The third episode of the new season of Doctor Who pissed off a lot of people. Though the episode throws more than a few sonic wrenches into Who history, people seemed mostly upset that Doctor Who had gone "political."
I'm not going to sit here and pretend that "Orphan 55" is my favorite episode of the series to date, or that it's even my favorite of this current season. I enjoyed it just fine, but who cares about that? Many fans did not enjoy it at all, with a wide swath becoming very upset indeed that a series that they go to for pure escapism, where a magical alien whisks humans away in a blue box for adventures in time and space, hammered in a message that directly addressed climate change.
The episode finds The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions spending some time on a dead and abandoned planet, only to find out toward the end that the planet in question is Earth. It's an Earth from an alternate dimension/timeline, and the Doctor ends the episode telling her fam that this may be the future for this particular Earth, but it doesn't have to be.
Actions can be taken. Solutions can be found. This is one moment in Who history where what happened to this alternate Earth does not have to be a fixed point. Humanity is making enormous mistakes, but it isn't too late to change. It rarely is when it comes to this show.
A lot of fans didn't like that. In fairness, many objected to the way the message was delivered, not the message itself. The Doctor's words, which do ring true (at least for me), come right at the end, are slammed in with a sledgehammer, and the episode is over. The notion of alternate dimensions flies in the face of some established Who history, though "Pete's World" (an alternate Earth dimension) established this concept as far back as Season 2 of the rebooted series.
Could the delivery of the message have been more, for lack of a better way to put it, elegant? Sure. Less blatant? Also sure. When dealing with this particular issue, however, maybe the time for elegance is over. There is nothing wrong with the message itself. Yes, this show features escapes and romps, but it is definitely science fiction. The very real statistics on climate change constitutes "science," so using that science, the episode follows everything to a theoretical, fictional endpoint. See almost every science fiction story about artificial intelligence, robots, space travel, etc. for more of the same.
The problem comes in that here in 2020 the science of climate change has gone way past being science. It has become politicized in the real world, and some fans don't want to be reminded of real-world politics while watching the madman (or madwoman) in the box. They'd rather go on a wacky adventure with Nikola Tesla or have some fun with dinosaurs on a spaceship. There's nothing wrong with that, aside from the problem that climate change is more of a political debate than a scientific given. Baffling, but here we are. That means that in dealing with that science, Doctor Who is dealing with serious political issues among its various romps.
This is not new.
The show has always been political. As is almost all science fiction. When you deal with the human condition, personal beliefs and values come into play, and so do the times in which you are living. Just going with televised sci-fi alone, see Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse, and every single Star Trek series for further examples. When Doctor Who works at its finest, it scares you a little bit. It makes you want to be better. It makes you want to get up and take action. That's one of the greatest powers that the series has, and it is something that I hope it never loses.
One of the finest episodes of Season 11 (the season prior to this one) was "Demons of the Punjab," which told a very political (and historical) story about the partition of India. Season 11 also featured the episode "Rosa" early on, with the Doctor and fam having to ensure the legacy of Rosa Parks from the actions of a time-traveling space racist. Was that episode not political? Bet your sweet jelly babies it was political.
Both of those entries are from when the relatively new Chibnall era of the series, but his predecessors in showrunning got political too. Season 10 featured Peter Capaldi's Doctor punching a racist in the face ("Thin Ice"), and it also featured 12 dealing with a limited air supply in space thanks to capitalism ("Oxygen"). Season 9? Well, Season 9's "The Zygon Inversion" gave Capaldi a glorious aria (one of many he was given in his run) on war and communication that is about as politically apt as you can possibly get.
Matt Smith's Doctor dealt with future humans mistreating a star whale in his second episode ("The Beast Below") and gets so mad that he screams, "Nobody human has anything to say to me today!" David Tennant's Doctor didn't like the political actions of Prime Minister Harriet Jones, so he takes her out of office by using a very small amount of words to create a political domino effect ("The Christmas Invasion").
Even in 2005, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor dealt with whether he (or anyone) has the right to sentence another being to death in "Boom Town," and that episode managed to get the political themes in while dealing with one of the farting Slitheen. No easy feat. You could argue that the themes brought up in that episode were ethical and not political, but once again, the line between those things is very slim — in 2020 that line is nigh nonexistent.
The political stories of Who aren't relegated to episodes happening since the great reboot of 2005. The classic series had plenty of political content, with the arc that jumps out immediately to me at me being one of the most widely loved arcs in Who history, "Genesis of the Daleks." The Doctor has the means to prevent the Daleks from ever existing in the first place. The Daleks may look like giant pepper-pot alien hate machines, but their ideology (and politics) are pure fascism. They represent everything that the Doctor is against, in both their words and their deeds.
Even so, when Tom Baker's Doctor has only to touch two wires together to end this entire shrieking race of fascists, he asks the question — "Do I have the right?"
A Time Lord questions the ethics about erasing this particular brand of fascism from existence. It's the "Boom Town" question on a grand, genocidal scale, and it's one of the most famous moments in all of Who.
Are you going to tell me that a story involving genocide isn't political?
It is political. It is also properly built up. It is not wedged into the end of the arc, as the message in "Orphan 55" was. Again, maybe that's what the real problem was for some people, the way the message was spliced in. Perhaps the issue was that "Orphan 55" got political and preachy and was also completely transparent about it. A little too overtly political and preachy in 2020, a time when nobody is lacking for preachy politics. But climate change shouldn't be political, which is half the problem.
The Doctor's speech in the episode in the much-maligned episode (which, to be fair, does have its champions) about how it isn't too late to fix our damage to the earth is rather blunt. Whittaker only has a few lines with which to deliver the goods — she doesn't get a Capaldi "Zygon Inversion" aria to work with, or three episodes of buildup like Baker. It was definitely blunt and transparent, no question, but several portions of the Earth are currently on fire. The subtle approach is not working, so I'm surprised that The Doctor didn't grab the damn camera and shout these lines directly to the audience.
I love a Doctor Who episode that is high on action and fun. I love Doctor Who episodes that go historical, and I love it when they play with time. I also love it when they confront real things that are happening in our world right now, because in the world of Doctor Who, the Doctor is always there to tell us that we can change. One of the virtues of science fiction is that it tosses the veggies in with the spaceships — you get to go on adventures, but you also have to confront yourself and the world you live in. It reminds you that you are complicit in that world. So many classic sci-fi writers have far bleaker (and likely more realistic) political tales to spin — the difference is that the signature Who belief in hope always springs eternal, just as it does in "Orphan 55."
You'll get your space werewolves and giant farting monsters with Doctor Who, but every so often you'll get reminded of the real world. It just so happens that we live in a real world where science has become politics, and all seems lost. Everything seems hopeless on an almost daily basis — that's why we need The Doctor.
The Doctor told us, albeit in a very rushed way, that all is not necessarily lost. That there is still hope, that there is always hope. That we humans underestimate our ability to change for the better. The time for action is now.
If hope in the face of extinction has become political, then so be it. The series addresses it. Having quibbles with the way the message was delivered is one thing, but saying that Doctor Who should not be a political show is akin to saying that the Doctor shouldn't travel in time. Political issues, both current and timeless, are a part of the show's DNA. They always have been. It's not the show's job to paint you pretty pictures every week. You want that, go look at some Monet.
Doctor Who doesn't just have the right to be political if it wants to be. It has more than the right. It has a duty.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.