Doctor Who: Dystopian Visions

I’ve been thinking about dystopian societies recently, and what they potentially look like.

(Daily Doctor Who #339)

Google tells me that the word dystopia means “An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” It didn’t occur to me until seeing that that maybe the word “dystopia” only refers to fictional societies. Certainly there have been plenty of real states or societies that are characterized by great suffering or injustice, but perhaps “dystopia,” when used correctly, only refers to the fictional equivalents? I’m not sure.

In any case, fictional (if you need to qualify them so) dystopias are often not just worlds where there is a lot of suffering, but where there is also a level of deception over things–people often don’t know they are in a dystopia, etc. But I suppose that’s not an essential quality…otherwise you might be able to include the worlds of The Hunger Games or Mad Max, when I think they clearly fit.

In its decades of history, Doctor Who has presented a number of alien civilizations that fit the general idea of dystopia…I thought I’d take a look at some of the more memorable.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

1964 – Written by Terry Nation. With the First Doctor, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright and Susan Foreman

Terry Nation, who went on to create Blake’s 7 and The Survivors, obviously had some dystopia stories in him as a writer. The Dalek Invasion of the Earth presents one of the conceptually simplest ones that the show ever presented by basically taking the audience’s latent fears of being invaded defeated in World War II and bringing it to life, science fiction-style. Thus we have a 22nd century earth that is suspiciously similar to the 1960’s, except with occupying armies, forced labor camps, desperate scavengers and resistance fighters trying to find a reason to keep hoping.

We’ve also got local collaborators (the mind controlled variety and otherwise) willing to sell out their fellows, showing the depths that humanity can sink to in the face of oppression and suffering.

Of course, we also have Daleks drilling out the centre of the earth in order to put a big rocket inside it, so we aren’t tempted to take things too seriously here. But nonetheless, The Dalek Invasion of Earth stands out for being the show’s first real dystopia, and for making it memorable by setting it in a world so similar to real life at the time.

Day of the Daleks

1973 – Written by Louis Marks. With the Third Doctor and Jo Grant.

Whether this was intention or not, Day of the Daleks is semi-sequel to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, as it presents a future in which the Daleks change time so there invasion of the 22nd century was more successful. This version of things still has the resistance fighters struggling for survival, but the glimpses of the world we see include humans placed at odds with each other in positions of power and authority.

Their motives are ambiguous, but the fact of the matter is that whether its for personal survival, or for what is believed to be the betterment of humanity, people like the Controller (Aubrey Woods) help to bring subjugation and suffering upon the rest of the earth while they live a privileged and (relatively) protected life.

The story doesn’t go as far as it could exploring these themes, but it does bring them up, which just makes the dystopian nature of the world a bit more disturbing than it would have been otherwise.

The Beast Below

2010 – Written by Steven Moffat. With the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond

Jumping ahead decades in the show’s history, we come to The Beast Below–a story that had all the makings of one of the show’s really “great” dystopian societies, but which in the end glossed over them in favor of other things. The episode is about a future in which the earth was suffering from an apocalyptic event, leading to the construction of “Starship UK”, in which an equivalent to the United Kingdom was launched out into space in search of a new home–basically a big country in space.

The Doctor quickly discerns that something disturbing is going on by the way people fail to respond to a child crying, realizing that it is a police state complete with ubiquitous watchers–smiling automatons that can turn vicious at the first sign of nonconformity. Eventually, the Doctor discovers that most of the citizens have chosen to voluntarily forget the truth: Starship UK is built on the back of a gigantic and intelligent star whale which is constantly tortured in order to keep the country moving (and alive). The Doctor is rightly outraged by this and the episode proceeds to focus on this issue for the rest of the runtime.

However, in doing so it quickly forgets a lot of the other disturbing elements of the the society that we’ve seen: namely that the leaders regularly and willingly cull their citizenry of malcontents and low performers–including children–in order to feed to the whale so it can have the strength to do its task. This is a world that have chosen that the whole must survive even if many of the parts (often the most vulnerable people) do not.

