Tuesday, July 14, 2009


How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal

Of all my articles once published on Outpost Gallifrey, this, from 2004, is the one that anybody read. The amazing Jennie quoted it before we met; a US Republican sent me a vitriolic e-mail; Liberator published an alternative version… So, before this link disappears forever, here it is.

“2003 sees an important anniversary for a great British institution. It has inspired countless young people to stand up against conformity, bigotry and oppression. It has fostered individual liberty, internationalism and human creativity.
“But as well as being the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who, it’s also the centenary of the Young Liberals.”
That’s how I opened a rally in September 2003 to celebrate the Young Liberals, and while I did it mainly to get a laugh, the comparison’s crucial to my political life. I’ve always been driven by political ideas, since long before I realised they were ‘political’, and many of them came straight out of how I grew up with Doctor Who. These days my ideas and philosophy have led to becoming the Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee, the main body that puts together policy proposals for the Liberal Democrats. Inside the party, more than a few people know I’m a fan, so when a set of Doctor Who-related questions came in to party HQ from a fan group during the 2001 British General Election campaign, I was given the role of answering them (making the Lib Dems the only major party to do so [I did the gay ones, too, marking me still more obviously as a Doctor Who fan]). This started me thinking…

I don’t think political parties give people a decent enough idea of their political philosophies, and I think that matters (when parties spend so much of their time ‘playing by ear’, it’s only fair to tell people what sort of tunes you like). When Lib Dems talk about our philosophy, it’s usually in dry, academic terms or in soundbites shortened for a headline or a campaign leaflet. That’s not how many people outside parties see their beliefs, though. Most people would express beliefs in terms of their religion, or in examples of how they affect people or things that are important to them; probably not a coherent philosophy, but rather referring to moral codes and ideas from which they’ve borrowed bits that appeal to them. If I was writing a political ‘how to…’ article, I’d probably say the best way to get your beliefs listened to is by relating them to the way they come out of things your audience cares about.

I’m not going to do that here.

No, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who instead, because it’s something I really care about. It’s A Good Thing, and to me it’s a Liberal one, too. I know scientists, actors and authors who all readily claim Doctor Who as their inspiration, though politicians are a bit rarer. However, while what triggered me getting involved in politics was working out I was gay, listening to Weekending, and my English teacher being a bastard and / or pushing me to stand up for myself, my early political instincts were formed by three outstanding influences.

The first are my parents, with a family habit of bolshily standing up for what you believe in; according to my Grandma, my first political act came naked on a beach at the age of four, challenging a teenager who’d arbitrarily kicked over a sandcastle. One parent being Scottish and the other American probably made me a bit less insular, too. My upbringing in Christianity also played a part – half-Baptist, half-Catholic, so again having to make up my own mind – particularly in the notion of individual worth and in a semi-anarchist reaction to Catholic institutions. Then Doctor Who probably did more than anything else to inspire my political interests. It fostered a free spirit, encouraged me to start reading, instilled a passionate internationalism, made me think about ecology, and give me a lasting hatred of prejudice; green scaly rubber people are people too. And, of course, it made me want to change the world, and believe that an individual can make a difference. No, I don’t think Doctor Who has a lot to say about individual policies, and no, I’m not going to write an article setting my own view of Liberalism to compare (though I’ll tell you if you mail me) – but the bits of Who I pick out should be able to give you an idea.

I can’t claim that everything about Doctor Who has a Liberal message – it would probably be very dull if it did. Some series are written for a particular point, or all by one guiding genius; Doctor Who has never had an Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon or J. Michael Straczynski, and all the better for it. When the new series comes, it will be under the guiding hand of Russell T Davies, creator of Dark Season, The Second Coming and Queer As Folk, but – much as I admire that work – it’s an enormous relief that he’s not been tempted to write every one himself, with four other writers for the first season and many others asked. One of the things I like about Liberalism is its celebration of diversity and freedom of thought, so my first (slightly cheeky) claim for Doctor Who‘s Liberalism is its variety, a variety of viewpoints, times, settings and solutions. No other political philosophy could point at the fact that something is all over the place and cry, ‘Look! That proves it’s one of ours!’

