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“I Spy, with my little eye”: Surveillance and space in Doctor Who

Andrew O’Day 

Slightly revised paper from ‘The Politics of Television Space’ Symposium,

University of Leicester April 8 2011 

This paper will investigate how literal and psychological spaces are controlled in a political manner within the diegetic world of narratives through cameras and through the figure of the spy. In the study of television, ideas of the camera and of surveillance of space are most obviously to be found in British ‘Reality TV’ programmes such as Big Brother, the title of which is based on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen eighty-four. However, long before Big Brother, intrusion of space was highlighted through the camera and the figure of the spy in science fiction programmes. As science fiction provides strange spaces which are political and concerns the use of technology, it is apt for exploring this issue. It is no accident that the first episode of Blake’s 7, Terry Nation’s ‘The Way Back’, from 1978, begins with a shot of a camera moving around like a head, monitoring citizens kept within the space of the Earth Dome, and is soon followed by the presence of a spy in the rebels space, but for the sake of time this paper will draw on some pertinent examples from the most well-known of British science-fiction programmes: Doctor Who.

      Theorists have written about the surveillance of space in society. Michel Foucault (1977), for example, provides a historical overview of the modern penal system from spectacles of punishment to the prison where the idea of controlling people is exemplified by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the word being composed of the terms opticon (to observe) and pan (all). Foucault writes that techniques of surveillance had already been apparent in everyday society. Building on this discussion, Mark Poster writes generally about how in our world ‘new’ postmodern ‘technologies’ which may include cameras ‘extend[s] the reach of surveillance far beyond its nineteenth-century limits’ (1984: 114).

      The comparison which has been made between the camera and the eye is important to this discussion since the camera, like the eye, is involved in surveillance, and in narratives to be examined the camera acts as a spy for characters. Stephen Heath points to the eye-camera comparison referring to ‘the eye of the camera’ (1981: 25) and, looking specifically at film, remarks that ‘classically cinema acquires “the mobility of the eye”’ (1981: 31). Heath notes that ‘The comparison of eye and camera…has come to seem irresistible: our eye’ is, ‘like the camera, with its stationary point, its lens, its surface on which the image is captured…constantly scanning movements’ (1981: 30-1). According to Heath, ‘the camera executes the same movements as the head’ so, for example, ‘horizontal panning is turning the head’ (1981: 32). The camera, like the eye, then takes in spaces.

      Turning to Doctor Who and in the discussion of the presence of the camera, the notion of point-of-view is crucial. There is a model of dominance and powerlessness at work: a figure doing the looking at the images transmitted by the cameras, and one who is looked at. The camera enables the viewer to be in many spaces at once, controlling people’s actions. Tat Wood (2007: 98-9) notes in the edited collection Time And Relative Dissertations In Space that the idea of monitoring within the Doctor Who narrative diegetic worlds often has negative connotations, and is set apart from the Doctor’s role as curious observer, although the Doctor tends to get involved in the affairs of other peoples and planets. The Time Lords, meanwhile, with their central register, the “Panopticon”, are not only concerned with putting themselves on display, but have an approach largely of observation of other cultures and, according to them, of non-interference.

      As Doctor Who was a series of episodic serials, the Doctor’s space and time machine, the TARDIS, frequently brings its occupants into different times and spaces. In Doctor Who there are two types of camera at work which are important here. The first type of camera at work is where characters’ space is restricted because they are aware of the camera’s presence. In Doctor Who this idea is prepared for as early as the second narrative ‘The Daleks’, from 1963-64, where, as Jim Leach (2009: 69) has noted, the autocratic Daleks’ eye is very much like a mobile camera, suggesting that use of vision can be monstrous. We may also consider Robert Holmes’ ‘The Sun Makers’ from 1977, where citizens are oppressed into paying extortionate taxes, and where tracker devices and scanners are used, with, as Wood notes, the Doctor ultimately bringing about a rebellion through use of the PA system (2007: 98). Furthermore, Terence Dudley’s ‘Four to Doomsday’, transmitted in 1982, is set in a cut-off space: on a spaceship, with the opening shots of the episode surveying this structure from the outside. The theme of observation is present from the start: the TARDIS materialises in what appears to be a laboratory, the Doctor leaves the TARDIS to look around and opens an observation screen revealing that he is in space, he is observed by a mechanical eye, and there are cuts between his appearing on screens and being discussed by mysterious figures, and shots of the companions looking at the TARDIS scanner. There are two types of observation at work: innocent curiosity of the Doctor’s and his companions, and Monarch’s. It turns out that this spaceship is en route to Earth which the leader Monarch intends to conquer through the use of a deadly poison, even though, as fan John C. Harding (quoted in Howe and Walker 1998: 409) notes, ‘he was…seeking to free his people from ‘the great tyranny in the universe – internal and external organs’. Monarch, whose name suggests rulership, and also alludes to the notion that he considers himself God, is not only able to watch recreationals for pleasure on screens (just as we watch television largely for pleasure) but is also able to maintain his rule through monopticons which project images onto these screens in the throne room. The monopticon is like a camera and the word monopticon is a made-up one which plays on the term panopticon. We are told that the character Bigon’s one attempt at revolt was squashed and the Doctor and his companions are monitored as they make their way through the spaceship, supposedly ‘freely’, and later placed in quarters with a manopticon present. The Doctor must obstruct the vision and hearing of the monopticon in order to have private conferences about Monarch. Notably, Monarch himself does not leave his throne until the end of the narrative; his allegorical ministers Persuasion and Enlightenment do his bidding and he is able to keep control over the narrative through vision. Monarch stresses the importance of sight to his ministers regarding Bigon’s presence with the Doctor, and Monarch’s dependence on sight is highlighted through his losing control when a struggle between Adric and Enlightenment sees a monopticon blasted with a weapon. And Philip Martin’s ‘Vengeance on Varos’, screened in 1985, opens with a surveying shot of a different planet, on which a range of cameras monitor prisoners in the Punishment Dome both for entertainment and as they are political threats.

