Sunday, 17 January 2021

Is the Doctor imprisoned by sexism?

By Danny Nicol, University of Westminster 

When Doctor Who first came to our screens we meet a rather authoritarian male alien, the Doctor, who dominates his subordinate "companion", his granddaughter Susan. In time Susan's place was taken by a succession of mainly female companions, some of whom have been labelled "screamers".  In fact the companions varied in their degree of agency and whilst in "new Who" (2005-present) they may on average have had rather more agency than in "classic Who" (1963-89) nonetheless the Doctor ultimately remained dominant over the companion.  This is exemplified by his erasing the memories of Donna Noble ("Journey's End" (2008)) and in the discovery that Clara Oswald was "the impossible girl...born to save [ergo, to serve] the Doctor" ("The Name of the Doctor" (2013)).  The Doctor generally had the upper hand and the Doctor was always male.

The Doctor languishes in space-jail

Finally casting a woman Doctor gave hope that this female subordination would come to an end.  A female Doctor would, one assumed, have the same agency and assertiveness as her male predecessors.  But the last two episodes, "The Timeless Children" (2020) and "Revolution of the Daleks" (2021) seem to show that Doctor Who's opportunity to cast off sexism is being squandered.

 "The Timeless Children" (2020)

In "The Timeless Children" the Master forces the Doctor into the Matrix, the repository of all Time Lord knowledge.  Here she must witness the truth about her own origin.   The Master reveals that she is no ordinary Time Lord; she was not born on the Time Lords' planet at all.  In fact she is the Timeless Child, a unique alien in this universe.  As such she enjoys powers to regenerate far in excess of those of the other Time Lords.  Several elements in this episode are open to the charge of constituting sexism against the Doctor.

* The very fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child
   The notion that the Doctor is a special-by-birth, unique entity has met with fierce criticism from fans of the show, though it has a few supporters as well.  What concerns us here however is solely whether the innovation is sexist.  The most that can be said is that the timing of the revelation is a little suspect.  After numerous male incarnations, we have to wait for a woman Doctor to be told that she is a more powerful creature than the rest of the Time Lords.  In fairness, on a conscious level, the intention of the Timeless Child idea seems to be entirely the opposite: anti-sexist and anti-racist.  Hence we see a series of non-white girls and boys who are supposedly early interations of the Doctor.  Yet the very idea that she has special powers and a unique origin also subtly implies that the female Doctor needs these extras, just as she needs her "fam" of three companions in place of the more usual single sidekick.  A woman Doctor with more agency would need no such crutch.

* The Doctor's passivity in the Matrix vis-a-vis the Master  The Doctor is no stranger to the Matrix.  He has had several adventures within it.  Most famously his exploits there in "The Deadly Assassin" (1976) were sufficiently violent to earn strong objections to the BBC from Mrs Mary Whitehouse.   The Doctor's visits to the Matrix tend to be characterised by his usual hyper-activity and culminate in him defeating his opponents, yet for the present Doctor the visit is remarkable for her passivity.  She hears the Master's narrative of her true story in a pained but passive fashion.  Indeed the Master-Doctor performance has the air of an abusive relationship with the Master as abuser.  The Doctor is not even allowed to escape from the Matrix under her own steam, rather she relies on the advice of another iteration of herself, the so-called Fugitive Doctor.

* The Doctor outsources her courage to another character, Ko Sharmus.  The other plotline in "The Timeless Children" is that the Master has created a new breed of Cybermen who have the power to regenerate and will range across the universe, conquering at his command.  The Doctor realises that she can use a device called the Death Particle to eliminate all life on the planet and with it the Master's new army.  At first she intends to sacrifice herself in order to release the Death Particle, but she cannot summon up the will to do so.  Fortunately another character, a grisled human resistance fighter called Ko Sharmus, offers to do so in her stead, allowing the Doctor to escape in a spare TARDIS.  No real explanation is offered for the Doctor's gutlessness, yet it is a man who takes her place.

The Master taunts the Doctor

"Revolution of the Daleks" (2021)

Several elements of "The Timeless Children" therefore give cause for concern that the show is reinforcing sexist stereotypes rather than abandoning them.  What however galvanises these suspicions is the Doctor's imprisonment at the beginning of  the New Year's Day special, "Revolution of the Daleks". At the end of "The Timeless Children" the Doctor is imprisoned by the alien police force the Judoon.   "Revolution" opens with the Doctor still serving her sentence in the grim e-controlled prison.  Once again, what is remarkable is the Doctor's passivity.  She makes no attempt to spring herself from jail, which is extraordinarily un-Doctor-like given that previous Doctors faced with incarceration have, of course, made every effort to escape.