The series’ celeb fans include Ken Livingstone (Labour) and Tim Collins (Conservative), so assuming they’ve occasionally thought, ‘What would the Doctor do?’ it’s obvious you can get different views to mine from it – though perhaps there are odd creatures who may have watched the show, but haven’t bothered to listen to its values. Although Doctor Who had two periods when it ‘got a bit of politics’, the early ’70s on TV and the early ’90s in the New Adventures novels, it wasn’t even consistent within those times, and certainly not between them. The ’70s probably leant towards the Liberals, though the most political author was a communist, while the ’90s tended towards the New Age socialist, yet both have an essential ‘Whoishness’ founded on the freedom to live your own life that I can’t help but interpret as Liberal. These days, there’s BBCi’s animated story Scream of the Shalka, where the Doctor makes disparaging remarks about finding weapons of mass destruction, and interviews with Russell T Davies or Christopher Eccleston make it clear that they’ll join other periods of the series’ history by looking at social issues through Doctor Who‘s prism. Good for them, and I hope I’ll agree with them, but even more so I hope they’ll make all of us think.

In over 150 TV stories and over 200 original novels, let alone CDs, comics and other media, it’s possible to find support for pretty much any point of view (to think some people say Lib Dem policy papers are bad). The series must have inspired other politicians, though sadly Tim and Ken would be bound to charge too much to write an article. Still, I’d be interested to read an alternative political case for Doctor Who, but this is how I find the series. One of the few themes that is absolutely consistent, and born of its time, is a deep-rooted anti-fascism, yet even this can seem at odds with its equally strong predilection for scary monsters whose nastiness is evident from their appearance. While the series often preaches against violence, it’s always trying to square the circle of being for or against the military; some cite The Daleks or The Dominators as attacks on pacifism, while in the DVD commentary for the macho Resurrection of the Daleks Peter Davison gleefully claims a higher body-count than Rambo – First Blood. Remembrance of the Daleks is perhaps the most controversial story for mixing up-front anti-racism with the Doctor making a Dubya-like strike to commit genocide on the Daleks themselves (a mixed moral message on which even the author later changes his mind in The Also People).

The series is frequently revolutionary – but monarchies are usually a fairy-tale good thing. Religion is usually dubious – but while a scientific approach is praised, scientists themselves are usually madmen out to destroy the world. ‘Political’ stories are hostile satires: The Deadly Assassin anticipates by two decades both political ‘spin’ of events and, funnily enough, The Matrix; Tragedy Day lays into Kilroy and Children in Need; The Happiness Patrol is a blatant attack on Thatcherism, but is just as harsh on state as on private control. However, where socialist and conservative fans see contradictions, Liberals would recognise that distrust of the controlling state and bureaucracy is hardly incompatible with often making big business, too, a villain, as in The Caves of Androzani, and endorsing no one system is a much more fluid, Liberal approach than if the Doctor imposed the ‘perfect’ answer on everyone.

With so many stories, by so many authors, you can see that claiming one viewpoint may be a bit silly, yet there is a very Liberal and very British dislike of any big battalions that’s rarely contradicted. The Doctor prizes knowledge and individuality, and doesn’t like despots. There’s an ingrained repulsion from fascism from the very beginning that’s one of the most crucial ideals of the series. I means almost any Doctor Who story carries the belief that conquest and control is a bad thing, whether of a planet or of the mind.

The first political pamphlet I wrote (‘The Human Factor’, in Kiron Reid’s Riot and Responsibility) took its inspiration and several quotes from arguably the ultimate Who story, and one of the most unambiguously Liberal: 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks. The climax features the Doctor and the Daleks each attempting to instil in the other “the Human Factor” or “the Dalek Factor”. The definition of what makes humans Human is my sort of Liberal; it starts with ‘being a bit silly’, and graduates to ‘asking awkward questions’. Freedom of thought and expression is something Dalek society cannot stand; as the Doctor tells the Dalek Emperor:
“Somewhere in the Dalek race there are three Daleks with the Human Factor. Gradually, they will come to question. They will persuade other Daleks to question. You will have a rebellion on your planet!”
This comes to pass, with furious Dalek commanders exterminating their underlings merely for the unheard-of intellectual rebellion of asking “Why”, which on its own is enough to undermine everything Daleks stand for. In contrast, the Doctor defines the core of “the Dalek Factor” as “to obey,” even before “to exterminate”. While from the first and in many subsequent stories the Daleks have been metaphors for the Nazis, here they are broadened to encompass all enemies of free thought who simply do as they’re told.

