When I was a kid, I fell in love with Lego. That’s a common story, really, but it’s where this needs to begin. Because one of the many Lego lines at the time was a thing called “Orient Expedition.” It was, basically, knockoff Indiana Jones. An adventurer with a cool hat exploring faraway lands in search of discovering lost treasure, making allies and enemies in each new location.
The title of that line should be a clue at where the problem is: Orient Expedition. The “Orient” is a term with perhaps a bit less circulation in the present day than it once had, but is tremendously loaded all the same. It is, in essence, a term for the general region of Asia, particularly east Asia. Indeed, that’s what the Lego line focused on: an expedition through magical, cool spaces in India, the Himalayas, and China. But how this story is told is key. Because the story of western explorer voyaging into the exotic east is a tremendously problematic one. It is the problem of orientalism. And that’s one that spreads well beyond Lego, impacting our culture on a deep level and even seeping into Doctor Who.
“If you thought this teenage sci-fi show was secretly hiding a Marxist tract in its name, you’re actually not too far from the truth,” jokingly proclaimed the Radio Times, referring to Patrick Ness’ comments on the choice of title for the show. Once called “The Class,” the “The” was removed, a nightmare for social media tagging but otherwise a decision rich with meaning, in tune with the show as a whole. Because Class is all about social tensions, between marginalization and privilege, played out through the central debate of the Shadowkin and the Cabinet of Souls. It is a politically charged exploration of the failings of the Doctor’s own ideological standings through how marginalized people handle the trauma in his wake, and The Lost is the accumulation of every character and thematic thread into the final world-changing decision. It is a vital story to tell, and one with even more weight in the current political climate.
[The following essay includes spoilers for The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure.]
The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure is basically the indispensable Big Finish release. The one last great missing regeneration, after The Tenth Planet animation and The Night of the Doctor. It even comes in an unusual physical presentation, Big Finish’s special edition book sets the perfect size to slot on one’s shelf between their copies of The Ultimate Foe and Time and the Rani. It is the completionist dream. There’s been attempts at this regeneration before, of course. Time and the Rani obviously exists, and multiple books have tried to be the definitive take on that gap. But none starred Colin Baker. None were such a modern professional production as Big Finish. And none, none were in limited edition sets, only 10,000 ever to be made, perfect for your ultimate Doctor Who bookshelf (mine’s copy #1252, hello!). And that’s why I personally wound up with it being the first Big Finish set I ever pre-ordered. It’s the ultimate trivial fanservice product.
As a result, the release remains a very vivid experience in my mind. Working out how the hell to copy over the zip files to my phone in a hurry so I could listen on the go. Starting The End of the Line at around 3AM as I biked through a deserted campus to work on a student documentary. Bingeing the rest the next day in excitement. And my thoughts are recorded from comments I made at the time, cynicism and joy side by side. My take on the regeneration story itself at the time: “And for his final story, that’s a pity. It should have made a case for what makes him matter despite things like The Twin Dilemma, not pretended he was a flawless hero and given him a blaze of glory to go out in. It’s not a uniquely bad piece, just tremendously uninteresting despite the iconic space it tries to fill. It may be better than Time and the Rani, but at least that story has so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value. This one merely passes the time.”
I was at once totally fair and totally unfair, I think. The Last Adventure is a set brimming with bizarre creative choices alongside inspired ones, and it’s an innately frustrating experience. But it’s one worth listening and worth engaging with. Because though I don’t disagree with my past self about it being flawed, I do strongly disagree with labelling it utterly uninteresting. On thematic and narrative levels, The Last Adventure and in particular The Brink of Death is a fascinating work. Not one that necissarily works, but one that’s very worth unpacking.
Scholar Phil Sandifer once argued that Doctor Who “is every single story there ever was and ever could be, escaped out into the universe, and running loose bringing them into being.” Doctor Who collapses barriers created by such things as genre or, as I discussed in a previous essay on this site, continuities. This is the franchise with three Atlantises, that crossed over with the likes of Rapunzel and Gulliver’s Travels as early as the sixties, that rung in a milestone anniversary with a story that neither Doctor Who nor Eastenders fans seem to want to take ownership of, that had an entire official novel in the 90s written as a Sherlock Holmes book. In short, Doctor Who has no limits. It exists as a doorway to an infinite potential of narrative.
Given their new storytelling aesthetics, it’s no wonder Lego has leapt on the possibilities.
UNIT: Extinction is a brave new start for Big Finish. Except, it isn’t. Except, it is.
UNIT: Extinction is unavoidably beholden to so much that has come before. For one thing, it’s the third attempt by Big Finish at a contemporary UNIT spinoff, all even woman-lead affairs. What’s more, one has a predecessor to journalist character Jacqui McGee and the other with its lead UNIT figure a scientific officer like the modern version. And the narrative to Extinction finds itself serving as a synthesis of several starting point narratives. Most prominently, heavy shades of Spearhead from Space, Rose, and Everything Changes can be felt hanging over the story, governing how it starts a new series, coupled with a general trend toward deconstruction and critique that is the defining modern approach to UNIT and similar organizations.
But it is a new beginning, as well. It’s the official start to Big Finish’s new series coverage. It marks itself with several entirely new characters and themes. The plot is built more than anything around the dual arcs of Jacqui and Josh, who are the core new characters present, with the plot shaped around introducing them and other new additions to the world (disc two, for example, is a sidestep from the main plot mostly built around establishing recurring character Sam Bishop). New ongoing conflicts burst forth, new themes. This is a box set self-consciously built around navigating tensions of classic fanservice and new Who storytelling ethos to try to be something fascinating and new. And, perhaps against all odds, it succeeds in being something not just enjoyable to listen to, but with fascinating implications by the dozens.
Full spoilers for UNIT: Extinction, as well as minor references to the events of Shutdown and Silenced, to follow.
Note: this is the second part of an essay attempting to outline the formation of the ideology of post-2005 Doctor Who through examination of it and the spinoff content predating and surrounding it. I advise reading the first part first, which will provide much needed context for the more complicated arguments here. Click anywhere on this paragraph for the first part.
Generally progressive as they were, however, the political shifts ushered in by the Virgin New Adventures had losses along the way, and some radical and positive perspectives were neutered or erased in the transition from classic Doctor Who through the spinoff content into the new series. There were limitations and erasures, for example of queer representation (queer being the most commonly utilized academic term for explorations of non-straight/cis identities and thus the one that will be used here). For example, Ace found herself entirely wiped of queerness. It was limited in prominence in the show, of course, with the only clear case being Rona Munro’s Survival, for which she’s memorably on the record fretting “you’re killing my lesbian subtext” over the execution in the serial.  But the absence of this vision in the expanded universe is nonetheless striking. While other messages her era muted in the show came to fruition in the books, like the so-called Cartmel Masterplan, Ace’s queer sexuality is abandoned. She still gets some very radical political storylines in the Virgin books, such as a love story with a male anarchist in Paul Cornell’s Love and War, but never again did she show any interest in woman, with the whole incident generally ignored. This erasure continues to this day, with Big Finish upholding a very straight portrayal.
Pearl Mackie is playing a black lesbian companion, Bill Potts, in Doctor Who series 10. This is a triumph, but a well overdue one. Many different ideological processes driving the formation of the show’s politics have jostled to create the show in which this has happened, and the choice itself is a vital statement on what Doctor Who now is. So now more than ever is an opportune time to reflect on what defined the ideological canon of the new series, how that defines a broader sense of Doctor Who, and what’s at stake in an exciting and uncertain future.