[Guest Post] Alison the Beloved (Part Two)

In the first part of this essay, I explored the portrayal of Black women in Doctor Who, using the example of Alison Cheney. She appears in Scream of the Shalka, a 2003 web animation. Preceding the 2005 TV reboot by two years, she is the first broadcast non-white companion. 

I wrote about Alison’s role as the Doctor’s beloved, a status unusual for Black characters, and how she could have challenged the New Who’s portrayal of Black women as largely disposable victims. At the same time, SotS’ refusal to give Alison the lived experience specific to a Black London woman in an all-white small town reduces her revolutionary potential.

Alison’s ability to change the Whoniverse is also limited by SotS’ — and Alison’s — unpopularity. In this part of my essay, I dig into fan characterizations of Alison, using the AO3 corpus as a representative sample. An examination of SotS fan content on AO3 reveals that Alison may be the Doctor’s beloved in SotS, but she’s largely unloved in fandom.

Check out the stats as of April, 2021:

  • 66,155 fanworks on AO3 with “Doctor Who” as a primary tag
  • 44,850 with “Doctor Who (2005)” as a primary tag
  • 5,550 with “Doctor Who (1963)” as a primary tag
  • 120 with “Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka” as a primary tag

Very few AO3 users know about the Shalkaverse. Fewer of them consider it interesting enough to write about.

Even fewer of those AO3 creators who write about the Shalkaverse consider Alison a worthy subject. Let’s zoom in on those 120 SotS works and the character tags. They break down as follows:

  • 100 works in which the Master is tagged as a character
  • 95 in which the Doctor is tagged as a character
  • 45 in which Alison is tagged as a character

If we assume that a character tag corresponds to a character’s appearance in a work, then Alison appears in just 45 of 120 works, or 37.5%. That means that nearly two-thirds of creators are writing Shalkaverse stories without Alison. 

You read that right. The overwhelming majority of SotS fans eliminate one of the main characters entirely from their casts.

The relationship tags on the SotS fanworks tell a similar story:

  • 72 fanworks tagged “Ninth Doctor/Shalka Master (Scream of the Shalka)”
  • 36 tagged “The Doctor/The Master (Doctor Who)”
  • 28 tagged “Alison Cheney & The Master (Doctor Who)”
  • 18 tagged “Alison Cheney & The Doctor (Doctor Who)” 

Alison is not very prominent in SotS fanworks. When she does show up, her relationships with other characters are less explored. In the 45 stories where she is tagged as a character, she is primarily linked in friendship with either the Doctor or the Master. In canon, Alison has various relationships either shown or mentioned: with Joe (her ex), Max (her boss at the pub), Kim (her friend, a Shalka victim), and her mother. None of these people appear in Alison’s relationships tags on AO3. If she is generally considered unimportant by fan creators, Alison’s social connections are seen as unworthy of development.

Furthermore, Alison is regularly stripped of her narratively central role as the Doctor’s beloved. Notice that nothing in the tags of these AO3 fanworks suggests any Doctor/Alison pairing. The closest that we get is “Alison Cheney & The Doctor (Doctor Who),” where the ampersand denotes a non-romantic friendship. The pairing built into SotS’ narrative structure appears nowhere in these fanworks.

Fans focus on Doctor/Master over Doctor/Alison. The Doctor and the Master, who star in nearly all SotS fanworks, have the most popular relationship tag. Among the most used additional tags are “Fluff” and “Robot Feels,” with 12 uses each. Because “fluff” and “feels” occur largely in the context of romantic and/or slash relationships, we can also assume that the Shalkaverse Time Lords’ relationship drama is a favorite subject for creators. The quintessential SotS fanfic concerns the Doctor and the Master’s sexual and/or romantic relationship. Alison is not a part of this. 

Creators who do write about Alison’s relationships with the Doctor and the Master usually interpret them as familial, rather than erotic or romantic. See the “Alison Cheney & the Master (Doctor Who)” and “Alison Cheney & the Doctor (Doctor Who)” tags for evidence. There’s no romance in those ampersands.

