As a Doctor Who fan, I buy Whovian-themed merch to rep my nerd set in the streets and convention floors. One of my favorite purchases is a TARDIS bomber jacket, emblazoned with the words “police box” on the back. With a few Doctor Who patches ironed on — a touch of circular Gallifreyan over the elbow completes the look — the jacket lets me wear my fandom in the most stylish way possible.
As a Black Doctor Who fan, my love for this jacket is something of a conundrum. I didn’t realize it until my brother saw me wearing it and said with alarm, “POLICE?” He isn’t a nerd, and hadn’t even heard of Doctor Who when I tried to explain. All he saw was “police box” in big white letters.
Police officers aren’t a source of comfort, safety and respect in the Black community, and many others. The word “police” instills fear. The word “police” conjures memories of men in uniform murdering Black people for doing as little as selling loose cigarettes — or holding a wallet, violating traffic laws, jaywalking, take your pick. When a Black person sees another Black person wearing a jacket with the noun of an agitator proudly written on the back, it sends them into shock.
Doctor Who’s relationship with its Black companions and characters further complicates the situation. If I could’ve told my brother that the show was super inclusive and that Black characters were a central part of the series and its history, it might have been an easier sell. He might have actually heard of it before.
But the British series dates back to a time when Black actors were still anomalies on TV. In 1963, the year Doctor Who began and the height of the American civil rights movement, Cicely Tyson had only just become the first Black actress to star as a regular supporting character on a TV show. To Doctor Who’s detriment with regard to Black nerds looking for representation, Nichelle Nichols began starring as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek in 1966. British television wouldn’t see its first all-Black cast until The Fosters in 1976.
Doctor Who didn’t get its first recurring Black character until the 2005 reboot. Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), the bumbling boyfriend of lead character Rose Tyler, was dismissed and insulted for much of his run on the show. Even after his character developed into a badass with a big gun, he was put on a bus with the rest of the Tenth Doctor’s squad when actor David Tennant left the show.
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), the Tenth Doctor’s next leading lady, lived in white companion Rose’s shadow for an entire season. Her unrequited crush on the Doctor was only ever outlined in comparison to the epic, tragic love story between Rose and the Doctor. Martha’s extreme competence left her sacrificing herself, saving the world, and proving herself over and over again with little acknowledgment from the Doctor. Later, she was pair the spares’d with Mickey when Tennant’s run came to an end. (We won’t talk about how convenient it was for the show to marry off the two Black companions, who only maybe had one interaction prior to that point. I waffle between “whatever, they have just enough in common for it to work” and being annoyed about it.)
Series 8’s Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) was fine (and foinnne) until he met the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Danny, boyfriend to Twelve’s companion Clara, seemed to be meant as a contrast to Mickey. He was more competent and initially less irritating, but not at all interested in space travel, saving the planet or his girlfriend traveling with the Doctor.
Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) had her stylish fashion sense, her open queerness, her amazing curiosity and her perfectly moisturized afro going for her. Yet her exit left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s not enough that she was killed and turned into a Cyberman (like Danny two seasons before her) and then saved, only to run off with a supernaturally enhanced girl she’d met just once (like Clara one season before her). Worse still, she was shot in the chest by an alien with blue skin. Earlier in the season, she’d been accused of being racist against a blue-skinned alien. All this in the heat of a “Blue Lives Matter” counter moment.
Like the U.S., the U.K. has issues with police violence and brutality, which have been more exposed than ever in the age of smartphones and streaming video. But as my fellow Black Doctor Who podcast hosts witnessed firsthand in late 2016, Black Lives Matter protests are just as common there as here. Soon after, there were protests for Edson Da Costa, 25, who died in police custody in June 2017, and Sarah Reed, 32, who was found dead in her cell at London’s Holloway Prison while awaiting trial. The examples don’t stop there. The police violence against Black people in the U.K. is not as frequent or as visible as in America, but it is still an issue. If the Doctor existed in our world, could he or she land the TARDIS at the site of that protest to help or offer advice? Or would the appearance of the “police”-branded spaceship be met with the same fear and suspicion as when real police arrive?
The police box TARDIS is a symbol I took for granted as a Whovian, a symbol I’ve been convinced to love by (mostly) great writing, lovable characters (even when they’re not written well) and time travel hijinks. When my brother revealed that it could mean something else to non-fans, even for a second, it nearly broke my heart.
