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10 October 2018updated 02 Aug 2021 2:04pm

I couldn’t be more glad that the Doctor is at last a woman

Rachel Cooke reviews Doctor Who and A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad.  

By Rachel Cooke

The documentary series A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad seeks to find out how a mild-mannered eye doctor with a receding chin and a marked lisp ended up being responsible for the deaths of thousands of people (9pm, 9 October). It begins in 1970, when an ambitious soldier from a poor family, Hafez al-Assad, mounts the coup that will bring his family – and eventually his ophthalmic surgeon son, Bashar – to power in Syria, and ends with the heinous war that has reduced vast swathes of the country to rubble. En route all kinds of facts, some straightforward, some more bizarre, are marshalled in the cause of answering the question. It is, in other words, about as concise and compelling a guide to internal Syrian politics in the last 50 years as you could possibly hope for, and I watched the first episode in a state of disgust and fascination.

When it comes to murderous dictators, however, some things remain beyond our understanding. Brilliant as Nick Green’s films are, they cannot tell us how Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, sleep at night, assuming that they do. Every time the ghastly presidential palace appeared on screen – atop its desolate hill outside Damascus, it is the bastard child of a Hilton Resort and a discreet private hospital – I found myself picturing its marble bathrooms, pills stacked high on every shelf.

And what of the bedrooms? Are the presidential sheets (high thread count, bought in bulk at Harrods) utterly sodden by dawn, or does the palace air conditioning, turned up a notch or ten, ensure the Assads’ teeth chatter all night long? Perhaps, though, this is just wishful thinking on my part. As I write, the first lady’s Instagram account (297,000 seemingly swooning followers) is still regularly updated. The clothes, I can’t help but notice, look very up to the minute, the yellow and orange Pucci-style scarf she wears over her hair in one recent photograph making for a very fashion-forward contrast to the bald head of the painfully ill-looking little boy around whose waist she has merrily thrown her spindly forearm.

Familial horror shows are often described as Shakespearian. But the Assads really are the full Titus Andronicus. In Hafez’s time, new army recruits were required, during military parades, to perform various acts the better to prove their loyalty. Males were required to kill puppies before the president, and females to bite the heads off snakes. The female soldier we saw in black-and-white footage, having failed successfully to gnaw through the creature’s neck, appeared to panic, pulling and tearing at it with her hands instead. Would this have sufficed, or would she have been deemed to have failed? Probably the latter. Later, Bashar, the least loved of his father’s sons, described how Daddy told him that it did not matter what career he pursued, so long as he was successful.

“I liked the idea of working in the humanitarian area,” Bashar said, explaining his decision to become a doctor. But alas, it was not to be. His brother, Bassel, the heir, was killed in a car crash in 1994, at which point the Phil Collins-loving Bashar swapped his chinos for a suit and tie and returned to Damascus from London to replace him.

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Soon, he was joined there by his girlfriend Asma, a British-Syrian investment banker. “You can talk to him about anything!” she trilled, on camera. Asma was of an age to have strong Princess Diana tendencies, and decided to spend time, before their marriage, travelling the country incognito, listening to the concerns of ordinary Syrians. For this, she wore jeans and – presumably – noise-cancelling headphones and a blindfold. These humanitarians. How selfless they are, each of them willing to put their beneficence aside without giving it even so much as a second thought when required.

I feel funny about the outfit Jodie Whittaker is going to wear in Doctor Who, a braces and culottes combo that makes her look like a children’s television presenter of the late 1970s – and I think, too, that I’m now too old for the Time Lord’s adventures; a great weariness came upon me as she explained her sonic screwdriver to her charisma-free new pals Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill).

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But still, I couldn’t be more glad that the Doctor is at last a girl. As I watched the first episode of the new series (6.45pm, 7 October) – an alien whose face was covered in teeth had travelled to Earth in a freezing cold blue mushroom – I thought of myself as a child, and how this would have seemed to her. So exciting. So incredibly inspiriting. I had a sense of a circle closing, and all the more so because the first episode was – I could hardly believe it – set in my home town (“Now with added Sheffield steel,” our heroine announced, having fashioned a new sonic from a few bits of scrap metal: cue a small air punch from me).

It was Tom Baker’s reporter companion, Sarah Jane Smith, who first stirred in me the ambition to be a journalist. Who knows what this regeneration will do for all those small girls watching it now. 

Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad
(BBC Two)

Doctor Who
(BBC One)

This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain