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The problem with Doctor Who

I enjoy watching the BBC’s new Doctor Who episodes. They are fun and light and occasionally even have good science fiction ideas. But there is a problem I have always struggled with, and I stumbled on this beautiful description of it:

Now, one might think that a 900 year old time travelling alien who has fought and survived genocidal interstellar wars would have a slightly more mature perspective on socio-economic conditions in late 19th century Britain than would a bien pensant upper-middle-class Islington leftie BBC employee living in the early 21st century. But one would be wrong.

I imagine similar criticism might be made of almost any TV series.

From commenter Steve 2 via another comment about LETELU via David Thompson via Brian.

39 comments to The problem with Doctor Who

  • Tedd

    Here’s an interesting blog post on how the differences between Star Trek (the original series) and Start Trek: Next Generation reflect changes in American liberalism in the time between the two. It helps if you’re familiar with both series, but I think it would be an interesting read even for someone who was not.

  • Dave Walker

    Ah, this is another reason for the Doctor having a companion – he could be considered to be over-compensating on their behalf ;-). Of course, there are episodes where he’s sans companion and the excuse doesn’t work…

  • Tedd

    Sorry, I seem to have linked to the wrong post. If I can find the correct one I’ll link to it.

  • I found Dr. Who progressively more dismal after Tom Baker moved on as Gallifrey did indeed turn into Islington. A harnessed team of hippos could not drag me back infront of the TV to watch it these days.

  • Mike Giles

    I’ve always felt that TV shows and Hollyweird movies are a reflection of the world they live in, as opposed to reality. For example, think of how they always show someone willing to kill over the most trivial thing – as opposed to using law firms like all of us do. I think this is more a reflection of their willingness to kill over something as minor as a role. Indeed I often wonder if those “accidents” that seem to cause the death of so many of those types, are really accidents. Not to mention the occasional actual murder.

  • Tedd

    Here it is. Sorry for link spasm.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    When I was active in the Biased BBC blog, I posted about Dr Who quite often, and always got a lot of comments from people who wanted to be fans – and were fans – but didn’t half get sick of seeing a Time Lord exhibit exactly the Early C21 Islington parochialism SteveB cites above. The comment I remembered best from those discussions came from a commenter called John Melbourne, and was strikingly similar to what Steve2 said:

    Here’s a link: Dr Who: The Empty Gesture (This was a reference to the episode being discussed, The Empty Child)

    On the 21 May edition, a group of feral children use the cover of an air raid to rob houses of food. The home we are shown inside has a lavish spread on the table, far more than could be fairly obtained using ration cards. Indeed, there is so much food that about a dozen children can be fed. The good Doctor, upon seeing this behaviour, observes “I see, practical Marxism in Action”.

    There’s something odd about this.

    Wartime Britain was supposed to be the epitome of socialist planning in action. Rationing made sure that everyone got fair shares – egalitarianism in action. Of course all systems are abused, but black marketeers were punished if they were caught. Let’s assume for the writer’s benefit that this particular family is a “deserving” victim. If the children repeat their stealing on other days they must inevitably rob from families who will be “undeserving”. Does the writer want us to think that feral children have a right to steal?

    and

    In the second episode, the Doctor saves the day as usual and makes a parting request to the blitz era Londoners who owe him their lives: “… and don’t forget to create the Welfare State.” Odd that he didn’t ask them to nationalise the utilities, the telephone service or the British car industry etc. Surely that is practical Marxism in action?

    Despite travelling in time, the Doctor seems to have acquired an early twenty first century left-liberal perspective on politics. Knowing the future as he does, he could have made some “improvements” to our own day:

    Dr Who: “and don’t use DDT to eradicate Malaria in Europe, let alone Africa.”

    Dr Who: “and don’t let Jews emigrate to Palestine”.

    Perhaps that would be too far even for the BBC.

    Once upon a time, the BBC would never have permitted politics to enter into a children’s TV show. Now they permit glib ahistorical asides to pander to their own views. When the writer includes remarks referring to Marx and the Welfare state, he knows that no child will understand what they are. The only purpose is to link the ideas with the kudos possessed by the character of Dr Who. Given the millions of people who have died in the failed Marxist experiments of USSR, China, Cambodia, and so on, and the lack of any Marxist state that even approaches a decent human rights record, one would have thought that Marx would be a slightly controversial choice and maybe not the first benevolent historical figure to come to mind. The BBC ought to have questioned the merit of putting a partisan statement concerning Marx into the mouth of a children’s hero.

