Monday, 23 June 2008

Week Eleven: "We're All Going to Die, We're All Going to Die, Ee-Aye-Addie-Oh, We're All Going to Die."

This week: the future. No, the real future this time.

I. Control

It's strange, for someone who grew up in the days when Doctor Who annuals gave us illustrated articles about lunar rovers, to think that I might need to clarify the subject of this week's lecture. Thirty years ago, it would have seemed bizarre that any article which talked about "the future" would be expected to involve either (a) speculation as to whether the new producer is likely to bring back the Silurians or (b) predictions about what's going to happen in the end-of-season two-parter, rather than tackling questions like "are we really all going to be living in moonbases by the year 2100?". Viewers in the 1970s didn't even (consciously) notice when there was a change in the production-team, and nor would they have expected the last story of any given series to involve a massively over-inflated story-arc, which is why there was no '70s equivalent of Mark Braxton to ask what "answers" we were going to get in "The Seeds of Doom". (I've been critical of the cult of the story-arc before, mainly because it requires the audience to focus on what's going to happen next week rather than what's happening now, which means that competent scriptwriting becomes less important than big revelations. In that light, I'd just like to point out that BBC7's Heroes fanzine-show has been running trailers which begin with the words "we're hurtling towards the end of this series of Heroes…" ever since episode five of an eleven-part run. When nothing matters except the season finale, you know something's gone dreadfully wrong.)

The actual future, though - the one where we'll be spending the rest of our lives, unless Bill Gates' new masterplan to save the world involves messing about with tachyons - is no longer in vogue. I'm sure it can't have escaped your notice that with the peculiar exceptions of "Dalek" and "Fear Her", which are effectively set in the present-plus-a-few, modern Doctor Who has refused to show us any vision of the future that's less than two-thousand years away. The reasons for this are less obvious than you might think. Apart from the standard fan-observation that setting a story in the year five-billion stops the current Doctor bumping into Patrick Troughton all the time, the usual assumption is that modern writers prefer "abstract" futures to "immediate" futures because there's less chance of them looking silly in twenty years' time. We've reached this conclusion because, among other things, we've seen so many BBC4esque documentaries about the history of science fiction in which alumni from the Kim Newman School of Smug Punditry point out how utterly wrong most SF predictions have been.

However, this argument doesn't hold water. True, it's hard to think of a single SF future that even comes close to the way things actually turned out, although Jules Verne at least deserves special mention for coming up with the fax machine. But the vast majority of science fiction writers have never really tried to be accurate, and over the last hundred years, most future-based fiction has been a way of examining our concerns about the present. When you remember that, the reason for Doctor Who's lack of interest in the World of Tomorrow (rather the World of the Day After the Day After the Day After Tomorrow) seems a little clearer: unlike the generation of the 1960s, we no longer want to examine our concerns about the present. In fact, we'll go to any lengths to avoid thinking about them, as we'll see shortly.

Firstly, though, we have to remind ourselves that we can't lump together all future-set Doctor Who stories as if they're a single sub-species. It should be fairly obvious that "The Enemy of the World" has very little in common with "The End of the World", and the difference isn't just the temporal distance travelled by the TARDIS, or that one of them is a '60s tragedy while the other is a '00s comedy. Sir Big Russell's logic - and it's a perfectly sound logic, in itself - is that since the far, far, far, far, far future is likely to be too alien to be comprehensible, you can use it as a blank surface on which to write rude graffiti about the modern world. No, more accurately, about the modern media: this has always been Davies' favourite approach, and we see it for the first time in Lady Cassandra, who's presented to us as Californian body-obsession made flesh. Or an absence thereof. By contrast, '60s "future" stories tend to be about the kind of world where younger members of the audience might actually have to grow up. David Whitaker didn't literally expect the planet to be run by a Mexican in the twenty-first-century, but he was trying to imagine how the anxieties of his own era might affect his descendants. Stories like "The Enemy of the World" (originally set circa 2017, although the novelisation shunted it back to 2030) and "The Wheel in Space" (clearly set in the early twenty-first century, whatever Lance Parkin tries to tell you) sell the viewers a world they might just live to see. Every schoolchild knew there'd be wheel-shaped space-stations by 2001.

And as Tat Wood pointed out in About Time, Professor Eldred in "The Seeds of Death" comes across as a '50s / '60s schoolboy grown old, a Dan Dare reader who's lived to see the wonder of space-travel being replaced by something cynical and humdrum. With hindsight, it almost looks like a metaphor for what really happened, although we got twenty-four-hour TV to distract us from deep-space exploration instead of T-Mat. Even early stories like "The Sensorites" and "The Rescue", set in (ooh, let's say) the middle of the third millennium, have a sense of expectation about them. There was a feeling, as late as the '60s, that Britain might still play a vital part in the Conquest of Space. In the era of the Festival of Britain (1951), the UK prided itself on having the finest technical minds in the world, and it was routinely expected that we'd supply the brains of the future while America supplied the muscle. Didn't turn out very well, did it…? Nonetheless, the Union Jack on the tail-fin of Vicki's spaceship was in no way meant to be "kitsch". We didn't seriously think we'd meet either the Mekon or the Didonians, yet British space-pioneers seemed positively logical at the time. (Oh, and don't try to tell me that it's a Union Flag rather than a Union Jack. It's a spaceship, all right? Naval rules can be expected to apply.)

