“Doctor Who: Thin Ice” vs. The Jeremy Vine Show & Fascism
[Previously: “Doctor Who: Smile” vs. Neoliberalism]
Trigger Warnings: Discussions of street attacks, murder, and a man who linked homosexuality to paedophilia.
The Pilot set Series 10 up as an explicitly political take on Doctor Who. Incoherent as it was, Smile specified what the show’s against: capitalism (specifically, late neoliberalism). If we know what the show’s against though, this still leaves the question of who it’s for. Well here’s the episode which tells us: Doctor Who Series 10 is for the left. Specifically, it’s for a marginalized left facing a centralist and right-wing political establishment. And this is something we could do with.
Before we go into the Doctor Who episode itself though, let’s set up the political media context in which it exists, investigating our current news media, what it looks like from an explicitly left-wing perspective, and how we ended up trapped in this hellhole in the first place. Specifically, let’s look at The Jeremy Vine Show, if only because it’s an exemplary example of the type of news programme I’m going to be discussing in this post, and because years of listening to it in the office has made it a particularly sore wound. For those who don’t know, The Jeremy Vine Show is a daily news discussion show broadcast by BBC Radio 2. In it, Jeremy Vine takes a hot topic from the news, invites two experts to argue about it, then opens the phone lines to the public. This lasts for about half an hour, at which point they move onto a new topic – rinse, wash and repeat until the show’s over. Sounds innocuous, but listening to it is like hearing society crumble around you. It’s awful.
Let’s take the episode that, when I first wrote this paragraph, had been broadcast yesterday. In it was a discussion of the recent increase in organised far right gangs intimidating left wingers on the street. First, we had Owen Jones come on, one of the suffers of this abuse. He refuted the idea that this gang are average Brexitiers, calling them out as far right activists emboldened by Brexit and the right wing media. He linked the events to the murder of Jo Cox, the attempted murder of Corbyn, the man who drove into anti-Charlottesville protesters, and more. In short, he made a pretty good argument that there is an increasing number of attacks on prominent left wingers by right wing thugs who are taking the vilification of the left in the mainstream press as justification for their acts.
Then after Owen Jones came Brendan O’Neil, the cunt in charge of Islamaphobic shitfest Spiked. He argued that the attacks were justified because one of the attackers called someone a “Nazi”, an insult that the left likes to use. According to O’Neil, this signified that the right wing attacks were recreations of things the left were already doing. Personally I can’t remember the last time left wing activists roamed the streets intimidating Tories, nor the last time a left wing terrorist murdered a Tory MP while quoting The Mirror. Still, that was the crux of his speech: right wingers abusing left wingers is a just punishment for them being left wing. No-one on the right has control of their actions or should be accountable for them; if only the left would shut up, then everything would be fine. And please note that this argument was never challenged in the show itself. While O’Neil got to make plenty of digs into Owen’s argument, as soon as he finished, the show cut to a song and then to the phones.
Let’s make this clear: the BBC, an institution I pay a tax to maintain, broadcast a speech on mainstream lunch time radio explaining why far right thugs are justified in intimidating and murdering left-wingers like me due to our political beliefs. That wasn’t even the worst bit – Brendan O’Neil at least had the media savvy to claim he was against the far right groups’ actions before justifying them. No, the worst bit was a call from some random woman shouting that the left deserves death because she hates us. She didn’t even try to justify herself: it was the national broadcaster giving some rando a platform to wish me dead. No matter how many voices on the show backed me up (there was Owen Jones and one caller who kept hedging his bets before going off-topic), my memory of that show was a half-an-hour which told me, again and again, that I could be murdered for my beliefs and not only would no-one care, the BBC would start justifying my death.
Let’s compare this to the coverage of when the right wing personality Richard Spencer got punched in the streets (see the animated gif rightwards). First, some context. It’s 2016. Trump had been running on a platform of white nationalism for ages now. This wasn’t too new, at least not in American politics. What was new was how much Trump’s campaign courted far right internet personalities, going as far as hiring Brietbart’s editor to be its tactical manager. These far right pockets of the internet had been visible for a long time, most infamously during Gamergate, but this was the first time real world politicians had started interacting with them. This made them increasingly dangerous, threatening to turn a loose collection of anonymous racists into the moulders of public policy with entrenched links to the leader of the free world. In short, the stakes were high, inflaming an election which was already turning America into a culture war between the neoliberals and neoconservatives. Then Trump won and you could feel the tension in the air for days afterwards. In the heat of this, an anonymous person saw Richard Spencer – an alt-right professional racist who now had links to the president – being interviewed by the press. He had at him, resulting in the infamous punch.
