The Appropriate Appropriation of Doctor Who

Russell T DaviesIn 2021, former and future Doctor Who showrunner, Russell T. Davies stated that only gay actors and actresses should play gay roles in TV and films. His justification? "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up."

Now I don't want to make this entirely about Davies, whose commitment to reviving Doctor Who I greatly admire, because this issue isn't about any one person and goes to the heart of the zeitgeist. Critics on the right side of our increasingly outdated political divide now call these kinds of attitudes 'woke', and are flatly resistant to them - often for bad, kneejerk reasons, sometimes (although the left refuse to admit it) for well-considered, principled reasons. The question of principle is, at heart, the important one here. What principle is Davies and the many others who object to 'cultural appropriation' and its kin trying to act upon here?

I must confess I do not find it clear.

If we were to construct a maxim from Davies' formulation, the obvious choice might be 'do not cast someone in a role that does not match the performer's identity characteristics'. But this formula is nonsense. When casting Nazi characters, must we cast Nazis? Are schizophrenics required to play schizophrenics? Can only a genius painter play Van Gogh? Likewise, if gay performers must play gay characters, does that mean straight performers must play straight characters...? The entire principle of the acting profession is to take on roles that are different from who you are in life. So isn't the key question of casting 'can this person deliver a engaging performance in this role?' not 'do the background circumstances of this character match the circumstances of this performer'? Have we forgotten than acting is entirely a game about consensual deception...?

In terms of Davies analogy with blackface, while it certainly is the case that this practice is now judged utterly scandalous (although Justin Trudeau seems to have weathered this faux pas surprisingly well), it's not always clear which point of offense is supposed to be in play here. Is it meant to be a kind of 'inappropriate appropriation' - i.e. non-black people should not pretend to be black people nor borrow their cultural heritage - or is it that black characters require black performers? Because if so, does this also mean that white roles must only be played by white performers...?

To my knowledge there was no major political firestorm about casting the excellent Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes, who in the original book of Dune has "long sandy hair", is tall and thin, possesses "a sparse beard" and has "fathomless blue eyes under heavy brows". It's absolutely certain that this character is male in the book, and most plausible to assume he is light-skinned. So was this an example of, shall we say, 'appropriate appropriation'? Or is this just a creative casting of a talented actress in a role that the latitude of adaptation leaves open the possibility of a different gender and ethnicity? But if this was not an instance of 'inappropriate appropriation', we ought to ask: why not?

The answer seems to be that the inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation are not underwritten by a positive moral value at all, as clearly indicated by the fact that 'appropriation' is an accusation. What we are dealing with here is a kind of cultural reparations by the backdoor, which is to say, white guilt and its myriad middle class cousins. Because straight, white, males are taken to have had the most power in the past, you can never be considered to have appropriated 'straight', 'white', or 'male' culture. Recasting these identity traits is always fair game. But 'gay' roles must go to gay acting talent, 'black' characters to black performers... in other words, minorities are to be granted privileges that majorities are excluded from. This is what is now sometimes called 'equity', but a more honest name for it might be 'partisan inequality'.

This entire situation is a complete mess. White ethnicities only make up 10% of the humans on this planet - they're not a majority at all. Rather, white people are seen as privileged because European colonial empires (which the United States is now very sadly perpetuating) gathered so much global power. Nowadays, the identity characteristics associated with the most powerful citizens of these historical empires (straight, white, male, and let's not forget Christian) are to be excluded in the name of what amounts to ad hoc reparations. And on this line, I must point out that since it is the former colonial nations where gay people have finally and thankfully won acceptance, those representing gay identities are guaranteed to be beneficiaries of significant degrees of structural privilege as well. It's just not something we notice because we only really pay attention to our shared culture (the colonial culture whose centre of gravity now lies with the United States). We perpetually and wilfully ignore what's going on in Africa, Oceania, the majority of Asia, South America and so on and so forth.

I don't want to harp on Davies too much here... I actually think it was fabulous that his show, It's a Sin, used gay performers for its key roles. But I don't for one second think that a straight actor or actress can't play a gay role, nor that a character written as one ethnicity can't be played as another - the Royal Shakespeare Company has repeatedly demonstrated the tremendous breadth of artistry that can be drawn out by experimenting with casting choices. Yet whenever I try to sympathise with Davies' view that the casting policy he adopted ought to be everyone's moral principle, I have to ask myself the same awkward question: why is a white man being brought in to follow on from the two previous white men, who followed on from the same white man who is being brought back? If we are trying to adopt cultural values that embed some bizarre concept of reparations, why are the relevant positions of power still tending to end up in the hands of white men (even allowing that we might have managed some movement on the 'straight'). Whatever might be happening with the casting of the Doctor, the actual power over this franchise is undeniably still being passed around between white men.