This message is perhaps the most explicit statement of the anti-establishment ethos that its original producer Verity Lambert saw as the core of its appeal to children and a particular kind of adult. While authors like Paul Cornell, Malcolm Hulke or David Whitaker may have written particularly political stories, it was creator Sydney Newman and his team that made the Doctor inescapably Liberal from the start – a curious traveller in time and space, by definition unbound by rules and by instinct dismissive of authority, to a petty bureaucrat “the most subversive and anarchic figure of his entire career, a shabbily dressed little man known as the Doctor,” able to say that “Bad laws are made to be broken” and to change the world to get rid of them.

It’s from casting the Doctor as an individual and not an enforcer that the consistent Liberal feel of Doctor Who comes, whatever the views propounded in any one story. Others have been inspired by the utopianism of Star Trek, for example, but my own favourite series is about a person, not an organised group, with a wariness of militarism, no ‘one size fits all’ utopian solutions and a deep-seated mistrust of those in authority. Perhaps this is down to what sort of totalitarianism different series are against ‘first’; UK sci-fi tends to oppose fascism, while US sci-fi is more afraid of communism. A hero that isn’t a cop or a soldier or a secret agent or motivated by money, who doesn’t obey rules, who is individualist rather than collectivist but looks out for the little people, is a Liberal hero, on just the right side of anarchism. The Doctor is not a pacifist, but while caught in violent situations, he’s not a man of violence – he tries to find other ways to resolve them, and doesn’t possess a gun. As the novel Human Nature (now on the BBC website) puts it:
“There are monsters out there, yes. Terrible things. But you don’t have to become one in order to defeat them. You can be peaceful in the face of their cruelty. You can win by being cleverer than they are… It’s about not being afraid.”
That’s why I loved the Doctor as a child and found my political ideals inspired by him as an adult. The Doctor travels from place to place doing what he likes, demanding the freedom to go anywhere, see anything and talk to anyone, but never harming others unless it’s to stop them harming people, fighting injustice rather than merely being employed to fight, and if there’s a greater champion of freedom from conformity and ignorance I’ve yet to see one. He finds it all huge fun, too. So, liberty, eccentricity, kindness, standing up for the underdog, not being po-faced about it, and a bit sceptical of politicians – which, when I grew up, sounded a lot like the Liberal Democrats.

As I started watching Doctor Who in 1975, aged 3, we didn’t have videos, so I got the books to keep up my ‘fix’. That meant I had to learn to read much earlier than I would have done otherwise – ‘proper’ books at age 5 – and feeding the instinct for thinking and finding things out is a consistent theme of the series, too. Most of the early stories published were novelisations of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Ironically, when I saw him later on screen his persona seemed more of an old-fashioned Tory than the anarchic Tom Baker, so I probably had it the perfect way round. I saw the more freewheeling Doctor on TV (whose stories had few deep messages, other than to scare small children, much to my delight), but read the more Liberal stories without getting the feel of a more establishment personality.

If the message of the series is a Liberal one of ‘think for yourself’, the messages of more than a few Pertwee stories are only a step away from cheerleading for particular Liberal issues. The Third Doctor was exiled to Earth and, unusually, worked with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – a Liberal internationalist idea, if ever I heard one, and not too far from an idea you’ll find in the 2001 Lib Dem Manifesto Freedom, Justice, Honesty (at the same time as something that suspiciously resembles International Rescue. Go on, look it up). Even his rarer time and space travels were like Liberal propaganda – The Curse of Peladon was about a hidebound planet with a monarchy whose ruler wanted to join the Galactic Federation, but was threatened by conservative isolationist villains. Among the members of this Federation were the Ice Warriors, who of course had twice appeared as evil monsters, but were now reformed and peaceful. This was broadcast in 1972, and I’m sure the book had more of an impact on my developing Europeanism than any number of EEC spokesbeings.

