So, contrary to those who feel it’s become ‘too PC’ (a misprision that is interesting by itself), Doctor Who these days looks increasingly like it is taking a reactionary turn – albeit one of a complex kind – as it seems to drift from being an “accidental critique of milquetoast liberalism” (as Kit Power put it) into an outright accomodation with the systems it has found itself unable to effectively struggle against. This makes Chibnall’s show, in its own way, a mirror to Moffat’s, which was also deeply concerned with the limits of resistance to systems.
This is a space for analysing the political attitude found in the content. But there is also reason to look at what the form tells us, what it assumes, what it permits, etc. As we’ve already talked about elsewhere, the form and content are actually inextricable.
Let’s take a detour into Brechtian ‘Epic Theatre’.
Brecht’s theatre doesn’t aim to ‘resolve’ political questions even when it is morally and politically clear because – at least in his mind, and one is free to disagree with him – its moral and political project is an invitation to the audience to contemplate profound contradictions and problems in society.
The problem with bourgeois theatre, for Brecht (and he sees Lukacs as doing the same thing) is that it is “afraid of production”, i.e. it hides it. Realist theatre (Ibsen, Strindberg, etc) tries to create an illusion of realism, an empathic connection with the characters, which not only smooths over social contradictions but also masks production itself. (Modern TV, which strives to look cinematic, arguably does this same thing far more than old-school TV, which was often more-or-less televised theatre.) Brecht dislikes this as a Marxist, and one with a particular emphasis on production as fundamental to social existence (an emphasis which I personally think is quite proper for a Marxist, but which is sadly lacking from much actual Marxism).
It is this masking of production which, perhaps more than anything else for Brecht, creates the bourgeois illusion of fixity which he aims to dispel. Epic Theatre concentrates on production both in terms of how people actually produce history and in terms of how theatre itself is produced. This coherence is, paradoxically, a key way in which it aims to reveal social contradictions.
The irony is that modern Doctor Who is arguably a lot less like Epic Theatre in this sense than most classic Who manages to be by accident! Classic Who is arguably far more concerned with political issues (re society and history) than New Who. But it also accidentally estranges the audience by highlighting its own processes of production, simply by virtue of its production values being so shoddy that it inadvertently showcases them!