Until recently, Doctor Who did not appeal to me. Daleks and the Tardis and Time Lords sounded hammy and naff and it all looked a bit am-dram whenever I tuned in. I didn’t get why adults were obsessed with a children’s programme. But then I heard that this latest series had pissed off Jeremy Clarkson so the time had come for a closer look.
I quickly learnt that the current season, its 11th, included episodes about Rosa Parks, the partition of India and witch trials. My interest was piqued. Already intrigued by the casting of the first female Doctor, I was told by a friend that queer characters and people of colour were woven into the narrative in a radical, normalising way, which would make a welcome difference to pretty much everything I have ever read and watched, so I decided to give it a go.
Well, my name is Lucy and I’m a Whovian. From the off, I found this series refreshing. In the first episode, Ryan Sinclair, a 19-year-old, is being taught to ride his bike by his grandmother and step-grandfather, a mixed-race couple. He has dyspraxia. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dyspraxic character on television. Jodie Whittaker soon entered as the Doctor and it was thrilling to watch a brilliant actor as the lead.
Soon after, there was a brief aside in which Yaz and Ryan discussed their experience of being people of colour. “I get called a Paki when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist when I’m coming home from the mosque,” said Yaz. In later episodes, a niece’s wife was casually referred to, in a natural way, as it should be. It was gently groundbreaking. The latest episode, about a blind girl abandoned by a father who’s crossed over into a parallel universe to be with a lonely, conscious universe masquerading as his late wife, was superb.
Although ratings for the series have been good, and critically it’s been praised, the backlash from people online has been fiery. Some complain that it’s trying to push a “social justice warrior” agenda or that it’s too preachy or worthy. The phrase “politically correct” is the most common criticism. Even The Jeremy Vine Show asked its viewers if Doctor Who had become “too politically correct”.
In a recent interview with the Radio Times, stars Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole were asked to defend the series against claims of being “too PC”. “It makes me laugh, because having the words ‘too’ and ‘correct’ in the same sentence is really bizarre to me. How can you be too correct about something?” said Gill, who plays Yaz.
When I see the phrase “politically correct” or “PC” I tend to roll my eyes and interpret it as a signifier of how a person feels about race, gender, sexuality or ecological issues. In my early years of journalism, I moderated comments at a Conservative newspaper website. “PC gone mad”, a very common epithet, was always shorthand for a tedious expression of disapproval at recycling, or a person of colour or a woman being given some kind of platform or attempt at equality.
The history of the phrase is fascinating and too long and complex to go into here. It has been passed between left and right over the past century, to mean different things. Most recently, Donald Trump has manipulated it as a tool to stir up resentment, fear and division. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he told journalist and broadcaster Megyn Kelly in 2015. Millions have lapped up his anti-PC efforts. His calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for example, were “not politically correct”, according to the president.
Words have consequences, and, in the rise of populism, these ones certainly have had, so instead of writing it off, I wanted to delve deeper into the Doctor Who criticism and try to understand what these swathes of shocked people online were outraged by, and if it had anything valuable to say about how people feel about changing societal and cultural norms. What does “politically correct” actually mean?
The dictionary helped, but only a bit. The Cambridge Dictionary says: “Someone who is politically correct believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided.” Collins defines it as “demonstrating progressive ideals, especially by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory or judgmental, esp. concerning race and gender.” It didn’t quite explain the barb of the phrase. The mystery remained.
I read Clarkson’s column, which took issue with the Rosa Parks episode and a male character who gives birth. “The Doctor has witnessed a man giving birth and has visited a civil rights activist in Alabama in the 1950s,” he wrote. “The BBC really is having a hard time with being neutral these days.”
The word neutral speaks volumes. What is neutral? Is it the straight, white, English man? How is it not neutral to base episodes on the real-life stories of people of colour who changed history?
To solve this riddle, I read comments and watched vlogs of people complaining about the series and this is what I found. People felt that equality, diversity and civil rights, otherwise known as political correctness, was being shoved down their throats. That it was synonymous with control; that the BBC was trying to drive an ulterior agenda and impose an ideology onto fans. Other complaints were that the witch hunt episode rubbed in their faces that women weren’t equal to men 400 years ago. There was a lot of swearing and anger and concern that the Rosa Parks episode was going to upset the people of the United States by being too “social justice warrior”. Which people?
I tried to understand the grown adults who use this phrase seriously. I really did. Is the outrage a fear of being silenced themselves? Or a toddler-like tantrum at the way society is changing? What is the threat, or the fear? The other? The discomfort of having prejudice confronted? I suppose normalising diversity and equality is always going to make some people feel uncomfortable, when it veers away from their normal and their neutral.
It’s a strange furore, because Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational show so episodes about the civil rights movement and the partition of India are not out of place with its creator Sydney Newman’s idea. Also it’s often, bar a few missteps, been politically aware. As the actor Nicholas Pegg said on Twitter, in response to a post decrying a new Doctor Who fights social justice issues rather than Daleks, “he gave a famous speech about the end of racism (“Ark in Space”, 1975), started a workers’ revolution by quoting Marx (“The Sun Makers”, 1977), overthrew the galactic slave trade (“Warriors’ Gate”, 1981), and never met the Daleks or Cybermen in the 80s.”
I’m glad I gave the season a chance. It’s an exciting moment when one of the oldest, and most “establishment” programmes has the courage and imagination to include and make visible the previously excluded. It makes for a much more interesting world.