Tackling such inflammatory topics as immigration, radicalisation and Islamophobia, The Zygon Invasion / Inversion – a thrilling two-part adventure which kicks off tonight – promises to be one of Doctor Who’s most nakedly political stories ever.
When the Time Lord does politics, it’s normally with a small p, and painted with the broadest of brush strokes – to point out that, say, oppression is bad, freedom is good, etc. As a show, it’s less interested in politics than morality – though you could argue the two are more inextricably linked than some politicians would care to admit.
That said, there are still plenty of examples of Doctor Who daring to grasp the political nettle by engaging with real, contemporary issues – and none more so than in this little lot…
The Daleks (1963)
The second ever Doctor Who serial – and the one that turned the show into an overnight sensation – is a thinly-veiled allegory for Nazism, with a bunch of tinpot fascists intent on exterminating any species which dares to be different and, in later years, stepping up their campaign to become the universe’s master race.
In 1975, writer Terry Nation reimagined his creations’ origin story with even more explicit Nazi parallels: most of the action in Genesis of the Daleks takes place in a bunker, where a crippled, genocidal scientist called Davros is given to launching into Führer-style rants at his jackbooted henchmen. (Peter Miles, as the Himmler-like security chief Nyder, even sneaked an Iron Cross onto his tunic for some scenes, until the director told him to take it off).
You could also argue both stories were as much an allegory for the Cold War as the 1939-45 conflict, with Nation not shrinking from the devastating effects of a nuclear Holocaust on the population of Skaro.
The Curse of Peladon (1972)
The early 70s was a real purple patch for political allegory in Doctor Who. This was partly because Jon Pertwee’s Earth exile tended to involve lots of peace conferences and interfering “men from the ministry”, but also because producer Barry Letts – a committed Buddhist – wanted to do something meaningful on his watch. The Curse of Peladon – a rare intergalactic jaunt for the Third Doctor – concerned a conniving high priest who murders his political rivals in a bid to stop the titular planet joining the Galactic Federation. Broadcast at the height of the row over Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (which eventually happened the following year), it’s not hard to see where writer Brian Hayles got his inspiration (although the story doesn’t venture much of an opinion on the subject either way).
Ratings for the story were hit by a series of power cuts, which may explain why 1974 sequel The Monster of Peladon chose to depict an uprising among the planet’s miners, whose moderates and militants reflected the real-life rift in the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers. In fact, the production was almost too topical for its own good, as it ended up being made during endless blackouts and the three-day working week ordered by Edward Heath’s government as an energy-saving measure.
The Mutants (1972)
The concept for The Mutants – a mad marshal tries to scupper plans to give the exploited indigenous population of an Earth colony independence – started life as a conversation between Dave Martin and his biologist neighbour about the lifecycle of a butterfly. By the time the script was finished, it had evolved, according to Martin and co-writer Bob Baker, into “a kind of commentary on South Africa at the time” (the indigenous Mutts were originally called Munts – the Boer insult for black people – but this was changed for reasons that ought to be obvious) and “an allegory of the British India situation in 1947”, with an allusion to the Nazi gas chambers also thrown in for good measure. That’s a lot of political bang for your buck.
The Green Death (1973)
With its themes of pollution and environmental devastation, The Green Death – inspired by an article Barry Letts had read about the damage being wrought upon the Earth’s fragile eco-system – was an impressively forward-thinking piece of television, pre-dating even the formation of the British Green Party.
In the story, a company called Global Chemicals – no, honestly, I’m sure they’re lovely people really – is dumping pollutants down an abandoned Welsh coal mine, the charming side effects of which include giant maggots and insects, and certain death for the local population. (Clearly it was going to take more than planting a few trees to offset that little PR problem.) Assisting the Doctor and the boys from UNIT are the right-on members of the Wholeweal community – a self-sufficient commune known locally as “the Nuthutch”. Companion Jo Grant is so taken by one of their number, Professor Cliff Jones, she marries him, having been won over by his introductory chat-up line, “Shut the blasted door – you’ll contaminate my spores!”
The Sun Makers (1977)
Some take the view that this Tom Baker serial – in which the population of Pluto’s Megropolis One are literally being taxed to death by the merciless plutocrats of The Company – is one of Doctor Who’s great satires. But it’s a pretty blunt instrument, with concepts like the elite guardsmen of the ‘Inner Retinue’ and a chase down corridor P45 perhaps better suited to a sixth-form revue.
The script, by the great Robert Holmes, had apparently started life as a revolutionary, anti-colonialist polemic – until a whopping tax bill landed on the writer’s doormat. At heart, the story still feels like it’s trying to say something meaningful about workers’ rights, which just makes the whiff of Taxpayers’ Alliance-style bluster feel that bit more unfortunate. But I guess that’s what happens when you write television stories based on the contents of your morning post: let’s just be grateful Holmes didn’t have any overdue library books as well.
Depending on your point of view, Kinda is either Doctor Who’s most daring excursion into the realms of politics, philosophy, spirituality and sexual discovery – or it’s the really pretentious one with the massive pink rubber snake.
Heavily influenced by Ursula K le Guin’s 1976 novel The Word for World is Forest, Christopher Bailey’s script is something of a meditation on religion, sexual politics (significantly, only the women on the planet Deva Loka have voice) and the nature of wisdom and the subconscious – none of which presented the BBC with any obvious ideas for new action figures. On top of all that, Kinda offers a damning indictment of colonialism and British Empire-building, with former Hollywood leading man Richard Todd in fine form as the Blimpish leader of a pith-helmeted Earth survey team who make the mistake of treating the native population like ignorant savages.