If it was normal for '60s stories to reflect the viewers' anxieties about the future, then perhaps we should take stock of what those anxieties were. There's undoubtedly some kind of sinister subtext behind the slippery-smooth machine-worlds of the black-and-white series - even Innes Lloyd, the dullest producer Doctor Who ever had, seems to have acknowledged it - but to us in the twenty-first century, it's all too easy to miss the context. We know that the original Cybermen turned up at a time when both plastic surgery and the word "cybernetics" were hot topics, but… no, something else is going on there, isn't it? Surely, nobody was that concerned about evil surgeons ripping people's lungs out and replacing them with accordions? Mentioning the Cold War is another dead end, since the programme was much less prone to scaremongery than its nearest US equivalents, and refused to believe that we might be invaded by Communists at any moment (well, apart from the absurd right-wing hectoring in "The Dominators", and arguably the Soviet Zarbi in "The Web Planet"). So what was really preying on the minds of the grown-ups?

A key point about this period, without which the stories on Patrick Troughton's watch make a lot less sense: social control was one of the big issues of the future, and not because the populace was worried about the Kremlin turning everyone into tractor-factory workers. The 1960s was a boom-time for rioting. These days, we're primed to think of specific decades as being made of pop culture, since we're usually only shown the archive footage when we're being sold a nostalgia-piece. The very mention of "the '60s" immediately makes us think of the Beatles, which is rather unsettling, when you consider everything else that was going on. Ergo, talk of "rioting" makes us think of fun-loving long-haired students protesting against the Vietnam War. But we shouldn't forget that this was the era which made the term "race-riot" so popular, and as we've already seen in the article SF Iconoclasty 101 [about halfway down this page], the starting-point for Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) was his belief that the ongoing tribal conflicts in America and Europe were proof of something profoundly evil in humanity's nature. Furthermore, the educated audience of this period was instinctively aware - more than we are today, although we'll return to this later - that we're an ever-growing species on a planet with finite resources. Even if the pundits were more concerned with the thought of food-riots than all-out ecogeddon, it seemed obvious that if the people of the world refused to stop breeding, then the violence would become… no, not even worse. The violence would become ubiquitous.

It also seemed obvious that in the event of us making it to the end of the twentieth century without triggering World War Three (and anxiety about this began to wane after the flashpoint of the Cuban crisis, which may explain why alien worlds in Doctor Who tend to treat nukes as a historical detail rather than an ever-present threat), then we'd only survive if someone or something kept us properly organised. This was accepted by all political persuasions. Just look at the Doctor Who stories made between 1967 and 1968, the clump of episodes now known as Season Five. In the space of a single year, five out of seven stories are set in the future - I'm counting "Fury from the Deep" (deliberately pitched as a near-future scenario), but not "The Web of Fear" (since the idea of the UNIT stories taking place in the '70s didn't emerge until "The Invasion") - and every single one of those five involves a "Controller". In all but one case, "Controller" is given as the individual's official rank. We'll ignore the suspicion that the writers expected all futuristic institutions to be run like the BBC, and concentrate on the broader issue: it was taken as read that if our species isn't going to get into a terrible muddle, then somebody has to make cold, rational decisions about the distribution of resources, whether those decisions affect a single space-station or an entire continent.

Typically, this isn't portrayed as a bad system, but there's a belief that the human element will always be required to temper the Controller's clinical logic. The Controller of the ioniser ("The Ice Warriors") fails because he lacks imagination, yet he's fundamentally a decent man, while the Controller of the W3 station ("The Wheel in Space") fails because he's emotionally unbalanced. The Controller in "Fury from the Deep" fails for numerous reasons, although it doesn't help that his only superior in the organisation is a grudgeful ex-girlfriend who clearly wants to go at him with a strap-on. Less positively, we have the Cybermen, and we're left in no doubt that their Controller is meant to be a two-fingered salute to anyone who goes on about "cold, rational decisions" all the time. You'll note that the Brotherhood of Logicians, like most science-nerds in the Mark One series, want to take over the Earth because humans are soft-headed and untrustworthy rather than because the Brotherhood's members want all the money and girls.

But even in the case of "Tomb of the Cybermen", we're not being told that it's wrong to have a Controller per se, just that it's wrong for the Controller to ignore his touchy-feely side. Let's not forget, everyone "knew" that computers would be part of the decision-making process in the world of tomorrow. Before the age of the ZX81, it was believed that all computers would be mega-brains capable of telling us how to avoid extinction, not mindless tools that sit in the office and regularly need to be switched off and on again. Some SF writers, most notably Isaac Asimov, made compelling arguments that organisation by computer would free us rather than enslaving us. Not everyone was so sure, of course. We in fandom tend to forget that despite its title, "The Ice Warriors" is really about the machines-versus-men debate, not about the monsters: the real climax of the story isn't the final assault by the Martians, but the moment when hardware-fetishist Clent finally makes his peace with free-thinking genius Penley.

Yet until the RAND corporation made it clear to the world that computers made catastrophic mistakes because of the way humans programmed them (see especially "The Armageddon Factor" and "Destiny of the Daleks"), it was still widely agreed that a form of technocracy might be our salvation. It was certainly felt that the world needed some apolitical organising principle, if we were going to be saved from self-destruction and / or cannibalism. This is why it's almost touching that in "The War Machines", everyone on Earth trusts a single computer in the Post Office Tower to run all the world's technical systems, and doesn't expect the programmers to fiddle about with its solutions for their own benefit. Or cripple the French economy, just for a laugh.

II. The Gravitron of the Situation

Whoahhh now… we're actually getting to the heart of the issue. Ask yourself this: can you imagine any modern programme claiming that autocratic, ultra-rational rule might possibly be a good thing, even if it stops us wiping ourselves out? The answer is an immense "no", which might seem perverse, given that we're now even closer to an extinction event than we were when Kennedy was facing off against Khruschev. But there you have the nub of it. The people of the '60s assumed that there had to be a centralised control element in the world of the future, because they were prepared to accept that it's reasonable to give up part of your own individual freedom for the good of society. In fact, as things turned out, the West found a way of controlling the populace that didn't involve computers or moonbases: neo-liberalism, of which both Thatcherism and neo-conservatism are manifestations. (I know, I know. You'd expect something called "neo-liberalism" and something called "neo-conservatism" to be polar opposites, wouldn't you? They're not. "Neo-conservatism" involves the use of conservative rhetoric and an aggressive foreign policy to prop up a neo-liberal economic strategy, although that's admittedly the bonehead version, and a hardcore political theorist would chin me for saying it.)

