Buying In and Selling Out: Has Marketing Muzzled Our Hero?

Doctor Who belongs to us, all of us. Peter Capaldi says so.

In the world tour event in Rio he said the show belongs to us, the fans, and I am more than happy to belong to the show, as a supporter and advocate. But I’d hate to be described as a stakeholder in the Who Franchise. Yes, I own most of the DVDs, classic and 2005 onwards, and hope to get the rest in time. Yes, I own dozens of BF audios and would love hundreds more (when I’ve saved up!). Yes, I’m accumulating reference books about the show. But I can’t claim to be a real ‘Collector’ –  My house isn’t crammed with merchandise and memorabilia; I’ve never owned an action figure, comic, or target novelisation. But I appreciate those who do ‘buy into’ Who in that way. Can you remember saving up pocket money to buy your next ‘fix?’ I trust you Kasterborite collectors to compensate for my inadequacies on this in the comments below!

The belief that a shop in a hospital would make people feel happy and comfortable rang danger bells. Am I missing some subtle subtext?

The endless, inventive creativity of Who fans is another way of ‘buying in’ for free, as it were. I can’t hope to produce the sort of mini-films that grace YouTube and occasionally get their creators invited to work with the current Who team, but have been known to knit the odd TARDIS or build a snow dalek, and I’m working on a TARDIS to store the aforementioned DVDs etc.


Though far too shy for cosplay I am thrilled at the lengths people go to honour their favourites by making a not-fashion statement.  I have been encouraged by Peter Capaldi’s emphasis on making Who accessible to all, regardless of spending power. He chose his costume to be copyable in the playground without financial outlay: take your school tie off, shove your jacket back and stick your hands in your pockets. And carry a spoon. He resisted the offer of his own model sonic. I quote the Metro: “Commenting on the lack of new sonic screwdriver for Capaldi’s Doctor’, writer Gatiss quipped, ‘I amazed they’ve missed the marketing opportunity!’ To which Peter disagreed, ‘Well I think we should side step the marketing opportunities. I don’t think we should be too focused in that direction’.”

Selling Out

But is Who swept up in the trend to commercialise and commodify everything, whether we like it or not? Or worse still, has its relationship with the hugely successful marketing wing of the Sirius Cybernetics Corpo – sorry, BBC Worldwide – blunted its cutting edge?

Though New Earth is never going to be one of my favourites, it does at least criticise the lengths to which we will go to be not only healthy, but young, beautiful and ‘pure.’

Don't ask about our R&D dept.

Don’t ask about our R&D dept.

But I remember feeling uneasy when the Tenth Doctor complained that the hospital didn’t have a shop (the start of a running gag in NuWho).

Doctor: Nice place. But no shop downstairs. I’d have a shop. Not a big one, just a shop so people can shop.
Sister: This hospital is a place of healing.
Doctor: Well, a shop does some people a world of good. Not me, but other people.

I would have wanted a café where I could enjoy hospitality, have a cuppa and chat with folk. But the belief that a shop would make people feel happy and comfortable rang danger bells for me. Am I missing some subtle subtext here that providing a shop so that people can be consumers goes well with consuming people so richer people can be healthy?

Okay, perhaps I’m in an ever-shrinking minority, but I was influenced by Who in the 70s and 80s, when inhuman corporate power and body-horror commodification were all the rage. When thinking of people as ‘consumers’ let alone commodities to be consumed would have been anathema. Any government, corporation or political leader (human or alien) who treated people (human or alien) as means not ends engendered the Doctor’s wrath. The Savages:

‘They have discovered a way of extracting life’s force,’ explains the Doctor, ‘and absorbing it into themselves.’

‘Why the concern?’ Edal sneers. ‘They’re only savages.’

The Doctor is furious. ‘They’re men,’ he replies. ‘Human beings – like you and me.’

Their great progress has come at too high a price: “the sacrifice of even one soul is too great.”

Sometimes it’s a more visceral use of bodies, e.g. Revelation of the Daleks (the one that really blurs the lines between them and Cybermen) A rather different take on Spare Parts.


The Doctor: But did you bother to tell anyone they might be eating their own relatives?
Davros: Certainly not! That would have created what I believe is termed “consumer resistance.”

A Grotesque Abuse: Overlooked

Sadly, when they used the same idea in Death in Heaven there was so much emphasis on the relationship between Danny and Clara, and between Missy and the Doctor that there was no time to comment on the grotesque abuse of the dead. In Dark Water the Doctor dismissed it as a con trick, but not a moral outrage, or an unforgivable use of people as a means to an end. Maybe we’re meant to infer it, but I’d like to see the Doctor angry sometimes. Capaldi’s capacity for passionate, even dangerous emotion was shown in the console room when he discovered Missy’s lie, and felt his own loss. Why not direct some of that at the attitudes, systems and PTB that cause others such pain?

