Elizabeth A. Allen and Jonah Akos got together recently to geek out about one of their favorite additions to Doctor Who: Ruth Clayton, a.k.a. the Fugitive Doctor. Played by Jo Martin, “Ruth Doctor” became the first Black Doctor in the show’s history. She appeared in two episodes of Season 12, “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Timeless Children,” generating polarized responses from viewers. Elizabeth and Jonah talked about Ruth Doctor’s characterization, her significance to the show and fandom, and her possible future.
Elizabeth is a white, queer, nonbinary writer and editor. Jonah is a Black, nonbinary trans man. Their identities shape their experiences with Doctor Who and with Ruth Doctor in particular.
Jonah: Let’s start with what we enjoyed about her.
Elizabeth: Yeah, let’s! I really love how Ruth Doctor was so quickly and deftly characterized.
Jonah: I think that was a great way to start — focusing on her POV for quite a bit of time. It helps you feel like she truly exists in the world. Even before knowing who she was, I liked her because she felt empathetic, but also confident in herself.
Elizabeth: Her happiness with her husband and the people she said “hi” to really grounded her. They also gave a perfect illustration of one of the Doctor’s best traits: At the best, the Doctor really CONNECTS with people. They CARE. They make friends.
Jonah: I also liked that she got to have a love interest. Allowing an older, dark-skinned Black woman to have love at all is rare. To show them as able and worthy of it.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I’m glad that she had some romance too! The snippets of domestic life and normalcy make Ruth a much more approachable Doctor than any other I’ve encountered.
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.
The Black companions in the rebooted iteration of Doctor Who have it rough, especially the women.
Think of Martha, who suffers Simm Master’s mockery and his enforced servitude of her family in Season 3’s Sound of Drums. Think of Bill, who endures a decade of medical abuse and slow Cyber conversion (i.e., being made into a cyborg) at the hands of Razor Master in Season 10’s World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Think of Grace, who dies of electrocution and fall after defending the Thirteenth Doctor from a gathering coil in Season 11’s Woman Who Fell to Earth. The New Who’s Black companions are generally treated as more disposable and less important than the white characters.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if New Who’s first companion had been a young Black woman — cherished, celebrated, integral to the narrative? How might the experiences of Black companions be different if Alison Cheney had been the first?
Note: I originally wrote this back in 2012 in response to a frustrating comment on a tumblr post about Martha Jones. Sadly, after all this time… fandom is not better about Martha Jones or any other Black woman it comes across.
There’s this post with a comic scan from the Doctor Who books going around where Martha Jones snarkily calls 10 out for his treatment of her in comparison of Rose. You can see the post at the link and read the comic for yourself, but basically she looks at him and is like, “Did Rose get this sort of treatment or was it just me?”
This sort of treatment refers to one awful moment after another. I don’t know if you remember Martha’s run as a companion (and if you don’t, please attempt on fixing that), but she basically got no down time. Where all of the other companions got chances to have fun and visit places where people weren’t trying to kill them either in-show or off-screen, Martha didn’t get any of that. And to top it off, she’s directly referencing the fact that pretty much the only thing 10 talked about were the good times with Rose. Which according to the way he’s telling it, it all of the time.
Additionally, as we saw with the way that fans of Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, and Supergirl (to say nothing about Doctor Who) have responded to criticism about racism in their respective shows and fandoms, WOC will be expected to stay silent.Read More »
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