Monday, 1 November 2010

The Death of the Doctor

Last week's episode of "The Sarah Jane Adventures" brought back old companion Jo Grant (now Jo Jones), as someone who left the Doctor when fighting for environmental matters in Wales, and has spent her life fighting against exploitation of the natural world, and injustice.

This was very much in keeping with her last Dr Who story, "The Green Death", in which multinational oil refining company Global Chemicals is producing toxic waste products, and Jo heads off to Wales to join the protest movement under Professor Jones:

JO: Oh dear. Doctor, I mean it. I'm going to go to South Wales because they have got to be stopped.
BRIGADIER: Who's got to be stopped?
JO: Well, Global Chemicals, of course. Can't you see the harm this go ahead will do?
BRIGADIER: No, Miss Grant, I can't. Cheap petrol and lots of it. Exactly what the world needs.
JO: No! No, look it's time to call a halt! It's time that the world awoke to the alarm bell of pollution instead of sliding down the slippery slopes of, of, of, whatever it is.

Stevens, the Managing Director of Global Chemicals, is the archetypal big businessman, who is quite clear in his own mind that despite the risks of pollution - and this being a Doctor Who story, mutated giant maggots - his company is acting ethically, and what is profitable is also good for society.

STEVENS: In the end, we all want the same thing. An ordered society, with everyone happy, well fed.
DOCTOR: Global Chemicals taking all the profits.
STEVENS: What's best for Global Chemicals is best for the world, is best for you

Professor Jones, whom Jo falls in love with and later marries, is an environmental activist, and - this was cutting edge back in 1973 - was in favour of renewable sources of energy:

JONES: It's still using up the oil and doubling the atmospheric pollution. No, the world has got to find ways of using the energy the sun is giving us now.
JO: Well, like what, for instance?
JONES: Well, like using the movement of the wind and the tides and the rivers. Well, I mean, like here at the Nuthutch. Well, you are quite warm?
JO: The ambient temperature suits me fine, thank you.
JONES: Heat from the river. And the heat pump works on electricity generated by a windmill. Alternative technology, see.
JO: And no waste, no pollution!
JONES: Exactly.

The same theme comes up later, in the story "Invasion of the Dinosaurs", where a group of idealists are planning to roll back time, and take their group back to a "golden age" before modern industrial society has began to pollute the planet. They are stopped by the Doctor, but nevertheless, he thinks while their means were wrong, their view of the dangers faced by pollution were correct.

SARAH: Poor Grover.
BRIGADIER: The man was mad.
DOCTOR: Yes, well, of course he was mad. But at least he realised the dangers this planet of yours is in, Brigadier. The danger of it becoming one vast garbage dump inhabited only by rats.
BRIGADIER: It'll never happen, Doctor.
DOCTOR: It's not the the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real cause of pollution, Brigadier. It's simply greed.

And so to this week's episode, in which Jo Jones returns, now as a grandmother, but still fighting strongly for environmental issues and matters of social justice. After the villains, the Shansheath, have been defeated, and the Doctor has left, and Jo has left, Sarah Jane Smith reflects on what has become of other companions of the Doctor, and they have all taken up causes, doing their small bit to make the world a better place:

There's a woman called Tegan in Australia, fighting for Aboriginal rights; there's Ben and Polly in India, running an orphanage there. There was Harry, oh I loved Harry. He's a doctor, he did such good work with vaccines, he saved thousands of lives. Oh and there's a Dorothy something, she runs that company - a Charitable Earth, she's raised billions. Oh and this couple in Cambridge, both professors, Ian and Barbara Chesterton. Rumour has it they've never aged, not since the Sixties."

In this script, Russell T Davies captures perfectly the ideals which Doctor Who conveys, and which were particularly strong with during the 1970s with Jon Pertwee and the early Tom Baker stories. Neither the Doctor, nor his companions, are political activists of the right or left, but they all, in their own ways, take a stand against the tendency of the modern world to brush pollution under the carpet, and ignore injustice. They have a moral agenda, and that cuts across class divisions, and the politics of the left and right. As a modern philosopher puts it:

Dr. Who is what modern ethicists would call a deontologist. He places a high value on doing the right thing for the right reason and he is very impatient with utilitarian compromises. The show is very good at presenting the evils that can arise from doing something that obviously seems wrong because it promotes a greater good. That doesn't mean that he can always escape making a utilitarian compromise. (1)

Most politicians look at the world in utilitarian ways, with moral considerations bracketed off. It is usually those who lead protests who do not. Doctor Who tells adventure stories, but in the telling, there is often a confrontation with those people who want to bracket off the moral question - is it right? Martin Luther King expressed this position most forcefully in one of his speeches.

On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.

How many of today's politicians really live up to that ideal? And how many ask the other questions?


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