Liberty in Space

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From the October 2011 issue of Panic Moon.  Very slightly edited and revised.  This piece really only scratches the surface of its topic.  Please think of it as a 'place-holder' for something longer that I haven't written yet.


"In the end, the liberals always do what the empire wants."
- Christopher Hitchens (I got the quote via this.)

No story better demonstrates the ambivalence of Doctor Who’s liberal ethos than 'Colony in Space'.  It's an anti-corporate eco-parable.  Industrial technology has destroyed Earth’s environment and so the industrialists want to get their claws into other planets.  IMC even fit claws to their mining robots.  They lie, bully and kill for profit.  Interplanetary law seems to favour such corporations, even without Time Lord supervillains impersonating Adjudicators.  Big business is thus depicted as legal gangsterism.  Strong stuff for Saturday tea-time, as you’d expect from Malcolm Hulke.

"Here comes another one looking for a lost droid...
he'll feel the edge of my gaffi-stick and no mistake!"
Thing is, 'Colony' is also a sci-fi reiteration of the frontier Western genre.  Poor settler townsfolk versus unscrupulous railroad men.  And, like most such tales, it ignores the injustice suffered by the ‘Indians’, ie the Uxariean natives.  They may be innocent of Norton’s slurs, but their depiction mostly follows standard stereotypes: they’re inscrutable, sullen, silent, changeable, likely to attack and/or sacrifice you if the mood strikes them.

It’s not entirely straightforward.  The Guardian, the one Uxareian who speaks, displays a kind of humane wisdom. However, that’s because he’s the last ‘advanced’ Uxariean.  The rest of his people turn out to be the descendants of his ruined high-tech civilisation.  Still, this renders the humans’ dismissive term “primitives” rather ironic.  It also chimes with the backstory about an Earth devastated by technology: the "primitives” may be a glimpse of the future of Earth’s population.

All the same, the story ignores the issue that the humans – colonists or miners – threaten the aboriginal people with displacement.  Ashe and Winton fulminate about their rights against the encroachment of IMC, yet fail to notice that they are themselves encroaching on the land and rights of the natives.  Nobody questions that one or other group of humans has a right to appropriate Uxarieus.  Even the Doctor blithely says that any hostile alien life on the planet can be hunted and destroyed (how very eco-unfriendly of him!) and advocates human colonisation as an escape from lives “like battery hens”.  Meanwhile, not even the Guardian gets to speak about his people’s rights.

Hulke, a one-time Communist whose Doctor Who stories exemplify (ironically enough) the show’s liberal outlook, had previously explored the theme of ‘humans as newcomers’ in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', but there the situation is depicted as an ethical minefield: Silurian prior claims versus human squatters’ rights.  Both sides experience each other as immigrants and both are, in a sense, right.  In 'Colony in Space', however, the humans are just alien invaders.  This point is never addressed. Indeed, the Doctor supports the colonists on liberal grounds. In a story so otherwise sceptical about ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’, this is a serious stumble.

How do we account for such a blind spot?  The truth is that liberalism itself has frequently been pro-colonialist.  John Stuart Mill thought that “barbarians” should be ruled for their own good.  Alexis de Tocqueville approved of the French conquest of Algeria and British rule in India.  Bertrand Russell defended “the process by which the American continent has been acquired for European civilization”.  There’s plenty more where all that came from.  ‘Settler-colonial’ states always tended to use some combination of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and extermination against the people already there.  Liberals have often (usually, even) been found defending such measures, or at least their outcomes, in the name of the progress of civilisation.

One wonders how much room there will be for the “primitives” once Winton’s colony thrives and spreads.  Maybe, after a few million years, Uxareius will be renamed New Earth (which was portrayed as a neo-America built by refugees).  Why then didn’t we see any Uxareians in ‘Gridlock’?  Probably because the few that survived the progress of civilisation ended up crowded into reservations or some equivalent of the Gaza Strip.  Like battery hens.

Comments

John 4 years, 5 months ago

Strangely enough, the colonists all strangely 'disappeared' a week after the Doctor left, and Uxareius soon fell under IMC control. As for the 'primitives', IMC spokesman Dent coolly remarked, "What primitives?"

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