A few months ago, I took a course entitled Social Responsibility in Business. Sounds exciting? Not so much, but it was interesting. We had to look at the social responsibility of a tobacco company. I’m very anti-cigarette, so I knew this would be interesting. But then I started to learn about the role the tobacco companies play in their respective environments, how they took social responsibility seriously and gave back to the community. What a wake-up call! I learned a lot about what ITC, the Imperial Tobacco Company of India, does for their community. Without re-writing my final paper here, suffice to say, I was truly surprised that even a company that creates such a heinous product as cigarettes, can contribute to the greater good of a community. But it makes me wonder: if a company that can produce a cancer causing agent like cigarettes can be held to certain standards, why is the media free to say and do whatever it wants? Look at it this way: a child cannot go to the store and buy cigarettes. If the child is too young, he or she can’t even get to the store. Older children would have their IDs checked nowadays. But TV? What goes on television is mostly inane claptrap and a rating doesn’t prevent a child from watching something. How often do parents watch a show like The Simpsons, The Office, or Family Guy with the children in the same room, because it’s mild humor? But it’s more than that! Kids pick up things especially when they think it’s funny and the parent laughing at the lewd comment in The Office just unwittingly told the child that it’s acceptable to say that because it will make people laugh. I’d like to think Doctor Who is above these social blunders, but it has failed more often than it should have in recent years. Shouldn’t social responsibility be even more regulated for media, when it is so readily accessible?
And how did I get on this when we’re here to talk Doctor Who?
Over the last week, we’ve been looking at the Master’s stories and one cannot help but refer back that old bitty, Mary Whitehouse. While she seemed to totally lack any understanding of what science fiction TV was all about, there’s an underlying value she was complaining about that might rise her above what people tend to think of her. At the time, she complained about a freeze-frame image of the Doctor being drowned at the end of an episode of Tom Baker’s 1976 story, The Deadly Assassin. Her contention was that it was too traumatic for young viewers and they would worry for a week about the Doctor. In this regard, I think she fails to recognize the intelligence of the children watching. It was a freeze-frame and as Roger points out in his side of our The Deadly Assassin blog post, there were far more gruesome things to fuss about! But if we go just beneath the surface, Mary was complaining about something that I feel has gotten far worse in recent years especially under Steven Moffat’s direction. It’s a question of social responsibility. You’ve got to know your audience and still know what’s right and wrong. A bad thing being done by a bad guy is not the issue, unlike what it appeared Mary was complaining about. What is bad is when the good guys do it!
Doctor Who had a social responsibility from day one when the show targeted a young audience: teach history and science in a fun way. That meant if the writers were intentionally telling falsehoods, they were doing their audience a disservice. Let’s face it, Doctor Who may get outdated when talking about bubble memory in Logopolis, but I still remember learning about the Magna Carta in The King’s Demons long before it was taught in school and I never forgot the date as a result. On many occasions, Doctor Who piqued my interest in a subject that helped me learn about it before it was a requirement. The show provided a service that benefited me in my schooling. And I, like most children, understood that there was no robot impersonating King John at the time. In that regard, Mary’s complaints seem to ignore the inherent intellect of a child. While impressionable, they will usually know real from fiction, at least on a basic level. What is not as basic is behavioral learning, like laughing at that lewd comment without understanding its meaning. Psychologically, we pick up a lot from our heroes. Whether dad or Doctor, we inherit some of their finer qualities, because we look up to them. So it’s very important that our heroes remain heroic.
