Film and drama

New era of Doctor Who captures the spirit of austerity-ridden Britain

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Doctor Who series 11 with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor.

Now five episodes in, we have a good sense of this new era of Doctor Whowith Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor and Chris Chibnall as showrunner.

Concerning the show’s overall story arc, there are countless commendable and constructive things to say about how it’s been going so far.

Whittaker has stepped into the lead role with class and charm. She has immediately crafted for herself a unique persona of The Doctor. Chibnall continues to be a master of immersive (to the point of being fully suffocating) world-building. Rosa was a remarkably politically and emotionally thrilling episode. It deserves the popular praise it’s been receiving.

And there have been plenty of clever, funny and heartfelt moments with the companions.

But taking a step back from the storyline, as far as we can discern the show’s overall meta-mood, energy, rhythm and direction, this is looking to be quite a gloomy, anxious and pessimistic series. Continuing on from where the Peter Capaldi years had left off, Doctor Who continues to be a most depressing, dark and despondent show.

Long gone are the Matt Smith years when the show was criticised for being too upbeat and silly and not being serious enough of a drama.

Keeping ourselves just to the Whittaker-Chibnall episodes, what we have seen so far is a universe that is unfriendly and violent and hard; where mere survival is a grave yet momentous trial and where death is a permanently haunting spectre.

Environments are hostile, perilous and merciless, which seek to do nothing but snuff out all remaining life. Villains are relentlessly cruel, unforgiving and blood-thirstily depraved, yet don’t seem to have rationally understandable motivations. Episodic plots primarily revolve around our heroes just trying to stay alive, keeping out of danger, escaping from a great danger and finding a safe place in which to hide.

Our heroes are tasked with trying to traverse and survive this dangerous and unfriendly and quite frankly nightmarish world. And in order to do this, they have tended towards certain inclinations and approaches, such as being generally insular-focused, perpetually worried about the future and instinctively cautious about change and outsiders.

There is a highly-strung, agitated undertone to many of the characters’ exchanges and actions, an understandable response to the kinds of things they’ve seen and had done to them.

Another predominant feeling is one of impotence, futility and failure. As we learn about the companions’ backstories, we’re given a stream of miserable memories and anecdotes: unhappy old lives at home, lost loves, regrets, a general sense of unfulfilled longing and little hope for a better future.

Over the course of the episodes thus far, as each encounter and puzzle and task is overcome, our heroes don’t celebrate their progress or escape with enthusiasm and hopefulness, but rather a feeling of solemn good fortune and sullen apathy reigns.

It's as if to say: “Sure, we got ourselves out of that one and we get to live for another day, but the next hazard that comes up will probably – surely – be the one that finally does us in."

The more positive, enthusiastic, generous and joyful elements of Doctor Who from previous eras have disappeared. Whether it’s the energetic maelstrom of David Tennant, the flirty cleverness of William Hartnell, the child-like curiosity of Patrick Troughton, the crafty yet rugged playfulness of Tom Baker, or the proud confidence of Christopher Eccleston, there have always been the more upbeat notes that The Doctor has danced to.

But those beats have long since gone away, leaving nothing behind for us but the fear, dread and worry — which then accumulate and intensify over time such to mutate into paranoia, emotional numbness and generalised misery.

Now, of course, Doctor Who has always been a TV show of its time and place. Despite having travelled to the farthest reaches of time and space and through all sorts of dimensional realms in between, The Doctor has always been of British inspiration and design and has always been performed with a “British accent”.

It should be no surprise, then, that as British society changes for better or worse with each period of its history, so too would Doctor Who and The Doctor.

And the most important fact about present-day British society is that for the past eight years, it has been suffering under a cruel, belligerent, seemingly endless austerity regime.

It all began in 2010, with the election of a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, with David Cameron as Prime Minister and George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer. They instituted a program of welfare and taxation measures, which broke apart the traditional welfare state safety net, throwing millions of unemployed, single parents, disabled, young and elderly Britons into vulnerability and destitution.


Austerity’s manifestations are palpable and omnipresent,” writes Peter S Goodman in the New York Times. “It has refashioned British society, making it less like the rest of Western Europe, with its generous social safety nets and egalitarian ethos, and more like the United States, where millions lack health care and job loss can set off a precipitous plunge in fortunes.”

Goodman continues: 

"[Austerity measures have] delivered a monumental shift in British life ... [it] has yielded a country that has grown accustomed to living with less, even as many measures of social wellbeing – crime rates, opioid addiction, infant mortality, childhood poverty and homelessness – point to a deteriorating quality of life.”

Welfare recipients are being paid so little that, after paying the essential bills, they have nothing left over for food; parents skip meals to make sure that their children get to eat; people sleep without any heating during the winter; the elderly and disabled have lost access to home care; children go to school without lunch and wearing tattered clothes.

The suffering has been widespread and profoundly felt. This has even reached the point where now the United Nations has launched an investigation into the question.

Britain has been turned into an unforgiving place, where people must toil away in desperation just to survive. But then there are those who are unable to get by and die from the lack of food, warmth or medicine. Studies count the number of deaths caused by austerity by the tens of thousands, with some suggesting the total number might be as high as 120,000. One researcher has referred to the austerity regime as “economic murder".

The full scope and scale of the psychological and cultural impact of austerity is yet to be studied and measured. Anecdotally, we know that many millions of Britons are so consumed by their daily toil that they have lost all sense of broader society or politics or culture or a larger meaning to life. The welfare state has been chopped to shred, civil society has rotted away and notions of solidarity, community and charity have evaporated — leaving behind a social vacuum for the rise of darkness and despair, dread for the future, suspicion of the outsider and hopelessness regarding future prospects.

Watching Doctor Who today, many Britons could no doubt watch the adventures of Jodie Whittaker’s The Doctor – where the situation is so desperate that survival can only come through a slow grind of desperation and determination – and sympathise with exactly what she’s going through.

Justen Bellingham is a Melbourne writer and a former student of Box Hill TAFE and La Trobe University. You can follow him @JustenBell.

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