The Real Black British History Behind #DoctorWhoBlackout

Doctor Who’s period-set episodes are technically mini period dramas. New Who has continued the tradition of using the time travel episodes as a vehicle for history education. The episodes where Black and POC companions travel to societies where racism is more overt or has a different dynamic are especially important towards educating the audience. There might be aliens messing with the timeline, but adding Black companions to these stories is not an act of “political correctness” or “pandering”. Maxine Alderton and Sarah Dollard are simply presenting the truth that Black people have lived in the country we call today the United Kingdom since the Roman Era. Sadly, many people only associate the presence of Black British people starting with the first post-war Caribbean immigrants onboard the Windrush in 1948. In addition, American and international fans may not have the same historical context to 

“Thin Ice” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” are firmly grounded on real events and figures from 1814 and 1816. Abnormal weather events leave room for a giant alien fish and a Cyberman to mess with the timeline of human history. These episodes actively use and subvert current period drama tropes to flesh out a compelling story. Most importantly, both episodes allow viewers to glance beyond traditionally whitewashed depictions of the era.

Regency England was a time of established institutional racism. Although the British slave trade was outlawed in 1807, British industries continued to profit from goods produced by slaves from their colonial holdings in the Caribbean and also in America. Olusuga notes many in power were afraid of Jamaica and other British colonies in the Caribbean would overthrow slavery the same way the Haitians did in the 1790s. In addition, the British East India Company was pursuing the extraction of raw materials and labor from India. This was accelerated by the defeat of Napoleon’s army removing French competition for colonial development. London Lobbyists representing colonial business interests as well as merchants promoted negative stereotypes against racial minorities in newspapers. Some groups even lobbied to send Blacks “back to Africa” because they didn’t believe in assimilation or were unwilling to subsidize poor relief. Some willingly volunteered to go to settlements in Sierra Leone or Liberia out of a desire to reconnect with their ancestral roots. 

According to Marche, about 10,000 people of African descent lived in Britain during this time period. This estimate is based on church parish registers and other civil records. Black men and women residing in London and other cities represented all walks of life. Some examples of employment from parish records include the maritime trades, in domestic service, merchants, seamstresses, and trade laborers. Some even owned property as there was no race-based legal barrier to acquiring homes or businesses. There were no bans on interracial marriage, a critical difference between Britain/its colonies and the United States during this time period. Citizenship was acquired through birth or for Black immigrants through the process of church baptism or acquiring real estate.

Although both episodes feature discussions on race relations during the time, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” takes a more subdued and intersectional with gender politics approach to race. This is a similar approach to “The Witchfinders” earlier in the Thirteenth Doctor timeline. A large section of the episode is designed to set up a historical conspiracy behind Mary Shelley’s writing Frankenstein. Ryan and Yaz face subtle microaggressions while in contrast, Bill tackles racist Londoners head-on.

Ryan and Yaz’s intro to Lord Byron and Mary Shelley in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is focused much more on Graham misquoting Jane Austen than any overt comments about their skin color. This is assisted by their entirely conventional to the era attire. After the introductions, the audience is introduced to the existing relationships in the villa through the trope of a Regency dancing sequence. Not only does this scene establish the biographical facts around Mary Shelley, but it also sets the tone for the dialogue questioning Lord Byron’s aggressive flirting towards the other women and the Thirteenth Doctor. 

The first time there’s an overt racial remark occurs when Ryan is playing “Chopsticks” on the piano with Mary. She then says Ryan is from “the colonies”. Ryan continues the conversation as normal as Mary fears that she is not as good a writer as her parents. (As an aside, her mom Mary Wollstonecraft was a feminist intellectual and her dad Willam Godwin also published radical philosophy works.) This “colonies” comment is subtle but clearly indicates the underlying racism of the time, as if Ryan could not have been born and raised on the British Isles like she was. On the other hand, Yaz’s initial interactions lead to scolding about spying on Lord Byron’s locked room. The tone of the scold straddles the line between subtly racist and enforcing gender norms.  

A second instance of the term “the colonies” comes immediately after another trope laden scene. Dr. Polidor challenges Ryan to a duel which is interrupted by the appearance of the mysterious skeleton hand. Lord Byron is the next person to refer to Ryan and Yaz as residents of “the colonies”. This instance is obscured somewhat by Thirteen examing the hand, but Byron clearly distinguishes that the Doctor is from outer space. Byron then reveals the hand is part of a skeleton from a battle several centuries earlier. Most of the audience wouldn’t think twice about a skull from a 16th Century Middle Eastern battle, but Lord Byron’s bragging is a clear reference to Britain’s expanding imperialist aims. 