That is all seriously messed up, but the Doctor and the show seem to act like everything is just happy and nice once the Star Whale torture issue is resolved.


1970 – Written by Don Houghton. With the Third Doctor and Liz Shaw.

One of the more obvious dystopias on Doctor Who was in the extensive parallel universe segments of Inferno. This was an example of one of those alternate realities where everyone is evil that we often get in science fiction. Except they weren’t precisely evil, but certainly more militaristic, less humane, and overtly Fascist. The royal family, we are told, have all been executed, and the friendly familiar faces of the Brigadier, Benton and Liz Shaw are all replaced by cruel and cowardly counterparts, although the Doctors ability to turn Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw to his side indicates that some of the people’s potential for humanity remains.

Inferno presents a world without checks and balances–power is exercised and maintained with military force, without consideration for what is good and right. This shortsightedness leads to the destruction of the world.

The alternate dystopia of Inferno is never seen beyond the confines of Project Inferno, so we don’t know the details. It was later developed in some of the franchise’s spin-off novels, including one where it is suggested that the Leader of the Republic of Great Britain that is referred to in this story is none other than an alternate universe version of the Doctor himself!

Turn Left

2008 – Written by Russell T. Davies. With the Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble, and Rose Tyler.

Whereas the alternate world of Inferno is described as a “parallel space-time continuum,” the one we see in Turn Left is pretty clearly an alternate timeline created when an enemy of the Doctor targets him by getting Donna Noble to make a different choice in what seems to be an innocuous situation–whether to turn right or left. The consequences of this choice are great, however, as it means that Donna never meets the Doctor, nor saves his life. Thus many attacks on earth which the Doctor should have stopped have devastating consequences.

In order to cope with this, martial law is declared in the UK, and eventually all non-English people are relocated to labor camps. People like Wilfrid Mott recognize the terrible direction that their country is going in, but are powerless to do anything about it.

Turn Left remains an example of one of the series’ most chilling dystopias because of how real and plausible it all seems–if the circumstances were right (or wrong), we can justify the cruelest of policies as being “necessary.”

The Macra Terror

1967 – Written by Ian Stuart Black. With the Second Doctor, Polly, Ben Jackson, and Jamie McCrimmon.

The Macra Terror is possibly Doctor Who’s first genuine dystopia story in the way that we tend to think of them–with a society that appears benign but hides are a dark underbelly beneath a pleasant veneer. This four-part adventure shows the TARDIS landing on a human colony that at first glance appears to be just a big holiday camp where the fun never stops, but the presence of facilities such as a “Labour Centre” and a “Refreshing Department” belie more sinister purposes. It turns out that the camp is really there for the purposes of the Macra–huge crab-like creatures that have brainwashed the inhabitants to mine a gas necessary for the Macra to live, but which is deadly to humans.

Those who try to communicate this truth are quickly suppressed and “refreshed,” in order to bring them in line with the accepted view of things.

The festive atmosphere of this dystopian world is quite reminiscent of the Village in The Prisoner, which was released later in the same year–except for the presence of the giant alien monsters. It’s hard not to imagine they both came from the cultural zeitgeist.


1985 – Written by Glen McCoy. With the Sixth Doctor and Peri.

It’s important to note here that this list is not a countdown–going from the 10th best to 1st best Doctor Who dystopia. Neither is is chronological nor alphabetical; it’s more of a stream-of-consciousness listing of the stories that occur to me. With that in mind we come to Timelash, which follows naturally in my mind after The Macra Terror simply because it also involves a society whose full dystopian nature is hidden somewhat by a deceptively pleasant image of its leader projected to everyone on a screen.

But beyond that, the totalitarian nature of the story’s planet, Karfel, is pretty obvious. A being called the Borad sits at the top of the power-chain, ruling everything through fear enforced through androids, and dealing with dissidents through execution–both the quick and slow varieties. In reality, the Borad is a known criminal–his immoral experiments have just been hidden rather than actually dealt with.