      Conversely, in the second instance, characters are not aware that they are being monitored and the camera acts as a spy. Robert Holmes’ ‘The Caves of Androzani’, screened in 1984, is, as the title of the narrative suggests, concerned with space. Graeme Harper’s opening direction moves us in a fast manner in on a shot of outer space past the twin planet of Androzani Major, to Androzani Minor, to the TARDIS materialising on the surface and the surrounding view of sand as it would be seen from the TARDIS’ scanner, and moves us with the curious Doctor into the caves where much of the action takes place. Harper has therefore within the first few minutes encapsulated the different spaces of the narrative. In the caves, there is a political war underway around the issue of space. Writer Robert Holmes had previously been script-editor for the programme in the mid-1970s ‘gothic era’, and here the masked Sharaz Jek (who we are to a degree meant to sympathise with) is the gothic figure who maintains his own sanctuary, and store of Spectrox, hidden deep in the caves. Spectrox is a drug which the people of Androzani Major clammer for and is therefore worth a great deal of money. There is hence a military operation underway in the caves to seek, locate, and destroy Jek and his monopoly on this drug. Jek is able partly to keep track of his political and military opponents through the use of a hidden camera and by intruding on their space is able to maintain his own gothic sanctuary. Shots of Jek in episode one involve him looking at images on screens, which resemble television screens. Again, Eric Saward’s ‘Revelation of the Daleks’, from the end of the 1985 season, again directed by Graeme Harper, opens with a zoom-in shot of the planet Necros and eventually sees the Doctor and Peri arrive in a specific space – Tranquil Repose – on the planet, which is heavily monitored by the Great Healer (Davros) so that he can maintain his rule. Davros monitors Takis’ and Lilt’s treacherous conversations with Jobel and informs Tasambeker to watch Jobel’s actions closely and to let her hatred of him build inside to the point where she will kill him. Jobel is not aware that he was being monitored but when Tasambeker tells him this he poses for the camera as the Great Healer’s ‘loyal servant’. Davros aims to maintain control through cameras and is perturbed by other characters gaining knowledge.

      Furthermore, the camera may be set in a fixed position or may be portable, like television cameras, taking in a range of spaces, and spying on the action. The camera in ‘The Caves of Androzani’, for example, is embedded into the cave, and those in ‘Vengeance on Varos’ are fixed all over the Punishment Dome and resemble television cameras. However, in ‘Four to Doomsday’, there are monopticons all over Monarch’s spaceship which move around with characters. The monopticon is described by the Doctor as being ‘a mobile black eye’, but with its black football-like shape with a circular light in the centre and its ability to transmit sound as well as images, the monopticons could be seen as like a head and almost be a life form. Here we are reminded of Stephen Heath’s (1981) eye/camera comparison since this camera which transmits scenes onto screens in Monarch’s throne room, which look like television screens, is like a disembodied head. Indeed, the monopticon is treated very much as a character with an intrusive presence such as when Adric actually speaks to it demanding of it where Nyssa is and gets angry with its being there in his face, brushing it away. As fan Ian K. McLachlan (quoted in Howe and Walker 1998: 409) puts it, ‘those black balls…really looked as though they had minds of their own’. Here the monopticons restrict spatial freedom and their head-like quality reminds us that they are being used to spy on the action. This eye/camera comparison is also present in Leach’s discussion of the Daleks’ eye-stalks as being like mobile television cameras and indeed we see the Doctor from a Daleks’ perspective in the 1988 narrative ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, differing from the way Barbara is seen at the end of the 1963 episode ‘The Dead Planet’. There was also a further play on the comparison between eye and camera at the start of episode one of ‘The Sun Makers’ where a circular plate opens high in the wall, where a camera would usually be positioned, to reveal not a camera but just a female head which turns from side to side, just as Heath (1981) noted that horizontal panning of the camera is like turning the head, and then addresses Citizen Cordo telling him, in a know-all manner, of his situation that his father has died and that he must pay his taxes in the Gatherer’s office. The head therefore monitors events. In ‘The Twin Dilemma’, from 1984, the giant Gastropod Mestor, who has made himself ‘Lord’ of Jaconda and reduced the race to slavery, eventually uses Drak contained in a different space to monitor the Doctor’s plot against Mestor’s political aims. Mestor aims to take control over all spaces through the spread of Gastropod eggs. However, Drak does not appear to be like a camera.

