Six Smart Women Discussing Doctor Who

VerityEpisode47-210This week we are sadly Deb-free, but we forge ahead without our fearless leader. Join Erika, Liz, and Tansy as we discuss the role of politics in Doctor Who. How big a role does politics play in Who? Turns out, a bigger role than some (or at least one) of us expected. How do we feel about the Doctor getting involved? That seems to depend largely on context.

What do you think about the role of politics in Doctor Who throughout the ages? And what are your thoughts on the Doctor’s role in politics? Let us know in the comments!


Also covered:

Download or listen now (runtime 1:08:23) 

Comments on: "Verity! Episode 47 – Political Science Fiction" (14)

  1. I missed the gendered context of, “Don’t you think she looks tired.” Is there some misogynous subtext, or is this a reference to something that happened in the real world? BTW, Tansy’s idea of a 3rd Doctor story featuring Roger Delgado’s Master as the legitimately elected Prime Minister sounds like a great fanfic opportunity 🙂 And I’m disappointed we didn’t get to hear Liz’ imitation of Deb :p

    • microtoast said:

      I noticed that comment too, and it didn’t read as gendered to me either. There’s the fact that it was a woman that the doctor deposed that way, but I could easily see him doing it to a male prime minister who took the same actions.

      • I think the point was not that the comment itself was gendered, but that society’s reaction to it would be. Women get lambasted for trying to have a career and a family, so the thing about looking tired hits the target more easily for a female leader (regardless of whether she actually has a family). In the States at least, male leaders looking tired is just something we come to expect. Look at any President from year to year. They age dramatically before our eyes! I don’t think that kind of comment would really do much of the target was male.

      • microtoast said:

        Okay, I see what you’re saying, but I’m still not sure about it here. For one thing, it’s kind of miraculous that it succeeded the way it did. Would it REALLY work at all, for someone of either gender, in the real world? The ultimate reason it did, of course, is that the writing of the episode dictated that the doctor’s clever words had their effect. There may be some truth to your point about career women, but I still don’t think that this was necessarily a gendered thing to happen, because if it had been a man in office, and the same outcome written, I don’t think anyone would have thought that it was any stranger for things to play out that way for a man.

        Because it wasn’t JUST the doctor playing off of public opinion. It was also that he really played Harriet herself – she’s shattered by desperate curiosity and fear when she sees the doctor follow through on his threat to speak the Words of Doom but she can’t hear what they are. The defensive, backed-into-a-corner stance that she takes on afterward is itself responsible for compounding the effect, I thought. The “doesn’t she look tired” ploy only works if there’s some guilt for it to feed off of–if she’d been a truly evil or sociopathic character, it probably wouldn’t have worked as thoroughly. So that might say something else about the whole situation, I don’t know.

        All this said, it was a terrible rotten underhanded thing for the doctor to do, and I thought it neither just nor decent nor deserved.

      • Sarah B said:

        I think it’s also a comment on the relentless focus on the appearance of women in public office and the need for a woman in power to *look* presentable and powerful as well as *be* capable. An Australian example would be the media obsession with the appearance of our first female PM, while I don’t think anyone’s so much as mentioned the current or previous male PM’s suit or hair colour and whether they are “appropriate”. Somehow a woman’s appearance is relevant to her competence.

  2. James said:

    The “Don’t you think she looks tired” reference could be a nod to Mo Mowlam, a minister in Tony Blair’s government. She was an MP very much in the no-nonsense, down-to-earth style of Harriet Jones. It’s rumoured that Tony Blair started to see her as a threat after she received a standing ovation at a party conference. So he had his spin doctors brief against her, pointing out how tired she looked. The reason that she did looked tired was because she was fighting a brain tumour. Prime Minister Blair moved her out of his government soon after.

  3. I LOVE THE NEW TITAN COMICS!!! I’m not really a comics person, but I am a fan of Alice XZ who did the cover art. I bought the comics just for her art, but of course I read them and I found them excellent. The companions are both interesting, engaging characters, and the comics do a great job reflecting each Doctor’s era. I’m definitely going to follow the Tenth Doctor story – and probably the Eleventh as well, because the next issues’ covers are also Alice XZ. 😉

    Also, Craigy Who is hilarious. 🙂

  4. And on the actual topic of the cast… I too prefer to avoid political discussion whenever possible, but this one is quite interesting. I know from watching the special features on Pertwee DVDs that the Letts-Dicks era (yeah, I know) was deliberately political. Letts speaks openly about his Buddhism and pacifist streak, and both of them – and many other writers, as you said – were interested in having the Doctor stand up for the planet against scary corporate interests.
    Those episodes remain relevant.

    I haven’t seen much yet of 80’s DW, but The Happiness Patrol is now on my short list.

    As far as New Who and the character of the Doctor himself, I think it’s interesting that he IS inconsistent and unpredictable; it’s part of the character. When the Tenth Doctor took down Harriet Jones’ government, it brought into sharp focus his viciousness and disregard for consequences. Even though he often works for justice, the Doctor has never been a ‘nice’ character, or even necessarily a ‘good’ character – and the brand new Tenth Doctor made that abundantly clear.

