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Towards a definition of satire in Doctor Who

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Below: The revised version of Andrew's chapter from the book 'Ruminations, Peregrinations and Regenerations': this version does not currently appear in the published book.

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Towards a definition of satire in Doctor Who

Andrew O’Day 

Satire has long flourished in different periods and medias, from the ancient writers Horace and Juvenal’s, to the Restoration and eighteenth-century satires of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Dr. Samuel Johnson, from Spitting Image to Michael Moore’s films. It has long been recognised, including in relation to Doctor Who, that satire attacks aspects of our own society through ridicule, wit, and exaggerated lunacy, and therefore runs a lot deeper than simply making fun of something. In this respect, satire is often non-naturalistic. However, while attending to these moments, this chapter will provide a more exhaustive definition of how satire works in Doctor Who. The first part of the chapter will provide a general discussion of why satire and science fiction make such perfect bedfellows, and of the features of satire in Doctor Who. In this respect, the chapter follows the same kind of structuralist methodology of looking at recurring features in a type of text which Vladimir Propp (1928) applied to fairy tales. The chapter will then revolve around a series of close readings of Doctor Who narratives - both from the classic series (1963-89) and from Russell T. Davies’ relaunch (2005-) - tying them to these features or showing how they differ. These features occur in satires by different authors and made in different production contexts, but the chapter will look at the textual features of satire rather than at authorial intent. In so doing, the chapter will position Doctor Who in relation to its wider cultural context - economic, political, and institutional. Therefore, the same level of detail will be brought to satire in the programme that has been accorded to the historical and to the gothic. 

Science fiction, Doctor Who, and satire

Since satire is an attack on aspects of our own society, it is not surprising to find it in science fiction since much science fiction is allegorical (meaning “speaking otherwise”) where the alien planets in science fiction texts stand for our own. As Bernadette Casey et al., for example, argue, science fiction “tends to deal in metaphors” that are “often symbolic representations of something other than is manifest” (2002: 208). Science fiction allows for allegorical expression since allegory involves the construction of different layers of symbolic meaning, just as science fiction invites its audience to understand alien worlds as symbolically parallel with their own. While there is no rule dictating that all satire need be allegorical, Doctor Who features what is known as “satirical allegory”. Among the many critics to have written about satirical allegory, George Austin Test notes that “Satiric allegories…are those in which the” writer “creates a fully delineated culture, society or world that is clearly allegorical”, so “such satire operates allegorically by projecting…two levels of reality: one in which the audience exists, the other the fictive world of satire” (1991: 187-8). “Satirical allegory” is therefore a term coined to describe texts such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a satire of human nature, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) (Test 1991: 188), which engages in exaggerated lunacy and can be read as reflecting on the Stalin era: animals take the role of revolutionaries and transform the farm into one where all animals are, at first, equal.

      In Doctor Who’s satirical allegories, these alien worlds are also dystopian ones, as indeed was ultimately the farm in Orwell’s earlier text. Dystopian science fiction and satire make perfect partners since dystopian science fiction exposes the destructiveness of social arrangements where all is not right, and since satire is a critique of aspects of our society. Dystopian fiction is the opposite of utopian fiction (from the word “ou-topia” meaning a “no place” and “eutopia” meaning “a good place”). Utopian fiction offers environments that can also serve as critiques of present day social arrangements or as models for the development of human culture. Therefore it has been argued that utopian fiction and satire both shed a critical light on our society (see, for example, Robert Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia quoted in Test 1991: 188-9). Indeed, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) can be seen as containing humourous satire directed at Europe which is contrasted with the utopia of the island. Dystopia, the term for accounts of a “bad place”, therefore, serves a similar function of critique, expressed differently.

      Since satire is an attack on aspects of society, it can introduce a series of binary oppositions, which are opposing pairs of ideas such as Good/Evil, and Hero/Villain. Satire works in opposition to one side of a binary structure through critique. Brian A. Connery and Kirk Combe, for instance, have noted that “Perhaps more than any other genre, satire is…structured on the basis of oppositions or hierarchies” and they write that “in satire, these oppositions are represented in their extremes” (1995: 6).1 While Doctor Who features binaries such as Good/Evil and Hero/Villain, in the satires to be considered in this chapter, more specific aspects are opposed, and these are indeed represented in extremes.

      A couple of recurring figures are also important to Doctor Who satires. Firstly, since satire is an attack on aspects of our society, the figure of the monster is key to this type of Doctor Who narrative. The monster’s role is not only to scare as it does admirably in many Doctor Who narratives but the monster also often functions allegorically to demonstrate tendencies of the human (the etymological origin of the word ‘monster’ being monstrare, “to show forth”). Whether representing Nazis like the Daleks in Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), the effects of corporate greed like the giant maggots in “The Green Death” (1973), or the effects of drug addiction as with the Mandrels in “Nightmare of Eden” (1979), Doctor Who’s monsters are frequently symbolic. Similarly, robots that are carrying out a specific function can symbolise human tendencies.

