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Posts Tagged ‘The Sound of Drums’

In the past I have occasionally written about the political attitudes to be seen at work in the storytelling and concepts of Doctor Who (sometimes only to be seen if you screw your eyes up tight and put your head on one side, but even so). However, it occurs to me that there is fruitful territory for investigation if one looks at the actual political mechanics of Who-world, especially in its version of contemporary (or recent-history) Earth. Which politicians and other public figures do Who-world and our own reality share? What are the differences, and can we tease out some kind of story behind them?

The Doctor’s own credentials as a Republican or a Monarchist have never been articulated in detail, but given he’s happy to hob-nob with the royalty both of Earth and other planets (he is, after all, a Lord) it seems unlikely he is dogmatic about this sort of thing. In terms of the Earth royalty he encounters, Who-world and real-world history seem to agree in every respect –  his encounters with Rick One, Liz One and Two, and Vicky are all at the points in time when one would roughly expect them to occur.

(Although, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there’s a mild point of conflict when it comes to Battlefield, which alludes to the possibility of a reigning male monarch despite being set prior to the ‘present day’ of the more recent UNIT stories – at which time, specifically in Voyage of the Damned, Liz Two is still depicted as being on the throne.)

Well, this fidelity to fact is not entirely surprising if you think about it – politicians and other figures come and go on a fairly regular basis, but the Royal Family are pretty much a fixture. It’s in the storytellers’ interest that the fictional world and the real world be as similar as possible, just to maximise viewer engagement. A fictional prime minister requires much less suspension of disbelief than a fictional monarch.

Of course, there are also things like libel laws to consider, which largely prevent the show from using contemporary figures as characters. Possibly as a result of this, the general principle is that the show tends to stick closer to real-world fact in matters of history than it does when dealing with the present day – the most obvious example of this being the appearance of Winston Churchill as a character in Victory of the Daleks. Churchill is such a mythologised figure now that it’s easy to forget he was still alive when Doctor Who started broadcasting, at which time using him as a character on the show would probably have been unthinkable.

Despite being fairly heavily embedded in the side of the British establishment from the mid-60s on, the Doctor’s dealings with the political class for much of this time tended to be with junior figures – principal private secretaries, and suchlike. These are the sorts of figures regularly appearing in stories like Doctor Who and the Silurians (Masters, decent but doomed), Inferno (Gold, amiable but ineffective), The Claws of Axos (Chinn, pompous and inescapable), and The Sea Devils (Walker, grotesque and incompetent). The civil servant is a nuisance-figure in many of the third Doctor’s stories, and it’s only towards the end of his run that we meet a contemporary politician who’s an actual threat – Charles Grover, Minister with Special Powers, is one of the leaders of the Golden Age group in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Naturally, the BBC wanting to stay neutral, we never learn which party Grover belongs to, or indeed much about his policies beyond his being environmentally-conscious.

It's all the bloody government's fault I expect.

It’s all the bloody government’s fault I expect.

Only very occasionally do we get an idea of who’s really at the top of British society during these stories. The first occasion is during The Green Death, when such is the clout of Global Chemicals that they are able to have the Brigadier slapped down by the Prime Minister himself – whose face we don’t see, but who’s addressed by a colleague as ‘Jeremy’.

Now, whether you think The Green Death is set in 1973, 1979, or 1984, the fact remains that the UK has never had a Prime Minister called Jeremy! It seems a safe bet that the production team were suggesting, not necessarily seriously, that Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would get into  Number Ten. In the real world, Thorpe never made it: persistent rumours of a sex scandal, a dead Great Dane and an alleged conspiracy to commit murder all combined to end his career. In Who-world things may have gone differently.

Nevertheless, not that long after The Green Death, the mysterious ‘Jeremy’ is definitely out of office (unless there have been some fairly remarkable surgical developments) as when the Prime Minister phones up the Brigadier in the final episode of Terror of the Zygons, he respectfully answers ‘Ma’am.’ You could argue that at this point (whenever it is – 1975, 1980, or 1986) Who-world and real-world politics are back in sync and the Brig is talking to Maggie Thatcher, but there’s no reason why he can’t be talking to Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle or someone completely fictional.

