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Reds under the sofa

Brendan O’Shea investigates the communist roots of TV’s longest running sci-fi show.

Artwork by Brendan O'Shea Artwork by Brendan O'Shea

I

It’s April, 1968. In the UK, shadow Defence Secretary, conservative Enoch Powell, delivers what will come to be known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. He decries levels of immigration to the UK, claiming that British people are being made “strangers in their own country”.

Historians allege that, come 1970, the popularity of Powell’s views on race will deliver power to the Conservative Party.

Meanwhile, on the BBC, Doctor Who has spent a year having the Doctor protect vulnerable human communities from being taken over by invasive aliens.

II

Rewind to 1963.

Meet Malcolm Hulke. Hulke has roots in the left-leaning Unity Theatre—a movement strongly linked with the Communist Party. Hulke was once a party member himself, and is under MI5 monitoring as a result. Unity Theatre believes that drama should pursue realism “to educate, to encourage political action and to allow working class politics and cultural expression”.

Hulke is being courted by the BBC to write for their new science fiction and edutainment series Doctor Who.

Hulke makes two pitches for Doctor Who plotlines—one about a mirror-Earth where women rule and men struggle for their rights. It’s considered promising, but ultimately rejected for lacking a monster. That’s because, only in its first season, Doctor Who is already dominated by the Daleks. This horrific race, hell-bent on genocide, is explicitly fascistic and xenophobic. They are pure evil, and the Doctor must defeat them at all cost.  This is not a show with room for complex, political storylines; it is a show about fighting monsters.

III

It’s 1967

The Doctor has since ‘regenerated’ (a plot device introduced to explain recasting the ailing lead actor.) Doctor Who has increasingly started to, as Elizabeth Sandifor writes in TARDIS Eruditorum, “collapse… alien races into humanoids and evil”. In their pursuit of a worthy successor to the Daleks, the writing team begins to construct a universe full of pure evils seeking to conquer the human race.

This logic finds its clearest distillation in the story formula referred to as the ‘base under siege’: a trope where humans in an isolated ‘base’, such as an Arctic research facility, must fend off the invasive monster-of-the-week. It’s a trope that’s about to shape the show’s production for over a year.

Hulke challenges the logic the show is developing. He scores his first credit on the program as half of a writing partnership for the thriller The Faceless Ones. The resolution to Hulke’s plot, that the monsters known as Chameleons are neither ideologically homogeneous nor truly evil, is one that will recur in scripts Hulke eventually writes by himself. Unlike the Daleks, the Chameleons are a race of individuals capable of dramatic involvement in the script. A faction of the Chameleons agrees with the Doctor’s pacifist offer to withdraw—diplomacy, rather than annihilation, resolves the plot.

Hulke will not write for the program again until 1969, with the ten-episode long serial ‘The War Games’. To resolve this epic story, the Doctor summons a deus ex machina: his own people, the Time Lords. After resolving the main arc, the Time Lords place the Doctor himself on trial—for meddling in other species’ affairs. The Doctor argues he has a moral duty to defeat the ideologically evil monsters such as the Daleks. The Time Lords aren’t convinced; as punishment, they exile the Doctor to the Earth and force him to regenerate once again.

IV

Doctor Who returns in 1970 for a seventh season, but it’s no longer filmed in black and white and it has a new lead actor. Its production team has been overhauled, and is led by Barry Letts, who as producer “liked stories to have a reason”.

Letts will later write ‘The Green Death’ in 1973, where the Doctor champions environmentalists against Global Chemicals, a corporation shirking responsibility for the disastrous effects of its industrial waste. For the first time, a producer is in harmony with Hulke’s approach, and in the 1970 season Hulke becomes one of the major creative forces in the history of Doctor Who.

Britain is now post ‘Rivers of Blood’. The Conservatives are in government.

Hulke deliberately avoids writing obviously ‘evil’ monsters, or giving them uniformingly ‘evil’ ideologies. In the thirteen episodes Hulke eventually writes, however, for six he will be a ghost writer, he casts the Doctor as a diplomat rather than annihilator. It is telling that in Hulke’s only credited script for 1970, ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, the Doctor immediately attempts to establish that he and the titular creatures can understand one another. Something new to the Hulke formula, however, is the depiction of human military figures driven by xenophobia. It is a fundamental readjustment for  a show that the previous year had been satirising pacifism and embracing belligerence.

V

By 1973, Doctor Who has undergone a moral evolution—and Hulke has been a major force behind this change. He’s also been the only writer to have contributed at least one script per season since the seventh season. His script for the eighth season in 1971 is perhaps his most overtly anti-capitalist: colonists have fled Earth, an industrialised dystopia, only to be threatened by the commercial interests of an intergalactic mining conglomerate.

His politics, it seems, introduced and normalised the show’s left-wing bent. In a 1972 story by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, ‘The Mutants’, the Doctor sides against representatives of an Earth Empire who refuse to cede self-government to a colonised race of metamorphic aliens.

Despite his significance, Hulke breaks with the production office in 1973. His script for Doctor Who’s eleventh season, to be broadcast in early 1974, sees meddling from BBC executives: Hulke considers this an injury to his reputation. Despite apologies from the BBC, Hulke never contributed a script to the series again, instead focusing on a burgeoning line of Doctor Who novel adaptations. He died a few years later in 1979.

VI

It is 1977, four years since Hulke’s break with Doctor Who. ‘The Sun Makers’ airs on the BBC: a story about a corporation that has privatised society and turned the human race into wage slaves. The Doctor stokes up a revolution to overthrow the capitalist overlords.

It is 1985. ‘Vengeance on Varos’ depicts a government beholden to the interests of vast intergalactic corporations.

It is 2015. In Britain, Brexit is a mere year away. The alt-right is ascendent, but hasn’t yet reached the mainstream heights of Donald Trump.

Doctor Who airs two episodes featuring an alien race attempting to integrate into human society before a small group of militant aliens initiates an open war. The humans respond by considering genocide. The Doctor makes impassioned pacifist offers to restore the pre-war status quo, helping the aliens to resume their lives as part of society.

A spectre haunts Doctor Who—the spectre of left-wing Malcolm Hulke.

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