    (Bold type added by me.)

  • Edward Smith

    The 10th Doctor, David Tennant, unseats with a whisper a British Prime Minister who has the audacity to use technology borrowed from aliens to defend the Earth from aliens who have just shown an a willingness to enslave the entire human race. Of course, she (“Harriet Jones, Former Prime Minister.” … “We know who you are.”) was supposed to take the Doctor at his word that these aliens he has let get away will spread the word to stay away from the Earth (like the Sontarans make it a point of doing).

    This new Doctor spends far too much time SAVING THE GALAXY and assuming that humans have no right to defend themselves, in a way that not even Jon Pertwee’s or Tom Baker’s doctor ever did.

    There’s that and the lack of the ensemble acting and of letting the bit actors have their moment (“Don’t you find this a bit odd?” to a Renaissance mercenary in reference to a Time-Split Alien … “When you’ve worked for the Borgias …” – City of Death).

    On a complete tangent, I have a hard time finding repeats of A Touch of Frost. Where can I look?

  • llamas

    A Touch of Frost? Netflix has every single episode. In the US. For free.

    Dr Who? I remember when . . . . . As our hippo-haltering-host observes, it’s been rubbish since about the time of Tom Baker. Dr Who used to be one of the very few TV shows, when I was younger, that I made sure I was home for. Now I wouldn’t turn around to watch it if it were on.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Edward Smith

    Thank you for the link, Ted, it was a good read.

  • Edward, if you’re in the UK you can find A Touch of Frost on ITV3 or on the ITV player.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    The earliest Dr Who episodes I saw as a child were the Pertwee stories from the first half of the 1970s. (I was a bit too young to see them when they first ran and I actually saw them in the second half of the 1970s, because the ABC in Australia liked to show older episodes as repeats in the breaks between new seasons). Some of the episodes from this era have been criticised for being green and left wing propoganda, but if they were, it was much more interesting, thoughtful and subtler propoganda than recent episodes have shown.

    The Green Death (1973) features an evil mining company, sure, but the environmentalist hero (although a hippy) is also a supposedly Nobel Prize winning scientist who spends much of the episode talking about his research into finding higher yield crops to feed the world. He is much more Norman Bourlang than Paul Erlich, and clearly is a huge supporter of the green revolution. (The evil, polluting mining company turns out to be being run by an artificial intelligence running on what now looks like hilariously 1970s hardware that is brainwashing people in order to take over the world, so the plot overwhelms the message towards the end…).

    In Invasion of the Dinosaurs the utopian greens turn out to be planning on eliminating most of the world’s population in order that a chosen few are subsequently allowed to populate a world that has been made to revert to a pre-industrial state. In this one, the utopians greens are presented as being downright evil, and many of their supporters are presented as well meaning but outright dupes. Actually that one isn’t very subtle.

    One which is often criticised for its politics (although being often regarded as a classic, anyway) is “The Monster of Peladon”, which is seen in the UK (and was no doubt intended) as presenting a message in favour of Britain joining the EEC. It undoubtedly was intended that way, but to anyone watching it outside the UK, its message was a broader one. The Ice Warriors (who were antagonists in a number of stories in the 1960s) are present, initially threatening, but behave honourably (and are appreciative of honourable behaviour towards them) and turn out to be sympathetic and not the antagonists at all. If you forget about the whole EU thing and just see the Ice Warriors as a metaphor for the Germans, then I like the politics of the story. (The Germans were not Britain’s enemies in 1974, and certainly are not now). If the message more generally is that the descendants of your ancestors enemies are not necessarily your enemies, then this is a good message, too. That story actually rose above the short term political context in which it was made.

    And of course Jon Pertwee’s doctor was closely associated with the military, and mainly with the character of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney. The Brigadier was made fun of by the doctor at times, but he was also at times the man who had to make the hard decisions because the Doctor’s sentimentality wouldn’t allow him to. I am told the character was popular with actual members of the army, because they thought he captured a certain type of British officer rather well.

    The show was at times political in those days, too, but it didn’t impose the very narrow, politically correct line from which little diversion is allowed that is imposed on it today. I think this is typical of the BBC as a whole, in truth.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Edward Smith: City of Death was written by Douglas Adams. His time at Dr Who was perhaps uneven. City of Death was the high point of it, and one thing he certainly gave the show was a few good lines

  • Edward Smith

    MIchael,

    How much of the charm of the Tom Baker serials was the writers and producers, and how much of it was Baker’s undoubted generosity as an actor? The fact that Tom Baker has such an extraordinary life story (before and after Doctor Who – I am very happy to see he managed to get on and stay on the wagon before he lapsed from being a Functioning Alcoholic to a Non-Functioning one).

