. Martha Jones did the impossible for me, when I had resigned myself to only seeing people of colour in US science fiction and fantasy. British television was sadly lacking then, as it is now. Martha Jones was a brave, smart and loveable character in Doctor Who. She had adventures in periods of history where being anyone other than a white able-bodied man would have been difficult indeed. Martha proved to those who doubted her abilities that she was equal to the task. However it is Doctor Who that makes her prove her worth over and over again.

Did the writers know how to handle a character who was a black woman? It is clear to me that they did not. Since Martha Jones left the series, there hasn’t been another black woman regularly on screen. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, anything is possible, so I have always found it disappointing that the cast of Doctor Who has remained white for so long. It is that fact which made me come from behind the sofa to switch off the television set.

Doctor Who became much like London in the 1970’s. Girls had to be pretty and white to have an adventurous life, to be protected and valued. The only end deemed suitable for Martha Jones, was to become married to the only other black character on the show, Mickey-the-Idiot, who hardly shared any screen time with Martha at all.

Doctor Who went from being good because it was scary, to being scary because it was too close to how I have always been treated as a black person – made to feel invisible, ignored and written off before I get a chance. It may have taken me several years after Martha left to finally give up on Doctor Who, but I was tired of waiting for it to change. I was tired of it making me feel awful whenever I watched it. A Dalek serving tea to Winston Churchill became more acceptable than a diverse cast it seems.

The lack of diversity in UK science fiction and fantasy has always been disappointing, but Doctor Who had a special place in my heart. Doctor Who keeps on missing opportunities to see the Universe through the eyes of someone truly different. The Doctor himself is hardly alien, and his companions are now a line of identical women. I still am a fan of the whole ‘Whoniverse’; I have fond memories of Torchwood and Sarah Jane adventures. But when it comes to Doctor Who, I have little but regret and sadness.


Jacq Applebee is a writer, poet, zinester and black bisexual activist.


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