      The second way in which intrusion of space is highlighted in a political manner is through the actual figure of the humanoid ‘spy’, who, like the camera acts as an all-seeing eye intruding into other spaces. But the spy moves through spaces one at a time rather than being in all places at once as the cameras can be. So, for example, during the Jon Pertwee era which was indebted in many ways to the James Bond films, in David Whitaker’s 1970 narrative ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ there are spy figures, and in Malcolm Hulke’s 1974 narrative ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, UNIT Captain Mike Yates’ normal role is reversed since he is spying for the enemy. In Terry Nation’s 1975 narrative ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, Nyder acts as Davros’ spy, holding a conversation in a secret space, for Davros to maintain his autocratic rule over all spaces. Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Terminus’, from 1983, meanwhile, is set in a cut-off space. A space-liner brings lepers to Terminus where they are passed on by the Vanir, ‘baggage handlers’, to the animal-like Garm and ‘supposedly cured’. The Vanir are nothing more than slaves for the company Terminus Incorporated and are dependent on the company for the drug Hydromel which keeps them alive. Upon becoming aware of the Doctor’s presence, the Vanir believe him to be a ‘company spy’ monitoring their activities. The narrative concludes with a new political model put in place where the Vanir have absolute freedom of space. Once the Vanir work together with the Doctor, their previous suspicions gone, the Doctor’s companion Nyssa provides the Vanir with new hope of independently producing the Hydromel drug needed for their survival and when they declare that the Company will sent soldiers after them, Nyssa exclaims ‘With the current reputation that Lazars disease has would any sane soldier come here!’. Johnny Byrne’s ‘Warriors of the Deep’, screened the following year in 1984, follows a similar pattern in that it is set in cut-off, and highly political, spaces, which are heavily guarded. The Doctor’s TARDIS enters a forbidden area of outer space overlooking the Earth, and, when the Doctor is unable to provide clearance details, is shot down by Sentinel Six, a type of eye guarding the borders of this space. The TARDIS is forced to materialise on a Sea Base which is a military installation, and which sends out underwater probes to monitor space. Two power blocs exist and the Sea Base contains an operator who can release missiles at the opponents. The Doctor is believed to be an enemy agent on the Sea Base and there are real enemy agents who have intruded into this space and who act not only as spies but also as saboteurs. In Holmes’ ‘The Caves of Androzani’, which, as we have earlier seen, revolves around the idea of space, paranoia is ripe. Characters in the narrative at first believe that the Doctor and his assistant Peri are gun-runners for Sharaz Jek, later Stotz believes that the Doctor is a ‘government snoop’ while Morgus believes that the Doctor has been sent by the President to the point where Morgus murders the President. Obviously, the Doctor is none of these things. Rather the android Salateen is a spy for Sharaz Jek, providing Jek with extra eyes to the camera, so that he can maintain advantage against his political and military opponents. It is Salateen who has put a tap on the interplanetary television communications between Chellak and Morgus which leads Chellak to state ‘It’s little wonder this campaign has got nowhere. Jek has had advance warning of every operation we planned’. Emphasis is placed on the android Salateen’s eyes and, at one stage, a point of view shot is provided where he sees the real Salateen and Peri hidden in Major Chellak’s quarters, and is able to relay this to Jek. In Graeme Curry’s ‘The Happiness Patrol’, from 1988, Silas P. is an undercover agent for Helen A.’s autocratic rule, making sure that those who display unhappiness, even when they think they are in private, are caught and eliminated.

      This paper has therefore drawn correlations between the use of cameras and the presence of spies in the diegetic worlds of Doctor Who narratives, and shown how the two are related to the notion of political spaces. We can identify with these uses since they have become features of our own modern and postmodern world. However, we are invited to take the un-oppressive stance of the production team who film these narratives. Even in the new BBC Wales Doctor Who series, images of surveillance are present, as in the 2005 narratives ‘The Long Game’ and ‘Bad Wolf’, which refers to Big Brother, showing how there is more work to be done in this area.



Foucault, Michel (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Lane, Middlesex: Penguin.

Heath, Stephen (1981), Questions of Cinema, London, Macmillan.

Howe, David J., and Stephen James Walker (1998), Doctor Who: The Television Companion, London, Virgin.

Leach, Jim (2009), Doctor Who, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.

Orwell, George (2003), Nineteen Eighty-four, London: Penguin.

Poster, Mark (1984), Foucault, Marxism and History, Polity Press.

Wood, Tat (2007), ‘The empire of the senses: narrative form and point-of-view in Doctor Who’, in David Butler, ed, Time And Relative Dissertations In Space, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 89-107.

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 Sunday 17th April 2011.