Dr Who and The Migrants

Published 18 September 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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Dr Who was much better than I thought it was going to be last night. For those of you unfortunate enough not to know what Dr Who is, it’s a science fiction programme aimed at the sophisticated child and the sophisticated adult. Doctor Who is a travelling Time Lord, the last of his people who were destroyed in the terrible inter-galactic Time Wars. He is quirky and funny but filled with a deep sadness having lived for 1,200 years, much of it alone, but also, we suspect, because of some terrible secret. Accompanied by a series of assistants, he travels through space and time in his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), palatial and vast inside, but from the outside a small 1950s police box.

The Doctor is an outsider, a traveller, who reveals and comments on human beings as they are, dangerous and cruel, creative and compassionate, crazily inconsistent. Ordinary people, the message is, have extraordinary potential. He wanders the galaxies, at home nowhere. He is, in short, a refugee.

A meaningless border?

I suspect watching Dr Who as a child was an important influence on my interests today.  In fact I’m often struck by the disproportionate numbers of people working on migration who enjoy science fiction. I like the idea of a science fiction/migration weekend, where we retire for a couple of days with our movies, series and books. Liberated from the jeers of partners and friends, we could indulge ourselves by sharing favourites and discussing the relevance of Philip K. Dick, Mary Doria Russell and Kim Stanley Robinson to the study of civilisation, settlement, Empire, utopia and dystopia. Science fiction gives an opportunity to think outside the categories of nation and state, for the ‘Other’ to be, literally, of a different race, for imagining the earth as set within the galaxy and the universe, for the certainties of liberal universalism, of Newtonian physics (so yesterday!), of physical geography and whig history, to be disrupted, and for our imagination to pick up the pieces.

But back to Dr Who on Saturday. The reason that I thought it was going to be rubbish was that it was set in a ‘Western’ style set and I don’t like Westerns. The Doctor and his two companions turn up in the middle of the desert outside one of those typical Western one horse towns, a town called Mercy. Electricity has arrived there ten years too early and there’s a cyborg (a human or alien being who is part machine) lurking outside. Not quite enough here to make me interested.

But the town is surrounded by a circle of wood and stones, a seemingly meaningless border – now I’m intrigued. The Doctor tests it with his sonic screwdriver… no it really is a meaningless border. Why is it there? The three of them step across it. The townspeople are suspicious, and they know much more than 19th century humans should know about aliens. When they discover that The Doctor is an alien they are immediately hostile, and demand that he be thrown back across the border and into the desert where the cyborg will kill him. It is hard not to think of the Minute Men as the people point their guns at the Doctor attempting to return across the border and away from certain death. But the Doctor is saved by the sheriff (no Sheriff Arpaio here) and the similarity rapidly recedes!

Victimhood and trafficking

It turns out that she sheriff is sheltering another alien, the character who has brought electricity to the town, and who has also been working as the town’s doctor, and saved many of them in a cholera epidemic. It is this doctor, gentle and dedicated, that the cyborg wants to destroy.

Yet all is not as it seems. The gentle doctor is in fact a war criminal. He created cyborgs to fight in his planet’s war, by splicing his own species with machines. He tortured and murdered thousands, and now the cyborg has come to wreak his revenge. Anxious to avoid unnecessary innocent deaths the cyborg will not cross the town line, but unless they deliver the doctor to justice, the people will starve to death. Doctor Who is horrified when he is exposed to this doctor’s crimes (is this a clue to The Doctor’s terrible secret?), but there is no question that this monster has saved hundreds of human lives. ‘Which one is it to be, the caring physician, or the war criminal? You cannot imagine, Doctor, that I can be both. You have to have me as one or the other’, observes the doctor.

Now I’m really perking up because this is precisely the theme of the book I’m reading at the moment, Diane Enns’ The Violence of Victimhood (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012). She writes about the sanctity and morality that we now attribute to victimhood, how unassailable the position of victimhood can be. Seeing the perpetrator is morally evil, the victim is innocent and good, results in an inability to deal with the ambivalence of victimhood, particularly when the victim turns to violence.

This can leave us understanding the victim, refusing to judge their actions and disregarding their victims in turn, it can also leave us ‘floundering in the kind of moral relativism that claims we are all victims to some extent or other, all wounded and in need of redemptive outlets’.  It is a provocative book that I’m hesitant to recommend until I have finished it, but the idea is one that has interested me for a long time. It is particularly useful when it comes to thinking about trafficking.

Trafficking is often a morality tale, where the victim has to be helpless and rescued by the authorities – if she rescues herself then she is an ‘illegal immigrant’ – and where the villain of the piece, the trafficker, is an abusive and exploitative foreigner. Trafficking is an opportunity to gain public sympathy for migrants, but it can be, as I have argued elsewhere, deeply problematic, as it presents immigration laws as protective mechanisms that should be welcomed by migrants, when too often they are a source of vulnerability. It presents ‘traffickers’ as moral reprobates and also means that ‘innocent’ migrant women who are worthy of protection, cannot act but can only be acted upon. As Sealing Cheng puts it: ‘What status quo are we buttressing when we reduce the lives and aspirations of the disenfranchised into uncomplicated stories of poverty and abuse by traffickers?’ (Cheng, 2010: 216).

Victim or Villain?

The complexity of victimhood is a recurring theme in Dr Who.  At one stage the Daleks, arch enemies of the Doctor, have an Emperor, whose human elements are comprised of ‘the refuse of humanity…Your homeless, your asylum seekers, your refugees’. The cruelty and greed of humans has helped create this monster.

In another episode The Doctor’s companion and millions of others become refugees after an atomic bomb is dropped on London and the population must move to the north of England. Europe doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by numbers, and the northerners are violently resentful as they are forced to share with the resettled southerners. This, interestingly, all came about because The Doctor’s companion drove in the wrong direction. She has to go back in time to set it all right, and ‘TURN LEFT’.

The Doctor, who judges but is, as Enns would put it ‘merciful’ in his judgment, is endlessly faced with the ambiguity of the victim. From the cybermen who pillage and destroy, but are cyborgs made from piteous humans, to the tortured dalek, kept in a wealthy man’s zoo when all its companions are dead, to the silurians, a reptilian race attempting to share the earth with humans, but betrayed by them, victims and villains are more complicated than they first appear. This is important for our understanding of ‘social problems’, which is often how migration is imagined, with migrants, citizens and policymakers either as victims or villains, depending on political perspective.

I won’t spoil it by telling you how Saturday’s episode ends. But if you like science fiction and fancy a long weekend please invite me…

Further reading: 
CHENG, S. 2010. On the Move for Love: migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.