Steven Moffat began his writing on Doctor Who with one-off stories that were fantastic, but when he became show-runner, to quote the band Pulp, something changed. We started to get things like “Rule one: The Doctor Lies”. What message does this give to a child? It’s OK to lie because my hero lies? This isn’t a freeze frame image; it’s a way of life. “I’ll smack you so hard you’ll regenerate” implies it’s alright to smack someone in the face. We see plenty of smacks through Smith’s run and he seems to enjoy it from time to time. And, even though I do adore Capaldi, his “shut up, shut up, shut up” is barely amusing, but when you’re child tells you to shut up, you suddenly see red. When ones child breaks a toy they have the automatic assumption that it can be replaced; it shows a gross lack of concern for one’s own belongings and no understanding of the value of things. Yet when Capaldi punches the TARDIS to the point of sending up a shower of sparks, does that suddenly make it OK? Let’s not even touch upon the idea that the TARDIS is a sentient organism, because I’d hope that its non-anthropomorphic shape will make it less obvious for children. Plus the alternative is that they remember and think it’s OK to hit one another when they’re upset because that’s what their hero does. Punch it so hard, it regenerates…
This is what makes scenes like the Doctor snapping Scorby’s neck in The Seeds of Doom unfortunate. He’s the one committing the violent act in that moment. While Colin’s Doctor did not intend for people to fall into that vat of acid in Vengence on Varos, his snarky comments imply he doesn’t care, which isn’t good either. He’s the Doctor; he should care! Yet somehow Colin gets more of a negative reputation that Tom, when Tom actively committed a physically aggressive act. The Third Doctor frequently incapacitates his opponents, but he does not kill (unless you’re an Ogron, then he doesn’t seem to care; it’s a bit racist, but they’re just Ogrons after all! <– You see what I just did there?) It’s why I had a problem with Tom Baker telling a Rutan “I don’t like your face” in Horror of Fang Rock. It’s the Doctor’s job to rise above petty racism. Just because a Rutan looks like a jellyfish, it’s still a living creature with self-awareness. Shouldn’t the Doctor, of all people, be able to rise above that? Let someone else say it; let the Doctor correct it. Help drive home the point that looks don’t matter. We will be coming to Hell Bent this week, an episode I consider the weakest Doctor Who episode of all and while there are a number of things wrong with it, the worst of all is the Doctor killing one of his own kind at gun point, because his victim would regenerate anyway. Even if we ignore what David Tennant’s Doctor spent so much time talking about with Wilf, regarding how regeneration still feels like death, it still depicted the Doctor pulling the trigger and killing one of his own; one who stood by him earlier in that very episode! To add to it, he calls it “man flu” as if that takes away from the act. In an age of excessive gun violence, did this need to be shown? Was it necessary to have the Doctor pull the trigger?
Media is frequently used as a palliative for children. When they are bored, they watch TV. Home sick from school; TV. When their parents have it on, they hear it. When they are fans of a show, the watch it. Shouldn’t media be regulated to some extent like the Tobacco companies? Is it simply because one can be measured with a physical effect while the other cannot? Does that make it less regulated? Even so, in the case of our show, Doctor Who, shouldn’t it hold itself above the others regardless because it is already infinitely more unique than any of them! It can do more genre defying stories than any other show on television, and has more versatility that it can literally go on forever. So: rise even higher and prove that it is the best show on television. Keep it heroic.
Where is Moffat’s sense of social responsibility? I truly don’t know. I love Doctor Who as a TV show and think no other character compares to him in any genre, but he is far from flawless. As a character, he makes mistakes, and as a work of fiction he’s subject to the mistakes of a writer. Moffat did some good when he wrote The Day of the Doctor with his “never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in!” But it was Capaldi that truly helped redeem both the show and the character with his perfect final speech which Capaldi helped write. It explains who the Doctor is:
Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise.
Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind.
Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except…. Except….children. Children can hear it. Sometimes – if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name. But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever.
Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.
Doctor Who should be better than other shows. It should pave the way for other children to follow those footsteps: to be full of fun and laughter, wonder and excitement and most of all, to always be kind. When Doctor Who does that, it’s being socially responsible and helping to create a new era that can see in a bright, new future! That’s being socially responsible. A story doesn’t have to suffer to do it. It just needs a writer who understands the value of keeping the Doctor, the hero. ML