Ultimately she is rescued by old friend Captain Jack Harkness.  Once again therefore a male character saves her bacon; he is given the agency which the female Doctor is denied.  Thankfully thereafter the plot allows the Doctor to mastermind the thwarting of a Dalek invasion of Earth.  As in "The Timeless Child" (where using the Death Particle is her own idea albeit with a hint from the Fugitive Doctor), the Doctor is not entirely devoid of agency.  The show could not work if she were.  Yet at the same time it seems fairly certain that the script is giving her significantly less agency than would be the case for her male predecessors.  Therein lies Doctor Who's resurgent sexism.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Desperately Tweaking Susan

 By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

The first episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child” (1963), is considered by many to be the finest in the programme’s long history.  It introduces us to the Doctor and TARDIS through the intermediary of the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman.   Susan attends a London secondary school.  Her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, are mystified by her scientific and historical knowledge as well as by the gaps in her knowledge.  On a pretext they try to visit her home, only to stumble into the TARDIS and be whisked away through time and space - with scant hope of return since the TARDIS is erratic.  Before this, however, Susan reveals that she and her grandfather are from another time and world.  Tulloch and Alvarado have analysed how the episode skilfully presents Susan as “familiar but different”. (1)

The Doctor kidnaps Susan

A popular narrative is that, in “An Unearthly Child”, the Doctor kidnaps Ian and Barbara in order to preserve the secret of his and Susan’s scientific advances.  A close reading of the script however indicates that his prime objective is actually to stop his granddaughter from leaving him:

SUSAN: I want to stay!  But they’re both kind people.  Why won’t you trust them?  All you’ve got to do is ask them to promise to keep our secret quiet.
DOCTOR: It’s out of the question.
SUSAN: I won’t go, Grandfather.  I won’t leave the twentieth century.  I’d rather leave the TARDIS and you.
DOCTOR: Now you’re being sentimental and childish.
SUSAN: No, I mean it.
DOCTOR: Very well.  Then you must go with them.  I’ll open the door.
BARBARA: Are you coming, Susan?
(The Doctor, instead of flipping the switch to open the doors, dematerialises the TARDIS.)
SUSAN: Oh no, Grandfather!  No!

From the outset, therefore, the story of Susan and the Doctor is one of domination.  The male Doctor knows best: he decides Susan’s future regardless of her own wishes.  This sets a pattern for the rest of her time in the TARDIS, including her departure.

Susan’s demotion

Given her centrality in the opening episode and its emphasis on her other-worldliness and advanced knowledge, one might expect Susan to emerge as a central figure in Doctor Who and that the show would make maximum use of her alien attributes.   In fact Susan is routinely relegated.  David Butler observes that Susan has considerable dramatic potential and appeal but that this is allowed entirely to stagnate after “An Unearthly Child”. (2)   In fact Ian and Barbara constantly outshine her in terms of agency:   
  • “The Keys of Marinus” (1964) sees Ian and Barbara engaging in daring adventures to find the missing keys to a computer which controls a planet’s conscience.  Susan by contrast mainly tags along with her grandfather. 
  • “The Aztecs” (1964) centres around Barbara being mistaken for a god.  She uses this status to try to abolish the Aztec practice of sacrifice, whilst Ian competes in an ultra-masculine feud to the death with an Aztec military commander.  By comparison Susan’s role is essentially passive, being threatened with arranged marriage and having to be rescued.  
  • “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) features exceptional agency on the part of Ian and Barbara. Ian stops a Dalek bomb which is aimed at the Earth’s core.   Barbara penetrates into the heart of Dalek headquarters in a bid to destroy their control panels.  Both of them act entirely on their own initiative.  Susan by contrast arrives at the Dalek HQ in the company of her grandfather and newly-acquired boyfriend David Campbell, and plays a useful role only by obeying the Doctor’s instructions to the letter.

Susan’s untapped potential

Susan was therefore regularly eclipsed by the Doctor’s two human companions.  Her nadir comes in “The Reign of Terror” (1964) where she is terrified by rats in a prison in revolutionary France.  By contrast Susan’s finest hour comes in “The Sensorites” (1964) where she uses telepathic power to communicate with an alien species.  Her gift for telepathy is clearly greater than the Doctor’s.  But instead of using Susan’s telepathy to restore and rebuild her as a character, Doctor Who immediately undercuts her agency, by having the Doctor veto her attempt to journey alone to the Sensorites’ planet in order to reason with them.  In the ensuing argument, as Joan Frances Turner observes, the more Susan protests that she is no longer a child the more aggressively her grandfather infantilises her. (3)

Susan is not even allowed to determine her own departure: torn between new love David Campbell and concern for her grandfather at the close of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, the decision is made by the Doctor, who locks her out of the TARDIS and tells her that her future lies with David.  Agency is thereby once again whipped away from her.  Tellingly, any difficulty which might arise in the marriage from Susan not being human is entirely ignored, the programme having played down her alien nature for much of the time. 

