"Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television" Book Review
Written by Karin Crighton
Published by McFarland Publishing
Written by Tom Powers
2016, 284 pages, Fiction
Released on October 18th, 2016
British science fiction has been a mainstay in households all over the planet, and perhaps beyond, for decades challenging our ideas and understanding of the universe around us. But as Torchwood’s Captain Jack Harness tells us, “The twenty-first century is when everything changes”, and now is the perfect time for our ideas and understanding about science fiction, its purpose and its premise, to change. In his book Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television, Tom Powers explores the evolving role of gender, race, and sexuality in Blake’s 7, Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, and Torchwood.
Gender and the Quest is a rather dry read, even for someone interested in gender studies, and fanatical about science fiction. Not having seen Red Dwarf or Blake’s 7, perhaps it was more difficult to understand the nuances of Powers’ thorough exploration of the series. And thorough it is; he combs through the entire episode catalogue to support his arguments of mistreatment of minority cast members and abysmal gender relations. The abundance of information and citations do allow the central supporting arguments to meander, even when the core argument (that late 20th-century science fiction did not handle these issues with grace) is solidly supported.
The study picks up with its second half and Powers’ discussion of Torchwood. As someone who has seen and enjoyed Torchwood at the time, it must be said this was easier material to engage with having personal experience with the references. But the truly engaging part is Powers’ firm and frank damnation of the show’s issues concerning bisexual erasure, frequent non-consensual sex scenes, affirmation of queer relationships only if they mimic heteronormative expression, and that characters portrayed by minority actors are rarely permitted to achieve happiness in any spectrum. It feels like a bucket of ice water in the face to realize how easily these troubling issues were hidden with a distracting pterodactyl.
The final discussion of Doctor Who has the most material to work with, and while the prior doctors and past episodes are discussed, it is during the discussion of season eight, where Powers really digs in his heels to point out the shockingly unfair treatment of companion Clara Oswald’s boyfriend, Rupert “Danny” Pink, portrayed by Samuel Anderson. While he does point out Doctor Who has a history of ill-treatment of black men seeking relationships with white women in Mickey Smith (played by Noel Clarke) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), being able to use an example that occurred so recently supports his argument that even though we are now fully aware of these problems in writing and production, they still aren’t being addressed in a satisfactory manner.
Perhaps it would have been best to have interviews with the showrunners and writers to explain their actions and goals. Powers quotes their words from other interactions, but it certainly would have livened up the denser parts of this narrative to hear what the person who wrote the show was thinking when they penned the words; or even what they think now when the demand for gender and racial equity in casting is confronting them from every social media outlet on the planet.
For years we’ve used science fiction to ask what’s next, what will we be, and how will we get there? The future has always presented a human race that is better than what we currently know. Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television is an important albeit difficult warning of where we’ve been: ignorant, prejudiced, and even a bit lazy. But it’s not without hope, as learning from the past is how we shape what’s to come. This book is a testament that British science fiction can imagine things we’ve never before glimpsed, and perhaps soon, it can even imagine equality.