Ecological themes pop up in a great many stories, including Robot, the first I ever saw, but the most blatant is The Green Death and its villainous, polluting oil multinational that wants to take over the world in a literal ‘command economy’ that will give freedom from all material need – at the cost of “Freedom from freedom”. Set a vague few years in the future, this 1973 show had a Prime Minister referred to as ‘Jeremy’ just as Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party was rising in the opinion polls (even more outrageous than having a novel in which Liberal Prime Minister Asquith turns out to be one of the Doctor’s mates). Despite the series usually having the dramatic convention that ugly monsters = wicked, I got the message of Genesis of the Daleks, one of the first I saw and in which the Daleks are unsubtly created as a genetically pure super-race in mobile tanks by a charismatic madman in a bunker, surrounded by his black-uniformed elite (some of whom, er, wear iron crosses and carry Lugers).

The single most influential book I read was Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, a somewhat luridly titled novelisation of the TV story Doctor Who and the Silurians. I wasn’t born when the story was first transmitted, and didn’t actually see it until the unimpressionable age of 21, though I can vividly remember where and when I finally did see it – released on video in mid-1993, it was 5am and I was crashing in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor (ooh, the glamour of politics), blearily determined to watch it all before another day’s trudging the streets to canvass and deliver leaflets in the Christchurch by-election. Ironically, the story had already long been a life-changing experience for me, and without having read the book, who knows? Perhaps I wouldn’t have been there at all…

Most readers will know that the story concerns some super-evolved reptile people being accidentally woken from the hibernation they entered to escape the destruction of the dinosaurs. Naturally, they have a prior claim and want their world back. Some of the reptile people are good, some bad; some of the humans are good, some bad. The situation escalates to near war, and the humans end up worse; they kill all the reptile people. The Doctor comes to a crisis point with the Brigadier on the other side of the argument - but that he can still work with him afterwards shows hope that peace can be made, even if not within that one story. Although I never quite took to the Doctor being semi-connected to the establishment and I know the Doctor doesn’t care for politicians, I suspect that story buried within me the notion that working ‘inside the system’ can sometimes be the right thing to do. I read that when I was 5 or 6, and while ‘nasty monsters invading’ never made me worried about ‘foreigners’, two sets of really very similar-acting people who had the same rights to live peacefully, one group different people to those I was used to, had a lasting effect on me. So, that’s the point at which I became a Liberal, even if it was years later before I put a name to what I believed.

Of course, even if you’re not interested in the many political facets of Doctor Who, you could always try and work out what your own political inspirations were. Did Doctor Who ever inspire you to change the world? And if it didn’t, shouldn’t it? Most people I know in politics get jaded from time to time, not just disinterested voters and non-voters. It can be a disillusioning experience, so it never hurts to remind yourself why you really believe in what you do believe in. Things as varied as the shock of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal murder or a Doctor Who story pitching me into an impassioned argument about pre-emptive strikes have, at different times, roused me to get back into political action, so next time you see the Doctor overthrowing a tyrannical regime, why not at least register to vote, if you can’t fly off in the TARDIS and do it yourself? Sure, it’s much easier when the Doctor changes the world in an hour and a half, but that’s no excuse not to find him an inspiration. And if you think politics is too serious to compare to a TV programme… Well, you should get out more. Not everyone’s way of life comes out of things that are Terribly Important, and when politicians sound terribly self-important, a lot of people just prefer telly. Besides, in its heyday, Doctor Who regularly had twelve million people supporting it, and any politician could do with a bit of that.

This idea for an article started out in the Spring of 2001, with a few paragraphs in reply to fan group “The Wolves of Fenric” on behalf of the Lib Dems – a piece that was online for a while, but has long since disappeared. I can, however, reveal that Charles Kennedy’s favourite Doctor was Patrick Troughton. Looking at the rewritten version from Spring 2004, I decided I’d rather not have what might be the most-quoted article I’ve ever written go the same way when the plug’s finally pulled on Outpost Gallifrey in a fortnight. I suppose it’s ‘the one to read’ of my old school BBC-style Summer holiday repeats!

Issue 293 of Liberator in which a version of this appears is still online as a pdf, the differences mainly being that I tweaked it for Liberals who might not necessarily be Doctor Who fans (the one above’s vice versa) and other members of the Collective chopped it about a bit for space, but used the Best! Dalek! Photo! Ever! on the cover. If you’re not familiar with Liberator Magazine, incidentally, despite what you might think, it was actually founded and named about seven years before Blake’s 7 was a glint in Terry Nation’s bank account.

