Bigger on the Inside: Diversity in Doctor Who panel discussion at Gallifrey One

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Apr 27, 2017, 2:35 PM EDT (Updated)

Gathering an audience for a Sunday morning panel at a con seems like a gargantuan task -- try luring anyone out of their hotel beds after a Saturday night filled with fun and frivolity -- but, judging by the filled room for the Diversity in Doctor Who panel at Gallifrey One, many fans cared enough about the subject matter to rouse themselves from sleep.

When the start time for the panel came around and room's doors closed, panelist Riley Silverman joked, "It's a trick. We're here to start planning the resistance." This quip set the tone for a spirited discussion on whether Doctor Who and its numerous spinoff series are truly diverse.

The panelists were:

Robert Smith? - Professor and writer, who served as moderator (yes, he is credited with the '?')
Joy Piedmont - Librarian, teacher, writer
Heather Berberet - Psychologist
Riley Silverman - Writer and comedian

Smith? started off the panel by asking the most obvious question: Is Doctor Who diverse?

Piedmont responded that technically, taken as a whole, the show over its 50+ year run is diverse. There have been a handful of POC characters and characters from other marginalized groups appearing on the series. However, considering the length of time the show has aired, there's bound to be a smattering of diversity here and there because of the law of averages.

Silverman pointed out the difference between diversity and representation. Diversity for the sake of checking a box is very different than giving that character a decent story. Silverman, who is trans, went into detail about the first trans actress to appear on Doctor Who, Bethany Black. In the episode "Sleep No More," Black played a character who was a sub-human, lab-created clone. When the first transgender person on Doctor Who is portrayed as something that's less than human, then there's obviously still a problem with the show's handling of diversity.

Berberet mentioned her frustrations with the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood and how hollow the queer representation felt in the show. Sexual behavior doesn't equate to sexual orientation, and although the entire team was having sex with everyone else, it still didn't feel like a truly queer show. For example, the character of Ianto Jones considered himself straight but was willingly "gay" for Jack Harkness. He had literally said, "It's only Jack." Ianto was in a relationship with a woman in the past, but by burying this part of his sexual history and conflating it with his feelings for Jack, it's as if the show was saying that bisexual people didn't exist.

Silverman brought up the importance of having diversity behind the scenes of the show and that this should help in creating an environment that's a lot more friendly to representation. After all, the Doctor is an optimist who loves the whole of humanity. If only some aspects of humanity are depicted positively in the show, then this undermines the show's underlying message of unity and hope for the future.

Berberet added that Doctor Who's new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, is yet another white, straight man, which she doesn't think bodes well for the show's future. When she was younger and still questioning her sexual identity, Berberet started watching The L Word, and she called it a transformative experience. She realized then that what she was feeling was normal. Television must lead the way in casting for diversity and telling diverse stories to remind marginalized groups that they are not alone. She went on to explain that 70% of all external input into the brain is visual and 20% is auditory. Popular media has to lead the way and cast for diversity.

Piedmont shared that in young reader literature, there is an idea called "Mirrors and Windows." The child should be able to see themselves within the work as well as have glimpses into the experiences of other people who are not like them. She also mentioned that within the past few years, the publishing industry has really stepped up its game with the "We Need Diverse Books" initiative. There are now sensitivity readers who scan manuscripts specifically to seek out representation and to make sure that marginalized groups are depicted respectfully. Television must be brought up to the same standards.

Berberet discussed the power of having diversity behind the scenes with the new Doctor Who spinoff Class. Showrunner Patrick Ness is a gay man and an American who has lived in the UK for quite a while. This gives him multiple levels of being an outsider, which is amazingly helpful when writing about a group of teenage outcasts. None of the main characters in Class are straight white males. The only main white male character, Charlie, is an alien in hiding on Earth. Oh, and he just so happens to be gay. Even if there's not a single white straight male character on the show, Class still masterfully depicts the same struggles all teens go through during high school.

Silverman brought up another reason why diversity matters in popular media. Pop culture can be used as a way to explain important things to other people who might not have the same experiences as you. She pointed to the recent Supergirl coming-out story arc and how it was fundamental in trying to explain her identity to her parents. Sometimes, family members are too close to each other emotionally and are unable to gain new perspectives on their loved ones. Silverman was grateful for Alex's story as a positive example of her own struggles with her sexual identity, and it was easy to show her parents a television show to help explain something that's often profoundly difficult to share. She also said that she'd be more than satisfied if more queer characters would identify themselves as such so there wouldn't be a need to resort to head-canon to make them queer.

An audience member pointed out that any discussion on diversity has to include disabilities. Piedmont added that disabilities can't just be made into plot points to move the story along. In the Doctor Who two-parter "Under the Lake/Before the Flood," a deaf actress was cast as a deaf military commander, but this was only because a plot point required someone who could lip read. And who else would be an expert at lip reading except a deaf person?

Berberet gave an example of a decent portrayal of a person with a disability in the form of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show at least postulated a future where prosthetics shouldn't fix disabled people and make them "normal." Geordi was still blind, and he couldn't see in the same ways the other crew members could, but he was still a well-rounded character and valued member of the Enterprise team because of his engineering expertise, not just because his presence checked a diversity box.

The discussion also turned to a less-represented marginalized group: the poor. The class system in the UK is such a huge part of their culture, but it was mentioned that sometimes American audiences might miss some of this commentary because Americans aren't as aware of how important the class system is. It controls where you go to school and what jobs you're able to get afterward. It controls where you get to live and the environment you grow up in.

Doctor Who companion Rose Tyler, along with her mother Jackie Tyler, were portrayed as working class characters who lived in government housing. There is a moment early on in the first season episode "Rose" where Rose complains that there has to be more to life than what she has. Naturally, she was talking about having adventures with the Doctor, but her complaint comes off as being frustrated with her working class roots and wanting to rise out of that. Is there a message saying that someone in the working class can only become happy once they leave it?

The discussion also touched on the treatment of POC on the show, particularly in the case of black characters Mickey Smith and Danny Pink. Both were treated very dismissively by the Doctor, and since the Doctor has always been white, there's an uncomfortable level of racism inherent in these interactions. That's not to say that these characters weren't appreciated. As a black audience member pointed out, "You thought we were excited when Obama got in the White House? We were just as excited for a black person in the TARDIS!"

Then there came the inevitable question of casting the next Doctor. There has been a lot of discussion on whether or not the next Doctor should be female or a POC, and it seemed that most fans, at least the ones who decided to attend a diversity panel at 10AM on a Sunday morning, were aching for the Doctor to be anything but a white, straight, male character. Piedmont voiced her frustration about every single Internet think piece that argued for a POC Doctor or a female Doctor. After all, there's no reason why inclusion shouldn't be more intersectional. Why can't there be a female, POC, queer Doctor?

Another audience member shared that the expanded universe media for Doctor Who appeared to be much more diverse than the television show. The audio dramas for Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith included a disabled character who was Sarah Jane's trusted assistant, for example. The novels, audios and comics, despite their reputation as second-class media, lead the way in terms of representation. Silverman mentioned that comics, in general, are a much more diverse medium because they don't require the extra layer of casting calls in order to get the diversity right.

In closing out the panel, Piedmont made a call for people in marginalized groups to speak up and be heard. POC, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people and other people who feel underrepresented in media need to volunteer for more panels to discuss their experiences and to share the reasons why there must be more diversity in popular media. This panel was certainly a start, but there needs to be much more discussion about representation in popular culture.

Because if we don't speak up, no one will speak up for us.

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