      Furthermore, since satire is a form of rebellion, an attack on aspects of society, it is unsurprising to find the recurring figures of rebels in the diegetic worlds of many Doctor Who satires. The heroic Doctor, a regular character with whom we are invited to identify, sides with these rebels. This is not to say that the figure of the rebel is restricted to Doctor Who’s satires: “The Monster of Peladon” (1974), a social allegory of the miner’s strikes of 1972 and 1974 (Chapman 2006: 94), for example, features rebel miners but concludes with the suggestion that conditions can best be improved through compromise rather than by following the approach of the radical miner Ettis.

      Rebellion, however, is interesting to satire, since the satires begin with an inciting incident which is worked out ideologically. Two of the principal notions in narrative theory are that all narrative takes place over time and that the arrangement of narratives has certain effects (see Kozloff 1992). Satires can have a correcting function: for example, John Dryden saw the end of satire as “the amendment of vices”, while Daniel Defoe saw the end of satire as “reformation” (Cuddon 1991: 827). Others, like Jill E. Twark, however, have noted that satire may be simply on display or playful (2007: 18). While Doctor Who satires are illustrative and do not amend vices and or bring about reformation, the presence of the rebel in these Doctor Who satires enables a new order.

      In this respect, Doctor Who satires, to an extent, follow a common narrative pattern outlined by Tzvetan Todorov (1977). Todorov argues that narratives commonly begin with a state of equilibrium, then involve a disrupting disequilibrium, and ultimately conclude with a new state of equilibrium. This pattern is only partly replicated in most Doctor Who narratives, from both the classic and current series. As a time traveller, the Doctor frequently arrives in a time and space where an initial equilibrium has already been disrupted and must act to bring about a new equilibrium. 

Holmesian satire: “Carnival of Monsters” and “The Sun Makers”

One of Doctor Who’s most famous writers, Robert Holmes, not only wrote narratives that served to pastiche existing fictional texts, but some of his work was highly satirical; therefore one can detect an authorial signature. On one level, Holmes’ “Carnival of Monsters” (1973), starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, is a metafiction which comments on Doctor Who as being like a “carnival of monsters.” In the narrative, the entertainers Vorg and Shirna arrive on the planet Inter-Minor with a mini-Scope, and an analogy is drawn between this and Doctor Who where the monsters seen on the Scope’s screen are “great favourites with the children.” Furthermore, a comment is made that “the Doctor” is a great title for bringing people in. But, as James Chapman notes, on another level the narrative “is a satire of bureaucracy and petty officialdom” (2006: 95). Chapman writes that “Vorg has arrived on the planet Inter-Minor which has only recently emerged from self-imposed isolation and which is inhabited by humourless petty officials” (2006: 95). When asked the purpose of the mini-Scope by the officials on Inter-Minor, Vorg states that his and Shirna’s “purpose is to amuse. Nothing serious. Nothing political.” In the narrative, it is a concern of the official Kalik’s that, as he states in an aside to his aide Orum, “Amusement is prohibited,” since it will lead to subversion by the lower-class Functionaries. Furthermore, a concern of the officials is that the alien creatures transported in the mini-Scope without a licence will bring disease. This can be seen as an extreme comment on the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1968 and 1971 in the United Kingdom (Chapman 2006: 95-6). So there is a binary opposition between play and bureaucracy where the latter is opposed.

      “Carnival of Monsters” highlights this binary between play and petty officialdom through design. The Inter-Minor officials are grey in appearance symbolising their dull-mindedness, while conversely there is a sense of fun associated with Vorg and Shirna. Vorg and Shirna’s costumes are composed of bright colours; there is prominent use of blue and purple make-up around Shirna’s eyes; there are multi-coloured stick-on circles adorning Vorg’s black jacket; Shirna’s head dress resembles that commonly appropriated at a fairground, with stretched out wires, containing on the ends green and pink coloured balls; Shirna has elaborate earrings, again of variously coloured circles; and the imaginative set design for Inter-Minor sees the mini-Scope placed on a series of concentric circles. Furthermore, Shirna performs a tap dance to explain the concept of entertainment to the officials. Shirna’s movements contrast with those of the Inter-Minor officials who are at times presented with their hands behind their backs or in ordered symmetry in the television frame.

      While the officials on Inter-Minor have no sense of play about them, Holmes’ narrative is satirical since it is sprinkled with wit and holds the officials up to ridicule. This is largely achieved through the way in which the characteristic of bureaucracy and petty officialdom is exaggerated, particularly in the character of Pletrac. But “Carnival of Monsters” differs from many of the other satires to be considered in this chapter. The narrative does not use the role of the monster to allegorically represent the petty bureaucracy being satirised. Indeed, the “carnival of monsters” symbolises exactly the reverse since it has been brought through the boundaries of Inter-Minor as an object of play. Neither does the narrative use the figure of the rebel to represent the way in which petty bureaucracy is being attacked. Instead, Kalik helps free the Drashigs from the mini-Scope in the hopes that the havoc they create in the city will lead to a rebellion against his brother President Zarb so that Kalik himself can assume power. Rather, these recurring characteristics of satire would be found in Holmes’ later narrative “The Sun Makers” (1977).

