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Dr Who and the Brexiteers

Dr Who and the Brexiteers

by Professor Mile Nicholson

It is January 1972. A UK television audience of around 11 million sits enthralled as a battered London police box materialises on the stormy planet of Peladon, where a motley collection of aliens from across the galaxy are gathered to ratify the planet’s entry into the Galactic Federation. It is a thinlydisguised analogy to the ongoing debates in Britain over the proposed entry into the then Common Market the following year.

Doctor Who (then played by the brilliant Jon Pertwee) was uniting with former arch enemies, the Ice Warriors, to foil a plot to scupper the negotiations and secure the best deal for the troubled little planet. Sadly, when the Doctor pays a return visit a mere fifty years later (or just two in TV time), membership of the Federation has failed to deliver prosperity, increased alien immigration, led to deep divisions in society and prompted a planet-wide miners’ strike with talk of a need to leave the Federation and hold a referendum! Sound painfully familiar?

For ffty-fve years, give or take a seven-year hiatus, the BBC television series Doctor Who has delighted, amused and scared audiences with its stories of travel through time and space, surviving around thirteen changes of lead
actor (depending how you defne and count them) and even a gender-change in the character itself, with Jodie Whittaker now the current Doctor. Part of that longevity is down to good storytelling and a series of amazingly talented production teams that can bring alien worlds into our living rooms week after week, often on a shoestring – the budget for the very frst episode was a mere £1000. Like all long-established cultural institutions however, the programme has drawn inspiration from current events, adding a depth to the storylines that arguably just isn’t present in slicker US shows with larger budgets and longer lead-in times. The events on Peladon were writer Brian Hayles’ attempts to add social comment to what turned out to be a good old-fashioned ghost story, the scripts working on multiple levels to delight audiences young and old. The programme’s debut was itself caught up in major global events. The very frst episode was broadcast a mere 24 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, prompting an unscheduled repeat the following week for the beneft of a still-shocked audience who couldn’t take it all in.

During the very frst year, Doctor Who gave us the introduction of the Daleks in a story that echoed the rise of racism and a ‘dislike for the unlike’; it drew on problematic world trade negotiations to tell the story of Marco Polo, and it even had time to recreate still-painful memories of the Blitz in a Dalek assault on London perfectly timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War Two.

The trend continued throughout the programme’s original run, overtly predicting everything from the UK’s frst female prime minister and the declining influence of the UN, through to inclusion of more subtle references to the dangers of corporate power (in The Green Death), gang crime and drug use in the East End (Talons of Weng-Chiang), and a nod to the public concerns over the spread of plastics in a tale of ‘killer shop-window dummies’ (Terror of the Autons) that left me, for one, afraid to walk past Burtons’ window for a long time to come! And my personal favourite? Stalwart writer Robert Holmes’ acidic attack on the hyper-inflation of the late 1970s with a vision of a world ran by a single company and where poorly paid workers must either pay extortionate taxes or face execution-by-public steaming in Corridor P45 (The Sun Makers).

It is this ability to resonate with different sectors of the audience that continues to be the secret of Doctor Who’s success.

To the child, that is simply a parcel from Amazon with some rather sinister bubble wrap; to the parent, it is a view of a dystopian future where an out-of-control online retailer has to be forced by the government to employ a quota of ‘organic resources’ to provide menial support to the robot workforce.

And then there’s the amazing Jodie Whittaker, of course, second only to Tom Baker in my view as the greatest Doctor of them all. With boundless energy, humour and a wicked Yorkshire accent, she has made the part her own. In less than ten minutes, most of the audience had forgotten the character was ever male – testament to wonderful writing but also a very bold move that reflects changes in society as a whole. When the idea of a woman in the role was frst mooted back in the mid-1980s – when Peter Davison quit the role – this led to public outcry and the worst type of tabloid journalism. Today? A few misogynistic grumblings on Twitter for a while, but by and large the gender-swap proved no big deal and the audience took it in its stride. We don’t miss the Doctor being male at all and, as she herself said when facing trial as a witch, the only thing the Doctor missed was not being patronised “when I was a bloke”. Perhaps times haven’t changed as much as we might have liked!

None of this is new, and that’s the whole point really. TV shows come and go, we are a very disposable society, but Doctor Who and other small-screen gems continue relentlessly because – like the B movies of the 1950s – their writers and producers reflect current ordinary concerns in the most extraordinary of stories. That creates unique connections with audiences that lesser shows simply cannot emulate. Connections that make the unreal real. There is no reason why that should not continue for many years to come.

So what of the future? Well, we are long overdue a return trip to Peladon to see how its ‘Brexit’ may pan out and, when all is said and done, Doctor Who in the David Tennant era also predicted the short-lived career of Britain’s second female prime minister! And in the past few weeks, we’ve now met a mad billionaire hotel owner hell-bent on becoming President of the United States, a character ripe of his own ‘second term’. The possibilities are endless. As the Doctor herself might say, “This is going to be fun!”

This article was first published in IMPACT magazine in January 2019.

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