A Spoilt Brat, and an Imperialist one at that – Challenging the Politics of Doctor Who

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I’ve made several comments on the emotional aspects of S5, as have many others. But, as I mull over some aspects of Cold Blood, I realise that some of the political messages are beginning to worry me, too. (Spoilers up to Cold Blood will follow)

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I used to be fairly impatient with people who sifted through DW for examples of racism, grumbling when characters from ethnic minorities were the first to get the chop or the Master provocatively dressed Martha’s family in servants’ uniforms. Since then I’ve gone back to college and hopefully developed slightly more awareness that these things matter. People say you shouldn’t over-analyse a children’s show, but you can’t deny there’s a subtext. And, leaving aside for the moment whatever thought-crimes RTD’s era might have committed, I’m not liking what I’m seeing. Particularly with regard to the way the Doctor behaves. 

Those who admire Matt Smith’s performance often cite his ability to convince the audience of his vast age. I wouldn’t have thought it was beyond the skill of a halfway-decent actor to come over as an old-Professor type in a tweed jacket, but is he really walking the talk? Is he behaving like someone very old, very wise, and very kind, who has seen everything and only wants to help?

No, IMHO he’s behaving like a spoilt brat – and an imperialist spoilt brat at that.

The Doctor is the self-styled Defender of the Earth, at least when he’s around to do it. (Children of Earth, anyone?) He loves the human race, sees no need to justify his preference other than the acknowledged fact that he’s taken a fancy to it, and privileges humanity over pretty much any other species. Having said that, he doesn’t seem awfully keen on helping humans to figure out how to defend themselves, preferring to sweep in and rap them on the knuckles when they foul up (a fault by no means confined to Eleven, of course). To be honest, he’s a bit ADHD where humans are concerned – Amy might be the one who nods off around the negotiating table, but he’d be pacing the room and looking for something more interesting to do long before she reached that point. That’s not a mindset generally associated with the wisdom of old age.

He’s very fond of telling people who did questionable things under pressure (Ambrose, to take the most recent example) that they need to raise their game. You can’t help wondering, sometimes, who was around to question his decisions at the end of the Time War and whether there could have been another way, but nobody’s going to go back and examine that, barring a massive retcon. Frankly, the way he’s behaved in recent episodes makes his moral authority pretty shaky. I’d rather like to see the Dream Lord show up and take us through the Silurian incident point-by-point. One thing he might well mention was whether it’s really responsible to wander away from the peace talks when he knows the background inside out with a cheerful, “Oh, you’ll be marvellous.”

Oh, but Ten did things like that all the time! Remember Harriet Jones? However, on several occasions he did offer to put himself out to resolve a dispute, to the point of giving an aggrieved species a lift in the TARDIS to some suitable planet where they could start over (I really wish we’d seen that on TV, particularly in the case of the Daleks). Eleven doesn’t even do that. I can think of at least two occasions (three if you count the ending of TBB) where the humans are behaving pretty shabbily but he honours their claim without any sign that counter-arguments will be tolerated or expected. In TVOV all the invaders wanted was one city – admittedly rather a pretty one, but they might have been persuaded to compromise and move to some other watery location. In THE/CB he pretty much acknowledges that the Silurians have a stronger claim to Earth than the humans do. You get the feeling that hanging around to help the human race figure this out and learn to exist in a diverse universe is much less attractive to him than diving into the next trouble spot.

In fact, he’s behaving like the worst kind of teenager. Arrogant, thoughtless, reckless, when he really ought to know better. I say the worst kind of teenager because my house is full of young people a lot of the time and they show a level of political awareness and responsibility that puts their elders to shame at times – they turned out in their thousands to vote in the last British General Election, a development which left their more cynical elders floundering to fit them all in before the polls closed. Never mind very old and very wise, I’ve known fifteen year olds with more maturity. 

Maybe this is all of a piece with the God-complex that Ten acquired after TWOM – Eleven is a bad-un, the Valeyard, call it what you will. That would be fun, but we’re hardly being prepared for it. You don’t need to hold the plot up for ten minutes to interrogate the Doctor’s assumptions and behaviour. Joan Redfern did it in one devastating question – “But tell me, Doctor, if you hadn’t chosen to come to this place, would all those people have died?”