Matt Smith’s wonderful little speech in A Good Man Goes to War shows he can get angry, but only because they used his friends. Let’s see the Doctor get this animated on behalf of people he doesn’t even know.

NuWho‘s trope that everyone is important (A Christmas Carol) and that ‘ordinary’ people matter (Father’s Day) is all very nice, but where does it criticise the systems that treat people as labrats, surety, or dirt?


Regular Kasterborous commenter TheLazyWomble pointed out that Flatline showed a little social comment in the set-in-stone attitude of the supervisor to Rigsy and his peers. Even a trip in the TARDIS didn’t change him. The Doctor encouraged Rigsy in his artistic talent, but said nothing about his situation. Was the story’s critique of the system that creates an underclass, writes off the young unemployed, and is slow to investigate when their loved ones go missing overt enough for many to notice? I’m not advocating for the unsubtlety of The Creature from the Pit, but where’s the moral outrage, the stirring up of the oppressed to take a stance? At least in The Savages it is made clear that the underclass was created by the system, and is not their own fault.

‘You know, my dear, there’s something very satisfying in destroying something that’s evil, don’t you think?’
(The Savages)

Now I’ll admit that the general tenor of 70’s and 80’s Who was anti-establishment, anti-corporate power, and occasionally made Arthur Scargill look right-wing. Its unsophisticated forays into the mining dispute (Monster of Peladon), tax and debt (The Sunmakers) and the Thatcher government (The Happiness Patrol) are well-known. But to me, the particular political flavour is not important; it’s the freedom of the show to critique ANY social, political or cultural status quo that I fear is softened these days.

Perhaps how we feel about this depends on what we see as the threat in the status quo. I suggest that Who shows a clear progression on the commodification threat.

The Horror of Industrial Automation

In Spearhead from Space the threat they criticised was automation, mass-production, and the products turning on us – perfectly captured by this shot of the gun-toting Autons with price-labels still attached, huge adverts on the wall, and a typical shopping street behind them.

An extra models the Pertwee death pose! So that's where he got the idea.

An extra models the Pertwee death pose! So that’s where he got the idea.

By Terror of the Autons one season later the threat was not so much the product as the undiscerning consumer who preferred plastic flowers to real ones, uncomfortable blow-up chairs, and troll-dolls that took ugly to new depths.

What are these going for on eBay?

But is NuWho leading any resistance to the threat of us becoming the product? Kasterborous’ recent discussion on Christopher Eccleston highlighted this issue for me: Alongside K’s usually temperate comments were opinions that people only become actors in order to be rich and famous, celebrities ‘owing’ us (!) and even in one comment, us ‘owning’ them! The replies championing CE’s freedom as an actor and human being were a relief, but the fact that a sector of Who fandom sees the world in terms of consumerism, commodification, and ownership of persons is worrying. Consider the Spoonheads: “walking wifi base station hoovering up data, or people.”


As though they’re the same thing.

The Doctor: Imagine that. Human souls trapped like flies in the World Wide Web, stuck for ever, crying out for help.
Clara: Isn’t that basically Twitter?

Does The Bells of St John do it for you, or was it too wrapped up in the humour, tech and CGI to pack any punch? Early Who might have been ham-fisted in its moral outrage and the clarion call to take a stand, but does new, glitzy, world-touring Who just expect us to laugh?

So, come back at me people; has Who sold out to consumer culture, or are there stories in modern who that remind us that a person’s value in society is more than just their power to buy, and what  we need to make us happy is not just ‘a little shop’?

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  1. Fred says:

    Very good article – I suspect that the Who we have now is a type of champagne socialism. I was surprised that in Planet of the Ood, Donna was so easily allowed to change the subject when the Doctor referred to her lack of moral outrage at workers in workshops being used to provide her own clothing.

  2. Dr Moo says:

    I don’t think it’s so much a problem with Doctor Who but with the media in general. Consumerism is the culture we live in at the moment and so any expectation that you’d see otherwise on a TV show, especially one as popular as Doctor Who, is fundamentally flawed.

    The article states: “But to me, the particular political flavour is not important; it’s the freedom of the show to critique ANY social, political or cultural status quo that I fear is softened these days.” Yes it has, you’re absolutely right. It’s called the BBC and political correctness, two things that go together better than a Time Lord and a TARDIS.

