Myrkas of the World Unite: Is Doctor Who Posh? (Part 1)
Once more, Doctor Who fans look forward to a historic event set to change everything about their favourite show. For the first time, the Doctor will have a Yorkshire accent. And also be female, but let’s focus on what matters.
Joking aside, Jodie Whittaker’s decision to keep her just-outside-Huddersfield twang does make this north-Eastern boy a bit emotional. Landing as it does in the middle of a post-Brexit debate on what to do about the former industrial North, it’s a nice reminder that the Doctor’s values of eccentricity, compassion, genius and cosmopolitanism can live in us as much as it can a frock-coated Southerner, or a Glaswegian former punk.
The young me was never bothered by the Doctor not sharing my accent. I accepted that he, and his companions, talked in the way people on TV talk. My Doctor was the most Establishment of the lot – Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, a brusque dandy who held down a job as a military advisor and boasted about having lunch with government officials. I loved him. It’s only in retrospect that the common fan criticisms of this Doctor as being a more reactionary figure make sense to me. When the Third Doctor stories visualize the working classes, they come up with figures like Spearhead From Space’s Sam Seeley or The Claws of Axos’s Pigbin Josh, both of whom feel like they’re auditioning for a role in Pertwee’s later show Worzel Gummidge. The Third Doctor rarely interacts with these people, preferring the company of military leaders and diplomats. Even when he journeys into space in stories like The Curse of Peladon he still makes a beeline for the top brass.
In the Pertwee era’s defence, it’s also the period of the show where its politics were at its most revolutionary. There were some grumblings about the show having an “agenda” when Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor inherited his predecessor’s disdain for soldiers, but that was treated as a character flaw to be resolved at the end of his first season. In the Third Doctor stories it was meant to be relatable. These were, after all, stories written by men who’d done National Service and seen at least one horrifying world war. The other key concern of the British Left during the 1970s – anti-imperialism – was also much stronger than it would be in the revived series. By the second episode of Christopher Eccleston’s tenure as the Doctor he was praising “the fourth great and bountiful Human Empire”, but Pertwee stories like The Mutants and Frontier in Space paint that same Empire as being just as brutal, racist and exploitative as the European ones it was inspired by.
Doctor Who’s vision of Empire is a good yardstick of how radical the show is prepared to be, and on what issues. New series episodes like The Waters of Mars show human colonization of space as being done in a spirit of honourable scientific curiosity, but they do have multi-racial casts who are allowed to speak with regional accents. Classic series episodes like The Power of Kroll, on the other hand, are more clear-eyed about the plight of indigenous people under colonialism, but they also automatically assume the future will be dominated by well-spoken white Englishmen.
It’s the kind of one-step-forward, one-step-back approach that caused Mark Gatiss to say recently that the universe of Doctor Who was “essentially middle-class”. Out of all the new series writers, though, it’s Gatiss who’s the most provocative and interesting on the class question. After The Unquiet Dead – which received some backlash when its story of aliens posing as helpless refugees in order to stage an invasion was read as anti-immigrant – he wrote The Idiot’s Lantern, whose tale of a plummy-voiced alien exploiting then devouring working-class bigots would be seen as almost too on-the-nose had it aired in 2016 rather than 2006. He created a straightforwardly heroic portrait of the pro-Empire Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, and followed it up with Night Terrors, an episode set entirely in a run-down inner-city flat.
These complexities might be seen as unconscious if he didn’t close off his Doctor Who writing career with The Empress of Mars, a purposeful examination of his own soft spot for Empire-era adventure stories. The Empress of Mars is an Edgar Rice Burroughs homage full of rousing derring-do, but it also ends with its villains – who the title reminds us are also aristocratic imperialists– being peacefully absorbed into an interplanetary union which Pertwee-era stories had used as a metaphor for the EU. It also benefits from the companion being Pearl Mackie’s Bill, a working-class black lesbian who immediately recognizes the Victorian soldiers’ exploitation of the Ice Warriors for what it is: slavery.
So is the key to Doctor Who’s class consciousness its companions? You might argue, after all, that the Doctor’s class identity is irrelevant because the Doctor belongs to no society, but the companions do. It’s not always that simple, though. A lot of classic series companions are lost or stranded somewhere – Vicki, Turlough, Ace – which means our best shot at understanding their social context comes when they get back home, or at least when something motivates them to leave. Often it’s love, but companions like Susan, Steven and Nyssa leave when they find a cause greater than simply travelling with the Doctor.
By the time the series was revived, consensus had it that the second type of ending was preferable. Susan staying to help rebuild a Dalek-ravaged Earth felt like a worthy ending; Leela running off to get married did not. New series companions like Martha and Clara leave to pursue their own destinies, and the Sarah Jane Adventures even allowed for classic series companions to get a more proactive ending than they originally enjoyed. Sarah Jane Smith herself had already been seen adventuring without the Doctor, but her spin-off series revealed Tegan Jovanka to be working as an Aboriginal land rights lawyer, and a script left unfilmed at the time of Elizabeth Sladen’s death re-introduced Ace as an Anita Roddick-style charity entrepreneur.
There are classic series companions who come from some kind of fantasy proletariat – Leela – and ones who come from some fantasy elite – Romana – but, prior to Rose, Ace was the one who was most clearly tied to a contemporary real-world social class. Her history of juvenile delinquency and time in and out of social care was addressed, but both actress Sophie Aldred and the writing staff were frustrated that 1980s Doctor Who was forbidden from entering territory the new show regularly explores. Ace’s bisexuality was relegated to the subtext, and the BBC’s insistence on a ‘proper’ accent made her dialogue occasionally absurd – the sublime Remembrance of the Daleks has her decry an informant as a “dirty, stinking graaahs”.
So does the new series, with its eclectic jumble of accents and races, represent a more egalitarian version of the show, a flowering of the ideals the Seventh Doctor’s writers were trying to push past an obstructionist BBC? Or has it simply replaced one set of working-class stereotypes with another? And if the companions represent the ordinary British citizen, what does that make the Doctor? Find out in part two.