Sunday, 26 November 2017

It's grim up Doctor Who's North

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Doctor Who is not just science fiction: it is also a television programme which seeks to represent the British nation.  In this regard, in November 2017 the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that it would arrange big-screen viewings of the Doctor Who Christmas special in advance of Christmas Day.  These would be held exclusively in towns in the North of England: Hartlepool, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Salford, Durham and Bradford, tickets to be allocated by ballot, with some preference being accorded to local people.

Clara and the Doctor follow the no-nonsense Mrs Gillyflower
in  Yorkshire-set "The Crimson Horror" (2013)

The concession to Northern England reflects the fact that the North is neglected compared to Southern England.  This in turn was reflected in the majority of voters in most Northern towns registering their dissatisfaction by voting “Leave” in the EU referendum of 2016.  This was seen as a cry of community outrage against disparities of wealth and power.  There is endless talk by government of building “economic powerhouses” in the North, but not much seems to materialise.

Yet the “concession” of an early viewing of the Christmas special seems rather tokenistic.  It is, after all, a lottery: only a small proportion of local Doctor Who fans will benefit.  Moreover the prize is double-edged, forfeiting the traditional element of surprise on Christmas Day.

There are surely more substantial ways of making Doctor Who more inclusive in terms of its representation of Northern England.

One, as argued in the blog before, would be to have the new Doctor play the role in her own accent.  Jodie Whittaker hails from Skelmanthorpe in Yorkshire, in the North of England, and has already played several prestigious roles in her own accent.  It is to be hoped that, like Christopher Eccleston, she plays the Doctor with a Northern accent.

Christmas jollities: tensions at the Yuletide table for
 Clara and family
Another way would be to have Northern companions, but to take their Northernness seriously by locating their back-stories far more markedly in the North.  The failure to do so is seen in Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman’s) tenure of the role of companion.  Clara came from Blackpool, yet worked as nanny then teacher exclusively in London.  Even when she invites her family to a rather strained Christmas dinner in “The Time of the Doctor” (2013), this proves a peripheral element of the story, detached from a Northern setting.

Three Time Lords in the North East: the Rani,
 the Master and the Doctor in "The Mark of the Rani" (1985)
A third way would be to set more Doctor Who adventures in the North.  So far only two Doctor Who stories have been set in the North of England in the show’s long history.  “The Mark of the Rani” (1985) was set in North East England, with its actors failing rather lamentably with the region’s difficult accent (The film I, Daniel Blake (2016), set in Newcastle, made the better choice of using local actors).  “The Crimson Horror” (2013) was set in Yorkshire.  Depressingly, in both instances, the TARDIS had veered off course: the Doctor meant to transport his companion to a Southern English setting.  Even in the latest series the programme relocated the Doctor to a university in Bristol, another southern city, albeit in England's south west rather than the south east.  If Doctor Who is to represent Britain properly, this will require a determined effort to shift a critical mass of Doctor Who escapades from the show’s southern comfort-zone.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The lying of the land: post-truth politics in Doctor Who

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Deceiving others has been part of the drama of Doctor Who since the programme’s inception.  In “The Daleks” (1963-4) the Daleks deceive the Thals, offering them food when they mean to ambush and kill them.  In “The Keys of Marinus” (1964), mind-control is used to make squalor seem like luxury.  Sometimes, however, the deception in Doctor Who is particularly strongly linked to politics here on Earth.  This theme was present in the classic era Doctor Who (1963-89) but has become even more pronounced in post-2005 Doctor Who.

Aiming to be global dictator: Salamander
“The Enemy of the World” (1967) is the story of Salamander, a would-be world dictator with a curiously strong physical resemblance to the Doctor.  Salamander is gaining power by predicting earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural catastrophes, and dealing with the consequences.  In reality Salamander is engineering these disasters himself.  He has deceived a subterranean group of humans that they are survivors of an endless nuclear war which they must continue to wage by creating natural catastrophes from below ground.  When he blunders and the underground people start to suspect him, one of them says: “I won’t take your word for it: I want to see for myself!” Ultimately this proves Salamander’s undoing, and the war is exposed as a myth.