All in all, it is little wonder that Carole Ann Ford who played Susan was so dissatisfied with the production team’s unwillingness to develop Susan that she left the series.  Furthermore neither Susan’s later appearance in “The Five Doctors” (1983), the show’s twentieth anniversary special, nor her roles in several ‘Big Finish’ audio adventures, really serves to transform the character. 

The politics of Susan

Why did the Doctor’s granddaughter come to be portrayed as such a wet blanket?   Susan might fit into Richard Wallace’s category of a “screamer”, on his reading the most recognisable type of Doctor Who companion and one of the least effective representations of women that the programme has to offer. (4)  A political analysis would place Susan’s period in the TARDIS in the context of a time in the early 1960s in which feminism was only just emerging from its 1950s torpor.  In the 1950s gender relations were organised along patriarchal lines.  Women were still largely connected with the domestic sphere and men with the world of work.  It was only in the 1960s that social and political changes threatened these traditional roles. (5)  It was during that decade that “second wave” feminism emerged as a form of politics aiming to transform the unequal power relations between men and women. (6)  Susan and the more feminist Barbara may be seen as representing those two different phases, with Susan more confined to the ‘traditional’ role. 

Sometimes the frustrations of the show’s treatment of Susan have spilt out into fan fiction.  The present author, for example, has concocted several adventures in which a pro-active Susan (now serving in the post-Dalek British government alongside her husband) solves murders in time and space along with the Doctor’s later companion Romana.  As well as showcasing her telepathic skills, Susan uses her intelligence to find the killer of an intergalactic magnate, solve the case of an exploding Prime Minister on a faraway planet, hunt down the perpetrator of the killing of the Guardian of the Solar System at a hotel run by Sergeant  Benton, and identify a murderer in a political whodunit set in post-Dalek Britain.  It was not difficult to combine familiar "Susanisms" with unfamiliar derring-do.  Fanfic provides scope to flag up a programme’s shortcomings in a creative and constructive way: establishing a non-sexist Doctor Who canon is, however, a taller order.

Echoes of Susan

Doctor Who’s failure to make the most of Susan might be dismissed as a sexist aberration of the programme’s early years, of little relevance to modern Doctor Who.  In fact, as Alyssa Franke and I argue on the pages of the Journal of Popular Television, the contemporary programme undercuts the Doctor’s more recent companions Donna Noble and Amy Pond by consigning them to the rather Susan-ish fate of happy domesticity after their time in the TARDIS. (7)  In the last series, the number of “Yaz-lite” episodes is cause for concern, echoing the “Susan-lite” episodes of the past.  So too is the exclusion of the Doctor for the first time from the main emotional engagement of the series – the evolving granddad-grandson relationship between companions Graham and Ryan – an exclusion which coincides unhappily with the advent of the first woman Doctor.  Doctor Who’s disservice to Susan Foreman as a character was immense, and in so doing the show did a substantial disservice to itself.  The programme’s makers need to be more vigilant that the lessons are fully learnt.


(1)   J Tulloch and M Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (St Martin’s Press, 1983) pp.24-26.
(2)   D Butler, “How to Pilot A TARDIS”, in D Butler (ed.) Time and Relative Dissertations in Space (Manchester UP, 2007) p.40.
(3)   J Turner, “I’m from the TARDIS and I’m here to help you: Barbara Wright and the Limits of Intervention”, in D Stanish and L Myles (eds.) Chicks Unravel Time (Mad Norwegian Press, 2012) p.78.
(4)    R Wallace, “‘But Doctor?’ A Feminist Perspective of Doctor Who” in C Hansen (ed) Ruminations, Peregrinations and Regenerations (Cambridge Scholars, 2010) p.104.
(5)   K Milestone and A Mayer, Gender and Popular Culture (Polity, 2012) p.33.
(6)   J Hollows, Feminism and Popular Culture (Manchester UP, 2000) p.3.
(7)   A Franke and D Nicol, “‘Don’t Make Me Go Back’: Post-feminist retreatism in Doctor WhoJournal of Popular Television Vol. 6 No. 2 pp.197-233.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Was Doctor Who too political?

 By Danny Nicol,

University of Westminster

In a famous article in 2004 Alan McKee asked whether classic era Doctor Who (1963-89) had been political.   He argued that one should analyse fans’ views of whether they saw the programme as political.  He discovered that they did not see it as such, at least not in the sense of state-level politics (“Is Doctor Who Political", European Journal of Cutural Studies vii/2 (2004: 201-217).  By contrast in 2018 there were complaints of Doctor Who being too political, indeed “too preachy”. 

This post argues that this may have been the case, but only in the sense that episodes with a highly political content were rather unwisely bunched together instead of being more adroitly “diluted” by “less political” stories.  Furthermore it could also be contended in the programme’s defence that the issues which featured in these highly-political episodes were, for the most part, very familiar to those who follow the show.

