Personal Morality, Not Political Ideology: ‘Doctor Who’ and the Cold War

How does a 2,000-year-old (give or take a few centuries) Gallifreyan Time Lord engage with the very human politics of mid-20th century class war?

“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”

It sounds like the sort of thing a wise and omniscient Time Lord might say, speaking from the vantage of hindsight and foresight simultaneously.

But in fact the words were uttered by US President John F. Kennedy, in an address to the United Nations on September 25, 1961. A finite moment in time, and one situated at the height of that post-WWII period of confrontation and tension known as the Cold War.

From the looming fear of apocalyptic nuclear war, to the proliferation of conventional proxy wars between Soviet and American allies in much of the developing world, the 40-year span following World War II was very much a product of Cold War tensions between the United States (and its NATO allies) and the Soviet Union (and its Warsaw Pact allies). Everything from popular culture to geopolitical machinations bore its imprint, and there were very few areas of life, politics, or culture that were not inflected in some way by the Cold War imaginary. Whether reflected in the increasingly competitive exploration of outer space and race to the moon, or in the ideological trappings of capitalism versus communism (and its many hybrids), the Cold War left a profound mark on the twentieth century.

Doctor Who, however, is constructed as a time-traveling alien with a soft spot for humanity. How, then, does a 2,000-year-old (give or take a few centuries) Gallifreyan Time Lord engage with the very human politics of mid-20th century class war?

Discerning Ideologies

With a highly apolitical form of politics, it turns out. I join a range of other scholars in seeing in the Doctor’s Gallifreyan gallivanting a politics that’s grounded in individual morality, rather than political ideology. Yet, exploring the political contents and contexts that emerged during the first 26-year run of the series (1963-1989, a period spanning much of the 1947-1991 duration of the Cold War) reveals how complex was the intersection of individuals, events, and ideologies shaping the series during the Cold War.

The situational morality of the Doctor permitted him a significant range of political flexibility, which was eagerly and cleverly manipulated by scriptwriters and producers. Two episode cycles offer good examples of how scriptwriters managed to produce programs that engaged with the politics of the period, and with the economic and political framings of cold war themes, without adhering to a precise political position.

“The Curse of Fenric” (26.3), written by Ian Briggs and featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, puts a team of Soviet commandos in an unlikely alliance with the inhabitants of a British naval town during World War II. Of course, in narrative chronology, this setting precedes the Cold War; Britain and the Soviet Union became allies in the later part of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the episode was produced and aired in 1989, situating its production in the later Cold War era; it may thus be seen as a media product of the Cold War period and potentially inflected by that time’s prevailing socio-political atmosphere. In this story arc, the Soviets are on a mission to capture a secret code-breaking device the British are developing, but coincidentally arrive just as a couple of local villagers unwittingly awaken an ancient and timeless evil known as Fenric (brought to England by the Vikings centuries earlier). Fenric’s demon minions — a cross between vampires and zombies known as Haemovores — begin killing and turning more of the villagers (and soldiers) into Haemovores as, driven on by Fenric, they seek to figure out a way to release Fenric from his eons-old imprisonment.

The episode-cycle is remarkable for a number of reasons. It was a veiled tribute to Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, who has recently become more prominent thanks to the 2014 film The Imitation Game. That film has been hailed for the way in which it addresses Turing’s homosexuality; 25 years earlier, however, Turing’s homosexual identity was still treated with a sense of veiled taboo, and Briggs cleverly presented this in the character of the wheelchair-bound scientist Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Landen). In an interview, Briggs explained that Judson’s physical disability was intended as a sympathetic allusion to the repressed sexual identity of Turing (Cartmel 170).

While this is interesting, what’s relevant from a political perspective is the alliance between the Soviet troopers and the local villagers. Like all good vampires, the Haemovores can be repelled by faith. What matters, however, is not a specific image like a crucifix, but rather any representation or articulation of a strong sense of faith and belief. When ambushed by a group of Haemovores, a British priest (Nicholas Parsons) helping a group of villagers escape tries to repel the vampiric monsters with his Christian cross. Unfortunately, it turns out his faith’s lacking, and the Haemovores attack, undeterred, and slay him. In an almost identical encounter, a Soviet soldier who is also leading a group of villagers to safety draws out his Soviet red star, and so strong is his belief in the Soviet symbol that the Haemovores are forced to retreat. The juxtaposition makes a potent statement: the Soviet officer’s belief in the symbol under which he fights is stronger than the Christian priest’s belief in the symbol under which he worships. (The Doctor, incidentally, eschews symbolic imagery and instead recites the names of his Companions: it’s in these Companions that his own faith lies.)