Harold Saxon: British Prime Minister turned despot
Political deception becomes, if anything, an even more pervasive theme in post-2005, new-series Doctor Who.  In “The Sound of Drums”/“The Last of the Time Lords” (2007) the Doctor’s long term adversary, the Master, becomes British Prime Minister, using the name Harold Saxon.  Manufacturing a phoney past for himself, Harold Saxon never existed. The Master gets the public to believe in him, and to vote him in, by subjecting them to some form of hypnosis, suggesting an inability of the political elite to connect with people in the absence of bewitching powers.  Aspects of Saxon’s rule (cult of the individual, pursuit of celebrity, “cool Britannia”, disdain for Cabinet government) seem like a satire on Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister.  Saxon subsequently establishes a worldwide tyranny.

More recently still in “The Lie of the Land” (2017) a species of alien monks invade Earth.  Through mind control the monks confect a past in which they have been guiding humanity since the very beginning, tenderly shepherding mankind through its formative years as part of a blissful partnership.  All they insist upon from the human race is total obedience.  In reality the monks have only been on Earth for a few months.  Anyone who points this out is imprisoned under a fictitious Memory Crimes Act 1975.  The Doctor’s companion Nardole explains: “however bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it’s always been, they put up with it”.

The public finally realise the truth about the monks
and turn on them
In his book The Rise of Political Lying (London: 2005, The Free Press), Peter Oborne advances a thesis which would explain why modern Doctor Who puts even more emphasis on political lying than classic-era Doctor Who.  Oborne contends that Britain now inhabits a post-truth political environment, and that this is new.  Reality has been replaced by pseudo-reality.  Within this construct, it is quite legitimate to deceive in order to obtain power.  The consequences can be horrendous.  For instance “in 2003 Britain went to war on the back of a fiction: the proposition that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  It did not, but tens of thousands of people died as a result” (p.6).  Oborne further argues that New Labour in power started to mould the past to suit its own purposes, regularly attributing to ministers remarks they had not made and denying remarks which they had actually made (pp.73-7). There seemed little evidence of an upsurge of truth-telling when New Labour made way for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition followed by a Conservative administration.

How might one explain the “abolition of the truth”?   Oborne suggests that the answer may be found in the theory of post-democracy put forward by Colin Crouch: that differences between parties have largely been replaced by the establishment of a homogenous political elite in the tradition of the pre-democratic era, and that this goes hand-in-hand with the corporate domination of our society.  (Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (London: 2004 Polity Press.))  The political elite are striving to conceal the true nature of the entire regime, so systematic lying goes with the grain of the system.  Thus post-truth and post-democracy run together.  It is in all likelihood this predicament which contemporary Doctor Who is seeking to address.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Hedonistic departures from the TARDIS?

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

In Doctor Who the way in which the Doctor’s companions quit the programme is important, not least for representations of gender in the show.  By indicating what is likely to happen next in a companion’s life the programme can show whether she is going to make use of the skills and sense of empowerment gained during her adventures with the Doctor.  In post-2005 Doctor Who, the Doctor’s companions have, until recently, tended to be prised out to the TARDIS against their will, but given the consolation prize of settling down with husband and home in some form.   In an article co-written with Alyssa Franke of Whovian Feminism fame
we chart how this pattern, specifically in the cases of companions Donna Noble and Amy Pond, fits with post-feminist notions of retreatism.   The piece will appear in the Journal of Popular Television in Spring 2018.
Bill takes her leave of the TARDIS with Heather

This post considers more recent departures from the TARDIS – those of Bill Potts and Clara Oswald - and their implications for representing gender and sexuality.   When in “The Doctor Falls” (2017) Bill Potts seemingly takes her leave of the Doctor the nature of her departure forms a stark contrast with that of Nardole, the series’ male companion and, I would argue, serves to undercuts her as a character.

