Monday 13 January 2020

Doctor Who and the Climate Change Zombies

Who doesn't like their politics delivered with the subtlety of an articulated lorry gatecrashing your front room? Such was the situation with Sunday night's Doctor Who episode, Orphan 55. In typical Who fashion, the Doctor dropped into a seemingly idyllic scenario hiding a murky underbelly that bursts into the open. Here, the Doctor and friends attend the all-inclusive Tranquillity Spa for a bit of much needed r'n'r. I mean, did you see the two-parter? But very quickly, as they say here in Stoke, things go downbank.

Beginning with Ryan contracting a military-grade virus from a vending machine, the Doctor smells a rat. Why would one be lying in wait in a holiday retreat? Following an emergency alarm it is revealed that paradise is situated in a hostile hellscape. This planet is knowns as Orphan 55, 'orphan' being a designation of formerly habitable planets trashed by their native species and left to rack and ruin while the elite retreat behind high walls or, in this case, blast off into space. Therefore its stunning vistas and sub-tropical sunshine are effects of an advanced VR projection on to walls surrounding the resort and the locals, yes, the locals are kept at bay by means of a force field. And a good job too because they're big, pasty, have huge teeth and a taste for human flesh. Very Who. The native species, known as the Dregs, overwhelm the defences, eat the guests and puts the Doctor and team to flight. Needless to say, everything comes good in the end. A family is reunited in time for a horrible death but our intrepid chrononauts make it safely through to next week's episode.

So, yes. This one had a little bit of politics. While running around in the caverns beneath the spa, the Doctor, Ryan and Yaz happen across a Siberian railway station sign. Surely not? Further investigation turns up more ephemera of a dead earth, and a quick mind meld with a sleeping Dreg reveals them to be our descendants. Yikes. Once safely back on the TARDIS the Doctor gives her gang a lecture about how the future isn't fixed and what they experienced was just one possible timeline among many, but it requires everyone to do something now to prevent this less than optimal outcome. So heavily done it would get the gammon tendency in the country scribbling letters to Points of View, if it still existed.

Anti-capitalist green lefty claptrap? Well, no. Despite the references early on to elites getting away and the remainder left to fend for themselves, the Doctor's message is apolitical greenery dressed up as a hard edged rant. A socialist critique of planetary ruination is a bit too much to expect, but Russell T Davies era Who proved quite adept and assimilating a sly anti-bourgeois sensibility into proceedings. This was too on the nose and too "everyone's to blame". Though that will be too much for some. And yet there is a slightly more subtle level in play.

Much more interesting than the preachy tone are the zombies, for that is what the Dregs really are. With a bit of a nod to HG Wells's The Time Machine, they look sort of dead with their skull-like features and pale complexion, and they entirely fit the conventions of the neoliberal undead. Or, to be more precise, the bourgeois nightmare of resurrected flesh eaters. The anxiety of class rule is such that, never mind how harshly or paternalistically chummy you treat the multitudinous hordes, they can turn an engorge themselves on the body of your property at any moment. Singly they're pretty dumb and easily outwitted, but as a hungry mass they can swarm and strip your assets to the bone. The Dregs fit the part quite well. Consider even the derogatory name, for instance. They dwell outside the resorts walls, free to go where you can never see them and get up to who knows what. And in time they learn your vulnerabilities, finding ways round the best and most sophisticated defences. Once they're in, your goose is cooked. They cannot be stopped and even your laser beams bounce harmlessly off. Yet true to the narcissistic projection of their class, it is the shuffling cadres of Dregs who are to blame for this situation. Never mind that the bourgeoisie created them when they turned Earth into a cinder with runaway climate change and nuclear war, their ridiculous spa is revealed a way of reclaiming the planet they abandoned to the lower orders. In this case, using profiting off holiday makers to fund a terraforming effort. They broke a world and called it an orphan and, having forced the huddled proletarian masses to become monstrous to adapt, they want to take the globe back and leave the Dregs on the scrap heap. Remind you of anything?

The climate change warning then was for us, the everyday folk of Sunday evening television. But the meditation on zombies was just perhaps a more subtle warning to them, the vanishingly tiny boss class perched atop their piles of unearned cash, a preview of what might await them if they carry on as they are.

Image Credit


Phil said...

I think you're having your cake and eating it. The Dregs were precisely a vision of the Morlockish lower orders of humanity (a.k.a. "the dregs of society"), lying in wait to take revenge on the leisured First World middle classes, even surviving nuclear winter like cockroaches - but where's the evidence that the programme was critiquing this vision and not simply articulating it? Look at how the Doctor summarises the 'future'* of Earth after her mind-meld - "The collapse of the food chain! Mass migration! War!" (emph. added).

The message of "Orphan 55" was "we need to change our ways" - "we need to change our ways or else they'll come and eat us".

*If you're an alien with a ship that can travel to any place and any time, in what sense is Earth, 2020 the present and Orphan 55 the 'future'? These days the skiffy element gets sketched in really lightly, if at all (cf. Ryan's conversation with Bella, who appeared not only to be human but to live in a society pretty much identical to our own).

theOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarh said...

Re the hordes, I remember reading a letter from Engels where he claims that without communism the revoltion will be much much bloodier and violent than if there was no communist movement. He presented communism as a kind of prozac, numbing the working class senses and making it more easily controlled.

This shocked me, partly because extreme violence is what the ruling class deserve!

I think Docker Who is trying to take a leaf out of Game of Thrones book, but Game of Thrones is one of the greatest TV shows ever and Doctor Who is sometimes great but mostly mediocre!

I just wish Blakes7 had been invested in more and Doctor Who had been consigned to history. But given that in Blakes7 the terroists are the heroes and the heroes are terrorists the great censorship will determine that Blakes7 will never be restored!

I just wish HBO could get hold of it, I think it could be better than Game of Thrones!