      Following the comments of Doctor Who fans (for example, see Howe and Walker 1998: 334), Chapman (2006: 128) writes that “The Sun Makers”, starring Tom Baker, is  

      a satire…recalling ‘Carnival of Monsters’ in exposing the bureaucratic excesses of officialdom, in this instance the Inland Revenue. The mid 1970s saw an increasing level of taxation, the Budgets of 1974 and 1975 imposing a big rise in income tax and VAT (Value Added Tax), in response to price inflation. The Doctor and Leela arrive on Pluto, controlled by a corporation that imposes such a heavy tax burden on its citizens that they are forced into virtual slavery. ‘The Sun Makers’…is another dystopian SF parable in which an oppressive regime controls the masses, monitoring its citizens through surveillance cameras and pacifying them with gas2  

Indeed, as Chapman notes there are intertextual allusions to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) (2006: 128; also see Tulloch and Alvarado 1983: 147), where, as in Metropolis, there is a division between the ruling and working class with the workers kept literally below the surface. Chapman continues to note that “The motif of individuals being processed by an oppressive, bureaucratic state…was a recurring feature of 1970s SF” demonstrating “that Doctor Who kept abreast of developments in the SF genre” (2006: 129). Therefore, this system of taxation is opposed with a series of binary oppositions put into effect. The binary of Hero/Villain here corresponds to that of working class/ruling class.

      Karl Marx indeed outlined a model of a class-divided society composed of the dominant class - the bourgeoisie - who maintained economic and political domination over the industrial working class who in turn, Marx believed, would, through rebellion, become the ruling class of the future. “The Sun Makers” presents a class-divided society where in order to pay their taxes, the populace are forced into virtual slavery. Indeed, Louis Althusser believed that the dominant views in society are upheld by the “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) (such as schools and churches, as well as private institutions such as the family, and cultural products such as literature, the arts, and the communications systems), and the “Repressive State Apparatuses” (RSAs) (2001: 100). As Althusser puts it, in the Marxist tradition, as outlined in texts such as The Communist Manifesto, “the State is explicitly conceived as a repressive apparatus” (2001: 92). According to Althusser, using mechanisms such as the police, armies, and courts, “The State is a ‘machine’ of repression which enables the ruling classes…to ensure their domination over the working class” (2001: 92). In “The Sun Makers,” those who rebel against the ruling class by not paying excessive taxes are indeed sent to the Correction Centre.

      “The Sun Makers” satirises taxation through the figure of the monster, whose role is “to show forth.” In “The Sun Makers”, the monster is both grotesque and has taken on humanoid form, therefore satirising the grotesque aspects of the television viewer’s own society. The monster is an Usurian, allegorically known as “The Collector”, whose race enslave planets and impose excessive taxes upon the people.3 The creature’s grotesqueness is highlighted through its voice. Furthermore, the humanoid official Gatherer Hade works for the Collector at the Inner Retinue, a play on the Inland Revenue (Pixley 2001b: 28). Significantly, it is the loss of his profits at the end of the narrative that causes the Collector to revert to his natural form - literally and symbolically going into liquidation (Howe, Stammers and Walker 1994: 14; Pixley 2001b: 28) - and be rendered harmless, illustrating the way in which the monster and taxation are connected.

      As noted above, satire is a rebellious form and Holmes’ narrative involves the Doctor finding a group of tax criminals hiding beneath the city and inciting them to rebel in a Marxist fashion. While the Company pacifies its citizens with gas, released through the air conditioning system, the Doctor manages to stop this. That the gas pacified the citizens means that they could not actively move their situations or the narrative forwards, an idea that Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day also note informs Terry Nation’s non-satirical opening Blake’s 7 episode where suppressants keep citizens in a passive state (2004: 142). However, through the Doctor’s intervention, Todorov’s narrative pattern of there being a move from disequilibrium to equilibrium, which is so key to satire, manifests itself. David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker have commented that  

    Holmes uses a fairly straightforward, even clichéd science-fiction backdrop - that of a group of oppressed humans struggling to free themselves from the tyranny of their alien masters - to make…a wickedly barbed attack on bureaucracy and, in particular, the UK tax system (1998: 334) 

but do not point to the appropriateness of this science fiction scenario, involving rebellion, to satire.

      From start to finish, “The Sun Makers” features another recurring ingredient of satire which is that Holmes’ script is filled with humour attacking this target, including visual humour, where the corridors have the names of UK tax forms (Howe and Walker 1998: 334; Pixley 2001b: 28). This particular season, the first produced by Graham Williams, marked a shift from the more gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, to more humour, particularly evident in Tom Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor. Some of the satire directed at taxes is indeed evidenced in exchanges between the Doctor and Leela and between the Doctor and Citizen Cordo who is prevented from committing suicide upon learning he cannot pay his taxes, after which the three flee from Gatherer Hade: 

          CORDO. It’s the taxes. The taxes. I can’t pay the taxes.

          THE DOCTOR. Oh, the taxes. My dear old thing, all you need is a

          wily accountant. 

          LEELA. These taxes. They are like sacrifices to tribal gods?

  •       THE DOCTOR. Well roughly speaking. But paying tax is more painful.

          LEELA. Then the people should rise up and slaughter their oppressors. 

          THE DOCTOR. Why did you run?

