Could Barry Letts, Louis Marks and Terrance Dicks predict the future?
“It is agreed then. Join us and you can have a referendum on AV.”
Recently I was watching a rather excellent documentary on the DVD of Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol, which examined the many, none too subtle references to contemporary politics in various Doctor Who stories. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the planet Peladon’s divisive attempt to join the Galactic Federation is actually a comment on the UK’s entry to the Common Market. Or that the environment-trashing, brainwashing global corporation imaginatively named ‘Global Chemicals’ is one in a long line of protests against profit-driven multinationals. And somehow, until a couple of years ago, it seemed that few people had realised that the villain of The Happiness Patrol itself, the tyrannical dictator Helen A was actually a thinly veiled caricature of then current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Yes, Doctor Who has frequently ‘commented’ (usually from a fairly liberal, inclusive perspective) on contemporary politics. But it dawned on me recently, while watching the nifty ‘new’ version of 1972 story Day of the Daleks (now with added CG explosions) that this story achieves a rather peculiar feat in managing to satirise events that, for the writers, would be far in the future. For rewatching the story for the first time in years, it swiftly became abundantly clear that the nightmare future visited by the Doctor and Jo, while it purports to be Earth in the 22nd century, is actually the United Kingdom in 2012.
Before I elucidate on this unlikely assertion, here’s a brief summary of the plot for those unfamiliar with this classic. It’s your basic Terminator-style time paradox story, in which rebels from the dystopian, Dalek-dominated future are trying to change history so that the series of wars which allowed the Daleks to invade never occur. To do this, they must assassinate the man they believe to be responsible, a British diplomat called Reginald Styles who, they believe, started the wars by blowing up a global peace conference.
With World War 3 looming (as it did most weeks in early 70s Who), security arrangements for the conference have been put in the hands of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. This is a rather baffling decision given what happened when they were in charge of security at a peace conference the year before; that didn’t go well, resulting in the deaths of US and Chinese delegates and the theft of a nerve gas missile. Still, somehow this has escaped parliamentary scrutiny, and their involvement means that when time-travelling ghosts from the future try to assassinate the bloke in charge, naturally the Doctor, currently in his frilly-shirted, gentleman’s club incarnation, is summoned to investigate.
The Doctor is sceptical of the guerillas’ assertion that Styles is about to blow up his own peace conference, and rightly so. After both he and Jo, by convoluted means, travel to the Dalek-occupied future Earth, he realises that it’s a bomb planted by the guerillas themselves that killed all the delegates – in typical time paradox fashion, they actually caused the whole mess by trying to stop it happening. Fortunately, the Doctor is a Time Lord, and he can sort out the mess – but not before clobbering and shooting a surprising amount of people for a character who’s supposed to be opposed to violence.
So far, so standard-Who, you may be thinking. And yet, looking at the social conditions and power structures in this nightmare future, I found myself rubbing my eyes in astonishment and wondering at the remarkable precognitive powers of writer Louis Marks, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts. For clearly, this little science fiction story from 1972 was intended to be a savage satire of British politics in 2012.
Let’s start with the Daleks. They are, quite obviously, meant to represent the Conservatives. “Ah, that’s too easy,” you may say, “you’re just assigning them that role because you see the Conservatives as villains!” But no, let’s look at what they’re actually doing in this story. For a start, the populace of Earth is only valuable to them as an expendable workforce to obtain commodities. All right, they’re concerned with minerals rather then hedge fund derivatives, but hey, maybe the writer’s crystal ball wasn’t perfect…
More telling is their attitude to workers’ rights in order to achieve the production of these resources. We see underpaid (well, not paid at all – they must have got rid of the minimum wage), rag-clad workers toiling away in factories (well, concrete car parks meant to look like factories) under the relentless whips of security forces who clearly aren’t going to put up with industrial action.
Later, in a meeting with human ‘superior slave’ the Controller, their comments clearly indicate their feelings not just on workers’ rights but on healthcare. Protesting that an increase in production targets is impossible, the Controller declares “But that’s impossible! If we push the workers any further, they will die!” To which the Daleks, with the kind of remorseless logic favoured by the CBI, respond, “Only the weak will die. Inefficient workers slow down production.” And I bet they’re not allowed industrial tribunals either.
As if their philosophy on productivity at the expense of workers’ wellbeing wasn’t enough to cement them in the viewers’ minds as Cameron, Osborne and co, there’s the little matter of their security arrangements. Clearly, Skaro’s public spending in this area is too high, so Dalek security requirements have been privatised and outsourced to what’s plainly the lowest bidder – the incoherent and frankly inept Ogrons, a race of gorilla-like thugs for whom the word “complications” is too complicated to pronounce.
