Posts Tagged ‘Politics in the TARDIS’

Class distinctions seem to be very much a hot topic at the moment here in the UK. This seems to be due to a) the success of The King’s Speech, the tale of one of the toffiest people imaginable bonding with someone who’s not just a pleb, but an Australian, and b) the fact that in a few months time we’re all to be given a day off work (well, those people who actually have jobs – the rest of us won’t feel the benefit of this particular piece of largesse) to celebrate the fact that the future monarch will be marrying a ‘commoner’ – she’s never even had her own coat of arms! It’s madness! (Then again she’s never really had a proper job either, so surely the jury’s still out on her woman-of-the-people credentials.)

So class is a still live issue here in the UK, though perhaps less than it has been in the past: while the way a person speaks, behaves and dresses can still tell you something about their background, you would be unwise to draw too many assumptions from this. Television in general also seems to have abandoned its general condescension towards and suspicion of the working class.

(Yeah, I’m sorry, but this is a piece about the British class system, which really obliges me to use generalisations like ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘posh’. As ever, real life is much more complicated.)

This is hardly surprising given that for a long time TV was, on the whole, made by university-educated chaps, who may not have been that familiar with the full spectrum of society. In the TV of the sixties and seventies one can surely detect a sort of panem et circenses approach in the provision of things like soaps and game shows, and an assumption that the really worthwhile stuff was plays and authored documentaries.

Certainly, if you look more closely at TV SF and fantasy, it seems to be very much a middle-class pursuit. Survivors, in particular, presents a world where the working classes seem to have suffered disproportionately from the plague, and the few still around are mostly either shotgun-toting bandit scum or the comic relief. Blake’s 7 is nearly as bad.

And it’s the same with Doctor Who, throughout the original run. Of the attempts to create a believable working-class companion, only one is really successful, and that’s a character from the mid-Sixties (and before you object, Ace just comes across as a middle-class girl pretending to be ‘street’ most of the time). Honorable mention for Sergeant Benton, though.

The rest of the time, you’re only really likely to meet anyone working class if you go out into the countryside, and even then they’ll probably be a comedy yokel or tramp. I suppose one has to mention Drax from The Armageddon Factor at this point: Drax is a Time Lord and old mucker of the Doctor’s, who he bumps into off in deep space somewhere. Drax has spent so much time in 20th century London he’s gone native and developed a Cockney accent. The crucial thing is that Drax’s accent is irrelevant to the plot – it’s simply a character quirk, and one that to me seems deeply tied up with the fact that he’s basically a comic-relief sidekick to the Doctor.

'Cor blimey guv'nor. Strike a light. Would you Adam'n'Eve it?' etc. etc.

Things improve a bit as the series goes on – though not a huge amount, the ‘girl gangs’ of Paradise Towers still talk like they’ve all been to Roedean – and it does score a definite success in Survival, with its depiction of Ace’s old friends and their haunts in a London suburb of tower blocks and vandalised community centres.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to marvel at the continuity of tone and setting between Survival and Rose, as though one could watch the entire series in sequence and barely notice the transition (and it’s hardly as if either was particularly representative of the series at the time). But one way in which Rose is very much signalling a change of approach is in the social background of its characters.

In the first year of the revived show, there are probably more significant and serious working-class characters than in any five or six of the old run – most obviously there are Rose, Mickey, and Jackie, but in addition to that there’s Raffalo the space-plumber, Gwyneth the maid, all the people at the wedding the Reapers crash, Nancy and her kids, Lynda with a Y… admittedly, some of them come from different societies to ours, but the creative decisions were made to have them dress and talk in way that hits a particular set of cues.

And there’s no overlooking the fact that Russell T Davies even has a damn good try at making the Doctor seem working-class. On the face of it this seems an absurd proposition – not only is his general demeanour that of a brilliant academic, he’s a Lord, for heaven’s sake – but the strengths of the scripting and Christopher Eccleston’s performance are such that, somehow, the quintessential Doctor survives beneath the jeans and leather jacket and accent (one of the very few good gags in Adam Roberts’s Doctor Who parody E.T. Shoots And Leaves was his summarisation of Eccleston’s Doctor as being performed in the style of ‘an unemployed northern builder on E’ – funny, because it’s ultimately true).