By the 1960s, there were about 685 police boxes still operating in the U.K. When Doctor Who premiered in 1963, the TARDIS chose that form to fit with the time period. Later, the show’s lore explained that the TARDIS can blend in with its surroundings because of its “chameleon circuit,” which allows it to transform into anything that would be inconspicuous in the setting to which the Doctor is traveling. But our Doctor’s TARDIS has a broken chameleon circuit, forcing it to stay as the iconic blue box (though with a perception filter keeping, say, people in ancient times from finding a 20th-century police box out of the ordinary). At one point in the series, the Doctor tried to fix the feature, to no avail. He later claimed that he likes it the way it is.
And so the police box has become a staple of Doctor Who. The Doctor changes. The companions cycle out. The enemies evolve and morph. The logo is updated. The theme tune gets reorchestrated. But throughout Doctor Who’s history, the TARDIS has been a constant. It exists in all of time and space simultaneously. It’s such a staple of the show that it’s the BBC, not the Metropolitan Police, that owns the image of the blue police box.
Despite it being a shapeshifting, sentient spaceship-slash-time-machine, decades of Doctor Who scripts have insisted that the TARDIS is always going to be a wooden blue police box that is bigger on the inside.
So instead of changing the symbol, why not grapple with it on the show itself?
Doctor Who has rarely dealt with race. The Tenth Doctor dismissed Martha’s concerns about her Blackness in Shakespearean London. As Twelve, he punched a racist Victorian person. But now that the Doctor is a woman — who will likely deal with sexism she’s never experienced in her previous male incarnations — there’s an open door to talk about race, too. The TARDIS has landed at many different historical and cultural tipping points: the eruption of Vesuvius, various points during World War II, the women’s suffrage movement and dozens of futuristic revolutions. I’d ask why the Doctor can’t land during the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycotts or the American civil rights movement happening across the pond, but it goes back to the original point: The TARDIS wouldn’t look like safety to those Black people.
This season, Tosin Cole stars as the fifth Black cast member and third Black full-time companion on Doctor Who. To any other character fleeing from an alien, running into a box that says “police” might look like safety. But what if Cole’s character saw the words “police box” and hesitated to enter? Trapped between an attacking alien and presumably white law enforcement, many Black people would probably say “screw it” and choose the alien.
I want Doctor Who to deal with the TARDIS’ cultural meaning because, as a devout fan, I love the TARDIS and don’t want it to change. The image of the Doctor’s police box makes me happy (which explains how I wound up with the aforementioned jacket featuring it, as well as a blanket, a poster of van Gogh’s exploding TARDIS, a light-up desk trinket, a pin, a cookie jar, and a laptop decal). If I were the type to get tattoos, I’d probably get one of a TARDIS flying through the vortex. I am attached to the image.
But I also have to grapple with the TARDIS’ extra meaning now. I toss my jacket on in my inner-city neighborhood, and I wonder if someone on the elevator in my building is going to ask if I’m making a political statement in favor of police — like my brother did that day. I think of the Doctor Who fans who hate that the Doctor is a woman and tell me I’m “overthinking it” because it’s just a show about time travel. They don’t need politics and “PC culture” in their science fiction!
Being a Black Doctor Who fan is constantly wondering if it’s just you seeing something as racist and dismissive, or if you’re thinking about it too much. It is also knowing that if the Doctor were to show up on your doorstep, there aren’t many places in the past where you’d be welcome, but many places in the present you’d love to escape from.
Doctor Who fandom, especially for a Black viewer, is about looking to the future. Its producers are making strides in the gender problem the show has had since its inception with the introduction of the first female Doctor. They have also brought on two companions of color, a first in itself — including the first ever South Asian actress to be a lead on the show. There will be a Black director, a Black composer, a South Asian writer and a Black woman writer on staff this year. These choices give me a lot of hope for the show, and I hope the new showrunner and direction of the series give weight to all these identities. If they can, maybe I can wear my TARDIS jacket proudly in the streets without fear.
Constance Gibbs is a writer for a children’s magazine, a writer/editor at Black Girls Create and a podcaster living in NYC. Previously, she was a features writer for the New York Daily News and the TV Editor for Black Girl Nerds. Her other writing has been featured in Shondaland, Indiewire, The Mary Sue, Hello Giggles, The Nerds of Color, Just About Write and Bitch Flicks, among others.