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.

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