The episode, overall, presents the Soviet soldiers in a sympathetic light. Once their secret mission becomes irrelevant in the face of demonic attack, they turn out to be good-hearted allies who help the local villagers, and whose faith in the creeds and symbols under which they march turns out to be stronger than the religious faith of the local British community leaders. The writers are able to offer a positive depiction of their erstwhile Soviet rivals, by allowing the Doctor to take a leadership role in drawing out the positive qualities of both sides in the face of demonic invasion. The positive portrayal of the Soviets in this cycle lies in contradistinction to other commentators who have argued that alien races like the Cybermen were deliberately designed as negative caricatures of the Soviets during the early Cold War era (May 3).

The 1977 story arc “The Sun Makers”(15.4) — written by Robert Holmes and featuring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor — also engages with political and socioeconomic themes, but does so in a more convoluted manner. The entire arc was intended as a satire on the British taxation system, but rather than blame the heavily bureaucratized tax system on the government, it’s instead the fault of a rabidly capitalist corporation that dominates an inhabited planet Pluto far in the future. This company has created and installed suns around the icy world to make it habitable, and collects punitive taxation from the oppressed populace. The “company” is an intergalactic corporation driven to capitalistic excesses, and with the aid of the Doctor (and his companion Leela [Louise Jameson]), a full-scale revolution breaks out that sees the corporation overthrown (quite literally: a tax collector is hurled off the top of a tall building to the cheers of the rebels). One of the Doctor’s particularly potent puns (a characteristic of Baker’s Doctor) sees him encouraging the revolutionaries to rise up against the tax-man with the rallying cry (a pun on the famous line from the Communist Manifesto): “All you have to lose is your claims!”

The intricacies of plot in this episode are intriguing. It manages to present itself both as a critique of the socialist welfare state — the population is oppressed by taxation — and yet also of corporate capitalism (taxes are collected not by the state but by an independent, profit-driven capitalist entity). This defuses any overtly political statement for or against either corporate capitalism or the socialist welfare state (indeed, reviews of the episode report that its politics were deliberately obfuscated in order to tone them down from the original script). The role of Leela, the Doctor’s companion, as a revolutionary fighter in this episode is particularly apt, given that her character was purportedly based on real-life leftist Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled.

These two cycles — other examples abound — illustrate the roundabout, yet eminently flexible, Cold War politics with which the series engaged. Capitalist corporations were nefarious, but so was taxation. Soviets were generally out to best the British and were not to be trusted, but in a pinch (and facing demonic vampires) they could not only be trusted, but displayed greater faith in their creed than the good old British village priest. The Doctor doesn’t so much take sides as muddle through, happy to help whomever needs helping — and with the help of whomever offers — along the way. Thus, the series manages to navigate a complicated balance between the confrontational politics of the period.

How does this approach to politics compare with other BBC sci-fi programming of the period?

Hans Rollman’s essay is excerpted from New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of Doctor Who (footnotes omitted). More smart writing about the Terrifying Whoverse by PopMatters writers can be found in the book, available online here.

Politics in Context

Other BBC science fiction programming of the period was not afraid to tackle more overtly political themes. One of the best examples was Blake’s 7, a smart and provocative political space thriller set in a dystopian future. The series ran for 4 seasons between 1978 and 1981, and was created by Terry Nation, a scriptwriter for Doctor Who (best known perhaps for inventing the Daleks). In this series, the Terran Federation, based on Earth, has accomplished a seemingly perfect world of happiness and order; one evocative of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984. An elite intelligentsia lives a semi-drugged existence under constant surveillance in the domed cities of the planet, but predictably, the façade of perfection masks a structure of inequality, oppression, and a struggling resistance movement. As the series opens, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), a former resistance leader who was captured, brainwashed, and presented to the public as a model reformed citizen, is contacted by his former resistance comrades who have reorganized and want him to lead their movement once more.

The Doctor may not be committed “to any single form of social organization,” but that doesn’t mean his scriptwriters weren’t.

His memories return — as does his political consciousness — but the Federation bureaucracy has prepared for this eventuality and frame him with charges of child abuse. Sentenced to exile on a distant planetary penal colony, Blake organizes a takeover of the prison ship en route. The takeover is aborted when a Federation officer threatens to execute other prisoners unless Blake surrenders (in a moral juxtaposition that emerges as a key theme throughout the series, Blake’s rebel comrade Kerr Avon [Paul Darrow] cold-heartedly urges him to let the prisoners die so they can achieve their mission objective; Blake’s humanity perseveres, much to Avon’s disgust). However, the ship then stumbles into an alien space battle, and Blake and his comrades find themselves in possession of a vastly superior alien spacecraft. They use this vessel to begin launching strikes against the Federation, jaunting around the galaxy while resuming their fight to overthrow tyranny.