Here's the truth of the situation. Davies is being brought back because the role of showrunner on Doctor Who has become a near impossible job, and there's literally nobody else in a plausible position to take it on. This is a desperation move on the part of the BBC, a kind of metaphorical parachute. I'm sure the BBC would put an ethnic minority in charge if they could, but there's no non-white, non-male showrunner willing and able to do so. Frankly, it wasn't until Chris Chibnall took over the reins that there were non-white writers working on the show. Chibnall opened up the writing pool, but still ended up writing most of the episodes himself, and as a result nobody has gained enough experience to have a hope of mastering the requirements of the top role. It is also relevant here that Doctor Who fandom borders on being a cult, and the membership of this particular congregation is vastly white, male, and English-speaking, myself included.

The absence of anyone who wasn't white and male that could be trusted to take over the most difficult franchise job in global television reflects the structural privileges that allowed Davies to get the job in the first place (and in the political landscape of the BBC of 2005, I can assure you that Davis' being gay was most definitely a selling point, not a liability). The truth is, sadly, Davies might pragmatically be the only person in a position to take over this perilous job right now - and that reflects the very same ethical issue that Davies is attempting to address with his 'gay jobs for gay performers' maxim. We feel a powerful moral pull towards being open to cultural diversity, but we absolutely stink at it because no individual is culturally diverse. Diversity, by its very definition, is a quality of collectives, not of individuals, and no matter how many boxes an individual ticks, they still possess a singular cultural background - their own.

Now take care when we stray into this topic, because nonsense lies just a short distance from the path we want to walk upon. We don't want certain identity characteristics to afford economic and cultural advantages, even though they do. But neither do we apparently want to give up the economic and cultural advantages we in fact all possess to enormous and unprecedented degrees. Gay people, finally accepted after a rather rough millennia or two, are recipients of very similar degrees of structural privilege as straight people because our nations' histories as colonial powers has given us all vast degrees of inherited privilege, an issue to which we are largely blind. It is easy to look up and complain at what the 'haves' have got, but very difficult to look down and recognise that globally you are one of the haves.

When we, the privileged minority of our planet, let either guilt or bias govern our ethical principles concerning culture, gender, sexuality and so forth, we disrespect everyone. Any hiring policy that favours minorities invites the criticism that they were hired for something other than their talent, which fosters greater resentment between our cultural factions. I have no doubt the new performer taking on the role of the Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, will excel in the role - I can't wait to have a chance to discover his Doctor! But let's not pretend that the decision to cast a black actor wasn't political. This just happened to be a situation that middle class guilt will permit as appropriate appropriation.

Likewise, Jodie Whittaker has been a joy as the Doctor, despite all the grumblings this evoked in the corners of the fandom. Moving to a black male actor undoubtedly seemed like the logical succession from the previous appropriate appropriation of casting a woman. But I can't avoid looking at the Dalek in the room: does anyone seriously think that the franchise could have cast another white male as the next lead given the state of the culture wars...? We could quite reasonably ask when or if it will ever be considered permissible to put another white male in this role without it being considering some kind of inappropriate appropriation, despite the fact this is who the character was for half a century. As long as partisan inequality masquerading as equity governs our ethical thinking about society, we are not really addressing our social problems at all, we're simply moving air bubbles around under a sheet of plastic.

Here's a novel thought that's only a few hundred years old: how about we try to approach these issues from the idea that we are all, as humans, equally deserving of respect. This means we should endeavour to respect the differences and similarities of people who are black, brown, gay, trans, Muslim, Zoroastrian and every other quote-unquote minority you might care to mention. But we also have to respect white, straight, Christian, and yes, even unambiguously male people too. Then we don't need to wring our hands at Davies going back to running Doctor Who because, after all, who else at this point is both qualified and willing to take the poison chalice...? But at the same time, we might, if we can just get this right, ensure that the conditions for working on that venerable and wonderful show might come to allow writers, directors and producers from any and all cultural backgrounds a decent shot at getting enough experience working on high-budget television shows that we might, within our lifetimes, have a Doctor Who showrunner who can manage fewer than two out of three of straight, white, male.


Encounter at Farpoint, Part Two

Earlier this week over on WAM TNG, "Encounter at Farpoint, Part Two". Here's an extract:

The most interesting word-drop in this script is Picard name checking 'Ferengi'. For the longest time I assumed that all this talk about them eating their enemies was just because they hadn't worked out who this alien race was supposed to be yet. But no. It turns out that because the Ferengi were originally going to be super-evil in order to replace the Klingons (they're our friends now, dont’cha know), this idea that they would eat their enemies was intended to paint them as dark as possible. Of course, by the end of Deep Space Nine, Ferengi society is busy transforming into a 90s liberal fantasy of the what the United States could be if only US liberals weren't utterly incapable of negotiating social changes with conservatives, so in retrospect this throwaway line looks rather uncomfortable. But this is season one of TNG. It's going to get a lot more uncomfortable than this!

You can subscribe to the newsletter over at the WAM TNG Substack.


The Paradox of Conviction

Topographical3-1200The 1992 movie A Few Good Men gave us the memorable phrase "You can't handle the truth!", beloved by internet memesters. Yet it is just so: we cannot handle the truth, and indeed we would far rather have certainty than know the truth uncertainly. Certainty brings with it a contentment that we long for, even while we profess that our longing is for the truth. We want to know, we say... but what we desire is the certainty we call 'knowledge', or 'science', which we then falsely conflate with truth. We are not committed to the truth at all. We are desperately seeking certainty - and will sacrifice anything - even and especially the truth - to get at it.

Here is a paradox: certainty (a mental state) seems to rest upon alignment with the truth. We think that if we know the truth, then we are certain. Therein lies precisely the pitfall - we feel certain, and this feeling has nothing at all to do with whether what we are feeling certain about is true. Yet beyond doubt, the only thing our feelings can offer certainty upon is how we feel - and even then, we can be deceived. We can persuade ourselves that we hate someone we love, or vice versa. As Wittgenstein realised, our mental state of conviction is in no way dependent upon any associated truth.

In the grab-bag of half-developed ideas that is contemporary psychology, it is accepted that we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. One experiment conducted in 2016, based upon the ever-popular delivery of electric shocks, suggested people would rather be given a shock immediately than suffer one at an indeterminate point in the future. The amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety, can be activated by incomplete information - consider a simple example of having said something that you worry might have caused offence. Not knowing is, in itself, a significant cause of anxiety. Certainty alleviates fear.

It is therefore not surprising that we have made an idol out of this thing we call 'Science', which no longer means (as it once did) 'knowledge'. Two centuries ago, many and varied were the things that could be called a science. Today, this term denotes the exclusive authority of those experts upon whose say-so we attain certainty. Yet the history of the sciences is not just theories being replaced with later theories that explain situations with greater accuracy. It is also the history of plausible-sounding gobbledegook that was accepted as knowledge by humans who placed more value on certainty than on truth.

The psychological description of this kind of certainty is nothing of the kind: it is literally faith. Never mind the mismatch between belief and certainty we ascribe to the religious - this has little to do with religion and everything to do with human nature. Our desire for certainty is such that we will take claims on faith as long as in so doing we can feel certain. The truth, on the other hand, is always uncertain. It is only in logic and mathematics that a system admits of truth by 'proofs', which is to say, reliable inferences from foundations that are secured by definition. Once we depart from the artifice of constructed systems, truth lies distant from us and requires tremendous effort to uncover - and even when it is uncovered, it is still uncertain.

And here we are today, still just as human as we ever were. We hide from the truth because it is too challenging - too exhausting! - to seek it, and also because that very search is neither guaranteed nor likely to end in certainty. Instead, we choose certainty, by whatever means it is offered to us. A hypothesis dressed up in theoretical clothing. A non-binding referendum that becomes binding. A fallacious argument from authority. Any escape at all to avoid dealing with the inevitable uncertainty of the truth.

This is the paradox of conviction: we are certain that certainty is truth, and that only the truth deserves our certainty. Thus, we fail to accept that uncovering the path towards truth requires a commitment to uncertainty. The most essential skill for any scientist to cultivate is the one we don't want from them: an openness to the inevitable uncertainties of scientific practice. Certainty and truth are not one and the same, but the exact opposite of one another. Knowing this, we still gladly choose certainty over truth, without hesitation. We must know, and we must know with certainty... and so the truth is forever barred to us.

The opening image is Conviction by Dan Sisken, which I found at his art blog. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Encounter at Farpoint, Part One

Over on WAM TNG, the very first WAM ran this Wednesday, for "Encounter at Farpoint, Part One". Here's an extract:

It's fair to say that until Sternbach and Okuda sat down and thrashed out canonical rules for how TNG shields work, the show's writers were still operating in the same woolly space that allowed Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to say "Recommend defensive posture, Captain: Screens and shields," a statement that has mobilised fans to all sorts of interesting retconnery and fanonising in order to make sense of it. I love that we do this... but the explanation for this and so many other inconsistencies is that writers only borrow the technobabble for narrative reasons and don't ever truly understand it - certainly not in the way that fans do. There is no logically consistent world in which all these contradictory statements make sense, there's only the scripts and the circumstances behind them. It is we, the fans, who force it all to make sense.

You can subscribe to the newsletter over at the WAM TNG Substack.


Godfork

This post carries an unusually high risk of cognitive dissonance, and perhaps should not be read by anyone.

Ripped Sistene ChapelI want to talk about a schism. It doesn't really matter when it begins, but let's suppose it starts with David Hume in 1739, because it amuses me to kick off this story in Scotland. On the one hand is the faction for whom God is a word that must not be spoken in vain, which is to say, as profanity. On the other is a faction that, by the twentieth century, discovers its own sacred word. I try not swear on this blog, but the sacred word of the breakaway group is the one that Father Ted uses 'feck' as a substitute for. And this word isn't one that must not be spoken as profanity - it is one that people must not be prevented from speaking as profanity.

This is the Godfork - the schism into 'Team God' and 'Team Feck'. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is Christianity versus atheists; its true that the majority of atheists are on Team Feck, but there are significant numbers of Christians on both sides. The God side stands for order and tradition - Kierkegaard called this faction 'Christendom', and denied that it was following Christian teachings, but that argument is a rabbit hole best avoided for now. What matters is the fork, the division into God and Feck and the convictions that flow from this point onwards.

Take Israel versus Palestine, an international political crisis for 74 years and counting. Team God sides with Israel, while Team Feck sides with Palestine. Ironic, really, as both sides of the Godfork are prejudiced against Muslims... this is, after all, a schism in Christendom (which now includes anti-Christendom). Then we have abortion, which has been a political crisis since Roe vs Wade in 1974, 48 years of metaphysical commitments to the unborn vying with incompatible commitments to the autonomy of women. The following year, we get 'global warming', which by 1989 has aligned with the Godfork - Team Feck being increasingly sensitive to the atrocious environmental damage our species causes, and Team God having immense historical and economic ties to the vastly profitable oil industry.

Then we get to vaccination. Don't be deceived by the retrospective histories that get told here (although it is true that political issues surrounding vaccination go back to the first vaccinations). The term 'anti-vaxxer' first appears in 2001, and this time it is Team Feck siding with the corporations, in this case, the pharmaceutical companies. Isn't it comforting to know that whichever side of the schism you align with, you will eventually be required to prop up capitalism...? Capitalism, after all, is only a secular name for Christendom i.e. colonial Europe's dominant culture, and now globalism's only permitted culture. By 2020, this dimension of the Godfork is turbocharged by the so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (face masks and lockdowns). Ironically, since Team God are the sceptics in this aspect of the schism they become the cynics, while Team Feck become the zealots, an inversion of the usual roles played. But don't think for one second the Godfork is about scientific truth, equality, or anything else so noble and principled. All the way down the line, it's just rival teams taking up opposing commitments. In the US, the schism is helpfully colour coded: Red for God, Blue for Feck. Pick a team, pick which multinational corporations to support.

But something unusual has happened in the last decade or so: the Godfork is splintering further... Team Feck are no longer united. They have divided into those who take 'woman' to be matter of biological sex, and those who take 'woman' to be a matter of existential identity. Neither of these correspond to the position of Team God who still take 'woman' to be a question of gender, even though their collective memory is too short to remember what 'gender' used to mean, before the 18th and 19th century destroyed the old gender regime and replaced it with the alignment of sex and gender and the instatement of a new patriarchal political hierarchy. Likewise, Team God is breaking down into new factions. The folks who for a very long time were committed to censorship in the form of outlawing blasphemy and obscenity are now breaking into further factions over the question of free speech.

For the first time since the schism began, new and previously unthinkable alliances are possible. Classical lesbians ally with the very conservatives who shunned them in the late twentieth century: both share a metaphysics of sex and gender opposed to the existentialist tenets of their 'genderfluid' political opponents. Free market capitalists unite with their old opponents who march under banners of environmentalism, cultural diversity, or both: they share a commitment to liberal democracy. This new alliance opposes the regime of censorship emerging from Big Tech's freshly minted coalition with the pharmaceutical corporations. The uniformity of the old factions lies in flux.

The schism I am calling the Godfork dominated the political landscape of Europe and its colonies for three centuries. But the old ways are breaking down... there is now a tremendous opportunity for unprecedented change. Many paths diverge from this turning point, and our old convictions are just as likely to betray us as to guide us wisely into the future. It is time for us to embark upon a new journey, yet the path ahead still remains unknown. We can perpetuate the cultural wars the Godfork has bequeathed us, or we can set forth on a bold adventure together. All that matters is the destiny we have yet to forge: shall we choose peace, or will we prolong the war...? This monumental choice is ours to make together.