It’s a good question. If the Doctor doesn’t exactly seek out flashpoints between species, he seems to get off on them once he’s found one, dragging his vulnerable human companions with him. I’m not saying the Doctor should be perfect, since it’s his faults that make him a compelling character, but isn’t he old enough yet to recognise where his interfering can lead? I’m seeing even less moral authority in Eleven than I did in Ten – he at least had the grace to look gutted when Joan (and for that matter, Davros) put him on the spot. And he respected the people who weren’t afraid to take him on – Donna, for instance, and to some extent Jack. It would be nice to think that revisiting his decision to kill off his own people had sobered him somewhat, made him think about the true nature of heroism and whether it should include wisdom, moral authority and self-knowledge. But no, this character seems to be even worse than the Tenth Doctor sniggering with Rose behind their hands at Queen Victoria. Hasn’t anybody noticed that, or are we all too busy dissing David Tennant and RTD to notice it?

If the Eleventh Doctor is the kind of hero we want our kids to emulate – shallow, impetuous and irresponsible, secure in his utter confidence that he has the right to play God and punish the races he happens not to like, regardless of their rights to self-determination, then may Rassilon help us all. And, morality apart, how much more interesting the show would be for us grown-ups (anybody over 10, that is, since in England at least we think that’s the age of criminal responsibility) if there was someone in the TARDIS to challenge the Doctor’s behaviour over something more serious than his inability to get to Rio. Nasreen, for example (and how refreshing it would be to see the most significant Muslim character in New Who so far in that role, which she’s more than capable of assuming). Or Rory, the Everyman-Jack figure of S5?

But we’ve all seen what happens to him…

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21 thoughts on “A Spoilt Brat, and an Imperialist one at that – Challenging the Politics of Doctor Who

  1. This is a really thought-provoking post…
    People say you shouldn’t over-analyse a children’s show, but you can’t deny there’s a subtext.
    I honestly have no idea whether Moffat is intentionally writing the Doctor to come across this way, or whether he’s just increasingly revealing that he (and his writers, to be fair, since I have no idea if he’s intervening as continually as Rusty did – and interestingly I seem to remember from TWT that Chris Chibnall, along with Moffat, was one of the very few writers whom contractually RTD didn’t rewrite) can’t consistently write character with depth and nuance.
    From an adult POV, the Doctor’s behaviour and pronouncements in the Silurian episodes were all over the place, and the moralising was ham-fisted and inconsistent. It went entirely over the head of my 7-year-old, as far as I could tell – though I’m not sure that’s a valid defence against moral carelessness in a children’s show, since I do think kids, like the rest of us, imbibe all sorts of messages unconsciously.
    I was so pleased with Rory’s re-emergence and the way his character was developing, I thought he was a really healthy addition to the TARDIS, so will be v cross if he’s gone for good. (And Nasreen as a companion – wouldn’t that have been great? Go Meera Syal!)

  2. Characterization is badly suffering this season – and I was uncomfortable with several aspects of the eleventh Doctor as written and performed this story too. Steven Moffat once described the Doctor as ‘a bit of a git, really’ (or similar); I don’t think he is, or should be.

  3. Given that I’m full of pain medication right now, I hope this comes out some what coherent.
    I agree that 11 is like a petulant child foaming at the mouth, crazy off his arse with ADHD, but then I thought, hold on, he’s a new incarnation, he has to establish himself as a different persona, especially given everything Ten went through with Rose, and the fact that Moffat has made it perfectly clear that he’s moved on from the RTD era.
    But at the end of the day, I’m not moved. I don’t care about his bumbling, or how many times he checks his fake Rolex, I dont even care that he has a brand new TARDIS with a shiny new sonic screwwhatever the heck that thing is.
    I’m not convinced that he’s the Doctor. I’ve not been captured and sucked in. Ratings come from bums on seats, and bums on seats come when the audience actually wants to sit down and watch a thriller. Is Eleven an enigma, or simply a lost little boy way out of his depth? One minute he’s hopping about, wanting to poke at stuff with sticks, and the next, he’s scowling at some cracked ‘version’ of himself for snide remarks about liking them young. If he doesn’t know if he’s Arthur or Martha, how am I suppost to decide?
    People say oh, you’re just a happy Ten/Rose shipper in your little bubble of denial, why cant you just be happy for the new guy. I’m trying, even sat through a WHOLE epidose, but still found myself saying WTF.
    Amy’s reliance on him is starting to wear thin on me. It seems to be all about what he can do for her, not what she can do for him. What ever happened to give and take, the Doctor takes a companion, he/she gives food for thought. I’m still trying to weed out the plot from Moffats apparent vision of Utopia.
    At the end of the day, TEoT gave the Doctor, not Nine, not Ten or Eleven, but the Doctor, each and every part of the man, the chance for a new beginning. He beat the demons of his past, and though it’s always going to be a sore spot, it was more than a clean slate for him, hell, he had his mothers blessing. Eleven, is not using this to his advantage. He should be out there living it up like there’s no tomorrow.
    Ten had a bit of everything, he was well rounded, if a little rough around the edges. Eleven, he’s so one dimensional it’s not even funny.

