The Power of Language and Fear in 'Doctor Who'

by Liam Bishop

26 September 2012

Language as we know it, is human. The Dalek's limited vocabulary suggests that they were once exposed to human language or were once human. The Dalek's world is limited by its primary purposes to kill enemies and achieve world domination.

Damn Daleks!

Over the decades, famed Doctor Who villains the Dalek’s have proved to be impervious to the challenges threatening them; stairs, the Doctor himself, a tellytubby style makeover in the new series, complete obliteration, being written out, and BBC cuts, because they keep returning no matter what challenges there are to their fictional life as the Doctors enemy, or to their reputation as salt shaker looking, overly used props. They keep returning, and despite producer Steven Moffat saying that he was shelving them for a while, they returned after a very brief period in the warehouse.

However, what castigated my interest in them was not just the imminent return of them, but a podcast from The Philosophers Stone. In fact it didn’t really inspire my fear and intrigue of the Daleks, more the power and beauty of language. The podcast, fronted by the late Alan Saunders, discusses several classic philosophical and contemporary issues. In The Evil of the Daleks, Saunders was joined by Robin Bunce, an academic from the University of Cambridge promoting the publication Daleks and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, and discussing what makes these legendary foes, visually benign looking entities, so scary. Initially there is the historical context. When the Dalek’s were introduced back in the early 1960’s, people genuinely thought that World War III was about to ensue due to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Indeed, the episode The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) which was set in 2164 was effectively an allegory of the political mechanics involved in the crisis. As the episode centres in ‘New Washington’, the Daleks have been interpreted as the Soviets.

Bunce also cited how the Daleks may have been humans, and gone through a period of dehumanisation. There were theories that the Daleks’ predecessors were the Dals who were exposed to radiation and mutation after a war with the Thals. This is not wholly certain, but this element of nuclear war reverberates with the times and the missile crisis and, clearly, the Daleks have gone through some kind of mutation, not just physically, but mentally and, ultimately, represented what the human race feared happening to them.

Without wanting to divulge too much into Dalek geneaology, another point Bunce made was of the dystopias created in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World(1931), and George Orwell’s 1984(1949). The two books focus on the omni-powerful state, but differ in their methods of doing so. Huxley’s was achieved through technological interventions and emphasis on the consumerist society, and making its citizens so happy that they disregard their personal freedom and will. In 1984, the state uses constant surveillance, torture, or as Christopher Hitchens put it “a house of horrors”. The nightmare society created by Orwell lays a strong foundation for the totalitarianism of the Daleks. The Daleks represent both the power of selective language use on thought—as well as fear. Likewise, these two themes are explored in Orwell’s classic novel.

For example, Orwell created Newspeak as a hallmark of his dystopia. As Syme the Big Brother loving worker puts it “It’s a beautiful thing, destroying words”. Beautiful it might be, the impoverishment of language, such a simple concept. What the Party hopes to achieve through Newspeak is to remove meanings of old language and construct new meanings. By eradicating a word that implies something is negative, could you still perceive something as negative? This creation then is an invention of controlling thought by leaving simple concepts: bad becomes ungood; bad is now not negative but neutral or un-positive: excellent becomes doubleplusgood; not entirely neutral, but still good and positive, it is exceedingly positive, and can be placed on the same spectrum as ungood. Now there is one singular concept of good and it is very large and encompassing. The word orthodoxy comes under scrutiny in Newspeak, but orthodoxy is treated as a verb. It’s probably best exemplified by the following passage:

“How could you have a slogan like ‘Freedom is Slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.”

It almost seems that by eradicating words, you are eradicating thought, which in turn reduces the opportunity of judgment, emotion and morality, all conscious acts; maybe not so much emotion, but the effect of emotion on thoughts, or thought preceding emotion. If the whole state become orthodox not doing anything other than the norm, where the norm is created by the state then the Party could ultimately create a society of unconscious Sentients to their needs.

When you look at 1984, it is not the torture that helps achieve this, the torture and Room 101 is only really reserved for those most resilient to Big Brother’s ways. Newspeak’s power strikes at the unconscious. In the form of a novel it works, but its resonance permeates more than fiction. Back in the late 1920s, two linguistists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were studying the effect of language on thought. Their hypothesis (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) was linguistic relativism, ie.the structure of somebody’s language affects the way in which speakers conceptualise their world. Still, its not as simple as that. There is little empirical evidence for the hypothesis, and its counterpart linguistic determinism. Even more so, most of the research has been done in a cognitive paradigm, which is encountering problems about its theories of language itself, mainly those of Noam Chomsky and Universal Grammar (which suggests that all humans have a capacity to produce language, and there is a universal, cognitive mechanism of grammar which supports this).

What is emerging however is a new approach to language and its effects on thought and psychology which may give us a greater insight into the world of the Daleks and Newspeak. The linguistic relativism debate was before Orwell’s and the Dalek’s time. One provoked nearer the time was by Ludwig Wittgenstein. His philosophy was based on the way language can change not quickly and obviously, but in a more evolutionary manner. What’s more his views on language were deterministic – language and its structure determines human knowledge and thought. Language is a powerful, human tool. Language, is governed by implicit rules in its social and private uses. A man has private language, which nobody will ever be able to access, and if a solitary man tried to translate his inner, private language which is composed of sensations, its translation to somebody else would render it pointless. It is easy to see how Newspeak could effect its population. If language really did determine thought then the limited vocabulary available would constantly reduce the ability of its members to participate in linguistically diverse world. Wittgenstein did also state “about what one can not speak, one must remain silent.”

