Doctor Who didn't get 'woke' - it was never unwoke to begin with
Recent criticism of Doctor Who, from Twitter to the tabloids, has argued that the newer series' approach to social issues - and its focus on moments in history which are often ignored by the textbooks - has been unsubtle and too politically correct. Think of the grumbling that greeted Demons of the Punjab (about the negligence of the British government during the partition of India), or Rosa (fictionalising the events surrounding her most famous act of civil disobedience). Critics seized the narrative that Doctor Who was a victim of a BBC agenda, forced to shoehorn progressive issues into its most popular family drama.
Orphan 55, the third episode of the latest season of Doctor Who, was the latest story to incur the internet’s wrath. Set in a holiday resort in space entirely populated by British character actors, we saw the hotel being overrun by hideous aliens (the ’Dregs‘) who quickly slaughtered the guests.
For the most part, it was a typical monster-mash episode. But in a final twist, it was revealed that the Dregs were actually former humans - mutated beyond recognition by climate change and nuclear war. Suddenly, this episode wasn’t just an hour of fun with lasers and force fields - it was a parable about the dangers of mucking with the delicate balance of planet Earth’s ecology. A closing monologue from the Doctor, described as ‘preachy’ by some, closed the show.
Some viewers were aghast at the sudden pivot to heavy-handed moralising. Others even argued that science fiction shouldn’t be a vehicle for political viewpoints. I’m sorry, are we watching the same programme?
The Doctor is a character, in all of his or her forms, with a lot of time on their hands. Rather than using the power to travel through history as we all would - buying Apple stock in 1982, hanging out with Truman Capote at Studio 54 - they use it to help people. Sometimes those people are real human civilizations, and sometimes they’re out there in space, or from another species.
But every time, they fight for the underdog. It’s part of the DNA of the show itself! You could spend a week watching every classic Doctor Who story in which the Doctor helps an indigenous civilization to throw off the shackles of an invading empire.
Meanwhile, the series has always shone a progressive light on hot-button issues - be it nuclear disarmament (Cold War), Thatcherism (The Happiness Patrol) or environmentalism (The Green Death, In the Forest of the Night). When Russell T Davies revived the show in 2005, he made a point to include positive LGBT+ representation whenever the opportunity presented itself. I can’t describe what it meant for me, as a teen, to see Captain Jack Harkness - a character who travelled time, fought monsters and kissed boys (and girls, and aliens) - up on the screen. By the way, those who say that the series’ anti-racist themes have become too obvious should take another look at the Daleks.
To cross out another item on the usual list of complaints about modern Doctor Who, the power of on-screen representation can’t be denied either. Like the rest of the TV industry, Doctor Who is finally making efforts to diversify its casting. It should be self-evident, but if viewers have a problem with the smartest person in the universe being played by a woman - and featuring racially diverse talent in every single episode - it says a great deal about how they think the world should look.
The common thread is that the Doctor spends time fighting for the marginalised. It’s a theme that hasn’t always been reflected in the show’s writing: the grotesque racist caricatures of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, or the dubious anti-worker subtext of last season’s Kerblam! are among the low points. But over nearly sixty years of storytelling, the show has a good batting average.
The attitude that popular culture, especially genre fiction, shouldn’t engage with bigger ideas and be a vehicle for progressive ideals is a depressing one. First and foremost, because it ignores centuries of sci-fi which is designed to provoke and question. Where would we be without The War of the Worlds? It’s a novel which imagines Victorian-era England experiencing a terrifying invasion from a more technologically advanced power. And just in case we missed the parallels to Britain’s colonialist empire, HG Wells flat-out mentions this in the first chapter. Ditto authors who gave us plenty of food for thought on other issues; William Gibson (runaway capitalism), Margaret Atwood (patriarchy, religious fundamentalism) and George Orwell (surveillance technology). Of course, it’s easy enough to dismiss the subtext and claim that these are just stories about Martians and explosions.
Second, it’s depressing because the real audience for Doctor Who’s messages of tolerance and forward-thinking are not the adults tuning in and complaining about it. It’s their kids. The most vocal opposition to Doctor Who when it gets political are grown-ups, who seem to demand anodyne, hermetically sealed Doctor Who stories that don’t engage with real-world issues. The ten-year-olds watching Jodie Whittaker save the day each week are the ones who have the power to emulate her heroism and change the world in the near future. To go back to Orphan 55, in the case of climate change, these kids are the ones who will live with our generation’s mistakes. In the spirit of the show itself, I’d like to get serious for a moment: I’d go as far as to say that Doctor Who’s commitment to exercising these messages isn’t just window dressing. It’s important.
Finally, I’d like to point out that no less an authority than the Tenth Doctor has weighed on the issue. Speaking to The Guardian, David Tennant pushed back against criticism of the show.
"Is it possible to be too politically correct? What does that even mean? Inclusivity has always been one of Doctor Who's strengths.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.