Queer Eye For The SciFi

If you’re white, straight and male you’ve probably never stopped to think about diversity in genre entertainment; but if you don’t fit into that very specific box it can be a very important subject indeed. Peter MacKenzie examines representation and depiction of alternative cultures in geek entertainment, highlighting when it goes right and explaining why it’s a problem when it goes wrong…

My better half has a problem with canon.

Not with the concept itself – he’s the first to point out when something goes against the grain of established continuity – but more with the fact that it’s a concept to begin with. His overall view is one of “Shit happens, get over it”.

Phoebe’s been declined a passport, but seems able to jet off to Barbados? OK, it’s a little jarring, but really, at the end of the day, who cares when Monica’s comedy hair looks like that?

The Doctor’s half human? OK, fine. Don’t get in a flap over it. Who’ll even remember that single line in 15 years’ time?

How little he knows the intricacies of the geek!

Fair enough, I can live with most inaccuracies in canon along with him but, as I’ve said before, I’m a nitpicker and I do like to have these inaccuracies explained. I’m a big fan of “retconning” or retro-continuity and, whether the Doctor’s true heritage is explained by a chameleon arch, a temporary lapse in cognitive function or merely the idea that he was trying to put Grace Holloway at ease, I’m happy.

And this is where we differ. His real life view is that script mistakes crop up and if something is contradicted, so what? It does happen.

As an example, ask me where I come from and, depending on who’s asking, you may get one of several answers, some of which are downright lies. I tend to say I’m from Inverness because not many people outside of Scotland have even heard of Nairn or Spean Bridge, or are truly interested in the fact that I moved about as a kid. True, I was born there, but I grew up elsewhere. So the one question has several answers, all of which are true “from a certain point of view”.

He’ll accept that fact, whereas I would need to know the explanation.

Let’s go back to Doctor Who because, let’s face it, what better way to demonstrate canon issues than with the one programme to have come up against them all. By the way, there may be some spoilers coming up if you’re not fully up-to-date with the entire Whoniverse.

How many times can the Doctor regenerate?

If you said twelve, then you clearly haven’t seen the current series of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

That Time Lords can regenerate twelve times was established back in The Deadly Assassin but has been contradicted many times since, notably in the potential existence of the Valeyard (somewhere between the Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnations… which certainly implies that his final one would not be his next one) and now in Sarah Jane, the Doctor tells Clyde he can regenerate 507 times.

Sometimes I bloody love Russell T Davies.

Of course, that won’t stop the outcry when twelfth Doctor, Will Poulter, regenerates into Kai Rooney in twenty years’ time, but at least the stage has been set.

However, I do have one bugbear with retconning, and that is when writers try to retcon actual history.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the existence of gay butchers in the forties and black immigrants in the time of Shakespeare. We know full well that, London being a major international port since about a thousand years, black people have been living in Britain for centuries. We all know that people have been homosexual since pre-biblical times.

But it’s in the treatment of these people that we need to be careful as to how they are portrayed.

When I first saw The Idiot’s Lantern, I was watching it with older friends. Towards the end, there’s a street party to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and there was a black family at the party – a situation that was pointed out to me that just would not have happened.

Yes, there would have been black families around, and living on the same street. But they would not have been invited to the party. And by “retconning” that, are we not in danger of forgetting the terrible discrimination of these families?

Take Captain Jack Harkness. An absolutely beautiful tale, and a standout from the otherwise rather crappy first season of Torchwood. It culminated in a touching scene where the two Captain Jacks share a slow dance and long kiss in the centre of the dancefloor – and yet no-one bats an eyelid. It’s made worse by the fact that 20th century homophobia is actively mentioned elsewhere in the same script!

I’m sorry, but no matter how accepting people may have been on an individual basis this would just not have happened in 1941. Hell, it’s difficult enough to imagine it happening in 2010.

I’m certainly not about to pretend that homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination and intolerance don’t exist today, but how are we supposed to teach the generally more accepting current generation about bigotry and how damaging it can be, if its very historical existence is swept under the carpet? Down that road lies the extremely real danger of repeating our mistakes.

The American It Gets Better Project site, set up recently in the wake of several gay teen suicides is, sadly, ample proof that the fight against homophobia is far from over and really demonstrates the dangers of pretending that it doesn’t exist in today’s world, never mind that of yesteryear.

On the other hand, it’s also ample proof of the good that can be done, and the support against discrimination and bullying that is there, from television personalities to presidents, from us mere mortals to Hillary Clinton.

It is sad that the need for such a site was felt but, hopefully, its very presence will dilute its need in the future.

But I’ll also be damned if I will let names such as Tyler Clementi or Billy Lucas be forgotten or “retconned” out of existence, just so we can feel a little better about ourselves in a couple of decades’ time.