How do you write a story? That’s a question. How do you write a story which contains a political or moral message? That’s another question. And how do you tell a Doctor Who story which contains, or is inspired by, an ideological or political observation? (And – should you do that at all…?)
Anyone who reads the postings in DWC knows that the last two seasons of Doctor Who, under showrunner Chris Chibnall, have been particularly controversial. One reason why they have split fandom is because of the political and ideological messages that they sometimes try to convey and the manner in which they convey them.
Some writers have argued that Doctor Who has always been ideologically driven and that Arachnids in the UK or Praxeus are no different from The Green Death (way back in 1973, when your writer was eight years old) in foregrounding an ideological message – in this case, an environmentalist one.
This begs the question: is it true that Doctor Who has always been inclined to sell us a political or ideological message as well as to entertain us? And, further, how do you tell a moral, political, or ideological story?
To answer the question, we could do a lot worse than to look at the work of some of the best storytellers of all time: people who told stories that were beautifully written or spoken; stories that were entertaining, but which sought to convey a message. Jesus knew how to tell a memorable story, one which works as a story and also conveys a meaning: The Good Samaritan works beautifully as a story in its own right, simple in the best sense in its structure, memorable and accessible to anyone capable of listening to a story – which means, anyone aged three to 103 (much the same, then, as Doctor Who’s target audience!). The Good Samaritan also perfectly conveys the truth that we are all equal as human beings and we are all responsible for each other, whatever our race or nationality. (It may be thought to be going a little far to compare Jesus’s words with a television show, but many of Who’s writers, and many writers of allegory, took Christ’s tales and teachings as a model. They knew that you should learn from the best.)
George Orwell, another one of my heroes (a list which includes Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Terrance Dicks), was also a genius as a storyteller. Orwell’s disgust at Soviet Communism found its expression not in a speech or a letter to The Times of London, but in a work he sardonically called ‘A Fairy Story’: Animal Farm. In 100 pages, Orwell demolished the idea that the Soviet revolution was any better than the vicious system which preceded it, and he did so by writing a crazy tale about pigs who can talk, horses who do what they are told, and cynical ravens who don’t believe a word of it. Four years later, Orwell expressed his loathing and fear of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four (which was called 1984 because it reversed the last two digits of the year in which it was written – 1948. As it was a tale of the future, it was therefore a good thing he didn’t write it in 1950).
The point about both these novels is that they work primarily as excellent, readable, and wonderful stories. I remember reading Animal Farm when I was about 12, and I thought it was hilarious and touching. I especially loved the animals calling each other ‘Comrade’ and classified the book as a close relation of C.S.Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I listened without much interest when a wiser elder brother (not Simon, who, though wise, wasn’t the brother in question) told me that it was an allegory of the failure of the Russian Revolution and that Napoleon represented Stalin. “Who?” I wondered, and skipped off to watch The Robots of Death on BBC1.
Similarly, I loved Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and read it over and over again as a cracking adventure narrative (skipping the extracts from Goldstein’s book, which I thought very boring. No wonder Julia falls asleep when Winston reads the Book of the Brotherhood to her in bed.) It was only later that I discovered that the novel was an attack on totalitarianism, and the discovery gave it a whole new dimension and a whole added layer of delight.
Orwell shows us that stories with political messages must, first and foremost, work as stories. They must engage our interest and work as entertainments if we are to finish reading them or to finish watching them. The recognition of the work’s other dimension – the ideological, moral, or political reading – can add a new layer of pleasure to the story, but it must work as a story. Even knowing its true meaning, we can then happily put that political message to one side and read, say, Animal Farm as a beautiful narrative.
And that’s how it is, I think, with Doctor Who. In the original series (1963-1986), the show’s best writers recognised that they had to tell a good story. This was an adventure in space and time. The viewers’ interest in the Hartnell years was often anxiously founded on, how are our heroes and heroines going to get out of this one and get safely back to the TARDIS? The second story, The Dead Planet (or The Daleks), was a wonderful adventure narrative: the Doctor and his companions are held prisoner by grotesque machine creatures, who are not to be trusted. So enduring was the narrative, and so imaginative was the conception of the Daleks, that the story set the template for the series for the next six decades. The Dead Planet was rewritten as a novel and remade as a movie, and crucially established the basic narrative and simple, direct ideological thrust of the programme: good against evil. Doctor Who has always called out evil for what it is: it has insisted on the triumphant message that evil must be fought and when the forces of good – in the person of the Doctor and his allies – take it on, it will, eventually, be defeated. (“Remind them that they’re human beings! And human beings always have to fight for their freedom!”) That is a story which is as old as the human race itself: no wonder Doctor Who continues to appeal when it repeats the narrative which we enjoyed when we were back in the caves and doing a spot of hunter-gathering.
