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25 November 2023

Doctor Who has always been political

Right-wingers may whine about “woke” storylines now, but in the 1970s a communist was writing scripts about imperialism.

By Jonn Elledge

The usual suspects have been whining for quite some time. “Doctor Who fans fume and brand show ‘woke’,” the Mail screamed last Monday, after last week’s Children in Need sketch gave us a version of Davros, creator of the Daleks, who still had use of his legs. “Doctor Who has degenerated into a right-on lecture,” a writer for Spiked complained in April. Just a few weeks ago, Tim Stanley, the right-wing commentator who once wrote the show’s obituary for the Catholic Herald (“RIP Doctor Who, 1963-2017”) after the Doctor regenerated into a woman, laid out his stall on Newsnight. “Doctor Who, like the BBC, has always reflected the philosophy, the values, of the establishment of its time,” he said. “In the past that establishment was a little more small-c conservative. Today it’s politically correct.”

Far be it from me to suggest that such a luminary as Tim Stanley might be wrong, but when I said this whining has been going on a while, I really meant it. In the Spectator archive you’ll find a piece headed “Dr Who’s politics”, which complains of “a growing tendency on the part of the Doctor to moralise tediously about peace, love, and brotherhood”. In one recent episode, it notes, the Doctor had warned of the dangers of glorifying war; in another, his companion had shown “a ludicrous enthusiasm for some ecological cranks in South Wales”. The column is dated 26 May 1973. The show, which celebrated its 60th birthday last Thursday, was not yet ten years old.

At the time, the role was played by Jon Pertwee in velvet smoking jacket, his best friend a Brigadier and a literal army at his back; his third Doctor is, on the surface, the most patrician and establishment the Time Lord ever got. But the enemies he fought were not just Daleks and other monsters, but racism, imperialism and amoral big business, and many of his best stories were written by the self-professed communist Malcolm Hulke. A belief that Doctor Who was ever small-c conservative, I suspect, says less about the episodes than the age at which someone first saw them.

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since, with impeccable timing, “Survival”, the very last story of the original run back in 1989. But it’s only over the last few years that I actually sat down to watch it in order, from the first William Hartnell story to the last Jodie Whittaker one. This pilgrimage would once have been impossible, the stories either ruinously expensive or entirely unavailable. But as of this month the entire archive is there on iPlayer for anyone who wants to watch, and even the 97 missing episodes are available as soundtracks and, increasingly, animations.

[See also: Marx and Keynes can free Labour from its budget bind]

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One of the things that great, four-year journey taught me was that Stanley was right about something: Doctor Who does always reflect the age in which it is made. The very first two stories, made less than two decades after the Second World War, and chosen because they were the first two scripts available, examine themes including the source of political power, the arguments against pacifism and the fall out from a nuclear holocaust.

At times the decision to get political was clearly deliberate. The row about Davros’s legs came about after Russell T Davies, who’d previously normalised same-sex relationships for a generation of children, said he no longer wanted to show an evil wheelchair user. One script editor from the late 1980s, Andrew Cartmel, has explicitly said he hoped to use this kids’ TV show about a time-travelling alien to produce searing social commentary that could help overthrow Margaret Thatcher. 

At other times, though, it was just that a show which was already classed as long-running before the Seventies were out has long been dealing with an unquenchable hunger for novelty. When the Pertwee era’s script editor Terrance Dicks found inspiration in the miners’ strike or Britain’s accession to the Common Market, it wasn’t that he thought the Doctor should take a line on the issues of the day: it was that he needed to fill 26 episodes every year for half a decade. So, just as the Sixties show found stories in swinging London or the White Heat of Technology, the Seventies one inevitably looked to debates around what it meant to have once had an empire, and the Eighties to the decline of the social fabric. One reason to be sad about the long interregnum, the 16 years the show was off the air, is that it could no longer act as mirror to the nation’s fashions and fears.

It did come back, of course, and will soon have been back almost as long as it was on the first time round. (By my count, the new show will exceed the old if it makes it to 8 April 2031; the 2025 season is already in production.) In recent years Doctor Who has told stories about extremism and integration, plastic pollution and mental health. In one 2017 episode about a corporation that limits its employees’ access to oxygen, the Doctor literally overthrows capitalism; a dozen episodes later, she saves space Amazon from pro-worker terrorists. The Doctor contains multitudes; “political” does not always have to mean “progressive”.

It generally does, however, and the recent work of returning showrunner Russell T Davies (Years and Years, It’s A Sin) suggests he’s rather angrier than he was the first time around. The decision to cast Ncuti Gatwa, a queer actor who moved to Scotland from Rwanda as a child, feels like a marker in the ground. And as a nerd of some years standing, I can’t help but feel proud that, while Star Trek told a story about refugees, my favourite show literally cast one as its lead. 

So, yes, those critics are right: Doctor Who can be quite political these days. The thing is, though: it really always was.

[See also: JFK and the myth of the great martyr-saviour]

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