‘Doctor Who – A British Alien?’ reviewed

❉ “This is a book from academia that whilst high on political theory is written in a thoroughly accessible manner”, writes Paul Driscoll. 

Doctor Who’s cheery evocation of all things British—Queens, tea, chips and cosmopolitanism—is, we have seen, regularly punctuated with a darker, more political, projection of British identity. In this regard, it is readily apparent that Doctor Who’s vision of Britain and Britishness departs significantly from the sense of national identity promoted in recent times by the country’s leaders” – Danny Nicol, ‘Doctor Who – A British Alien?’

Doctor Who has often been regarded as quintessentially British, but rarely has the notion been explored in any depth. Indeed its ‘Britishness’ has more often than not eluded definition with even former producer Steven Moffat admitting that while it mattered enough to be a fundamental part of the show’s DNA, he had no idea what it really amounted to.

Danny Nicol’s seminal study wrestles with the issues both on a diachronic level as he plots the changing attitudes towards Britain, its politics, people and place on the world scene as reflected in the long history of the show, and on a synchronic level as he puts forward a thesis for how Britishness is defined metaphorically in terms of how things are and how things ought to be. The fact that reading this book will almost certainly leave the reader with a much clearer understanding of both Doctor Who and what it means to be British suggests that this study is as close to an explanation of that elusive quality as one is ever likely to get.

One of the earliest considerations of the politics of Doctor Who was John Fiske’s harsh assessment that the show was effectively a treatise for capitalism (Doctor Who: Ideology and the Reading of a Popular Narrative Text, Australian Journal of Screen Theory 14 (1983)). Basing his conclusions on the single adventure, The Creature from the Pit, Fiske critiqued such things as the program’s insistence on individualism over community and trade over welfare. His Doctor is a walking advert for right wing politics. Nicol offers a more nuanced interpretation of that particular adventure, but also points out that Fiske’s argument is deeply flawed by generalising on the basis of a single story. By contrast, Nicol’s arguments are littered with examples from across the entire canon of Doctor Who (limited to his onscreen adventures and related spin-offs). As a result the breadth of the analysis is simply staggering and his arguments deeply persuasive as he carves a middle ground, presenting the show as a love letter to Britishness and a critique of the political elite.

Hamstrung by the BBC being part of the establishment with its somewhat mediated and relative ‘impartiality’, Nicol argues that Doctor Who’s subversive nature is hidden by metaphor and by the fact that the Doctor usually does a disappearing act before we can see any of the regime changes his interventions have made possible. Indeed, the Doctor often ends up making little difference, reducing his role to that of a “safety valve” for neoliberalism’s discontents. Sometimes he makes things even worse (by causing the downfall of Harriet Jones he paves the way for Harold Saxon). Doctor Who is then neither a capitalist nor a socialist party political broadcast.

Such a thesis is a convincing explanation as to why both conservatives and liberals have over the years regarded the Doctor as something of a role model. The balance here however is firmly in favour of the Doctor as anti-establishment. This can be seen particularly in the new series with UNIT for instance coming under much greater scrutiny and critique. The critical nature of Doctor Who with its cynical stance towards multinational corporations is presented as an essential feature of its Britishness, defining British as a people rather than a world power: a people who are diverse, made up of different ethnic groups and voices and who challenge the depersonalising and the rich biased qualities of neoliberalism.

There are nonetheless a couple of notable omissions in Nicol’s examples, most surprisingly of all a total disregard for the 1996 TV Movie. Nicol repeatedly contrasts the ‘classic’ series with the ‘new’ series which though often a largely artificial one, works for the most part here insofar as conceptions of Britishness during the intervening years (1989–2005) shifted quite dramatically. In particular Nicol’s shows how far the classic series reflected a post-Empire positive assessment of internationalism and the special relationship with the US, whereas in the wake of 9/11 and the war on Iraq the new series is highly critical of globalisation and American domination, presenting a lurch back towards imagining Britain as distinct from the rest of the world (compare Filer in The Claws of Axos to Winters in The Last of the Time Lords for example, or the bumbling British politicians and civil servants that characterised the Pertwee years with the prime-minister of Britain’s Golden Age, Harriet Jones). Nicol’s methodology does however lead to the unfortunate marginalisation of one of the most important representations of Britishness in the entire history of the show, given that the 1996 TV movie was consciously written and produced to sell Doctor Who as a British show to an American audience.

In an outstanding chapter looking at the Doctor’s attitude towards war and violence Nicol works through the conceit of putting the Doctor on trial for war crimes (the Doctor is guilty as charged but as with the Doctor’s two fictional trials, Nicol calls into question the validity of war crimes prosecutions and tribunals). Bizarrely there is no mention of the War Doctor, who is surely as significant in the presentation of the Doctor’s morality in the new series as is the rise of the Time Lord victorious (The Waters of Mars) which by contrast is discussed in great detail. The Who Against Guns campaign set up in the wake of renewed controversies over the availability of guns in the US makes this section of the book particularly relevant, though Nicol’s presentation of the Doctor as being prone to the ‘dislike for the unlike’ that is at the root of war and atrocities, suggests a degree of caution in presenting the character or the show as a moral role model.