Here comes the politics, then. Neo-liberalism is the ultimate creation of right-wing economic thinking, which assumes that there's no such thing as society; that as a result, nobody has a responsibility to society, or to any other human being beyond his or her own household; that any plans for the future of a society are therefore pointless; that all political philosophies should be discouraged, other than the promotion of self-interest; that a population will remain placid if you give it enough affordable consumer goods, without any need for the kind of state intervention that might get in the way of big business (essentially a more carefully-calculated version of the Roman "bread and circuses" concept); and that as a side-issue, it's reasonable to keep producing those goods even if it does destroy the planet's biosphere and lead to the mass exploitation of dusky-skinned natives outside the Western World, because anything else would be an affront to "freedom".

Well, to be fair, it did work. Which is to say… without any need for a big central cyber-brain, without inventing the Gravitron or T-Mat, and without the intervention of Ramon Salamander, we're now a lot less intent on rioting than our forefathers were. Of course, this passivity requires a constant flow of cheap mobile 'phone attachments and a reliable source of energy: the '70s generation was brought up to believe that power-cuts were perfectly normal, but if you took away this generation's electricity supply for more than a few hours, then they'd burn down half of London. The other problem is that on a global scale, it's killing millions and consigning millions more to intractable poverty. Still, since the victims are all (excuse me) wogs and darkies, we don't have a responsibility to them. Besides, the last thirty years have seen a conscious effort to push the neo-liberal agenda in all areas of the media, to the point where anyone who argues against it is viewed as a deluded agitator who probably wants to bring back Stalin and force us all to eat Spam for every meal. One of the key strategies of neo-liberalism is to portray anyone with different ideas as an enemy of "freedom", if not actually a terrorist. The "freedom" in question is the freedom to build yourself a bigger DVD collection than your neighbours and choose whether or not you want fries with that haemorrhage, but then, that's the only kind of freedom we now understand. Planning for tomorrow is forbidden, since it might involve telling people what to do, and that would destroy the illusion of consumer choice.

But as we've seen, the first-time viewers of Season Five were perfectly happy to accept that it was all right for a central authority to control the Big Picture. It was the application that could cause problems, not the principle. Nobody jumps in at the end of "The Ice Warriors" and says "right, now we've stopped taking orders from the computer, let's put control of the ioniser out to tender and make this society more 'democratic' by introducing corporate sponsorship". Instead, they treat everything that's happened as a lesson in the importance of human instinct. No writer in 2008, not even a vaguely left-wing writer with dim memories of a time when we had "social responsibility" instead of "individual consumer freedom", would be satisfied unless the machine ended up being blasted into tiny pieces as an enemy of everything that's right and proper. Yet the irony is that our idea of "freedom" is far more mechanistic than the world/s we see in any of the '60s tales about cybernetic overseers, since a society free of state intervention will always do whatever makes money for the shareholders, regardless of the human cost. As I've said before, nobody other than the BBC would even consider attaching this sort of budget to a programme as stubbornly eccentric as Doctor Who, but even this series has found itself compromised.

As we all know, Doctor Who is a product of the Licence Fee. And neo-liberalism hates the Licence Fee, because it's a form of socialism (no, really… Thatcher said so herself, and almost uniquely, she was right). Yet it's being made in an otherwise wholly consumer-driven culture, and this is bound to put pressure on its creators, as well as the BBC as an entity. Since I'm not the type who believes that cattle mutilations are part of a federal plot to control the minds of decent Americans, I'm not going to claim that the series is caught up in a deliberate conspiracy to eradicate all non-neo-liberal politics from the media - although that would be true if it were made by Fox Television - yet the very nature of modern TV is inevitably going to change the programme's agenda. In the '60s and '70s, any decent writer working for the BBC would be aware that experimentalism was an important part of the job, and the best of them stretched the medium even if (or especially if) it made the audience uncomfortable. Today, making the audience uncomfortable is a TV no-no on a par with pro-celebrity kiddie-fiddling. It may not have been a conscious effort, but the astonishingly staid nature of this year's stories can be thought of as a consequence of this. Only "Midnight" is an honourable exception, and whether you like the finished work or not, it's closer to an "old-fashioned" BBC drama than anything else the series has attempted in the last four years. As David Troughton pointed out, his dad would've liked it.

Now, d'you remember what happened in Week Three…? We've established that neo-liberalism has perverted our language, in such a way that it can happily talk about the greatness of "freedom" (i.e. consumer pseudo-choice) while indulging in forms of exploitation that would have made the Victorians blush. In "Planet of the Ood", we have a story which depicts slavery as being unequivocally wrong, yet which treats the subject-matter as an abstract: slavery is just the kind of thing that happens in sci-fi shows, it's not a real issue. And then, suddenly… the Doctor asks Donna who makes her clothes. It looks, for a moment, as if this story actually has a meaning. Nope, false alarm. Even though he's just said the most sensible thing we've heard in the series for months, Donna snaps at him for making cheap shots, and the Doctor immediately apologises. Once again, we'd be daft to believe that Keith Temple is deliberately trying to stop the audience thinking about the issues, but we do need to understand that this sort of thing is inevitable in a consumer-era TV series which thinks it's competing with ITV. The Doctor might as well be apologising to the viewer rather than his sidekick. Sorry, might have made you feel a bit awkward there. Might have, y'know, made you consider the consequences of your actions. Sorry. Very sorry. It's okay, nothing's wrong. You can keep buying the sweat-shop produce if you want, it's no big deal. Please don't turn over to Ant and Dec.