          LEELA. Well he ran first.

          THE DOCTOR. Well that’s no answer.

          LEELA. Why did you run?

          THE DOCTOR. I don’t know. Odd, isn’t it?

          LEELA. Perhaps everyone runs from the taxman.

          (both look at Cordo who nods)

          THE DOCTOR. He says you’re right. 

As Philip MacDonald notes, Holmes’ scripts are also noteworthy for splitting characters into pairs (1994: 5) which is partly a story-telling device allowing for exposition. “The Sun Makers” is no exception, and there are witty exchanges between Gatherer Hade (whose character is exaggerated and who constantly says “Praise the Company”) and his assistant Marn, and between Gatherer Hade and The Collector. One such exchange between Gatherer Hade and The Collector, where fun is poked at the Gatherer’s obsession with money, involves The Collector issuing a reward for the Doctor’s capture: 

      THE COLLECTOR. Issue hourly bulletins. Five thousand talmars reward for information leading to his capture, dead or alive.

      GATHERER HADE. Magnificent.

      THE COLLECTOR. The money to be paid from your private purse.

      (The Gatherer lets out a wail of horror)

      THE COLLECTOR. You spoke?

      GATHERER HADE. Merely a – a cry of gladness at being so honored. 

The scene where The Collector receives his comeuppance and is denigrated is also played humorously: first, he gets in a state upon learning that he has been made bankrupt, and then reverts back to his normal fungi form, sliding down a hole in his wheelchair which has become like a sink (Pixley 2001b: 29). 

Late 1980s Doctor Who and political satire

Stephen Wyatt’s much later narrative “Paradise Towers” (1987), starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, can also be read as a satire. Despite the fact that the Doctor and Mel think they are about to visit a utopian paradise which is a “remarkable architectural achievement,” has “Won all sorts of awards,” and boasts a luxurious swimming pool, as Chapman explains, “Paradise Towers” (inspired by J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (1975)) is actually set in a dystopian “run-down tower block populated by rival gangs”, known as the Kangs, and is “policed by the sinister black-uniformed caretakers” (2006: 169). Therefore, the narrative can be seen as “an allegory of urban decay and social alienation in 1980s Britain,” a time which “had witnessed violent race riots in deprived urban areas such as Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester” (2006: 169). As Chapman notes, “the inflexible Chief Caretaker (who wears a ‘Hitler’ moustache)” could be “a comment on the failure of the government to respond to social dislocation” (2006: 169), with this opposed by the narrative.

      The narrative expresses this through exaggerated lunacy. It has been seen as “a whimsical, comic-strip-style adventure” (Howe and Walker 1998: 506), like other narratives of the Nathan-Turner/Cartmel era, as opposed to being naturalistic: not only do the Kangs, who rebel against the Caretakers by producing wall-graffiti, continually chant that they are the best, but also the Caretakers are presented as being like a military operation who strictly adhere to a rule-book with the Chief Caretaker, played comically by actor Richard Briers, instructing the robotic cleaning machines to eliminate the Kangs, symbolizing the cleaning up of society of its undesirables, before the Caretakers are also later eliminated at the instruction of the alien Kroagnon. Examples of the exaggerated lunacy of the Caretakers can be seen in the following exchanges: 

      YOUNG CARETAKER. Caretaker number 345/12 subsection 3 reporting. I am proceeding along Potassium Street, corridor 5673, section 201, opposite door 782 on floor 35, north side, over.

      CHIEF CARETAKER. This is the Chief Caretaker speaking, we are receiving you, Caretaker number 345/12 subsection 3. Make your report.

      YOUNG CARETAKER. Considerable evidence of multi-colored wall-scrawl all along this part of the street. Wall-Scrawlers obviously active here, over.

      CHIEF CARETAKER. Return noted. Proceed now to report on corridor 5673, section 301.

      YOUNG CARETAKER. Very good, Chief. 

      CHIEF CARETAKER. Attention all caretakers, abandon further work on master plan QYT and, as set out in regulation book 145, proceed instead into standard emergency plan 908b.

      DEPUTY CHIEF CARETAKER. Emergency plan 908b certainly.

      CHIEF CARETAKER. That is correct. Seize all Red Wall-Scrawlers in Fountain of Happiness square. Now! 

             THE DOCTOR. Well?

      DEPUTY CHIEF CARETAKER (looking at his rule book). You’re allowed to stop one and a half minutes for every three thousand steps walked.

      THE DOCTOR. And that means?

      DEPUTY CHIEF CARETAKER. You can stand still…for a while.

      THE DOCTOR. Oh, very generous of you. 

In the case of “Paradise Towers”, rather than the Kangs rebelling against the Caretakers, the narrative reaches a state of equilibrium where the Kangs, the higher-class cannibalistic Rezzies, who had previously preyed on the Kangs, and the Caretakers all work together to defeat a different alien threat posed by the Great Architect of the Towers, Kroagnon, who takes over the body of the Chief Caretaker.