One-series wonders: Martha Jones and Bill Potts

Companions of short duration: Martha as well as Bill
Before discussing her departure and the contrast with Nardole, the comment should be made that we are losing Bill Potts rather too early, not least given Pearl Mackie’s exceptional merits as an actor.  In particular it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that the Doctor’s two black companions – Martha Jones and Bill Potts - only lasted one series each, whereas three white companions Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald all occupied the TARDIS for two series or longer.  This discrepancy resonates with academic analyses which show that whilst Doctor Who shows admirable diversity when casting one-off characters it is poor at ensuring equality with regard to the show’s starring roles (see Lorna Jowett "Doctor Who and the politics of casting" (2018) Journal of Popular Television, forthcoming).

Bill’s short tenure might be explained by the need to “clear the decks” for new showrunner Chris Chibnall.  But why should we accept an iron law that new showrunners start with a clean slate of actors?  It is all rather precious.  The show’s longest-serving producer John Nathan-Turner inherited both a companion (Romana) and a robot dog (K9) with no ill effects.

Girls just wanna have fun?

Perhaps compared to the fates of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy the futures envisaged for Clara and Bill are an improvement of sorts.   They are more jolly.  They are, on a superficial level, very positive about women's same-sex relationships.   They are also strikingly similar to each other, evincing a repetitiveness in Steven Moffat’s writing.

Clara and Ashildr begin their travels
Essentially, both women find a same-sex partner together with a means of travelling around time and space.  Clara finds Ashildr, a part-human immortal, and goes off in a spare TARDIS.   Bill is rescued from existence as a Cyberman by Heather, who was transformed into a water-based alien able to transcend time and space in Bill’s introductory story “The Pilot” (2017).

So for Clara and Bill alike travel and adventure beckon.  Yet for both women everything about the future is left rather vague.  In particular, what exactly are our two heroines doing, zapping through the galaxies on their romantic, fun-filled travels?   Is there actually any point to this endless milling around? 

Since no other motivation is expressed it would seem that Clara’s and Bill’s travels are intended as a fun-seeking exercise, their mission is to please themselves. Yet this life of sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking is ultimately somewhat empty, though rather in line with the spirit of the age.  David Ciepley has observed that modern capitalism has come to rely on hedonism which has displaced the Protestant work ethic.  Capitalism has fashioned an individualist society in which work is not “a calling” but a means of consumption.  The short-term focus of the hedonist has, under neoliberalism, gained control of the arena of production.  ((2017) 1 American Affairs 58-71).   Oliver James contends that under neoliberalism, status-competition for consumer goods accelerated and became a social imperative (The Selfish Capitalist, London: Vermillion, 2008) 152-3).   It could be argued that more recently the acquisition of experiences has perhaps partially eclipsed the acquisition of possessions as a target for getting-and-spending.   Yet the mildest tweaking of Clara’s and Bill’s departures could have served to indicate that there was some more virtuous, unselfish purpose to their future adventures than a quest for personal enjoyment. 

Nardole’s nobler calling?

Nardole is tasked with saving the children
By contrast Nardole has a nobler finale.  He leaves when the Doctor charges him with defending a group of people – mainly children – from being turned into Cybermen.  He is thereby made a welcome addition to the rather short list of Doctor Who companions who explicitly leave life in the TARDIS to go off to do something worthwhile.  Steven Taylor departs in “The Savages” (1966) in order to act as an “honest broker” leader between two ethnic groups, the Elders and the Savages.   Nyssa leaves in “Terminus” (1983) in order to help cure people suffering a deadly disease.  And Romana leaves in “Warriors’ Gate” (1981) in order to save an alien species.  (“Will she be alright?” queries the Doctor’s remaining companion Adric: “Alright?” retorts the Doctor, "She'll be superb!”)
Magnificent Romana begins her new mission

Against this backdrop there is something rather demeaning to Clara and Bill that their departures are depicted in purely hedonistic terms.  It also devalues the portrayal of their same-sex relationships.  For many individuals, “pure” pleasure-seeking, bereft of concern for a community, is ultimately unsatisfying.  It ought to be all the more unsatisfying to viewers of Doctor Who, a programme which is often about intervening in support of the endangered or oppressed.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Casting Jodie Whittaker: lots of planets have a Skelmanthorpe!

