Lessons in our time and space: Dr. Who visits 1950s Montgomery, Alabama
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot
January 18, 2019
The BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who has endured, with some hiatus, for over 50 years. The show’s longevity is thanks in part to its ability to change, even as some of the common elements remain the same. From its beginnings in 1963 to the present, the character of the Doctor is an alien, with a great fondness for humanity, who travels in an alien time machine that somehow got stuck disguising itself as a mid-20th century British police telephone box.
Another part of the series’ longevity is its ability to change lead actors. When the first actor to portray the Doctor became too ill in 1966 to continue, the producers decided to gamble with the audience’s knowledge that the Doctor is an alien. They came up with the idea that the Doctor can “regenerate,” changing appearance and allowing a new actor to assume the title role.
Inevitably, this has led to the series going through a bit of drama and dissent among its fan base. The departure of a lead actor and the start of a new lead in the role cause no end of grumbling and debate, and have done so for over fifty years. The reactions were particularly strong last year when incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall announced the new Doctor as the actor Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to be cast in the lead role.
Changing the lead character’s gender was considered fair game in the narrative world of the show, again appealing to the alien nature of the Doctor, whose race is not like our own. Nonetheless, the “real world” debate about gender was writ large in this change of actors. Can a woman take over the role long portrayed by male actors? Was this “gender politics” or “one step too PC”? Or, as my wife said upon hearing the new Doctor was to be female: “Finally!”
Why was her casting even an issue for some fans? Shouldn’t a good actor be the baseline for casting, regardless of one’s gender, race, or age? Previous actors in the role were declared miscast for being “too young” or “too old.”
With the new season of Doctor Who just completed, I believe the show is in good hands. As one fan T-shirt reads, “Nevertheless, She regenerated.”
This season, the Doctor became more aware of the privilege she had had “as a bloke” for so many centuries. In the past, the Doctor could just breeze through situations, commanding immediate respect or deference. This season, she did, though with some pushback painfully familiar to women who assert authority or try to get a word in edgewise. The 13th Doctor no longer gets to do the “mansplaining” (habits arguably of the First and Third Doctors); she now has to deal with being “mansplained” to instead. Nevertheless, the show was “still the same,” yet this season reminded us that it is hewing closer to the world as we know it where sexism and misogyny are embedded in attitudes and societies, let alone time periods long past or distressingly contemporary.
At a recent public appearance, showrunner Chris Chibnall was questioned about the series’ shift to talk more openly this season about social issues such as gender, race, class, etc. He responded that such a shift is a fundamental element to the show. He said,
“I think you want to be writing about the world that we live in. The show is not a standalone thing, it’s a response to the times that we’re living in and the world that we’re in. And when it comes to things that affect people’s lives – I think particularly things that children and young adults are going through – that feels really important. I think the character of the Doctor, and [her friends] as well, is a great conduit into discussing all that…and then you add monsters as well.”
Longtime viewers of Doctor Who are accustomed to the show featuring “monsters,” also known as the various alien races invading Earth and creating no end of intergalactic strife. With this season’s emphasis on more socially conscious storytelling, Chibnall brought up a different sort of monster: humans who perpetuate oppressive practices, whether a matter of racism, religious exclusion, sexism, or greed.
For example, one episode had the Doctor and her companions arrive in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama, where they met Rosa Parks and others involved in the lead-up to the Bus Boycott. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a brief appearance in this episode as well.) Monsters abound, with no prosthetics or CGI needed, just the depiction of racist attitudes and Jim Crow norms rampant in that place and time period.
The episode Rosa is co-written by Chibnall and the recent UK Children’s Laureate and YA author Malorie Blackman. The episode has the usual elements of a time travel story (particularly the bit about ensuring history happens as it should). Wisely, Blackman and Chibnall redirect the energies of an hourlong drama to speak more perceptively to how the time period is experienced by the characters from the future (even if a relative “near future” of 2018). Here, the characters experience firsthand the macroaggression of the Jim Crow South. Segregation dictates how the four time travelers can sit at a restaurant, whether or not a hotel will give them a room, and their seating sections on the public bus system. The entrenched system is all-encompassing.
Two of the Doctor’s companions are young adult Brits, who experience the microaggressions of the time due to being non-white themselves. They talk while hiding behind an alleyway dumpster, comparing notes and reflecting on the unsettling connections of being in the “textbook past” and what they endured in contemporary England as people who are treated as “different” or not part of the dominant (white/Euro/British) context. Suddenly, their “school lesson” understanding of Rosa Parks takes on a heaviness that they had not quite learned from just reading about it.
The drama of Rosa recalls Dr King’s words at the conclusion of the Montgomery boycott that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rosa Parks seats herself where she chooses, even though the systemic racism embedded in 1950s Montgomery was robust. Determination and convictional nerves of steel broke up Montgomery’s bus regulations in the long run. We are still working at dismantling all manner of exclusive and occlusive practices in American society.
As we approach the MLK holiday, the witness and legacy of Civil Rights leaders cannot be kept in past tense and treated nostalgically in our public gatherings and celebrations common this time of year. We need persons who can speak to the nation like Dr. King, yet we need the many individuals like Rosa Parks who work for justice and fair treatment on the ground level of our local communities even more. We need those who are willing to remember their history and reorient our present, so that the future actually can be received hopefully, without the burden of our past still unresolved.
As we approach the MLK holiday, the witness and legacy of Civil Rights leaders cannot be kept in past tense and treated nostalgically in our public gatherings and celebrations common this time of year. We need persons who can speak to the nation like Dr. King, yet we need the many individuals like Rosa Parks who work for justice and fair treatment on the ground level of our local communities even more.
Our actions should be tied to “the world that we live in” as well as the world that we need to live in. The recent season of Doctor Who illustrates how some things change and other things remain the same. We must decide what should stay the same and what must change for the common good.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is the Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly