Old episodes of Doctor Who streaming on BritBox stir up controversy


Doctor Who is unique among current popular genre series in that it’s technically been around for nearly 60 years, officially kicking off on November 23, 1963. Now, you could argue that the Doctor Who revival that started in 2005 is its own thing separate from the 26 seasons of television that came before it, and it is, basically…but there’s still continuity when it comes to characters, creatures and story, even if the reboot updates everything for modern audiences. We’re still talking about a continuation of the oldest sci-fi series still running.

And that can cause issues, because 1963 was a very different time, for television and the world in general. So was 1977, when Tom Baker was starring as the Fourth Doctor. That’s when the show aired the serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” starring John Bennett acting in yellowface as villain Li H’sen Chang, a stage magician aided by Mr. Sin, a cyborg from the 51st century known as the Peking Homunculus.

Yeah, it’s bad. And did we mention that, in the serial, Chinese people are referred to as “inscrutable ch**ks”? It’s very bad.

“It is really hard to watch because yellowface is so unacceptable now,” said Emma Ko, a screenwriter and spokeswoman for British East Asians in Theatre and on Screen. “When you are somebody who was called a “ch**k” in your childhood, as I have been, it is so hard to hear that word and not feel immediately a trigger reaction of how wrong it is.”

At the moment, the episode displays a content warning, as do other programs from the period that may not have aged well, but it’s still available to stream. Old episodes of Fawlty Towers, for instance, come with a warning that they may contain “some offensive language of the time and upsetting scenes.” According to the Daily Mail, BritBox has said it’s reviewing content consistently to “re-comply everything that goes on to BritBox with modern TV viewing standards.”

This is a tricky situation. Obviously, neither yellowface nor racial slurs are appropriate on TV today, but does that mean episodes like this should be completely unavailable, or kept around with warnings and watched with the understanding that they’re products of a different time?

That’s an open question, so far as I’m concerned, so have at it. Meanwhile, the revived Doctor Who just wrapped up its twelfth season, which featured not one but two women playing the Doctor, one of them a woman of color. That kind of thing would likely be unthinkable on the BBC in the 1960s or 70s, but norms on TV are changing all the time.

Next. Will HBO make a second season of The Outsider?. dark

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h/t The TimesMirror