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

From 2018 onwards the Doctor in Doctor Who will be played by Jodie Whittaker, a casting which has inspired much excitement for its gender change as well as, sadly, some disapproval from a minority of the programme’s viewers.   The present blogger shares the majority view, as shown by earlier posts on this blog, and is very pleased indeed at the BBC’s choice.  But lest we get too bogged down in gender, this post tries to ring the changes by focusing on a different aspect of the new lead actor: Jodie Whittaker’s strong Yorkshire identity.  Will she play the Doctor in her own accent?

The new Doctor
It is widely accepted that Doctor Who is not only about planets, space stations, ray guns and monsters.  It is also just as much about what it means to be British.  It is widely acknowledged in Doctor Who scholarship that the show perennially articulates a sense of national identity.  Yet the issue of national identity is in many respects highly political. 

In this regard Jodie Whittaker hails from Skelmanthorpe, a village in Yorkshire in Northern England.  Yorkshire is the United Kingdom’s largest county and Skelmanthorpe is noted in the Survey of English Dialects (1950-1961) as having a particularly rich form of dialect.  Whittaker seemingly acted with her own accent in her breakthrough role in Broadchurch (2013-2017).  Will she be allowed or encouraged to do so in Doctor Who?

The BBC has traditionally strongly favoured “received pronunciation”, the standard English spoken in southern England, also sometimes known as “the Queen’s English” and “BBC English”.   Three Doctors have thus far bucked the tradition: the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) used Scottish accents and the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) used a Northern English accent.  Conversely David Tennant, a Scottish actor, was obliged to play the tenth Doctor with a London accent.

It was Christopher Eccleston’s Northern accent which proved particularly controversial.  Not only did the Doctor have to explain to a sceptical companion-to-be Rose Tyler that he really was an alien because “lots of planets have a North!” but behind the scenes the actor’s insistence on playing the Doctor with a Northern accent caused a rift with the Doctor Who production team, contributing to his leaving the role after only one series.  Eccleston insisted on using a Northern accent for a political reason: he wanted to challenge discrimination based on the assumption that there was a correlation between accent and intellect.  
The Doctor and Rose none too subtly
articulating British identity -
with Captain Jack providing a contrast

Great Britain is an island, and England a nation, in which the economic centrifugal force is towards London and the South East, as very recently underlined by decisions on the country’s railway links.   Other parts of the country, not least the North, have been economically marginalised under forty years of neoliberalism.  This has been reflected in Brit-Grit films such as The Full Monty (1997), Brassed Off (1996) and I Daniel Blake  (2016) which have depicted people having to rely on each other as the State has retreated from its economic and welfare roles.  Yet despite the Doctor’s recent insistence that London is “a dump” (“The Zygon Inversion” (2015)), much of Doctor Who is still set in London and the south east.  This needs to change.  And if Doctor Who is to be a programme which reflects the whole of Britain there should be no objection in continuing to reflect this in the Doctor’s richly diverse identity – including her accent.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Liquid lesbians: Doctor Who's dislike of the unlike

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

According to Piers Britton Doctor Who has ethical value by dint of the way in which it can stimulate engagement with vast and deep forms of otherness (TARDISbound, IB Tauris 2011, p.7.)    Sometimes, though, Doctor Who can provoke thinking about the Other precisely because the Doctor sides against it.   On occasion he very clearly favours “the like” over “the unlike”.  When he does so, the degree to which the show encourages viewers to form their own judgment as to the rights and wrongs of his actions is important in making Doctor Who a worthwhile programme.

