Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who series 10 episodes 1-5.
Sci-fi is often a testing ground for our fears. We take something that scares us, dress it up in a tentacled bug suit, and write a comforting story about how we defeated it. (Sometimes we write stories about how it defeated us, but those don’t tend to sell as well.)
From the very start of the genre, writers have shaped monsters from the stuff of their anxiety—hubristic scientific advance or disease or enemies from this war or that—and designed scenarios in which, through pluck, luck and brains, we send them packing or squash them flat. Nuclear war, AIDS, terrorism? Bug suit. Story. Defeat.
Like any good sci-fi show, Doctor Who is full of fear and anxiety. It’s dressed up our worries in more costumes than that shopkeeper dressed up Mr Benn. Crinkly bubble wrap suits and cute, tiny snaggle-tooth suits and one made from—I don’t think I dreamed this—Liquorice Allsorts. It has Nazis in the form of over-chewed, spat-out lumps of original flavour Hubba Bubba driving individual tanks, a Toyah-haired Thatcher stand-in, and nuclear testing jitters wearing prehistoric reptilian pointy headed fish faces.
It also has the Doctor. He’s our guide to the show’s assortment of stuff we’re anxious about. Through bargaining and stern tellings-off, he stops the monsters in their tracks. In a real pinch, he’ll resort to a bit of genocide, but he’s not happy about it. For the most part, one clever idea and one brilliant speech does the trick.
The Doctor has had a couple of brilliant speeches already this series. He’s also, as you’d expect, stopped a fair few monsters. Pearl Mackie’s excellent new companion Bill more or less took care of that clingy puddle in The Pilot by herself, but in Smile the Doctor blocked a flock of microbots from turning Ralf Little into Miracle-Gro; in Thin Ice, he freed the Thames of a child-eating sea serpent; in Knock Knock, he saved Bill’s housemates from living the rest of their lives as floorboards; and in Oxygen, he rescued four miners from certain doom at the automated hands of their killer spacesuits.
Sea serpents, alien woodlice and killer spacesuits though, aren’t the real threat in those episodes. They’re not, in the old sci-fi tradition, dressed up versions of our fears. They’re not what Doctor Who series ten is really scared of.
What Doctor Who series ten seems to be really scared of, is us. The humans. Specifically, humans who, because of selfishness or profit, don’t treat other people as such. Set against the Doctor’s centuries-honed morality and Bill’s instinctive compassion, the crime of this series’ villains so far is callous disregard for the value of, and refusal to take responsibility for, the lives of others. That’s the unabashedly political lesson the Doctor has been teaching in his tutorials this year: be careful of each other, be kind while there is still time.
Because time, in the world of Doctor Who is running out for Earth and for us. The digital book telling the story of human life on Earth that Bill happens upon in Smile showed civilisations growing and then destroying themselves. In other words: we maniacs blew it up, god damn us all to hell. At a certain point in our future, somewhere between the third industrial revolution and before the end of time, our war-wasted planet had to be evacuated and a flotilla of ships full of us—the Doctor’s favourite, optimistic species—set out across the universe to seek shelter.
“The end point of capitalism, the bottom line where human life has no value at all”
At another point in our future, capitalism came to an end, says the Doctor in Oxygen, followed by the human race making “a whole new mistake”.
It didn’t just fall, capitalism was pushed – by the Doctor. Bargaining with it on the only terms it would understand, he threatened to literally bankrupt a morally bankrupt company and saved the lives of the workers they’d planned to do away with for reasons of expediency. Next he took those workers to lodge a complaint at head office. A rebellion followed and after that, the whole dehumanising system came toppling down. Revolutionary work by the Doctor, you might say.
That’s not the half of it. For all his “I move on” morality, the Doctor behaves like a regular Marxist in Thin Ice when he redistributes the wealth of the capitalist class (mill owner Lord Sutcliffe, a man “for whom human beings are material, who grinds up children for profit” who even shares a serial killer’s name) to the disenfranchised poor (the mudlark urchins he’s been using to feed the chained beast that’s the source of his family’s riches).
“What makes you so sure that your life is worth so much more than those people out there on the ice?” The Doctor asks Sutcliffe, “Is it the money? The accident of birth that puts you inside a big, fancy house?” Then the Doctor proved his point about accidents by giving that big, fancy house to society’s poorest members.
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry, it’s measured by the value you place on a life, an unimportant life, a life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value.”
The thread continues. If compassionless capitalists, one example from the past, one from the future, were the villains of Thin Ice and Oxygen, Knock Knock made its baddie—what could currently be more apt?—a private landlord. David Suchet’s character was revealed to have had a tragic backstory, but he still willingly sacrificed his young tenants to shore up his own family’s survival. And that, after a neat montage critiquing inequality in today’s housing market in which Bill and her university friends are shown around a string of comically undersized, overpriced rental accommodation every last inch of which had been squeezed into multiple ‘bedrooms’ to maximise profit.
At the end of their unsuccessful property tour, Bill’s deflated friend Shireen asks, “What do other people do?” Bill’s wry answer? “Other people have money.” She makes another dry comment in Oxygen, after having the pay-for-the-air-you-breathe set up explained: “Great, I get fined for dying”. Between now-defunct ATOS work assessments and the spare bedroom tax, it’s barely satire.
Add to that Smile showing bones being ground into fertiliser by an unfeeling industrialised process unable to compute the scope of human experience (eat your heart out, Marx’s “vampire-like” capital) and series ten’s anti-capitalist, anti-corporate message is clear. Don’t worry about the monsters under your bed, says Doctor Who this series, worry about the ones in the boardroom.
“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.”
You can see why anxiety about our future might have manifested in the present series; it’s been an anxious few years. There have been mornings waking up to stomach-sinking decisions made en masse that have shaken our sense of solidarity with compatriots and world neighbours. Popular papers have preached intolerance and scorn towards the vulnerable, pantomiming benevolence only when it became, temporarily, a more profitable angle. Scrolling through timelines and scanning through headlines recently, it’s felt as though cruelty is winning out over compassion. Sometimes it feels as though it’s already won.
Not to put too fine a point on it, in recent years, life-rafts of humans attempting to escape their war-blasted home and children dying in the water haven’t just been plot points on Doctor Who.
“I’m maxxing out your adrenaline, fear keeps you fast, fast is good.”
It’s not all doom, gloom, mill-owning panto villains and being left only with the choice of dying well. There is a way forward according to the Doctor, and it involves taking responsibility. “You know what’s wrong with this universe?” he asks Nardole in Oxygen. “Everyone says it’s not their fault. Yes it is. It’s all your fault, so what are you going to do about it?”
It’s a similar question to the one he posed Bill just before he freed Willy in Thin Ice. “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what is your future worth?” Don’t accept complicity in a system built on suffering, is the Doctor’s lesson. Don’t be taken for a mug by corporations and governments that would sell you the air you breathe if they could get away with it. Value other lives. Answer distress calls. Take responsibility. And finally, complain to head office. Promise him you’ll be loud.