The 1917 Zone – Part 1: Tim Nice-But-Then and the Curse of Downton Abbey

The first in a new series of posts looking at the way Doctor Who has tackled World War One.

Looked at from a certain viewpoint, ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’ makes all the right noises.  All the proper sounds issue from it when it is tapped.  It notices social hypocrisy about war, perhaps even moralising about it.  For instance, while the young boys at the school are taught how to be good little soldiers, a veteran of the Crimean war is to be found begging outside the town hall.

There is also an acknowledgement that war is unpleasant.  The boys tremble and cry when forced to actually point weapons at an approaching enemy, with even the odious Hutchinson is seemingly relieved at the realization that they’ve been shooting at empty scarecrows.  Joan lost her husband at Spion Kop (a battle of the Second Boer War, which would’ve been a British victory but for the farcical incompetence of the British generals).  The Headmaster has his speech in which he describes using his dead mates as sandbags.

There is an attempt at balance, at the dramatic demonstration of values rather than the elaboration of a didactic authorial point-of-view.  Yet, the characters’ values are not allowed to go uninterrogated.  Irony is much used.  So the Headmaster rounds up his boys to fight, responds with angry self-righteousness to the taunting of Baines/Son, and so on… but also evinces sincere horror at the idea of allowing what he thinks of as a little girl to be caught in the crossfire.  Of course, there’s another irony there because he’s prepared for male children to be sent into the line of fire.  Females, especially working class females, are to keep silent (presumably unless cheering you on your way to the carnage).

There’s an awareness of open sexism and racism in the episodes, issues that other forays into the past – ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ for instance – have almost entirely ignored and effaced.  Baines and Hutchinson look down on Martha and Jenny and make their nasty little racist joke.  John Smith assumes that Martha’s talk of aliens is a case of “cultural misunderstanding”; a primitive failing to comprehend the difference between fiction and reality.  Joan scoffs at the idea of a black maid training to be a doctor, apparently finding this concept even more immediately and self-evidently ridiculous than time travel or aliens.

The Class Struggle in Trumpton

There’s quite a common fad nowadays in TV drama, perhaps best exemplified by Mad Men: setting a story in a past era allows lots of implied sneering at crass, blatant, old-style sexism, racism, etc… all underwritten by a kind of tacit, back-slapping awareness of how much better we are than the people back then, now that we’re all enlightened liberals, cured of such silly shibboleths.  In ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’ there is at least an awareness of class as a factor, though ‘classism’ is depicted as just another category of prejudice alongside racism and sexism.…

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