For Black Doctor Who fans, the TARDIS is a legendary, loaded image

BBC America

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.

Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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.)

Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts in the 10th series of Doctor Who.
Des Willie/BBC

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?

The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and companions in the 11th series of Doctor Who.
BBC America

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.

Comments

Are the police in the UK viewed as villians by it’s ethnic citizens? Much of this essay seems to be targeted towards African Americans. Maybe the problem isn’t the show but the USA.

If we’re being honest, in general the problem tends to be the USA.

being from the UK .. no they are not.

The problem is the community in the USA, welfare is an easy route – many children without fathers and mothers with too many children using welfare to stay afloat and then young men without father figures who turn to crime and now there is a stigma because it seems one bad apple really does spoil the entire cart and innocent people get hurt.

its a whole vicious circle.

I’ve heard this sort of thing before. It sounds about right… I mean, not the normal right. The alternative one.

Wow, this is a ludicrously misinformed and borderline racist comment. Unless you have a degree in sociology, American Studies, or something else that actually qualifies you to talk about the state of United States race relations and social welfare, I invite you to kindly have a seat.

What the hell are you talking about. The US has one of the worst social safety net of the rich world, and certainly worse than any western european country. You sound like you’re from the 80s. Are you going to talk about welfare queens next? The poor in the US have it worse than the poor in the UK, by a giant super imperial mile.

And hey, many of us say dumb things, but I’m an economist, for what it’s worth.

I live in a country where the whole population is systematically oppressed by the police regardless of race or ethnicity. The police are terrifying in my country. They kidnap, torture, put people away in false charges just to meet arrest quotas. Yet I’m not triggered by the TARDIS. To see someone think that way about the TARDIS because of something from the past, oppression they personally never experienced is very intriguing.

Wait, who are you referring to as not having personally experienced oppression by the police? Your country’s police sound pretty sadistic, but the number of deaths black people experience by police officers can’t simply be brushed off as a past oppression that the people today don’t experience.

oppression they personally never experienced

As the article explains, the oppression isn’t only the past. It’s experienced in the present.

Second, you said your psychotic police force is indiscriminate. Consider how different it might be if your psychotic police force was discriminatory…against YOU more than other people. That’s what the article is about.

Also it’s hard to believe that a corrupt villainous police force would not care about race or ethnicity at all. Every country has people who have less power based on the color of their skin, their language, their ethnicity, or just political affiliation. Those people are always abused the most. Even when everyone is oppressed.

Oh, I didn’t say indiscriminate. They discriminate. Just not based on race or ethnicity. Well, maybe ethnicity a bit – obviously migrants draw the police’s attention more often. But anyone can get in trouble and often do. But that’s not the point of my original post. The point is that, despite living in an actual police state and not in life’s easy mode otherwise known as the United States, I can still enjoy cop shows and don’t have a fit anytime I see the word "police". I do get nervois whenever I see a policeman on the street, but not when I see a goddamn interdimensional magic box from a British TV show. Hating a particular police force that actually oppresses you is one thing. Hating the word and the idea of police to the extent described in the article is not – it’s part of the problem.

the past? I got searched on my way home from school 10 feet away from house at 16 years old because they thought I was "selling candy at school".

that was 6 years ago. if you think nothing has happened since then you are a fool.

I’d ask why the Doctor can’t land during the […] American civil rights movement

Funny you mention that one. (Naturally, spoilers within.)

Thanks for that link to the Fade article.
I always get the impression that the relationship between police and non-white citizens is better here than in the US, but I have always wondered to what extent that’s actually true versus being an artefact of poorer media coverage.

It’s particularly alarming to see that we’re actually worse in terms of the proportions of our prison population…

An interesting read but I think there are a few reasons why it won’t happen

1. The Beeb wouldn’t rock the boat that hard, especially not one of their most syndicated shows, which is a children show.

2. The racial tension between the police and minorities, while definitely out there is nowhere near as immediately deadly as it is in America, and so less attention grabbing or simple to highlight as part of a show. Stop and searches and arrests might be disproportionate but here in the UK but being shot or killed straight away is much less of an issue due to our limited number of armed police. (Though once in custody there is a case for being less safe statistically also but this follow my point on being less immediately visible and shocking)

An episode that grappled with the imagery could be good. The Doctor, after all, could often be mistaken for some sort of cop, traveling through time righting wrongs as they do. And yet I don’t think they regard themself as that sort of authority figure, and in fact might bristle at the characterization. An episode where that gets called out could let them better reject the modus operandi of so many other time-traveling characters who muck about with timelines in the service of some sort of patriarchal sense of how events are "supposed" to happen, opting instead for a more charitable sense of doing good when and where it is needed.

