Is “Nu Who” Still Progressive?

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Those of you who have spent the last couple of months in a coma might not know that Doctor Who is turning 50 this month. Since William Hartnell first threw open the Tardis doors in 1963, the BBC’s most successful show (with the exception of Eastenders, unfortunately…) has developed a huge and devoted following, comfortably evolving into one of the most popular science-fiction franchises in the World. Alas, as much as I consider myself a rabid “Whovian”, there are certain things about the show that I still find dated, irritating and completely out of touch with modern society.

In order to appreciate Doctor Who’s longevity we must first consider the historic social conscience of science-fiction. From the timeless literature of Jules Verne to the somewhat reactionary cinema of Jack Arnold and beyond, science fiction is a genre that has always been rich in contemporary (and occasionally heavy-handed) political imagery, and Doctor Who is no exception. Since the show’s 2005 revival we’ve seen numerous examples of this, such as the use of the false threat of weapons of mass destruction that can be launched “within 45 seconds” (Aliens of London/World War Three), a female Prime Minister who orders the destruction of a ship that was fleeing the battlefield (The Christmas Invasion), and, in Torchwood, a Prime Minister called “Mr. Green” who, not unlike another British Prime Minister with a colour for a surname, manages to lose the confidence of both his party and his country. As I said, the imagery can be a bit heavy-handed…

Take note, Tony…

Nevertheless, Doctor Who – in a similar vein to shows such as Star Trek – has always been a progressive and liberal-minded TV show with an emphasis on pacifism, diplomacy and equality. As a character The Doctor fights against injustice, ensures that corrupt regimes are overthrown or defeated and displays a vocal distaste for figures such as Margaret Thatcher (Tooth and Claw) and Richard Nixon (The Impossible Astronaut). He does not discriminate based on race, gender or sexuality, he does not use weapons unless it is absolutely necessary and, deep down, he is a believer in idealism in spite of the lessons of history. In essence, the Doctor is a lefty’s wet dream.

It is through this combination of progressivism and liberalism, however, that Doctor Who’s shortcomings in both of these areas become much more apparent. Since 2005 the show has done a decent job of mirroring our rapidly changing society with a positive portrayal of racial inequality, wealth discrepancy and sexuality, yet under the reign of both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat there are a number of areas in which the show still feels somewhat dated. And no, I’m not just talking about the dodgy CGI…

You see, the primary problem with Doctor Who is that it is what is colloquially known as a “family show”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting it should be X-rated or anything (though that would be interesting…) but the term “family show” is usually slang for “restricted and utterly patronising to children”, and if Doctor Who is to improve and embrace the modern World then it needs to leave this soap-opera mentality behind. Whilst a focus on relationships and “reality” is necessary, the show is often bogged down by an approach to gender roles, sex and sexuality that feels like it has been lifted straight out of an episode of El Dorado.

Maybe this crossover wasn’t so ridiculous after all…

Paul Cockburn’s recent article about whether a “gay Doctor Who” would be accepted got me thinking about the show’s approach to sexuality. It would be churlish of me to suggest that the show was lacking in this regard; after all, the simple fact that Russell T. Davies was in charge for almost five years proves that things have improved drastically since the show went on “permanent hiatus” in 1989, and both he and Moffat have done their best to ensure that the LGBT community is well-represented in the show. Nevertheless, the portrayal of LGBT characters is often rather clunky. Captain Jack Harkness was – at least in Doctor Who – a stereotype while the relationship between Madame Vastra and Jenny during Moffat’s reign is often played for laughs on the basis of their lesbianism, rather than the more obvious fact that one of them is a Silurian – or “lizard person” to the uninitiated.

Similarly, while gender equality has come a long way since 1963 and while Doctor Who has always been at the forefront of progressivism in this respect, the show still seems to struggle with its portrayal of women, so much so that the effect can be quite jarring. Since 2005 the Doctor has had six main female “companions”, three of whom have fallen in love with him (Rose, Martha and River Song), one of whom has had an almost relationship-destroying crush on him (Amy) and one of whom keeps dying for him (Clara). Though all of these women turn out to be fighters, all but Donna and River Song have lacked dimension. To me, Rose, Martha, Amy and Clara are just the same character with a different hairstyle because the writers seem to mistake being “feisty” and “strong” for being well-rounded. It is for this reason that I think a female Doctor is a terrible idea – at least for the time being – because the show’s writers have a lot of maturing to do before that can/should happen.

Doctor Who isn’t just a fantastic TV show; it’s also a marvellous institution that appeals to millions of people, which is why I get so annoyed when it gets simple little things so catastrophically wrong. Worse still, it gets a lot of things right which just makes the things it gets wrong all the more grating. Lots of shows could learn from Who’s progressivism and its sense of social justice, but the show still has a long way to go yet. Then again, in that respect, I suppose it does just mirror modern society…