As I write this, it has just been announced that Matt Smith is quitting the role of Doctor Who, effective as of the end of the year. There’ll be a new Doctor. There’s always a new Doctor.

But we’ve got to 1989, now, just over half-way through our journey, and to what looks, at first glance, like the end of it altogether.

All good things come to an end. Neil Gaiman, someone who will have a large effect on Doctor Who in future years (even though now, in 1989, it looks like there won’t be any future years), described his comic Sandman in a single sentence — “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.”

That’s a pretty good summary of Doctor Who, too.

And up until 1989, the choice has always been to change and die, to throw out the old and to move on to something new. It’s only when the show comes to its end, to the very last episode of Doctor Who that will ever be made, that it chooses to examine this decision, and look at the underpinnings of it.

Because “change or die” isn’t a politically neutral statement, and in the 1980s, for the first time in many decades, Social Darwinism was becoming an acceptable political philosophy again.

Change or die. Move forward or get out of the way. If you’re not a producer, you’re not a consumer, and if you’re not a consumer you’re just a parasite. Throw out the old and get the new. Nouvelle cuisine. Newer, better, sharper, faster. High performance. Upwardly mobile.

And opposed to that — but the kind of opposition that accepts the rules set by its opponent — was a fetishising of “authenticity”. Levis adverts with blues music on the soundtrack, because there’s nothing more authentic than black people, especially dead black people. (Living black people might make music that doesn’t meet with their approval. The same people who fetishised “the blues” would also have been those who talked about “rap music with a silent c”).

And we know what side Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who takes. On the one side you’ve got Thatcher, Social Darwinism, and a government that seemed to be characterised by a callous disregard for anyone that its vision of progress left behind. Helen A. On the other, you have old black men playing those forms of ‘authentic’ music acceptable to white people who work in the arts. There’s no choice at all, is there? Certainly that’s the message of Survival.

But of course, the main mistake of Social Darwinism, and of its opponents, is to think of “change or die” as a moral proposition at all. The Thatcherites think “if you don’t change, you deserve to die”, while their opponents were arguing “things that don’t change don’t deserve to die.”

The opponents were, of course, right.

But the difference between society and ecology, as anyone except a politician could tell you, is that society is made and shaped by humans. We can choose to keep institutions around even if they’re not making money, if we decide they’re worthwhile for other reasons.

But in terms of the environment, actual Darwinism still holds. Organisms have to adapt to their environment when their environment changes.

And the TV environment was changing, Doctor Who was ostentatiously not adapting, and so it died.

But was it not adapting?

Clearly, the very first Doctor Who story echoes through this one, but equally clearly this is a different programme from even a few years earlier. The story is written by Rona Munroe — only the second time a woman had written a Doctor Who story (though the fourth time one had been credited), and has a lesbian subtext (and an explicitly feminist text). It reverses the “Yeti-in-a-loo” formula — now Perivale (not quite Tooting Bec, but only fourteen miles away) is the scary, depressing place, where everyone has grown a little colder and harsher. The country is “under new management” and it’s no longer a place for adventures, but a place where Hale And Pace are on the TV. Yeti wouldn’t roam the streets here, because they’d be too interesting.

We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.

Doctor Who has changed despite itself. And even though it died here, in 1989, unloved and unmourned save by a handful, it somehow carried on.

Because “change or die” is a false dichotomy. Everything changes. As long as we are condemned to keep moving forward in time, we are condemned to be subject to the effects of entropy — time is deterioration, is decay, is change. The choice isn’t “change or die?” but how to change, what changes to make.

We can change into a society that doesn’t care for the poor, the dispossessed, the needy, or one in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We can grow more open-minded as we grow older and learn more about the world, or we can cling on to the prejudices with which we were brought up.

And since everything changes, Doctor Who changes too. Some of those changes have been bad. Some of the changes in the future will be bad, too. But they happen. A show that refuses to change is one that gets cancelled.

And because of that cancellation, in 1989, Doctor Who went through the biggest changes it would ever go through. We will chronicle those changes in the next twenty-four essays. Survival even contained the seeds of some of them…

I am no great fan of the programme as it stands in 2013. But if you are, remember that the programme you love is the reanimated corpse of one that had changed before, but chose death in the end. Matt Smith’s replacement might be better. More likely he or she will be worse. But for better or worse the only reason the programme you love is around today is because it’s kept changing.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s the way things are.

3 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1989”

  1. New Who Post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Talking about Survival… and about Matt Smith’s departure from the show Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Matthew Kilburn Says:

    Lesley Scott (credited but not involved with writing), Barbara Clegg, Paula Moore (almost certainly not involved), Jane Baker (with husband Pip), Rona Munro. So the third solo ‘real’ woman writer…

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Gah. Forgot Jane Baker. You’re quite right there. I was counting Scott, Clegg, Moore and Munro, which would make her second woman writer and fourth credited. If I do put these in a book I’ll fix that.

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