So the answer to the original question, of why recent Doctor Who has steered clear of the near future, begins to seem rather ominous. It's not just that consumer society is obsessed with the now, it's not just that corporate interests have spent the last few decades urging us to buy into the present without thinking about the aftermath. It's that even under the auspices of Russell T. Davies, who's not shy about occasionally prodding the status quo, any half-credible depiction of life in the rest of the twenty-first century would horrify today's viewers rather than scaring them in a living-statues-and-gasmasks sort of way. Just try to imagine a new story set in 2030, or 2050, or 2070. Never mind trying to imagine what life might actually be like, just try to imagine how a television programme might depict it. Well? What comes to mind?

It's a tough assignment, I know. So here are some facts - and I'm going to try to stick to facts, not speculations - about life in the rest of the twenty-first century.

Point One. The oil is going to run out. Politics may be chronically unfashionable now that we've all got iPods to keep us quiet, but at the very least, anyone who claims to be "not political" should bear this in mind: during the lifetime of your children, or at best your grandchildren, there's not going to be any more petrol. Even US institutions with a vested interest in the oil business, after years of pooh-poohing anyone who points out that it's a finite resource, have now admitted that "production" (meaning, the act of sucking it out of the ground) has passed its peak. We've also learned that the OPEC countries are lying about the amount they've got in reserve. Since our entire culture is founded on oil, and since saying "all right, let's switch to nuclear" doesn't even begin to solve all the problems this entails, our civilisation must at the very least undergo a catastrophic change over the next few decades. Naturally, our current leaders aren't preparing us for this, since they're informed - let's not say "controlled", it makes the whole thing sound much too logical - by organisations that really don't want consumers to change their habits. When we think of a world where oil's a precious commodity, we tend to think of schlock like Mad Max 2, but at least that's set in a bloody great desert where everyone's got room to breathe. What happens to the cities when fuel starts to become scarce? How do you feel about being "not political" in a world where feudalism is more workable than consumerism?

Point Two. The biosphere of the planet is in a much worse state than any of us are prepared for. I'm going to try to avoid the phrase "global warming" here, and I'm certainly going to avoid "climate change", an expression which has been deliberately promoted by the American right as a way of making the eco-crisis sound less threatening (the Republican Party memo which started the ball rolling claimed that "climate change" sounds about as harmless as moving house). I'm avoiding these terms not only because they make an imminent atrocity sound like a series of catchphrases, but because the rise in temperature is just - and how's this for the least appropriate figure of speech imaginable - the tip of the iceberg. If anything, I'd prefer to use the expression "global meltdown". The world is facing so many simultaneous environmental catastrophes, in the strictly scientific sense of the word "catastrophe", that it'd make Kit Pedler's head burst if he were around today. We can't pretend that this is something which might happen, nor even that it will happen. It has happened, and is still happening: the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was a direct knock-on effect of pollution from North America, thanks to the unfortunately-named phenomenon of "global dimming", which makes the deaths of millions of people sound no more serious than leaving a lightbulb on all night.

The point is that the meltdown already has a truly astonishing body-count. In the rest of this century, millions more will die, vast stretches of the planet will be rendered uninhabitable, and most non-human life not overseen by commercial concerns will be wiped out. Perhaps the most frightening part, if this doesn't already make you want to drink yourself to death in an attempt to avoid seeing it, is that the various environmental cataclysms are liable to affect each other in unpredictable ways. Any shift in an ecosystem will have long-term effects that nobody anticipates, but when numerous major changes take place at once, you're into the realms of "pick a worst-case scenario, any worst-case scenario". The belief that all of these things will reach a point of equilibrium, rather than exacerbating each other, was popular in the heyday of "Gaia" but now appears desperately naïve. A bit like that episode of Futurama in which the human race survives global warming because it's perfectly balanced out by a new Ice Age.

Point Three. The social issues. Even in the 1960s, when we were allowed / prompted to think about these things, we could never have anticipated anything so immense. As I've already suggested, a consumer-driven world is more likely to go berserk when its power, gadgets and cars are taken away, so neo-liberalism can be seen as intrinsically self-destructive: if society doesn't officially exist, then you can't prepare it for its own breakdown. Now add the social consequences of Point Two to the mix, as refugees from the ecologically scarred parts of the world head towards Europe and the US. Ironic, in a way, that the right-wing agenda of publications like the Daily Mail should guarantee that millions of non-white people are going to be pushed in our direction. But this isn't just about a few "asylum seekers", it's about the biggest human upheaval ever known. And many of these immigrants are, not unreasonably, going to blame us for causing most of their problems. Islamic extremism isn't even the start of it. I'll stop short of claiming that there's a deliberate strategy at work, but the dehumanising, draconian legislation being put in place by our current leaders - whether it's the Americans' ability to torture foreigners at will, or the UK's determination to legitimise detention without trial - may provide our governments with a useful weapon during the population crisis. When consumerism fails to keep us quiet, concentration camps are a very real possibility.

So, imagine that you're a Doctor Who writer, as I frequently do (come to think of it, at least three of you reading this article actually are… God, that's a scary thought). Imagine that either Big Russell or Curmudgeonly Steven has given you a brief to write a "near future" story. You want to make the middle of the twenty-first century look credible, even if you know there's no chance of making exact predictions. What should you be writing about? A perpetual race-war in a hugely overpopulated and pathologically violent country, with minimal electricity and a political system that makes Zimbabwe look civilised? It's not even one of those futuristic-looking "fascist" colony planets where the characters all have funny names and the Doctor can save the day with a shrug, it's got to be a society that looks vaguely realistic. Even the thought of it - again, not the actuality of life circa 2050, but the BBC version starring David Tennant - seems horrific. New Adventures in the Warhead mould liked to flirt with socially degenerate futures, but even they only ever presented us with a disintegrating, goth-riddled consumer culture, not a consumer culture that's become entirely unworkable. Besides, the writers of the 1990s believed that the twenty-first century would at least be quite cosmopolitan, whereas we're actually heading for the kind of insular, tribally-divided dystopia that seemed unlikely even in the time of cyberpunk.