      Graeme Curry’s “The Happiness Patrol” (1988), meanwhile, engages in exaggerated lunacy, rather than being naturalistic, presenting an allegorical dystopian society that dictates that everyone be happy. This therefore critiques the notion that everyone be happy with their lot, which is one exaggerated way of viewing elements of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. It has already been well-documented that the narrative can be read largely as a Kafkaesque satire of Thatcher (Howe, Stammers, and Walker 1996: 117), with the use of letters as surnames denoting rank seeming to stem from Frank Kafka’s 1914-16 novel The Trial (Pixley 2001a: 28).4 In critiquing Thatcher, “The Happiness Patrol” fits in more closely with Dr. Johnson’s definition of a “lampoon” in his Dictionary: “Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections from a lampoon” of “a particular person, but they are frequently confounded” (1994: 696).

      In “The Happiness Patrol,” Helen A. (played by Sheila Hancock, doing a vocal impersonation of Thatcher; see Chapman 2006: 169) restricts the type of language that can be used. Words like “unhappy,” which can be used as a form of protest, are forbidden and there is a general sense of phoniness where characters must put on “masks.” Helen A. is therefore an enemy of language itself and to a degree can be seen as analogous to Davros and the Daleks and Blake’s 7’s Federation who, as Bignell and O’Day note, as autocratic beings seek to eliminate a side of a binary structure so that only their viewpoints are recognised (2004: 149-50). The satire opposes Helen A., despite her decree that she not be opposed, drawing attention to what satire is and does. A primary binary opposition of the narrative is show of happiness/unhappiness corresponding to the binaries lack of freedom/freedom.

      In examining the notion that everyone be unquestionably happy with their lot, “The Happiness Patrol” concentrates most explicitly on the oppression of the working class and unemployed, setting up a series of further binary oppositions of working class/ruling class and unemployed/ruling class, which corresponds with the binary of Hero/Villain. For, as Marx would see it, the society presented is class divided. The working class harvest the sugar beet, which the planet is rich in. One can make a comparison here, for example, between Helen A.’s treatment of the working class and Thatcher’s treatment of the trade unions and the miner’s strike of 1984. The depression of the unemployed, meanwhile, is silenced through the way they are driven underground into the pipes. These dwellers, of a different species, known as “The Pipe People,” could be seen as “the equivalent of the poor and the unemployed in Thatcher’s Britain” (Howe and Walker 1998: 518).

      The narrative has also been appropriated in a gay fashion. Matt Jones reads the story as a critique of the Thatcherite government’s introduction of Section 28 and its repression of homosexual desire, featuring what can be seen as a gay couple, Joseph C. and Gilbert M. (Cornell 1997: 51-6). But the story can be more broadly appropriated in a gay fashion, featuring as it does the notion of oppression, of having to put on phoney masks, and of using the power of language to protest: all ideas which are relevant to the lives of gay men. Furthermore, Helen A. states towards the end that she was concerned with the good of the majority, which indicates that she is not concerned with minorities and their dissatisfactions. Rather than seeing society as composed of different groups who need to express themselves, Helen A. insists on society as unified by the word “happy.”

      In this exaggerated satire, Helen A. has also tried to make it difficult for people to get together en masse and use powerful words to demonstrate. In order to get together in a group to form a protest march, people must communicate their unhappiness to one another but Helen A. has created a large blanket of silence through her restriction of vocabulary, isolating people. While this idea is not explicitly dealt with in relation to the workers, the very opening scene of the narrative is of Silas P. telling an unhappy female citizen, Daphne S., that she does not have to face her suffering alone and that there are other depressed people with whom she can share her miseries in a certain place. When the female citizen shows her depression, Silas P. reveals that he is an undercover agent for The Happiness Patrol. With guards patrolling the factory, it would be difficult for many workers to communicate their depressions to one another.

      Here, it is worth reading the narrative in connection with Jürgen Habermas’ (1989) description of the initial public sphere in our society, which served a democratic function. Habermas argued that from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, there developed a “bourgeois public sphere” free from economic and state interference, enabling people to engage in free political discussion. The public sphere offered a place for members of the public to unite, and share views. There was, for example, a coffee-house culture where writers such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope met with others and engaged not only in literary debate but also in economic and political disputes which led the government to issue proclamations confronting the dangers bred by these discussions: “Men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in coffee-houses, but in other places…to censure and defame the proceedings of the State, by speaking evil of things they understand not” (quoted in Habermas 1989: 59). Habermas proceeds to discuss the impact that the mass media of the twentieth century (e.g. radio and television), which were bound up with economics and the state, had on the public sphere, of the move from a democratic culture debating public to a culture consuming public (1989: 170-1). While Habermas’ description of the original public sphere is problematic since it idealizes a sphere which only allowed participation by a small segment of society, it is this model which “The Happiness Patrol” is best compared with, for Helen A. evidently leaves no room for such debate so that she remains unchallenged.

      By restricting language, Helen A.’s society can be described as backward, standing against progressiveness. In order to progress one must have the power to use language freely to advance one’s situation, whereas Helen A. decrees that language must remain static: everyone must use a word like “happy” on every occasion. As a result, Helen A.’s society is circular and allows no room for free will, proper conversation, or narrative development. Such circularity is revealed in the following conversation between Helen A. and Joseph C.: 

          HELEN A. Lovely evening.

          JOSEPH C. Yes dear.

