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Doctor Who can change the world with a sidekick and a satsuma. Why can’t he become a she?

The greatest fights for the future of the human race are fought in the territory of the imagination.

Every fan says this about their favourite series, but Doctor Who really isn’t just another television show. It’s a very simple story – an eccentric time traveller shoots around the universe in a blue box rescuing people and saving worlds from tinfoil space Nazis and, occasionally, from themselves – that has been extended, over 50 years, into a myth. Particularly in Britain, where about a third of us watch the series, people obsess over Doctor Who. I obsess over it. And now that the latest title-role actor, Matt Smith, has announced his departure, the debate about whether it’s finally time for the Doctor to be played by a black man or, worse, a woman, is engendering the kind of resistance that would make the Doctor him-or-herself deeply disappointed in our species.

Although it’s a show that’s all about change, fans of Doctor Who are curiously stubborn about this one. To cast a woman in the lead role would require a small rewrite of the series rules, but Doctor Who has been rewriting its own rules for two generations, starting with the one that said the protagonist had to be played by the same actor all the time. After the first Doctor, William Hartnell, left in 1966, writers simply plonked in a get-out clause allowing the character to die and regenerate in a different body. In Doctor Who, deadly statues come to life when you blink – but apparently it’s impossible to imagine the Doctor not being a white guy.

Some fans argue that boys and men will be unable to relate to a Doctor who isn’t male. In fiction as in life, women and people of colour are expected to relate to the stories of white men and understand that we can never be the hero –but it never works the other way round. To expect little white boys to look at a black time lady and imagine themselves fighting her battles would be unthinkable.

It makes people angry. It makes otherwise decent humans who would be horrified to think of themselves as racist or sexist terri - fically angry. In Britain, where Doctor Who is a matter of national pride, it provokes fierce debate even among people who have never seen the show. A recent YouGov poll on the subject made for dispiriting reading: the most important traits of the Doctor were considered to be that the character be British (54 per cent), male (52 per cent) and white (23 per cent).

Because Doctor Who has been a cultural touchstone in Britain for half a century, so the logic goes, we cannot have it fronted by a black man or a woman. It just wouldn’t feel right. Right now, arguing about who the next Doctor should be feels more real than arguing about parliamentary politics, because there’s at least the slim chance that what we think might influence the outcome. If we were the Doctor, we could bring down the government with the help of a feisty sidekick and a satsuma, but we aren’t, and we don’t have a Tardis, so we have to go the long way round.

Significantly, within the narrative scope of Doctor Who, the Doctor is, in his eccentric and bumbling way, the most powerful being in the universe. For all these years, he’s been bringing down governments, destroying armies and species and saving others with a sweep of his sonic screwdriver. This is how we the British people saw ourselves for centuries, and how privately we still like to think of ourselves – a little silly, perhaps, but basically a benevolent world power, careering around the known universe making it better, not because we’re stronger than everyone else but because we’re smarter. It’s the Great Man Theory of History expanded to encompass the whole of time and space.

None of this means I’m not a fan. I’m a nerd and a telly nut, and also a whining pinko queer feminist who’s never happy, so picking over the various wins and fails of Doctor Who is not only one of my favourite things to do, it’s how I spend a great deal of my time and occasionally how I pick up geek boys at parties. Where others have given up on the show in recent years, I cling to the belief that some day Doctor Who will be good again. As the Fourth Doctor observed in Warriors’ Gate, “One good solid hope is worth a cartload of certainties.”

Why is it so hard to conceive of a female Doctor, or a black Doctor? For the same reason that it’s so hard to conceive of a female president, or a black prime minister, or any world government or economic power not largely controlled by rich white men: because we cannot imagine it. Because we refuse to imagine it. Because the stories we tell ourselves and each other about power and history don’t often include women and non-white people in leading roles.

Ultimately, it’s all about stories – who gets to tell them, who gets to be the hero and who’s stuck as the sidekick. Sweeping social change usually happens in stories first, and science fiction often has an agenda. What could be more political, after all, than imagining the future?

It goes like this: somebody dreams up a far-out notion of how the world might look if things were different and writes it down or acts it out and, gradually, people are given permission to imagine other lives. The first black president of the United States cropped up in science-fiction stories in the mid-1960s; similar characters featured in the science fiction films The Fifth Element and Deep Impact, the hit TV series 24 and, that’s right, Doctor Who. People do the work of changing the world – but stories give us permission to reimagine it.

The greatest fights for the future of the human race are fought in the territory of the imagination. Doctor Who taught me that. People, like the Doctor’s Tardis, are bigger on the inside, and often in our minds we live in the future we want to see for a long time before we get up the courage to create it. Watching familiar stories change can be frightening. But, as the Doctor said in Planet of the Daleks, “Courage isn’t a matter of not being frightened. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.