Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Inside the bubble

A couple of nights ago, my wife and I watched the latest episode in the current series of Doctor Who, "Dot and Bubble."  [Nota bene: this post will contain spoilers -- if you intend to watch it, you should do so first, then come back and read this afterward.]

All I'd heard about it before watching is that it is "really disturbing."  That's putting it mildly.  Mind you, there's no gore; even the monsters are no worse than the usual Doctor Who fare.  But the social commentary it makes puts it up there with episodes like "Midnight," "Cold Blood," and "The Almost People" for leaving you shaken and a little sick inside.

The story focuses on the character of Lindy, brilliantly played by Callie Cooke, who is one of the residents of "Finetime."  Finetime is basically a gated summer camp for spoiled rich kids, where they do some nominal work for two hours a day and spend the rest of the time playing.  Each of the residents is surrounded, just about every waking moment, by a virtual-reality shell showing all their online friends -- the "bubble" of the title -- and the "work" each of them does is mostly to keep their bubbles fully charged so they don't miss anything.


The tension starts to ramp up when the Doctor and his companion, Ruby Sunday, show up unannounced in Lindy's bubble, warning her that people in Finetime are disappearing.  At first she doesn't believe it, but when forced to look people up, she notices an abnormal number of them are offline -- she hadn't noticed because the only ones she sees are the ones who are online, so she wasn't aware how many people in her bubble had vanished.  At first she's dismissive of Ruby and downright rude to the Doctor, but eventually is driven to the realization that there are monsters eating the inhabitants of Finetime one by one.

Reluctantly accepting guidance from the Doctor, she runs for one of the conduits that pass under the city, which will give her a way out of the boundaries into the "Wild Wood," the untamed forests outside the barrier.  Along the way, though, we begin to see that Lindy isn't quite the vapid innocent we took her for at first.  She coldly and unhesitatingly sacrifices the life of a young man who had tried to help her in order to save her own; when she finds out that the monsters had already killed everyone in her home world, including her own mother, she basically shrugs her shoulders, concluding that since they were in a "happier place" it was all just hunky-dory.

It was the end, though, that was a sucker punch I never saw coming.  When she finally meets up with the Doctor and Ruby in person, and the Doctor tells her (and a few other survivors) that they have zero chance of surviving in the Wild Wood without his help, she blithely rejects his offer.

"We can't travel with you," she says, looking at him as if he were subhuman.  "You, sir, are not one of us.  You were kind -- although it was your duty to save me.  Screen-to-screen contact is just about acceptable.  But in person?  That's impossible."

In forty-five minutes, a character who started out seeming simply spoiled, empty-headed, and shallow moved into the territory of "amoral" and finally into outright evil.  That this transformation was so convincing is, once again, due to Callie Cooke's amazing portrayal.

What has stuck with me, though, and the reason I'm writing about it today, is that the morning after I watched it, I took a look at a few online reviews of the episode.  They were pretty uniformly positive (and just about everyone agreed that it was disturbing as hell), but what is fascinating -- and more than a little disturbing in its own right -- is the difference between the reactions of the reviewers who are White and the ones who are Black.

Across the board, the White reviewers thought the take-home message of "Dot and Bubble" is "social media = bad."  Or, at least, social media addiction = bad.  If so, the moral to the story is (to quote Se├ín Ferrick of the YouTube channel WhoCulture) "as subtle as a brick to the face."  The racism implicit in Lindy's rejection of the Doctor was a shocking twist at the end, adding another layer of yuck to an already awful character.

The Black reviewers?  They were unanimous that the main theme throughout the story is racism (even though race was never once mentioned explicitly by any of the characters).  In the very first scene, it was blatantly obvious to them that every last one of Lindy's online friends is White -- many of them almost stereotypically so.  Unlike the White reviewers, the Black reviewers saw the ending coming from a mile off.  Many of them spoke of having dealt all their lives with sneering, race-based microaggressions -- like Lindy's being willing at least to talk to Ruby (who is White) while rejecting the Doctor (who is Black) out of hand.

When considering "Dot and Bubble," it's easy to stop at it being a rather ham-handed commentary on social media, but really, it's about echo chambers.  Surround yourself for long enough with people who think like you, act like you, and look like you, and you start to believe the people who don't share those characteristics are less than you.

What disturbs me the worst is that I didn't see the obvious clues that writer Russell T. Davies left us, either.  When Lindy listens to Ruby and rejects the Doctor, it honestly didn't occur to me that the reason could be the color of his skin.  I didn't even notice that all Lindy's friends were White.  As a result, the ending completely caught me off guard.  As far as the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racist overtones of the characters in the episode, I wasn't even aware of them except in retrospect.

But that's one of the hallmarks of privilege, isn't it?  You're not aware of it because you don't have to be.  As a White male, there are issues of safety, security, and acceptance I never even have to think about.  So I guess like Lindy and the other residents of Finetime, I also live in my own bubble, surrounded by people who (mostly) think like I do, never having to stretch myself to consider, "What would it be like if I was standing where they are?"

And what makes the character of Lindy so horrific is that even offered the opportunity to do that -- to step outside of her bubble and broaden her mind a little -- she rejects it.  Even if it means losing the aid of the one person who is able to help her, and without whose assistance she is very likely not to survive.

For myself, my initial blindness to what "Dot and Bubble" was saying was a chilling reminder to keep pushing my own boundaries.  In the end, all I can do is what poet Maya Angelou tells us: "Do the best you can until you know better.  Then, when you know better, do better."

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