III. Thatcher, Thatcher, Suncatcher

The result of all this is that the history of the future has a whacking great hole in it. Thanks to "Dalek", we know that the world of 2012 is much like the world of the present. We know that in the far future, humanity is happily exploring planets made of diamonds and interbreeding with sexy non-terrestrials. What we don't know is how the Hell we get from one state to the other, how we manage to survive the next few centuries and create a reasonably optimistic intergalactic empire. (Incidentally… doesn't it strike you as odd that "Dalek" should be set in 2012? Why set it in the future at all? It may be significant that when the story was made, nobody knew whether the resurrected series would be a success or not, and even those working behind the scenes were inclined to think of it as a potential "cult" hit rather than an all-out ratings-winner. And "cult" American series have a tendency to run for seven years, as was the case with Buffy, and the three latter-day forms of Star Trek that didn't get cancelled. Was 2012 chosen as the earliest future date that wasn't expected to overlap the lifespan of the series? In other words, was it meant to be set at the start of the post-Doctor Who epoch, immediately after Season Seven…?)

The strangest thing is that if you were to write a story in the mid-2000s, and if you had a mind to be particularly anal, then you could easily make it fit the continuity of the Mark One series. "The Enemy of the World" presents us with a twenty-first-century world in which the developing nations are unexpectedly prosperous and well-fed, yet this is only made possible by the Suncatcher: until recently, we're told, Earth was going through a period of strife and famine. Well, that could be the era we're entering now, and the work of Salamander's Australian nerd-slaves could be the thing that pulls us out of our ecological crash-course. Yes, it'd be possible, but… it'd also be wrong in so many ways. Doctor Who may be compromised by consumer society, yet those responsible for it are at least semi-aware that it has some form of social duty. There are, as we all know, an awful lot of business interests with a profit-motive for telling us that everything's going to be okay. For the series to claim that something's going to save us in the nick of time - and not even in a "well, if we all work together then we can make a difference" way, as in the later New Adventures - would be unforgivable. Let's bear in mind, certain friends of the Republican Party have openly stated that we don't have to worry about the global meltdown, because God will be announcing the Day of Judgement soon. I'm not joking. I only wish I were.

Not that the series can't go astray, although when it does, it's usually a result of clumsiness rather than an attempt to brainwash us with alien mind-slugs trained by ExxonMobil. The saddest example is "The Sontaran Stratagem", because even apart from the colossal folly of trying to force the Sontarans into an eco-parable, it sends out completely the wrong signals. For one thing, it makes the now-traditional Doctor Who mistake of presenting a sci-fi idea as a metaphor for something in the real world, but then messing it up by mentioning the real-world thing at the same time: in this case, the alien poison is supposed to make us think about carbon emissions, but it comes out of a device that's specifically designed to cut down carbon emissions. Eh? (Likewise, "World War Three" makes parallels between the Blairite Slitheen and the invasion of Iraq, but then has Harriet Jones inform us that the invasion of Iraq has already come and gone in this universe. Davies does it again in "Doomsday", by hinting that the temperature rise caused by the universe-hoppers is a nod towards global warming, then having Parallel Pete say 'that's not just global warming, is it?'.) There's also the problem that making cars belch out smoke is just about the least scary thing they could do on television, especially compared to what happens in the Car Tax ad, as we saw in Week Seven-and-a-Half.

More crucially, though… what exactly is the audience supposed to take away from this? As with the slavery non-issue in "Planet of the Ood", "The Poison Sky" seems to be acknowledging that there are serious problems waiting to erupt in the world, but copping out at the last minute and refusing to ask the viewers to think about them. Cars turn evil, for a while, and everyone walks to work the next day. Well, that's all right then. The Doctor states that the "nice" aspect of the ATMOS technology is a few decades ahead of its time, suggesting that there really is an easy solution to the gradual poisoning of our entire species, one that won't require us to do anything difficult like changing our driving habits. Then - in a bizarre turnaround - he lambasts the creator of this non-existent technology by pointing out that it'll just cause the world's oil reserves to run out. Yeeeees, but that's going to happen anyway. If we really did have a "nice" ATMOS, then we might at least have a workable biosphere afterwards. On the Great Scale of Environmental Rhetoric, this is substantially less convincing than claiming that pollution causes giant maggots.

But even apart from the unwillingness to rattle the modern audience, there's an extra difficulty in Doctor Who presenting us with a believable future. Any form of environmental concern, with or without the social consequences, can be misinterpreted as a party-political statement rather than something that worries us because millions of us are going to die for f***'s sake. I live in London, a city whose walking hoax of a mayor doesn't even accept that global warming exists. Others are capable of lobbying much, much harder, which is why a recent survey has shown that most British adults "aren't sure" what's causing the eco-hazard (like the creationist front in the US, the oil industry's approach is to claim that there's a "debate" about the issue, even though non-partisan scientists who don't acknowledge global warming are as rare as cartographers who still believe in a Flat Earth). The result is that any serious depiction of the immediate future is open to allegations of bias, and the BBC can hardly afford this, especially since its request for more funding was turned down by a government still smarting from the David Kelly affair. Just look what happened to Live Earth. We might similarly note that even though the world of the future seems like ideal material for a disaster movie, the only movie of the sort that's actually been made is The Day After Tomorrow… which gives us a freezing planet, i.e. the opposite of what's actually happening. Oh look, it was distributed by Fox, the entertainment wing of the neo-conservative movement. What a shock.