          HELEN A. It’s the sort of evening that makes you feel happy to be



  •       HELEN A. I said it’s the sort of evening that makes you feel happy to be alive.

          JOSEPH C. Oh yes dear. I’m glad you’re happy.

          HELEN A. And I’m happy you’re glad. 

      But every Doctor Who narrative develops over time and while, in this exaggerated satire, Helen A. stands against narrative progression, the Doctor is her opposite, moving the narrative forward on his terms. This is a society that the Doctor must correct, and can thus be read as an exaggerated critique of Thatcher’s government, with the narrative pattern of satire following Todorov’s (1977) model of narratives moving from a state of disequilibrium to equilibrium. The narrative challenges Helen A.’s denial of language through rebel figures that we have seen are so key to satire as a rebellious form. Marxists hold that the implicit tension that is present in class-divided societies can erupt into open conflict where there is resistance to the dominant ideology. Despite Helen A.’s law forbidding protest marches, the narrative does present an illegal workers demonstration: unhappy workers use forbidden language to protest their conditions. Following the recap, the first shot of the second episode is of workers demonstrating. The workers carry signs with the words “Factory Conditions Are A Joke” written on them. These factory workers are using words to express real discontent; their idea of a joke differs from Helen A.’s. They are taking narrative control, just as they break through boundaries by entering the main city contrary to Helen A.’s law. As Helen A. points out, these workers wear “dreary clothes”, play “turgid music” and “really are so depressing.” They wear black clothes, with veils over their faces and bang on drums slowly in a monotonous fashion, seeming almost like a funeral procession (Pixley 2001a: 29). The incidental music accompanying their march is solemn.

      The narrative reveals that Helen A. attempts to keep the lower classes down when they do rebel through execution, meaning that we are invited to side against her. As noted in relation to “The Sun Makers,” Althusser commented on the fact that every class society utilises repressive mechanisms (such as the police) to manage social tensions, and to keep the lower classes in their place. When people disobey Helen A., they are usually either executed by The Happiness Patrol or drowned in boiling syrup, prepared by the sinister Kandy Man in the Kandy Kitchen. The Happiness Patrol, which serves Helen A., consists of, as the word “patrol” suggests, law enforcement officers. On seeing the demonstration in episode two, Helen A. sends a couple of snipers to eliminate the protesting workers. She does not recognise the workers’ complaints and would rather that they just disappeared. There is an allusion here to South American dictatorships where people disappeared, since they were executed by the secret police, since the narrative satirises other regimes as well as Thatcher’s Britain. Later, in episode three, Helen A. declares to The Happiness Patrol that a large scale disappearance must occur: “A drone demonstration is heading towards Forum Square. Proceed there directly. Take no prisoners.” She begins her statement by saying “Happiness Will Prevail” which connects the idea of happiness with making sure that there are no protests among the working class. Helen A. does not want to recognize social problems, preferring that everyone puts on a show of happiness.

      But despite Helen A.’s attempts to silence opposition, the third and final episode sees the overthrowing of Helen A.’s regime where the working class riot in the factories. The workers are thus displaying unhappiness with their position in society very openly in groups, which is enabling them to effect change and bring about proper happiness to their lives rather than a pretence at being content, which is causing them deep inner unhappiness. The announcer over the loud speakers constantly uses the catchphrase “Happiness Will Prevail” at the beginning of all announcements, but towards the end states “Happiness Will Prevail” and proceeds to declare that there is chaos in the Square: “Happiness Will Prevail. Chaos In Forum Square...Happiness Will Prevail.” Helen A. declares that the factories are all heavily protected but following this, there is a similar announcement that rebels are destroying the factories: “Happiness Will Prevail. Factory Guards Are Joining Forces With The Drones To Destroy The Nirvana Sugar Beet Plant Here In Sector Six” and “Happiness Will Prevail. One Hundred And Twelve Factories Have Now Fallen To The Rebels As They Continue Their Drive Westwards.” While the announcer means “Happiness Will Prevail” and there is chaos in the square and factories have fallen, the message being put across is that genuine happiness will prevail because the workers are rebelling and factories have fallen. Also, towards the end of the narrative with Helen A.’s regime being crushed, the Doctor informs the pipe dwellers that they will soon be working in the sugar fields again, where they will be truly happy. In this rebellion, as is common, the Doctor sides with the rebels, as indeed does a member of The Happiness Patrol, illustrating that there is unhappiness within its very ranks. At the same time as being read as an exaggerated satire of Thatcher, however, while a Marxist class-divided society is presented and while there is resistance, the narrative does not advocate a total dismantling of the class system.   

      While “The Happiness Patrol” engages in exaggerated lunacy and while many of its characters are dressed in pink, it is, like many other satires, very dark and biting. Not only is music itself used as a theme in the narrative to create moods and feelings (see Brown 2001: 2), such as the phoniness of lift music and the down-to-earth quality of the Blues, but so is the tone of dialogue. In addition to when the Doctor confronts a sniper sent to eliminate the drones, a biting moment comes at the end of the narrative where the Doctor confronts Helen A., using forbidden language to reveal to Helen A. what is wrong with her society, that it suppresses genuine emotion, truths that she does not want to face.

