Monday, 12 December 2016

Charlie grabs his Pole: the political significance of Matteusz Andrezejewski

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

Class's happy twosome?
Charlie and Matteusz
In a recent issue of the BBC’s Radio Times, Peter Capaldi observed that love of Doctor Who is a proxy affection for Britishness.  The same surely applies to Doctor Who’s spin-offs, the latest of which is Class.  In Class, the Doctor saves an alien prince, Charlie Smith (Greg Austin), together with his arch-enemy Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), and transports them to Earth in the TARDIS.  Landing at Coal Hill School in Stepney, London, he charges Charlie and Miss Quill, along with several school students, with the task of defending the planet against the creatures which will emerge from a rift in time and space within the school.  (The fact that the rift seems to have been caused by the TARDIS’s frequent visits to Coal Hill seems to be glossed over.)

In the first episode, Charlie invites Polish fellow student Matteusz Andrezejewski (Jordan Renzo) to be his partner for the School Prom, prompting the new show’s first gay kiss as well as the comment “Oh yes my deeply religious parents are very happy I’m going to dance with a boy”.

A united kingdom:
Matteusz and Charlie snuggle up
Class was broadcast in the wake of Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, where the country decided by 52% to 48% to leave the organisation.  One reason was public dissatisfaction with the free movement of persons, a central pillar of the Union.  In particular the accession of Eastern European countries to the Union in 2004 gave rise to an influx of Eastern European nationals into Britain, represented in Class by Matteusz.

There are several points of interest here.  The first is that Doctor Who and its spin-offs had up until Class almost ignored the Eastern European immigration, despite the show’s obsession with charting British national identity.   This is probably because the show has had another story to tell: Britain’s transformation from Empire to multi-racial society. 

Secondly, now that Brexit – British exit from the EU – is happening, the Whoniverse seems more relaxed about making Eastern Europeans part of its national story.  This is timely, as Poles have recently replaced Indians as Britain’s most numerous ethnic minority.   Moreover the referendum result was followed by a deplorable upsurge in racist attacks against Eastern Europeans.  In this light the thoroughly sympathetic image of Matteusz points the way forward for popular culture.

Thoroughly British couple:
Madam Vastra and Jenny
The third point of interest, however, is the “Britishisation” of Matteusz.   In a fine act of stereotyping his parents are represented as “the Other”.  First they disapprove of Matteusz’s relationship with Charlie, then they ground him, then they throw him out.  It is not fanciful to see Charlie as a character who serves to make Matteusz more British.  Despite being an alien, Charlie represents Britishness.  This is unsurprising in Doctor Who where aliens often represent the British: the Doctor himself is a very British alien.  Other non-humans which may be perceived in the same light include Madam Vastra (see e.g. “The Crimson Horror” (2013)), the Star Whale (see “The Beast Below” (2010)) and even arch-enemy Missy (see e.g. “Death in Heaven” (2014)).   As with the Doctor, Charlie’s eccentricity marks him out as representing Britishness.   By inviting Matteusz to the Prom, he prompts the gay relationship which detaches Matteusz from his Polish family and ushers him into the British family of the Class team - which in post-2005 Doctor Who fashion is typically multiracial.  (Lesbian and gay relationships too have arguably been used as something of a signifier of Britishness in Doctor Who and its spin-offs.)

But not all aspects of British identity are attractive.  In terms of species Charlie is a Rhodian, a name strongly reminiscent of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia which spawned the apartheid-state of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.   The Rhodesia metaphor chimes with the Rhodians’ oppression of their rival species the Quill.  It also confirms that the Whoniverse remains centrally animated by Britain's imperial story.   Charlie’s ruthlessness makes Matteusz realise that the couple are not as similar as he thought, and prompts a short-lived split between the couple.  It is fairly common for Doctor Who to portray the British as unduly callous - see for example. "Doctor Who and the Silurians" (1970), "The Christmas Invasion" (2005) and "The Beast Below" (2010).

With Brexit in the offing, Matteusz’s Britishisation is on all fours with the trend towards Eastern Europeans living in Britain applying for British nationality.  This is not to say that Matteusz lacks pride in being Polish – “never turn your back on an angry Pole” he quips on one occasion – but it shows once again how the Whoniverse projects as an attractive quality of Britishness its capacity to absorb into its fold ethnicities and nationalities which constantly enrich its very character. 

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