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?

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.

* * *

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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