      The idea of the monster can be seen at work. The Kandy Man, resembling Bertie Bassett, composed as he is out of liquorish all-sorts, symbolises the sickly nature of the narrative’s society, which is monstrous. Indeed, Helen A. not only curtails genuine displays of emotion in her subjects but also cuts these off in herself, in order to pursue her vision of a controlled society. Therefore, she is eliminating that which makes her and her subjects human, an idea which is also expressed in relation to Doctor Who’s Cybermen. So while, as noted earlier, there are ties between Helen A. and Davros and the Daleks as autocratic beings, there are also connections with this other Doctor Who monster. It is by seeing the death of her beloved pet rat Fifi that Helen A. finally breaks down in tears, thereby revealing her humanity. This can all be seen as an exaggerated critique of Thatcher who herself earned the nickname “Iron Lady” due to her tough-talking persona.

        There is one further issue that is important to consider. Since Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime-minister in 1979 and since The Happiness Patrol is run by a woman and consists mainly of women, the narrative might appear to be a pro-feminist statement. In the narrative, the stereotypical marker of femininity, the expression of emotion, is suppressed by Helen A. in favour of efficiency and achievement, values often attributed to men. Helen A.’s appearance as a woman in a leadership role can be tied in with such television codings of Thatcher (noted by Bignell 2000). But, in fact, the satirical nature of “The Happiness Patrol” works against such a pro-feminist reading, even though there may be resistant readings, since it encourages us to see Helen A. negatively. 

Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who and satire

Russell T. Davies’ re-invention of Doctor Who, starring Christopher Eccleston, satirizes the media and its effects. This is not the first time that the programme acted as a commentary on various uses of the media: Philip Martin’s “Vengeance on Varos” (1985), starring Colin Baker as the Doctor, and set on a dystopian alien planet, commented on both the selling and viewing of video-nasties (see Pixley 2001c: 18-19), and on media manipulation more generally, with this opposed. To a degree, the narrative could be read as a satire since it employed black comedy, which amused yet disturbed. This was best exemplified by the exchanges, interspersed throughout the narrative, between husband and wife Arak and Etta as they watch their screens (Pixley 2001c: 19). They were desensitized by watching scenes of real violence, and they listened to the Governor’s policy broadcasts and voted blindly for or against him. In that narrative, the figure of the grotesque monster, Sil, symbolized the monstrous nature of selling video-nasties for profit. Like the Collector from “The Sun Makers” who gets a feeling of “job satisfaction” from Leela’s impending execution and wishes her cries to be audible to him and to the paying public, Sil sees torture as “wonderful entertainment,” and the selling of such tapes as “enterprising.” Furthermore, in “Vengeance on Varos,” the Doctor sided with rebel figures, as well as indeed the Governor who was as much a prisoner of the system at the hands of the Officer Elite as the Varosian citizens were, to put an end to the Varosian broadcasting system, including media manipulation, creating a new state of equilibrium.

      Media manipulation is a theme of Davies’ “Aliens of London”/“World War Three” (2005) but it is “The Long Game” (2005) that most clearly evidences many of the traits associated with satire. The episode presents a dystopian society of the far future where the monstrous and grotesque Jagrafess controls mankind’s knowledge and ambition through the broadcast news and can be read as allegorically critiquing the manipulation of our own news media, both in broadcast and in print form. Knowledge is a key theme running throughout the episode: as in other Doctor Who narratives, the Doctor must move from a position of epistemological uncertainty to awareness of what is transpiring. In an episode where knowledge is revealed to be powerful, the Doctor is at first unknown to the controllers of Satellite 5; Adam Mitchell tries to obtain all the knowledge of the future; and the society is backward until the journalist Cathica, who overhears the Editor informing the Doctor of the situation, uses her newfound knowledge to rebel, seemingly moving things forward to a new state of equilibrium.

      There are many light-hearted moments in the episode including Cathica’s burning desire to be promoted, the interactions between Adam and the Nurse, and the interactions between the Editor (played by comedian Simon Pegg) and the Jagrafess. There is not much wit concerning the actual manipulation of the news media, but the following comment of the Editor’s to the Doctor amuses but also alludes to the newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell and to the broadcast news more generally: 

      For almost 100 years, mankind has been shaped and guided, his knowledge and ambition strictly controlled by its broadcast news, edited by my superior, your master, and humanity’s guiding light, the mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe. I call him Max. 

As Chapman writes  

      The topicality of this story is readily apparent at a time when there are 1,500 satellite, digital and cable television channels in Western Europe alone and when ownership of the broadcast media is increasingly vested in a handful of transnational media conglomerates (2006: 196) 

but the Editor’s comment can be read as satirical on the news generally.

      News is a factual genre which promises to offer the television viewer a direct relationship with the real world, rather than a fictional engagement with issues that may be relevant to the real world. As a result of the television news being a factual, as opposed to fictional genre, the notion of genre can potentially be very dangerous since television viewers may instantly accept everything that they see and hear (as Cathica at first does). As John Fiske points out, television news “generally presents itself as a ‘window on the world’” (1987: 21). This connects with Steve Neale’s (1980) point that genre creates a system of expectations among viewers and it is this system of generic expectations associated with the news that make it so dangerous. As Fiske writes, the “news genre is a high status genre” which has a “claimed objectivity” (1987: 281).

