Doctor Who is the UK’s new West Wing – and that’s a good thing

The TARDIS from Doctor Who set against a blue background.
Chameleon Circuit by JD Hancock (CC-BY-2.0)

Doctor Who returned to our screens this Autumn, with Jodie Whittaker taking on the titular role; Mandeep Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh making up the rest of the TARDIS crew; and Chris Chibnall taking the helm as showrunner. The show has been bright, colourful and bombastic, with each hour-long episode often feeling movie-esque in its production and ambition.

One of the criticisms of the series that has failed to dissipate, however, is the charge that it is too “politically correct”. Why this label has been given by some to the series is unclear – perhaps it’s the discussion of themes like dyspraxia, race and gender; perhaps it’s the unsubtle tone that the show sometimes takes when it approaches these topics. Maybe for some people, any deviation from straight sci-fi is both noteworthy and negative. For us at Pol/Culture, we believe that everything is political in some way, and assertions that something is “too political” or “politically correct” is a sign either that the show is successfully pushing back against the status quo, or that its themes just don’t match the complainant’s own politics.

For me, Doctor Who’s more confident exploration of political and contentious questions presents a much more favourable comparison: that with the long-running late-90s/early-2000s US show The West Wing. Set in an imaginary White House, the show sees the President (played by Martin Sheen) and his staff try to fulfil their duties to the American public, with all of the pressure and constraints that entails. In the process, the show engages in a wealth of deep conversations on a multitude of topics, from race and gender discrimination to drug policy, climate change, religion, human rights, education and more. In doing so, the show created a space for ideas to be theoretically presented and debated in a way that was divorced from the politicians and current affairs of the time, allowing different views to be aired but not necessarily getting bogged down in the partisan or party political.

Now, don’t get me wrong: at no point does Doctor Who go to the level of intricacy and depth of The West Wing. Doctor Who is, after all, a family show about a time traveller in a blue box who meets aliens and pastiches of historical figures. But when this latest series does engage in political debates, it can do so with nuance and different perspectives. Many will look to the race debate in “Rosa,” the obvious Trump-like figure in “Arachnids in the UK,” the sectarianism of “Demons of the Punjab” and the focus on gender disparity in “The Witchfinders” as obvious points where the series dabbles in commentating in current political and social debates – sometimes more clumsily than at others. For me, however, the parallels with The West Wing crystallised in my mind in one episode in particular.

On the surface, “Kerblam!” is a tale of luddite terrorism pitted against an evil corporation, with a heady cocktail of creepy robots and Lee Mack thrown into the mix. Beneath this veneer, however, is a really fascinating debate about automation and the nature of work. While working in the dispatch department, the Doctor and Ryan speak to one of the employees, Kira, who says how thankful she is for having a job that hasn’t already been taken away by robots, as others in the organisation have. To this, Ryan rebuts that “some jobs” aren’t worth doing, as he knows from performing a similar monotonous role at a warehouse in Sheffield. This discussion – which permeates the rest of the episode – does not offer the good-v-evil tale that the main plot suggests, but something much more deliberative: faced with the choice between no jobs and automation, or bad jobs and quotas, which would humanity choose? And is that the best choice that we can hope for: starving due to a lack of jobs, or slaving away at poor quality work just to stay alive? It is a debate that provokes the viewer to ponder something better, and it does so by subtly laying out the arguments and not pushing too hard in any one direction. Though elsewhere in the series Doctor Who’s approach to such complex questions can be simplistic and clunky, in this episode the way work and automation are presented is genuinely thought-provoking and finessed.

Thus in “Kerblam!” in particular and in this series of Doctor Who in general, the show is providing a new arena in which political debates can take place, with multiple viewpoints assessed and respected, just as The West Wing did over ten years ago. This is something which is urgently required in Britain at this time. No matter your views on the issue, Brexit is undoubtedly taking up a lot of space both in terms of what the government is able to deliver currently and the national conversation more generally, with only the most high-profile and devastating news stories (such as the misery caused by the universal credit rollout), reaching the public’s ears. Therefore a space to discuss other important issues in a medium that people are already engaging with is extremely healthy for the country, as it allows us to no longer fixate on Brexit alone. In addition, the polarising nature of the 2016 referendum, the Brexit issue and politics in the UK more generally, means that it is currently difficult to discuss policy issues without them becoming proxy wars of remain/leave or political party allegiances. A medium which divorces political issues from our political parties, political figures and culture wars is much needed in our current political climate.

Doctor Who is not becoming more “politically correct”, but it is becoming more confident in opening up a debate. And, despite what critics might think, this can only be a good thing. Now more than ever, Britain needs to have a conversation about issues affecting people’s lives that isn’t poisoned by our current political climate. Although a complex, suit-wearing political drama like The West Wing would be a more straightforward medium, the simple, bright, colourful and bombastic Doctor Who is a great alternative.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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