The opening episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (2018), tackles the Doctor’s regeneration into the first woman Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), as well as introducing the new companions – Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). Whilst the Doctor’s gender change was something new, the possibility had already been flagged up by the earlier transformation of arch-enemy the Master into Missy.   Nor is diversity of companions anything new: although Yaz is the Doctor’s first Asian companion, Ryan is the Doctor’s fourth black one; and the experiment of an older companion in Graham had already been made with Wilf Mott’s (Bernard Cribben’s) one-off role as companion in “The End of Time” (2010).

In their first adventure in outer space, “The Ghost Monument” (2018), the Doctor and her companions become embroiled in a cut-throat competition between two humanoids each determined to win a race.  The episode becomes an allegory against over-competitiveness, the lesson being that individuals are stronger when they work together.   This message is nothing new.  Indeed it was the theme of the very last serial of classic-era Doctor Who, “Survival” (1989), which enlisted British comedians Gareth Hale and Norman Pace as shopkeepers to underscore the story’s normative stance that too much competition is a ruinous thing.

The team then journey to 1950s Alabama for “Rosa” (2018), in which an alien time meddler tries to disrupt history so that the famous Rosa Parks bus incident does not occur.  Anti-racism is a well-worn theme of Doctor Who and the story is somewhat reminiscent of “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988) where the Doctor has to fight a group of British racists who are none-too-subtly in league with the Daleks.   The similarity of “Arachnids in the UK” (2018) to the classic-era story “The Green Death” (1973) was widely noted.  Both have the theme of corporate irresponsibility towards the environment - and human life. 

“Kerblam!” (2018) envisages an Amazon in outer space.  It continues Doctor Who’s well-worn anti-corporate theme, since Kerblam! is evidently not a nice place to work.  Yet the tale also seems to criticise “extremist” methods of achieving egalitarian ends.  This again is nothing new: the same message was apparent in “The Monster of Peladon” in 1974.  “Demons of the Punjab” (2018), set at the time of the India-Parkistan partition, condemns religious intolerance yet also dwells on the limits of time-travellers’ legitimate interference in the course of history.  Both these themes are central in “The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Eve” (1966) which concerns conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Towards the latter half of the series there were several episodes with less overtly-articulated political themes.  “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (2018) involves gender-swapping, with the Doctor and Yaz being the all-action heroes whilst Graham and Ryan serve as birthing partners for a pregnant man.  “The Witchfinder” (2018) also takes up the theme of gender discrimination but the message is softened by being comfortably removed to the seventeenth century.  “It Takes You Away” (2018) is a morality tale about mortality and grief with perhaps the least overt political content of the series.  The series finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” (2018), concerns faith and doubt – arguably more religious than political.  The New Year special, “Resolution” (2019), takes up a pervasive theme of the series: that family is not about DNA or sharing a surname but is about how one treats those one holds dear.  Indeed by the end of the adventure the Doctor refers to her companions as “extended fam”.

The episodes with the most overt political content, therefore, ended up being substantially bunched together.  Herein lay the production team’s only real mistake.  Jane Esperson, a writer for Battlestar Galactica, has commented that the thicker the metaphor and the more distractions there are for the viewer, the more the writer of a science fiction programme can “get away with” by way of political messages.  Crucially, therefore, writing political science fiction involves an element of skill, in order to “get away with it”.  To be sure, “political” Doctor Who is something to celebrate: it allows the programme’s writers to create dystopias and flag up what is worrisome within our country.  It enables them to draw attention to the gap between the nation as it is and the nation as it ought to be.  It permits them to circumvent - at least to an extent - the BBC’s political conservatism.  But political messages need to be spread elegantly like caviar not smothered on like marmalade.  A degree of subtlety is required so that viewers enjoy the politics of Doctor Who rather than feel that the show is ramming its politics down their throats.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

When you're in space the whole cosmos is British

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Representing Britishness: new companions Ryan and Yasmin
The new series of Doctor Who is notable for its inclusivity.  Much attention has rightly focused on the long-overdue casting of a woman to play the Doctor and Jodie Whittaker’s predictably superb performance.  Diversity in the show has also benefitted from the introduction in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ (2018) of the Doctor’s first Asian companion (Yaz), first middle-aged companion (Graham) and fourth Black companion (Ryan).   Yaz’s and Ryan’s recruitment into the TARDIS contributes to a sense of celebration of Britain as a multi-racial country.  Ryan (presently a warehouse worker) and Graham (former bus driver) join the brief list of the Doctor's unequivocally working class companions.  Graham’s efforts to secure an emotional relationship with Ryan as grandson are not merely touching but also reflect how ‘complicated families’ are now part of life in Britain and beyond.  Furthermore Graham’s expressions of feelings for Ryan also erode notions of the ‘stiff upper lip’ Brit and of natural gender difference in the articulation of emotions.

