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.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Mistrial of a Time Lord

By Danny Nicol,
Professor of Public Law
University of Westminster.


“The Trial of a Time Lord” (1986) was a 14-part serial, the longest in Doctor Who’s history.   In it, the Doctor (Colin Baker) is put on trial by his own people, the Time Lords, for interfering in the affairs of other peoples and planets.   The trial is presided over by the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) and the Doctor is prosecuted by an official called as the Valeyard (Michael Jayston).   

Doc in the dock: the Doctor makes a
point in his defence
The trial provides the opportunity to relate several of the Doctor’s adventures which the Valeyard deploys as evidence of his guilt.  Professor James Chapman has criticised these various segments as unengaging, and has condemned the over-arching narrative as inconsistent, incoherent and poorly-structured (Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, 2nd edition, London: Tauris, 2013, pp.158-9).  Be that as it may, this post focuses not on the merits or demerits of the serial, but on the procedural shortcomings of the trial.   

The analysis does not purport to be comprehensive.  Indeed the procedural deficiencies in “The Trial of a Time Lord” are so substantial as to merit a major article in the field of Law and Television.  Instead this post merely flags up a few of the issues of procedure with which the narrative engages (and does so without giving the game away about the plot’s moment of revelation). 

A first issue in the trial is what lawyers call public interest immunity.  This is the notion that certain information can be withheld from the court in the public interest.  When the Doctor is on the planet Ravalox certain dialogue incriminating the Time Lords is removed from the evidence.  In 1968 in Conway v Rimmer ([1968] AC 910) Britain’s top court the House of Lords held that it was for the court - not the government - to strike a balance between two public interests involved: the public interest in withholding the information versus the public interest in ensuring justice in the case.  Here, the Inquisitor shows undue deference to the Time Lords’ decision on suppressing the information: she does not really interrogate the public interest in non-disclosure.

Impartial arbiter?
The Inquisitor adjudicates
A second issue is the assumption that the Matrix cannot be challenged.  The Matrix is the computer-based depository of all Time Lord knowledge and experience.  When the Doctor insists that evidence from the Matrix has been falsified, the Inquisitor pre-judges the issue, telling the Doctor “your accusation would be laughable if it were not so outrageous”. The problem of certain forms of evidence being considered unchallengable may have had resonance in the mid 1980s when “The Trial of a Time Lord” was written.  It was an era in which the evidence of the British police, whilst often relied upon at trial, was becoming increasingly discredited as miscarriages of justice mounted up.  As a result the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 ushered in the tape-recording of interviews.  Such recordings now form the focus of a very large number of criminal trials, as well as a long-standing trope in British television crime drama.

A third issue is the upgrading of the charge against the Doctor from interference to genocide.  Late in the trial we learn that the Doctor has destroyed an entire alien species, a race of sentient plants known as the Vervoids.   Instantly the Valeyard insists that the capital charge of genocide be added to the charges against the Doctor.   Yet the rules of procedural fairness include the right to adequate time to prepare one’s case (see for instance the ruling of the High Court in R v Thames Magistrates’ Court ex parte Polemis [1974] WLR 1371).  To add new charges mid-trial would be an outrageous breach of that principle.

The Valeyard presses for the ultimate sanction
A fourth issue is the death penalty. The Valeyard strongly presses for the death penalty.  In Britain, Parliament effectively abolished the death penalty in 1965 after several miscarriages of justice, and in 2004 the UK government accepted the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which created an obligation in international law not to reintroduce it.   Britain does not extradite individuals who would face the death penalty in trials elsewhere.  The presence of the death penalty in Gallifreyan law marks Gallifrey as a more primitive society than Britain.

A fifth issue is the rule against bias.   It is a vintage principle of common law that judges should be impartial vis-à-vis the parties to a case (see e.g. Dimes v Grand Junction Canal I [1852] 10 ER 315).   The principle has also been enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Yet for all her gravitas, the Inquisitor eventually shows herself far from impartial: she defends rather too vigorously the Time Lords’ decision to extract the Doctor from time and space to face trial just as his companion, Peri, needed rescuing from imminent destruction.   Bias in the opposite direction is apparent at the trial’s end: the Inquisitor drops all charges against the Doctor because the Time Lords owe him a debt of gratitude for having saved their skins.   So much for the due process of law.

