By Danny Nicol
A well-known feature of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s ability to change his/her physical appearance (and, to an extent, character) through regeneration. This has proven an invaluable device for refreshing the programme with new lead actors. The 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special “Twice Upon A Time” took advantage of regeneration to imagine an encounter between the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and the first Doctor (originally William Hartnell, here David Bradley) and to explore the tensions between them.
|The Doctor....and the Doctor.|
I am not here referring to the rather overdone drolleries about the first Doctor’s sexism (something which was not actually so very apparent in the years when William Hartnell played the Doctor). Rather, the first Doctor and twelfth Doctor have a series of disagreements which resonate with other political interpretations of Doctor Who.
- The first involves the protection of Earth. When an alien entity materialises, the first Doctor tells it that Earth is a level five civilisation. The twelfth Doctor chips in: “And it is protected!” The first Doctor is taken aback: “It’s what? Protected by whom?”
- The second involves whether the Doctor is “the Doctor of war”. The alien later declares to the first Doctor that he is known by all in the Chamber of the Dead, since he is the Doctor of war. Indignant, the first Doctor denies being the Doctor of war. He later misunderstands the title as meaning that the Doctor saves lives during wars.
- The third involves the twelfth Doctor’s (and other recent Doctors’) habit of bragging. When the twelfth Doctor threatens the alien, the first Doctor retorts: “Why are you advertising your intentions? Can’t you stop boasting for a moment? Who the hell do you think you are?”
The tale of two Doctors
The differences between the first Doctor and the twelfth Doctor thereby emerge as a pervasive theme in “Twice Upon A Time”. The Doctor’s contemporary sense of self-importance and his military dimension certainly seem to form a contrast to the show’s early years, where the eccentric gentleman would gad hither and thither, meddling sporadically with no grand mission. Yet these differences cannot entirely be ascribed to politics. To an extent they are due to the sheer flow of time.
|The Doctor commences his role|
as defender of Earth
In this regard it would be misleading to draw too bright a line between the two Doctors. When it comes to the Doctor’s roles as protector of Earth and Doctor of war, the seeds were actually sown during the first Doctor’s era. In “The Daleks” (1964-5) the Doctor unequivocally acts as a war leader, helping the Thals against the Daleks – who end up being exterminated. In Doctor Who – A British Alien? (2018) I argue that the Doctor’s war is difficult to justify, since the Daleks (whose genocidal ways we do not know at this early stage) express their desire to eliminate all Thals only after the war has begun. Furthermore in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) whilst the Doctor does not quite articulate a role as defender of Earth he nonetheless states that he must prevent the Daleks’ plans to pilot the Earth right out of its orbit since that would “upset the entire constellation”. This was a significant development in the Doctor Who formula. Prior to this, the Doctor and his entourage would often leave the TARDIS to see if they had landed on contemporary Earth so as to return the Doctor’s original companions Ian and Barbara back home. They would somehow get separated from the TARDIS and the adventure would revolve entirely around the effort to return to the ship. “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” gives the Doctor a more heroic mission. The foundations of the Doctor’s roles as Doctor of war and defender of Earth are therefore readily apparent in the first Doctor’s era. As time wore on there were more such adventures. The instances of the various Doctors’ Earth-saving and military-style meddling simply mounted up and attained critical mass, so that the titles of “defender of Earth” and “Doctor of war” were no longer fanciful – and the Doctors had something to boast about.
The tale of two eras
By the same token, completely to exclude a political dimension is not entirely convincing either. In the 1960s when William Hartnell played the first Doctor, British foreign policy was comparatively peaceful. In particular, whilst expressing support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s
campaign, the 1964-70 Labour government kept British forces out of it. The 1960s were also a time of decolonisation
as the transformation from Empire to Commonwealth continued. Against this backdrop Doctor Who could conceivably have developed to place more emphasis
on the Doctor fostering co-existence and on care for the Other as well as the
human/humanoid. Alas, this did not quite
By contrast, however, post-2005 new-Who was broadcast in a very different climate. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorism,
Britain under the
Labour government of Tony Blair joined the Americans in invading Afghanistan and later joined the invasion of Iraq. Interventions in Libya
also ensued. This more aggressive stance
vis-à-vis the rest of the world was reflected in Doctor Who in a critical fashion.
Undeniably the importance of the Doctor’s military and defence role has
increased in post-2005 Doctor Who,
reaching its logical conclusion in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011) where the
very word “Doctor” is accorded a new meaning of “mighty warrior”. This stance is amplified by the twelfth
Doctor’s opening series in 2014 where the pervasive theme was whether the
Doctor was “a good man” or “a blood-soaked general”. The programme increasingly dwells on the idea
of the Doctor having fashioned a military and defence role, and does so in a
very explicit way. It also tries on
occasion to soften this assessment with talk of him being “kind”, or being just
“an idiot with a box” who “helps out”. Suffice
to say that sometimes the Doctor metaphorically critiques Britain’s role
in the world. Yet at other times he
himself serves as a metaphor for Britain’s role in the world. Through him, contemporary politics is exposed
on screen for pitiless appraisal.