Doctor Who’s cultivation of a different sort of inclusivity may have attracted less attention.  It concerns the show’s ambitions to reflect Britain as a geographical whole. The Doctor speaks in a Yorkshire (northern English) accent.  The opening episode is set in Sheffield, in Yorkshire.  Two of the companions - Ryan and Yaz - speak in Sheffield accents whilst Graham has a cockney, London accent.  So three of the four TARDIS crew speak in Yorkshire accents and none uses RP – Received Pronunciation – the standard form of British pronunciation of English based on a southern English accent and traditionally heavily promoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation in earlier decades to the exclusion of regional accents. This ‘critical mass’ of northern accents is remarkable, especially given the conflict with the production team which Christopher Eccleston engendered by using a northern accent to play the ninth Doctor. 

Northern Powerhouse: the Doctor excited to commence
her career in manufacturing
No less remarkable was using Sheffield as a setting, enabling the use of several minor characters also with Yorkshire accents.  The show’s ‘London-heavy’ tradition was only marginally eroded by staging the last series ostensibly at a university in Bristol in the south west of the country.  The Bristol setting was compromised through the scant use of actors with Bristol accents let alone Bristol landmarks.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that Bristol got a raw deal as an 'anywhere-but-London' token setting.  The shift to Sheffield was more genuine and it is to be hoped that it becomes a base for more than one adventure.  Furthermore the Doctor’s manufacture of a sonic screwdriver from Sheffield steel gently connotes optimism about the North’s industrial future, forming a contrast to Brit-grit films about the city such as The Full Monty (1997) which do not see beyond the post-industrial.

But the changes go further.   Since 1963 Doctor Who has introduced us to an array of non-Earth humanoids.   Part of the vast 'willing suspension of disbelief' which Doctor Who requires of its viewers is that the universe is full of species who look just like us.   These non-human humanoids overwhelmingly spoke in RP accents, especially in classic-series Doctor Who.  This was often the case even where the characters were working class, such as the Peladonian miners in ‘The Monster of Peladon’ (1974).  Possibly RP provided a kind of neutrality, an umbrella under which alien voices could be imagined.   This tradition has now been eroded in ‘The Ghost Monument’ (2018):

GRAHAM:     ‘Scuse me!  We are human beings!  Show a bit of solidarity!
EPZO:           (in a Northern English accent) I’m Muxteran, she’s Albarian.
ANGSTROM: (in a Northern Irish accent) Never even heard of Moomanbeans!

Time will tell if aliens with an array of British accents becomes another Doctor Who fixture for viewers to accept.  In the meantime it serves to emphasise, like so much else, Doctor Who’s mission of representing the whole United Kingdom and emphasising its rich diversity - even in outer space.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Thatcher and the Tharils: a political interpretation of "Warriors' Gate"

 By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

“Warriors’ Gate”, a four-part Doctor Who adventure broadcast in 1981, is one of the Doctor’s most surreal escapades.  Influenced by I Ching philosophy and Couteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946), brilliantly directed and set for the most part in a white void, it has been described as “beautiful, violent and ultimately inexplicable” (Mark Campbell, Doctor Who, Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2000, p.64).  In a detailed analysis of the serial in his book The Humanism of Doctor Who (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012, 224-230), David Layton argues that “Warriors’ Gate” is about Taoist-Buddist philosophy with an emphasis in particular on the notion of ethical non-action – the choice to go along with the tide of events.  Ethical non-action is based on the idea that one may only determine the right action when one has the right facts.  By contrast, according to Layton, the serial condemns destructive and dangerous activity driven merely by the perceived need to do something. 

A Whoniverse of interpretations

Layton’s is a perfectly viable interpretation of “Warriors' Gate”, yet his reading tends to depoliticise the adventure.  The story was broadcast at a particularly dramatic time in British politics and a credible political interpretation of the serial is also readily apparent.  There is no reason why a political reading should not co-exist with a philosophical one.  After all, as Rebecca Williams has observed, the idea of a singular homogenous and stable interpretation of Doctor Who which establishes an officially constituted reading formation cannot be sustained (“Desiring the Doctor: Identity, Gender and Genre in Online Fandom”, in British Science Fiction Television: Critical Essays, eds. J. Leggott and T. Hochscherf (Jefferson: McFarland 2011), 167-177, 177.)   Nor can authorial intention be the only guide to interpretation.  As Matthew Jones has argued, the concerns that underpin recent British history have emerged in Doctor Who regardless of whether the production team intended to invoke particular socio-political anxieties. (“Army of Ghosts: Sight, Knowledge and the Invisible Terrorist in Doctor Who”, in Impossible Things, Impossible Worlds: Cultural Perspectives on Doctor Who, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, eds. Ross Garner, Melissa Beattie and Una McCormick, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 45-61, 52.).