Eventually the Time Lords emerge discredited from the trial because of their own constant interference in time and space.  It is Time Lord hypocrisy which “The Trial of a Time Lord” ultimately condemns.  But as a result the appalling lapses in judicial procedure get sidelined.  Yet these deficiencies fall well short of the common law principle that it is not enough for justice to be done, it must be manifestly be seen to be done – through compliance with the requirements of procedural fairness.  This raises the important question of whether a conviction, however justified in substance, should ever be lawfully obtained on the basis of an unfair procedure.  The procedural corruption of the trial alone justifies the Doctor’s stirring denunciation:

In all my travellings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed HERE! The oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! … Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen - they're still in the nursery compared to us! Ten million years of absolute power - that's what it takes to be really corrupt!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Doctor Who's unjew influence

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

Doctor Who began in 1963, less than two decades after the Nazi holocaust had been brought to an end.   Yet the programme’s earlier years reflect an alarming degree of anti-Jewish stereotyping on the part of postwar British society.

Julius Silverstein, anxious to keep his hands on his collection
In “The Web of Fear” (1968) we meet Julius Silverstein, a central European Jew who owns the sole surviving robot Yeti, a menace which the Doctor had encountered in his earlier adventure “The Abominable Snowmen” (1967).   Julius’ friend Professor Travers implores him to part with the Yeti, on the grounds that a control unit sphere has gone missing and is in danger of reactivating the Yeti.   But Julius is so obsessed by his material possessions that he is impervious to reason.  “You vont to rob me…nobody destroys Julius Silverstein’s collection!  Nobody!  The Yeti is mine!”   Julius’ excessive materialism costs him his life, when his precious Yeti is reanimated – and kills him.


The stereotyping involved in Julius Silverstein's character wouldn’t be so bad were it a one-off.  Alas, in “The Creature from the Pit” (1979) we meet a Jew from outer space. This is the bandit leader Torvin, who is performed as Charles Dickens’ Fagin (he variously calls his colleagues “my lovely boys!”, “my beautiful boys!” and ultimately “my rich boys!”).   Torvin lives on the planet Chloris which is rich in vegetation but has scant metal, a material which therefore obsesses him: “metal, metal, metal: I’ll put my trust in this solid metal!”    He sees people (such as the Doctor’s companion Romana) largely in terms of their monetary worth.  He also proves himself entirely self-serving, having to be repeatedly reminded by his gang that he should be fighting for their collective wealth not just his own.   Once again his materialism proves fatal, yet even Torvin’s last, comic, words are materialistic: as he dies he admires the metal of the blade with which he has been stabbed.


Torvin admires some metal
It is a great pity that Doctor Who’s crude anti-Jewish racism prevented the programme from engaging properly with the Jewish story.   By contrast, in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode “Duet” (1993) a space station has a visitor who seemingly ran a forced labour camp in which one alien species persecuted and perpetrated genocide against another alien species.  The episode raises mature issues of responsibility and of the distinction between justice and vengeance which were highly relevant in the quest for Nazi war criminals.   It is not too late for contemporary Doctor Who to atone for its past stereotyping by treating these issues seriously.  

Saturday, 4 June 2016

"Everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun!"

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

“A Town Called Mercy” (2012) is a Doctor Who adventure set in an American frontier town in the nineteenth century.  In it, the Doctor forces an alien war criminal, Jex - at gunpoint - to face a cyborg called The Gunslinger who intends to kill him.  The Doctor’s companion, Amy Pond, grabs another gun, and threatens to shoot the Doctor if he continues to do this, arguing “When did killing someone become an option?  … We can’t be like him, we’ve got to be better than him!”  After Amy hamfistedly allows her weapon to discharge into the air the town’s sheriff, Isaac, hollers: “Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun!”
The Doctor points his gun at Jex

Doctor Who isn’t just science fiction.  Since 1963 the programme has also strived to define Britishness as part of the British Broadcasting Commission’s mission to contribute to a sense of national identity.  According to Jean Seaton the BBC must sort out what the nation is, expressing worries about the British whilst trumpeting their virtues (“The BBC and Metabolising Britishness” in Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright (eds) Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question, Wiley-Blackheath 2009).

In this regard the show repeatedly defines Britishness by what Britishness is not.  Here, it pokes fun at the American “Other” and more specifically at American gun culture, as encapsulated in the US Constitution's Second Amendment

Many British people find the “right to bear arms” shocking and puzzling.   In our own country, horror at the Hungerford massacre of 1987 and the Dunblane school massacre of 1996 led to immediate gun control legislation.  With scant public dissent Britain’s sovereign Parliament, which can famously “make or unmake any law whatsoever” unimpeded by a written constitution, clamped down on gun ownership without delay.

