Doctor Who’s take on UK prime ministers
Winston Churchill, Harriet Jones, Harold Saxon... As we all head to the voting booths, how have UK prime ministers fared in Doctor Who?
Incarnations of the Doctor are a bit like British prime ministers. They usually last four to five years in real time and, despite having different faces, a cynic could say that they’re all pretty much the same beneath the surface. But that’s the stuff of Media Studies dissertations, in fact, Doctor Who has a far dimmer view of the UK executive in the show itself.
Over the course of fifty-odd years, the office of prime minister has been both the target and agent of satire and parody in a show that deals with an onslaught of alien activity on British soil in the past, present and future.
As we’re all going to the polls today to pick who we want in Downing Street, here’s our look back at the previous occupants of Number 10 in the Whoniverse, in (relative) chronological order…
The Beast Below, Victory Of The Daleks, The Pandorica Opens and The Wedding Of River Song
Having previously popped up in spin-off media like the Sixth Doctor novel Players and the Tenth Doctor short story The Lonely Computer, Churchill made his first appearance proper at the close of series five’s The Beast Below, setting up a Dalek story the following week. Victory Of The Daleks is hardly the finest hour of the show, but it’s one of the few sympathetic portrayals of a PM on this list.
Oddly for a Dalek story, Churchill is cast in the role that would usually be occupied by more despicable humans. Theorists point to the Daleks’ original conception as Nazis for the post-nuclear age as a device through which British characters can re-enact the victories of World War II against contemporary threats. Writer Mark Gatiss subverts that by having Churchill borrow the Daleks to fight the Nazis. And then there’s all that interstellar Spitfire business.
In the Steven Moffat era, the representation of historical figures has been increasingly divorced from any kind of context (Let’s Kill Hitler, anyone?) and so we’ve also seen him as Holy Roman Emperor at the exact moment of 2:05pm on 22nd April 2011, in The Wedding Of River Song. Still, Ian McNeice’s recurring role makes him one of the Eleventh Doctor’s most erstwhile buddies, despite a persistent urge to commandeer the TARDIS. Keep buggering on, indeed.
Jeremy (Thorpe) and Shirley Williams
Mentioned in The Green Death and Terror Of The Zygons
Everybody hold on, we’re sounding the UNIT continuity alarm – this could get really geeky. The UNIT stories are largely accepted to take place in the near future to when they were broadcast, but this gets terribly confusing if you take it as gospel. This is what the Tenth Doctor’s quip in The Sontaran Stratagem was all about – he used to work for them in the 1970s, or was it the 1980s? In any case, this allowed the production team to make some sci-fi speculations about their prospective future.
In the classic Third Doctor serial, the Brigadier and UNIT are expressly forbidden from investigating Global Chemicals by the prime minister, who is referred to only by the first name, Jeremy. This is widely accepted (and expanded upon in spin-off media) to refer to the then-leader of the Liberal party, Jeremy Thorpe, who had a very long shot at being PM in real life, as a joke by the production team.
To refer to the BBC’s episode guide for the classic series, under “Party Politics”, the Whoniverse general election of 1970 resulted in a hung parliament, with voters unable to support muddled policies towards alien incursions from the two main parties, allowing the Liberal party to form a government. However, further scandals involving alien invaders and high ranking figures throughout the Third Doctor’s tenure at UNIT caused Thorpe’s government to fall in 1973.
He was replaced by Labour leader Shirley Williams, who’s referred to in Terror Of The Zygons as “Madam” during a phone call with the PM. However, writer Terrance Dicks has since said on a DVD commentary that this line was just an ad-lib by Nicholas Courtney, so it’s very possible to read too much into this. We’re turning the alarm off now.
This is as close to Word Of God and spin-off continuity as we’ll get on this list, but it goes to show that the UK government was portrayed as either obstructive towards the good guys or complicit with the baddies in some way throughout the UNIT era.
Aliens Of London and World War Three
When the PM and his Cabinet were indisposed in the aftermath of an alien craft wiping out Big Ben, the chairman of the committee for the monitoring of sugar standards in exported confectionary led the emergency government (much to the consternation of the BBC’s Andrew Marr.) As one of two 21st century prime ministers who is merely a front for an alien invader, Green is actually Jocrassa Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen.
Russell T. Davies modernised Doctor Who by taking an askance view of contemporary pop culture and politics. As in the 1970s stories, he adopted a possible future by shunting the modern locale 12 months into the future with a TARDIS malfunction in Aliens Of London. From that story to the end of the Davies era, the new series’ “contemporary Earth” stories were all set one year hence from broadcast.
And aside from the obvious parallels of our politicians actually being unfeeling, flatulent monsters pretending to be human, (Charlie Brooker is one of the notable commentators who insist David Cameron is actually a reptile) Davies uses the Slitheen Cabinet to show up the ridiculousness of Tony Blair’s claims that a foreign aggressor could launch nuclear attacks on the UK within 45 minutes.
Funnily enough, that’s the same length as an episode of Doctor Who, so it’s fitting that Davies took that amount of time to skewer the war on terror two weeks in a row. As for Green, he claims that the pig people scapegoats need only 45 seconds, which is about as long as it takes for he and Downing Street to get blown up, in one of the less subtle plot resolutions of the Ninth Doctor’s run.