    • bar says:

      I fear you’re right Dr Moo, but hope things might shift the other way at some point.
      Being OLD I remember when the BBC did occasionally bite the hand that fed it, had a questioning, satirical and anti-establishment wing.
      These days its chameleon circuit seems to be working perfectly; it never frightens the horses and I’m not sure it is still bigger on the inside.

  3. Namnoot says:

    It’s a trade-off. The show is produced by a public broadcaster and paid for with what is basically a tax that everyone in the UK has to pay if they want to have a TV set. That limits what they can say (and yes there were fewer limits in the old days but in the old days you didn’t have as many people pushing for the licence fee to be ended and condemning the network every time one of its personalities breaks wind in the wrong key). If the show was produced by a commercial broadcaster, one that is beholden to companies that buy advertising, there would also be limits.

    • bar says:

      Yes, I remember Joss Whedon saying how proud he was of ONE particular ep of Buffy: after 144 stories, topics like sex, drug addiction, death, rape, domestic violence etc etc etc, the ONLY one that all the sponsors/advertisers pulled out of was ‘Doublemeat Palace,’ the one knocking the fast food industry.

  4. Roderick T. long says:

    It’s important not to confuse markets (mutual exchange for mutual benefit) with capitalism (class monopoly ownership and exploitation). It IS possible to have one without the other:

  5. Ranger says:

    Great article, Bar!

    It’s very much a 2 edged sword: to continue to produce DW there has to be marketing of one form or another to help pay for it. It needn’t all be bad, but I do feel there is an element of exploitation in it sometimes. And in today’s world the BBC has to walk a very fine line, not only regarding the licence fee, but also in avoiding upsetting its business partners. The BBC also lives in a political world, where, either rightly or wrongly depends on your point of view, they are forever being accused of being left wing, right wing, racist, too politically correct, etc, etc. I really feel sorry for them sometimes, there’s no way they can win. But they do still occasionally stick their necks out – Happy Valley, the Yorkshire political thing, I’ve forgotten the name, Red Riding?

    Which brings us to DW – is this a programme where current politics and ideas should be discussed? Is the thinly veiled attack on Maggie Thatcher in The Happiness Patrol or the workers rights movement of the Peladon stories or the anti-capitalist mantra of The Sunmakers (um, I’m detecting a certain political bias here!), or the environmentalist propaganda of The Green Death, etc what we want to be teaching our children through the medium of a supposedly family-orientated show – regardless if you agree with the ideas or not?

    My response is a highly guarded yes. My formative years was spent watching the Sunmakers, the Peladon stories, the Happiness Patrol (I have to say that I was a very naive child – I never realised this last one was an attack on Mrs T until much, much later!). It doesn’t seem to have produced a donkey-jacket wearing, militantly vegan communist; which if you listen to some of the contemporary criticism of this era is what I seemed to be destined to become. But in my opinion, TV is there to present a range of ideas and opinions that might not be accessible elsewhere for a child, but they should be carefully presented, something that DW did not always get right.

    Obviously, each generation has it’s own worries and concerns. The power of the Unions and the rights of workers was very dominant in the 70’s and early 80’s; today it is very much the environment (the early recognition genius of The Green Death), racial and religious freedoms and hatred. And I would argue that DW is looking at these ideas today – the monstrosity that was the Into the Forest thing, Kill the Moon and it’s impossible moral dilemma, the 12th doctor’s initial feelings about humans, etc. It’s just that the BBC has to be a little more subtle nowadays.

    • Dr Moo says:

      Wait, are you trying to say that ‘Kill The Moon’ was subtle?!

      • Ranger says:

        I did say “a little”! 🙂

        • Dr Moo says:

          For the record, I actually agree with “Kill the Moon”‘s anti-abortion message (It’s the murder of babies, by very definition!) but I still didn’t like the episode; I find it insulting that it takes such a preachy approach to the topic and if this is the best that the pro-life argument can do then it is going to be seriously hurt for quite some time. I find it surprising that the ultra-PC BBC allowed the episode to go ahead, as someone who agrees with it and hated it I can only imagine how bad it must be to people on the other side of the argument!

          • Ranger says:

            It was an OK episode, some good, some bad things. I worry though when such complex issues such as abortion crop up – I’m open to being told I’m wrong, but I doubt anyone’s opinion is changed by a 45 min sci-fi programme and it could just annoy people, such as you Moo. I have very ambivalent feelings about abortion, it is rarely a straight, clear-cut decision, which KTM did try to portray, to it’s credit, but somehow, you’re right Moo, it did come across as we’re right and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong.

