Ollie Gratzinger | Editor-in-Chief
Climate change, evil corporate execs and rumors of governmental corruption — it could be your Twitter feed, or it could be Season 12 of Doctor Who.
Jodie Whittaker resumes her role as the approachable yet enigmatic thirteenth Doctor, who, along with her titular trio of companions, travels through space and time saving world after world from threat after threat. But in the Jan.12 premiere of the season’s third episode, “Orphan 55,” the Doctor trades in conventional alien villains like Daleks or Cybermen to tackle a much more realistic danger: climate change.
“Orphan 55” finds the Doctor and companions Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) at a seemingly idyllic resort called Tranquility Spa, but beyond the safety of the vacation spot is a world made barren by nuclear winter. The only thing that can live on the other side of the spa’s ionic shield is a species long-mutated from the effects of a climate that changed rapidly, partially due to war and partially due to the many environmental red flags ignored by its original inhabitants.
The episode had aired on a day with record-high temperatures around the U.S., while thousands of miles away, Australia burned. The message was a hard one to miss.
And it was brilliant. But a lot of people didn’t really think so.
Some fans have been hypercritical of the Thirteenth Doctor from the start of her era in 2018, many of whom feared the character’s first female incarnation was an act of pandering to a new, “politically correct” audience. To these fans, politically-charged episodes feel like, at best, a deviation from the action-packed, gunfire-and-explosion plots of eras past — primarily the mid 2000s and early 2010s — and a betrayal of the show’s rich history at worst. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Science fiction has never really been about fast-paced action sequences; sci-fi has traditionally been the genre that warned of man-made dystopias, reflected on the deepest faults of humanity and showed us how low we could sink if we weren’t careful, or how high we could go if we were. The era of Whittaker’s Doctor has marked a return to these roots, bringing the focus back to the way our decisions shape and influence our collective futures — for better or for worse.
Consider, for example, George Orwell’s 1984, published in the late 1940s. It told of a future wracked by perpetual war. Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) warns of the dangers of nationalism, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) depicts a society entrapped by state-enforced censorship and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) dealt with humanity’s relationship to ecology long before climate science was a pop-culture buzzword.
Doctor Who itself has a long history of political themes, too, even in its earlier years; the second serial of the series featured the First Doctor (William Hartnell) stranded on a planet facing radiation sickness. At the time of its original broadcast in 1963, the world was right in the middle of the Cold War. Only the threat of mutually-assured destruction kept the world from becoming much like the one viewers saw on the screen (without the aliens, of course).
The Third Doctor was written into existence in the 1970s — a period that revamped social consciousness — and his episodes reflected this in great detail. “Inferno” (1970) brought up environmentalism and the destruction of resources as a corrupt professor attempts to drill into the Earth, despite the Doctor’s warnings. “The Green Death” advocated largely for vegetarianism in 1973, and “The Monster of Peladon” (1974) features feminist themes as well as a direct allusion to the 1972 miner’s strike.
The stories we tell are direct representations of the world we live in, and right now, our world is a little bit uncertain. Whittaker’s Doctor is a brilliant character, brilliantly played, and her stories, though more political and less explosive than those of some of her previous modern-era incarnations, say something important about the way we’re experiencing existence.
“Orphan 55” shows us the scientific side of science fiction; our world could end if we don’t care for it. That’s barely a political statement; it’s just a fact.
But all isn’t lost; in the final minutes of “Orphan 55,” the Doctor gives a monologue that rings true.
“The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions and actions, and people stepping up,” she said. “Humans — I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets or wreck them. That’s the choice. Be the best of humanity.”
Science fiction inspired the invention of cell phones, robots, earbuds, submarines and atomic power. Maybe it can also inspire activism — before it’s too late.