Eye-candy of the planet Skaro:
companion Ian Chesterton pontificates
to the Thals
The tendency of the Doctor sometimes to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar has been apparent ever since the show’s transformatory serial “The Daleks” in 1963-4 where he sided with the beautiful humanoid Thals against the Daleks.   The show perhaps made an effort to atone for this in 1965 where the Doctor made common cause with the allegedly-grotesque Rills against the glamorous yet ruthless Drahvins in “Galaxy Four”.

Not as nice as they look: the Drahvins
In “The Daleks” there is scant reflection on whether the Doctor is doing the right thing, questions of political morality being clouded by his efforts to regain the fluid link, an essential component of the TARDIS which the Daleks have confiscated.  As John Fiske has observed, in classic-era Doctor Who (1963-89) the BBC intended the Doctor to be clearly good and his opponents clearly bad.  (“Dr Who: Ideology and the Reading of a Popular Narrative Text” (1983) 14 Australian Journal of Screen Theory 69).   By contrast, as Gabriel McKee points out, in new Doctor Who (2005-present) the Doctor’s actions are no longer held up as singularly heroic, so viewers make up their own minds (“Pushing the Protest Button: Doctor Who’s Anti-Authoritarian Ethic" in Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith, eds A Crome and J McGrath, Darton, Longman and Todd 2013, p.22).   This trend perhaps reaches a high point in series 8’s pervasive theme of whether the Doctor was “a good man”.

Bill and alien-Heather make contact
The limits of the Doctor’s tolerance of “the unlike” is apparent in the recent episode “The Pilot” (2017).   This story introduces us to the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts.  We had earlier seen the Doctor’s previous companion Clara Oswald depart merrily in a TARDIS of her own with Ashildr, a woman about whom Clara had previously expressed a physical attraction.  In “The Pilot” Bill’s lesbianism is treated with similar matter-of-fact tolerance.  But when Bill’s love-interest, Heather, is without her consent transformed into a liquid alien, and invites Bill to undergo a similar transformation and join her on intergalactic adventures, the Doctor implores Bill to resist:
Bill gets a taster of life with Heather

BILL [OC]: I see what you see.  It’s beautiful.
DOCTOR:  Bill, let go!  You have to let go!  She is not human any more.

The Doctor does not explain what is wrong with not being human any more.  But it appears that lesbians are fine, alien liquid lesbians are going too far.  Later on Bill almost expresses regret at taking his advice:

BILL:  I saw it all for a moment.  Everything out there.  She was going to let me fly with her.  She was inviting me.  I was too scared.

Instead Bill flies with the humanoid, solid-form Time Lord, which substantially softens her rejection of Heather.  Whilst one could criticise “The Pilot” for downplaying Bill’s eschewing of “the unlike” and the seminal part which the supposedly-tolerant Doctor plays in her decision, it is nonetheless good that a question-mark is placed – however tersely - over her choice, given how fear of “the Other” lies at the heart of discrimination.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Charlie grabs his Pole: the political significance of Matteusz Andrezejewski

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

Class's happy twosome?
Charlie and Matteusz
In a recent issue of the BBC’s Radio Times, Peter Capaldi observed that love of Doctor Who is a proxy affection for Britishness.  The same surely applies to Doctor Who’s spin-offs, the latest of which is Class.  In Class, the Doctor saves an alien prince, Charlie Smith (Greg Austin), together with his arch-enemy Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), and transports them to Earth in the TARDIS.  Landing at Coal Hill School in Stepney, London, he charges Charlie and Miss Quill, along with several school students, with the task of defending the planet against the creatures which will emerge from a rift in time and space within the school.  (The fact that the rift seems to have been caused by the TARDIS’s frequent visits to Coal Hill seems to be glossed over.)

