As we get ready for the next series of Doctor Who, Sean Ledwith praises a show which regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression.
This October Jodie Whittaker will make her debut in one of the most eagerly awaited British television seasons of the decade. For the first time the role of the time-travelling Doctor will be played by a female. When Whittaker’s selection as the ‘Thirteenth’ was announced last year it was predictably received by political troglodytes as ‘political correctness gone mad’.
For the more enlightened majority, it was a welcome symbol of the growing acceptance of trans rights in British social attitudes. Not for the first time, the world’s long-running sci-fi series has reflected the social and political concerns of the wider population in creative and innovative ways. The series foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of a female Doctor in 2014 by regenerating the hitherto male villain of the Master into Missy, brilliantly played by Michelle Gomez. That inspired piece of casting proved hugely popular with critics and ordinary viewers alike, so the canonical formbook is already in place for Whitaker to be a success in the leading role.
Her predecessor as the Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation had also set the scene for a female iteration in his final episode by explaining how the Time Lords of Gallifrey have transcended the hang-ups of human sexuality:
We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We are billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a show that has endured in the public’s affection for over 50 years has been shrewd enough to tune into evolving social norms. What is less well known, however, is how on a significant number of occasions, writers and producers of a distictinctly left-wing hue have affected the trajectory of the show and taken it into the territory of radical and even revolutionary politics.
From its very first episode (inauspiciously broadcast the day after the JFK assassination in 1963) the makers of Doctor Who sought to carve out a niche for the show rooted in the democratic and populist instincts of a mass audience that was still being patronised by the hidebound patricians running the postwar BBC. Canadian-born Sydney Newman, as the new Head of Drama at the corporation in that year, explicitly viewed the show as part of his agenda to reflect the emerging values of a decade that would become synonymous with radicalism:
It was still the attitude that BBC drama was still catering to the highly educated, cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such. But above all, I felt that the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things.
Newman the made the bold step for the time of appointing a woman, Verity Lambert, as producer and an Asian, Waris Hussain, as scriptwriter for the early episodes. The latter explained how the show was partly fuelled by the presence of outsiders at its heart:
I was the first Indian-born director in the drama department. We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realised at the time.”
The initial brief was to create a programme that was both educational and entertaining by dispatching the Doctor and his companions backwards in time to historical locales such as the Aztec Empire or the Crusades in which they would confront hazardous situations but also, hopefully, pique the curiosity of a young audience and encourage them to find out more about such eras.
The early episodes were mixed in terms of fulfilling these criteria but then the show’s status was transformed by writer Terry Nation’s introduction of its most iconic villains – the Daleks. These genocidal pepperpots have long since secured their status in the national psyche as almost figures of affection. Less than twenty years after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, however, the appearance on British television screens of mobile machines, chanting ‘Exterminate’ and ‘I Obey’ and with an obsession for racial exclusivity, understandably had an unnerving effect on millions of all ages. Memorable images of Daleks patrolling the streets outside Parliament acted as sober reminders of what might have befallen the UK if the forces of fascism had prevailed only two decades earlier.
The parallels between the metallic militarists and their real-world inspiration was made even more evident in the 1975 serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in which the human progenitors of the race known as the Kaleds wore SS-style black uniforms, saluted each other and were led by a Himmler-like fanatic named Nyder. The chief scientist of the Kaleds and ‘father’ of the Daleks, Davros, is another of the show’s greatest villains and resembles nothing so much as the ranting figure of Hitler, ensconced in a bunker in the last days of the Third Reich.
The era of the Second Doctor (1966-69) played by Patrick Troughton steered clear of political parallels for the most part, and was content to prioritise – at the expense of any educational element – the growing popularity of the bug-eyed monsters that Sydney Newman had hoped to downplay.
It was with the arrival of Jon Pertwee in the title role in 1970 that the first of the great eras of ‘political Doctor Who’ came about. The Third Doctor is sometimes interpreted as an establishment figure who was happy to be employed by a quasi-government military force known as UNIT, and tasked with conducting extra-terrestrial interactions mainly in the form of high explosives.
In fact, Pertwee’s Doctor was in the vanguard of ecological politics and was frequently to be found having heated exchanges with impersonal, corporate types who were impervious to any agenda that did not involve making profits. The 1973 serial, ‘The Green Death’, is probably most fondly remembered for the giant maggots that menace the Doctor but also deserves a place in cultural history as probably the first primetime television viewing to feature an unambiguous pro-environmental and ant-capitalist message.
Labour MP, Tom Harris recognised the significance of that moment:
They were extremely scary, but not only was it about environmental issues, it was also the first time that a corporate entity, a corporate company became the Big Bad. So it was all about how big companies manipulate communities, which was the first time that was done.”
Two remarkable figures behind the scenes were the inspiration for this pioneering phase of Whovian radicalism. Writer Malcolm Hulke was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was deemed sufficiently subversive to be worthy of MI5 opening a file on him!
Hulke was no uncritical Tankie, however, and clashed with the pro-Moscow party leadership with his support for Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Hungarian rebels of 1956. Hulke was first recruited to Doctor Who by Sydney Newman during the Troughton era, but it was during the tenure of the Third Doctor that he was given the opportunity to script a number of stories that expressed his anti-establishment instincts.
In The Silurians (1970), Pertwee’s Doctor tries to broker peace between humanity and a subterranean race of intelligent reptiles but is thwarted by war-mongering militarists on both sides. In Colony in Space (1971), the Doctor joins forces with ecological freedom fighters to obstruct the rapacious greed of the Interplanetary Mining Company.