Language as we know it, is human. The Dalek’s limited vocabulary suggests that they were once exposed to human language or were once human. The Dalek’s world is limited by its primary purposes to kill enemies and world domination. But the point Wittgenstein made about language means the limits of the world, also means the limits of the other speakers world. It restricts the ability to empathise, to understand, and simply communicate on any level. The Dalek’s vocabulary reduces any level of compassion because their social language is nothing but a few words, and when there is no reason left, one is left to physical means. If we had an ability to talk to lions and bears, would we feel the need to shoot them, run away, or use any other physical action if they attacked us?

It’s harder to speculate on the private language of a Dalek and the inhabitants of George Orwell’s 1984 for example, because it was ultimately a philosophy. It suggests there is a finite distinction between a private and social language. Winston Smith, when finally converted to loving Big Brother, may still resent and abhor the regime in his mind, but without the ability to overtly express it he is a prisoner to his own language capabilities. There is no power to create a flexible social world.

This may enhance the Dalek’s villainy, but what about humans? This is not just a human vs alien argument. It would be assumed that the Daleks’ other worldliness, their extraterrestrial being-ness would make them more scary for viewers. But it would arguably be much more scary if they had gone through this transformation from once human to alien.

The classic Zimbardo prison study where the participants of the study were split into either prisoners or guards demonstrated how If given orders, people can easily lose empathy. The guards gradually became more sadistic to those who had to act as prisoners (and it must be remembered these were not actual prisoners but people who were also participants in the study). As a result, Zimbardo had to call a premature end to the study. Anybody familiar with the Milgram study, which had similar aims, will understand how people can be quite easily made to inflict misery on another person when they are in a state of subordination to a higher power. Even more so, this highlighted how atrocities like the Holocaust can occur. All this adds up to paint a rather vivid context in which the Daleks operate. They may seem like silly looking aliens to an outsider, but they have been expertly written to reflect the social and cultural context of society’s fears of the past and the future.

If anything, the Daleks tell us more about ourselves than their perception as a prop in a sci-fi television show - as some people might see them. In Nazi Germany, who were the Prison Guards that were caught up in an extreme regime of fascism? It’s highly unlikely they were all brought up to be evil workers of Hitler, but were most likely everyday people caught up In the nihilistic rhetoric and subordination of higher order. It also tells us the power of language, rhetoric and discourse. Orwell, and then writers of Doctor Who both recognise this. You can torture the most resilient, but you can win over the masses with cleverly nuanced rhetoric, good or evil, and this what the leaders of our day do.

In the past language and its repercussions have been, sometimes, ignored. Social constructionists have followed on from Wittgenstein, and a postmodern stance on not just language but psychology itself. Instead of focusing on numbers and statistics as sources of information, discourse psychology focuses on specific language use instead of the mind as computational device. This is also potentially what makes the Daleks more relevant. Modernism in culture peaked after the first world war, and despite cognitive science not gaining ground until the late 1950’s it is easy to see its influence; it emphasizes structure over process, information over meaning; one can see the human mind structured like a cubist painting. Modernism was psychology wanting to be a science, psychology wanting to tell the truth.

Humans were constantly being regarded in this mechanistic metaphor and still are. Culture was being ignored and traditional western science and psychology was bound in the individualism that capitalism can create. Indeed postmodern psychology is postcognitive. The boundaries of the world are created by discourse, which means they are not set in stone, they are not technically there. Its inhabitants are continually creating, reaffirming and changing them with their use of discourse and its constructions. It is real world.

One particular take on it is how the media can enforce anti-semitic and fascist ideology through its rhetoric. Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism explores how the these hidden ideologies can be reinforced and are prevalent throughout the media. Billig highlighted how the division of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ news almost makes it an implicit and subliminal - which makes it all the more worrying. This is all achieved through language use and rhetoric.

This is just one of the instances of the applicability of studying language, as cognitivism, potentially dies away (although it will questionably never be left as a paradigm in the Kuhn sense) there is a door open for a post modern stance to psychology and human behaviour. But what about the Daleks? Exteriors aside, they have been one of the most famous villains and have played a monumental part in the longest running sci-fi show on the planet. Certainly in its old format before the return in the 2000’s, they provided fear for the youth of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Originally their context has played a big part in why this is so, the 20th century was a turbulent decade. Here I’ve presented the case that they represent the power of language and how this seemingly human invention can be used more destructively than any gun or weapon. The Dalek’s, though, also represent fear; the fear what made Orwell write 1984 - our fear of what we could turn into, emotionless beings ruled and conquered in a perpetual war zone.

Humans evolved to produce language, its what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but we will continue to evolve, but in too what, and language is certain to be a prime factor in the moulding of our minds and societies. A future without emotions, would be a future a lot more frightening than a future without language.


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