In the first episode, Charlie invites Polish fellow student Matteusz Andrezejewski (Jordan Renzo) to be his partner for the School Prom, prompting the new show’s first gay kiss as well as the comment “Oh yes my deeply religious parents are very happy I’m going to dance with a boy”.

A united kingdom:
Matteusz and Charlie snuggle up
Class was broadcast in the wake of Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, where the country decided by 52% to 48% to leave the organisation.  One reason was public dissatisfaction with the free movement of persons, a central pillar of the Union.  In particular the accession of Eastern European countries to the Union in 2004 gave rise to an influx of Eastern European nationals into Britain, represented in Class by Matteusz.

There are several points of interest here.  The first is that Doctor Who and its spin-offs had up until Class almost ignored the Eastern European immigration, despite the show’s obsession with charting British national identity.   This is probably because the show has had another story to tell: Britain’s transformation from Empire to multi-racial society. 

Secondly, now that Brexit – British exit from the EU – is happening, the Whoniverse seems more relaxed about making Eastern Europeans part of its national story.  This is timely, as Poles have recently replaced Indians as Britain’s most numerous ethnic minority.   Moreover the referendum result was followed by a deplorable upsurge in racist attacks against Eastern Europeans.  In this light the thoroughly sympathetic image of Matteusz points the way forward for popular culture.

Thoroughly British couple:
Madam Vastra and Jenny
The third point of interest, however, is the “Britishisation” of Matteusz.   In a fine act of stereotyping his parents are represented as “the Other”.  First they disapprove of Matteusz’s relationship with Charlie, then they ground him, then they throw him out.  It is not fanciful to see Charlie as a character who serves to make Matteusz more British.  Despite being an alien, Charlie represents Britishness.  This is unsurprising in Doctor Who where aliens often represent the British: the Doctor himself is a very British alien.  Other non-humans which may be perceived in the same light include Madam Vastra (see e.g. “The Crimson Horror” (2013)), the Star Whale (see “The Beast Below” (2010)) and even arch-enemy Missy (see e.g. “Death in Heaven” (2014)).   As with the Doctor, Charlie’s eccentricity marks him out as representing Britishness.   By inviting Matteusz to the Prom, he prompts the gay relationship which detaches Matteusz from his Polish family and ushers him into the British family of the Class team - which in post-2005 Doctor Who fashion is typically multiracial.  (Lesbian and gay relationships too have arguably been used as something of a signifier of Britishness in Doctor Who and its spin-offs.)

But not all aspects of British identity are attractive.  In terms of species Charlie is a Rhodian, a name strongly reminiscent of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia which spawned the apartheid-state of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.   The Rhodesia metaphor chimes with the Rhodians’ oppression of their rival species the Quill.  It also confirms that the Whoniverse remains centrally animated by Britain's imperial story.   Charlie’s ruthlessness makes Matteusz realise that the couple are not as similar as he thought, and prompts a short-lived split between the couple.  It is fairly common for Doctor Who to portray the British as unduly callous - see for example. "Doctor Who and the Silurians" (1970), "The Christmas Invasion" (2005) and "The Beast Below" (2010).

With Brexit in the offing, Matteusz’s Britishisation is on all fours with the trend towards Eastern Europeans living in Britain applying for British nationality.  This is not to say that Matteusz lacks pride in being Polish – “never turn your back on an angry Pole” he quips on one occasion – but it shows once again how the Whoniverse projects as an attractive quality of Britishness its capacity to absorb into its fold ethnicities and nationalities which constantly enrich its very character. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Mistrial of a Time Lord - further thoughts

By Craig Owen Jones
Bangor University

Danny Nicol’s recent comments on Doctor Who’s twenty-second season, otherwise known as "The Trial Of A Time Lord" (1986) achieve a great deal in drawing attention to the season’s tendency to play fast and loose with the most basic principles of jurisprudence. As an adjunct to Nicol’s characterisation of its problems, there are some interesting precedents in British television prior to the season’s broadcast that may benefit from scrutiny.

