Phil Sandifer and I have created another set of episode commentaries, this time for ‘The Three Doctors’. It’s a fun set of tracks, largely because about half way through I abandon any attempt to be serious and just start giggling and pissing about.
Doctor Who frequently did stories which critiqued capitalism to one degree or another. But there’s an interesting dialectical twist to this, which is that it usually cloaked such critiques in the aesthetics of (for want of a better term) ‘totalitarianism’.
It begins, arguably, with ‘The Macra Terror’… though so much of what that story does ‘first’ is actually just being done openly and consciously for the first time. Other examples include (most graphically) ‘The Sun Makers’, ‘Vengeance on Varos’, and ‘The Happiness Patrol’. I’d argue for a few others to go on the list, but these are the most obvious examples. ‘The Beast Below’ carried on the tradition, as did ‘Gridlock’ before it (albeit mutedly). Yet many of these stories have been subject to readings which interpret them as right-wing and/or libertarian attacks on aspects of socialism and/or statism (often assumed to be synonymous). I might even (overall) support such a reading in some cases. ‘The Beast Below’, for example, is a story which critiques aspects of the capitalist world, but which (to my mind) ends up supplying more alibis than indictments – partially through its use of totalitarian/statist tropes. I think the thing that leaves them open to such readings is their ‘totalitarian’ aesthetic. The (myopic, ideologically-distorted) view of socialism which sees it as inherently coercive and statist can grab hold of the aesthetically magnified symbols of statism which litter these stories.
I think this tendency to wrap critiques of capitalism in totalitarian aesthetics comes from the influence of the Nigel Kneale / Rudolph Cartier TV version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which starred Peter Cushing.
Stylistically, this production appears to have been deeply influential to the rising generation of programme-makers who would write and design Doctor Who in the 60s. The totalitarian affect pioneered visually in that production gets embedded in Doctor Who‘s internal semiotic repertoire as a stock way of expressing worries about social freedom.
This isn’t surprising at all, since the aesthetics of totalitarianism have proven a popular and enduring way of expressing such worries in the wider culture, as the proliferation of SF dystopias has shown. They’re now almost a basic, fallback position for YA books and films.
But we need to do more than just gesture to a particularly influential production. That’s not enough. It’s not an explanation. You can’t just say ‘this production here was influential’. That’s just begging the question. The real question is: why was it influential? What was it about it that made its aesthetics stick so hard?
I think the answer actually lies back in the book. Much of the horror of the book is the everyday horror of squalor – whether it be the squalor of coldness and dirt and forced ‘healthiness’, or the moral squalor of everyday ideological management. Orwell gets the former from his experiences of public school (which he wrote about elsewhere with loathing) and the latter from his experiences of working within the BBC. Even Newspeak is derived from work he did for the BBC World Service in India. …