Other tags in the SotS fanworks describe Alison’s role on the TARDIS in terms of family. Notjodieyet’s “the Master is Alison’s gay robot dad,” babybel’s “alison just has two alien dads now,” and JotunValli’s “Alison is the unintended mom” tags assign parent/child power differentials to the relationship of the Time Lords and the human, implicitly obviating romantic possibilities. Shalkalaka’s “Alison Cheney/Master brotp” and FatalCookies’ “The TARDIS team shares a braincell and Alison usually has it” also focus on the Shalka trio as a cooperative unit. In such a trio, the Doctor and the Master may be partners, but Alison does not have a romantic relationship with either. Alison is never the Doctor’s beloved in this corpus of fanworks; in fact she’s hardly ever anyone’s beloved, certainly not that of most SotS fanwork creators.

What’s going on here? Basically Alison’s experience in fanfic mirrors the ways in which fans attack Black characters, particularly Black women, in other media.

Overall, what we’re seeing is a perfect example of misogynoir, that is, racialized misogyny experienced by Black women. Building on Moya Bailey and Trudy of Gradient Lair’s discussions about misogynoir, Stitch applies it specifically to fandom:

In fandom, misogynoir typically takes several forms against Black female characters and real life Black women … and actresses that play Black characters. It involves diminishing Black characters, downplaying Black actresses, and dismissing Black female fans.

Fandom doesn’t like to talk about race. It really doesn’t like to acknowledge that the supposed safe space of transformative fandom is…filled to the brim with as much racist garbage as the rest of the internet.

Misogynoir takes many different forms in fan characterization of Alison. 

  • There’s white prioritization, which is, as Stitch says, “all about focusing on white people alone. It’s a term that refers to the way that people constantly centers whiteness (white men and women primarily) and how that centering comes almost exclusively at the expense of people of color.” When the Doctor and the Master show up in most fics and Alison appears in only about one-third, the white Time Lords are definitely hogging the limelight, leaving little for the Black woman.
  • There’s the concept of “a Black woman in the way,” in which a Black woman is despised and dismissed by fandom in favor of a white pairing. Though Alison is canonically paired in SotS with the Doctor, Doctor/Alison is ignored by most fans in favor of Doctor/Master. In fans’ minds, the focal romantic relationship of SotS changes from that of a white man and a Black woman to that of two white guys. Alison’s very small number of appearances in SotS fanfic shows how unnecessary most fans consider her to their favored Doctor/Master relationship.
  • There’s also the removal of a Black woman’s romantic prospects, which is the complete cancellation of the possibilities of love for any fictional Black woman. Notice that, although Alison and the Doctor are set up as a romantic match, fans instead portray Alison in the role of teammate, de facto sensible leader, or adopted daughter in relation to the Doctor and the Master. All of these roles ignore Alison’s narrative status as a romantic lover of the Doctor and someone who is romantically beloved by him.

Other New Who Black companions experience similar hardships on the show and in fandom. For example, white prioritization strikes Mickey pretty hard. Mickey is canonically introduced as the boyfriend of the Ninth (and Tenth) Doctor’s primary companion Rose. The show itself, however, barely considers him a serious contender for Rose’s affection, in part because Mickey is Black and Rose is white. The Series 2, episode 3 story School Reunion, for example, has the Tenth Doctor telling Mickey to wait in the car with K-9 while Rose and Sarah Jane actually investigate. Mickey realizes that his role is “the dog.” Though the line is played for laughs, it suggests that Mickey is ineffectual and even (by implication) subhuman. 

Fans also treat Mickey as a Black character in the way, and they remove his romantic prospects. On AO3, there are about 120 Mickey/Rose stories, compared to 10,500 Ten/Rose stories. Mickey is like a tiny speed bump that fan creators quickly sail over to reach the supposedly more important goal of Ten/Rose. Mickey is also taken less seriously in comparison to white companions. Compare the 120 Mickey/Rose stories to the 2,700 stories featuring the Eleventh Doctor’s companions, Amy Pond and her boyfriend (and eventual husband) Rory Williams, both of whom are white. Fans largely agree with the BBC’s portrayal of Mickey as insufficient boyfriend material (especially compared to white guys) and a trivial joke.

