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The current era of Doctor Who has, not unusually for the show, proven a controversial one. In line with such blockbusters as The Last Jedi and Captain Marvel, the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor (and, more recently, the revelation of Jo Martin as a previous Doctor) has pulled misogynistic trolls out of the woodwork, many of them lifelong fans of the show, screaming into the void of comment sections and Twitter about the “woke BBC.” Understandably, this has led many fans to mount a sort of rearguard action, celebrating the era headed by Chris Chibnall in defiance of the “Not My Doctor” brigade. It sometimes appears that for both sides of this divide, a relative diversity of casting has created the illusion of the show as a progressive trailblazer. Unfortunately, this obscures the fact that, since Chibnall’s accession in 2018, the show’s politics have, for the most part, been blandly centrist.
Among critics of the era (the less ranty types, at least), the most derided instance of this remains the astonishing ‘Kerblam!,’ in which the Doctor and friends investigate space Amazon, a company whose workers are overworked, live in fear of the precarity of their jobs, and don’t get to see their families. The trouble is eventually tracked to a lone dissident attempting to frame the company, leading the Doctor to confidently assert that “the system is not the problem.” At the story’s resolution, the workers are graciously granted two weeks’ holiday. The Doctor and companions are offered management positions, but gracefully decline.
Unfortunately, this kind of approach typifies the Chibnall era’s standpoint. Its visit to Rosa Parks manages to, inadvertently or otherwise, centre the white experience by focusing on Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) guilt at seeing Parks’s famous protest. Nikola Tesla’s (Goran Višnji?) death in poverty is a tragedy because he “should have been” a billionaire (complete with obligatory Elon Musk reference). One intergalactic tyrant after another is to be faced down and reprimanded, but allowed to get away without consequences.
The era seems to have little to truly say about the contemporary world, and its few gestures in that direction are shallow and performative. Its recurring Trump analogue, Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), is a smarmy businessman with political ambitions rather than, say, a fascist demagogue. The recent New Year’s special, ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ flirts with interesting commentary with its imagery of Daleks as police drones, but this is thoroughly defanged by having the Daleks’ presence be the doing of a combination of nefarious and well-meaning individuals salvaging alien technology, far from anything approaching systemic critique. They are an addition to underfunded police forces, rather than a logical extension of the idea of policing, and security officers of various kinds are later shown to be among the inevitable victims of the Daleks.
All of this is all the more galling by contrast with previous eras of the post-2005 series. Under Russell T. Davies, the show was brought to earth for a new era, for the first time exploring the reality of the companion’s family while their relative is off having merry adventures through time and space; notably the working-class council estate experience of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and her mother and boyfriend.
As regards contemporary politics, Davies could often be found tipping a cynical wink to the audience: in ‘Aliens of London’/‘World War III’ (2005), the Prime Minister (who bore a striking resemblance to Tony Blair) is dispatched and replaced by aliens in skin suits, while his successors proved to be a war criminal and renegade Time Lord the Master (John Simm) respectively. The latter, who uses the mass media to hypnotise the world out of seeing his true nature, seems in hindsight like a combination of Blair and David Cameron, the latter detoxifying his party’s brand, the former his own.
By contrast to Davies’s relatively grounded world(s), Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who takes on, by the writer’s own testimony, the aesthetics of a fairy tale. But the fairy tale frequently proves more allegory than escapism. Moffat’s second story in charge, ‘The Beast Below,’ depicts an Omelas-style future Britain built (literally) on an exploitation that is actively denied by the populace. ‘Oxygen’ centres around a space station whose staff are charged by the breath by their employers. Episodes such as ‘A Good Man Goes to War,’ ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ and ‘Hell Bent’ questioned the Doctor’s own authority and judgement. The Moffat era also laid the groundwork for a female Doctor, with the inter-gender regeneration of various Time Lords (including the Master, played in that era by Michelle Gomez) and companion Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) role as a substitute Doctor in stories like ‘Flatline’ and ‘Kill the Moon.’
The “classic” series (1963-89) was no stranger to this kind of political interventionism either. Numerous stories, including ‘The Mutants,’ ‘Warrior’s Gate’ and ‘Kinda,’ questioned the legacy of colonialism and Britain’s changing place in the world. ‘The Sunmakers’ is a sort of accidental Marxist fable in which an oppressed underclass overthrow the corporation which has been taxing them out of their meagre earnings.