Captain Rorvic menaces the Doctor and Romana
In very condensed form, the plot of “Warriors’ Gate” is that the TARDIS along with a large privateer spaceship are pulled into a white void which straddles two universes.   Aside from the two ships the only object in the void is an ancient gateway.  The privateer craft - staffed by a humanoid crew – is a freighter transporting members of a slave race, the Tharils.  These Tharils are a valuable commodity since they are “time-sensitive” and are used to guide spaceships through the “time winds”.  Exploring through the gateway the Doctor discovers that the Tharils were once a dominant race, enslaving others, but were ultimately overthrown and are now themselves enslaved.  It also becomes apparent that space and time are contracting within the void, but the Doctor is advised by the Tharil leader, Biroc, that the best course of action is to ‘do nothing’.  The captain, the energetic Rorvik, compels his unenergetic crew to use the backthrust of his ship in order to try to escape the void.   The blast destroys ship and crew, but the Tharils, being time-sensitive, manage to escape, as does the TARDIS.  At the end of the adventure the Doctor's companion Romana leaves in order to help the Tharils, a departure which I have commended in an earlier post.

The serial was broadcast in 1981, two years into Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister.   Her premiership marked a revolution in British politics which ultimately led the country in a more capitalist direction.  Privatisation was one of the central tenets of the Thatcher years, as was the general promotion of private enterprise.   Deregulation meant less emphasis on an ethical state (reflected in the serial’s slave trading) and more emphasis on liberating the energies of the entrepreneur (which finds expression in the busy Rorvik).  Yet Rorvik’s subordinates are performed as lazy and apathetic, suggesting that the new more aggressive form of capitalism, however energising for those in the upper echelons, would not meet the needs of those lower down the social scale.

Biroc the Lionheart

Just as one may read the spaceship’s demotivated crew as representing the British workforce so too there are indicators in favour of reading the Tharils as something as a metaphor for the British.  Significantly Biroc himself prompts the comparison between Tharils and ourselves by telling the Doctor and companions that he is “a shadow of my past and of your future”.  The Tharils are lion-like, and the lion is an animal associated with the English.  King Richard I, famed for his wars in the Middle East, was known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ and lions remain on the Royal Standard and a symbol of the national football team.  The enslaving, Empire-building Tharils hark back to the imperial era in which the English, and subsequently the British, were involved in the slave trade. 

Under Biroc's guidance the Doctor and Romana 'do nothing'
As Graham Sleight observes, the sophistication of “Warriors’ Gate” is that unlike other slave races in Doctor Who such as the Ood, the Tharils can be both slave and enslaver.  (The Doctor’s Monsters, London: IB Tauris, 2012 139-143, 142).  The idea that the British (the Tharils) are subsequently enslaved may seem far-fetched, and of course the metaphor of science fiction and dystopian fiction often exaggerates.  Yet the idea of the British as victims of colonisation chimes with socialist texts of the time.   In particular in the same year as “Warriors’ Gate” the leading left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn published Arguments For Democracy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981: 3-17) in which he characterised Britain as a colony.  Benn argued that British democracy has declined and that the country faced a national liberation struggle as “the last colony in the British Empire”.  He argued that Britain was under the influence of economic imperialism from the growth of private monopoly, that the country subordinated itself to the USA in foreign and defence policy, and that it had formally surrendered national sovereignty and parliamentary democracy to the European Economic Community (now European Union) making it a colony of an embryonic Western European federal state.  These were the views of many on the Labour Left at the time, before they were toned down in response to the Thatcherite tsunami.

Doing nothing as response to Thatcherism

Finally the plot emphasises that the way to resist oppression is “to do nothing”.   If the new hard-line capitalism be seen as the source of oppression then this may seem absurd.  Yet one should beware the benefit of hindsight.  At the time, many political figures saw Thatcherism as a blip.  The Conservative Cabinet was split between “drys” who supported the Prime Minister’s new ideology and “wets” who favoured a return to more consensual policies.  Many assumed the wets would triumph.  Indeed many mainstream politicians thought that Thatcherism would be a temporary aberration.  Middle-of-the-road Labour figures such as Roy Hattersley and Peter Shore gave lectures on how the country would soon recommence its journey along the road to social equality.  

Ultimately, like Rorvic, Thatcher was indeed undone by her hyperactivity and hubris.  Her insistence on a regressive means of financing local government, known as the Poll Tax, guaranteed her political demise.   Yet as Simon Jenkins has shown in Thatcher and Sons (London: Penguin, 2007) her ideology outlived her.  Rechristened neoliberalism, it was enforced and expanded by Conservative, Coalition and New Labour governments alike.  A political interpretation of “Warriors’ Gate” provides a reminder that in Thatcherism’s early years this course of events was not seen as inevitable or even likely. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

When the Doctor got too big for his boots

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

A well-known feature of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s ability to change his/her physical appearance (and, to an extent, character) through regeneration.  This has proven an invaluable device for refreshing the programme with new lead actors.  The 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special “Twice Upon A Time” took advantage of regeneration to imagine an encounter between the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and the first Doctor (originally William Hartnell, here David Bradley) and to explore the tensions between them.