    I am referring particularly to Baker’s willingness to be upstaged and let the joke be on him, without sacrificing the dignity of the Doctor.

  • Edward Smith

    I do need to finish my thoughts … but I think the gist of what I meant came across.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Edward: I think a mixture of all three things. The greatest writer of classic Dr Who was Robert Holmes. One remembers many great stories he wrote, one being the Tom Baker story “The Sun-Makers”, which was a vicious satire of the British tax system. I suspect that is another thing one is unlikely to see today.

  • Edward Smith

    So, as an American, who is supposed to worship BBC, Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited, all things Merchant Ivory, and any and all adaptations of Jane Austin novels (I swear, there are more covers of Jane Austin’s novels than there are renditions of Happy Birthday sung around the world), and any actor with even a British sounding accent (I once accidentally insulted a Kiwi by asking him if he was an Aussie) …

    Where would I go to find good British television?

  • Mr Ed

    @ Michael, here is a clip of the Sun Makers. Clearly “Company” is a euphemism for ‘State’. It is unimaginable that the BBC would make this programme today.

    Quote: “We’re not dealing here with some snivelling tax defaulter…”.

  • llamas

    @Edward Smith – well, you could do worse than US Netflix and Amazon Prime, which both have a metric shedload of old and new British TV and film content. Once their preference engines have you pegged as an Anglophile, they will start making suggestions. YouTube is also a great resource.

    If “Yes, Minister” doesn’t make you laugh until green stuff comes out of your nose, you’re not doing it right. Maybe the funniest political satire – ever – and it translates quite well.

    Unfortunately, “Dad’s Army” isn’t on any of the streaming services, but you can watch it – segmented – on YouTube.

    I find that a good way to search for the best content is to search by actors – British actors who are good in one thing are often good in others. For example, it’s been bemoaned here in the past that P.G. Wodehouse does not transfer well to the screen. The one exception is an obscure UK production called ‘Wodehouse Playhouse’ starring real-life married couple Pauline Collins and John Alderton. This is so exceptionally-good – with the added bonus that each episode is introduced by The Man Himself – that is is no surprise to find the players in all sorts of other excellent UK content, even 30 years later. For example, John Alderton pops up in an excellent role in ‘Doc Martin’ and – guess what? – there’s Pauline Collins in ‘Dr Who’ – twice – 30 years apart. If you find actors you like, chances are, you’ll like a lot of what they’ve done.

    Just off the top of my head, sitting here at my desk, let’s play Mornington Kevin Bacon. Try ‘Local Hero’ – awesome soundtrack. Fulton McKay gives you ‘Porridge’. Ronnie Barker gives you ‘Open All Hours.’ David Jason gives you ‘A Touch of Frost’, or you can shift across to the incomparable ‘Only Fools & Horses’, where Nicholas Lyndhurst takes you back to ‘Porridge’, or away to ‘To Serve Them All My Days’, and so onwards . . . .

    All brought to you from a desk in a gritty Detroit suburb. There’s no shortage of UK TV and film content in the US, you just need to start looking.

    llater,

    llamas

  • CMTinPHX

    The Eccleston episode with the air raid banquet later clarifies that the couple were scamming the system — as all good bureaucrats do.

    As for Jon Pertwee – I think his storylines reflect not so much something about the 1970s per se, but simply the awesome stupidity of trying to build a show around a time-traveling alien who doesn’t get to do any actual time traveling. As was noted in commentaries to “Dr. Who and the Silurians” — who was The Doctor supposed to fight except megalomaniacal mad scientists and the occasional runaway android?

  • Edward,

    Where would I go to find good British television?

    The complete House of Cards trilogy…?

  • Paul Marks

    Yes such an ancient Time Lord would know that Victorian England had better conditions of life than any previous century in English history and any other major nation in the history of Europe.

    As for Star Trek – yes “old Trek” was left (the Federation promising “schools and hospitals” to all and sundry), but “New Generation” was far left, it said (repeatedly) that there was no money, all business shown as evil (the race of alien businessmen as physically ugly and morally degenerate), and so on. American “liberalism” had changed – and not for the better.

