The Imperial Fictions of Doctor Who

Curator's Note

The hugely popular BBC television program Doctor Who has been fabricating and exporting British racial fears and fantasies across the globe since the 1960s. As Lindy Orthia notes, “there is no straightforward linear temporal relationship between a colonial past, postcolonial present and cosmopolitan future” on Nu-Who. The disarticulation of European colonialism from its white supremacist history and relocation into a cosmopolitan future that mirrors the multi-racial demographics of the present allows for issues of slavery to be severed from questions of race.

This is what occurs in “Planet of the Ood” (2008), when The Doctor and his companion, Donna Noble, encounter an enslaved alien species called the Ood. In my clip, which alternates between the slavemaster’s office, a high-tech slave auction, and a fugitive slave chase, the history of British slavery and imperialism is invoked, transformed, and contained. The white CEO of Ood Operations (OO), Mr. Halpen, is shown with the Ood that has served him since childhood. While the scene effectively conjures the paternalistic intimacy of the slave-owner towards his “property,” the pale milky skin of the Ood codes them as white thus erasing the essential role of race in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But, perhaps the most complex invocation of the British imperial past comes from Solana Mercurio, the Indian woman that serves as OO’s marketing chief. In this clip, she extols the virtues of the Ood to a multi-racial group of buyers. The Ood are characterized as “trusted friends” that are “happy to serve” us. “We don’t just breed the Ood. We make them better,” claims Mercurio. Having a South Asian woman act as the slave auctioneer and utter familiar justifications for colonial conquest can be read as an ironic nod to British occupation of India, it can also be a way to evade that past by suggesting that the colonized would subjugate the colonizer if given the chance. The decision to have the Ood overseer, Mr. Kess, played by a black man also rewrites the historical record and erases white brutality against black and brown bodies. Having Kess whip, imprison, incinerate, shoot, and, in this clip, mercilessly chase down the pale pink-skinned Ood allows the evils of slavery to be detached from whiteness and affixed to blackness. While “Planet of the Ood” reveals the hypocrisy and cruelty of bondage, the deracialization and decontextualization of British slavery obscures the racism of the imperial past.


I think these conversatiosn largely resonate with what I am thinking about in my post--the anxiety over humans as both capable of incredible good and the perpetrators of all kinds of evil. I think what you've raised above about that particular episode and the storylines with the Ood are spot on. I wonder though if we can recognize a glimmer of critique even under all of the multi-culti-washing? Moreover, how might we think of the Ood as still racialized--given that they are alien, phenotypically nonhuman, and coded as you say as the ideal, obsequious slave. In much of science fiction and fantasy, "real world" race is often jumbled in order to make it "not about real world race"--but of course it is.

Apologies for the tardy reply but I just saw this. Your comment really resonated with me. The Ood remind me of the theoretical insights of Adilufu Nama's _Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film _. He sees the structured absence of blackness as a signature feature of the genre (10). But he maintains that while, for the most part, "black characters are absent from SF cinema, ... their omission does not eliminate blackness as a source of anxiety. Churning just below the narrative surface of many SF films, blackness is symbolically present (11). The Ood are not phenotypically black but they rendered so through their close metaphorical association with slavery.

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