Danny Nicol: Doctor Who and the Constitution

dannyThe BBC’s longest-running drama series Doctor Who is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Doctor Who might seem rather distant from matters of constitution and law.  In fact questions of politics, law and the constitution continually arise in Doctor Who stories.    Each new planet on which the Doctor’s time-and-space machine, the Tardis, materialises, has a different constitutional story to tell.  And a series which purports to be about distant epochs, far-flung planets and bizarre monsters, is often really about Britain, its politics and its law.

To instance a few issues constantly raised in the show:

  •  The question of constitutional globalisation looms large.  At one stage – the late 1960s and early 1970s – Doctor Who’s writers assumed that a shift from national to supranational governance would be fundamentally progressive.  Accordingly Doctor Who stories constantly denigrated the British state and upheld international endeavour as the way forward.  The show deployed intergalactic law as an extended metaphor to the same effect.   This position radically shifted in the post-2005 show, abandoning the knee-jerk hostility to national institutions and displaying a constitutional patriotism borne of disillusionment with supranational governance.
  • The issue of war crimes and their relationship to British foreign policy also features prominently.  The legitimacy of the Doctor’s interference on other planets is always in question, but this questioning intensifies markedly in the post-2005 “new show”.  Time and again the Doctor’s right to judge between good and evil is challenged.  This coincides with Britain’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and the seeming immunity of British and American leaders from prosecution for war crimes.
  • The programme engages repeatedly with the issue of corporate power.  The power of private companies was strikingly ignored in the programme’s early years.  Later, however, the theme became pervasive.  Again, this reflected change in Britain, where the neoliberal nature of globalisation has fostered the development of the transnational corporation and has handed constitutional-law rights to corporations.  Critiquing Britain’s relentless shift towards privatisation and contracting-out, Doctor Who frequently imagines situations in which powerful private companies go beyond their business role and essentially become the State itself, infringing the most basic rights of the individual.  The show also persistently links such “corporation-states” with imperial expansion.

In the interdisciplinary spirit of the age, the Doctor’s adventures merit academic attention, including from scholars in the fields of law and politics.  To this end, Westminster Law School is organising a symposium on the programme’s legal and political aspects:


an-unearthly-child-the-doctor-barbara-susan-and-ianThrough allegory, Doctor Who provides not only a reading of the state of Britain but an underlying normative critique of the country’s governance.  This is a good thing, because we live in an era of political convergence in which differences between the British political parties have significantly narrowed.  This has contributed to a lack of incisive critique of the political and legal status quo outside the academy.  The same spirit has to some extent seeped into academia, leading to a “flattening” of criticism.  Against this backdrop, thoughtfully-written, multi-authored programmes such as Doctor Who can contribute to providing the more critical voices presently lacking.  It is to be hoped that Doctor Who – besides entertaining millions of people in Britain and worldwide – continues for years to come to contribute to the political and legal controversies surrounding our permanently-contested national identity.

Danny Nicol is Professor of Public Law, University of Westminster.

Suggested citation: D. Nicol, ‘Doctor Who and the Constitution’  UK Const. L. Blog (18th November 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).