His Lordship, slumming it with the chavs.

I’m not sure how much of this was what you’d call a conscious decision on Rusty’s part – nearly all his work outside Who-world operates in this kind of narrative space, with characters from this sort of background. His background writing for soap operas may be significant, or it may just be the way his creativity operates. Certainly it works well in terms of making the revived series accessible to a wider audience, which was doubtless a major concern at the time, although the insertion of the ‘soap opera’ element drew heavy flak from some parts of the fanbase.

It is curious, though, that ever since 2005 the series appears to have slowly creeping back towards its former position. David Tennant’s Mockney accent is just that – no-one in the show seems to read anything into it regarding his background. Post-Rose, the Doctor’s associates have generally gone back to being from the professions – Martha’s a doctor, Jackson Lake is a teacher, Adelaide is a scientist, Christina is a fellow toff – although of course Donna and her grandad don’t quite fit this pattern. (We should remember that Donna was originally only written as a one-off character, and Martha’s replacement was planned to be Penny the journalist.)           

Post-Davies, this shift has only accelerated: you couldn’t describe Matt Smith’s deranged boffin as being in any way down to Earth or recognisable as someone you might meet in everyday life, while Amy Pond hails from a picture-book country village rather than a housing estate or suburban street. The general tone is now fairy-tale rather than soap opera, though it hasn’t abandoned everyday life entirely: putting the Doctor into just such a setting is the whole point and joy of The Lodger, for instance.

And, so far as one can tell, this return to a slightly more ‘classic’ style doesn’t seem to have compromised the series’ mass appeal in any way. Does this mean Rusty was being overcautious in the way he pitched his earlier work on the show? Well, I don’t know; maintaining a big audience isn’t the same thing as attracting one in the first place, after all, and I can quite see why he wouldn’t want to take any chances. And as I said, I doubt it was entirely a considered choice on his part.

I suppose you could argue that, against the wider background of TV in general, what’s been going on in Doctor Who over the last year or two has been an ultimately retrograde step – moving against the democratisation of TV over recent decades. Possibly – if, as I’ve argued, this is simply the show’s core values reasserting themselves – this is one of the rare signs that the programme we’re talking about is, in TV terms, is a product of a different, ancient world, with its roots in a wholly different style of storytelling. Slightly archaic it may be, but this style has served it well for nearly half a decade and should continue to do so in years to come.

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As a liberal-verging-on-the-out-and-out-socialist, it only makes sense that I should be drawn to things that chime with my own attitudes, and the more deeply-embedded the connection, the stronger my own affection. So it’s hardly a surprise that I can detect a rich vein of distinctly British, distinctly left-of-centre material running through my favourite TV series like lettering through a stick of rock. Doctor Who is obviously a TV show made by and for lefties.

Unfortunately, others disagree with this self-evident truth: the political activist and former parliamentary candidate Alex Wilcock has previously written about the series’ role in making him a member of the Liberal Democrats (or Satan’s Meat-shields as I believe the party is considering retitling itself), while ex-Tory MP Tim Collins once made a disconcerting habit of popping up on DVD extras extolling his love for the series.

So things are not as obviously clear-cut as they seem. What is one to do? What are the politics of Doctor Who? What are the Doctor’s own politics, come to that? I hope to shed some light on this topic, usually by coming at it from odd angles.

One such approach begins with a look at some of the criticism directed at the finale of David Tennant’s first season, Doomsday. I don’t like Doomsday a very great deal. I think it marks the first moment where Rusty Davies’ efforts to invest the series with an emotional resonance got out of control and the tail started wagging the dog. Other people have produced closely-argued critiques of the storytelling, and they seem to me to be accurate. However, one brand of Doomsday-criticism never fails to make me laugh in its sheer missing-the-pointness and that’s the line going something like this:

The Cybermen get done over by the Daleks much too easily in Doomsday.

More precisely: throughout this episode, ever-increasing numbers of Cybermen hurl themselves against four (that’s four) Daleks in mortal combat, and are effortlessly slaughtered, while the Daleks suffer no real casualties whatsoever. The Cybermen, runs the argument, are the Numero Dos Doctor Who monster and should put up a better showing than this, right?

Well, hoo hoo, ha ha, which series have you been watching? Doomsday manages to get this much right at least: the Cybermen have always been presented as a bit rubbish throughout their time on the show.

