Simon Ridgway / BBC

Doctor Who Takes On Fascism

The Doctor and friends address politics, and the big lie.

In the last few years, we've been hearing a lot of Martin Luther King's quote that "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In the last few months, we've also been hearing a lot that such bending doesn't happen automatically; people actually have to bend it that way.

For a while there this week, it seems like the Doctor has lost faith in humanity's ability -- or perhaps its inclination -- to accomplish that bending. Some of what he says resonates with articles I've read in the past year, theorizing that the world is currently stumbling toward one of its long, semi-periodic dark ages, in which civilizations collapse into violence and barbarism from which it takes centuries to recover. Sometimes, when people see this coming, their response is more violence and barbarism to stop the decline, which of course only accelerates it. Fascism doesn't "take over"; humans choose it. And this is what the Doctor claims to be trying to stop by working with the Monks.

Part of the problem is the vast infrastructure of propaganda beaming lies around the world, directly into people's heads, until even the most obvious fictions are generally accepted as fact. The bigger the lie, the better, as the Nazis used to believe. That's also the problem in this week's Doctor Who episode.

In a world where everyone has been conditioned to believe that credit for every human accomplishment -- and several of the Doctor's -- lies with the Monks, Bill's struggle to maintain her reality mirrors the disorienting feeling you get in real life when you walk into a public place and a cable news channel is trumpeting something you know to be untrue, but everyone else in the place seems to be quietly swallowing it. I can't believe I'm the only one who sees some of this crap and sometimes wonders if it's me that's wrong, that I'm the one who's crazy. Who sometimes wonders if it would be easier just to give in and root for the winning team. Like the citizens in their uniform coveralls on Doctor Who, lots of people seem to be perfectly happy with that.

Naturally, the Doctor has a solution, and naturally it isn't easy (though I'm not satisfied as to why it has to involve putting Bill through a V For Vendetta-lite episode of emotional torture). But his solution does focus on one aspect of the Monks' psychological occupation of the Earth: its nonstop propaganda machine, based in London. (I don't know enough about London's geography to say whether it was on Fleet Street, but it wouldn't surprise me.) "Fake news central!" the Doctor pronounces when he and his friends march into the command center. He's using a phrase that's become pretty loaded lately, but all he has to do now is shut it down, and everything will go back to the way it was before.

Of course, this is fantasy. There are no time machines, nobody lives for thousands of years, and populations don't just suddenly come to their senses when you unplug whatever's been telling them what they already think they know. It would be nice if that were the case, but it's not. Lots of people have already decided what's true and what isn't, and nothing is ever going to change their minds.

So who's actually right? Or maybe the question is, does that even matter? Too often history comes down not to who's right or who's smarter, but who's bigger and has better weapons. Especially in those dark ages I was talking about earlier. But the Doctor wins by being right and by being smarter, regardless of the size or armaments of the forces arrayed against him. That's what I've always loved about Doctor Who, even before I was old enough to realize it. I was never going to be a James Bond or Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne, the type who wins by being better than anyone else at fighting and shooting and torturing. But I can always aspire to be smarter, to find solutions beyond brute force, like the Doctor does. If the world had more Doctors -- and Willow Rosenbergs, and Jean-Luc Picards, and Glenn Rhees, and Lisbeth Salanders, and Cisco Ramones -- maybe it wouldn't be in such deep shit right now.

Science fiction tends to be inherently anti-fascist, and not just because fascism tends to be anti-science. Take a moment to decide what is the most pro-fascist sci-fi movie or TV show you've seen (spoiler: it's Starship Troopers), and you're probably reading it wrong (spoiler: Starship Troopers satirizes fascism). It's also because a lot of science fiction tends to be written by nerds, who have experienced quite enough of seeing bullies win, thank you very much, and would much prefer to turn that tired narrative on its head. And powerful narratives do something that even the most powerful dictators can't do: they last indefinitely.

Fascism has destroyed far too many lives over the course of history, and it breaks my heart to realize that it probably isn't finished yet. There will always be those claiming that fascism -- or whatever they're calling it when they're arguing for it -- is what we need to keep us safe, with the "us" defined as the opposite of "them." And where there's fascism, there will also be propaganda claiming that it's the only way.

But eventually fascism always falls again -- or at least it always has thus far. We can continue to hope that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, given enough time, the way the Doctor hopes Missy will bend toward goodness given enough centuries of imprisonment. Like the other surviving Time Lord, fascism leaves behind death, misery, and tragically diminished people (though fascism has not, to date, obliterated a third of the known universe).

But unlike Missy, fascism leaves behind all manner of art -- like this episode of Doctor Who -- that reminds us why it's always a terrible idea. And some of it reminds us that the answer to fascism is not, as the Doctor briefly claims to believe, a more extreme form of fascism.

People need to pay attention to that message, and not the lies. I am not a crackpot.

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