  4. Yes.
    ‘s whole post makes so much sense, and this has me nodding emphatically and saying that yes, THIS is why I haven’t been able to accept Eleven as the Doctor.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. I didn’t use big fancy words, but the sentiment’s still the same! I think the lines between what we should, and what we actully want to believe are incredibly blurred!
    Whether it’s Matt Smith or Moffat, they’re just not cutting it.

  6. Very interesting criticism in both posts, this one and the previous one. I’ve been completely muddled in work, but I look forward to comment further soon (I do agree with you in many of the issues you raise)

  7. I agree with you completely here (and for that matter). Since the show began I’ve been wondering, is it just me and I’ve been told yes, you’re stuck in your Tennant fangirl bubble and Ten/Rose shippy bubble. But I’m not.
    I would say I’ve given the show a fair chance, at the moment I am intrigued over where this is all going to lead in the next four weeks, but I’m only interested because Moffat, if not anything else, has pulled a good story arch out to follow.
    But his characters aren’t engaging, and they don’t speak to me like RTD’s Who characters did. I might not have liked Martha, but still I understood her position and therefore, she became watchable. Moffat’s characters, not so, and is again right, Eleven comes across as the worse sort of teenager, and don’t even get me started on Amy – she might as well have stamped her foot about Rio in THE.
    I think also, I’ve gotten used to having someone who stands up to the Doctor – Donna was excellent at that and wasn’t scared to put him in his place as far as she was concerned. Jackie did a damn good job of it as well, and Rory was making excellent headway in TVOV but he got squished.
    I have to say, since this series has aired, I’ve finally understood why people watch it and then bitch about it after – I’m waiting for it to get good. I’ve been watching for the past nine weeks, and character wise, I’m lost.
    .

  8. This is an excellent and thoughtful post. While I do sometimes see the old man in Eleven, I see the rash youngster just as often. You put your finger on some of the reasons why I don’t quite connect to this season as I usually did with RTD’s work, even though I continue to enjoy the episodes.
    I’m seeing even less moral authority in Eleven than I did in Ten – he at least had the grace to look gutted when Joan (and for that matter, Davros) put him on the spot. And he respected the people who weren’t afraid to take him on
    Yep! I had hoped that regeneration would be a chance for the Doctor to start over with a little less of Ten’s hubris, but Eleven seems to have carried over most of Ten’s flaws and added some of his own. He asked Amy to trust him even – or especially – when he lies to her, but I find that I don’t trust Eleven. He lies; he breaks promises and then doesn’t seem to care; he generally behaves as a jackass to everybody, especially to Rory, the person this season who’s done the most to challenge him about things that matter. Amy gives him a lot of lip, but it’s most often about small and self-interested issues: not being in Rio, wanting a planet instead of a space-museum, etc. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a time since TBB that she’s significantly challenged him on a moral issue (there are probably other examples, but the fact that they aren’t memorable says something).
    The Doctor needs someone to stop him. That’s a fact whatever the incarnation. Ten forgot that toward the end of his existence, with disastrous results. Eleven has realized that he needs somebody around, but he doesn’t seem to get quite why. Unless Amy starts exhibiting much more maturity than we’ve typically seen from her, he’s going to keep getting more arrogant, more impetuous, more childish, and less worthy of our trust.