Aliens Of London, World War Three, The Christmas Invasion and The Stolen Earth
Yes, you know who she is. By the end of World War Three, we have a PM-in-waiting in the form of the wonderful Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones. The Ninth Doctor tells Rose that the MP for Flydale North will usher Britain into a new golden age of prosperity over three successive terms. By the next time we see her, the Tenth Doctor has different ideas.
While he’s tucked up in bed recovering from his regeneration, Harriet considers extreme measures to fight off the invading Sycorax, priming Torchwood to blast them out of the sky. The new Doctor recovers and sees off the threat, only for Harriet to blast them anyway, while they’re retreating.
There’s an obvious parallel with the Belgrano incident here, but the Doctor’s disfavour with her gives us another lampoon of Blair, who at the time was fielding speculation about his fitness for office. Harriet is redeemed when she gives her life helping the Doctor’s companions to fight off the Daleks in The Stolen Earth when, once again, he isn’t around to help in time. Deposing her from office can generally be seen as something of an overreach, especially considering the next prime minister you see.
The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords
Mentioned variously in the third series of Doctor Who and the first series of Torchwood, Harold Saxon made an astronomical rise through government, taking down the Racnoss as Minister of Defence in The Runaway Bride, becoming the leader of the opposition by the time of Greeks Bearing Gifts and ultimately winning the 2008 general election.
Unfortunately for pretty much everyone, he was also the Master in disguise. Trapped between Martha Jones’ present and the end of the world, the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis made good on a new incarnation by building a phone network that hypnotised the world to trust him and got him elected PM.
Then from the bridge of the helicarrier-like base that he designed, he murdered the President of the United States and sent robots to kill off one tenth of the world’s population. So, there have been worse prime ministers than the ones we get in real life, certainly. It’s never explicitly stated that the Doctor’s previous interaction with Harriet Jones led to this mess, but it looks pretty bad.
We still couldn’t begin to explain the circumstances that lead to his downfall in Last Of The Time Lords with a straight face, but in concept alone, it’s still one of the best Master stories ever produced, giving the character a channel for his mania that can really get on the Doctor’s nerves on an epic scale.
Torchwood: Children Of Earth
Given how big the Tenth Doctor was on fixed points in time, it’s apparent that certain prime ministers don’t figure into that kind of history, so the version posited by the spin-off series has to be the one we follow. And in Children Of Earth, we go from the Master’s fascist dictatorship to snivelling shirker Brian Green, with even more galling consequences.
The startling state secret that sets the ball rolling in the five-part miniseries is that back in 1965, prime minister Harold Wilson solicited a cure for a mutated strain of Spanish flu from an alien race known only as the 456. In exchange, they asked for 12 children, which Wilson ordered to be fulfilled in order to save millions from the aggressive virus.
Of course, the 456 come back asking for more – this time they want 10% of all the world’s children, in exchange for not destroying the human race. Mr. Green largely tries to defer responsibility to Permanent Secretary to the Home Office and Twelfth Doctor doppelgänger John Frobisher, before actioning a compromise that would sacrifice the “lowest-performing” 10% of the UK’s young population, based on school league tables.
He also callously tries to include Frobisher’s own children amongst the offering, so that “the government could be seen to have suffered”, leading the poor civil servant to take his family’s life and then his own. Repulsively played by Nicholas Farrell, Green is absolutely the biggest shit-heel of all the Whoniverse prime ministers, given free rein to be a cowardly and monstrous character in a post-watershed show.
It’s implied that Green was deposed off screen by Frobisher’s loyal PA, Bridget Spears, but we never get the satisfaction of seeing this slime scraped off as a cap to Torchwood‘s finest story arc.
The Beast Below
Taking a quantum leap away from the 21st century and ending (more or less) where we began, Hawthorne serves the same function as a Prime Minister on board a very British ark in space, Starship UK. The ship still has a head of state in the form of arse-kicking queen Liz 10, but Hawthorne is responsible for the day-to-day running of the ship and its conversion into a police state under the robotic Smilers.
Aside from the fact that he’s played by Demon Headmaster actor Terrence Hardiman, Hawthorne is hardly the most memorable figure on our list, but he features in a story that levels quite a few wild attacks on British politics, in a situation where the Star Whale supporting Starship UK represents an exploited but unspecified class of people.
The electoral function on board the ship gives citizens the knowledge of this exploitation before offering them a choice to either “Protest” or “Forget”. As the Eleventh Doctor remarks, it’s “democracy in action”.
Aired in the run-up to the 2010 general election and a week before the muddled symbolism of Victory Of The Daleks, The Beast Below finds British politics in arrested development. The politicians are unwilling to take chances on standing up for social justice and the electorate is apathetic by choice. We’d like to have been less cynical than Moffat’s heavy-handed political satire, but we did end up with a hung parliament a few weeks later, didn’t we?
Like the office of the PM, the Doctor is both target and agent of political satire – an unelected authority who changes every few years. Still, there’s never been a bad Doctor, and just as it is in real life, the Whoniverse has more than its share of bad or misguided prime ministers.
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