(This was going to be a comment on Richard’s excellent Culture War post, but it was getting a bit long, so I’ve turned it into a sort of follow-on post to Richard’s.)
On 12 January 2020 the BBC aired Episode 3 of their latest season of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker as the eponymous Doctor. The episode was called Orphan 55, it was about climate change and was, it seems, not generally well-received by the viewers.
*** SPOILERS ***
The story starts with the Doctor and her companions being teleported to a mysterious holiday resort. Various mishaps occur and it turns out that this luxury resort exists in a kind of bubble, outside of which lies a barren, toxic wasteland inhabited by vicious (and rather rubbery) monsters called “dregs”. We find out eventually that the planet is in fact a future Earth which has been ruined by catastrophic man-made climate change, and the unfriendly “dregs” are the CO2-breathing descendants of humans who have adapted to the horrible conditions on Earth by becoming pretty horrible themselves.
Much has been said by various reviewers about the lame story, sub-par costumes, leaden script and uninspired acting, But what stood out for me was the fact that there wasn’t really much in the way of science fiction at all in this episode, despite all the SF trappings. It basically amounted to being a sermon about the evils of man-made climate change.
“How did Earth end up like this?” asks one character.
“You had warnings, from every scientist alive”, says the Doctor. “The food chain collapses – mass migration and war.”
And a sermon is what Jodie Whittaker actually delivers at the end, with all the subtlety of a ball peen hammer to the head.
“You want me to tell you that Earth’s going to be okay. ‘Cos I can’t. In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing up, while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed, it depends on billions of decisions and actions, and people stepping up. 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, or…” [scene cuts to a roaring “dreg”.]
Well, some people liked it. Rotten Tomatoes currently gives this episode a score of 50%, with an average rating of 5.8/10. And on IMDb there are a handful of 10-star reviews. However, Season 12 as a whole currently gets an audience score of only 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. And the majority of reviews of Orphan 55 on IMDb fall into the 1-3 star bracket and are somewhat scathing!
A brief sample:
“… The series feels condescending, insulting our intelligence and far too clichéd. When Davis brought the show back there was a nice balance between all elements that appealed to everyone. This time it seems far too childish. As a long time fan of both the classic and revival, I am saddened to see the show go this way.”
“… Not going to discuss the tons of holes in the otherwise simple and boring plot. It still wonders me why the Doctor abandoned the mother and daughter at the end. Instead of going back for them with the TARDIS, she decided to go all Greta Thunberg in a preachy monologue about quite a serious subject in such a manner that made it sound so ridiculous that probably had more people start laughing/cringing instead of thinking about the issue.”
“… What’s more is it’s staggering to comprehend how we’ve reached new levels of peak wokeness! Gone are the days when Doctor Who’s audiences were gently immersed in to the creator’s personal politics of “enlightenment” – prepare yourselves for the violence & aggressiveness of unrepentant drowning…”
And now a few observations from me:
1. Amongst the negative reviewers there were some who were fine with the climate change message but nevertheless hated the unsubtle and preachy way that it was delivered at the expense of the story. And this goes to the heart of the matter, really. People watch Doctor Who to be entertained, rather than be hit over the head with a sandwich board.
2. An environmental message can be woven into a story without this kind of preachy overkill. When Jon Pertwee was the Doctor in 1973 there was an adventure called The Green Death – it featured industrial pollution, a sinister mega-corporation and toxic green slime that infected and slowly killed anyone who touched it. The environmental message was definitely there – but it did not get in the way of what was an enjoyable, thoughtful and very creepy tale from Doctor Who’s heyday.
3. The show’s ratings now seem to be falling steeply – and the previous season’s ratings were on the bumpy side, too. Back in 2018, my impression was that viewers were already being turned off by the tedious and excessive wokeness, once the wow factor of having a female Doctor began to wear off. The BBC had a chance then to step back and reflect on why their customers were voting with their feet (or their remote controls, rather) and going elsewhere for their entertainment. Maybe lay off a bit on the sermonising and focus on creating some great stories? They managed it in 1973, why not now?
But no. And that’s what ties this in with the “culture war” being played out elsewhere in 2020. The BBC (and the establishment in general) still don’t seem to get it, that outside their bubble, there are a lot of people – voters, customers, viewers, ordinary folk – who are beginning to get tired of being preached at and told that they are bad people for having opinions that deviate even slightly from the approved, progressive, bien-pensant vision of the world. Even people who consider themselves to be basically on-message are getting tired of it.
How will all of this end? I don’t know. But (unlike Doctor Who, in its current form) whatever happens next should at least be interesting to watch.