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.  

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Chips and the Doctor

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Making, serving and eating chips (fries or French fries in the US and Canada) is something which recurs in Doctor Who.  An important dish in Britain (not least as part of the famous fish and chips), chips have been used in the post-2005 programme to project the closeness between the reassuringly familiar and the humdrum. 

Chips have their downside
Thus in “The End of the World” (2005), the Doctor and companion Rose Tyler witness the final moments of the planet Earth.  The TARDIS then transports them back to contemporary London, as the Doctor grimly reflects on his own dead world and on being the last of his kind.  Rose’s response to this trauma is: “I want chips!”  “Me too!” adds the Doctor.  Chips are therefore something cheering: the familiar after the unnerving.  Two years later in “The Sound of Drums” (2007), chips again represent a clinging-to-the -familiar when companion Martha Jones buys them for the Doctor and Captain Jack Harkness, the trio having returned to Britain only to find it is being governed by despotic Prime Minister Harold Saxon, in reality the Doctor’s arch-enemy the Master, who is hunting them down.

Bill Potts winks at her love interest whilst serving her
a generous portion of chips
A decade later in “The Pilot” (2017), chips serve to make banal something previously rare in Doctor Who: a romance between two women.  New companion Bill Potts, a black lesbian, tells the Doctor a yarn in which she favoured an attractive woman with extra chips when working in the university canteen, unintentionally fattening her: “Beauty or chips.  I like chips.  So does she, so that’s OK”.  The Doctor questions whether she really came to university to serve chips and promptly offers himself as her personal tutor. 

Yet the reassuringly-familiar can blur into the dull.  In “The Parting of the Ways” (2005), the Doctor deliberately separates himself from Rose to save her from the Daleks, sending her back to present-day London.   Her mum Jackie and friend Mickey take her to a chicken-and-chip shop to have chips.  Rose mentions eating chips as part of the routine of the mundane life, contrasting that to the better way of living shown by the Doctor where “you make a stand and say no”.  Here, therefore, eating chips is not cheering but depressing.  As Ken Chen observes, the scene provides the misery of banality contrasted with the escapism of adventures with the Doctor (K. Chen, “The Lovely Smallness of Doctor Who” 2008-01 Film International 52).  Again, in “The Doctor Falls” (2017), Bill Potts’ girlfriend Heather, having saved Bill’s life by turning her into a water-based being, offers Bill a choice:
“I can make you human again…I can put you back home, you can make chips, and live your life; or, you can come with me.”
Bill seemingly opts for life in her new form with Heather, rejecting the reassurance of her previous existence in favour of adventure.  It is worth noting that the two Doctor Who companions particularly associated with chips - Rose Tyler and Bill Potts - are (alongside 1960s companion Ben Jackson) the Doctor's only working class companions in the Doctor's largely middle class cohort of TARDIS fellow-travellers.  

Companion Rose Tyler shows her fondness for chips
One instance of Doctor Who’s use of chips disrupts the simple spectrum of the comforting and the familiar shading into the humdrum.  In “School Reunion” (2006) chips are deployed in something of a metaphor for privatisation.  Set in a secondary school, chips loom large in the school dinners served by Rose Tyler.  The Doctor, posing as a teacher, complains that the chips are “a bit…different” whereas Rose thinks they’re gorgeous.   Most of the teachers (who are alien Krillitane posing as humans) attach importance to the children eating the chips.  It becomes apparent that there is something odd about the oil in which the chips are cooked.  It is Krillitane oil, which boosts the children’s intelligence, enabling the alien Krillitane to use them as a giant computer.  The idea of unwholesome school dinners and the ulterior motives of those who arrange them corresponds to concerns over the contracting-out of school dinners and the way in which they contain too much processed food, leading to programmes like Jamie’s School Dinners (2005).  Yet “School Reunion” fashions a science fiction mirror image of the British problem in which poor nutrition adversely affects school performance.  Obesity, including childhood obesity, remains a major problem in Britain.  Even when it comes to chips, therefore, Doctor Who does not evade the political. 