    I think it’s telling that Jones never regretted her decision to destroy that ship. She still supported the Doctor later; she still appreciated what he had done for humanity; but she knew in her heart she was right, no matter what he did. It’s also telling that the Doctor’s action is what allowed the Master to become PM. What he did, even if his reasoning was good, was harsh and horrible, and he – and his companions – paid the consequences.

    (I too would have ADORED the Delgado Master as PM!! 😀 )

  5. I have to say that this is one of my favourite episodes of Verity so far. Not just because of the interesting topic, but also the passion and fervour with which you attacked it.

    So…on the “Don’t you think she looks tired” issue. OK…the Doctor was angry, he was on his way to becoming the vengeful god “Time Lord Victorious” which we saw at this peak in The Waters of Mars. I think that this is the begining of that process he went through as a character…for good or ill.

    It didn’t really strike me as a gendered comment at the time, and I am not sure it does now, but I can appreciate the point of view that allows that conclusion to be drawn.

    What we are missing here is some kind of feedback from the writers about these stories. We have had 50 years of analysis on the old stories, but RTD’s motivations to me really appear to be trying to tell a good story. He was never one for giving us any more analysis about a story and its structure or purpose, other than telling a good story. If he had particular political views, I honestyly didn’t pick those up…his I think was more social comment about families, relationships, actions and consequences than any political leanings. Maybe I am not a great analyst.

    If Harriet Jones had been male, then I do honestly think that the Doctor would have taken similar action against them for destroying the Sycorax. He had already defined himself as the higher authority on Earth on several occasions. It’s when the Doctor is called out for his actions that we see how he often regrets them…he clearly regretted Harriets death at the hands of the Daleks. He has shame like any other fallible sentient creature.

    On the topic of politicising stories, and political content, allegory and villains…

    Some of these have been my favourite of the show…such as Frontier in Space (prejudice, Cold War tensions etc), Freedom fighters taking arms against an oppressor (Dalek Invasion of Earth) Vengance on Varos (media as driving the political management – im surprised you didn’t touch on this).

    As an 12 year old when the Happiness Patrol was broadcast, I could clearly see who Helen A and her cohorts and enemies were supposed to represent. Maggie was coming towards the end of her tenure as PM, and the political hounds were begining to bite at her. The likes of Spitting Image (which I was occasionally allowed to stay up and watch) were constantly ribbing the government of the day, as well as the political opposition. No one was safe from the growing satirical comedy circuit, on both the left and right of centre.

    Dalek stories such as Remeberance, Genesis and even Revelation also had flavours of political thought around them I feel. Rememberance and Genesis were clearly about the fight against facisim, racial cleansing etc etc. Revelation had it’s body horror but was describing a new form of politics…that driven by the big companies trying to make a profit…like Davros alluded to ….’consumer resistance’.

    However, for me, the greatest political maneuverour save for Davros, who use both flattery, threats and violence…was Trau Morgus in Caves of Androzani. He represented the greed of the higher social, political and economically rich ‘classes’. His asides to camera, although known to be a mistake in the interpretation of the script by John Normington were quite brilliant in the end…and are reminiscent of the later series House of Cards and the characters Francis Urqhart (BBC) / Underwood (in the netflix version). Callous, calculating, ruthless and an eye for circumventing or creating their own rules.

    Great job on this week’s podcast.

  6. Philip said:

    Interesting topic. I would have liked to have some balance on the show, though. It seemed every opinion expressed was left of center. I understand people honestly expressing their opinions, and want no less. But if no one is right of center, how about someone expressly playing devil’s advocate to give some balance to the discussion. I wonder how people who supported Thatcher in the 80’s felt about her being lampooned in the Happiness Patrol? I’ve seen little Classic Who, but all of New Who, and am glad such ham-fisted politicking doesn’t go on. I would hate for the show I love so much to alienate me in such an inconsiderate manner. Imagine if a villain obviously modeled after George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, or Tony Blair were featured in an episode engaging in all sorts of indefensible behavior? Ugh. I think the problem with politics and religion are how often people disregard the fact that there are literally millions of other human beings on this planet who see things differently. If we could all just discuss these topics with thoughtful consideration for the people who are different from ourselves, they wouldn’t be nearly such unpleasant topics for discussion.

    Thanks for the show, I love Verity!

  7. I bought the new Titan comics. While I think they look gorgeous, I am not overly impressed. As a recent viewer of the IDW, I’m not sure why the BBC switched. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the 11th Doctor comic more because I found the companion to be more rounded out for an introduction. I found Gabrielle a little whiny. I haven’t decided if I’m going to stick with them yet.
    This week’s episode made me wish (again) that Verity taught a university seminar class on Doctor Who. I am going to need to rewatch through the lens that was discussed. However, one of the inconsistencies is that the Doctor will give chances to aliens but when Harriet disappoints him; he mercilessly takes her down without ever acknowledging he allowed for the rise of Saxon.