Nicol offers a particularly damning assessment of the Doctor’s role in turning the pacifist Thals into aggressors (The Daleks), arguing that this story is just one of many in which the Doctor fails to even consider alternatives to destroying the ‘other’. At this point the Daleks are simply there to survive with no suggestion that they intend to expand their empire beyond Skaro. Even after the many atrocities committed by the Daleks in later serials, Nicol suggests that the Doctor and the show itself is racist when it comes to the mutated Kaleds. He suggests that the series would be truly ground breaking if it dared to cast a Dalek as a companion. Possibly too late for inclusion in this study, the most recent Doctor Who Christmas Special, Twice Upon a Time comes close to doing just that with Rusty, but even so Handles and Bill are examples of Cyber companions that challenge this reading. Nicol also ignores here the questioning of the Doctor’s morality in Into the Dalek. His assessment is particularly harsh given that elsewhere in the book he praises the show’s recent trend to question the Doctor’s status as a hero.

Certain stories are repeated again and again in the course of Nicol’s arguments, so much so that at one point it felt as if a whole section of text had been replicated in error, but casting that irritation aside the examples are indeed powerful. The usual suspects are worthy of their numerous citations (Remembrance of the Daleks, The Sun Makers etc.) but they are pleasingly joined by some of the more overlooked stories, particularly from the new series such as The Beast Below and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

At times Nicol’s metaphorical reading of individual Doctor Who episodes comes across as a bit of a stretch, for example the idea that the Time Lord – human hybrid of the Doctor and Clara (Hell Bent) is also a Scottish – English one, reflecting how “hybridity softens and blurs Britain’s national boundaries, rejecting essentialist characteristics of the four nationalities and advancing the idea of a multiple self,” is a clever but unnecessary take, particularly as it could hardly been seen as intentional. Nicol produces enough evidence to demonstrate how the new series reflects the greater sense of pride in the individual nations that make up the UK as a backlash to the homogenising effects of globalisation and centralised government.

The book itself is no love letter to the Doctor or Britain for that matter. Nicol effectively highlights some of the hypocrisy that underlies British identity as a hybrid nation. Extensive discussions of race, gender and sexuality in Doctor Who reveal the disappointment that whilst the show purports to foreground values of inclusivity and diversity it has continued to fall short of making those ideals a reality. In particular with the new series’ non-white characters there has been a ‘narrative of rejection’ –  the Doctor rejects Mickey, Danny Pink, Journey Blue, and resists Martha’s advances, the show rejects Rita from becoming a companion (The God Complex). He also notes a curious lack of Eastern Europeans in Doctor Who (with one example of a Polish character disappointingly reflecting assumptions about Eastern Europeans taking British jobs – The Sontaran Stratagem) seeing this as a reflection of Britain’s continued obsession with post-colonialism and of the media’s anti-European stance.

Doctor Who, despite Clara being the first Northern England companion, remains firmly biased towards the South (Nicol rightly bemoans the wasted opportunity of setting more adventures in the North by relocating Clara to London) and although presenting stronger female role models who are prepared to challenge the Doctor, ultimately new series female companions make huge sacrifices for the Doctor, a man who by contrast is free to travel without complications. Whilst optimistic about the future of Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker cast as the first female Doctor, Nicol is highly critical of how long it has taken the show to reach this point. His harshest criticisms though are reserved for the classic series with its “thunderous racism”.

Beyond Doctor Who, Britain has been unfairly represented on the international stage with a Southern bias, marketed in shows such as Downton Abbey for its heritage value, projected by politicians under the distinctly neoliberal ‘cool Britannia’ tag, and paradoxically reinforced by the largely Northern ‘Brit grit’ dramas. By contrast Nicol proposes that Doctor Who, although centred on the adventures of an aristocrat and his mostly middle-class companions, offers a hidden transcript as a counter to post-democracy. In a book that is largely descriptive, Nicol’s concluding chapter demonstrates the important role that science fiction can play in both transmitting and formulating what it means to be British.

This is a book from academia that whilst high on political theory (more so than media studies) is written in a thoroughly accessible manner. It surely deserves a wider readership than its prohibitive price affords. A second edition, in paperback, would be a welcome move that would enable this important work to reach a wider circle of fans – significant because among them may very well be the next generation of Doctor Who writers. In the meantime search around for deals on this book and bite the bullet if you are able to, for this is one of the most significant studies ever undertaken of the series, and one that avoids both the idiosyncrasies of the likes of Elizabeth Sandifer and Tat Wood, and the overly technical jargon filled language of Tulloch and Alforado’s The Unfolding Text.

❉ ‘Doctor Who – A British Alien?’ by Danny Nicol, published by Palgrave McMillan 2018:

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1 Comment

  1. Hi!! Really enjoyed this article! Also, just on the off chance you see this reply in the next day and a half or so, I was wondering what your source is for this part: “Indeed its ‘Britishness’ has more often than not eluded definition with even former producer Steven Moffat admitting that while it mattered enough to be a fundamental part of the show’s DNA, he had no idea what it really amounted to.” I’m writing an essay for university on an adjacent subject and would really like to be able to quote this, but only can if I can source it 🙂

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