Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: Politics in time and space
Mark Harrison | On 03, Jul 2022
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
A lot of people watch science fiction to escape today’s high-volume rolling-news culture, but amid the wailing that the genre is “getting too political” (read: features characters who aren’t white, male and/or straight in major roles) the truth is that Doctor Who – like most sci-fi – has always been political.
Granted, the 2005 revival is immediately much more of a political satire, with Russell T Davies’ first season arc targeting power structures, the way the media upholds them and that one bit of spin about aliens launching missiles “within 45 seconds” echoing developments around the then-contemporary war on terror.
Relative to a Blair-alike PM falling out of a cupboard completely dead, the show largely calmed down when Steven Moffat took over and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor started hobnobbing with kings and presidents and prime ministers. Later, Chris Chibnall’s conception of the Thirteenth Doctor suddenly landed her with an out-of-character respect for authority, which runs counter to a lot of precedent for the Time Lord.
Even Classic Doctor Who has a healthy cynicism towards politicians and politics in general, starting with a prehistoric morality play to the era where the script professed a desire to use the show to try and bring down Margaret Thatcher’s government. In between, a lot of politicians made nuisances of themselves, especially during the Jon Pertwee era.
With Davies coming back to the show next year, and real life UK politics currently being run by a right bunch of Slitheen, maybe Doctor Who will develop a political conscience again. Until then, here’s a look at the various political machinations from 1963 to 1989…
An Unearthly Child (Season 1, 1963)
“Old men see no further than tomorrow’s meat. They will make Kal the leader.”
The marvellous pilot episode of Doctor Who only takes us 25 minutes into the first serial. School teachers Ian and Barbara are whisked away in the TARDIS after enquiring after their student Susan and her grandfather, the First Doctor, and wind up embroiled in a power struggle in the Stone Age.
In 100,000 BC, tribe leader Za is under pressure to make fire, and he’s being smeared as an incompetent member of the elite by sociopathic outsider Kal, who wants to replace him – politics hasn’t changed that much. The latter episodes of An Unearthly Child don’t live up to the magical beginning, but the am-dram conception of caveman politics aside, it’s also notable for a more cynical early version of Hartnell’s Doctor, who hasn’t yet learned the value of life.
The Enemy Of The World (Season 5, 1968)
“No one threatens Salamander.”
Set a bit closer to modern times, The Enemy Of The World starts with the Second Doctor being targeted by assassins in Australia in 2018. It emerges that the Doctor has a double in this time – Ramón Salamander, (also played by Patrick Troughton) a despicable Trump-style strongman with almost immeasurable influence over global politics.
With scripts by David Whittaker, this action-packed Bond-movie pastiche sees the Doctor recruited to impersonate Salamander while his companions infiltrate the villain’s palace in a bid to loosen his grip on power. Troughton’s dual performance is a mite problematic, but this is a terrific off-kilter thriller, only recently rediscovered in its entirety and released for the first time on home media and streaming in 2013.
The Curse of Peladon (Season 9, 1972)
“We are here to consider admitting this somewhat primitive planet into the Galactic Federation.”
Made in the run-up to the UK joining the European Communities (or the European Union, as it would later be known), this takes place on an old-fashioned planet called Peladon, which is applying to join a Galactic Federation. Young King Peladon wants to modernise their way of life, while high priest Hepesh is opposed, and the Third Doctor – out and about in his newly repaired TARDIS – is mistaken for a Federation delegate alongside Alpha Centauri and two Ice Warriors.
The UK ultimately joined the Common Market almost 12 months after the first episode of this one aired. Although the ratings for the final episodes were affected by scheduled power cuts during the 1972 Miner’s Strike, these events partly inspired the 1974 sequel serial The Monster Of Peladon.
The Deadly Assassin (Season 14, 1976)
“If heroes don’t exist, it is necessary to invent them. Good for public morale.”
We’d be here all day if we covered all the Time Lord foolishness in the original series, but it’s worth highlighting The Deadly Assassin as the key text of politics on Gallifrey. Having dropped Sarah Jane Smith at home to answer a call from his people, the Fourth Doctor is plunged into a riff on The Manchurian Candidate as he’s framed for the assassination of the Time Lord President.
Written by Robert Holmes, this serial could be called the Timeless Children of its day, demystifying Gallifrey to an extent that proved unpopular with fans at the time. The seat of power over time and space is not some super-interesting advanced society, but a decrepit bureaucracy bound up in pre-Thick Of It spin and politicking, with Angus MacKay’s Borusa as its Malcolm Tucker. On the other hand, this also introduces the Time Lord Matrix, leading to some trippy visuals and at least one controversially terrifying cliffhanger.
The Sun Makers (Season 15, 1977)
“These ‘taxes’, they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?”
A season later, Robert Holmes also wrote this polemic about taxes and the Inland Revenue. Set on Pluto, The Sun Makers is about an energy company that uses its monopoly to enforce extortionate taxes and force most of the working population underground. The story never quite satisfactorily squares why the Doctor would share the writer’s middle-class bugbears, but lays its cards on the table with Henry Woolf’s Collector (think of a Lollipop Guild version of 1970s chancellor Denis Healey) and his “Inner Retinue”.
