The Doctor Who Column: Wealth In Our Time Lord
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John celebrates TV's least materialistic sci-fi hero...
Money. On the surface of it, it's no more than paper and iron. Or an abstract figure in a bank account. And yet we just cannot do without it. Back in the day, people used to trade and barter as a means of payment, and judging by the still-forlorn economic picture, give it a few more years, and everyone will be forced to use beans, string and seeds as elementary commerce.
That grim view of the economy sure isn't helped by the constant bombardment of news reports, which I swear are getting odder by the day. Not least in the fact that on the one hand, we get reports of famous people who are shelling out on the swankiest clothes and bling to attend showbiz parties or awards dos. And also, there's some big do later on this year, for which money is apparently available in readiness for great big boats and pop concerts to celebrate a woman who's enjoyed 60 years of having flags waved in her face. So apparently there's no problem.
At least until the newsreaders start to frown and put on their best serious faces. At which point it's difficult to reason all that wanton spending with the other side of the coin. The economic crisis deepens! Recession sure to hit the country again! Heck, even the fat cat bosses are forsaking bonuses at the risk of being known as Pariah Of The Month. So things must be bad. No wonder most everyday, hard-working people aren't happy – they're probably confused beyond all reason by mixed messages of spending money on flotilla boats on the one hand and thousands more people losing their jobs on the other.
So really, it's no wonder that Doctor Who tends to be so popular with families. In fact, what with the 50th anniversary coming up, they should replace at least one overlong news bulletin with a repeat of good old Who. Why? Well, in these gloomy economic times, at least Doctor Who puts an alternative spin on how much you should value money and wealth.
I mean, take the concept alone. This is a bloke who travels about in a rickety old blue box that isn't the most reliable model on the market. At no point does The Doctor swap the TARDIS for a glitzy, pristine, superb space-time machine. No, he's happy with his faithful companion, even if it takes him to the wrong place and time on occasion. Not only that, The Doctor generally isn't motivated by greed or earning a fast pound all the time. Instead, he just wants to travel, and maybe, from time to time, save the day. I guess, if he were so inclined, he could carefully plot the TARDIS to land in a bank vault containing stacks of gold bars, take five minutes to smuggle the bullion inside and then vamoose again. But no, The Doctor doesn't need all that cash to have a good time.
In the black and white days of the programme, The Doctor is simply a carefree traveller – a grouchy old one at that in his first days, but still roaming the universe on an intergalactic mystery tour. The First Doctor's a bit of an old skinflint though – take the bit in The Crusade, when he steals clothes from Daheer's shop, while all the time, chuckling like a madman in his face. This is cheapskatery of the highest order, and also, remember kids – stealing is bad for you.
It's in Patrick Troughton's years as The Doctor that we get a snapshot of how for the most part, excessive greed in Doctor Who leads to an unhappy ending. Julius Silverstein – possibly the most stereotyped character in Who – is too busy huffing and puffing and blowing his Wendy House down at the thought of being conned out of his priceless Yeti to heed Travers' warnings. "Eeet's priceless," he crows. "Zee only vun in zee vurld and eet ees mine!" Which unfortunately for him doesn't end up like that for much longer, given that his furry retirement fund decides to club him to death seconds later. There's also blustering old Theodore Maxtible, who's stupid enough to think that the Daleks are just going to hand him the secret of turning iron into gold on a plate. No, his reward is in fact, being turned into a Dalek, which as rewards go, ranks up there with winning a month's holiday in a fetid sewer.
It's really in Jon Pertwee's time that we get to hear about the main implications of greed and over-reliance on wealth. A good portion of Pertwee stories deal with amoral corporations or businessmen who are hell-bent on sacrificing Earth for the sake of a few quid. Lawrence. Stahlman. Stevens - Just a few of the many money-grabbing oiks out for wealth and power.
"Economic times were punishing in early 1974, much like on Peladon, but it's still a complaint that sadly rings true today"
One problem though – they're complete fruitcakes. Lawrence is too busy worrying about his next pay packet to notice that dormant Silurians have now been woken up by a prototype nuclear reactor (which probably isn't much good for the safety of the planet in the first place). Stahlman is so pre-occupied with achieving his aim of penetrating the Earth's Crust that he somehow fails to recognise that all the money and humanitarian trophies in the world will get roasted. And Stevens? This is a man who talks to a computer.