More than any of my other pieces under the looming threat of deletion, I was tempted here to rewrite it, or at least add some observations – as opposed to mere speculation – about Twenty-first Century Who on TV, but I decided to leave the article as originally published (save my ‘house style’ on italics and quotation marks, and putting in some links), with just one small addition in brackets and retaining all the bits I might have got wrong or changed my mind on. This is what I thought in 2004 and, skim-reading it this morning, I’m happy to say also mostly what I still think now.

Since I originally wrote this, Doctor Who and the Silurians has been released on DVD as part of the varying-quality Beneath the Surface box set. That brilliant story, though, features arguably the best single extra in the range, a BBC4-quality documentary on politics in the series, What Lies Beneath, including interviews with several politicians – what an extraordinary idea! And though I’ve still yet to write a full-scale review of The Evil of the Daleks (though there was, of course, a small one that appeared in Liberator a good decade and a half ago and which I probably couldn’t lay my hands on in a hurry), if you read what I have to say on its early Patrick Troughton Liberal stablemate The Macra Terror, you might find very much the same point of view. Of all the Doctor Who stories which are political not just in the series’ overall tone but fiercely so in detail, that’s one of the best places to start.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 16 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

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I haven't watched Doctor Who so may not know what I'm talking about, but one thing worth noting is that Thatcher deployed state control & repression extremely often, & wasn't anyone's idea of a liberal or libertarian, as much as her latter-day followers don't like to admit this.

It is of course impeccably liberal to think that both the state & private agencies can tyrranise the individual, but all too often missed by those who think arbitrary power is acceptable if the right people are wielding it.
Yep - I'd agree with you on each of those points!

And hopefully the above gives at least some flavour of what Doctor Who is about (if not, try this)...
Just want to thank you again for writing this. It's a great comfort blanket

* hug *
Thank you for that, too. I can do with cheering up right now!
You should really be writing for DW magazine(it's still around, right?). You have an amazing gift. And thank you so much for this wonderful explanation of what "Doctor Who" means to you and how it shaped your life. I am much like yourself in that I fell in love with "Who"(early 80's on PBS) due primarily to how intelligent and morally upstanding it was. It's the same reason as to why I enjoy shows like "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek".

The doctor was not a mindless superhero that resorted to violence at the drop of a hat. Instead, he was a bit of a pacifist who used his wits, humor, and 'noggin to get him out of dangerous, tense situations. To me this was all best exemplified by Tom Baker and his era of the show. The 4th doctor seemed to be a Liberal, bohemian, college student who proudly wore his eccentricity and quirkiness on his sleeve. Eating candy(jelly babies) while mocking ignorant, intolerant villains with inferior intellects. While also getting serious and to the point by using science and reason to explain his views in a philosophical manner. Even though he was an alien, he exemplified the best of everything that Humanity could strive for. And that is why his particular doctor remains so iconic and memorable to many fans.

Here in America, this "Love and Liberty" blog reminded me of how us Lib Dems are fighting against the "tea party Republicans". These people with a fascist, intolerant ideology that want a theocracy(Christianity being the law of the land) and want to eliminate all government that takes care of the poor and makes sure that corporations are regulated as to insure safety and protection of employees and the public. These people complain about less fortunate folks taking Government financial assistance, yet they support the very corporations that will NOT pay their employees a livable wage. It's hypocrisy and stinks of outright corruption and inhumanity.

Your blog went a long way in insuring me that I am indeed on the right side. It's certainly reassuring to know that there ARE people out there with the same mindset. People that put the well being of their fellow man/woman and the Planet over predatory Capitalism and self-benefit at the cost of others. It gives me hope that the future will be bright for future Generations on this Planet. A place where everyone prospers and is treated with dignity. And THAT is the key message of Doctor Who!

Take care, Alex.

Thank you very much, Jay (and yes, DWM's still around)! And thank you for sharing your experience of Tom's Doctor. And, yes, I'm familiar with the Tea Party... And how they're all too happy with spending going to *their* people, and seeing no contradiction in that.

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