As mentioned, the Thirteenth Doctor sometimes winds up defending political systems rather than people, but here we get a sort of anti-Kerblam, where the Fourth Doctor winds up siding with murderous revolutionaries – it turns out you can go too far the other way. On a brighter note, this is at least a decent story for Leela, who has to tolerate a lot of men moaning about money but knows who needs battering and when.
The Caves Of Androzani (Season 21, 1984)
“A businessman’s patriotism may differ from that of a politician.”
Another landmark Holmes story, the Fifth Doctor’s final adventure represents a peak in quality for the darker and edgier 1980s version of Doctor Who, although it’s neither the darkest nor the edgiest. With new companion Peri in tow, the Doctor lands slap bang in the middle of an industrial dispute played out across Androzani Minor, where mercenaries battle androids in the mines, and Androzani Major, where a corrupt business conglomerate stage-manages the conflict.
A rare story where the TARDIS arriving makes absolutely everything about a bad situation worse, The Caves of Androzani gives us a truly despicable antagonist in Trau Morgus (John Normington), an amoral CEO who only seems to be telling the truth in House of Cards-style soliloquy and will do anything to hold onto his influence. What goes around comes around, but so too does the death of every single other character but his secretary and Peri, who now has to deal with her friend’s new incarnation.
Vengeance on Varos (Season 22, 1985)
“This Governor calls a punch-in every time he wants to change his trousers. The sooner he gets ruled out, the better.”
Governance by telly optics became more and more prevalent in the United Kingdom in the decades after this story aired, but there’s a ring of familiarity to the televised daily briefings that characterise the government of Varos in this Sixth Doctor serial. Boris Johnson wishes he looked half as noble as Martin Jarvis’ Governor does in this, but he’s held in about the same disdain by the planet’s equivalent of Goggleboxers Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid).
Centring around another industrial dispute, Vengeance on Varos sees torture and execution being broadcast to the public as entertainment, with the added quirk of viewers being able to either vote with the Governor or subject him to potentially lethal energy exposure. It’s obviously not a more desirable state of affairs, but it couldn’t hurt for today’s politicians to have the same sort of fear of the electorate…
The Happiness Patrol (Season 25, 1988)
“Happiness will prevail.”
When script editor Andrew Cartmel joined Doctor Who, he told producer John Nathan-Turner: “I’d like to overthrow the government. I was a young firebrand and I wanted to answer honestly. I was very angry about the social injustice in Britain under Thatcher and I’m delighted that came into the show.” And when Cartmel’s comments resurfaced in 2010, much of the press coverage understandably focused on The Happiness Patrol, which casts Sheila Hancock as a ghoulish Thatcher-esque dictator called Helen A, who disappears elements that don’t reflect the image of prosperity and contentedness.
Perhaps the story that’s best suited to some of the 1980s bad-taste design choices, this tale about toxic positivity in the dystopian society of Terra Alpha comprises pink-haired enforcers, a scary dog puppet and the Kandy Man, an insane robot scientist that looks like Bertie Bassett went on The Masked Singer. Silly as these elements are, the political allegory is so striking because the writing is strong and quotable and the cast, particularly Hancock and Sylvester McCoy, are on great form.
Other political scrapes
– On the subject of Cartmel’s run, one of the aspects of the Seventh Doctor’s era that has held up best is its skewering of the political status quo of its day. Helen A’s police state is most explicitly aligned with the government, but the entire era is critical of Thatcherism and social Darwinism as counter to the values of Doctor Who, right down to the very last story of the original run, Survival (Season 26).
– The Doctor is technically President of the Time Lords in absentia, from The Deadly Assassin until he’s stripped of the title at the start of 1986’s The Trial of a Time Lord. With various deputies doing the job instead, this only occasionally comes up in stories that touch base with Gallifrey, like The Invasion Of Time, (Season 15, 1978) Arc Of Infinity, and The Five Doctors (both Season 21, 1983).
– In another example of Doctor Who’s prevalent left leanings, the “five minutes in the future” home base of UNIT in the 1970s (or is it the 1980s?) includes some scripted references to potential future Prime Ministers Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party in The Green Death (Season 10, 1973) and Labour’s Shirley Williams in Terror of the Zygons (Season 13, 1974). Thorpe was later the subject of Russell T Davies’ scorching true-crime farce A Very English Scandal, but neither he nor Williams ever got to Number 10 outside of the Whoniverse.
– In the revival series, Mark Gatiss’ Season 10 Ice Warrior episode Empress of Mars was originally meant to be a post-Brexit story about Peladon leaving the Federation. The episode wound up being a more conventional run-around on the red planet, but it does make reference to the Ice Warriors joining the Federation and even brings back Alpha Centauri for a brief scene, still played by original voice actor Ysanne Churchman.