As soon as the punch landed, the news went into overdrive asking if punching Nazis was acceptable. Many denounced the punch: Trump won the election, the left is becoming desperate, violence is only used by brutes, etc. Some didn’t even get that far: quite a few outlets instead spent their time debating whether you could call them Nazis in the first place. (They’re racist, have swastika flags and use Hitler Salutes, but are they Nazis?) And before anyone denounced the right, they wanted to know where people like Richard Spencer came from and what their concerns were. The left were angry at them but the Nazis seemed angry too, so weren’t they really the same? By the end of it, most programmes seemed to give up, shrugging while claiming “It’s complicated” before adding “But try not to punch a Nazi if you can”.
This is significantly different to the conclusions reached when left-wingers are being attacked. According to The Jeremy Vine Show, “Violence is ok” suddenly becomes a major position in these cases. When the left attack the right, it’s unjustifiable, worthy of contempt and an excuse to consider what the far right want for a bit. When the right attacks the left, it’s suddenly the most understandable thing in the world. I’m not writing this to justify the Richard Spencer attack but to point out how differently the two attacks were handled. The lone man punching a prominent far right figure at a time of particularly high tensions was cause for a lambasting while the organised movement of groups of right wing thugs deliberately targeting prominent left wingers was negligible. So it goes.
I’m not the only one who has noticed the double standards. Here’s just four screen grabs of issues people have had with the BBC’s news reporting that were posted while I wrote that last paragraph:
In particular, I want to draw your attention to the person who argued that them linking homosexuality and pedophilia on-air was “a legitimate view even if you don’t like it”, as this is a significant sign of how we got into this position in the first place.
The major implication of it is that every side of any topic has to be explored and given a voice, no matter how fringe it is. This idea comes from classical left rhetoric: everyone is an equal participant in society and thus deserves equal representation of their views, giving minority voices the right to voice dissent and stand up for themselves when required. And it’s pretty difficult to argue against this idea as it provides the cornerstone to our concept of Free Speech, the central concept upon which the entirety of our society arguably rests. But these ideas have been co-opted and abused by the far right to the point of rendering them almost non-functional. Their standard argument goes like this: “If no-one should be left out of the conversation, then you also have to allow extreme right wing discourse be voiced as well as the left wing”. What this does is take the pure logic of the original left wing argument and remove the actual political morality out of it. The idea that “marginalised people should be allowed to speak and live as they wish in society” is not the same as saying that “all ideas are equal; everyone should be allowed to say anything they wish with impunity”. And what it really does is stop people having to back up their opinions while allowing them to claim their relevance by default.
Which brings us back to the guy who went on BBC radio and argued that homosexuality and paedophilia are linked. Spoiler: they’re not. And when challenged on this fact, the homophobe’s defence was that his position “is a legitimate view”. Please note that this isn’t the homophobe claiming that their argument was correct; it’s literally the homophone claiming that their argument exists and must thus remain unchallenged. And the fact that his opponent has looked at the evidence and knew the homophobe was wrong got completely waved away by the homophobe: they had been put in opposition by the show’s format, of course the opponent would naturally be against everything he said, none of his argument really means anything. The result is that the opponent wasn’t allowed to win the arguments by using the actual facts of the case; instead the opponent had to discredit the homophobe’s right to have an opinion on the topic, immediately turning the opponent’s argument into something which was very easy to twist into “you’re against free speech!” and thus “You’re pro-censorship!” The person demanding that arguments be won based on evidence suddenly became an elitist, entitled millennial on the defensive, while the professional homophobe was allowed to claim their position as correct by virtue of absolutely nothing. Thus are the standards of political debate in 2019.
And note how the very structure of the show facilitates this. Because the BBC needs to look impartial at all times, “allowing all voices on a debate to be heard” is something that it’s taken as a fundamental part of it’s remit in recent years. Because it’s very hard to cover all opinions on a topic, particularly if you only have twenty minutes to discuss it in, the BBC usually pick two people on the far sides of each debate and have them argue with each other. Both sides technically get covered, you only have to book the two most extreme people you can find instead of having to book several people with a wide range of different perspectives, and if you have the two far sides of the argument talking over each other, then hopefully what you end up with in aggregate would be a mid-ground between the two.
This doesn’t work though, and is a position which frequently puts the side of facts and morality on the defensive opinion. If you’re talking about something as innocuous as a student not attending a lecture because the subject material is offensive to them, then your first course of action is to interview the student, but if you interview the student, then you also have to find someone who’s diametrically opposed to them. When the student’s argument is that the material is homophobic, that means you thus need to find someone to argue that the material isn’t homophobic or that the homophobia doesn’t matter. So you end up with the national broadcaster paying a homophobe to be homophobic towards a gay student live on air for ten minutes straight. And because you have to structure it so that the student comes first in the running order (seen as he is the story), you end up unnaturally weighing the argument towards the homophobic voice. Because the student has to detail his argument first, the homophobe can get away without defining his and can instead just attack the student’s. This results in the contentless conversation described above where a bigot is allowed to claim that an opinion that’s self-evidently incorrect is right by virtue of absolutely fuck all.
The social effects of this type of debate extend much further than students getting a few harsh hearings on the radio though. By turning to the far point of both arguments, you end up immediately giving control of the debate to professional strawmen and extremists: the type of people whose opinions don’t actually match with the vast majority of the people who would nominally be on the same side as them. And because the two speakers are by definition diametrically opposed to each other, there’s never enough of a middle ground between them which would allow them to productively discuss their differences and where they come from. The result is that every BBC news discussion show either ends up being two extremists shouting at each other or it becomes someone in a relatively reasonable position being shouted by a professional asshole for ten minutes. It’s a disconnected form of debate in which people no-one relates to fight over the broadest version of whatever it is they’re talking about. It’s completely unproductive and entirely non-functional.
And, of course, it ends up giving a mainstream platform to some of the most extreme positions available. If you have to cover the homophobic angle of every discussion of queer issues, then you spend a lot of your time expounding anti-queer rhetoric through mainstream channels. If you want to discuss immigration, you spend a lot of time expounding racist and nationalist opinions. And here’s the thing – no-one actually consumes the media to have their political opinions challenged. It’s well-known by now that most people choose media voices that they already agree with and stick to them, ignoring all others. So if you invite a racist onto your radio show as part of a discussion on race relations, you’re not inviting him on to be slandered and challenged, you’re inviting him on to be ignored by everyone else while he stays racist things to the racists in the audience, serving to validate racist opinions as something which can be said and listened to in public spaces.
The result is large groups of bigots coming together, buoyed by the sudden validation of their worldviews and the realisation that there are still many people like them in society. And the result of that is the voting blocks which made Brexit happen and got Trump into power. Brexit and Trump aren’t just challenges to the centralist neoliberal status quo, they’re the direct results of it. This is probably why most centralist politicians seem more than happy to buddy up with far right voices as long it stops Bernie Sanders and Corbyn getting in power: because centralism is more compatible with the far right than it is with even the moderate left.
The psychological effect of all this from a left wing perspective is just a sense of complete alienation: that not only does is barely anyone in the media willing to speak for you but that they’ll actively work with the enemy to support an unfair system which claims to be neutral. I’ve spent a lot of this post critiquing the BBC for this, but the fact is that this is how the entire media works. BBC, ITV, Channel 5, Sky; The Guardian, The Independent, The Metro; Facebook, Twitter; nigh-on everything – they all side with the centralist working practices which demonstrably support the far right over the left. And the centralists don’t even believe that’s what they’re doing. The major tenants of centralism have been twisted so that they support the far right, it’s not meant to be how centralist politics work. Very few people in the media have the intent of supporting an increasingly fascist status quo; it’s just that good intentions mean jack shit to anyone but the person with good intentions. The end result is that looking at almost anything news-wise nowadays is watching a bunch of blind opportunists unknowingly handing the keys to pop culture to the far right while shouting at you for not realising they’re not actively evil. It’s harrowing.
