Cross-posted at the wondrous Womanist Musings.
Alternate universes. Causal time loops. Perception filters. Sonic screwdrivers. Roundels. Creatures and stories beyond imagination. Time travel in a blue 1960s-style London police box. Sexy British men in a variety of amusing outfits. The Doctor, a brilliant man of two hearts, traversing time and space with his equally sexy and (usually) brilliant companions – saving humanity, alien species or time itself from a vast host of evil threats. Put it all together and you get my favourite television programming of all time: Doctor Who.
So imagine my absolute fan girl surprise when they introduced a Muslim character into a recent episode, “The God Complex.” For a few brief moments my heart soared with excitement at the very thought that there would be a Muslim in the TARDIS.
And then they promptly killed her off.
Because she was such an enjoyable and positive character, some podcasters and fans within the Whoniverse have expressed surprise that Rita, the “almost companion” had to die. But the more I thought about how her story played out the more I realised that the focus on Rita’s religion was just convenient tool to drive the plot. Which makes her death even more unfortunate, as her faith and strength as a character is pivotal to the story itself – a story about exposing your very soul through terror.
I loved this episode. Loved the classic Doctor Who elements, loved the characters and loved the acting. It opens with cheesy elevator music playing in an eerie 1980s hotel and a group of trapped and terrified people. Creepy, long corridors reminiscent of “The Shining” lead to endless hotel rooms, behind which house your greatest fear – a depressed clown, that horrible gorilla, defeat, having your picture taken, or daleks.
You don’t know what’s going to be in your room until you see it, and then you realise it could never be anything else.
Once properly terrified, a ferocious Minotaur awakens to kill the victims – emptying them of “the simple spark of life” and robbing them of their “loves and hates, faiths and fears.” Before death, each victim experiences a kind of rapture – consumed with a desire to worship the Minotaur.
We first meet the amazing Rita when the Doctor and his companions stumble across a group of frightened people in the hotel lobby. After threatening the Doctor with a chair leg, Rita takes control of the chaotic situation and promptly impresses the Doctor with her admirable leadership and observational skills. He practically eats her up with his eyes and she’s intrigued by his attention.
The Doctor then jokingly fires his current female companion Amy, and mouths to Rita, “call me… we’ll talk.”
The ultimate pick up line from a Time Lord.
Rita is quick, brilliant, sarcastic and makes easy jokes: “No, in two days it never occurred to us to open the front door. Thank God you’re here.” A perfect companion. And as a perfect companion, she starts feeding the Doctor all the information he needs to know about the hotel and the Minotaur.
That’s when we find out she’s Muslim.
In a conversation about where the hotel might exist, we learn that Rita believes they’re trapped in Jahannam – the Islamic equivalent to Hell. In response the Doctor says, along with an inappropriate amount of surprise in his tone, “You’re a Muslim!”
And in the ultimate post 9/11 fear mongering, creeping shari’a, Islamophobia-runs-rampant-in-the-world punch-line, Rita responds, “Don’t be frightened.”
Recovering with a quick laugh the Doctor then almost derisively asks if she really thinks the place they’re trapped is Hell.
You don’t understand. I say this without fear. Jahannam will play it’s tricks and there will be times when I want to run and scream. But I’ve tried to live a good life and that knowledge keeps me sane despite the monsters in the bonkers rooms.
Soon we discover that Rita has faced her ultimate fear and is next on the Minotaur’s list. She secludes herself and runs as far away from the others as possible – sacrificing herself to protect them from the inevitable attack.
Watching her on a security monitor, and horribly upset that he’s unable to save her (and that she won’t let him) the Doctor phones Rita to tell her to block out her fears and stay focused on her belief. This advice turns out to be her death sentence.
With her death and Rita’s final words, the Doctor realises that it’s not fear but faith on which the Minotaur feeds. Whether that’s faith in God, luck or conspiracy theories – the monster consumes one’s most fundamental belief.
Now, when a program showcases a positive Muslim character it’s a victory and a cause for celebration especially among Muslim fans. For decades we’ve been the easy choice for comedic relief, terrorists, horrible stereotypical Arabs (even though most of us aren’t Arab), cab drivers, oppressed women and most certainly token characters who are just there to justify an episode on terrorism, racism, diversity or social justice. And that’s precisely what this episode did: use a token Muslim to help write a brilliant story.
I don’t like hating upon my favourite show. Really I don’t. On one hand I’m absolutely thrilled that Rita was written so wonderfully and positively – but on the other there was much snorting and eye rolling when I saw that her effectiveness as a character was just to drive the plot.
The only reason she’s Muslim is to tell a cheap, albeit funny, joke and to have an example of someone with a deep faith for God. The “don’t be frightened” crack wouldn’t have worked if she were a devout Catholic. She needs to be Muslim because the episode is about fear and as sad as it is, “scary” is on the list of easy Muslim stereotypes.
It’s Rita’s strength, willingness to sacrifice herself and perceptive ability to call the Doctor out on his own “God complex” that make her an effective Muslim character. But being a woman of colour from the Indian subcontinent, a medical student who loves tea and whose greatest fear is disappointing her horribly overbearing father who can’t accept her “B” in mathematics – are all convenient and unfortunate generalisations.
The Doctor always has an affinity for the strange and wonderful. He’s well known to become overenthusiastic and exotify new or unique alien species and to “collect” those who make an impression on him. In his reaction to and interaction with Rita, I feel like the writers made him into an Orientalist voyeur.
In his near millennium-long lifetime, Rita is presumably the first Muslim the Doctor has cared to recognize. The fact he’s shocked at her faith also tells me that the writers feel the political climate against Muslims is so horrible that the Doctor actually has reason to be surprised. And yet the only real clue to Rita’s Muslimness is a random Arabic reference. She could have easily said “we’re in Hell” and the episode would have move forward without question or focus on Islam.
Rita needs to die in order for the Doctor to understand how to save the people he loves – this is the main reason her character was written into the episode. So I don’t understand the reference to her faith except to check off “Muslim” from a list of marginal voices to represent on the show.
I never had the expectation that there could ever be a Muslim companion. It wasn’t an important element for me to ask for, because Doctor Who fires up my imagination and for years I’ve created stories in my mind about traveling and experiencing the universe with some roguish Time Lord. And while it would be nice to have a Muslim in the TARDIS, I know now there will never be one.