In Pertwee’s last season, Invasion of the Dinosaurs featured a high-level conspiracy by government generals and civil servants to use time travel to reverse what they regarded as the excessively democratic aspects of Seventies Britain. Again, the upper-class antagonists are portrayed as indulging in dubious preferences for crypto-fascist attire and mannerisms.
The serial was broadcast amid the political tumult of the 1974 miners’ strike, the three-day week and the ‘Who Governs?’ election called by Edward Heath. With hindsight, the conspiracy depicted onscreen has disturbing parallels with the real plot hatched by rogue elements of the British deep state that subsequently came to light, aimed at toppling the Labour government of Harold Wilson.
These and other similarly daring storylines of the Pertwee era were also the product of Malcolm Hulke’s collaboration with the other left-orientated figure closely involved with the show in the early Seventies - Barry Letts. As producer, the latter encouraged Hulke to create scrips with a distinctive anti-Establishment voice and to portray the Doctor as the bane of bumptious bureaucrats and trigger- happy generals.
Letts’ radicalism was informed more by what might be described as ‘Left Buddhism’ but still led him to produce serials such as The Monster of Peladon which depicted the Third Doctor taking the side of striking miners on the eponymous planet (also broadcast in the year of Scargill’s showdown with Heath!).
Tom Baker’s iteration of the role from 1974-81 is often regarded by those who recall it – and even many who do not – as the definitive version. However, from a political perspective, the Fourth Doctor represented a retreat from the eco-radicalism of Pertwee. Hulke and Letts departed the show along with Pertwee and their successors were content to let Baker’s larger-than-life personality alone supply most of the dramatic thrust.
However, one interesting feature of the Baker years was the controversial depiction of the Time Lords as a bickering bunch of over-grown public schoolboys. In The Deadly Assassin (1976), the portentous rulers of Gallery were stripped of their previously omniscient demeanour as featured in the Troughton and Pertwee years, and re-styled as grasping, out-of-touch aristocrats, clearly unsuited to the great responsibilities they had acquired over generations. it was the House of (Time) Lords, perhaps?
Robert Holmes, writer of this story, has spoken of the influence of the Watergate scandal and the Pinochet coup in Chile. The story even identifies the Doctor as a former agent of the CIA (the Celestial Intervention Agency, that is!). This pivotal story, and subsequent ones set on Gallifrey, make it apparent why the Doctor is a quintessentially anti-Establishment figure who rejected the class system and conservatism of his home planet.
In its third decade, Doctor Who began to run out of creative gas, partly because of glossy competition from multi-million dollar US sci-fi imports and also because the bosses at the BBC could not decide what to do with a programme that seemed out of place in the emerging era of satellite television.
Before its demise in 1989, the original run of the show enjoyed one last fleeting outburst of primetime subversion of the status quo. The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, was derided by many at the time for assuring the programme’s doom, thanks to laughable special effects and some dubious choices of companions.
In hindsight, however, McCoy’s portrayal looks like a valiant parting shot at the neoliberal philistines taking over, both at the Beeb and in wider society. The most celebrated political story from this twilight of the classic series was ‘The Happiness Patrol’ that featured a thinly veiled caricature of Thatcher, called Helen A and played with relish by Sheila Hancock. Script editor of the time, Andrew Cartmel, was explicit about his motivation while attached to the show:
John asked me: If there’s one thing you could do with the show, what would it be? And I said, ‘Overthrow the government!’ because I was young and I didn’t like the way things were going at the time.
The disdain for Tory policies by senior figures involved in the show probably did it no favours in the final days of its battle for survival.
Doctor Who’s triumphant resurrection in the 21st century was fuelled by a grassroots movement by hundreds and thousands of fans to refuse to allow it to disappear forever. For the fifteen years it was offscreen, devotees around the world kept the Whoniverse alive by creating novels, blogs, magazines and other forms of alternative media.
Fans such Russell Davies, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who would go on to become the driving forces of ‘Nu-Who,’ cut their artistic teeth penning Doctor Who novels in these wilderness years.
With Davies as showrunner, the stunningly successful reboot from 2005 quickly made it apparent that the show had not lost its subversive edge. In World War 3 (2005), an alien shape-shifter takes over as British PM and makes reckless claims about a non-existent enemy that has the potential to unleash WMD in 45 seconds. Tony Blair is also the target of John Simms inspired re-imagining of the Master as a cynical British politician who rises to the top with ruthless disregard for friends and enemies alike.
The Labour-supporting Davies and Moffatt also developed the iconoclastic portrayal of the Time Lords, initiated in the 1970s. In the post-Iraq story End of Time (2010), the Doctor’s own race has become so bloated on their own rhetoric they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the universe in a demented scheme to save themselves. As symbols of the British Establishment, the Time Lords have degenerated from the respected patricians of the 1960s to the delusional neo-cons of the 21st century.
Peter Capaldi, Whitaker’s predecessor in the role, has added to the Doctor’s repertoire of anti-capitalist sentiments with some well-aimed jibes at the system that many in workplaces throughout the public sector will recognise. Commenting on defective spacesuits that are actually designed to reduce the oxygen supply, the Doctor notes cynically:
This is the end of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet, like every worker everywhere. We’re fighting the suits.
Obviously, it would be absurd to imply the Doctor is an unambiguously left-wing figure and there have indubitably been many occasions in the show’s history when reactionary messages have been prominent. Marxist critic Sasha Simic makes a persuasive case that the character promotes an essentially liberal ideology based on modifying injustices rather than overturning them.
Nevertheless, the perennial popularity of a primetime show that regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression should be something the left can continue to draw sustenance from for many years to come.
Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary.