‘Doctor Who’ and the Constraints of the American Cultural Cold War

Decolonization, shifting demographics and the rise of the US needed to be understood and processed through the British popular imagination. The Doctor landed his TARDIS just in time to help.

Produced under the BBC drama department, few imagined that the show would have such longevity or that it would create such a loyal, lifelong, eventually globe-spanning fanbase. Doctor Who became a means of discussing and coming to terms with tensions in British society — an important role of culture in the second half of the 20th century. Britain itself was going through massive changes in the postwar period. Decolonization, shifting demographics at home related to the decolonization process, and the rise of the United States to a position of world power needed to be understood and processed through the British popular imagination. The Doctor landed his TARDIS just in time to help do that difficult work.

On the surface, Doctor Who — a program aimed at children — seems an unlikely candidate for political or social messages. But even the original justification underscores how much culture was coming to be seen as helpful in reconstructing British identity in the wake of massive historical changes. The program was pitched by Sydney Newman, a Canadian working for the BBC, as an educational and entertaining program for British children, with a heavy focus on history. True to form, in many early episodes, starring gruff but lovable grandfather figure William Hartnell, the TARDIS often turned up in the midst of important historical events: the travels of Marco Polo (“Marco Polo” 1.4); the French Revolution (“The Reign of Terror” 1.8); the Crusades (“The Crusades” 2.6); and medieval Europe (“The Time Meddler” 2.9) among others. Soon the show shifted gears to almost solely speculating on the future or disrupting the present, but initially the past as it appeared in Doctor Who functioned as a showcase for understanding and even rebuilding a British identity in the wake of the massive upheavals of decolonization and a handing over of the reins of perceived Western leadership to the United States.

Now, most people remember the Hartnell era (if they remember it at all) for the introduction of the iconic Daleks or for the later episodes, in which failing health reared its ugly head. In many ways, Hartnell’s years in the TARDIS remain the most disconnected from the rest of the series, primarily due to that fact that the Doctor we know and love today was still in the process of being created. All the things we associate with the character today — his regeneration cycles, the social and cultural nature of his home planet, the almost mythical and life-like qualities of the TARDIS, his distinctive relationship with his traveling companions — were still in the process of being worked out. The idea that the Doctor could regenerate only emerged when Hartnell was forced to retire. The act of regeneration itself became a means to explore social issues. According to Marc Schuster and Tom Power, “the Doctor’s personae are also signs of the time that reflect changes in entertainment standards and social norms” (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy 8).

Doctor Who during the early years commented on any number of issues in British politics and (quickly transforming) social norms. As the decolonization of the British Empire proceeded, many of the Hartnell era episodes confirmed perceptions that British colonialism had more positives than negatives. In the Doctor’s first outing, the Neanderthals the TARDIS crew encounters are denoted as savages by the Doctor. According to Doctor Who historian Phillip Sandifer, these interactions help illustrate the teleological nature of time based on European ideas of time (“I Sometimes Wonder”). These “savages” encountered by the TARDIS crew have yet to evolve into the notion of fully human, according to the Doctor. This is only evident in contrast to Ian (William Russell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Susan (Carol Ann Ford), and the Doctor running through the jungle to avoid the violence of less-evolved humans. They have left behind such brutality in their modern life, presumably due to the comforts of civilization created during the height of the British Empire. Yet they find themselves adrift from that modern world (“An Unearthly Child” 1.1).

Jumping ahead historically nearly 100,000 years, the TARDIS eventually lands in the New World in the Aztec Empire, prior to the arrival of the Spanish. High school history teacher Barbara, in an act of “white woman’s burden”, takes it upon herself to work for the elimination of human sacrifice in Aztec culture. She identities it as the core problem that led to their decline and eventual elimination by the conquistadors in the early 16th century. Sandifer points out how the TARDIS crew operates from a position of power, primarily due to the fact that they know what’s coming down the road for the Aztecs. Barbara acts unilaterally against the Doctor’s wishes in trying to “save” the Aztecs from themselves by taking on the mantle of a Goddess in order to steer Aztec history away from the destruction that’s about to arrive. But the Aztecs are entirely to blame for their own downfall, prompting Barbara’s intervention into their cultural norms (“Does It Need Saying”) (1.6). British ideas about the differences between the Spanish conquest of the New World and their own colonial projects — imagined as far more benevolent in nature — possibly also animate Barbara’s rebellion against the Doctor’s wishes.

Dominant British ideas about continental politics also help to drive the historical narratives addressed by the program. In the recently restored story “The Reign of Terror” (1.8), traditional British concerns about the French Revolution receive full exploration. Although the Doctor and crew generally agree with the original democratic aims of the revolution, they also recognize that Robespierre turned the world upside down, trampling traditional class relationships between the elites and the peasantry. Such stories, in other words, deal directly with historical events and seek to help the British public understand those events in relationship to the changes in British life — in the process advocating for a conservative path to change rather than radical revolutionary shifts. Doctor Who was helping to rebuild British national identity — hardly a universal culture, even if the program appeared on TVs all over the Commonwealth. Episodes like these shore up more traditionalist notions of British identity through a particular framing of world history (“The Reign of Terror” 1.8).

The root of some of these discussions lay in the changing geopolitical landscape. At this same time, American culture was becoming universalized and the Cold War dominated world politics. The United States had in many ways stepped into the role Britain played in the first half of the 20th century, claiming leadership of the Western, capitalist, democratic world. Culture — high and low — emerged as a major flash point in the Cold War. Commercially produced music provides an obvious example of popular American culture that the United States government actively promoted during the Cold War. These programs helped shift the consumption habits of people around the world. The CIA spent millions of dollars shaping the production of high culture around the world through organizations like the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which were publicly independent of the state (The Cultural Cold War 108-121). President Eisenhower signed off on the State Department’s efforts actively promoting jazz abroad, in part in an attempt to mitigate the ongoing violence associated with changing American race relations (Satchmo Blows Up the World 250-262). Programs such as the Amerika Haus in Austria and Germany presented American culture to a sometimes skeptical, sometimes admiring Western European audience (Coca-Colonization and the Cold War 128-149). Eastern Europeans, supposedly cut off from the West by a Soviet-imposed Iron Curtain, eventually embraced American popular culture — at times demanding access to imports from their governments (Jazz, Rock, and Rebels 151).

In contrast to the more provincial concerns of the British, American TV seemingly worked through a much more universal set of concerns, especially in some of the science fiction finding its way onto television. Star Trek, set in the 23rd century, sketched out the “end of history” for the American-led liberal world order, represented by Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Among other things, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future imagined race relations and national conflicts long settled to the satisfaction of everyone on Earth. Humanity’s primary activity in this utopian future was exploration for knowledge’s sake. It’s true that later series based in Roddenberry’s universe questioned his imagined liberal order. Deep Space Nine, set in the 24th century, explored much thornier and complicated issues around decolonization and the projection of American power. The original series and films, however, presented a united humanity within the galaxy-spanning political unit known as the Federation, where opportunity rested fully in merit rather than in race, gender, or ethnicity. Star Trek exemplified modernization theories, a set of ideas developed to directly compete with Communist theories about civilizational development. Such programs reflected the new position of the US in the world order.

As Doctor Who moved into the 1970s, stories that dealt directly with the Cold War triangulated the British position within the complex system of alliances. Despite being an alien, the Doctor mired himself in the British context of the East-West struggle. The Second and Third Doctors (Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, respectively) worked closely with U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Task Force). Despite being an arm of the United Nations, it consisted of nothing but British soldiers and operated out of the English countryside. One example is the story (“Mind of Evil” 8.2) where U.N.I.T. provides security for an important peace conference. One member of the Chinese delegation ends up under the sway of the Doctor’s long-time nemesis, the Master (Roger Delgado). The episode combined questions on global geopolitics, the danger of nuclear weapons, with a meditation on the nature of evil as the Master harnessed an alien in order to create a docile workforce out of criminals being held in British prisons. The focus remains on the British-based U.N.I.T., the Doctor, the English prison, and the few Chinese diplomats, despite being a Cold War story.

Far more prevalent than these sorts of geopolitical episodes over the course of its original run were questions of colonialism and how they shaped conflict related to race in a changing British landscape. The message being sent varied with the producers and writers. The Pertwee era brought a generally more thoughtful and critical view of these issues to the table. Few stories illustrate this better than “The Mutants” (9.4). The Doctor and Jo (Katy Grant) arrive on the Earth colony of Solos just as the process of decolonization has begun in earnest. The colonial administrators and soldiers live on the space station in orbit, because the planet’s atmosphere proved poisonous to earthlings. They are naturally all British, despite being the Earth empire. Interestingly, the characters that the Doctor and Jo interact with on this adventure cut across British class lines: a noble who arrived to oversee decolonization, a bourgeois bureaucrat deeply ambivalent about the empire’s exit, and two working class characters, one black and one white, illustrated largely via their accents. The events on Solos bring the history of empire into question.

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This portion of Mindy Clegg’s essay is excerpted from New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of Doctor Who. The full essay and more smart writing about the Terrifying Whoverse by PopMatters writers can be found in the book, available online here.

Mindy Clegg currently toils away in the knowledge mines of academia in pursuit of a PhD in American History at Georgia State University. Her dissertation argues that during the Cold War the American recording industry, its products, and its modes of production emerged as a dominant force in the global recording industry, in part due to cultural programs of the U.S. State Department and military. Mindy hopes to spend her remaining days on Earth thinking and writing smart things about popular culture, possibly America’s most lasting and important legacy. More of her work can also be found on the history blog Tropics of Meta.