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.