Four special editions of BBC's Doctor Who primetime 'Adventures in Time and Space Drama' broadcast in 2023 exhibit far-right tropes, so what are these, and why?
First we will set the scene regarding the direction the rebooted Doctor Who has been moving in.
Then we will take each of the Specials in turn to pick out specific and common tropes, include some feedback from right-wing press reviewers, present our conclusions and speculate as to motives.
And yes, of necessity there will be spoilers. Before we start, a brief note.
Art develops at scale
Or: more patterns emerge as a body of work grows. Stereotypes or typical traits emerge more clearly over a body of work. Silences, avoidances, distortions, favourites are easier to spot when the opus of a creator (or a country's creative industry) is considered, than in a single work. The forest emerges from the trees. So, we consider that the repetition of consistent themes in four Specials is a much more significant pattern than themes in one or two out of four.
The Direction of Travel
We have already analysed the Doctor Who reboot up until the The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016), which provides us with some starting themes.
Instead of the BBC's own pitch of Adventures in Time and Space, we get larks in London and Cardiff (and Sheffield).
Since the reboot, Modern Who embodies the rightwing Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History (reminiscent of the BBC's own star system?) while Classic Who typically tried to avoid it (the Classic Doctor started off as a researcher with a malfunctioning TARDIS, and was not the locus of problem-solving). However, even more extreme valuation of select individuals have arrived with the trend towards ego-dominance politics of Modern Who.
There is a highly regressive feel about Modern Who's preoccupation with superficiality and the perceived outward attractiveness of characters, which leans towards speciesism and a narrowing of focus.
Monsters and Terrorists
Aliens are now typically monsters or terrorists, to be defeated or killed, preferably both.
No Such Thing as Society
In all the broadcast reboot, there is no alien society fairly sketched.
Red flags, combined with the celebrity-importing and sexualised themes and styles.
The Star Beast
The plot of the Star Beast is essentially Donald Trump's anti-immigrant version of The Snake
claiming that the decision to allow people claiming refugee status to enter the United States would "come back to bite us", as happened to the woman who took in the snake in the song.
Now, appearances-can-be-deceptive is by itself a useful instruction, albeit one the appearance-obsessed Modern Who applies selectively. But because of the show's current Anglocentrism, aliens are mostly shown as visitors, and here an actual asylum-seeker, the Meep, who turns out to be a mass-murdering fugitive from justice.
Donna: “I would burn down the world for you” (09:39). Well, the Doctor previously would have destroyed the Universe for Clara, so perhaps this counts as progress. As in the small-minded focus on Donna’s ‘terrible price’ (she forgets the Doctor and adventures), the rightwing Self-Over-the-Collective trope manifests in various ways throughout these specials.
I was left wondering if a BBC drama about London firefighters tried to make the main characters sympathetic by having them dither over whether to tackle a city-threatening blaze or nip round to see if their own house was OK, what the viewer reaction might be. Nobody seemed all that fussed about some distant civilization or galactic council being obliterated or eaten, and even the Doctor's
apology expression of regret for getting the bumbling galactic cops murdered by an entity in his own custody seemed merely for form.
Wild Blue Yonder
Wild Blue Yonder is a war song, but a USAmerican not a British one. Why the distancing?
The aliens use terror to make copying easier. Replacement is one of the far-right’s concerns, but perhaps that is just a coincidence here, and is more like Capgras syndrome, or just identity theft.
No alien/foreign society yet again. Instead a laserlike small-minded focus on characters, yet again, as with celebritising history, here fun-washing the reputation of Isaac Newton, who blew his fortune investing in slavery during the South Sea Bubble, which might have been worth a look (Modern Who similarly fun-washed the reputation of public racist Charles Dickens in a cringeworthy fanboy episode).
John Logie-Baird has a important historical role as a television pioneer, as do many (see Wikipedia), and his mechanical system is not the forerunner of modern electronic screens (that would be a right-wing British-invented-television myth) which the episode requires.
The concept of television is the work of many individuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The unexplained Vlinx (robot, alien, alien-robot?) is the real hero for inventing the Zeedex inhibitor. The Doctor seems to think the Vlinx has an organic brain, since he asks if it is affected by the Giggle-Signal.
The Doctor acts as World Dictator (see 16:22) in authorising the strike against the South Korean satellite. Later (from 38:01) the Doctor peremptorially treats the Vlinx as a servant, slave even. Even it was a robot, so was K9, and the Doctor didn't treat it as a slave. So maybe more of the Modern Doctor's racism/speciesism/bigotry.
The Toymaker’s cod-Euro accents and obsession with rules marks is unmistakably a caricature of European Union bureaucracy, therefore this villain seems designed to please right-wing Brexiteers.
Donna’s lack of empathy for the bereaved Stookie family is characteristic but her violence seems particularly disproportionate to their limited threat, killing the children in front of their mother, who seemed to be a sentient lifeform, presumably capable of at least psychological pain (grief).
At least this episode had the potential to say something interesting about society, but it never materialised, along with other missed opportunities (like to say something interesting about gaming, often a bugbear with the right, despite its own right-wing cadres).
The Church on Ruby Road
One might suppose that JK Rowling's troubles with goblins might have been a lesson worth learning, but here Modern Who goes further, evoking gypsy curses, child abduction, possibly even blood libel territory. A traveller community living among us; a wainscot society whose discovery might be expected to be joyous, even if there are initial conflicts; but no, they must be mass-murdered by way of a Christian church steeple, which suggests they are infidels, pagans, non-Christians or just not High Church enough. Well, it wouldn't be the first time the Doctor was hauled before a court on a genocide charge.
In reality, it is organised religion and particularly hierarchical high churches that pose especial risk to children, something that, as another hierarchical organisation with form, the BBC should be all too aware of. But look, over there! Travelling folk! I mean, Goblins! This follows a standard right-wing pattern of denying actual abuse at home while projecting blame on others (or Others).
Petty human concerns and self-absorption fill this episode, when real humans might have other things on their mind than partying; this is a continual problem in setting Doctor Who in present-day Britain, it must to some extent ignore current affairs and make its characters appear more ignorant as a result.
Another urban setting. No (non-humanoid) animals? It’s actually quite difficult to find a children’s/family Christmas special that doesn’t have animals (often as subjects in their own right), so what’s going on here? The fate of non-human life on Earth is not an apparent concern. Nothing to gladden the heart of an environmentalist or brighten the eye of a budding biologist. Strangely for a Christmas special aimed at children, it is very much Nature-avoidant, and the only tree appears in drag, toppling towards Davina McCall.
Reviews in the right-wing press
If Doctor Who is now supposedly woke, why doesn't it cover the same issues as Al Murray's Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? That these areas are off-limits must be very pleasing to the reviewers in newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Here are a small but representative selection of their views.
Doctor Who review: Power-crazed aliens, cosmic cops... this show is back to its best, writes ROLAND WHITE for the Daily Mail ***** (five stars) for The Star Beast
Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder, review: a jaw-dropping injection of sheer Saturday night magic ***** (five stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who: The Giggle, review: David Tennant hands over to Ncuti Gatwa in unprecedented regeneration **** (four stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who review: All-swinging, all-dancing, this athletic new five-star Doctor has thankfully left the weary, wokey preaching behind, says Christopher Stevens for the Daily Mail, for The Church on Ruby Road
Ditzy, clumsy, error-prone, delulu or snarky women
From Donna spilling coffee into the TARDIS console to the succession of clumsy/incompetent women in the Christmas special, Doctor Who seems to have a problem with female characters. The somewhat clunky statement of female competence in the Giggle seems like a conscious attempt at bias correction. So while there were organic misogynistic tropes in the Specials, there were also signs of mechanical editorial correction.
It is pretty clear that Modern Who is especially antagonistic to non-human life, which is curious considering that many science fiction and fantasy shows make use of computer-generated graphics to give life to them, often joyously or poignantly so. But here there is an obvious hierarchy within humankind, with the current population of London being close to the top, while further off in space and time humans dwindle into comparative insignificance, though may at least be occasionally visible/mentioned.
Mere dislike of foreigners would be right-wing, but to repeatedly cast them as terrorists, mass-murderers, vaudeville artistes and baby-eaters and joy in their defeats and destruction pushes the dial firmly to the far-right. This brief analysis has uncovered other patterns of right-wing tropes, also reflecting strict and stable worldview hierarchies. Furthermore, ego-dominance ideologies, the self over the collective, are another repeated pattern.
Additionally, it is the silences, avoidances and exclusions that really seem to be welcomed by the right-wing press. With a fully-functional TARDIS, the Doctor could take companions on research trips through the history of the British Empire (and the rest of topics of interest to the likes of Horrible Histories) so the Modern Who idea of a party-taxi TARDIS seems almost obscene by comparison. Even the fantasy elements of Modern Who seem designed to poison the well of history (although to be fair, Classic Who and Transitional Who also produced their uncomfortable this-changes-everything storylines).
There is a lack of empathy pervading the series. I have previously suggested a fix for this.
Is the BBC trying to placate a wing of the ruling Conservative Party and its right-wing newspaper backers to protect its licence fee? Is this a trade-off so it can also broadcast more Establishment-critical shows (like Vigil)? Is there an element of elitism, Londocentrism and institutional racism in the BBC management? Or is it a case of the personal tastes and biases of a small clique of creatives? Is there a particular kind of groupthink within the BBC given its documented demographic overrepresentations? Who knows.