  9. One of the things I liked about Matt straight off was that he does seem able to do “thirty going on ninety” quite well. Having said that though, I do feel it’s all on the surface – as you say, he ‘acts’ old, but doesn’t convince.
    Is Eleven’s more “hands off” approach meant to indicate a move AWAY from Ten’s hubris? Although again, I agree, in that it’s coming across more like he doesn’t care.
    But no, this character seems to be even worse than the Tenth Doctor sniggering with Rose behind their hands at Queen Victoria. Hasn’t anybody noticed that, or are we all too busy dissing David Tennant and RTD to notice it?
    I think there’s definitely an element of that, yes.
    I’ve been confused at a number of the Doctor’s actions and reactions this series. He actually thinks the Daleks will agree NOT to blow up the Earth if he lets them go? He doesn’t try harder to get the fish-people in Venice to let him find somewhere else for them to live? Seriously, is this the same guy who was prepared to help a new species of Dalek find a new home? (I can’t believe I’m referencing Evolution of the Daleks, but it was on telly over the weekend!) The guy who loves humans – but doesn’t realise that they’re probably not ready to confront the prospect of sharing the earth with a race of lizard-people? And who leaves the negotiations to someone he’s just met (who admittedly, was awesome) and a spoiled brat after a little pep-talk?
    I know that there were times when Ten’s moral compass was far from perfect. But you usually got a sense of the reasoning behind whatever he did – and you also got to see how it tore him apart when he had to make questionable decisions (in Pompeii for example).
    I’d better stop before I start banging my head on the table.

  10. I see the old man in Eleven, and I think Matt is marvelously managing to show it while being the youngest Doctor yet. However, I think you are making a mistake here: old does not necessarily mean wise, not all of the time. Alan Greenspan hasn’t been young for a long time, yet he still believe his economic policies were right, even though the US and the world suffered for it. The Doctor has been irresponsible for a long time; maybe during his whole existance, and this has been questioned in both RTD and SM eras. (Rory did question him during Vampires, and the Doctor did seem to be hit by his words)
    “I can think of at least two occasions (three if you count the ending of TBB) where the humans are behaving pretty shabbily but he honours their claim without any sign that counter-arguments will be tolerated or expected.”
    In TBB, he does feel so much shame about what he was going to do he says he would have to look for a new name. You couldn’t look for a harsher counter-argument than the one he must have been making himself if he felt he couldn’t be called the Doctor anymore.
    What about the Family of Blood? They only wanted to survive, but the punishments they were submitted to were the most vicious ones we’ve seen so far, the Doctor was never more frightening. The fact is the Doctor is not exactly the kindest hero of all; he’s a character very capable of ruthlessness, and this is pretty consistent throughout all of the incarnations I’ve seen.

  11. In fact, when Amy said the Doctor was “very very kind”, she was being naive. He may be heroic and fair, but kindness has never been a strength.

  12. FoB is one of those questionable moments, yes, because, as I’ve argued elsewhere this is the Doctor exacting personal retribution, which isn’t something we see him do very often.
    ETA – Sorry, this bit of my comment disappeared!
    In your other comment you talk about it being obvious as to why the Doctor couldn’t take sides. I don’t disagee with you, but my point was that he’s (almost) always taken sides before, so what was so different about this time? And look what he left in his place.

    I’m getting my comment replies mixed up. I’ll take this where it belongs!

  13. Concerning the Family, yes that upset me at the time but it was possible to see a consistent through-narrative – the hardening of his hearts after he lost Rose and the danger of him lacking a moral compass. All that was built up consistently, even through the less well-written episodes, throughout S3. It’s good drama where, even if a character’s behaviour comes as a nasty shock, you can look back over his story and think, “Yes, that fits. Hadn’t thought of it like that before.”
    Two things I look for in a character’s story are consistency and development. I want him to meet people who point out his flaws and give him the opportunity to change them, even if he turns it down. We aren’t seeing that in Eleven. Every episode seems to start over from a different place. When more care is being lavished on the crack in time than on the Doctor’s character, it doesn’t feel quite right.