"The Trial of a Time Lord":
The Inquisitor questions the Doctor
Many of the germane aspects of the trial depicted in this peculiar quartet of serials from the Colin Baker era receive their most compelling treatments not in British science fiction (Blake’s 7’s (1978-81) dalliances with the device of the courtroom trial during its second season notwithstanding), but in the realm of comedy. The television run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) found the conduct of judges and policemen alike to be fertile ground. Both the death penalty and the rule against bias were satirised by a sketch in ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ (1970), in which a frustrated judge (Graham Chapman) rails against his inability to condemn the defendant in the light of the restrictions then recently placed on usage of the death penalty, asserting instead his imminent move to South Africa (‘England makes you sick!... I’m off, I’ve bought my ticket’), before declaring that, in a final fling before leaving, the defendant is sentenced to be burnt at the stake.

The question of reliability of police evidence, meanwhile, was mercilessly lampooned in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode ‘The Light Entertainment War’ (1974), in which a doltish police officer (Michael Palin) is in cahoots with Terry Jones’ judge, and (ineptly) gives evidence to implicate the defendant (Eric Idle) while reading from his notebook. The sketch was still considered sufficiently relevant in 1979 to warrant an airing during the Secret Policeman’s Ball, the series of occasional charity shows staged in aid of Amnesty International throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, this time with Graham Chapman as the policeman and Peter Cook as the defendant.

Cook provides another example that is relevant to the issues under study. On the penultimate evening of the 1979 show’s run, Cook – taking his cue from the outrageously partial summing-up of Sir Justice Cantley during the Thorpe trial which had ended the previous week – delivered a monologue that has since become known as ‘Here Comes The Judge’ that combined observations on class and political leanings to impugn the judge’s impartiality with devastating effect. The monologue, which brought the house down, was so successful that it was shortly released as a spoken-word record, and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of British comedy. Cantley’s couching of his comments in the language of impartiality bring to mind nothing so much as Lynda Bellingham’s Inquisitor, whose behaviour becomes increasingly inscrutable as the season progresses.
Satirising the police:
Not The Nine O'Clock News

The late 1970s in particular seems to have provided a good deal of grist for the satirist’s mill in the way of improper conduct in both the courtroom and the police station. Arguably the most successful satirical programme of the period, Not The Nine O’Clock News (1979-82) was the originator of several sketches to criticise the conduct of the police, including an uproarious monologue by Griff Rhys Jones that begins with an extreme close-up of what we assume is a yob bragging about his exploits during a riot in which he assaulted several people – ‘I hate mush, cos they make me puke, right?...’ – only for the camera to slowly zoom out, revealing that Jones is in fact wearing a police uniform (but see below). The much-criticised ‘sus laws’ that resulted in the disproportionate stopping and searching of black people provided a focus for another sketch that saw Jones playing a policeman, this time one ‘Constable Savage’, who is pulled up by his superior (Rowan Atkinson) for repeatedly arresting the same man, one Winston Kodogo; the sketch ends with Atkinson deciding the best place for Savage to continue his career is with the Special Patrol Group. The SPG also received bad press in The Young Ones (1982-84), in which the police in general are routinely portrayed as needlessly heavy-handed. In one episode, Alexei Sayle plays a police inspector in the guise of Benito Mussolini; in another, Rick (Rik Mayall) starts to play some music during a party, only to have his record player destroyed – mere seconds later! – by a police officer who asserts that ‘the neighbours have been complaining’.

