Is Doctor Who doing enough to create awareness about our environment?

By Beth Axford

Doctor Who has always been known for wading in on things going on in the real world. From it’s very beginning in 1963, the show has been to educate, inform and get people thinking. The world around us is heavily featured in the show with many stories set on Earth in present day, so it is hardly surprising that our environmental issues are portrayed in Doctor Who’s canon. 1973’s The Green Death is famous for its climate change themes and Russell T Davies’ era of the show featured a running gag regarding the ‘bee’s disappearing’ – a nod to the worries that environmental impact may be causing bees to become extinct.

More recently, in last years Arachnids in the UK, the Doctor and her friends are faced with giant spiders that have mutated from toxic waste at a landfill site. The story is a tale in real life terror – what horrors await us when we treat our planet badly? It portrays the flippancy of unconcerned leaders who only care about money and the lack of understanding towards waste and climate change that many corporations seem to have in our world. The outside of the episode is a spider themed horror, but deep down there is an important message for the audience.

The Doctor discovers the truth about Sheffield’s spider infestation.

There is an obvious science fiction exaggeration in Arachnids, but underneath its heart is set on telling a truth to the audience – that we’re harming our planet. The conversation is everywhere you go in 2019 – Recent protests have spread awareness all over the world about the effects of our actions, leading the UK government to declare a national Climate Change emergency. Adding to this, BAFTA have recently called for more TV shows to feature environmental themes in their story lines in the hope that it will spread awareness and change people’s attitudes towards climate change. So how has Doctor Who led the way over the years?

One of the first portrayals of human interference when it comes to our planet happens in 1967’s The Moonbase. The classic story features a system in which humans are controlling the Earth’s weather from the moon. They’re soon intercepted by the deadly Cybermen who try to destroy the planet using the machine – so that they can have the Earth all to themselves. The sentiment here and in a few stories mentioned below is that messing with the Earth = BAD NEWS.

In a similar vein to Arachnids in the UK, the events of The Green Death (1973) feature some giant nasties that you wouldn’t want to come face to face with. In this adventure, the third Doctor and Jo discover some giant maggots created by – yes you guessed it – dumped global chemicals! Aggressive and deadly, the maggots killed anyone who tried to get near them and caused a whole load of havoc. Luckily, Jo and her environmentalist boyfriend stop them using fungus. We love an environmentally aware team! Today’s lesson: DISPOSE RESPONSIBLY KIDS. For a story nearly 50 years old, The Green Death is incredibly relevant to the society we live in today.

Giant maggots – YUM!

Series four (2008) regularly slips in little mentions to climate change too – perhaps because it was becoming more and more prominent in the news around the world. Planet of the Ood brings the Doctor and Donna to the far future where Donna mentions that she is surprised humans still exist on Earth. She tells of the news in 2009 predicting human extinction and, notably, the disappearance of the bee population due to global warming.

Another notable environmental impact in-plot happens in The Waters of Mars. We’re on Earth in 2040 and agriculture has become so harmed by climate change that new ways of growing food needed to be developed to feed the world. The human race resort to growing food on Mars – leading to a horrific alien discovery and almost causing the end of life on the planet altogether.

DOCTOR WHO - The Waters of Mars - Hi res
The Waters of Mars (2009)

2010 brought us our first Moffat era focus on how humanity messes with the Earth in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. Nature seems to fight back after a team of humans attempt to drill deeper into the planets surface than ever before to retrieve rare minerals. There, they find an ancient civilisation of Silurian’s and a war almost erupts among the races. The story points out the dangers of tearing the earth apart for our own gain and the Silurian plot is almost a mirror to how many species lose their homes thanks to human interference.

Following this, series 8 episode In the forest of the night uses underlying themes to portray how important trees are for us and the planet. The story goes that one day, hundreds of trees grow over night all over the world, covering the planet in thousands of huge forests. As the Doctor, Clara and Danny struggle to work out why this has happened, the people of Earth try to burn and remove the new trees without success – because nature is trying to save the planet. The trees have sprouted overnight to protect the Earth from a solar flare! The plot-line seems to be a comment on the power of our world and the natural elements that inhabit it – and that we really shouldn’t mess with them because they’re doing their job.

Production art for In the forest of the night (2014)

With our most recent environmentally aware Doctor Who episode airing last year, it seems that the show is actually doing pretty well to spread the word about climate change. It’s certainly a brilliant way to teach children (and even adults) the errors of humanity and must be a front contender for shows that mention the environmental changes the world is facing. But does it need to be more obvious? Recent stats show that we have approximately 12 years to sort out our environmental problems to stop catastrophic changes and danger to the people of Earth. Seeing the Doctor deal directly with the effects of climate change would be a huge step in terms of creating awareness of our issues, but for now we should celebrate that Doctor Who has been pushing the agenda for over 50 years.

 

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