Is Doctor Who an Anti-Imperialist?

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Marc-William Palen

We have been tackling some weighty subjects in the Forum this past week. In particular, the pros and cons of global history. A lighter approach to imperial and global history seemed in order. And who better to do so than an alien traveler of time and space like the Doctor?

Last Saturday witnessed the much anticipated 50th anniversary episode of the series. I had thought that my 3D glasses were enough to hide my attendance at its theatrical debut. But the cat, as they say, is out of the bag. It appears that I have failed miserably in keeping my secret Doctor Who obsession, well, a secret.

Today, one of my students sent me a link to a great article in the New Statesman. It explores the liberal contradictions of the intrepid Doctor, much as the Centre’s Professor Richard Toye did with Winston Churchill and empire last week. The author of the New Statesman article, Andrew Harrison, sets the ideologically confusing intergalactic stage thusly:

Under conditions of war, a British prime minister learns that a heavily armed warship belonging to the hostile power has been detected. Though it is travelling away from the theatre of conflict and poses no immediate threat, she orders it to be destroyed – an action that ultimately ends her premiership.

In another time, a western liberal democracy that has been conquered and colonised many times in the past discovers a previously hidden enclave of its territory’s original occupants, an entirely different culture that has a credible prior claim to the country’s land and resources. The response of the democracy’s military is to wipe them out in a deliberate act of genocide. The figure who embodies the democracy’s most liberal instincts is briefly outraged but his anger fades and he is soon friends with the military leader again.

Many years later, that liberal conscience figure is twice faced with the same problem. In one instance, he brokers talks between the two parties that eventually result in a new era of peace. In another, apparently forgetting himself, he incites the newcomers to rise up and massacre their previously hidden neighbours and gleefully joins in.

If you spotted that those examples concerned Prime Minister Harriet Jones doing a Belgrano on the fleeing Sycorax spaceship in “The Christmas Invasion” (2005), the Brigadier blowing up a population of subterranean humanoid dinosaurs in “The Silurians” (1970) and the 11th Doctor, played by Matt Smith, being inconsistent in his response to Homo reptilia and to the Edvard Munchinspired mind-wipers the Silence in “Cold Blood” (2011) and “Day of the Moon” (2012), respectively, well done and have a jelly baby. You are an observant Whovian and you are not oblivious to the political side of the world’s most successful sci-fi programme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

How do we reconcile how the Doctor at times is a staunch opponent of imperialism and murder, and at others gives his reluctant support to genocide? Apparently, that is part of the fun. The Doctor, it seems, cannot be pigeonholed.

Doctor Who has had plenty of nasty things to say about our society over the years but the politics and ethics of its hero have proved as malleable as its core cast. When faced with intergalactic imperialism . . . the Doctor is usually against it. When it comes to the moral acid test of liberal democracies – genocide – he’s more capricious.

The New Yorker, the piece notes, has also weighed in on the Doctor’s symbolism:

An odd piece in the New Yorker recently cited the extinction of the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, to posit the idea that the modern Who is some sort of parable about our refusal to engage with the Holocaust. The writer didn’t seem to notice that it was the Doctor who had wiped out his own people, along with the Daleks. Is a hero who has killed billions still a hero? “Fear me, Doctor, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords,” says a disembodied creature called House in “The Doctor’s Wife” (2011). “Fear me,” Matt Smith’s Doctor replies. “I’ve killed all of them.”

What to make of the Doctor? Is he a ‘left-liberal’ as the Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson describes, or is the Doctor ‘a paid-up member of the military-industrial complex,’ as Andrew Harrison suggests? Furthermore, are Cybermen Leninists? Are Daleks fascists? All difficult questions to ponder.

I realize now that I have been simplistic in thinking of the Doctor as an intergalactic anti-imperialist. Harrison’s article exposes my naivety. In reality, the Doctor’s imperial ideology remains more complicated. As Toye reminds us, so too does the imperial ideology of Winston Churchill, the Doctor’s close friend and ally.

Be sure to read the full New Statesman article here.

One thought on “Is Doctor Who an Anti-Imperialist?

  1. The New Statesman article was interesting, I’d also like to direct your attention to the Guardian article by Simon Winder, which I’ve copied a section of below. Of course, the character changed over the years with the times, so the stories of the late 70s & 80s are increasingly different from the earlier flavour. For more on Doctor Who and the evolving context it was written in, check out the onging series of books on the show by Philip Sandifer.

    À la recherche du Doctor Who
    With its shoddy sets and echoes of the British empire, early Doctor Who does not stand up well to the rigours of time travel. But for Simon Winder, who, like the Doctor, turns 50 this year, these surreal stories reawaken a sense of childhood wonder
    Simon Winder
    The Guardian, Saturday 2 November 2013


    Doctor Who’s dated, metropolitan Britishness is striking in these early episodes, as are the ways in which they preserve ways of pronouncing words that have drifted in the subsequent half century. Everything about the programme makes sense only in the context of the dying days of the British empire, its assumptions incomprehensible if the Doctor were Danish, say, or Chilean.

    The first incarnations of the Doctor (Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee) are all specifically imperial figures. In story after story the Doctor arrives in the manner of a harassed, well-educated district officer. He is introduced to the local “Big Man” and learns of his subjects’ specific issues (generally being rubbed out by killing-machines with no morals and a single chronic weakness) and then sorts them all out. He is constantly separating warring tribes, educating them, introducing new technologies.

    These actors’ military backgrounds and demeanour, barking out commands to the locals and scolding those who step out of line, give everything a sort of Swingin’ Safari atmosphere. With Hartnell’s first assistants being school teachers (one even teaching stone-age man how to use fire), the early stories have an enjoyably bizarre flavour of late imperial do-gooding, with the Planet Skaro more like a lightly disguised Malawi than somewhere genuinely alien. The poor Thals, Xerons and so on immediately fall into line, simply because they are being told to do so by people with British accents – whereas their enemies are patently Nazis, Thuggees, Marathas, Zulus and the rest, who the Doctor disposes of with a moral flaming sword.

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