“Conventions of Space and Time” marks Community‘s second exploration of Abed’s autism/undiagnosable-ness through Inspector Spacetime (the first being “Virtual Systems Analysis,” which you can read about, at length, here.) Like “Virtual Systems Analysis,” “Conventions of Space and Time” deals with the perceived threats to Abed and Troy’s friendship—except this time it’s Troy who’s worried about losing Abed to a new relationship. When the study group attends InSpecTiCon, an Inspector Spacetime convention1, Abed finally meets Toby Weeks, an online friend and “arguably the biggest Inspector Spacetime fan in the world.” Troy is instantly jealous of the rapport Abed has with Toby, but little does he know how far Toby is willing to go to keep Abed for himself…
On the surface, Toby and his relationship with Abed appear to be very problematic representations of autism. Toby, who communicates on the same wavelength as Abed (“Do they even have to talk?” Britta asks. “They could just touch tentacles and download.”), who refers to others as “neurotypicals,”2 seeks to form a live-in friendship with Abed based on their shared neurodivergency and love of Inspector Spacetime. When Abed refuses his offer to live with him, Toby locks him in a phone booth, planning to hold Abed there until he gets Stockholm Syndrome and agrees to move to England. Luckily, Troy shows up before that happens. This whole situation could be interpreted as a cautionary tale about autistics forming relationships with one another and the need to separate autistic people from each other for their own good. Or it could be a story about how ~dangerous~ autistic people are. Or how autistic people you find on the Internet are just nerds with control issues.
But this isn’t that story, because that story can only exist in a world where racism and colonialism don’t intersect with disability and Inspector Spacetime. And that’s not a world where Abed the Undiagnosable lives. Toby is a white Englishmen. Troy and Abed are men of color. We can’t divorce race from this story—which is to say that Toby’s relationships with Abed and Troy are greatly influenced by racism.
“When you sent me that first email in which you figured out that Inspector Spacetime is both his own grandfather and grandmother, I knew we were soul mates. You and I are special,” Toby says before attempting to brainwash and and kidnap Abed. Toby purports to value Abed more than any “neurotypical” could, but he treats Abed like another souvenir to be picked up at InSpecTiCon, taking him home whether he wants to or not. In Abed, Toby thinks he’s found the crown jewel of his Inspector Spacetime merch collection. Abed is a diamond in the rough. And Toby’s going to steal him like he’s the Koh-i-Noor, bring him back to England, and never let him return home. If you haven’t noticed where I’m going with this, Toby’s attempt to trick Abed into coming home with him reenacts the racist violence of colonialism, particularly the British Empire’s (and other white empire’s) proclivity for “discovering” precious objects, ripping them from their indigenous culture, and taking them home for the glory of the Empire. People of color, like Abed, were often among these “curiosities.”
Toby very purposefully tries to sever Abed from his culture by playing up how different they both are from neurotypicals. “Neurotypicals don’t have the same focus you or I have. They always get distracted… by marriage, kids, competitive cooking shows,” Toby says. And he might not be wrong about that, but he is wrong in thinking that neurotype is the only facet of Abed’s identity that matters. There’s more to Abed than autism. It’s huge part of who he is, but he’s also Palestinian and Polish and a nerd of color, and he’s formed close relationships where those identities matter greatly. Toby underestimates the role being a mixed race nerd of color plays in Abed’s life, narrowing down why Abed feels different or Other to just being neurodivergent. Limiting someone like that, erasing parts of their identity, saying they don’t matter—that’s an act of violence.
Toby also denies Troy’s identity by “forgetting” his name repeatedly and refusing him the dignity of a proper introduction. In this, Toby behaves not like the Third Inspector, whom he is cosplaying, but rather like the Ninth Doctor.3 Nine continually ignores Mickey’s personhood by calling him “Ricky” or “Mickey the Idiot.” Mickey is the black boyfriend of the woman Nine asks to travel space and time with. In this episode of Community and the one preceding it, Troy is referred to as Abed’s “boyfriend.” Interestingly, Nine and Toby are both completely capable of treating white women courteously. (The difference in how Toby greets Britta and Troy is a clear indicator that he understands and is capable of performing certain neurotypical greeting rituals, but he chooses not to shake Troy’s hand because of racism and his plot to destroy Troy and Abed’s friendship.) The similarities in how Nine and Toby treat Mickey and Troy, whom they both see as unremarkable, get to the core of Abed and Toby’s relationship and how it relates to Doctor Who.