Which makes the moment where the Doctor punches the racist in “Thin Ice” one of the most powerful moments of all NuWho. After the Richard Spencer incident, a hot topic on the news was whether punching racists was acceptable or not with most shows concluding “It’s complicated, but ultimately no”. Pretty much one of the only shows to go “Yes” was Doctor Who. And it’s beautiful. This isn’t just a coincidence or background detail either – the Doctor starts the scene discussing how violence is never the answer, mirroring the arguments we’d traditionally hear from the media on the subject, before hearing a racist opinion and immediately punching the racist in the face. What we get here is a direct invocation and rejection of the entire logic which leads us to conclusions like “Don’t punch Nazis”. It’s Doctor Who telling Jeremy Vine, BBC News and the rest of the centralist media to fuck off.
Indeed, the entire episode is. If this media hellscape is the new normal and these centralists the new elites, then it’s notable how much this episode spends with societal rejects and those who go against mainstream society. The core guest cast are a bunch of orphans who rob people, while the Doctor spends the episode punching gentry and describing himself as a con artist. If the news media represents the respectable face of the establishment in which everyone needs to be treated fairly and equally (whether they’re a screaming gaggle of violent racists or not), then this is an episode about the joys of rebelling. Of being unrespectable.
It’s not just the punch that it makes a definitive statement on too. Whenever Doctor Who and other productions cast black people in historical productions, you suddenly get people come out of the woodwork to complain about how society back then would’ve been mostly white and thus you shouldn’t pay as many black actors to take up roles that should be filled by white people. Cue Bill looking at multi-ethnic Victorian London, saying it’s “a bit more black than they show in the movies” and the Doctor saying “So was Jesus. History is a whitewash.” In short: “you don’t understand history; there were black people in the olden days; the attempt to remove them from stories is racist; shut the fuck up”.
This line is also a pretty direct invocation of the idea that history is constructed – that it can be whitewashed and manipulated by people in power (such as the church, historians, media producers, etc). History, the way we relate to it and the way we interact with it is a multifaceted thing in this episode, hence the Doctor and Bill’s many ideological arguments about their situation that are weaved through the episode. The episode keeps on reiterating to us that history and society aren’t giant monolithic things which can be reduced down into right or wrong but are highly complicated things which can be seen from multiple perspectives depending on who you are and where you come from. This in turn means that they are always constructed to fit certain views of the world, and thus will always hide others from view. And these people need to resist. The Doctor and Bill, looking at the world through the eyes of a political outcast and a racial minority, investigate the world, uncover forgotten people and fight with them against those who would prefer they remain silent. They stand with the disadvantaged and the Other against the powerful and their exploitative status quo.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about “Thin Ice” and history, then we have to talk about the way that it also confronts and critiques Doctor Who‘s own past. The most obvious episode that “Thin Ice” can be compared to is “The Shakespeare Code”, the other episode where The Doctor takes his black companion on her first visit to the past. “The Shakespeare Code”, of course, is the episode that’s infamous for responding to Martha’s concerns about being a black woman in Regency England by batting them to one side and telling her to walk around like she owns the place – i.e. as if she’s a white person. It’s also an episode written by a Islamaphobic TERF who retweets Spiked articles, and celebrates the work of far-left-hating TERF JK Rowling more than it does the works on Shakespeare. It’s an episode that encapsulates everything that “Thin Ice” is against. So “Thin Ice” rewrites it into a better, more sensitive form. The black woman has her concerns listened to and accepted. It focuses and sides with forgotten and powerless figures than the famous and the powerful. Thanks to it, you no longer have to take “The Shakespeare Code” and put up with it; you could watch “Thin Ice” instead. And so we have an episode which demands we be better while taking active strides to be so itself. It’s a show which is apologising for it’s mistakes and is actively trying to do it’s audience right. It’s a show that’s working alongside us.
If you had to summarise the politics of the Peter Capaldi era in two words, they’d be “Be better”. Do not accept the status quo. Stand up for your beliefs. Respect minorities. Punch Nazis. Here, we finally get a media text which will stand up with us and take on anyone who wishes to challenge us, whether they be Jeremy Vine, Gareth Roberts or anyone. The fascists might have BBC News but we have the phone box. And as long as we have episodes like this which cut through the bullshit and take a stand for minorities without inviting their oppressors to the table, then maybe we might have enough hope in the world to be able to band together and fight back against it all. This is what “Thin Ice” gives to the world: left-wing hope and solidarity. The building blocks of any worthwhile political movement.
And people say Series 10 is the unimportant one.
[Next time: Knock Knock, Doctor Who, and the British Housing Industry]