The Doctor....and the Doctor.
I am not here referring to the rather overdone drolleries about the first Doctor’s sexism (something which was not actually so very apparent in the years when William Hartnell played the Doctor).   Rather, the first Doctor and twelfth Doctor have a series of disagreements which resonate with other political interpretations of Doctor Who

  • The first involves the protection of Earth.   When an alien entity materialises, the first Doctor tells it that Earth is a level five civilisation.  The twelfth Doctor chips in: “And it is protected!”  The first Doctor is taken aback: “It’s what?  Protected by whom?”

  • The second involves whether the Doctor is “the Doctor of war”.  The alien later declares to the first Doctor that he is known by all in the Chamber of the Dead, since he is the Doctor of war.  Indignant, the first Doctor denies being the Doctor of war.  He later misunderstands the title as meaning that the Doctor saves lives during wars.

  • The third involves the twelfth Doctor’s (and other recent Doctors’) habit of bragging.   When the twelfth Doctor threatens the alien, the first Doctor retorts: “Why are you advertising your intentions?  Can’t you stop boasting for a moment?  Who the hell do you think you are?”

The tale of two Doctors

The differences between the first Doctor and the twelfth Doctor thereby emerge as a pervasive theme in “Twice Upon A Time”.   The Doctor’s contemporary sense of self-importance and his military dimension certainly seem to form a contrast to the show’s early years, where the eccentric gentleman would gad hither and thither, meddling sporadically with no grand mission.   Yet these differences cannot entirely be ascribed to politics.  To an extent they are due to the sheer flow of time.   

The Doctor commences his role
as defender of Earth
In this regard it would be misleading to draw too bright a line between the two Doctors.  When it comes to the Doctor’s roles as protector of Earth and Doctor of war, the seeds were actually sown during the first Doctor’s era.  In “The Daleks” (1964-5) the Doctor unequivocally acts as a war leader, helping the Thals against the Daleks – who end up being exterminated.  In Doctor Who – A British Alien? (2018) I argue that the Doctor’s war is difficult to justify, since the Daleks (whose genocidal ways we do not know at this early stage) express their desire to eliminate all Thals only after the war has begun.  Furthermore in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) whilst the Doctor does not quite articulate a role as defender of Earth he nonetheless states that he must prevent the Daleks’ plans to pilot the Earth right out of its orbit since that would “upset the entire constellation”.  This was a significant development in the Doctor Who formula.  Prior to this, the Doctor and his entourage would often leave the TARDIS to see if they had landed on contemporary Earth so as to return the Doctor’s original companions Ian and Barbara back home.  They would somehow get separated from the TARDIS and the adventure would revolve entirely around the effort to return to the ship.  “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” gives the Doctor a more heroic mission. The foundations of the Doctor’s roles as Doctor of war and defender of Earth are therefore readily apparent in the first Doctor’s era. As time wore on there were more such adventures.  The instances of the various Doctors’ Earth-saving and military-style meddling simply mounted up and attained critical mass, so that the titles of “defender of Earth” and “Doctor of war” were no longer fanciful – and the Doctors had something to boast about.

The tale of two eras

By the same token, completely to exclude a political dimension is not entirely convincing either.  In the 1960s when William Hartnell played the first Doctor, British foreign policy was comparatively peaceful.  In particular, whilst expressing support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam campaign, the 1964-70 Labour government kept British forces out of it.  The 1960s were also a time of decolonisation as the transformation from Empire to Commonwealth continued.   Against this backdrop Doctor Who could conceivably have developed to place more emphasis on the Doctor fostering co-existence and on care for the Other as well as the human/humanoid.  Alas, this did not quite happen. 

By contrast, however, post-2005 new-Who was broadcast in a very different climate.  In the wake of the 9/11 terrorism, Britain under the Labour government of Tony Blair joined the Americans in invading Afghanistan and later joined the invasion of Iraq.  Interventions in Libya and Syria also ensued.  This more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world was reflected in Doctor Who in a critical fashion.  Undeniably the importance of the Doctor’s military and defence role has increased in post-2005 Doctor Who, reaching its logical conclusion in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011) where the very word “Doctor” is accorded a new meaning of “mighty warrior”.  This stance is amplified by the twelfth Doctor’s opening series in 2014 where the pervasive theme was whether the Doctor was “a good man” or “a blood-soaked general”.  The programme increasingly dwells on the idea of the Doctor having fashioned a military and defence role, and does so in a very explicit way.  It also tries on occasion to soften this assessment with talk of him being “kind”, or being just “an idiot with a box” who “helps out”.  Suffice to say that sometimes the Doctor metaphorically critiques Britain’s role in the world.  Yet at other times he himself serves as a metaphor for Britain’s role in the world.  Through him, contemporary politics is exposed on screen for pitiless appraisal. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Whoniverse of Welsh women

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Acting in Doctor Who used to be fraught with danger.  Concern over being typecast deterred some actors from accepting roles (e.g. Peter Jeffrey declined to play the second Doctor) or shortened the duration of their stint in the programme (e.g. Anneke Wills' Polly made an earlier exit than the production team desired).   Nowadays the culture has quite changed and the threat has receded, as evidenced by some of the plum roles in which former Doctor Who actors have subsequently excelled.