  • Julie near Chicago

    llamas,

    I will have to see if I can find the Alderton-Collins TV (I take it) series you mention. I have been reluctant to say so, not wishing to hurt the tender feelings of Samizdatists, but I have always thought that with the exception of Elizabeth Heery as Madeleine Bassett, and maybe the gent who plays Gussie Finknottle, Jeeves and Wooster was horribly miscast. (Mind you, I do have the set! And glad of it too.) Hugh Laurie, though quite engaging, still comes over as far too intelligent and too strong a personality, and I think Stephen Fry is a disaster as Jeeves. Far too young for one thing, and–I think there’s a phoniness about his Jeeves. I’ve always thought that Philip Bosco would make a wonderful Jeeves–properly portly, older, eminently dignified…and I think wouldn’t come across as phony at all. The best actor is one who, in every role, seems to be simply playing himself. Glenn Close unfortunately is a flaming Lefty, but see her in Maxie (Mandy Patinkin was very good in that too) and then in Fatal Attraction and then in Air Force One, and every time it seems as if NOW we’re seeing the REAL Glenn Close.

    Of course, few actors are good enough to play every role convincingly. The exceptions I would name are Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, and Glenn Close. And Ed Harris, except for the dreadful Milk Money. Too bad, with the possible exception of Mr. Hopkins (I wouldn’t know), they’re all flaming Lefties! –Well, maybe Miss Streep is mostly just a librul? Dunno.

    Of course, I haven’t seen the majority of movies made by any of them. But in the ones I have seen … they really impressed me. :>))

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Paul Marks,

    Although the Ferengi (the race of alien businessmen) were initially portrayed as physically ugly and morally degenerate, by the later episodes of Deep Space Nine the morally degenerate part had changed quite a bit. The character Quark was partly played for laughs, but has his moments.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Good British TV:

    The “Sherlock Holmes” stories with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. Some of the later episodes got weird, but for many Holmes fans, Brett is the definitive screen Holmes.

    The “Hercule Poirot” stories with David Suchet as Poirot. Another definitive performance.

  • llamas

    @ Rich Rostrom – as has been discussed here before, Jeremy Brett as Holmes captures the essence of the written character well – he’s a complete nutter – but he and Edward Hardwicke are both too old – like 30 years too old – for their characters. Holmes and Watson were in their late 20′s, the Brett/Hardwicke oeuvre (like most other Holmes adaptations) plays them in their 50′s. It runs a coach & horses through the basics of the characters. The Robert Downey/Jude Law version is the closest anyone has come to their ages as written.

    Julie near Chicago – Wodehouse Playhouse is on YouTube.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Some of the later episodes got weird

    Unsurprisingly, they filmed the good and/or easily filmed stories first. As they went on, they were left with stories that were harder to adapt, and one thing to do with them was to make the stories more fantastic in various ways. (You can argue that Doyle himself did this to some extent with some of the later stories too).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, llamas. I found them. :>)

  • Laird

    Julie, with all due respect (seriously!) I have to disagree with you on that one. I loved the Laurie/Fry Jeeves and Wooster series, and thought they were both marvellous in it. I do need to get the CD set (it’s on the list).

    I don’t know a whole lot of British TV series, but can I get a plug in for The Avengers? I think my wife has gotten over her jealousy of Diana Rigg, but I still want to be John Steed when I grow up!

  • Julie near Chicago

    That’s OK, Laird, I’m used to it. *g* I have yet to meet anybody who agrees with me on Messrs. Laurie & Fry. But I formed my impression of both from the books and stories when I first read them 800 years ago, and Bosco in particular is Jeeves incarnate in my mind.

    Besides, I too very much enjoy Jeeves & Wooster. Otherwise I’d never have bought myself the boxED (not “box”!!! *snarl*) set.

    Oh–Aunt Agatha is great too.

    Maybe I’ll just have a look as a nightcap tonight. :>)
    . . .
    I never saw the TV series, but I once had a (male) online pal who shared your opinion of The Avengers, and especially of the toothsome Miss Riggs. Sigh…you boys are all alike! :>))!!

  • @Llamas:

    RE: Your moves in Mornington Kevin Bacon are incorrect in the classic version as Nicholas Lyndhurst leads you from “Only Fools & Horses” to “Goodnight Sweetheart” as under the classic rules locations involving British public schools are excluded.

    Unless of course you were playing the Dave Spart’s Neasdon variation rules where you get bonus points for highlighting the struggle of the lumpen proletariat under the capitalist oppressors, in which case, my apologies.

