So, if you’re a follower of The Experience, and of my writing in general, you know that this past year I had an essay in an awesome Doctor Who anthology called Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers. It’s ambitious and unlike any other Doctor Who book you’ve ever read with reviews of Classic Who that take forms as diverse as recipes, angry letters to the BBC, flow charts, and Shakespeare plays. You should totally snag a copy, as these are not your grandparents’ Doctor Who reviews.
However, as it’s Doctor Who Week here at the blog, I thought I’d share my Outside In review with you today and give you a healthy dose of Classic Who as we march toward the premiere of Season 7.5 of the current series. I was very happy that I got to write about my favorite Classic Doctor – the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee – and talk about an issue that, frankly, needs more talking about in Doctor Who fandom. Race (and racism). Check it out below!
The Interconnectedness of Tibetan and Gallifreyan Cultures. Sort Of.
“Planet of the Spiders” is an important Doctor Who story for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that it’s Jon Pertwee’s final appearance as the Doctor. Pertwee is my favorite classic Doctor, mostly because he had a tattoo that we got to see in “Spearhead From Space” when he was randomly shirtless (and pretty fine for an older gentleman!), but also because he had gravitas without losing the sheer fun of exploration. He was a Doctor I would’ve followed anywhere, because he seemed like someone who knew what he was doing, unlike other classic Doctors who often seemed to try things just for the hell of it. Also, the third Doctor and Liz Shaw were hot together. I don’t care what anyone says.
But back to “Planet of the Spiders.”
Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), who has been discharged from UNIT, has called Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) to investigate strange goings-on at a Tibetan monastery at which he’s been meditating. Meditation as a “thing” is already strange enough to him, but the secrecy and cryptic nature of the practitioners at the monastery lead him to believe that there’s more than just enlightenment going on. As they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Yates’ suspicions are correct, and we see that the meditation has successfully brought forth a tyrannical race of intelligent spiders, or Eight-Legs who rule Metebilis Three. Several brainwashings, chases, and rescue missions later, the Doctor comes across the abbot of the monastery, K’anpo Rimpoche (George Cormack), who happens to be an elderly Time Lord who used to be the Doctor’s mentor. They work together to get rid of the Queen Spider and save everyone, but not before the Doctor is flooded by radiation, and killed. Sarah, having never experienced regeneration before, is sure that this is the end for the Doctor. It isn’t, of course, and the Doctor comes back as Tom Baker. K’anpo explains regeneration to Sarah, as he has himself regenerated into Cho-Je (Kevin Lindsay), whom we met earlier in the story and was apparently a projection of K’anpo’s soul. (Huh?) Anyway, they have squinting their eyes, bad makeup, and speaking in horrible Generic Asian accents in common, so Sarah knows that they are the same person, and so she knows that this “new” Doctor is the same Doctor she’d gotten to know.
I know what you might be thinking. Isn’t a Tibetan character being played by an English actor whilst squinting his eyes and talking in a ridiculous accent horribly racist? For that matter, isn’t co-opting meditation and Eastern traditions as a fad and not as something that some take very seriously horribly colonialist and ethnocentric? Furthermore, what of the fact that meditation and Eastern traditions were a real life fad in the 1960s-70s, particularly in England, with The Beatles as their white, non-threatening poster boys?
While these are all valid concerns, I think that they miss the greater point of “Planet of the Spiders,” and indeed, of the entire Doctor Who franchise. Doctor Who uses Asian culture to explore Gallifreyan culture.
I know what you’re thinking now. Whut?
Think about it. The Doctor is a being for whom all of time and space is knowable at once, which gives him a worldview in which he can see that we are all interconnected and important, and so each of our actions has an impact on someone else, sometimes beyond what we can see or understand. Also, there’s the matter of Time Lords being able to regenerate in the first place. The same spirit coming through in different bodies over the course of centuries? Sounds like reincarnation to me. If Doctor Who isn’t in part an homage to Buddhism and Hinduism, I don’t know what is!
The use of an Asian culture to explore the life and death and rebirth of Time Lords was an inspired choice, and allows the viewer to understand Gallifreyan culture through the prism of an Earth culture with which he/she might be more familiar. “Planet of the Spiders” is the first of many instances of Doctor Who using an Asian culture as a point of reference. “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” also uses white British actors to play Asian characters in order to show how interconnected human beings are to each other, as well as how interconnected human beings are to Time Lords…
Oh, who am I kidding? This shit is racist. It’s as racist as Mickey Rooney being cast as a Chinese dude in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Good Lord, what were they thinking? And they didn’t even have the decency to have additional Fake Asians in the meditation group! It was entirely made up of White people using bits and pieces of Asian religions and practices to satisfy their own trendy ends! At a “Tibetan” monastery! And it only gets worse from here! In “The Talons of Weng-Chang,” there’s absolutely no tie to Time Lords at all! One can’t even fake the argument that casting non-Asian actors to play Chinese has anything to do with anything thematically. They just…decided to do that. Why bother telling stories about cultures to which you have no access, and if you are going to bother, why not do it properly? Since when is telling a story more important than not alienating/exploiting/insulting an entire race of people? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was 1974. Doesn’t mean I can’t be pissed off about it now, and it doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t expect better. The thing is, it would be nice to think that this story was a purposeful reflection or an examination/critique of Britain’s real-life fascination with Eastern cultures, but it wasn’t self-aware enough to be that. You never get the feeling when watching this story that they see anything wrong with this co-opting of another culture. They just do it. It’s a reflection of their society, yes, but not a critical one.
When Doctor Who started out over ten years earlier in 1963, it had a female executive producer in Verity Lambert and a gay Indian director in Waris Hussein. It had a perfectly gender-balanced cast featuring two men and two women, and one of those women, Barbara, was not only brilliant and entirely competent, but also an older, unmarried woman with a career. It was subversive and diverse in so many ways right from the beginning. What’s interesting, however, is that while issues of feminism were always wrestled with, or at the very least paid lip service – they’d have Sarah Jane making pronouncements about Women’s Liberation, apparently as the only being in the Universe to have this sense of fairness (seriously, did they only go to the sexist planets?), or they had Leela being a warrior, while also being considered a “savage” and wearing skimpy outfits – issues of race were ignored altogether. With aliens being the go-to sci-fi stand-in for race, race wasn’t dealt with in a real way. When racial diversity was attempted, it was done horribly because it was never done consciously. Race continued to be a blind spot on Doctor Who until 2005, when Mickey Smith (played by Noel Clarke) became the first black person to set foot in the TARDIS. It would be two years until the Doctor’s first black companion in Martha Jones.
Therefore, “Planet of the Spiders” marks not only Jon Pertwee’s departure, but it marks just how far Doctor Who had to go before it even started becoming truly representative of the universe.