Monday, June 16, 2014


Liberal Mondays 8: Doctor Who – The Green Death #LibDemValues

This week’s inspiring thought in my occasional series of Liberal moments is close to my heart: it is, of course, from Doctor Who. A confrontation between the Doctor and a much more dictatorial egomaniac, it’s taken from Episode Five of The Green Death, first broadcast forty-one years ago today. From the same story that featured Jeremy Thorpe as Prime Minister, this pits a monopolistic megacorporation, totalitarianism and pollution against the Doctor’s freedom, ecology and individualism. The argument crystallises in one especially memorable exchange that says benevolent authoritarianism is not enough if it means absolute ignorance and conformity. It’s about freedom:
“Doctor, believe me, we wish you no harm…”
“Ah, don’t worry, my dear feller. I’m having a whale of a time.”
“In the end, we all want the same thing; an ordered society, with everyone happy, well-fed…”
“Global Chemicals taking all the profits…”
“What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world – is best for you!”
“Such as a little touch of brain-washing.”
“Freedom from fear, freedom from pain…”
“Freedom from freedom!”
This 1973 story was co-written by Robert Sloman and then-producer Barry Letts, who it appears was rather pro-Liberal. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) had spent a few years exiled to Earth in the near future, and was still popping back on occasion to help out his friends at UNIT; The Green Death has one of the slyer little suggestions about their stories being set a few years later than broadcast, as the phone is at one point handed to a Prime Minister called “Jeremy”. Unfortunately, the striking Liberal revival in the following year’s elections didn’t quite carry him that far, and the 1975-but-set-in-1980 story which suggested Mrs Thatcher as PM was altogether more on the button. Since then, actual Liberal politicians have mostly just had backward references, such as Mr Asquith springing one of the Doctor’s companions from Holloway or Mr Lloyd George drinking the Doctor under the table. A Liberal worldsview, on the other hand, has always been part of Doctor Who’s RNA. I argued that most comprehensively in my “How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal”, but it’s summed up with particular clarity here.

The Doctor’s been captured and is being interrogated by the managing director of Global Chemicals, himself only a cog in the company machine (and that taken to extremes). For greater efficiency, productivity and profit, the company’s BOSS has decided to take over the world. Just as its workforce are brainwashed into servitude, a signal will be transmitted from the sinister multinational’s subsidiaries all across the world to bring the entire human race under its control in a literal ‘command economy’. So far, so familiar. But as you’ll have seen from the key quotation above, this particular mind-control story has thought about its message and argues it in unambiguously Liberal terms.

All Power Is Dangerous – Especially If It’s ‘For Your Own Good’
My favourite contribution to Mark Pack’s “What do the Liberal Democrats Believe?” is on the basic conviction that unites social and economic Liberals:
“All POWER (be it government, business or other people) can both PROTECT and THREATEN LIBERTY.

“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on the BEST DEFENCES and the BIGGEST BULLIES.”
The Green Death’s Liberal analysis is dead-on that same line. It chooses as its main target a monopolistic mega-corporation – but it’s just as applicable to totalitarian government that would exert the same degree of power over individuals. Indeed, part of its point is that any body that exerts total power can be exactly as dangerous and as illiberal as any other. When the Doctor carelessly resists the brainwashing, the political applicability comes as thick and fast as Global Chemicals’ poisonous pollution. First, the machine grumbles that:
“The subject is not responding to therapy.”
“Therapy” is exactly the “pretty euphemism” for what political opponents in the Eastern Bloc of the time were often subjected to – and this story would have exactly the same philosophical underpinning were the villains, say, Evil Space Communists with the same plan. No doubt many of those who praise The Green Death for being ‘left-wing’ because it’s ‘anti-big business’ would have criticised it as ‘right-wing propaganda’ had the allegory apparently pointed against big government instead, but that’s missing the point: it’s not a left-wing or right-wing critique of the ‘wrong’ sort of big power, but a Liberal critique of any sort of Big Power.

The crux of the argument above isn’t simply that ‘turning the entire human race into zombies is bad’, though. I’ll admit that even most of my political opponents would agree that’s a bit much. It’s that what Global Chemicals wants to impose is in many ways tempting. It’s simply taking to a sci-fi extreme the ‘perfectly reasonable’ exercise of power to ‘help’, and that’s an argument that this scene ruthlessly exposes and explodes:
“You’re not trying to tell me this is all for my own good?”
Which, of course, is exactly the point. Pay attention to the characters and their motivations, and no-one here is simply perfect or simply evil: the Doctor’s attitudes aren’t always appealing, with his own insufferable prejudices showing through, and the villains are at times endearing and well-meaning. From their point of view, it is all ‘for people’s own good’. Which is one of the political phrases that always sets alarm bells ringing for me, along with “we all want the same thing”. Who could object to an end to pain and hunger? To universal happiness? Well, what if my idea of happiness is different to yours? Liberals don’t say ‘We know best’, because everyone’s best is different.

This goes right back to my first Liberal Monday choice, when I observed how over the course of a century the most-quoted Liberal creed had thankfully moved from utilitarianism to Mill-and-Taylor-flavoured social Liberalism. I said there that utilitarianism and utopia had a superficial attraction, but gave me the creeps. Here’s the difference in a nutshell: today’s Liberals prize freedom from conformity for every individual to live their own life; Global Chemicals offers a perfect utilitarian future of absolute happiness, absolute equality and absolute mindlessness, forever. Even Liberals need to guard against the price some would too eagerly pay ‘for your own good’.

I was only a year old forty-one years ago, but as a boy the novelisation of this story was one of my favourites, and one of the books I credit with making me a green Liberal. And yet this most cuttingly Liberal of all scenes, as blatantly applicable to big states as big business, wasn’t even in the book. I didn’t see it until repeats nearly twenty years later, when it instantly struck an unforgettable chord with me. So why wasn’t it in the book? Well, the story was novelised by Malcolm Hulke, one of Target’s most talented writers, the one most likely to chop out scenes from the script and add his own that fleshed out the characters – so that’s probably it – but also the range’s card-carrying Communist Party member, so it’s just possible that like me he saw the Doctor objecting to an utopian regime promising freedom from material want at the price of “Freedom from freedom” for exactly what it was…

Or you may simply remember this as The One With The Maggots.

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Or, indeed, the one where they invent Quorn and fight off the nasty Frackers. It was one of the first DVDs I got, I asked for some for my birthday and my sister decided I wouldn't want the new series as that was awful, and got me that and Inferno. Hadn't seen that much Pertwee up to then, decided I wanted to watch a lot more after that.

We do need to do more to get across that liberalism's about controlling big Govt and big corporations—has anyone told that nice Mr Clegg it's what he's meant to be doing?
I think the pro-veggie message that actually comes out as 'Vegetarian food CAN KILL!!' is one of the most hilariously self-defeating accidental subtexts to a political metaphor that the series has managed since The Ark.

And those are absolutely two of the best Pertwees to have (and two of the most similar), both for him and for the story.

You're right, too. Even my own 'what we stand for' is a bit crap at that. Will have to have a think.
Oh dear - for me it is indeed the one with the maggots.
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