Since human beings could learn to write, satirists, playwrights, and writers (especially those in science fiction and fantasy) have written about the human condition, often in fictional works that depict moral parables and themes. Examples such as Gulliver’s Travels, Les Miserable, Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, Pinocchio, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the Harry Potter series illustrate how writers express their views on humanity through the camouflage of fictional storytelling.
As technology made it possible, noted movie and television creative influences like Rod Serling, Fritz Lang, Genes Roddenberry and Coon, Steven Spielberg, and a host of others used the new visual art medium to convey what is good and bad about the human condition. Indeed people who have watched the best episodes of the Twilight Zone, Star Trek (all the series,) and The Outer Limits were drawn to the episodes that made them think and reflect on what humanity is like and its potential for both good and bad. Likewise, the silver screen with classics like Metropolis, The Bride of Frankenstein, Planet of the Apes (the original), ET, and The Twelve Monkey’s have had a lasting impact on the moral lessons they have taught since their theatrical release.
One noted science fiction and fantasy television show that, like the ones mentioned above, has historically tackled social issues since its creation in 1963 has come under renewed scrutiny by reactionaries who take issue with the show’s progressive direction in casting and story selection. That show is the BBC sensation Doctor Who.
A science fiction and fantasy show, which showcases a mysterious time traveler known only as the Doctor (played by 17 men in television, movie, and theatrical versions from 1963 to 2017) traveling in his time machine (known as the Tardis) that looks like an old London Police Box, Doctor Who has entertained viewers around the world off and on since 1963. During its off and on run where the title character (who can change his appearance when he is close to death) and his ever-changing companions battled foes like the Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, the Master, and the Weeping Angels, it has dealt with current event issues (please see youtube video link) such as the dangers of technology, cybernetics, pollution, extreme taxation, war, corporatism, fascism, racism, sexism, and unethical scientific methods.
The show gained a following in Arizona and the rest of the United States in the late 1970s’ and early 1980’s when local Public Broadcasting Stations across the country showcased the episodes that starred Tom Baker in the title role. After being canceled by the BBC in 1989 and an attempt by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to bring the show to United States television failed in 1996, the BBC resurrected the franchise in 2005 and it has enjoyed a tremendous following over the last 13 years. The episodes featuring David Tennant and Matt Smith cultivated a significant fan base during this period.
The new showrunners (headed by Chris Chibnall) of Doctor Who made monumental changes to bring the show further forward in 2017 after the retirements of the underrated Peter Capaldi from the title role and acclaimed writer Steven Moffatt from the lead showrunner.
The most momentous change was the casting of the first lady, Jodie Whittaker, to play the title role in the shows 55-year history. Furthermore, the new showrunners cast a multicultural crew of companions including one elderly white man, an African, and a Pakistani. Finally, instead of stories that brought back classical monsters from the series, the show during this current season, has focused on issues that deal with racism and nativism by broadcasting shows on the influence of Rosa Parks and the consequences of partitioning India into two countries (India and Pakistan) in 1947. There has been an episode that has showcased a Donald Trump type character that was guilty of environmental pollution that resulted in the mutation of spiders into giants and one that poked at Amazon and the dangers of automation at the expense of human labor.
These changes have earned the condemnation of some reactionary elements in the United Kingdom and the United States (some of whom you may find in pro-Brexit and Trump rallies) who do not approve of the:
- The role of the Doctor going to a woman.
- The multicultural composition of the companion crew.
- The emphasis of nonwhite episodes in history that show the folly of white actions and behavior.
While Doctor Who in its classical era (1963 to 1989) had come under criticism for some of its more violent episodes and for “cheesy” special effects, this is the first time issues have been voiced by people who claim that Doctor Who is attempting to be “politically correct” and play identity politics.
When questioned about this, the current Doctor, Ms. Whittaker, relayed to the periodical The Evening Standard, “What’s the point of making a show if it doesn’t reflect society today? We have the opportunity with this show like no other to dip to future, to past, to present, to new worlds and time zones. There is never going to be a drought in the stories you can tell. It’s always topical. [Showrunner] Chris [Chibnall] is a very present-minded person, who is very aware of the world he lives in and is passionate about storytelling. It would be wrong of him to not have used the past. He does it in a really beautiful way.”
For literary and theatrical products to have influence and resonate on society, they need to be relevant and based on today’s societal reality. The people behind Science Fiction and Fantasy shows that have been on the screen as long as Doctor Who like Star Trek (and as a friend reminded me, the reimagined Battlestar Gallactica) have figured that out. The original Star Trek series was very chauvinistic in its depiction of the roles of women (and what they dressed in.) That disappeared in future shows in the franchise like the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. No one objected to these adjustments with the times.
Doctor Who is doing no more than what Star Trek did. By casting a female lead, having a multicultural team of companions (admittingly Star Trek was ahead of all shows in that area) and stories that touch upon current issues and how historical events influenced contemporary society, it is recapturing its cultural influence and its ability to resonate with society. Those individuals or groups that fear these forward moves exhibit the same reactionary mindset that prefers chauvinism and a Eurocentric-American predominance in the telling of the global human experience. It is a backward way of viewing society and these people should be encouraged with others to adopt the forward-looking approach the current Doctor Who team has in how they view science fiction and other aspects of society.