The last three years of the series were overseen by script editor Andrew Cartmel, who, according to legend, when asked in his interview for the post what his ambitions for the show were, replied “overthrow the government.” Given the Thatcher caricature of Helen A (Sheila Hancock) in ‘The Happiness Patrol,’ the deconstruction of ideas of Victorian morality in ‘Ghost Light,’ and the satire of social Darwinism in ‘Survival,’ the final story of the classic series, this is not all that difficult to believe.
‘Ghost Light’ in particular, with its dense concentration of specific elements of Victoriana, from contemporary literary references to music hall songs, makes for a telling contrast here. Doctor Who has always thrived on visiting the past, from its second ever episode on, and the current era is no exception. The Chibnall era so far, though, has been far more interested in the trappings of history, having the Doctor meet historical celebrities like Tesla, Parks and Ada Lovelace, than with a more material interaction with any historical period. A particularly ill-judged example of this came in ‘Spyfall Part 2,’ in which the Doctor used the Master’s (Sacha Dhawan) South Asian ethnicity to have him arrested by the Nazis, while he himself was wearing an SS uniform, a cynical and empty use of iconography that is more charged now than ever.
Compare this to something like ‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances,’ Moffat’s first script for the show, which engages with the material reality of Blitz London, making typewriters, gramophones and gas masks into sources of horror. While the latter’s “one island stood alone” rhetoric does rankle somewhat, especially post-Brexit, it does at least have something to say about the time period it’s depicting and its relation to the present, not least in the Doctor’s (Christopher Eccleston) parting shot to the people of 1940s London: “Don’t forget the welfare state!”
There is an honourable exception to this Chibnall-era tendency in ‘Demons of the Punjab,’ a genuinely excellent episode set around the partition of India. Not only is the episode timely in its exploration of dynamics of division and radicalisation, it also manages, alone in the era so far, to establish a convincing ethic of passive witnessing which feels like a firm stance rather than a cop-out. Unfortunately, its achievements are almost overwritten by the blandness of the rest of the era. ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ comes closest to a similar combination of ethical stance and concrete historical materialism, but is badly let down in its third act by a staggering assertion of the Great Man theory of history in which the Doctor states that the life of Percy Shelley outweighs that of untold billions in the future.
Doctor Who is, by definition, a show that can go anywhere. Among many other things, it is at its heart a metaphor for television itself: a magic box that can show you anything you want. It hops genres as much as time periods and planets between episodes. And yet the show currently seems fixated on its own past far more than imagining possible futures. 2019’s New Year’s special, ‘Resolution,’ was a spiritual retread of the 2005 episode ‘Dalek.’ ‘Fugitive of the Judoon,’ the episode which introduced Jo Martin’s Doctor to rock the show’s canon, devoted several minutes to a largely pointless cameo from Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman),first introduced in 2005 as well. The climax of ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ hinges on a retread of the 80s “Dalek civil war” plotline. Even the episode hyped as “changing everything,” Series 12 finale ‘The Timeless Children,’ altered the show’s canon to affirm a popular fan theory based around 1975 serial ‘The Brain of Morbius.’
And this is, in part, the problem. The show has become insular and safe, its big changes (with the obvious and honourable exceptions of the casting of Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin) self-contained and of interest primarily to fans. Where Davies situated Doctor Who in the context of 2000s television and Moffat sought to decentre the Doctor, the Chibnall era so far has been self-referential and elevated the Doctor to being the origin of all Time Lords. It rarely has much to say about the wider world beyond fairly bland statements: “we should all talk more” (‘Can You Hear Me?’), “history was a bit misogynistic” (‘The Witchfinders’), “that Trump’s a bit of a nasty one” (‘Arachnids in the UK,’ ‘Revolution of the Daleks’). The few episodes with real teeth – ‘Demons of the Punjab,’ ‘Orphan 55’ at a stretch – are largely defanged by the beige conservatism that surrounds them.
Of course, Doctor Who has gone through many phases in its six decades of existence, including periods of aesthetic and/or political conservatism. But even these have often included counter-currents. The Third Doctor spent most of his tenure working with the United Nations military organisation UNIT, but was frequently suspicious of authority and tended to favour marginalised groups (especially in stories written by card-carrying communist Malcolm Hulke). The jingoistic militarism of ‘Earthshock’ is offset by the Fifth Doctor’s postcolonial dynamics and lyricism of stories like ‘Kinda,’ ‘Snakedance’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ The few hints in the Chibnall era of something interesting or even radical to say so far have been quickly eclipsed by more hang-wringing over how maybe we should just be a little nicer. For the first ever period of the show not fronted by a white man, it’s a tremendous shame.