So, Doctor Who is about good versus evil. But evil can take many forms and, from the earliest episodes, the writers were inspired by problems in the real world. They crafted these inspirations into the sources of their stories, but the stories were so much more than that. Terry Nation feared mechanisation and dehumanisation: if human beings lost their humanity, they would become Daleks. Ian Stewart Black and Gerry Davies feared human beings becoming the servants of machines: hence the line in the (largely risible) story The War Machines, that WOTAN will decide, “Who will serve the machines and who will be eliminated.” Kit Pedler mused about the consequences of organ replacement surgery: what if we replaced all our organs with mechanical components, and augmented our brains with computers? Would we become Cybermen?
What imaginative genius.
It’s well known that the Jon Pertwee production team (1970-1974) were sympathetic to the aims of Friends of the Earth and the fledgling green movement. The early 1970s saw a recognition that the planet’s resources were limited: oil and coal were running out but whatever can replace them? Ah, says Professor Lawrence, let us exploit the Cyclotron! Ah, says Professor Stahlman, let us unleash the power of the Earth’s molten core! Ah, says Global Chemicals, let us create a petroleum additive which will increase the efficiency of petrol by over 30 percent! The consequences are, respectively: the awakening of the genocidal Silurians; the mutation of the clever scientists into brutal Primords, the destruction of the planet Earth in a parallel universe; and the augmentation of insects into giant maggots that spread the green death.
What fun! What imagination! But the crucial point is that these stories worked primarily, first and foremost, as stories. They were cracking adventures with high stakes, and put real people in peril. As a child, I was absolutely hooked to Doctor Who and though I shrieked in terror at the Primords, I would fight tooth and nail if anyone suggested I didn’t watch next week’s episode. Did I, aged four, recognise the environmental subtext of Inferno? Of course I didn’t: I loved the story.
So, the function of the ideology is to inspire the story. If we want to deconstruct the story to see the message, that’s fine. I remember being amazed to read Barry Letts’s account of the Buddhist meaning of Planet of the Spiders which strangely passed me by when I first saw the story on television in 1974, aged nine. Letts wrote, with the proviso that we shouldn’t take it too seriously, that the giant spiders represented the greed of the individual characters. Lupton’s spider was on his back because he was consumed and distorted by his own greed for revenge. The Great One, a spider the size of a cathedral, represented the greatest greed of all: the Doctor’s greed for knowledge and information. As the Doctor himself says in the story, if he hadn’t taken the crystal from Metebelis III in the first place, none of the terrifying events would ever have happened: “Everything is basically my fault”. The Doctor has to face his fear, to confront his greed: in destroying The Great One, he destroys his old self and becomes a new man. (‘Literally?’ asks the Brigadier warily. ‘Of course,’ says K’Anpo/Cho-Je, ‘he will look quite different.’ ‘Not again!’ Lethbridge-Stewart exclaims.)
Recognising the ideology behind the story creates another layer of pleasure, but it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of watching the story as a story. We can go back to Doctor Who and the Silurians and, putting aside its environmentalist theme, enjoy it as an adventure narrative: let’s just watch that greedy creep Quinn getting his comeuppance by being too clever by half – fancy making bargains with monsters who want to destroy us!
The writers of classic Who recognised that the ideology which drove their stories was not the most important, or the most interesting, thing about those stories. Everyone who read a newspaper in the Seventies knew that oil was going to run out and we had to seek alternatives. We didn’t need to be told it by a television show which was intended to be an adventure in time and space. We certainly didn’t need to have the message hammered out by the Doctor telling us the moral of the week. We never heard Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning, for example, have the following piece of dialogue:
DOCTOR WHO: You know, Jo, oil is running out on this little planet of yours, and if you don’t jolly well buck up your ideas and seek an alternative, you’ll find yourself up pollution creek without a perigosto stick!
JO (wide eyed with wonder as usual): You mean we need to find a substitute for oil?
DOCTOR WHO (looks fully into the camera, very serious – he is at his most patronising): Yes. And if you don’t stop poisoning the very air you breathe with the filthy by-products of your so-called civilisation, very soon you won’t have a planet left to live on!
(crash in end titles)
Here, I think, is where Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who has completely lost its way. Like the writers of classic Who, Chibnall’s team looks at the real world and the things that make them uneasy: racism, sexism, and (to show how little things have changed since the 1970s) pollution. Chibnall’s writers make some attempt to use these concerns as a seed for a story, but lack the talent to grow a story from the seeds of these concerns – a story which works on its own terms and which engages the viewer. Instead, what they give us are pitiful, etiolated plants of episodes instead of mighty flourishing forests of stories. They give us episodes where the bare stalks of ideology are visible for all to see, incompetently looped around the pegs of a few set pieces and characters that are mere shadows of human beings. The episodes don’t function as stories. They don’t function as adventures. They tell us what to think and, to patronise us even further, do what the original series never did, and have the Doctor tell us the message which we have already spotted 50 parsecs off.
And an additional trouble is, the message itself, however true and valid, is not very interesting because we have already been told it thousands of times. We know that racism is bad, that polluting the planet is bad, that people are equal whatever the colour of their skin and whatever their gender. Being told what we already know – what every child in the United Kingdom learns every week in PSHE and RE1 lessons – is futile, patronising and – which is unforgivable in a storyteller and a story – boring.
Please, Mr Chibnall, don’t tell us what to think. Tell us stories instead.