  • llamas

    @ John Galt – Kamerad! I was playing Tooting Rules, of course. I would have thought it was obvious.

    If we’re plugging UK TV series, can I get a shot in for the first 2 or 3 ‘Prime Suspect’s. It happens that I was not-a-little involved with the UK CJS around that time (the first mrs llamas was a barrister and justices’ clerk) and the police were exactly like that. Lynda la Plante (not her real name, notalottapeopleknowthat) caught them absolutely pitch-perfect.

    Let’s play again.

    Helen Mirren takes us smoothly to the best gangster movie ever made in the UK – it rivals ‘The Godfather’, it’s that good – which is ‘The Long Good Friday’.

    Drek Thompson takes us to ‘Bergerac’.

    Celia Imrie takes us to ‘Absolutely Fabulous’.

    June Whitfield takes us to ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’. On steam radio, even!

    Moira Lister takes us to ‘The Yellow Rolls-Royce’.

    Michael Hordern takes us to ‘The History Man’.

    Geraldine James takes us to ‘Inspector Morse’, which takes us, via Kevin Whateley, right to ‘Sherlock Holmes’, with Jeremy Brett.

    Mornington Crescent!

    llater,

    llamas

  • PersonFromPorlock

    For me, the charm of Dr. Who was Tom Baker’s periporcine acting and the BBC’s refusal to spend more than five pounds on special effects for any one show (cheesy has a charm all its own). After Baker, Peter Davison was bland and Colin Baker downright repellent.

    Has anyone else ever noticed that British actors’ American accent sounds oddly like they mastered it by listening to old recordings of Harry S Truman? (And yes, I know about Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney.) It’s ‘American’, but not like any American I’ve ever heard. Sam Neal’s is flawless, but of course he’s not a Brit. Mention of Pauline Collins reminded me of this, some episode of Wodehouse Playhouse where she essayed ‘murrican.

    These comments should be taken with the warning that I quit watching TV back around 1996.

  • Tedd

    My favourite bit from The Avengers: Steed finds a cigar butt in the ashtray in his apartment, left there by the bad guy who is impersonating him. “He’s bitten the end off! This man is capable of anything.”

    Julie: I’m one of those boys. When I was ten years old I thought Emma Peel was the ultimate woman. I’m sure there’s a part of me that still does!

  • Tedd

    I’m sure there’s a part of me that still does!

    Okay, that came out waaay wrong!

  • Sam Duncan

    Natalie, DS9 was by far the best Trek series. It was the only one that ever dared to suggest that the great Federation might not be completely perfect, which alone puts it head and shoulders above the rest of the franchise.

    I’ll second The Avengers, but surely Only Fools… should lead to the show it was commissioned to spoil, Minder? George Cole was every bit as good – if not better – than David Jason in a broadly similar role, and while Denis Waterman was arguably miscast as the ex-con tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, he made the part his own. It became almost a parody of itself towards the end (the same could be said of its BBC counterpart – in a sense they drifted towards each other, Fools introducing ever more “dramatic” elements, and Minder becoming more overtly comedic, especially after Waterman left), the early series are as good as anything British TV’s ever produced.

    Also, definitely Porridge, and yes, Llamas, Hancock’s Half-Hour on the talking wireless (although they’re both BBC, and your connection doesn’t work because June Whitfield was only a regular on the inferior TV version). If you want to understand us Brits, you need these. The Avengers is how we’d like the world to see us, but Porridge, Hancock, and Minder are what we are. Or were, when they were made. Despite everything, I don’t think we’ve changed that much.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Deep Space Nine (although it owes a lot to Babylon Five) is miles better than the scripting of Star Trek New Generation, Voyager and Enterprise.

  • Paul Marks

    I liked both Tom Baker and J.P.

    Yes I know they are wildly different – but I liked both versions of the Doctor.

    John Steed.

    Yes – the man we should all be, and sadly I am not.

  • I haven’t watched any of the “new” Doctor Whos, I’m prejudiced against anything made by the BBC these days and I’m glad to see my prejudices confirmed by the commentariat!
    DS9 was by far the best trek, especially towards the end. The overarching story of the conflict with the Dominion made for some interesting character development, and it had a week-to-week story that the other series lacked. I cannot bear to watch TNG nowadays, I watched it religiously when it first came out because it was a NEW star trek, and I was young and impressionable. Although I do remember describing them as a “bunch of bloody do-gooders.”
    The originals I’m currently watching on CBS. There may be a lot of “show me more of this earth thing called kissing”” but there are a lot of high points.