  14. I used to agree with you in asking for consistency in a character. However, I partially changed my mind on this after having read The Writer’s tale. At some point RTD said something along the lines that a character shouldn’t behave always the same way; the consistency should sometimes be broken, because that’s the way real people act, and that’s what makes characters rich. Do you remember it? I don’t have my copy here in the office, but I can look it up when I get back home.
    I do agree with you in the current series lacking a moral compass; however, there wasn’t any of it in The Family of Blood: nobody, not even Martha, did anything to try convince the Doctor what he had done was wrong. One may assume it was wrong because of one’s own conscience, but there was nothing in the story that raised any questions.
    Going back to series 5, so far Amy’s a very flawed person and I don’t see her providing a moral compass. However, I do have hopes she will grow as a character; Rory’s death must provide a lesson for her in the future; it’s too much of a shock to go without any consequences. And I also agree with you in that this series hasn’t devoted as much time as the previous ones to characterization.

  15. Joan was the moral compass in FoB. And I wonder if part of his viciousness towards the Family was subconsciously directed at her, because she absolutely nailed him, with incredible accuracy, given how limited her experience of him was at the time. By punishing them, he could delude himself that the deaths had not been his own fault.

  16. Well, actually, she resented him for bringing death and disaster to the school (“if you had never visited us, would anyone here have died?”), not the punishment and torture he submitted the Family to.
    Though it may be implied when she tells him “You chose to change, he chose to die”. I would have to assume Ten told her of the punishments. It doesn’t sound likely, considering how hesitant to discuss that kind of affairs Ten was, but it does provide a moral compass nevertheless. That line is so subtle and so good, with many different layers of significance. What a great two-parter that was, very possibly the best storyline on any of the series so far.

  17. No, I don’t think he would have discussed that with her. I think that not only was the Doctor angry with the Family, he was also angry with Joan for hitting the nail on the head so completely about him – we often react defensively/destructively if someone uncovers an unpalatale truth about us – and he was angry with himself for having been the cause of so much destruction. His punishments were therefore – as I’ve argued – much more personal than anything else we’d seen and I think that Ten would have hated himself for that, too.

  18. Characters don’t always have to behave in the same way, it’s true, but when the characterisation is good, we are able to find a reason for behaviour which might, on first glance, seem ‘out of character’.

  19. No, I wasn’t suggesting Joan had any direct knowledge of what he did to the Family or influence over it, but I think that very painful and revealing interview he had when they parted might have influenced his overall state of mind.
    I’ve always found the remark that he hid from the Family because he was being kind rather chilling – though of course it’s said from SoM’s point of view.

  20. Yes it was, the notion of the Doctor being kind by trying to avoid torture and punishment is deeply unsettling. However, even though I haven’t seen most of the old series, I think this was not a new aspect of the Doctor’s personality; I believe other Doctors in the past have been very cruel too. You could also say Nine’s hatred of the Daleks was borderline irrational and disturbing.

  21. Now, you have hit on another subject close to my heart. It’s been close to it since JE as you know. I think that was the turning point of the Doctor simply giving up a more reasoned and responsible life and then we just go on with him wallowing in how hard it is to be our Lonely God.
    He’s stopped wallowing, now. But in place of that we have immaturity to the point where he’s not even aware of emotional depth as something you might want to have. And that is what he’s teaching the kids who are still fans. Probably this lack is because Moff isn’t aware of how to show emotional depth, but it could also be because he finds emo annoying. Rose checked the Doctor’s ego in a few places, insisting he be a better man. And Donna did the same, because RTD was adamant about the idea that the Doctor needed a companion to keep him…humane.
    Moff is just as adamant that the Doctor doesn’t need anyone and nobody better get in his way or they will regret it. I’m sure they will…but only because Moff will write the show that way.
    The problem with taking the show back to the old days is we have now had a look at the Doctor’s vulnerable underbelly. We can’t just forget about that. I suppose we could. I suppose we could look at each regeneration as a separate man…as RTD tried to convince us just before he left. I do feel that this Doctor is a bit of a blowhard…not very frightening or compelling when it comes right down to it. Is his “I’m in charge here” attitude Imperialistic or simply childish foot stamping? Are we suppose to respect the title or the history…give him props because he’s a Time Lord? I am afraid he seldom convinces me of his wisdom or age. Matt is okay…not horrible…I think he needs a lot more direction. What he lacks is the ability to add any sort of gravitas to his lines. He simply comes across as a brighter than average teenager being ordered around by that bossy girl at the playground.
    Rae

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