Satirising the police interview video:
Alas Smith and Jones
But the treatment of police officers that is most relevant in respect of Trial Of A Time Lord’s preoccupation with the admissibility of the evidence provided by the Matrix is found in Alas Smith And Jones (1984-98), the vehicle of NTNOCN alumni Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith. In a keenly-observed sketch set in the interview room of a police station, we see the interviewer (Jones) questioning a suspect (Smith). Smith’s character is clearly innocent, but Jones’ gleeful demeanour derives from his transparent attempts to tamper with the evidence – the video of the interview shows evidence of several clumsy edits, and in the final seconds of the video, Smith finally appears bloodied and bruised, implying his maltreatment in the cells. The sketch was broadcast in 1992, several years after the introduction of recorded interviews in 1984, but it is hard not to view it as a direct response to that policy. What it questions is not the principle of recording, but the fidelity to the truth of that which is recorded. When we hear the evidence of a witness as recorded in an interview room shorn of context, to what extent may it be relied upon?

Such depictions of the adversarial process play, of course, devil’s advocate. Smith and Jones do not seriously claim that the recording of police interviews should be dispensed with as useless or unreliable. But they do succeed in interrogating our understanding of such interviews as infallibly truthful sources of evidence. The police interview sketch takes the point to its furthest extreme; it is Kurosawa’s Rashomon played for laughs. But in its highlighting of the mutability of evidence presented at one remove, in videoed, taped, or written form, it asserts the centrality of authority, of ruling by the sword. After all, the Time Lords are more or less all-powerful; and there are several moments in Trial Of A Time Lord where the court gets perilously close to dispensing the cosmic equivalent of victor’s justice. Unlike the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf episode ‘Justice’ (1991), in which the crew enter a penal space station enveloped by a ‘justice field’ within which the consequences of an unjust act are instantly played out on the perpetrator – in Trial the gap between the act of interrogation of one’s actions and determining ways of dealing with them in a just fashion is improbably broad. As Nicol notes, the contradiction between the format of the trial and the outcome is never resolved – charges are summarily dropped, and the process is never properly concluded.

Given the preponderance of satirical commentaries on these issues noted above, it is tempting to view Trial in the same way, as a metatextual comment on the way in which Doctor Who was being treated by the BBC at the time. As is well known, season twenty-three’s story arc was occasioned by producer John Nathan-Turner’s conviction that the show was experiencing something akin to being on trial, with frequent changes to format and scheduling and near-constant criticism of its tone both within the BBC and from viewers irate at the gory, violent tenor of the programme under the editorship of Eric Saward. This seems on the face of it to be a legitimate rationale for the haphazard trial process that we see. After all, Doctor Who was not above satirising the British establishment in the 1980s – one thinks of The Happiness Patrol (1988), a trenchant comment on the Thatcher ministry. Showing a frustratingly Kafkaesque Gallifreyan system of jurisprudence could, in the right hands, have constituted a powerful riposte to the show’s treatment by the BBC.

Campy dialogue:
The Doctor and the Valeyard

But this seems altogether too cosy an explanation of the strange perorations and verbose exchanges of Trial Of A Time Lord’s courtroom scenes to be admissible. For one thing, the season achieved its final form in the most haphazard fashion; the final serial, a two-parter entitled ‘The Ultimate Foe’, was famously written at breakneck speed by Pip and Jane Baker when Saward resigned as script editor before the season’s conclusion. Furthermore, the courtroom two-handers between the Doctor (Colin Baker) and the Valeyard (Michael Jayston), while often glossed as ‘comic’ in scholarly commentaries, are anything but. The schoolboy insults the Doctor launches in his interlocutor’s direction are risible and painted in the broadest of strokes, and the Valeyard’s replies are campy and unconvincing. Crucially, even viewers at the time viewed these scenes as poorly conceived and unfunny, even if the intent on the writers’ part was to introduce levity into what on paper were needlessly wordy exchanges. Ultimately, it is difficult to think of Trial as anything other than a noble failure, a stab at a grand and lofty narrative that falls flat due to a combination of silly posturing between protagonist and antagonist, pedestrian storytelling, and an almost complete lack of internal logic in terms of the trial that lies at its heart.