Blake’s 7 was a politically intelligent series that engaged in a variety of complicated themes rooted in the ideological conflicts of the period. A lone ship up against a vast and militarized empire, Blake and his crew essentially take on the role of terrorists, launching strikes against Federation supply lines and production facilities. They often debate the ethics and morality of these attacks, in a manner evocative of the New Caprica Cylon occupation episodes in Battlestar Galactica, with their fairly direct allusions to Middle East terrorism (comparisons have also been drawn with shows like Firefly and its accompanying film Serenity). Despite their successes, Blake is irritated at the fact they are only one ship, and is constantly seeking ways of building a movement — often putting himself and his comrades in danger as a result. In various episodes, the rebels coolly bomb factories and communications facilities, determined to demonstrate their ability to strike at will, and in ways reminiscent of other real-life guerrilla movements of the period.

In the brilliant episode “Trial” (2.6), Space Commander Travis (Brian Croucher), one of Blake’s chief foes and one with a record of brutal repression against civilians, is put on trial for killing civilians during a protest some years earlier, as a scapegoat to deter attention from his superiors’ failures to put down Blake’s rebellion. In a masterful psychological performance, the hitherto bombastic commander turns silent and unresponsive during his trial, until at the last moment he intervenes with a passionate speech arguing that his violence against civilians was not his personal fault, but was a product of his training and his enmeshing within a broader system of repression and brutality: “If I am guilty”, he proclaims, casting a finger at the tribunal that sits in judgment, “then so are all of you!”

Politics are a palpable presence in Blake’s 7: ethical debates over dissident strategies and allusions to real world politics are ubiquitous. On the surface, the politics of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who appear decisively distinct. Blake was determined to lead a revolution and overthrow a tyranny; the Doctor invariably appears unconcerned about broader sociopolitical processes, just as quick to offer a jelly-baby to a tyrant as to walk away from an intergalactic war. The Doctor is a wanderer, an observer; Blake an inveterate rebel dedicated to the liberation of the oppressed.

Yet on a deeper level, the distinctions become murky. It’s never quite clear with what Blake hopes to replace the tyrannical Federation. While firmly dedicated to political revolution — and to whatever force or action is necessary to bring that about — we never quite hear his precise program for political change. Beyond vague allusions to freedom and liberty, it’s not clear on precisely which principles Blake’s rebellion is based. The result is that in any given situation, the responses of Blake and his crew to the challenges they face are invariably rooted in a situational morality, rather than in an expression of precise political values. This is epitomized in the second episode of the series, when Blake reluctantly surrenders control of the prison ship he has seized rather than call the bluff of the military officer who’s threatening to kill his prisoners.

Likewise, the Doctor is an individual moral agent, acting in response to the situations with which he’s faced. This is more than simply a filmic character trait; it’s a core element of how he has come to be received in the broader cultural imaginary by his viewing public. In a fascinating research project, Alan McKee at the University of Queensland conducted surveys to determine the audiences’ interpretation of Doctor Who’s politics. What did the public think of the Doctor’s politics? While the viewers McKee surveyed derived from a wide range of political perspectives, they were virtually united in their interpretation of the Doctor as apolitical. When asked which party they thought the Doctor would have voted for in the last British election, the overwhelming majority “insisted that the question was meaningless because he wouldn’t vote.” Reasons given varied but significant numbers responded with variations on the theme of “because it’s not what he does”; “doesn’t like to interfere unless he has to”; and “party politics ‘is not really something he should be meddling into’” (McKee 207)

“In this,” McKee concludes, “there is general agreement about the politics of the Doctor: that he is not political in that sense” (McKee 207). The Doctor, in other words, acts on the basis of personal morality, not political ideology.

McKee reports that:

(I)t became apparent that there was no obvious interpretation of the Doctor’s politics, as responses were insistently about morality rather than politics: individual behaviour rather than social organization. There was general agreement among the fans that the Doctor does not have a systematic political project; rather, he is reactive, responding to events that he cannot escape… The Doctor may overthrow societies, but this is not political because it is not linked to a commitment to any single form of social organization (McKee 208).