      But, at the same time, genre study can be a useful way of approaching the news. Genres involve recurring conventions, and it is important to study news as a genre with recurring formal characteristics to see how the news is a form of construction and to deconstruct the notion that what is presented on the news is entirely objective. Such conventions, for example, include the use of voice-overs to accompany carefully selected images. But there are other avenues of expression. New media, such as the Internet, for instance, is seen as contributing to the extension of democracy and freedom of expression.

      While “The Long Game” concludes with things seemingly moved forward to a new state of equilibrium, Davies’ later episode “Bad Wolf” (2005) highlights that this is not actually the case, since the news was replaced by junk: Reality TV and game shows. This later episode has been read by many (e.g. by Moore and Chapman 2006: 196-7) as a satire of types of television like Big Brother, The Weakest Link and Trinny and Susannah. However, as A.D. Morrison has written, although set in a dystopian future, “Bad Wolf” lacks the allegorical setting of previous Doctor Who satires, even though, as noted earlier, allegory is not essential for satire: 

      instead of extrapolating the philistine dross that is Big Brother into a future scenario in which it takes on a different guise with a different name and set but detectably similar theme which the audience can pick up on and compare to their contemporaneous equivalent, RTD decides to simply reproduce exactly the same programme, along with its other cousin reality TV monstrosities, replace its hosts with androids who are obviously modelled on the real life presenters and place it ludicrously over 200,000 years in the future. 

Morrison continues: 

      One must ask then what exactly RTD was trying to say here? This is not polemical…only possibly in its rather lazy and unimaginative take on terminal versions of reality game shows…There is no satire here, at least not noticeably, because RTD doesn’t seem to be saying anything at all about the nature of reality TV, only reproducing it on a slightly more extreme level…RTD missed a brilliant opportunity to truly criticize and comment on the insidious nature of reality TV here – a massive disappointment. 

Morrison’s point is that the episode, which sees contestants seemingly disintegrated, is an exaggeration of current Reality TV and game shows transposed into the future, and he is quite correct that this does not make the episode satire. But Morrison is a little too critical. For one, the Reality TV and game shows are present simply as a humorous plot device to aid the Dalek invasion by pacifying audiences, humour playing a large part in the new Doctor Who series. Humour is injected into the narrative, for example, when Captain Jack is given a make-over by robots Trine-E and Zu-Zana and appears naked. Furthermore, there does seem to be an attack on the viewers of such television even though there is no humour hurled in this direction. The Doctor remarks that “half the world’s too fat, half the world’s too thin, and you lot just watch telly” and compares the human race to “brainless sheep being fed on a diet” of such programming. In the case of this episode, we also do not see a specific rebellion against such television; the Reality TV scenarios are simply dropped and there is a shift into a battle against the Daleks. Indeed, since the re-launch of Doctor Who is relatively new, there have not been as many examples of satire to consider as in the older series, and it remains to be seen whether in-coming executive producer Steven Moffat makes use of this type of narrative and whether such narratives follow the structuralist patterns outlined in this chapter. 


Looking at satire in relation to Doctor Who has been significant in showing how television is, as Raymond Williams (1981) and Graeme Burton (2000) see it, an expression of wider culture, and that programmes should be read contextually rather than as isolated texts. Science fiction, which has a tendency to be allegorical, and satirical allegory, where another world is presented which critiques our own, particularly draw attention to this. The structuralist approach adopted in this chapter of identifying key recurring features (as well as pointing to differences) has been significant in drawing our attention to what satire actually is and how it works. Such ideas are not as evident in Stephen Wyatt’s “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” (1988) which contains satire of the stereotypical nerdy fan, or indeed, as seen, in “Carnival of Monsters.” The chapter has also raised some ideas which are worthy of further consideration. For example, the chapter outlined some of the key ways in which satire and science fiction make such excellent bedfellows, as well as ways in which satire cuts across genres. So this raises the questions: Is satire itself a ‘genre’? Or is it better to argue that satire functions differently when found in different other genres? Furthermore, were we to look at other science fiction satires (books, films, and television series), would we detect similar patterns to those identified here in relation to Doctor Who? Time will tell.


[1] Ian Jack has indeed pointed out that “Satire is born of the instinct to protest; it is protest become art” (1954: 17) and the satirist can be seen as opposing aspects of our society. However, binaries are evident by looking solely at the text.
[2] In this case, Holmes himself and the production team have actually stated that the narrative was intended as a satire (see, for instance, Howe, Stammers, and Walker 1994: 14-5).
[3] The Collector was originally intended to be from a race known as the “Userers”, “derived from the Latin term for one who lends money at exorbitant interest rates” (Pixley 2001b: 29).
[4] The narrative, first known as “The Happiness Patrol”, and then for awhile as “The Crooked Smile”, was intended to be a satire of Thatcher and the anti-Thatcher elements were indeed toned down for the final televised version (Pixley 2001a: 28, 31).



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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Friday 25th June 2010.