There are others in positions of authority but they are helpless to oppose the Borad because of the safeguards he has put in place.. Those who might have been a voice for justice are swiftly eliminated.

Ultimately, however, it’s one of the more paint-by-numbers dystopias the show has ever constructed, which is just one of many reasons why the story has such a poor reputation amongst Doctor Who fans.

The Happiness Patrol

1988 – Written by Graeme Curry. With the Seventh Doctor and Ace.

The Happiness Patrol is one of the show’s more obviously allegorical stories, in which the Doctor and Ace arrive at a colony called Terra Alpha that is under the iron thumb of “Helen A”, a thinly disguised version of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many of the issues facing this colony are variations of real life situations that were faced by the Thatcher government.

Overall, the story features a fairly typical dystopia, complete with totalitarian rule, general lack of freedoms, and harsh punishments for dissenters, but with a few extra quirks. First of all, all unhappy behavior or speech is strictly outlawed, leading to disturbingly superficial behavior on the part of the populace. And secondly, one of the harsher punishments that is doled out to dissidents is death via being dipped in molten candy, an act carried out by a cruel and sweet-themed android called the Kandy Man.

Ultimately, Terra Alpha is a place that doesn’t just want to control your actions or your thoughts–they want to control your feelings. And when you don’t submit to that control, then people are killed by the symbols of the feelings that you are supposed to have.

The story and design are just flat-out weird but all of this adds up to one of the more bizarre and disturbing dystopian visions the show has ever concocted.

The Lie of the Land

2017 – Written by Toby Whithouse. With the Twelfth Doctor, Bill Potts and Nardole.

The Lie of the Land is another one of those stories which is powerful because the dystopia it presents is our own world, transformed. In it, the alien Monks have established a psychic link to the Bill Potts that has allowed them to rewrite the memories of the entire earth. False information is fed to the masses daily to present a narrative which has no bearing in fact, but is accepted by almost everyone. Anyone who questions this or voices disagreement is swiftly punished–taken, silenced and locked away in labor camps. Most concerningly of all, the Doctor seems to agree with their methods and goals.

Inferno and Turn Left also presented modern day dystopias, but both took place in an alternate timeline or parallel universe. The Lie of the Land is supposed to be the show’s “main” reality, but one in which a complete alien takeover has taken place not by changing history or breaching the walls of time, but by the enemy changing memory and perception, which is in every way far more disturbing.

Vengeance on Varos

1985 – Written by Philip Martin. With the Sixth Doctor and Ace.

For my money, the most interesting dystopian society that Doctor Who has ever brought to the screen is Varos, of the Sixth Doctor adventure Vengeance on Varos.

Varos is a world where everything is televised and brought to the masses. Whenever important decisions are made, the world’s governor must appear on TV to justify his actions and appeal to the population for support–if he doesn’t receive it, he is inflicted with potentially fatal agony. If he survives, he lives to govern another day. To keep the masses happy, prisoners are tortured and executed in live broadcasts, with their fates also often decided by the people’s vote. It’s all bit reminiscent to the idea of Roman gladiators of the past, or even the world of The Hunger Games that would be created years later–the violent public spectacles give the unhappy population something to distract themselves with.

It’s all represented by the characters Arak and Etta–a couple struggling with dreary work and a lack of food. For the entire adventure they basically watch what the Doctor is doing on their television and participate in the various votes. But we also see in them the concern they have about being caught having the wrong thoughts or expressing the wrong opinions, lest they be reported and become the subject of the next bit of entertainment.

All of it together makes Varos one of the most discomforting worlds that the show has presented–one in which the dystopia has been created not by any external force or crisis, but by the people’s own addiction to cruelty as a form of entertainment.

And that’s my list. Any obvious ones I’ve forgotten? Any you like the best? Any that you find the most frightening?

One thought on “Doctor Who: Dystopian Visions

  1. Thank you for this list. My favourite would probably be The Sun Makers because it opens with the 4th Doctor and Leela saving a man from suicide. That’s a most inspirational spark of hope for how a dystopian world can be finally freed and certainly thanks to our Time Lord hero.

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