Because let's be clear on one thing here: there's no such thing as "non-political" or "escapist" entertainment. As I tried to explain in the introduction to Interference, I find it hard to believe in the value of escapism even as a concept, especially if your civilisation happens to be on the edge of an abyss. (Paul Cornell subsequently criticised me for this, not because he disagreed with the politics, but on the grounds that authors' introductions are invariably shit. He was quite right, and I wish he'd pointed it out before the book was actually published.) Nor should we kid ourselves that Doctor Who is an apolitical animal, even if it can look that way with hindsight, in much the same way that Dickens' social critiques look "quaint" when they're taken out of the context of the nineteenth century. The programme's first producer was an ideological firebrand, at least in the days before she somehow ended up being responsible for El Dorado. Verity Lambert (OBE), like most of the interesting people who've worked in television over the last half-century, saw the medium as having - or even being - a social conscience. Even if Doctor Who has never been overt in championing a political cause of any specific colour, it has repeatedly demonstrated a philosophy than can safely be described as "leftist". As we've seen, the reason "The Dominators" looks so out-of-step is that a story written in support of the Vietnam War just isn't welcome in these parts.

We should remember, though, that "left-wing" isn't a single movement. While you could argue that "right-wing" always means roughly the same thing, i.e. the belief in keeping a society as static as possible, "left-wing" covers any number of principles which don't necessarily agree with each other. "Right-wing" isn't the direct opposite of "left-wing", in the same way that "staying in your house" isn't the direct opposite of "being somewhere else other than your house": once you're outside, there are a billion other places you might possibly be. Unlike its grumpier forerunner Quatermass, Doctor Who is xenophiliac by its very nature, and that's a form of leftism in itself. This doesn't make it Marxist, anarchist, or any other brand-name flavour of leftyness, but even so, it's noticeable that you don't meet many overtly right-wing Doctor Who fans. Those who do exist seem to believe that it's a "sci-fi" show in the same mould as Star Trek, and have trouble understanding what it actually represents. They're also insufferable bores, but you could have guessed that.

(Some of you may be aware that I have personal issues here. A few years ago, the phrase "Eleven-Day Empire" - first used in Interference, although it's since become a core part of the Faction Paradox mythology - ended up being used as the name of a right-wing American website, run by what I can only describe as pro-military Doctor Who fans. Yeah, I know… never has the word "oxymoron" had so much emphasis on the "moron". The fact that they'd stolen the title from a novel which argues against everything the American right stands for, especially its connections with torturing states like Saudi Arabia, seems to have gone unnoticed: from what I could gather, they chose the name because my reckless use of the word "eleven" had reminded them of September the Eleventh, an event which apparently justified their belief in bombing anyone who didn't agree with their own hatemongering form of lunacy. I thought about taking legal action, then decided it wasn't worth the bother.)

Which leads us to consider modern-day Doctor Who's relationship with politics as a whole. Almost inevitably, there's a soft-left approach in effect here. It's taken for granted that we're all going to be dead-set against racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other vaguely meaningless bigotry-tag, yet there's no sense of how hard we had to fight to get this far, nor any suggestion that we should keep fighting. There's just an ever-present subtext that the "good" parts of our society are the universal standard of civilisation, which leads to a certain… what? Smugness? Complacency? I find myself remembering that one of the reasons I ended up falling out with Paul Cornell - yeah, him too - is that he went through that unfortunate metabolic change from "left-wing" to "New Labour", a common problem amongst men of his age and background. Those who developed a social conscience during the Thatcher years tend to become convinced that the most important political principle is to stop the Tories getting back into power, even if it means adopting Thatcherite policies, and even if they lose sight of the fact that there are far bigger and more lethal issues in the world. Moffat once tried to claim that the arguments between myself and Paul were like battles between the Popular People's Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People's Front, but in this he was quite wrong. Paul has a Blair-age philosophy, in which it's vital not to rock the boat, in case it offends the floating voter / floating viewer and makes them vote Conservative / watch ITV. I think you already know that this sort of thinking goes every strand of my RNA.

While we're in this area, an interesting case-study is the Big Finish "Young Bernice" novel Genius Loci, written by old New Adventures hand Ben Aaronovitch. We should remind ourselves that we've lost a Hell of a lot of optimism in the last ten years, and that in the epoch of the New Adventures, we were far more positive about the way the future might work out. Certainly, optimism was always Ben's strong suit. Transit was one of the few novels that wilfully bucked the trend of early '90s SF, and asked what might happen after the corporate cynicism of cyberpunk (which is why it's so galling that many semi-literate fans mistook it for a cyberpunk novel), while The Also People gave us a post-scarcity culture in which grubby politics has simply become unnecessary. In general, the New Adventures were keen on the idea of building utopia, although the Virgin history of the future is often troubled by military-industrial horror: the novels quite commendably depict war as a murderous side-effect of interplanetary capitalism, in which soldiers are blank-eyed cannon-fodder, denied any nobility or individuality by the powers that control them. On the surface, Genius Loci appears to be written in the familiar New Adventures style, and yet… hang on. This time around, the soldiers are actually nice. There's still a sense that they're little people caught up in big events, but their crusade is suddenly a righteous one. War is a necessary evil rather than a waste of biomass. Conscription is in no way a terrible thing, even if it leads to occasional tragedy.