Displaying oddities from around the world thematically links Lord Byron’s collection with the 1814 Frost Fair. Merchandise from around the world is for sale in the stalls on top of the frozen Thames River. In contrast to Ryan and Yaz who have had multiple experiences negotiating racial relations in the past. “Thin Ice” is Bill’s first trip back in time. London as she knows it is not She’s immediately afraid that she will be sold into slavery even after she changes into conventional for the era clothing. These fears are also balanced with the observation that the Frost Fair is clearly attracting international participation, which is closer to her experiences with modern-day London. The camera often pans to Black and Asian fair attendees and street performers. Viewers see an elephant casually walking on the solid ice. These background visuals plus Bill’s observation that “the Regency is a bit blacker than it is on television,” cements the in-your-face pushback on whitewashed history. 

Bill and Twelve wander the fair, but their attention is drawn to an anomaly underneath the ice. Kitty, a black orphan girl, and her friends try to pickpocket Twelve’s sonic but this incident leads to the time travelers realizing that people are falling through the ice cracks and dying. The Frost Fair attendees aren’t safe from the giant alien fish living underneath the water. Bill and Twelve use intelligence from the orphans to discover that the villain in this situation isn’t the giant fish. 

The group of orphans banding together for survival may seem out of place may seem at first to be an anachronistic reference to Charles Dickens’ stories. However, Myers used London court records to extract a lot of information about Black Londoners who were convicted for pickpocketing and other offenses. The post-Napoleonic War economy turning towards industrialization causes the conditions for the exploitation of the poor featured in his writings in later decades. Dickens himself or his works appear in several previous Doctor Who episodes, but this time around, his tropes are used to highlight some of London’s poor orphans were also Black or POC. In history, Dickens’ attitude towards racial issues is complicated. Olusoga notes that while published his travelogues decrying slavery in America in the 1840s, he described African-Americans in extremely stereotypical terms and didn’t acknowledge that Blacks could be equal to whites. 

Lord Sutcliffe realizes the alien fish is generating a source of energy that’s even more powerful than coal and steam and moves to make a profit off of it. Unfortunately, this power source comes at the cost of humans as the fish eats the humans who fall through the ice cracks. Sutcliffe doesn’t care about the human cost because in his mind the lives of racial minorities and poor whites don’t matter. When Bill and Twelve go to his house to investigate, things turn ugly quickly. Sutcliffe calls Bill a “creature” at first sight. This ugly slur is a direct reference to cartoons and artwork from the era made by pro-slavery advocates in Britain to mirror the blackface artwork common to the antebellum South. 

Twelve’s response is immediate. He gives Sutcliffe a hard slap in response is a welcomed departure from the Tenth Doctor often failing to confront racist comments towards Martha. The message of “Thin Ice” is clear: white people must challenge macro and microaggressive racist comments to Blacks and POC made by other white people. Not every situation may require a slap, but a “that comment is racist” is often enough. 

The rest of the episode focuses on Bill and Twelve along with the orphans working to free the alien fish from the Thames. Lord Sutcliffe’s racism and greed are eventually his undoings as he falls through the ice to become the last victim of the fish. “Thin Ice” ends with Twelve editing Sutcliffe’s will to make Perry, one of the orphans, Lord Sutcliffe’s legal heir. Ensuring the orphans have a safe place to live and plenty to eat is the family-friendly equivalent of a historical romance “happily ever after”. One can also conjecture Kitty and her friends would use her share of the money to help out other poor black Londoners. 

“Thin Ice” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” are two years and two seasons apart but share the common goal of educating Doctor Who audiences about Black British History. The current show slogan is “Space For All”, and that includes Black characters and Black talent on screen as well as behind the camera. Education about the real history behind the episodes is essential for cementing the sociological and political arguments in favor of more racial diversity on Doctor Who

Bibliography/Suggested Readings 

Note: Links are solely collated on current availability, use the ISBN info to find at your preferred sellers. Support Black-owned bookstores if you are able as there is no master index of inventory. Books with a star next to it are expensive academic press/reference books best borrowed from libraries.

Black British History

Black & British by David Olusuga  US  International 

Uncovering Black Women in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain” by Montaz Marche for University College London

Black British History: New Perspectives edited by Hakim Adi  US & International

*The Oxford Companion to Black British History  US International  

*Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain c. 1780-1830 by Norma Myers US & International

Mary Shelley and Lord Byron Sources

Brandeis Mary Shelley Biography

USC Lord Byron Biography

“The Strange and Twisted Life of Frankenstein” by Jill Lepore in New Yorker Magazine

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson US International

Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator by Catherine Reef  US International

In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace by Miranda Seymour US  International 

Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy US & International