From this point on, the Doctor spends less time in Britain, and when he’s there he spends much less time dealing with civil servants and other bureaucrats (although he seems to enjoy the company of Sir Colin Thackeray of the WEB in The Seeds of Doom). This is a trend which continues, on-screen at least, until the end of the original run. Time-Flight indicates that the Doctor’s dealings with the British government happen under the auspices of something called Department C-19, run by a Sir John Sudbury in 1981, but we learn nothing more about it. Is this the section of the Ministry of Defence which liaises with the United Nations where matters involved UNIT? Could it (a tantalising thought) be the official designation of Torchwood at this point in history? It is never expanded upon.

The 1989 stage play The Ultimate Adventure deserves a mention for its opening scene, in which the TARDIS is summoned to Downing Street and the Doctor given a mission by Thatcher to preserve world peace. This was broad stuff, played at least partly for laughs (Colin Baker attempted to slip a few topical jokes in when he took over the show) – but it was fun.

At some point before Who-world’s 2007, its politics and ours definitely had one point in common – in Rise of the Cybermen Mickey suggests a parallel world might be a place ‘where Tony Blair was never elected’, indicating he was Prime Minister in Who-world for at least a while. Quite when this was is never made clear, and the late 2000s in general proved to be an even more challenging time to be a senior politician in the UK than they did in real life.

The years of turmoil start in 2006, with the Slitheen attempt to infiltrate the UK government by impersonating (obese) minor members of the establishment (in Aliens of London). For these people to rise to the top, the then-current Prime Minister had to be removed, which he duly was. The PM’s corpse tumbles out of a cupboard on-screen – apparently a Tony Blair lookalike was considered, but the man on screen is visibly someone else (maybe Blair looked different in Who-world).

For the remainder of 2006 the Prime Minister is apparently Harriet Jones, a sitting MP under the previous incumbent. Jones is depicted as a rather Thatcherite figure once she actually becomes PM – there is a veiled reference to the General Belgrano controversy in The Christmas Invasion – but not an actively malicious one. Given that he previously predicted she would be in office for a considerable period, and oversee something of a new Golden Age (Charles Grover would have approved), it seems perhaps a little harsh of the Doctor to topple her government and drive her out of office: possibly even hypocritical, given his own lack of remorse when it comes to blowing up alien craft. It was almost certainly unwise, given what follows.

Yes, you know who she is.

Yes, you know who she is.

Exactly who it is that immediately follows Harriet Jones as Prime Minister in 2007 and part of 2008 is never really made clear – at this point Blair may have had his moment – but their government seems to have been an unpopular one. Towards the end of the year a new grouping led by the eerily charismatic Harry Saxon is enjoying a healthy poll lead, as reported in Victor Kennedy’s newspaper in Love and Monsters. There may be an election producing a hung parliament towards the end of the year, as by Christmas 2007 Saxon is in a position of authority over the armed forces, ordering them to open fire on the Racnoss ship over London in The Runaway Bride. The logical deduction is that Saxon is Minister of Defence in a coalition government – it was probably at this point that he worked with UNIT to design the Valiant carrier.

Saxon becomes Prime Minister in his own right following another election at some point in 2008. Following the not very thinly veiled ‘massive weapons of destruction’ and September 11th gags in World War Three, the Saxon-as-PM storyline is another piece of broad satire from Rusty Davies, as an implicit parallel is drawn between Saxon (who is, of course, the Master, the show’s quintessential supervillain) and Tony Blair. ‘We didn’t really know what his policies were… we just liked him,’ Martha says in The Sound of Drums, trying to explain the Master’s electoral popularity, and echoing criticisms of Blair’s own supposed ‘all style no substance’ appeal. This seems to me to be just more apparently-satirical comfort food, as Blair had become a deeply unpopular figure by the time these episodes were broadcast (almost in the same week he left the office of Prime Minister himself). Likening Blair to the Master is not particularly fair to either of them, surely.

