The politics of Doctor Who

By Dr Matt Ashton

Doctor Who has been accused of many things over the years, from terrifying the nation's youth (mainly by self-appointed guardian of British morals Mary Whitehouse), to more recently supporting an aggressive gay agenda (clearly nonsense). One of the most frequent criticisms has come from its more conservative detractors, who have attacked it for promoting a left-wing political bias. This is in line with their perception of the BBC as a hotbed of revolutionary communists. Some of them seem to think that somewhere along the line the show became a vehicle for left-wing values in an attempt to brainwash families on a Saturday night.

The trouble is none of the evidence really supports this. You might as well argue that Basil Brush was secretly about banning fox hunting or the football results are an attempt to promote gambling.

That said, like a lot of science-fiction, Doctor Who has often used its stories to hold a mirror up to contemporary events and issues. This was most apparent during the Jon Pertwee years, when under the stewardship of producer Barry Letts every week seemed to have a plot ripped straight from the headlines. For instance, on two occasions the third Doctor visited the faraway planet of Peladon. The first time they were mulling over entry into the galactic federation. I don't think anyone could not have noticed the parallels between that and Britain's attempts to joins the EEC (which the Conservatives at the time supported). On the Doctor's second visit a year later, they were in the middle of a labour dispute between the planet's rulers and the miners. It just so happened a pretty similar one was taking place between the Labour government and the National Union of Miners at the time.

Every so-called liberal story had their counter-balance. The Green Death was about the need to stand up to large corporations (and insane computers) wanting to pollute the Earth, but a year later Invasion of the Dinosaurs was about the dangers of environmentalism taken to extremes. The fact that the third Doctor so often teamed up with the military force UNIT, and wasn't above using his Venusian Aikido on unsuspecting aliens, might even call his alleged pacifism into question.

You could even accuse later stories of having a right-wing bias. The Sun Makers during the Tom Baker years was about colonists on Pluto who were slowly being suffocated under excessive taxation and bureaucracy. Its writer Robert Holmes had been suffering from his own problems with the Inland Revenue at the time. So as critiques of 70s Britain went, it was fairly scathing.

The 80s story Kinda was clearly about imperialism, with a British space-force attempting to colonialise the jungle planet Deva Loka. Just in case anyone didn't pick up on this theme the producer decided to hammer it home by making some of the actors wear pith helmets and speak as if they were in a 1940s war-film. Again, does this really count as left-wing considering the fact that by 1982 almost everyone was against colonialism?

Later in the same decade the series dealt with the thorny issue of video-nasties that were causing a moral panic up and down the nation. It came to the distinctly un-radical conclusion that using violence on TV to distract a citizenry from its economic problems was a bad thing.

The only Doctor Who story I'd argue that could be considered out and out left-wing would be the Sylvester McCoy tale The Happiness Patrol. It's about a planet ruled over by the dictator Helen A, who forces everyone to be happy all the time. It doesn't take a genius to work out which prime minister Helen A is meant to be based on (although many have pointed out that the story could also be read as a metaphor for gay rights, coming so soon as it did after the introduction of Clause 28).

While the left might point to the Doctor as a sort of galactic Che Guevara, overthrowing dictatorships all over the universe, it could equally be argued that in many ways his behaviour mirrors that of the right-wing neo-cons over the last few years. The Doctor might well overthrow governments, but he rarely, if ever, sticks around to see how the societies rebuild themselves after his intervention. In some cases he doesn't even bother to find out if the planets citizens want to be liberated in the first place.

The Doctor might be pro-liberty and freedom, but both of those are what Isaiah Berlin identified as 'hurrah' words. Things that pretty much no-one, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, could be against. Again and again throughout its history, while Doctor Who might have promoted social-liberalism, it's steered clear of any particular political ideology. Where else could you watch a story that featured an implied lesbian relationship between a Victorian serving girl and a talking samurai lizard?

Of course at the end of the day, the best view to take is that it's a children's TV show that adults happen to love as well. If you look in the dictionary for the definition of "family viewing" you'd probably find a picture of Doctor Who. If the show promotes anything, it's tolerance, diversity, intellectual curiosity and a willingness to keep an open mind. If those aren't good lessons for children, I don't know what is.


Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.