Fan reception of Martha, the Black companion who travels with Ten immediately following Rose, illustrates misogynoir. Martha clearly has a crush on Ten, but many fans think she is unworthy of the white Doctor’s reciprocation; to them, she stands between the white Doctor’s true white love interest, Rose. In other words, she’s a Black woman in the way. In their indictment of fan treatment of Martha, Stitch observes:

I just seemed to see endless amounts of posts where fandom lambasted her… She was too angry[, and yet] Donna spent a large amount of time screaming at the Doctor. She was too clingy[, and yet] Rose kept coming back to the Doctor’s side even once she had her own Doctor. She’s too much for people to handle because of traits that other characters [that is, white companions] show in spades.

And it’s because she’s Black.

Martha, like Alison, is thus condemned as a character and thought to be a narrative impediment to a supposedly better pairing because of her skin color.

But let’s return to Alison. Does anyone love her? Well, I have an entire series about her on AO3 where her romantic partner is Bill Potts, rescued by the Shalka trio in an alternative Season 10 finale. Two of my Alison/Bill fics are the first and third most popular SotS fics on AO3. 

Obviously some fans besides me love Alison. (I also think that my fics are popular because fans of Bill were disappointed by her treatment in the Season 10 finale and wanted better for her. But that’s another story for another day…) Or, to frame it in a slightly different way, there’s definitely a demand for well-rounded, heroic Black women with their own adventures and their own love lives.

So what’s next? The BBC needs to make a fundamental shift in their perspective and practices. Though SotS is from 2003, Alison’s challenges as a character — a lack of culturally specific identity, a lack of community, and a tendency to experience adventures with disgusting connotations of slavery — still plague New Who’s Black companions today. Black representation is too important for New Who showrunners to ignore completely, which is why Ryan and Bill have recently accompanied the Doctor in the TARDIS. At the same time, the Black characters’ lack of specifically Black communities and identities indicates that the BBC finds Black experiences too threatening to address thoroughly and sensitively.

Doctor Who needs to change. If the show wants multifaceted, engaging Black characters who authentically reflect Black experiences, then the show requires input from Black people from a wide range of backgrounds. Doctor Who desperately needs more Black characters in front of the camera. It just as desperately needs more Black talent behind the camera, particularly among those involved in story creation. 

The show has made minuscule steps in the right direction. For example, Series 11, episode 3, Rosa, showcases the work of Malorie Blackman, who, as co-writer, was the first Black woman to write a script for the main series. Mark Tonderai, the first Black director of the show, also directed the episode. This episode is generally lauded as a sensitive examination of one aspect of the struggle for Black civil rights in the U.S. Nevertheless Doctor Who needs more than one Black writer and one Black director on one episode centered on the Black civil rights movement in one country. The BBC needs to specifically seek, find, hire, mentor, promote, and champion Black people as regular contributors throughout the show.

A commitment to incorporating Black people everywhere in the show would ideally shift the creative culture. John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies at University of California, Riverside, describes in a recent Slate podcast about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, how such a change benefits the medium of comics: 

…[T]hese…companies start to hire Black editors and Black writers who really care about these Black superheroes and bring a level of authenticity, and meaning, and empowerment to these characters. …[P]eople who are coming from these spaces [are] actively making characters that look like them, or writing about characters that look like them. … I think when you have Black editors or editors who are of the same cultural background as the characters, you start to see a lot of enrichment.

While Jennings is talking about comic books, his observations apply equally to shows like Doctor Who. Can you imagine what the show would be like with so many more Black creators and actors? 

Hopefully Black characters could be developed with greater cultural specificity and empathy. Maybe the BBC would reconsider casting a Black British companion like Alison as a mind-controlled “slave” in a plot that self-consciously refers to British colonialism and its atrocities. Maybe they’d give her some onscreen friends and family. Maybe they’d celebrate her position as the Doctor’s beloved, touting her as an amazing person, capable of heroics, worthy of protection, and a great romantic match for the Doctor. 

Maybe then, Doctor Who’s current slogan — “Space. For all” — would start coming true.

Elizabeth A. Allen lives, writes, and plays with dolls in Vermont. Her nonfiction has been published in Curve, Out in the Mountains, and Tangent Online. Her fiction has appeared in Unbound, Master Works, We’re the Weird Aliens, and Gender Who? Her AO3 [ModernWizard] features Alison’s further adventures with the Doctor, the Master, and her inevitable fiancee Bill Potts. She’s mostly active on Tumblr [http://modernwizard.tumblr.com], but occasionally she remembers that she has a Twitter account [@modernwizard1].