Saturday, November 11, 2023

11: When a Doctor Who fan says that the Chris Chibnall era was woke he may just be swearing.

When a Doctor Who fan says that the Chris Chibnall era was woke he may just be swearing.

But he may be saying that the series was excessively preachy: that there were too many scenes in which the main character directly addressed the audience and explained that racism was bad or that climate change was a serious problem, often with manipulative incidental music playing in the background.

The person who uses the word in that sense is not merely swearing, but actually saying something. A show might have a left wing ideology but not, in this sense, be woke: because the political message is left implicit but not hammered home. We might say that classic Star Trek—full of moralising speeches-to-camera—was (in that sense) woke, but that the current Star Trek: Discovery (which has some characters who happen to be gay and some other characters who happen to be trans but rarely makes a big song and dance about it) is not woke.

But in practice, when someone applies the w-word to a TV show he is playing the definition game.

-Preachiness is woke.

-Woke is bad.

-Any story with an anti-racist message is preachy.

-Therefore any story with an anti-racist message is woke.

-Therefore any TV show which is not actively racist is bad.

The same circularity plays out, much more unpleasantly, around diverse and racially colorblind casting. It might be that some director has at some time cast a not-particularly good actor in a major role because he doesn’t think his show should consist entirely of white faces; and we might legitimately describe this as tokenism or virtue signalling.

I think, in practice, it works in much more subtle ways: faced with the choice between staging a very good production of Hamlet “as Shakespeare intended”—with white faces and Elizabethan ruffs and authentic Danish accents—and an equally good production of Hamlet set in Africa with a black-British cast, the theatre manager goes for the all-black production because the former has been done ten trillion times before and the latter hasn’t.

But for some people the only conceivable reason to cast a dark skinned actor in a classic play (and the only conceivable reason to cast a dark skinned actor to play a superhero who was drawn as white in the 1940s; and the only conceivable reason to create a brand new comic book character of Hispanic or Pakistani heritage) is to perform a process described as box ticking or filling quotas.

And again, the two ideas are amalgamated:

-All non-white casting is the result of diversity targets and quotas.

-Diversity targets and quotas are woke.

-Woke is bad

-Therefore all non-white casting is bad.

-Therefore you should boycott Disney and Netflix.

Why do you liberals accuse everyone you disagree with of racism?

As a matter of fact, the casting of Doctor Who does all come down to quotas.

In the 1970s, there was a quota system in place at the BBC. One category was “The percentage of lead roles played by white people.” The required quota was 100%. Tom Baker was cast as Doctor Who in order for the BBC to achieve this diversity target (0%).

The hundred per cent white, zero diversity target was in practice very difficult to achieve. The BBC resorted to affirmative action campaigns whereby, if the storyline called for a character to be Black or Asian, the character nevertheless had to be played by a white person in ridiculous make-up.

The reduction of the white quota from 100% to 70% was certainly a politically motivated decision. It had a small tendency to incrementally demolish the system which says that normal humans are always white and that those normal humans ought to be in charge of everything. People who don’t want this system demolished are entirely correct to think that this is a Bad Thing.

Whenever Chris Claremont introduced a new character into the X-Men, he would ask rhetorically “is there any good reason why this character should not be a woman?” He had his faults as a writer but there is a good deal to be said for that approach. There was certainly a period in the X-Men where we kept encountering female senators, female doctors, female trawler captains and even female scientists.

The Right (again, quite correctly from their own point of view) frame the question the other way around. Their question is always “is there any good reason why this person should be a woman—or Black, or not a ‘Christian’”. They are not against black people having jobs in the media, but they always have to be what they call “necessary”. Of course a black man can play a police officer provided his colour is important to the plot. Otherwise, it’s just virtue-ticking for the sake of box-signalling.

Why, they ask sixteen or seventeen times in the course of one article, would you cast a Black person as Hamlet if the text doesn’t require it? Why cast a trans person as Doctor Who’s assistant when the story is just about space travel and monsters and not about gender? The stock response when someone speculates about Black James Bonds or Black Supermen is but-you-wouldn’t-cast-a-white-person-as-Nelson-Mendela-or-the-Black-Panther-would-you?

Which quite brilliantly illustrates the difficulty.

We can have Black characters in stories which are (to some extent) about Blackness; but in all other cases, characters must be white. The burden of proof is on the Black or Asian or female actor to justify their existence.

I think that if you are going to carry on making James Bond movies, you should treat them as historical artefacts and set them in the era that Ian Fleming envisaged: late 1950s, early 1960s; cold war glamour; air-travel a luxury available only to the fabulously rich; casual misogyny the order of the day. But if you can imagine a Bond seventy years out of his time, in a world of mobile phones and artificial intelligence, when the enemies are more likely to be Iranian terrorists than the Reds, with a female head of MI5, but can’t imagine a Bond with dark skin, then I think that it is ethnicity, not textual fidelity, you have a problem with.

We know what Superman and James Bond and for that matter Father Christmas and Jesus look like: and it is not necessarily racist to be disappointed if the character in the new film looks different from the Superman of our imagination. I myself found myself watching Wakanda Forever and finding it hard to connect the Namor I saw on the screen with the character of the Sub-Mariner as he had been established in more than seventy years of comic books.

But because I am not a racist, I didn’t think it mattered.

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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