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Racism in Doctor Who
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In the most recent episode of Doctor Who, War of the Sontarans, viewers are introduced to British-Jamaican nurse, Mary Seacole.

With the first female doctor and increasing diversity in characters and stories, no-one would have expected this oddly sour note.

Potato head.

Keenly reminiscent of slurs like "towel head".

Uttered twice by new companion Dan in reference to the Sontarans.

First to his phone when recording himself.

DAN: I've snuck on board. Haven't seen any of the potatoheads yet. I'm looking for the control centre or whatever.

Then again soon after to the Doctor.

DAN: And they've got this obsession with Japanese food. I heard one of the big chief potatoheads talking about Tempura Command. Tempura Offensive. What's that all about?

It must be noted that Dan and the Doctor had previously discussed the Sontarans by name. There was evidently no need for him to employ any kind of description of their appearance in place of that name.

DAN: And those Sontaran things, they're not part of history, were they?

DOCTOR: No. She [Mary Seacole] should be here. They shouldn't.

Granted, during the "potato head" conversation the Doctor is trying to avert imminent doom. That's the priority. But this has just been left out there.

Our collective impression in the office was that previous episodes of Doctor Who have touched on race and that the Doctor's attitude towards it is crystal clear.

There have been a number of episodes which include a theme of it looks but isn't monstrous, eg. Vincent and the Doctor, Hide and Time Heist.

Companion first reactions to the appearance of aliens have also been examined.

So let's rewind.

Rose Tyler

In her second episode, The End of the World, Rose encounters a dazzling array of alien characters.

To her credit she is only slightly dazzled.

Beforehand she and the Doctor speak briefly about who she'll meet.

ROSE: So, when it says guests, does that mean people?

DOCTOR: Depends what you mean by people.

ROSE: I mean people. What do you mean?

DOCTOR: Aliens.

Then a bit later, the meeting.

(A blue-skinned person with golden slit eyes strides towards them.)

STEWARD: Who the hell are you?

DOCTOR: Oh, that's nice, thanks.

STEWARD: But how did you get in? This is a maximum hospitality zone. The guests have disembarked. They're on their way any second now.

DOCTOR: That's me. I'm a guest. Look, I've got an invitation. Look. There, you see? It's fine, you see? The Doctor plus one. I'm the Doctor, this is Rose Tyler. She's my plus one. Is that all right?

(The Doctor puts away the piece of apparently blank paper he was showing to the steward.)

STEWARD: Well, obviously. Apologies, et cetera. If you're on board, we'd better start. Enjoy.

(The Steward goes over to a lecturn.)

DOCTOR: The paper's slightly psychic. It shows them whatever I want them to see. Saves a lot of time.

ROSE: He's blue.


ROSE: Okay.

Four simple words - He's blue. Yeah. Okay. - sums up the Doctor's attitude toward race beautifully.

Rory Williams

Rory is unexpectedly introduced to aliens in The Vampires of Venice.

Quite likely Amy had previously shared stories of her own travels and that had prepared him somewhat.

Also as a nurse he would be experienced in not reacting to anything unusual.

He didn't react poorly.

Later in the episode he did hurl a fish insult as an attempted distraction at the alien who was trying to kill them, but that's self-defense and was also ineffective.

RORY: Oh. Oh, you stink of fish.

FRANCESCO: Well, I'm hardly going to smell of cheese and biscuits.

(Rory backs away to where Amy had run, and trips. Francesco transforms into his true self and leaps on him.)

AMY: Hey, Mummy's boy!

(Amy uses her compact mirror to direct sunlight onto Francesco, who instantly burns and explodes, covering Rory with soot.)


In The World Enough and Time, Nardole remarks delightedly at the skin colour of one character.

(A door on the right opens and a blue-skinned man enters, hand weapon at the ready.)

NARDOLE: Oh, you're blue. Nice. I should go back to blue.


Astrid Peth

In Voyage of the Damned, non-Earther but human appearing Astrid catches the eye of alien appearing Bannakaffalatta.

And he's more than just alien in appearance.

ASTRID: I can clear it from this side. Just tell me if it starts moving. Bannakaffalatta, what's wrong?


ASTRID: What is it?


ASTRID: Are you hurt?


ASTRID: Of what?

BANNAKAFFALATTA: Poor Bannakaffalatta.

(He pulls up his shirt to reveal -)

ASTRID: You're a cyborg.

BANNAKAFFALATTA: Had accident long ago. Secret.

ASTRID: No, but everything's changed now. Cyborgs are getting equal rights. They passed a law back on Sto. You can even get married.


ASTRID: Well, you can buy me a drink first. Come on. Let's recharge you. Just stay there for a bit.


ASTRID: I promise.

DOCTOR: What's going on up there?

ASTRID: I think Bannakaffalatta and I just got engaged.

Another sweet moment.

We won't dwell on their both dying horribly later.

Bill Potts

Bill stumbled slightly in her first encounter with alien appearance in Oxygen and the Doctor doesn't catch her. She is left to right herself.

(The person who let them in takes Bill's arms. His blue skin and yellow eyes startle her.)

BILL: Wha! Sorry, I wasn't expecting. Hello.

DAHH-REN: Great. We rescued a racist.

BILL: What? Excuse me?

[ discussion about rescue situation ]

BILL: Look, for the record, I'm not prejudiced. I'm usually on the receiving end.

DAHH-REN: Oh? Why?

BILL: What, you really don't know?

Doubtless she intended no offence but the lesson here for Bill and viewers is simple and clear. Doctor Who, both the character and the show, don't make anything of race.

Bill goes on to fall in love with and transform into an amorphous liquid.

The Lupari Dogs

In addition to the potato bombs dropped in War of the Sontarans, in the The Halloween Apocalypse, there were a number of "dog" jokes at the expense of newly introduced species, the Lupari.

New companion Dan is not an intentional pick up and his first meeting with the Lupari was on Halloween. He forgivably assumes that this is a costumed human and that the costume is dog.

DAN: What's the matter with me? I'm not the one going round smashing into people's houses dressed as a dog.

KARVANISTA: What did you just call me?

DAN: I mean, it's good, like. It's... cute. It looks dead soft. Is it real fur?

KARVANISTA: You defile the sacred legacy of my forebears.

But the dog gags continue and the "dog" also fires back in the same vein.

DAN: A dog shot me. How can a dog shoot me? Ow!

KARVANISTA: The bars on that holding pen are electrified.

DAN: What am I doing in here? Hang on - holding pen? I'm not an animal.

KARVANISTA: No. Animals know when to be silent.

And some more.

DAN: Where have you come from?

YASMIN: Why, fussy about who you get rescued by?

DAN: How do I know I can trust you? You might be with the dog fella.

YASMIN: Does this look like a face you can trust?

DAN: Maybe.

YASMIN: Maybe?

DAN: Are you an alien, too?

YASMIN: I'm Yaz. Yasmin Khan. Formerly PC Yasmin Khan of Hallamshire Police. Very human, very much not with the dog fella.

DAN: Hallamshire. What, like Sheffield?

YASMIN: Why, what's the matter with Sheffield?

DAN: Too near Leeds.

YASMIN: Pro tip, Dan Lewis. Don't diss the designated rescuer.

DAN: How are you here if you're from Sheffield?

YASMIN: Got a mate who's an alien.

DAN: Does he look like a dog?

As in the case of Rory and fish stink, Dan was kidnapped by the Lupari Karvanista so is on the defensive.

It's not a friendly first encounter but the gags still feel below the belt for this show.

Dan also isn't the only one making them. The Doctor got in that action.

DOCTOR: I don't know what you're talking about.

YASMIN: I need to see a man about a dog, that's all you said. But it turns out the man is a dog, and he's called Karvanista, and you won't tell me why you are so interested in him.

Looking at other episodes we did find a few examples of the Doctor using animal references but not like this.

In Smith and Jones, the first episode with companion Martha who doesn't have a noteworthy reaction to seeing her first aliens, the Doctor calls the Judoon "space rhinos". While pretending to be human so the alien disguised as a human will try to eat him.

DOCTOR: Have you seen them? There are these things. These great big space rhino things. I mean, rhinos from space. And we're on the moon! Great big space rhinos with guns on the moon. And I only came in for my bunions, look. I mean, all fixed now. Perfectly good treatment. The nurses were lovely. I said to my wife, I said I'd recommend this place to anyone, but then we end up on the moon. And did I mention the rhinos?

Nothing demeaning about this. He's clearly marvelling at them.

In The Vampires of Menace, the Doctor's foes are an unknown species. That being the case he has to call them something. He cracks one joke but it's not "dehumanising".

DOCTOR: There's nothing left of them. They've been fully converted. Blimey, fish from space have never been so buxom. Okay, move.

Have the current Doctor Who writers descended into racism?

[ Main Image: Donna, Martha, Commander Skorr and the Doctor. Credit: BBC. ]

References (October 31, 2021). Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse. (November 7, 2021). Flux Chapter 2: War of the Sontarans. (May 13, 2017). Oxygen. (March 31, 2007). Smith and Jones. (April 2, 2005). The End of the World. (May 8, 2010). The Vampires of Venice. (December 25, 2007) Voyage of the Damned.