This is significant insofar as it allowed the scriptwriters to navigate the politically charged waters of the Cold War without facing serious accusations of political bias. They could depict the Doctor as allying with Soviets for world peace (or freedom from vampiric demons); they could cast aspersions on nuclear armament and military escalation while dodging affiliation to any particular political program. The Doctor had to be apolitical: it was the only way he (and his scriptwriters) could engage with political issues.

Scripting the Doctor

The Doctor may not be committed “to any single form of social organization,” but that doesn’t mean his scriptwriters weren’t. A recent biography of scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke, who wrote several Doctor Who television episodes as well as novels, reveals the influence writers could exert on the political scripting of the Doctor’s character. In addition to being a scriptwriter for Doctor Who, Hulke was also an active socialist who for a period was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. His extensive career also involved work with Unity Theatre, a socialist theatre company. After working as a writer for radio, stage and cinema he began work on television with the BBC in the early 1950s. His early television work was on the Pathfinders in Space science fiction serial created by Sidney Newman (who would also go on to create Doctor Who) and The Avengers (where he worked with Terrence Dicks, later assistant script editor on Doctor Who, and with whom he was housemates for a period of time).

Although Hulke wrote a serial in 1963 intended for the First Doctor (William Hartnell), it wasn’t produced; his first broadcast serial was “The Faceless Ones” (4.8), with the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), which aired in 1967. All told, Hulke wrote eight television serials (for the Second and Third [Jon Pertwee] Doctors), in addition to seven Doctor Who novels and a seminal book on The Making of Doctor Who, co-authored with Terrence Dicks.

As Herbert observes in his biography of Hulke, elements of Hulke’s socialism emerged occasionally in the episodes he wrote. His second serial — “The War Games” (6.7) — conveys an anti-war and anti-authoritarian sentiment (and in the novelization he authored for this episode, it also features the Doctor [Patrick Troughton] giving a brief paean to the leftist rebels of the Spanish Civil War). The pacifist messaging is repeated in “The Silurians” (7.2), wherein Hulke explored “the threat posed by unfettered scientific research, relationships between races and the military mind-set which believes that violence can solve all problems” (Doctor Who and the Communist 12). In addition to his pacifist messaging, his episodes also contain the “establishment conspiracy” theme, whereby the Doctor winds up battling a secret conspiracy of politicians and military men. He also tackles capitalist excess in “Colony in Space” (8.4), wherein an interstellar corporation targets a Utopian Earth colony for the mineral wealth on which their colony sits. “Frontier in Space” (10.3) depicts a sort of Cold War between humans and Draconians (both of whom are being manipulated by the villain known as the Master [Roger Delgado]). As Herbert notes, this storyline was:

shaped by the Cold War when the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies. Both sides possessed vast arsenals of weapons, including nuclear weapons, and on a number of occasions came very near to war. Malcolm [Hulke] shows how mutual suspicions can be manipulated, but also that they can be overcome (Doctor Who and the Communist 13).

His final episode, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (11.2), featured what Herbert argues is Hulke’s most political storyline, featuring the unlikely juxtaposition of an evil environmentalist “establishment conspiracy” of politicians, scientists, and the military (who are determined to save the environment and wipe out most of humanity at the same time). Broadcast in 1974, in the early years of the environmental movement, Herbert explains this as representing Hulke’s “socialist slant on the environment crisis, giving the Doctor a speech at the end in which he says “It’s not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution…It’s simply greed” (Doctor Who and the Communist 13).

Hulke’s contributions demonstrate the impact a scriptwriter can have in shaping the political identity of a character. Although he didn’t deviate from the situational morality of the Doctor’s character, he nevertheless managed to insert commentary on several of the period’s political themes and causes around which he was active.

The politics of Doctor Who embrace a broad range of themes, many of which transcend those of the Cold War. Feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, and more have all emerged in varying forms and iterations over the years. Indeed, it is perhaps the very fact that the Doctor avoids playing his politics on his sleeve that enables scriptwriters to adapt the series to engage with the rapidly shifting politics of the ever-changing present. But the Cold War, comprising a frame of reference that spanned decades and with which generations of viewers were intimately familiar and personally and politically invested, offers a particularly rich mélange of political themes and possibilities that the series’ writers, editors, producers, and directors made extensive use of. As such, reviewing the series through the lens of hindsight — aboard our own analytical TARDIS — permits an appreciation of the ways in which Earth’s geopolitics manifests even in the everyday adventures of a 2000-year-old Time Lord.

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Hans Rollman’s essay is excerpted from New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of Doctor Who (footnotes omitted). More smart writing about the Terrifying Whoverse by PopMatters writers can be found in the book, available online here.

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