Hands up!  The Doctor is confronted by American gunpower
in the Oval Office, in "The Impossible Astronaut"
Cocking a snook at the Americans is, however, nothing new for Doctor Who.   In “The Impossible Astronaut”/ “Day of the Moon” (2011) British brainpower is rather pointed counterposed to American firepower in the context of an adventure featuring President Nixon.   In “The Christmas Invasion” (2005) the British Prime Minister Harriet Jones instructs that the President of the United States be told that he is not her boss.  And “The Sound of Drums”/ “Last of the Time Lords” (2007) features an arrogant US President-elect being assassinated at the behest of the Master.

In an essay entitled “Tardis at the OK Corral”, Nicholas J. Cull argues that post-war Britain’s relationship with the United States is a pervasive theme both in terms of the old-show Doctor Who’s rise and fall and as a regular passing reference within its storyline.  The show had to engage with fears of American domination and American-style capitalism.  Cull contends that the triumph of brains over brawn in the Doctor’s adventures signifies the British belief that we can keep muddling through without John Wayne style gunpower (John Cook and Peter Wright (eds) British Science Fiction Television IB Tauris, 2006).  These themes are evident in “The Tenth Planet” (1966) and “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967). 


Bombastic American General Cutler tries to reason with an
early Cyberman in "The Tenth Planet"
However, one must observe a degree of British humbug.  In “A Town Called Mercy” the Doctor (a Time Lord, not a human, but definitively coded as British) does actually use a gun, as does Amy, though neither kills anyone.  Recurring companion Professor River Song (also coded as British) relishes firearms, not least in “Day of the Moon”.   Moreover the Doctor can resort to weapons of mass destruction as he does in destroying Skaro in “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988) or a Cyberfleet in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011).  And as Davros, creator of the Daleks, observes in “Journey’s End” (2008) the Doctor can fashion his companions into weapons, transforming them into murderers (for instance Rose Tyler destroys a multitude of Daleks in “The Parting of the Ways” (2005)).  The uneasy notion that the British are actually just as aggressive as their American cousins has been a persistent undercurrent of the post-2005 show, reflecting the country’s rather-frequent interventions in other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.  If Amy’s comment had been directed towards the Americans – “we can’t be like them, we’ve got to be better than them” – then perhaps Doctor Who sometimes serves to remind us that the British and the Americans are not so different from each other.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Terrorism of the Zygons

by Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

The Zygons in their true form
In “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” (2015) the Doctor and companion Clara encounter the Zygons, shape-shifting aliens who settled on Earth in the wake of the events chronicled in the show’s 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (2013).  They take human form and live out their lives peacefully on Earth in human guise, and are particularly concentrated within the United Kingdom


The plot involves a group of Zygons which becomes “radicalised” and kills the existing Zygon leadership.  Its grievance appears to be that Zygons want “the right to be themselves”. 

The story’s pervasive theme is encapsulated in an argument which the Doctor makes to his friend Kate Stewart of UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce: “Isn’t there a solution which doesn’t involve bombing everyone? … This is a splinter group.  The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace.  You start bombing them, you’ll radicalise the lot.  That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”
UNIT's Kate Stewart favours the military solution

The Doctor’s anti-war stance turns “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” into rather a sharp political satire.  It was broadcast around the time that the British House of Commons was deciding whether to bomb Syria as part of Britain’s efforts against the so-called Islamic State group.   The idea that bombing would win recruits to the extremist group was a major argument against intervention.  But the Syria bombing was of course no flash in the pan: it followed British military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, which were likewise none-too-successful in ending conflict.  One can therefore view “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” as a satire on the country’s foreign policy as a whole. 

Ultimately the Doctor prevents UNIT from using “Sullivan gas” which would kill the Zygons, and, with some impressive anti-war rhetoric, he manages to convince the leader of the rebel Zygons to accept the way of peace.   He reinstates his friend Osgood and her Zygon counterpart as guardians of the peace, with the tantalising suggestion that “the Osgoods” are neither human nor Zygon but somehow a hybrid between the two species.
The Osgoods: human and Zygon defenders of the peace

The flaw in the story is that conflicts don't tend to end this way.  Usually the side which has a grievance obtains some concessions, even if these concessions are far removed from what they originally sought.  An example would be the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which craves a united Ireland but settled for a power-sharing constitution in Northern Ireland as the price for peace.  “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” falls down somewhat because it does not interrogate the Zygons’ grievance, nor does the Doctor offer them anything beyond the status quo ante, not even a fig leaf.