          • bar says:

            I may well be wrong about KTM, mind a bit traumatised… but I got the impression that what it was saying wasn’t quite as crass as ‘we’re right and everyone else is wrong’ but that IF you are going to debate about abortion, the outsider should leave the decision to those to whom it matters. Their idea that the only ones to whom it matters are the childbearing age women is UTTER NONSENSE. The creation and care of children concerns everyone, and a wise outsider might have something very pertinent to say. Like let’s try to be as passionate on behalf of the underprivileged and unloved children who happen to be outside the womb already…

          • Dr Moo says:

            “Kill the Moon” took completely the wrong approach to the issue. When I watch a show I don’t like to skip episodes but with that one it’s hard not to. Which is a shame because it actually had potential to be quite good but the last half hour totally derailed it.

          • bar says:

            This little side discussion is actually very helpful regarding the general article. The issue is way too complex, wide-ranging and entangled with much else in politics and culture to be covered in 45 mins of entertainment. Perhaps commodification and consumer capitalism are equally hard to address with anything more than very light satire.
            Yet I hanker for something more serious too… perhaps because media political ‘debate’ is rapidly degenerating into mere entertainment! I knew I’d get some interesting comments on this site 🙂

          • Ranger says:

            I’m actually surprised that DW raising the issue in KTM wasn’t discussed by the media, etc more – in fact they were remarkably quiet. Are they used to DW raising controversial issues now or is the loss of Mrs Whitehouse as a means to provoke debate to be lamented?!

          • Dr Moo says:

            Some reviewers picked up on it and mentioned it. This guy summed it up the best (of the ones I’ve found) because he laments the missed potential of the episode as well as everything else that it did so horribly horribly wrong.

          • Planet of the Deaf says:

            Abortion in the UK is a bit of a non issue, I can’t remember the last time there was a major discussion on TV or in the papers about it.
            I never thought “this episode is about abortion – ooh” when I watched it. I thought various other things mind you…

          • The_Mentiad says:

            Maybe you should take some science with your fiction.

          • Dr Moo says:

            Not sure what you’re trying to suggest but I’ll have you know that I am a scientist so let’s not try that one.

  6. TheLazyWomble says:

    Excellent article, Bar. I am glad you are on the writing team. And I get a mention! Yayyyy.

    In the 70s and 80s the programme was used on occasion as a tool for polemics and political debate. Not always subtly. I was a child during the Pertwee years (thank goodness I grew up, eh?) and missed the parallels with the entry into the EU and the miner’s strike. But Mac Hulke’s scripts usually stood out as having something to say.

    Andrew Cartmell is on record as having set out during his tenure as script editor to bring down the Thatcher government. But, apart from Happiness Patrol, the most obvious sotry with a message that I can think of is Remembrance of the Daleks with its racism-is-nasty subtext. Well, text really.

    I am not sure what happened when the programme came back, but something did. It’s not that the stories no longer carry a message. I think it is more that the message is delivered with all the refined subtlety of a bull in a china shop. I am thinking of massive weapons of destruction from World War III and Harriet Jones’ comments that the American President is not her boss in The Christmas Invasion.

    I think, perhaps, that “issues” are used more for entertainment than to make a point now. The Doctor’s comments about being Scottish in Deep Breath for example. Rory’s comment to Amy in A Good Man Goes to War (“You are so Scotish”) is another. The idea in The Beast Below that Scotland had its own ark also. It comes across as if the production team is using “issues” to get a laugh rather than to bring about change. Or is that just me?

    The question of ownership brought up by the Christopher Eccleston article is another matter. I agree that it is worrying that there are people who think that they “own” the actors. William Wilbrforce would have something to say about that. Well he wouldn’t: he’s too busy being dead. But I do think that that article had one very positive and affirming effect: it showed just how level headed and reasonable the contributors are. The few claiming ownership were very few indeed.

  7. Planet of the Deaf says:

    Partners in Crime did address diet fads rather well.
    Isn’t the point of Capaldi’s Doctor that he is far more alien, and thus likely to let the humans get on with it rather than interfere? Or care. With such a Doctor, he’s likely to view human social concerns as our business not his!
    And I’m not sure I want Doctor Who addressing too head on specific modern political issues, rather than more general moral issues. It may be best to address big issues through a historical episode e.g. racism and class in the Human Nature 2 parter or the excesses of capitalism in The Crimson Horror

    • bar says:

      Planet of the Ood wasn’t a HUMAN social concern. Yes, the new Doctor would have a very different perspective on stuff, but I think he would still interfere – ‘always do what you’re good at!’
      Like your suggestion of a genuine historical again, that might be a good way to critique something.

  8. James O'Neill says:

    Actually, my local hospital has a cafe, that serves the most delicious mushroom soup in the world!
    Now I look forward to family and friends being ill or injured just so I have a reason to dine there!!

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