It’s interesting, by the way, that one of the celebrities endorsing Saxon as Prime Minister is a real-world politician, the cat-loving non-dancer Anne Widdecombe, who was a sitting Tory MP at the time the episodes were broadcast. Are we to conclude that Widdecombe is amongst the MPs who abandoned their former loyalties to join the ‘Saxon party’? Was Anne herself really in the picture about what she was appearing to do?

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with... oh I can't be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with… oh I can’t be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

Widdecombe does not appear to be in the Saxon cabinet, which briefly appears in The Sound of Drums before the Master murders them all with nerve gas. It is a necessary quirk of maintaining a fictional universe closely based on our own that the near-complete slaughter of the government (not long after the death of a previous PM and the demolition of the seat of government) has no apparent effect on the everyday lives of people in the street. Things certainly seem to be back to normal by the Doctor’s next visit to the present day in Partners in Crime – some tongue-in-cheek dialogue about the sheer unlikelihood of the events of the previous episodes (the PM killing the American President then vanishing without a trace) was cut from the episode on the grounds it took lantern-hanging a shade too far.

Normally one would have expected a protracted period of political instability to follow not just the death or disappearance of the entire cabinet but also (one would assume) the total collapse of the party elected to power – one can’t really imagine the Saxon Party continuing in the Master’s absence, for all that he clearly still has followers in positions of influence.

Nevertheless, by late 2009 normal service appears to have been restored, with the sitting Prime Minister during Torchwood: Children of Earth being a Brian Green (more subtlety from Rusty: Brian Green as opposed to Gordon Brown), whose party is, as usual, left indeterminate. Five different Prime Ministers in the space of three years is, obviously, unprecedented in British history; the conclusion of Children of Earth offers us the prospect of a sixth, with Green’s premiership looking threatened.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

The same story reveals that Torchwood Three, at least, liaises with the Home Office. Given that Harriet Jones, while Prime Minister, indicates that she isn’t supposed to be aware the institute exists, there are some curious indications as to how the UK establishment operates in Who-world – although, following the events of Doomsday, it would hardly be surprising if Torchwood One, at least, found itself dragged out into the public view – or at least the awareness of the elected government.

The whole area of contemporary politics is one of those which the series has pulled back from since the installation of Steven Moffat as showrunner. An early draft of The Power of Three featured another new Prime Minister in office in 2014, this one openly hostile to the Doctor (presumably due to the effect he and his associates have had on the political establishment over recent years), but this element proved unpopular with the  production office and was dropped.

The series’ dealings with the politics of other nations have been much more limited, particularly during the original run. The same principles hold true, however – the President in 1969 during Day of the Moon is, as you would expect, Richard Nixon, for example.

When the plot of The Sound of Drums requires the Master to murder the President of the USA, however, the programme opts to wheel on a wholly fictional character rather than a nudgy-winky version of George W Bush. That said, the gentleman in question introduces himself as ‘Arthur Coleman Winters, President-Elect of the United States’ – the fact he is specifically President-Elect appears to be an attempt to suggest that Winters is actually Bush’s successor, but yet to be sworn in.

Either the American political cycle in Who-world is very different from ours, or this means that The Sound of Drums takes place very late in 2008, following that year’s election. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this idea, but it does mean that Torchwood series 2 now mostly takes place in 2009, making an already busy year in Who-world even more frenetic.

Presumably the gentleman who is the President of the USA by the end of 2009, and who addresses the world with his scheme to save the global economy (given the popularity of The West Wing with the makers of the current show, he may well have a secret plan to fight inflation), is the person originally elected as Winter’s Vice-President, promoted into the top job upon his assassination. Nevertheless, he is Barack Obama, who has obviously had a very different career in Who-world.

This is another example of the show’s world seeming superficially identical to our own but being rather different once you dig into the detail of it – something which is virtually a necessity given this is a fantasy show with a real-world basis. It’s unlikely to change for as long as the show remains in production, and watching the makers continue to walk the political tightrope will no doubt retain its odd fascination.

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