The scenario of exiling The Doctor to Earth allows the moral message about over-reliance on wealth and materialism to creep in more. Axonite, for example, is the bait for human greed. There's the horrible sense of gaudy commercialism in Terror Of The Autons with its bang-up range of chairs, dolls and daffodils. Even when The Third Doctor's let loose on another planet, there's still the opportunity to explore the pressing financial concerns of the early 1970s, such as the big gap between the ruling classes on Peladon and the surly badger heads. "But our lives have always been the same, Doctor," sighs Gebek. "Work and sleep. Little else. We earn barely enough to feed our families." Economic times were punishing in early 1974, much like on Peladon, but it's still a complaint that sadly rings true today.
Ditto Colony In Space – a bit of a dark horse in that underneath all the endless mud and boring gun battles, it's a topical warning about the horrors of ruthless capitalism. The IMC bosses are hell-bent on driving away Ashe and his colony, just for the sake of plenty of bonus pounds and other goodies. While Caldwell eventually does find redemption, and while Morgan's no more than a witless thug, it's really Captain Dent who represents that ruthless greed. Dent treats the whole charade as an unscrupulous bank heist, with the colonists acting as irritating obstacles which are blocking his multi-billion dreams. So what does he do? He chooses to get rid of them, whether it's through a natty robot with very obvious fake claws (by the look of them though, the worst they'd do would be to tap you to death, and even then you'd have to squat) or by forcing them to leave on a rickety spaceship which doesn't last one minute in flight. So Captain Dent really is the walking poster boy for Too Much Wealth = Bad. He's setting the standards for the likes of Mr Burns, Paul Robinson and Janine from EastEnders in evil, get-rich schemes. Perhaps he needs all that cash to get a decent haircut.
The strange thing about the Pertwee years though is that our hero's maybe just a bit more interested in the finer things in life than he used to be. He splutters that he doesn't want money at the end of Spearhead From Space, but insists on a fancy wardrobe, resources, and also a swanky car which presumably do not come cheap. And it turns out that he can get access to money pretty easily. When captured by shouty circus git Rossini in Terror Of The Autons, he promises that will reward the lairy goon very handsomely if he's set free. Presumably, he goes scuttling off to The Brig when he wants a handy top-up of cash. How else would you explain his jaunts to the local exclusive (and rich) club? Or his great knowledge of the finest wines and cheeses that no self-respecting connoisseur should pass by?
So how can a man who prides himself as "The Dandy" actually be taken seriously when shouting at greedy moneybags types like Dent or Stahlman? Well, in the end, the big payoff is that the show acknowledges that even The Doctor has maybe got a bit too greedy. A Metebelis crystal may be a unique talking point at one of Cliff's and Jo's fondue parties, but it's not much good when it pre-empts bedlam on Metebelis 3. The Metebelis crystal, you could argue, represents The Third Doctor's thirst for unnecessary bling, not just with his fancy clothes and jewellery, but with his gadgets and vehicles – and yes, that includes the wretched Whomobile. So while he explains to Sarah that it's his greed for information that's caused the whole Spider problem, it's vaguely possible that he's also talking about his greed for superficial trinkets that don't really matter so much. And so, his ultimate cost is a pretty hefty one, as he dies from radiation poisoning, after returning the crystal to The Great One. He may have liked the bling a bit too much, but the Third Doctor's moral code won out in the end big time.
His successor though, luckily couldn't care tuppence about money. This is a Doctor who negotiates downwards with Prince Reynart of Tara, ignores posho banker types and positively champions those who need a bit of help with their poverty-stricken lives. Oddly, Tom Baker's Doctor doesn't really get to do this until later in his run. The first three seasons generally concentrate on scaring kids instead of instructing on money and greed. About the only exception to this is The Seeds Of Doom, which again highlights that Greed leads to certain death. Dunbar's greed for a case full of fivers means that he ends up getting a bunch of fives from Keeler The Krynoid. Scorby's reward for serving a loony-bin is getting drowned in a river full of active weeds. While Harrison Chase himself finds that not even a million pounds can reassemble the human body from a pile of compost. This concept also crops up again in Horror Of Fang Rock, when greedy old Palmerdale and Skinsale seal their fates by either trying to a financial deal or scrabbling for precious diamonds. Never have rich banker types been as lambasted as they are on Doctor Who than in Horror Of Fang Rock. Which is one of the reasons that the fans love it.
