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“We have to not help her!” “We” is Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor Who and her companions. “Her” is none other than Rosa Parks, famous for taking a stand by refusing to stand and relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a bus as was required by law in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
This seemingly small act went on to inspire the civil rights movement in the US, which in turn eventually led to the end of racist segregation laws across the country.
The US has since had its first black president of course.
The time-travelling Doctor and her friends were present, but writer Malorie Blackman wanted to make it clear to the watching audience of over eight million people that the characters were not there to take away Parks agency.
She made her brave stand alone, and faced the consequences, but we celebrate her defiance today.
Not all those watching celebrated the award-winning episode, however. It won critical acclaim but some viewers felt that the subject matter of racism was too “preachy” and that a scene where Ryan, a young black man from modern-day Sheffield, and Yaz, a British Asian policewoman, talked about racism in modern-day Britain was too “on the nose” for an early Sunday evening family audience.
This argument is nonsensical. Dr Who has always put the issue of racism centre stage. It was only the show’s second-ever adventure in 1963 that introduced the iconic Daleks, famously based on the nazis.
Hideous alien mutations housed in a metal cage resembling a small tank, Daleks believe in their racial superiority, and ruthlessly murder any other living thing shortly after screaming “exterminate.” The analogy to human racist and fascist movements were so clear a child could spot them, which was of course the writers’ intention.
The scene with Ryan and Yaz featured a discussion of racism which was not told through a traditional science fiction filter of all-conquering alien races wielding death rays, but the Daleks, who have appeared with all the actors to play the Doctor in the shows history, are hardly a more subtle hint at racism.
In 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks,” we even meet a faction of the villainous “pepper pots” who have aligned themselves with a bunch of British neonazis reacting to the growing multiculturalism of 1960s London. The Doctor’s companion Ace, while staying with the mother of one of the fascists who runs a boarding house, finds a “No coloureds” sign in the window and is appalled.
Polls suggest fans consider this story one of the best in the show’s history, but I’ve heard no criticism of its equally “in your face” take on racism before.
Part of Dr Who’s original brief at the BBC was to educate as well as entertain. Many parents took to social media after the transmission of “Rosa” to report that their children were full of questions about her and the civil rights movement, and we can assume many also simply wanted to know what racism was.
The fact that the episode sparked such conversations while still managing to entertain, is a laudable feat. Starting discussions like this with children at a young age can only benefit them and our society, and it is one thing that Dr Who does, and has done, so well over the decades.
Aside from racism, the impact on the environment caused by unchecked capitalism and its ever-growing greed for more profit is another oft-visited theme in the show.
In another episode from last year’s series “Arachnids in the UK,” the Doctor faced a swarm of giant spiders in a luxury hotel, accidently grown to a terrifying size by a potent combination of misjudged genetic engineering and exposure to fumes from toxic waste illegally dumped with ordinary landfill rubbish under the hotel by a cost-cutting corporate waste disposal company.
Villainous hotel owner Jack Robertson, superbly played by Chris Noth, disregards the threat to public health caused by such an arrangement calling it a “smart business model” as housing the hotel and landfill site in one place is a display of “perfect vertical integration.” Noth later admitted that his megalomaniacal character was based on Donald Trump.
The parallels with 1973’s “The Green Death” are clear. Here the third Doctor does battle with 3ft long giant maggots, again inflated in size by illegally dumped toxic waste, this time from a mining company controlled by a super computer intent on world domination.
The plight of labour and the working class is a further recurrent theme. Both 2018’s “Kerblam!” and 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon” reflected perceived concerns about threats to job security, though from different sources.
In the former adventure set in the far future, a disgruntled worker takes extreme measures in protest against the increasing automation of the labour market. A select band of people are given jobs, but the majority of work is carried out by advanced robots, leaving millions without a way to make a living.
The Doctor is forced to step in when the worker decides to hide tiny bombs inside thousands of bubble-wrapped packages about to be delivered to customers by said robots. The ensuing chaos and destruction would discredit the system and force employers to hire more people.
The latter story was written the year before Britain joined the European Community. This decision would be ratified by public referendum in 1975, but three years earlier many in the labour movement were concerned about what workers’ rights would look like in the EC, and this tension is dramatised in the story as miners on Peladon protest against the planet joining the new Galactic Federation.
Even post-colonial theory made its influence felt on Dr Who. Aime Cesaire’s seminal “Discourse on Colonialism” (1950) turned traditional assumptions on its head by claiming that colonialism, far from “civilising” the “New World,” actually worked to “de-civilise” both the oppressed, who lose their long-established way of life and are forced into labour-intensive globalised industries, and the oppressors who end up brutally murdering rebels in an effort to retain control.
This is perfectly encapsulated by left-wing writer Malcolm Hulke in “Colony in Space” (1971); a mining corporation is sent to the mineral-rich human colony world of Uxarieus with a mission to fill its buckets.
The humble human colonists resist this incursion and are then subjected to intimidation and even murder. The aliens indigenous to the planet are given similar treatment. The Doctor helps to tip the balance in the locals’ favour.
I’m sure Hulke had a copy of Cesaire’s essay close by when developing the character of Caldwell, a miner with the corporation who, despite being tempted by the lucrative mineral find on the planet, eventually joins the colonists after learning about the company’s murderous tactics.
In the end (apologies for spoilers) he decides to stay with the colonists and help them establish themselves further. In other words he was “de-civilised” by the greed of his employers, but civilised by the locals.
Further proof can also be found away from the script an in the very fabric of the show. The first producer of Dr Who was Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein was its first director: back in 1963 a woman and a British Asian man this was nearly unheard of at this level of TV production.
Ever since the show has spoken up for the oppressed and, through the family-friendly lens of popular entertainment, brought a leftist commentary to the debates and controversies of the time.
Today, I see the show as a bastion of left-wing ideals at the BBC, acting as a counter-balance in a corporation whose news arm for example seems increasingly dominated by a neoconservative bent.
Dr Who has a long history of fighting the good fight, and I hope a long future too.
Our society needs it to stick around.
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