Jenny in action, accompanied by the Doctor
In this regard two crime dramas may slip under the radar, being primarily aimed at a Welsh audience. Catrin Stewart, who played Jenny Flint, Victorian maid and wife of the reptilian Madame Vastra, in Doctor Who, played policewoman Gina in S4C's Bang last year (S4C being the public service Welsh language broadcaster).  Eve Myles - Gwen Cooper in Torchwood and Doctor Who - is presently playing Faith, a solicitor, in S4C's Keeping Faith.  What is remarkable about these two programmes is how easily they can be read as more feminist than Doctor Who itself.  

Catrin Stewart's Welshness would not be obvious to Doctor Who viewers given Jenny's impeccable Cockney accent.  Yet she is indeed Welsh, and Bang was a bilingual series, with part of the dialogue in English and part in Welsh.  Given her Welshness it is regrettable that Doctor Who did not allow Stewart to use her Welsh accent as Jenny.  After all by contrast with the Welsh, Londoners and London are not exactly under-represented in Doctor Who.   Eve Myles' Keeping Faith is bilingual in a different way, with viewers able to choose between watching a version entirely in English and a version entirely in Welsh.  
Gwen and Captain Jack investigate

In the Whoniverse neither Jenny nor Gwen were allowed to entirely fulfill their potential.  In "The Crimson Horror" (2013), possibly Jenny's finest hour, she rescues the Doctor in an intrepid investigation on her own, culminating in an Emma Peel style action sequence, but her performance is undercut by being forcibly kissed by the Doctor -  a sexual assault which Alyssa Franke rightly criticises in her Whovian Feminism blog.   As for Gwen, in Torchwood she comes to assume the role of second-in-command of Torchwood Cardiff next to Captain Jack Harkness, yet not even for a short period do we see her lead the organisation.  Lorna Jowett praises Gwen for producing many critiques of Jack, but notes that when she needs more depth her family tends to get wheeled out (Lorna Jowett, Dancing with the Doctor, London: IB Tauris, 2017: 26, 52).

Perhaps one should be grateful for small mercies.  "Classic" Doctor Who (1963-89) did not exactly distinguish itself in its depiction of Welsh women.  In "The Green Death" (1973), an adventure set in Wales, Welsh women are far from prominent.  A character called Nancy actually makes the fungi-health-cake which kills the story's giant maggots, but Nancy is marginalised.  Indeed the most memorable woman in the serial (other than English companion Jo Grant) is the Doctor's comic impersonation of a cleaning lady.  In "Delta and the Bannermen" (1987) - which also has a Welsh setting - Welsh character Ray (Rachel) is relegated to being the tale's spurned love-interest.  The most high-up Welsh woman in classic Who was probably Megan Jones, head of the nationalised energy company in "Fury from the Deep" (1968), though her main contribution is to let the Doctor get on with it.

Always a worry:
Gina and her brother
By contrast with Doctor Who new and old, Catrin Stewart's and Eve Myles' characters in their Welsh crime dramas strike a more feminist note.  Bang is a series about a brother-sister relationship.  The programme persistently contrasts Gina (Stewart) with her ne'er-do-well brother.  She is clever than him, more competent, with a keener sense of public duty.  He by contrast falls (albeit from the best of intentions) into criminal ways and ends up acquiring a gun, hence the show's title, leading to mayhem.  Keeping Faith concerns a marriage in which Faith's (Myles') husband vanishes.  This leaves Faith having to juggle investigating his disappearance with keeping their struggling law firm afloat, and looking after their three children.  She makes mistakes and is herself suspected by the police of doing away with him, yet her strength of character shines out.  What unites Bang and Keeping Faith is the pervasive theme of the women outshining the men.   This rather contrasts with Doctor Who where, as Lorna Jowett points out, women characters are too often defined by their relationships with men (Lorna Jowett, "The Girls Who Waited?  Female Companions and Gender in Doctor Who" Critical Studies in Television 9:1, 77-94)
Faith encounters a rather inadequate client

Yet it ought to be the other way round.  Doctor Who, after all, is the science fiction programme.  As such it has special dispensation to depart from the real world into the realms of the speculative, the imaginative, the uncanny.  It should be able to imagine and fashion relationships which depart far from the "dominant man, subordinate woman" template of the show's 1970s era.  As Jodie Whittaker takes command of the unruly console as thirteenth Doctor, the programme has much ground to make up.