The reason Ben can get away with this is simple: the book is set against the backdrop of the war against the Daleks, and as we all know, Daleks are the one thing that even the Doctor is allowed to kill with impunity. And this has been a subtext every since Terry Nation's day, so it's not merely a return to Ben's much-misunderstood "genocidal" agenda in "Remembrance". It's more worrying, though, if you put it in a real-world context. The New Adventures' version of the Earth military is largely modelled on the US marine corps, and there's a tendency for future wars to mirror Vietnam, most explicitly in Transit. But now… now we live in an age when the neo-lib, neo-con bombardment of the media is so overwhelming that even previously left-wing, right-minded or (loosely) liberal authors are starting to accept that maybe it's all right for Uncle Sam to go around invading other people's countries. Because after all, those nasty Muslims have started killing white, middle-class folk in New York, whereas they used to just kill their own. Of course, Genius Loci is never so crass as to make a connection between Daleks and al-Qaeda, yet when we meet the real baddies of the book - religiously-inclined aliens with a thing about moral purity - there is the creeping suggestion that fundamentalists deserve everything they get.

Why is this interesting? Because Ben is the brother of David Aaronovitch, the erstwhile left-wing columnist who switched sides in the early part of this decade by writing strident newspaper columns insisting that it was "necessary" to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. How it can be "necessary" to initiate a bombing campaign that slaughters over 100,000 civilian men, women and children, in order to dispose of a single political figure who was helped into power by the Americans in the first place, I'm still not sure. Nor did he explain why it was essential to depose a murderous, torturing despot like Saddam by killing so many of his unarmed subjects, but not essential to get rid of a murderous, torturing despot like the American-allied President Karimov of Uzbekistan. Naivety, not zealotry, is the tragic flaw of Aaronovitch (D): he actually believed that the US was acting for moral reasons. Now, I haven't spoken to Aaronovitch (B) in over a decade, so I don't know what his current political outlook is. But even if he hasn't been wholly taken in, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't have been affected in some way by such a close relationship to such a vocal pro-military demagogue. Whatever his voting habits, though, there's that terrible smack of New Labour about Genius Loci. Decent, soft-left values, on the surface; say no to bigotry and intolerance, in theory; treat foreign cultures with respect, as long as they're a bit like yours; but when your own cosiness is disturbed in some way… oh, now the world's getting scary. Send in the troops!!!

IV. Clifford Jones Good, Ianto Jones Bad

Russell T. Davies, meanwhile, is still happy to give Leaders of Men a good poke in the eye. This is why the OBE raises such a smile, and it's lucky the announcement was made a week before he dropped a replica of the Titanic on the Queen. Since he's much less embarrassing than Bono, he's done this through comedy rather than by pretending that his voice can change the world. When it was suggested to him that "Aliens of London" was "satirical", he wisely denied it, and claimed that it was more like Spitting Image. It's heartening to know that some writers are still capable of understanding the difference. "Satire" provokes its audience to ask questions, and there are few things in our society which still have this function, especially since most "satirical" comedy is a simple matter of pointing out that John Prescott is a fat bastard. Have I Got News for You is in no way satire: any attempt to query the hideousness of the modern world will immediately be derailed by Paul Merton making a joke about Bagpuss, and since it was responsible for giving catastrophe-denier Boris Johnson enough public recognition for him to mount a "serious" mayoral campaign, it's now responsible for making the political landscape rather than surveying it. Or making it worse, anyway. But Davies is just mooning the politicians, not making in-depth criticisms of government policy, and he's smart enough to realise it.

Tragically, not all SF on television is acute enough to know its limitations. Several times last year, I felt compelled to mention the po-faced idiocy of Battlestar Galactica, a series which seriously believes it's got important things to say about current affairs. Sci-fi nerds love this sort of thing, because it makes them feel as if they're watching something more significant than bloated, artless space-opera. In the case of Galactica, I tried to express this delusion with the phrase: "Hey, we’re making an important new sci-fi show that deals with serious, uncompromising issues in a post-9/11 world! It’s about shape-changing robots in outer space." (It's since been pointed out to me that the Cylon spies don't literally change shape, although if that's the strongest counter-argument geeks can come up with, then I'm not inclined to change my opinions.) Before now, I've pointed out that if you want to talk about global concerns on television, then the best way is… to make programmes about global concerns, not programmes about CGI monsters who might possibly represent Islamic terrorists in some way. But a more straightforward argument is simply that if Battlestar Galactica had any remotely meaningful political message, then it wouldn't be shown on a Murdoch channel.

It'd be nice to say that nothing in the Doctor Who universe has ever sunk to this level of crassness, but in fact, the Home Side has actually managed to sink even further. I'm referring, of course, to the Torchwood episode "Fragments". If you felt compelled to watch it, despite the evidence of the previous eleven weeks, then you may recall that this is the story in which the leggy Japanese girl from "Aliens of London" is arrested by the UN for handling ultra-sensitive alien-related technology; shovelled into an orange jumpsuit; and detained in a scary prison complex that's presented as an ironic reference to Guantanamo Bay.

Wait a minute… an ironic reference to Guantanamo Bay? Before we examine why this is so grossly, agonisingly wrong, let's remind ourselves of the facts. Guantanamo Bay is a facility where people found guilty of having brown skin during an American invasion - some of them sympathetic to hardline Islamic movements, but most of them wholly innocent of anything other than "looking a bit like the men behind 9/11" or "getting on the wrong side of the local big-shot during the war in Afghanistan" - are locked up without trial, held in conditions that wouldn't be legal for cattle, subjected to the kind of psychological experimentation that Mengele would have been proud of, and in some cases shipped out to other "specialist" American-allied facilities, where they're systematically tortured in order to extract information they don't possess. After years of being blasted with white noise and having their fingernails pulled out with the blessing of both the US and UK intelligence services, a few of them are then released without charge, but still branded as "terrorist sympathisers" for telling journalists about the atrocities committed against them. This isn't done in order to uncover some evil al-Qaeda masterplan, because no such masterplan exists, and only a Battlestar Galactica fan would be idiotic enough to believe that to-torture-or-not-to-torture is an "ethical dilemma". It's simply a demonstration of absolute, accountability-free power by the world's most dangerous military empire, and we're actually letting the bastards get away with it.