  8. John Lambert said:

    I have to agree with Philip. Liz used the term “capitalism” when the episode never really revealed what was the economic system on this colony. It didn’t appear to me as capitalism running amok.

    It should also be noted that when people complain about “capitalism” what they are really complaining about is “corporatism”.

  9. Henrik said:

    First and most importantly; no, everything is not politics. If everything is politics then everything is the business of politicians and up for discussion and decision by the polity.

    Most things aren’t politics. Most things are your own or my own or whoever else’s own damned business. It’s none of the government’s or even your neighbour’s business whether you like to wear really short dresses or three piece suits, whether you live in a polygamous same sex relationship or completely alone, whether you like to watch kitten videos on Youtube or if you’re really into incredibly violent video games or whether you make a living as an investment banker or a prostitute. It’s not anyone’s business but your own and it is not politics.

    Secondly, I think ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is one of very few watchable 7th Doctor stories. Indeed I think it’s actually quite good.

    One could theoretically of course take some umbrage at how it’s supposed to be a satirisation of Thatcher but being written and performed the way it was it so completely overshoots its mark and becomes just pure fantasy fiction. Helen A isn’t Thatcher. That whole society isn’t Britain in the 1980’s or even any sort of conservative utopia. The makers of the show at the time might have been going for biting social commentary but if so were either so far out in the warped reality of left wing socialism that they genuinely thought that those windmills were dragons or, and given the quality of the rest of the McCoy era I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and find this more likely, they just mucked it all up so bad that the end result accidentally ended up being, while nonsensical political satire, for the most part pretty good Doctor Who.


    And yeah, the idea that castes and classes are somehow “capitalism” strikes me as being a confusion of what capitalism is and its relationship with the state. Free market capitalism has broken down systems of class. Capitalism can be implemented in a society with rigid classes both formal and informal just as one can have rigid classes in an entirely communist society. Capitalism is the respect of private ownership. Private ownership could be abolished without abolishing classes; power can still be exerted over lower classes by political classes or priestly classes even if they don’t have any significant private property.

    There isn’t really any indication at all whether Terra Alpha is a capitalist or a communist society or somewhere in between, at least that I can recall from the last time I lazily half watched the story (a couple of days ago).
    And there were plenty, I dare say half of Europe at the time the story was written, f societies operating on a socialist model in which people were in fact routinely disappeared in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions, for not enthusiastically enough agreeing with the government’s stated position that everything was swell and a veritable workers’ paradise. But I suppose that was all the work of treacherous capitalist spies out to tarnish the great name of socialism.

  10. I do understand that everyone has a different political perspective to bring to the table and that you’re mostly not familiar with the politics of the UK of the time, but it was a little bit disappointing that you didn’t touch on the LGBT+ politics of “The Happiness Patrol”. After all, it *is* the story where the TARDIS is painted pink!

    (And some unintended irony when Liz talked about the airbrushing pf people from history.)

    Perhaps I can add the following to what you’ve said:

    The Thatcher government of the 1980s oversaw a backlash against the small advances in rights achieved in the ’60s and ’70s by gay and lesbian people (I mean don’t even think bisexual or trans rights had been touched).

    In particular, there was a notorious piece of legislation called Section 28 (of the local government act) which made it illegal for local authorities (or schools or doctors) to “promote” gay identity. In practice this meant shutting down a lot of support to kids coming to terms with their sexuality.

    Then the AIDS crisis hit and it was “wrath of god” all over.

    The likes of Mary Whitehouse (long time enemy of Doctor Who) and James Anderton, chief constable of Manchester used the opportunity to push a hard-line reactionary agenda.

    Against this background, the Doctor goes to a planet where one group of people are singled out to be blamed for society’s problems and persecuted for wanting to express their feelings…

    In a story full of inversions (where women have the power and the better guns and are depicted as the aggressors) spot the particular inversion of the “killjoys”; gay v sad.

    (Worth noting that totalitarian states often pick a scapegoat for their failings: the victimised minority could equally be Jews in the 1930s – take a look at some of the architecture of Terra Alpha – or, sadly, Muslims today.)

    Other things to look out for are Ace’s relationship with Susan Q (which like her later friendship with Kara in Survival suggests her sexuality might be more complicated than just fancying the traitor Mike Smith); while on the other side, the story finishes with Joseph P running away with GIlbert M (possibly a nod to gay men in the Tory government, even Cabinet, who were complicit with the oppression); Silas P uses seduction – and talks of underground clubs, places where people like you can go; music as a subculture and choosing to dress differently are prominent themes; the Happiness Patrol stick badges on people, just as the Nazis did, (and label them – Sigma for strangers); and there is an awful lot of pink.

    It’s easy to dismiss all this as lefty right-on-ery, much like Catrmel’s insistence that at least one non-white face appeared in every story (even if it leads to some more overt stereotyping) but in a dark time for a lot of people it was a small beacon of light and hope that maybe the Doctor would come down and tear down the government in one night.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: