I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. News outlets are sending out an endless barrage of awfulness everywhere, and my social media feeds are choking on the constant deluge. People you once considered your guides and your mentors feel emboldened to spout out garbage and ally themselves with the worst of humanity. If you're privileged enough, you can ignore the worst of it, but ignoring won't help the ones most affected by it. The disenfranchised among us have to live with it every single day.
We use fiction to escape the harshness of reality and to remind ourselves that there are better ways to look at and interact with the world. Doctor Who has always been subversive. He has protected the weak and fought against tyranny since the beginning, but in today's divisive political climate, the Doctor's brand of empathy is needed more than ever. The revival's 10th season shows us why Doctor Who still matters.
"I'm Scottish. I can complain about things!"
For most of his existence, the Doctor -- in all his different guises -- spoke in the Received Pronunciation (or RP) accent. In the UK, RP has long been associated with the upper class or with the highly educated. When Christopher Eccleston took over the role. he fought to keep his normal Yorkshire accent in the show. As he said in a 2015 interview with the Radio Times: "I wanted to move him away from RP for the first time, because we shouldn't make a correlation between intellect and accent, although that still needs addressing."
It might not seem like a huge deal, but changing the Doctor's accent fundamentally changed his character. The Ninth Doctor was freed from representing the upper class and became a working-class hero. He was no longer rich and posh, but he was just as clever and just as compassionate as before. Imagine all those kids from northern England who finally had a Doctor who spoke like they did. Imagine those kids watching him do Doctor-y things and feeling like they mattered because the Doctor was just like them.
This continues with Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Capaldi is Scottish, with a hard Glasgow brogue, so the Doctor can't even pretend to be an Englishman anymore. His accent marks him as an outsider. Sometimes, Scotland is at odds with the rest of the UK -- recall the current campaign for Scottish independence -- and the Doctor is now a representative of that ill-treated yet resilient country. This plays right into Capaldi's strengths as the Doctor. He's capable of tremendous empathy as well as burning-hot fury. He's a Doctor who understands hardship and will fight to the very end to prevent suffering.
"History is a whitewash." (Also, punch all the racists.)
There's a moment in the episode "Thin Ice" (the one where the TARDIS ends up in Regency-era London) when Bill expresses her concerns about how she'll be treated because of the color of her skin. The Doctor responds by giving her the directions to the TARDIS wardrobe room so that her clothes won't look out of place. The denizens of the Frost Fair demonstrate that past-London is a lot more diverse than Bill originally assumed. POC are everywhere. They operate the food stalls. They go ice fishing in the Thames. There's even a diverse, Oliver Twist-inspired gang of street children led by a black girl.
The villain in this episode is Lord Sutcliffe, no doubt a contender for Upper-Class Twit of the Year, who exploits and abuses a gigantic fish creature for profit. The Doctor tries to talk some sense into him, but Sutcliffe spews some horrifically racist lines (well, horrific for a family show) at Bill. This causes the Doctor to slough off any semblance of decorum and punch Sutcliffe right in his pasty, doughy face.
Yep, the Doctor straight-up punched a racist. In our current era, where punching racists is now a thing, since racists are insufferable and widely available to punch, it's refreshing to know that the Doctor is firmly on the side of punching racists.
Season 10 constantly pushes for diversity in its guest cast. Many of the space colonists in "Smile" are South Asian. Most of Bill's housemates in "Knock Knock" are POC, with only a couple of white guys in the group, and they don't really count, because they're taken out of commission early on in the episode. "The Pyramid at the End of the World" makes the UN Secretary General an East Asian, gives the female general of the Chinese army a large speaking role, and, in perhaps a first for STEM representation, casts a female little person as a scientist.
The diversity doesn't feel shoehorned, either. No one in the show comments on it, and the BBC did not parade it out in public. There was simply a blanket statement for a new BBC initiative touting more diversity in front of and behind the cameras for all its shows. As one of the BBC's flagship series, Doctor Who has taken full advantage of this initiative, and the show has improved with it.
"The endpoint of capitalism, the bottom line where human life has no value at all."
The episode "Oxygen" posits an industrialized future where air is a commodity sold by the breath, and workers must purchase it from their employers or die in space. The Doctor's always been a protector of the downtrodden, but he's never declared capitalism an adversary in such an overt way before. He angrily calls it out as the enemy of human life and says that each is completely incompatible with the other. Humanity cannot continue to exist while workers are exploited, and the only way to break this control is to convince the companies that human lives have value.
Thus, convince them that human deaths are too expensive.
The story's wrapped up pretty nicely, as the Doctor explains to Bill that capitalism was essentially over after this. However, he also points out that humanity ends up making a whole new mistake afterward. The history of humanity is filled with incidents like this, where solving one problem leads to the creation of another problem. The Doctor doesn't elaborate on what the new mistake is, but he'd be the first to argue that the end of capitalism was worth it.
"Fake news central."
In the episode "The Lie of the Land," an alien race called the Monks spread a disinformation campaign throughout the world, claiming that they've been here since the beginning of life on Earth, coaxing and urging humanity on our evolutionary path to greatness. The Doctor himself pushes this propaganda, appearing on television broadcasts that extol the virtues of these amazing aliens. He even outright tells Bill that humanity has stopped evolving. It has, in fact, begun regressing, which isn't surprising to anyone with a brain who's been following the news lately. The divisiveness of humanity as a whole, the idea that we can't stop fighting with one another, is an invitation for the Monks to take over. They install a totalitarian government on Earth and claim to be humanity's saviors. At the same time, they kidnap and imprison dissenters and have banned products of free expression. This is a world where comic books are contraband.
The Doctor's got a plan. While working with the Monks, he's also trying to secretly defeat them with the technology they're using to control human minds. He plans to erase the Monks' version of events, and, as an added bonus because he's feeling generous, wants to end racism too. But just like in real life, this doesn't work well. Alone, the Doctor can't face up to the Monks. There's too much feedback from the system, and it almost explodes the Doctor's brain.
So who ends up saving humanity? Bill Potts. Bill, who has watched the Doctor save the day enough times to know that if you see your chance, you can't hesitate. Bill, who created a memory of her mother out of whole cloth which the Monks can't touch because it only lives in a single human mind. Bill, whose love for her mother breaks the Monks' mind control and forces them off the planet.
Love, compassion and the connections with other people are what overthrow authoritarian regimes.
Yes, of course, it's not that simple, but it's a start.
"Among 7 billion, is someone like you. That's why I put up with the rest of them."
The show straight-up admits that not every human is wonderful. A great many of us have flaws. There are racists, and sexists, and homophobes, and a great many terrible people who don't deserve saving. But, among them, there are also people who care and want this world to be better, and that's what the Doctor loves about humanity and wants to protect.
Doctor Who is not a perfect show, but this season has made excellent points on how to survive in current times. We acknowledge the bad things in the world, and we acknowledge the underprivileged. We can fight to create positive, lasting change, and we can live through the dark times if we work through them together. We need to punch racists and protect the vulnerable. We need to fight against fascism and protect the future of our planet. We need to celebrate our differences and encourage progress for all. As the Doctor said:
"Human progress isn't measured by industry. It's measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy's value is your value. That's what defines an age, that's what defines a species."
The Doctor believes that humanity is better than this and that we, as a species, are worth saving. Let's hope that we can someday prove him right.