But after this, the later Baker stories take a more positive, pro-active approach to throwing off greedy, wealth-obsessed tyrants. The Sun Makers is the cornerstone of this approach and sets up the pattern for future stories. The Doctor starts a revolution to find out the real bad apple at the core of the planet's worries, and so throws off the evil regime, not only through his quick-thinking brain, but by inciting previously quaking minions to stand up for themselves and make a stand. So in The Sun Makers, taxes have caused only a select few – namely The Collector and his snivelling, piggy-eyed lackey Hade – to live a life of luxury. Meanwhile, the likes of do-right Cordo can't make ends meet and so they're doomed to a lifetime of misery. But the Fourth Doctor shows the downtrodden citizens that they actually can make a difference if they band together and start some sort of protest, complaint or revolution. Or in other words, this Doctor actually proves that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that financial greed is simply a thing of evil, not something that's to be shouted about from the rooftops. Well, Hade doesn't get to shout about it for long anyway.
Similar scenarios crop up at least once every remaining Tom Baker season, with notable examples being The Pirate Planet (in which The Doctor throws materialism to the wind in favour of good old-fashioned knowledge), The Creature From The Pit (in which he casually orders K9 to destroy Chloris' metal with just one blast, for the sake of diplomacy) and State Of Decay (in which he champions Kalmar and his scruffy mob over the wealthy Three Who Rule). This Doctor sees the bigger picture of what life's all about and concludes that useless trinkets and excessive wealth are nowhere near as valuable as being a good, forward-thinking person.
"Doctor Who proves that money, gold and material prizes are replaceable, but experiences, knowledge and life – they can never be bought from shops"
By the time of Doctor Number Five, a similar 'Bigger Picture' scenario creeps in when it's discussing this theme, but it's the stories that do the talking rather than the Time Lord. Some of the Davison stories stack up a pile of coins against a greater issue, and so that money dwindles in value by the second. Briggs is too busy huffing and puffing about her bonus (she presumably became a bank boss after flying off) in Earthshock, but after the Cybermen come galumphing down the corridors of the freighter, she mercifully sees the bigger picture. Snakedance's pampered oiks are drowning in pointless bling and superficiality, while throwing knowledge to the wind. And in Enlightenment, it's the right to make the choice that's of much higher value than a glowing diamond.
Curiously, the late '80s don't really concern themselves with financial quandaries so much, give or take the odd caricature like Glitz or the odd allegory like The Happiness Patrol. Which is ironic, given the burgeoning Yuppie age. Not one power suit or oversized mobile phone to be had.
Well, not at least until Father's Day, 17-odd years after 1987 itself. When Doctor Who came back with a new lease of life in the 21st century, luckily it hadn't forgotten the core values of not getting too greedy with money and material things. By 2007, as the economic crisis kicked in, the show was already showing the dire warnings of this attitude. So as Lady Thaw wanted Lazarus' experiments for money and as McDonnell wanted to mine the sun, catastrophe, death and terror inevitably broke out. Voyage Of The Damned was packed wall to wall with guests who had either bankrupted themselves for the sake of a holiday, a bloke who was scraping by on a tour guide sham or a nasty, snivelling rich fat cat who unexpectedly survived after countless others bought it – thus summing up how modern life isn't as fair as it should be.
But then sometimes, just sometimes, the hard-working ones do get their financial rewards in Who of late, whether it's Mr Copper finding he's got several more credits than he thought possible to his delight, or to Donna getting a small piece of paper that could turn her life around just like that. And given that Donna had saved the day more than once, well, maybe she got her reward – not to mention a tidy old retirement plan for good old Wilf. It's the impossible dream. We dream about making money – enough to not have to worry about where the next meal's coming from, whether or not the bills get paid, not to mention the rent or the mortgage. And I suppose that's why the world's got in a state recently – too many bonuses, too many big wage packets, too much unnecessary bling. Too much greed – while most people just cannot afford to make ends meet. So for most of us, I bet that if we were put in Donna's or Mr Copper's position, that'd be a huge weight removed.
The moral of this story? Money is important and it's the dream that many of us chase. But at the end of the day, as one certain programme proves, money, gold and material prizes are replaceable, but experiences, knowledge and life – they can never be bought from shops. "Money isn't everything!" Unstoffe once said in The Ribos Operation, and that's a statement worth its weight in gold.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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