I am breaking no new ground when I suggest that if ever a Doctor Who monster needed to be wrapped in a scarf by its mum and careful where it went upon leaving the house, it is a Cyberman, as their list of allergies and impediments is remarkable. Dauntless cyborg warriors they may be, but they are variously (and extremely) vulnerable to radiation, gravity, induced emotional states, and (most famously) gold. There’s a bit in Attack of the Cybermen (another lousy story, of course) where the Doctor declares ‘The Cybermen have only one weakness…!’ which would have been funny enough even had he not gone on to describe a brand new one – emotionless they may be, but apparently they can’t resist going to help each other out whenever they get into trouble.

And, prior to their encounter with the Daleks at Canary Wharf, the Cybermen are on the receiving end of an astounding number of beatings. Their basic tactic upon coming under fire seems to be to march forward into it regardless. This one-in, all-in approach shows admirable solidarity and esprit d’corps, and is not out of character as we shall see, but it does result in a number of spectacular Cyber-massacres. They even get handed a bloody good hiding by the old ‘ooh sarge bullets don’t stop them aaargh’-style cuddly UNIT, the only really big-name monster to do so.

When they're not being massacred the Cybermen enjoy clubbing as much as anyone else.

As time goes by, the Cybermen do appear to make some tactical progress, in The Five Doctors abandoning their ‘let’s all keep walking anyway and see how it turns out’ approach in favour of ‘let’s all stand around looking at each other in bemusement’ upon encountering the Raston Robot. The result of this is, unfortunately, yet another massacre. Cheeringly, by the time of Silver Nemesis the Cybermen seem to have learned their lesson and actually choose to run away when confronted by a seemingly-invincible force. We should not let our view of the boys from Telos be coloured too much by the fact that the seemingly-invincible force in question is one man with a bow and arrow.

In the wider universe, the Cybermen are also presented as very much the poorer relations of the monster set. The Daleks forge galactic alliances, master time-travel and destroy the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe! The Sontarans engage in an epic war lasting for millennia, and, while they don’t actually conquer the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe, they give it a damn good try and leave the Time Lords with a big cleaning bill when they fail. Meanwhile, the Cybermen are hanging around space stations and moonbases trying to sneak in, and when that fails they all go and hide in a big fridge. And when the monster alliance builds the Pandorica prior to The Pandorica Opens, guess who gets stiffed with hanging around on guard duty? Even then the Cyberman in question manages to get himself mugged by Bronze Age tribesmen. Nice work, trooper!

We hear a lot about Galactic Cyberwars and the Cybermen being barred from the Death Zone, but I just suspect the former is the result of the Cybermen employing a good PR consultant, while the latter – well, you can’t blame the Time Lords for wanting to keep things credible – it’s called the Game of Rassilon, not Really Easy Target Practice for Everyone Else.

What, you may be asking, has any of this to do with the politics of Doctor Who? A fair question, and to answer it let us consider the political ideology of the Cybermen. What clues can we derive from their behaviour? They famously don’t seem to get on with those notoriously right-wing Daleks – who rightly suss the Cybermen out to be lightweights – and are famously egalitarian. Beyond occasional declarations of ‘You belong to us’, made to lesser races, they don’t seem to go a bundle on personal property, either (excepting black paint, which is the exclusive preserve of Cyberleaders). We have already discussed their touching solidarity and unwillingness to let each other suffer alone. It’s obvious, really: the Cybermen are socialists.

Not in your monolithic, Stalinist way, of course (this is the preserve of those Cybermen knock-offs spiritual cousins of the Cybermen, the Borg), but in the vaguely-embarrassing, hanging-around-on-street-corners style of Socialist Worker activists. They have a strong set of core beliefs but no clue whatsoever about how to put them into practice. It’s touchingly pathetic, really – no wonder they have those little tear-drop things drilled into their eye sockets.

So there we have it: our first clue that the politics of Doctor Who are not as clear-cut as one might think. The series is not as wholly uncritical of left-of-centre ideologies as one might have expected – even if, through the very ineptness of the Cybermen, it seems to be suggesting that the true dangers lie elsewhere. The Cybermen are there not really to be hated but pitied. And then blown up.

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