Truth Unto Power – Why I love Doctor Who’s sense of humour


Image Credit: Chris Sampson (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: A Zygon at the Doctor Who Exhibition

By Gary Meehan

“That’s what I keep telling people. [The universe is] a troublesome place, difficult to administer. And as a piece of real estate, it’s worthless, because by definition there’d be no one to sell it to.” — Shada

Those few sentences demonstrate what I love most about Doctor Who. Absurd, yet thought provoking. Witty, but devastating to the antagonist’s pretensions. When you’re fighting villains whose aim is to dominate and destroy, it’s good to have these goals put into perspective, and be reminded how ridiculous they are. Humour is often the most effective way of achieving this, and no one does it better than the Doctor.

“You can’t rule the world in hiding. You’ve got to come out on the balcony sometimes and wave a tentacle.” —Terror of the Zygons

The first book I can remember that made me laugh was Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Zygons, in particular, the scene where the Doctor demolishes Broton’s ambitions to rule the Earth. Sometimes leaders don’t think — or don’t want to think — their grandiose plans through, and it takes an outsider to point out the drawbacks in their thinking. The simplest of these was the question the Doctor posed to the Pirate Captain in The Pirate Planet: “What’s it for?” We don’t have to look far into our own political scene to find ourselves reaching for the same question.

“You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.” — Revenge of the Cybermen

Sometimes, brutal insults are called for. Here, the show is poking fun not only at the Cybermen but its own — shall we say constrained — production values. Self-knowing, but avoiding self-parody, it helps take the edge off the cheapness of the episodes and the awfulness of the Cybermen’s plan. With dead bodies strewn where they fell, and suicide bombers sent out to obliterate ideological enemies, something is needed to lighten the mood.

“Your sense of humour will be the death of you, Doctor. Probably quite soon.” — The Caves of Androzani

Of course, the objects of mockery very rarely appreciate it, and have greeted the Doctor’s put-downs with a variety of threats, assaults, and violent butlers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a baddie in possession of a masterplan is in want of a sense of humour. Daleks don’t do self-deprecation; Weeping Angels don’t do satire; and the number of Sontarans penning reflective sitcoms on the folly of war is somewhat low.  

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — The Face of Evil

In a world where leaders increasingly make policies to suit the needs of their egos, rather than the people they represent, we need someone to make us smile as they point out the ridiculousness of the situation, and Doctor Who is still doing this. You might be a teleporting, trophy-hunting warrior with genocidal aspirations, but it’s a bit hard to take you seriously when you’ve been dubbed ‘Tim’.

“Shortly, I shall be the most powerful man in the realm. King in all but name, for Nottingham is not enough. After this, Derby!” — Robots of Sherwood

The author apologises to all the Tims out there

The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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