Announcement: lecture in London on Doctor Who's politics and law: all welcome

Professor Danny Nicol will be delivering a lecture on the themes of his new book Doctor Who - A British Alien? on Tuesday 6 March 2018, 5.30pm-6.30pm at the University of Westminster, Regents Street, London.  All welcome.  Obtain your ticket via the link below.

The lecture will explore the political dimensions of Doctor Who, the world's longest-running science fiction television series, arguing that the programme is just as much about Britain and Britishness as it is about distant planets and monsters.  The lecture interrogates the substance of Doctor Who's Britishness in terms of individualism, globalisation, foreign policy adventures and the unrelenting rise of the transnational corporation.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

Announcement: lecture in London on Doctor Who's politics and law: all welcome

Professor Danny Nicol will be delivering a lecture on the themes of his new book Doctor Who - A British Alien? on Tuesday 6 March 2018, 5.30pm-6.30pm at the University of Westminster, Regents Street, London.  All welcome.  Obtain your ticket via the link below.

The lecture will explore the political dimensions of Doctor Who, the world's longest-running science fiction television series, arguing that the programme is just as much about Britain and Britishness as it is about distant planets and monsters.  The lecture interrogates the substance of Doctor Who's Britishness in terms of individualism, globalisation, foreign policy adventures and the unrelenting rise of the transnational corporation.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

It's grim up Doctor Who's North

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Doctor Who is not just science fiction: it is also a television programme which seeks to represent the British nation.  In this regard, in November 2017 the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that it would arrange big-screen viewings of the Doctor Who Christmas special in advance of Christmas Day.  These would be held exclusively in towns in the North of England: Hartlepool, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Salford, Durham and Bradford, tickets to be allocated by ballot, with some preference being accorded to local people.

Clara and the Doctor follow the no-nonsense Mrs Gillyflower
in  Yorkshire-set "The Crimson Horror" (2013)

The concession to Northern England reflects the fact that the North is neglected compared to Southern England.  This in turn was reflected in the majority of voters in most Northern towns registering their dissatisfaction by voting “Leave” in the EU referendum of 2016.  This was seen as a cry of community outrage against disparities of wealth and power.  There is endless talk by government of building “economic powerhouses” in the North, but not much seems to materialise.

Yet the “concession” of an early viewing of the Christmas special seems rather tokenistic.  It is, after all, a lottery: only a small proportion of local Doctor Who fans will benefit.  Moreover the prize is double-edged, forfeiting the traditional element of surprise on Christmas Day.

There are surely more substantial ways of making Doctor Who more inclusive in terms of its representation of Northern England.

One, as argued in the blog before, would be to have the new Doctor play the role in her own accent.  Jodie Whittaker hails from Skelmanthorpe in Yorkshire, in the North of England, and has already played several prestigious roles in her own accent.  It is to be hoped that, like Christopher Eccleston, she plays the Doctor with a Northern accent.

Christmas jollities: tensions at the Yuletide table for
 Clara and family
Another way would be to have Northern companions, but to take their Northernness seriously by locating their back-stories far more markedly in the North.  The failure to do so is seen in Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman’s) tenure of the role of companion.  Clara came from Blackpool, yet worked as nanny then teacher exclusively in London.  Even when she invites her family to a rather strained Christmas dinner in “The Time of the Doctor” (2013), this proves a peripheral element of the story, detached from a Northern setting.

Three Time Lords in the North East: the Rani,
 the Master and the Doctor in "The Mark of the Rani" (1985)
A third way would be to set more Doctor Who adventures in the North.  So far only two Doctor Who stories have been set in the North of England in the show’s long history.  “The Mark of the Rani” (1985) was set in North East England, with its actors failing rather lamentably with the region’s difficult accent (The film I, Daniel Blake (2016), set in Newcastle, made the better choice of using local actors).  “The Crimson Horror” (2013) was set in Yorkshire.  Depressingly, in both instances, the TARDIS had veered off course: the Doctor meant to transport his companion to a Southern English setting.  Even in the latest series the programme relocated the Doctor to a university in Bristol, another southern city, albeit in England's south west rather than the south east.  If Doctor Who is to represent Britain properly, this will require a determined effort to shift a critical mass of Doctor Who escapades from the show’s southern comfort-zone.