Throughout the episode, Abed and Toby cosplay as their favorite Inspectors and compare themselves as neurodivergent people to the Inspector. Because Inspector Spacetime is an affectionate parody of Doctor Who, they are actually comparing themselves to the Doctor. I’d argue that Abed represents all that is good about the Doctor while Toby represents all that is bad about the Doctor. (That would make Toby the Dream Lord from “Amy’s Choice.”) Toby is the Doctor’s feelings of superiority, his carelessness with other people’s lives, his racism, and his investment in the British Empire. Abed is the Doctor’s love for average people, his sense of wonder, and his ability to share the magic of the universe with others. Toby is what happens when the Doctor travels alone. With Troy and the study group by his side, Abed will never be alone. Toby is the Doctor who calls himself a “madman with a box” but burns the Daleks in the Asylum alive, because for all of Toby’s talk about connecting with another Inspector/autist, he is quick to lie, cheat, and steal from one. Abed is the Doctor who would free the Daleks from the Asylum.
Abed knows (perhaps more than any other character on American TV) that institutionalization is wrong, because it’s a threat that has hung over his head since he was four years old. For his entire life, people have been locking him in things: lockers, Inspector Spacetime phone booths, personal identities solely defined by disability. And on the day when he’s locked up by someone who should know better, who should understand his fear but can’t because he’s a racist fuck who doesn’t care about Abed’s feelings… On that day when Abed is locked up by another autistic nerd, that’s the day the star quarterback comes to rescue him.
Just like in “Virtual Systems Analysis,” the Inspector is freed from a metaphorical institution by his Constable. This time, Abed is expecting it: “You know, for the first time in my long history of being locked inside things, I knew someone would come.” Abed knows that Troy won’t let him be locked up in a phone booth—or a mental institution. I noted in my recap of “Virtual Systems Analysis” that, in the moment Constable Geneva/Annie rescues Abed from the locker, she connects with him as a “former headcase.” Something similar goes on in Troy’s rescue. Before opening the phone booth door, Troy tells Toby that Abed would have told him if he were moving to England. “And he would have explained it to me in very clear terms, because I get confused sometimes.” Once Abed is freed, he asks Troy if he still wants to take a souvenir photo with him. Troy responds, “What do you think?” Abed answers dubiously, “Yes?” Troy reassures him that he wants to take the picture and they do their special handshake. So, we have Abed being conscious of Troy’s confusion around words and explaining things carefully, and Troy knowing that Abed isn’t the best with social cues and explaining them for him.
Troy may not be autistic, but he and Abed share and interpret the world together in a thoughtful, symbiotic relationship that reads crip to me. But even that is just one facet of a beautiful, intersubjective friendship that Toby cannot even begin understand due to his objectifying, colonial gaze… or, in other words, Troy and Abed’s friendship is based on a lot of different things (including their love of life, their time at Greendale, their shared experience of racism4), but Toby doesn’t understand that because he’s a racist douchebag.
If there’s a lesson for the day or a thesis to this rambling post it’s just that: Toby is a racist douchebag. He acts the way he does not because he’s on the autism spectrum, but because he’s a racist jerkface who treats people of color like inhuman objects to be possessed or dismissed whenever he wants.
What a Minerva.
- InSpecTiCon bears a certain resemblance to Gallifrey One, which coincidentally was held the weekend before this episode aired.
- Depending on who you ask, “neurotypical” describes people who are not autistic and/or not neurodivergent.
- For those unfamiliar, Inspector Spacetime is a parody of Doctor Who. The Ninth Doctor is the ninth version or regeneration of the franchise’s main character, the Doctor.
- Which Troy makes plain in “Accounting Lawyers” when he and Abed break into an office and Troy tells Annie to play lookout, “’Cause, if someone comes up here, Kanye and Kumar get taken to jail. You get taken to dinner.”