Is the issue here really with the Tardis and it’s imagery? Or the attitude of some towards the word ‘Police’?

The opinion’s expressed here seem to assume incredible catch-all generalisations of police officers and indeed black communities opinions of them. They’re also worryingly analogous to a corrupt white police officer looking at a Black youth and immediately thinking he/she must be up to no good.

It is only when both the white police officer and those with negative attitudes towards the police change their stance that we will get to where we want to be. And I’m not sure a themed episode of Doctor Who will be even an effective starting point to that – especially when your brother admittedly doesn’t even watch the show.

Consider the a long and well-documented history of police disproportionally harassing black people, and failing to appropriately police our communities. That shit isn’t a secret, and it’s barely even news anymore.

There’s an obvious power dynamic at play here, and "a corrupt white police officer" and "those with negative attitudes toward the police" are not even a LITTLE bit the same. There’s nothing worrying about stating black populations have a fraught relationship with the police because the police as an institution have generationally given them reason to mistrust them.

The article is about the reality of a well-justified perception of police amongst black communities, and how applying that very real contextual information to the writing could be used to better represent black characters in a show that has traditionally done a shitty job of doing so. A show whose most iconic imagery is a literal box once used to temporarily imprison people, with the word ‘Police’ emblazoned across it can have a lot of conversations about it more interesting than "the chameleon circuit is broken".

Of course a corrupt white police officer and those with a negative attitude towards the police aren’t the same. Completely agree.

It’s the logic of the argument that’s the same. Some white police officers shoot black youths, therefore we should be suspicious of all white police officers. Some black youths commit crimes, therefore all black youths commit crimes. It’s the ‘SOME’ to ‘ALL’ logic that is unhelpful, and I don’t believe as you do that the attitude towards all police officers is ‘well-justified’, it’s that kind of sensationalism that is unhelpful and will keep both sides polarised.

That doesn’t dismiss the examples of white policemen shooting black youths with no justification. And it’s likely in the better training, psychological profiling and whistleblowing (to name but a few examples) within the police community that will lead to a better start to a solution than a Doctor Who episode.

Barumite, if you really want to understand this issue, you’re going to need to to a bit more research because "examples of white policemen shooting black youths with no justification" is barely scratching the surface of the relationship between Black Americans and the police/criminal justice system in the US. Even if you don’t really want to understand it, but want to look like you do so you can write dismissive posts, you’ll still need to educate yourself quite a bit more first.

So you’re telling me to head off and educate myself, and I’M the one being dismissive?

It goes without saying that the relationship is more nuanced than that, and that there are other examples. Yes I agree.

Logical arguments and cute and all, but that logic has to be applied to real life context in order to recognise that the comparison was apples to oranges all along.

A corrupt police officer harasses and wrongfully kills an innocent black person results in unjust murder, and personal tragedy for a community of people in that person’s life. Following that, we have the larger, monolithic backing of the police force as an institution that has unyieldingly proven itself to favour protection of killer cops over taking responsibility and making amends for the corrupt systems it upholds. You really think that an officer that (again: DISPROPORTIONATELY) "generalises" against a racialised community, with that backing behind him is the same as a black person not trusting any of the cops because how tf would they even know which ones to trust?

Even if every cop reformed overnight, it’d require literal GENERATIONS without incident (and this doesn’t even account for all the other systemic infrastructure also upholding the culture of killer cops) before you could reasonably expect the black community to trust police. Boots and ants have a very comparable mistrust of each other.

Again, I wasn’t saying they’re the same.

And I think we’re in agreement that the police community needs to change.

We’re in agreement that there is drastic need for police reform. Where we don’t agree is on your assertion that communities who are distrustful of the police in ANY way bear responsibility for this, or are "worryingly analogous" to their behaviour, or "unhelpful" to that cause.

This is no way a justification of police brutality. But in NO WAY sounds like the glorification of violence and making money in illegal ways isn’t happening at all among urban youth?

I liked Luke Cage in principal for instance hut never got why he listened to Mobb Deep on his headset while fighting thugs. Its like glorifying and objecting at the same time. I’m always a bit confused why thats something we can’t talk about at all.

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