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Bookmark and Share The "political agenda" of Doctor Who

2/15/2010 11:55:00 pm - Reported by Chuck Foster

Doctor Who has often flirted with politics in its past; during the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks era of the show a number of stories dealt with political matters in a fantasy environment (for example, the recent DVD release The Curse of Peladon/The Monster of Peladon features stories that explored early 1970s issues), Robert Holmes took umbrage with taxes in The Sunmakers, and even stories from the 'modern' era (World War Three) touched upon hot political topics of the time. However, the latter years of the 1980s produced political satire in the form of stories like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol - something the Sunday Times explored this weekend in an article, "Doctor Who in war with Planet Maggie". Doctor of the time, Sylvester McCoy, commented:
The idea of bringing politics into Doctor Who was deliberate, but we had to do it very quietly and certainly didn’t shout about it. We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. At the time Doctor Who used satire to put political messages out there in the way they used to do in places like Czechoslovakia. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered. Those who wanted to see the messages saw them; others, including one producer, didn’t.
Andrew Cartmel, script editor of the time, commented on what he outlined to producer John Nathan Turner during his interview for the position:
My exact words were: "I’d like to overthrow the government." I was a young firebrand and I wanted to answer honestly. I was very angry about the social injustice in Britain under Thatcher and I’m delighted that came into the show.
However, a BBC spokesman was reported to say that "we’re baffled by these claims - the BBC’s impartiality rules applied just as strongly then as they do to programmes now."

The Times piece was briefly discussed during BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, alongside another popular media topic in highlighting current 'celebrity endorsement' of political parties (such as views by former Doctor David Tennant about the Conservative Party). Tonight's Newsnight on BBC2 saw a more lengthy debate on the pros and cons of political comment in Doctor Who between presenter Gavin Esler, Andrew Cartmel, and Doctor Who fan/former Conservative MP Tim Collins.

Cartmel clarified that the comment on overthrowing the government was taken out of context, and that John Nathan Turner then said that the most that Doctor Who could do is show that "people with purple skin and green skin are all equal". Collins was also quick to dismiss any intimation from the recent media interest that there was no 'secret' agenda that was hidden from the Conservatives - they were perfectly aware of the satire in the show at the time and quite happily enjoyed Doctor Who! He went on to point out that the show could be just as 'right-wing' as 'left', with the comment on tax from The Sunmakers a decade earlier targeting a Labour Government, and a mention of launching weapons in "45 seconds" from the recent revival (i.e. World War Three).

A feature accompanied the discussion, by correspondent Stephen Smith. It looked into how the BBC was being considered too "left-wing" in some quarters at the time, with comment from former BBC1 Controller Jonathan Powell; writer Adam Roberts also noted how science fiction in the UK in general had leanings in that direction. The item also included a comment by Terrance Dicks (considered ironic by Tim Collins in light of stories when he was script editor in the early 1970s!):
If you're concentrating on putting over a political message rather than on doing a really good show I think there is a danger - you know maybe you can do both, but it would be hellish difficult - and I think there's maybe a danger the show wouldn't be as good as it could or should be because you're not looking at the right aims.

Newsnight is available in the UK on the BBC iplayer for the next seven days and the story is available around the World on the Newsnight Website.