Faced with this, Torchwood "references" Guantanamo Bay… for a laugh? To look "topical", even though it doesn't have any point to make, or any grounding in the real world at all? In my round-up of the entire unforgivable second season - you know, you kept quoting the comment about "Blink" for months afterwards, even though much more important things were going on - I suggested that if the producers are so keen on using crimes against humanity as a cheap way of looking up-to-date, then they should consider introducing an alien who kills people in exactly the same way as Levi Bellfield. (Bellfield was - is - a serial killer who'd just been imprisoned for smashing young women's heads open with a sledgehammer. He came to mind simply because he was so close to home, since one of his crimes was committed on my local bus route.) But unbelievably, that's not the worst part of it. We have to remember that Guantanamo Bay isn't an inevitable symptom of the modern world, and nor is it typical of a nominally democratic government: it's an operation run by one specific, corrupt administration of one specific, corrupt nation-state. Its existence is a product of the modern American right, not something you can roll your eyes at and say "tssk, I dunno, bloody politicians". Yet Torchwood actually presents its pretend-Guantanamo as… God, the stupidity of this is so vast that I'm not sure I can get it to come out of my keyboard… a United Nations facility.

The UN? You know, the body that's actually been trying - however ineffectually - to prevent the Bush administration's abuse of power? The body which has repeatedly described Guantanamo Bay as a pox on the face of human civilisation, and whose report on the institution not only demanded its closure, but the criminal prosecution of all those responsible for it…? Yet here, in what we tragically have to accept as a part of the Doctor Who universe, the crimes of the neo-con movement have been blamed on its opponents. It's like blaming the Holocaust on rabbis. I've been trying to think of anything else in film or television that even comes close to this level of wrongness, and the only thing that springs to mind is Mel Gibson's The Patriot, which "proves" how evil the British were to the American colonials (in the 1770s) by accusing them of atrocities that were actually committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe (in the 1940s). If the programme had claimed that the destruction of the World Trade Centre was really an extra-terrestrial attack, then the media would have howled in protest, yet it's apparently reasonable to do something even more offensive if the victims of the real-world horror aren't white, aren't wealthy, and have funny-sounding accents.

(I know I've always been savage about Chibnall's work, even beyond my normal level of hatred for ineptitude, but I feel it's justified in his case. As we all know, he appeared on television as a member of DWAS to complain about the state of Doctor Who in the mid-'80s, two decades before demonstrating that he's not even capable of writing something on a par with "Timelash". This alone would qualify him as fair game, even if "Cyberwoman" weren't the only piece of Doctor Who-related television I still haven't been able to sit through. I can only hope that if I'm working in the media twenty years from now, then others will be just as harsh to me if I'm even one-thirtieth as incompetent.)

Why can Torchwood get away with this, though, without invoking universal condemnation? Again, we come back to the central point of this entire argument. It's a function of the consumer society that anyone who mentions / cares about / understands politics should be considered dubious by his or her very nature, and an essential part of this is the belief that all political philosophies are ultimately the same… and therefore equally pointless. The result of this belief is, of course, that it gradually becomes true: all three leading political parties in the UK now hold that the neo-liberal style of government is the only option, and that direct economic intervention in society is a bad idea (well, unless rich people need a hand-out for any reason). This is why Britain is no longer a democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word. Similarly, the Torchwood prison complex is supposed to be an all-purpose symbol of shifty governments, as if it's perfectly reasonable to turn the mutilation of political prisoners into a prop from The X-Files. The US, the UN, what difference does it make…? Actually, it makes all the difference in the world, but that's not the lesson we're supposed to be learning here. We're supposed to accept that all politics is obviously evil, then focus on the sexual tension between Captain Jack and the Welsh techie.

It's hard to overestimate how damaging this sort of thing is. No, I can hear what you're saying even from here, and you're quite right: children won't grow up with a stunted social conscience because of Torchwood. But they will grow up with a stunted social conscience because of a culture composed entirely of programmes just like it. Only not quite as awful, and usually not in such sickeningly bad taste. To me, this is the Mini-Pops of the twenty-first century.

So, our final conclusions. Modern Doctor Who is terrified of the future, and not without good reason. But more importantly, it's massively constrained by the political climate, to the point where anything beyond the pre-apocalyptic optimism of the 2012 Olympics might as well be forbidden territory. You can see, I hope, why this becomes an issue in the week of "Turn Left". The nightmare alter-UK we're shown here, with refugees, a crippled economy, and spurious detainment in "labour camps", is darker than just about anything we've seen in any version of the series (certainly much worse than the alter-UK of "Last of the Time Lords", basically a storybook version of the same idea). Yet it's also closer to what's actually likely to happen than anything we've seen so far, or at the very least, it's a more creditable vision of Tomorrow's Britain. Russell T. Davies can get away with it here, because he's careful to establish that this is a horrible Doctorless world, while failing to remind us that ours is also a horrible Doctorless world. Like the parallel universe where Hitler won World War Two, we can mop our foreheads and say "whew, thank God we avoided that"… except that this time, we didn't. This alternative-present is, on the latest evidence, just like our probable-future.

Above all else, we should remember that the people of the 1960s knew far less than we do about the social and ecological consequences of their decisions: if they'd had any real inkling, then they never would have let us reach this point. They knew how to resist, whereas we've spent thirty years being primed not to. Just keep collecting the DVD boxed sets, and… oh, make sure you live in a gated community, so that you've got a way of defending your Blue-Ray collection when the immigrants arrive. And sadly, in the real world, it doesn't seem likely that sacrificing Catherine Tate will make things any better. Because unlike Russell T. Davies, we don't get a reset switch.

Next week in this column, something nice and harmless involving Daleks. Nice and harmless, and hopefully, quite short.