A fellow on reddit (yes, I know) with a history of GamerGate-related posts went on a tirade in response to another redditor’s post that engaged with a Mark Gatiss episode on a critical level. It wasn’t even that deep; it was that whole “Unquiet Dead” business, where the plot is about refugees who play on sympathies to gain entry to one’s country in order to attack it within. Which, you know, ick. Especially in the current context of Brexit. Mark Gatiss clearly didn’t intend the most obvious reading of the work, but then he’s not a very deep thinker about these things.
Anyway, as they do, the GamerGate fellow rambled on about ethics in Doctor Who commentary and whatnot, insisting that the other redditor was imagining things to suit their agenda, and that politics have no place in Doctor Who and have never been a part of the show except for where people like Russell T Davies have brought them in.
This is, of course, an amazing thing to claim. Yes, there’s all the overt political commentary that Davies and, to a lesser degree, Moffat have brought to the show in recent years — “massive weapons of destruction” and all. But it goes way deeper than that. So, trigger my response:
And Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Andrew Cartmel — all very engaged. Hartnell’s third season had a stern reactionary in charge for part of it, and boy did that affect the show’s tone.
All art is political, by the virtue of being the product of a human being with a perspective on life who exists in a social context. Any art that is consciously apolitical is also political, in that it is saying the status quo is just fine, thank you. It’s making a judgment as to what is and is not appropriate to discuss, which is extremely political.
Screenwriting like any art is a form of communication. By necessity what is being communicated is a result of the author’s frame of reference. The author may or may not consciously draw conclusions (Gatiss does not), but by translating and reiterating that material you are in effect propagating and condoning it. In Gatiss’ case, his source material is in fact conscious and deliberate in its commentary. Nigel Neale is far from subtle in his reactionary views. Quatermass IV is entirely about those dirty hippies and the danger they bring. Earlier stories are consciously about fear of attacks or negative influence from outside the UK’s borders. He never made a secret of that. And when you internalize and then regurgitate this material without considering its meaning… you’re really misfiring as an artist, to start with.
It’s probably worth considering that the very creation of Doctor Who was a political act.
In the 1960s, the BBC was losing viewers hand over fist to its competitor, ITV — so they called in a Canadian expert, Sydney Newman, to figure out what was going on and take whatever steps were necessary to fix it. The problem was pretty obvious: ITV spoke to people in a way that the BBC didn’t. Whereas ITV consciously tried to show a variety of perspectives and reflect the lives of its viewers, the BBC was an establishment institution with a single very narrow perspective. It was staffed largely by old white upper-class or upper middle-class men, who attended the same few private schools — and so naturally its output reflected that, being mostly concerned with what upper-class white men with fancy schooling thought was worthwhile. You got lots of sniffy adaptations of The Classics; lots of prim and proper, uncontroversial children’s entertainment (often based on The Classics); lots of televised plays.
Newman came in, said “Bunk,” and set to overturning the apple cart. Let’s make programs that people actually want to watch. Everyone hated him for it, but he got results.
I’ll stop here to comment on motivation. Newman’s, and the BBC’s, reasons for all of these changes are more easily attributed to pragmatic factors than consciously ethical ones. That doesn’t change the substance and effect of the changes. If you endorse a bill for, I don’t know, gay marriage, you may well be doing it for the votes but you’re still carrying out a perspective with real meaning and potential consequence.
That out of the way, it is clear that the BBC’s exclusionary tendencies were high on Newman’s mind for more than just their poor business value. He was an outsider to the institution; a Canadian, a Jew, and not particularly high in the class structure. There were reasons that he understood a populist voice; he was in many ways sympathetic to a contrarian view toward the establishment.
To that end, he was really fond of science fiction — which at the time was considered extremely low art, and basically worthless on a cultural level. So of course, against all advice, he set about commissioning research to figure out how to make a worthwhile populist sci-fi show. On a bureaucratic level, this absolutely is a political move.
Then when he found a premise that he liked, he went out of his way to staff it with neglected voices. He hired on a young Jewish woman to be the first female, and one of the youngest ever, BBC producers. He hired on a young gay Indian director. This show was something that personally interested him. He wanted it to have a life outside of the old upper-class white male framework that defined most BBC output. This had to be new and fresh and exciting, which meant that it had to be the product of new, fresh (for the BBC), and exciting perspectives.
Doctor Who basically exists to flip the bird to the establishment and show what else is possible within the system that they set up — and, just to prove the power of getting weird, to get people watching.
As a result of this whole context, Doctor Who was pretty much a pariah within the BBC from the day of its commission to the day of its cancellation. It was never the correct thing, that the BBC was supposed to be doing. It was always a waste of valuable BBC resources.
This is political. And given this environment, it should be no surprise that the show’s content has nearly always been itself political, especially concerned with the voice of the disenfranchised. The Doctor has nearly always been portrayed as the underdog, an outsider, sympathetic to (for lack of a more inclusive term) humanitarian concerns. Weirdly enough, the most obvious counter-example is from an era largely guided by a Buddhist pacifist and a politically active Communist — but I guess the military framework provides all the better a canvas to explore things like Apartheid (The Mutants), indigenous rights (The Silurians), environmentalism (The Green Death), and what-have-you. Makes it easier to slip things in.
So, yeah. Of all shows, it’s a pretty strange thing to ask Doctor Who to avoid politics. But then, given how political that demand is in itself, it’s not a very rational argument in the first place…