So OK, the Daleks here do seem to be a kind of extreme satire of the Conservative ideology generally. But what makes the story specifically about 2012, and the Tory-LibDem coalition? That’s where it gets interesting, with the denial-prone, conscience-stricken character of the Controller, a man who bows to the Daleks yet somehow thinks he’s wringing concessions from them. It’s now quite clear that he’s meant to be Nick Clegg.
Just like Clegg, he does dare to argue with the Cons- um, Daleks, and just like Clegg he backs down when it’s clear they’re not listening to a word he’s saying. Yet he’s somehow convinced himself that he’s a moderating force, and that the Daleks’ portrayal of the rebels as “cruel and ruthless fanatics” is accurate – perhaps in an earlier draft, they were also considered to be “terrorist paedophiles”.
Still, again like Clegg, he does do some good. He convinces the Daleks not to kill the Doctor, after all, and tries to persuade the recalcitrant Time Lord that he should help the regime rather than die. But the Doctor’s quite unconvinced that any good the Controller is doing justifies his culpability in doing his masters’ bidding. After all, it looks a bit dubious that he’s quaffing wine with them while the masses toil in starvation.
Trying to justify his role in the state of affairs, the Controller parrots the usual Conservative homilies, with a look in his eye that suggests he’s not even convincing himself (just like Clegg at a press conference). “There will always be people who need discipline, Doctor,” he states hollowly, before asserting that, “this planet has never been more efficiently, more economically run. People have never been happier or more prosperous.” For a denial of what’s actually going on outside his little bubble, that’s right up there with Danny Alexander insisting that George Osborne’s austerity policies aren’t affecting people’s quality of life.
Later, in the face of the Doctor’s contempt for him (“They tolerate you as long as you’re useful to them.”), the Controller gets defensive. By the time he blurts, “We have helped make things better for the others. We have gained concessions!”, I was half expecting him to follow it up by telling the Doctor that he’d raised the income tax threshold as if that somehow made up for all that nuclear armageddon.
So that’s the Tories and the Lib Dems represented. But where in this incisive political satire are the Labour Party? The obvious candidates to represent them are the guerillas, yet at first glance, that seems a bit unconvincing. OK, butch female strike leader Anat could conceivably be an analogue for deputy leader Harriet Harman, but who’s meant to be the charisma-free school prefect that is Ed Miliband? Surely not the guerillas’ leader, the thrillingly virile Man With the Porn Star Moustache?
And yet, if you look closer, the guerillas do share one defining factor with the Labour Party – as an Opposition, they’re completely crap. Not only do they expend a great deal of effort to try and kill the wrong man, most tellingly of all, they’re actually responsible for the whole nightmare situation themselves. Next time Miliband/Man With the Porn Star Moustache lays into the injustice of the ‘oppressors’, he might want to concede the role he played in putting them there – at least in Labour’s case, with a series of unjustified wars similar to the ones that began after the destruction of Styles’ press conference.
The only loose end that leaves is the Doctor himself – where does he stand in all this? The Doctor’s personal political leanings have always seemed a bit fluid, albeit generally biased towards acceptance, tolerance and fairness. Troughton, Tom Baker and McCoy have more than a hint of the anarchist about them, while Hartnell and particularly Pertwee (who hangs out in posh clubs with the likes of Lord ‘Tubby’ Rowlands) seem very much to be Establishment figures.
There’s a lovely scene in an old Paul Cornell novel in which both the ever-conservative Brigadier and a young anarchist both firmly assert that the Doctor represents their own values. The implication is clear – there can be good in any political leaning, and the Doctor embodies that.
It follows that, in Day of the Daleks, he saves the day precisely because he’s actually apolitical. He’s able to rise above the petty tribal bickering of the factions in Earth’s devastated future and consequently he’s the only one who can see how to untangle the whole convoluted mess. We could do with some thinking like that in the UK right now, rather than the knee jerk tribalism that causes every party to attack the policies of every other simply because they are Other instead of rationally analysing how worthwhile the proposals are.
So, it’s clear from all this that not only were Marks, Dicks and Letts remarkably prescient, they were also masters of political satire with a very clear message to send in this story. Who would ever have thought that what seems like a simple, clunky BBC sci fi show from the early 70s would actually be such a biting, angry satire about the future of the United Kingdom? Unless of course I’m reading slightly too much into it…