The long-running BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday. Mark Wilson, a history PhD student at Northumbria University, draws parallels between a 1964 episode and Silent Spring, a seminal text for the environmental movement.
On September 23 2012, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring was celebrated. This book, written by American ecologist Rachel Carson, argued against the uncontrolled and indiscriminate use of pesticides. It has been described as the book that launched the modern environmental movement and the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of environmentalism”.
In Britain, the book was published in February 1963, but was met with less enthusiasm than in the US. This was in part because Britain had less agricultural land than the US and so fewer pesticides were used, but it was also because the British government and the scientific establishment were already aware of some of the issues Carson raised, and measures were in place to deal with them.
Peter Capaldi was recently announced as the 12th Doctor on the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on November 23 2013. Before Capaldi was announced, there was speculation as to whether the Doctor would be played by a woman. And whilst all the actors to take on the character of the Doctor have been male, in 1964 a Doctor Who story echoed the work of Carson so closely, it could be said that the Doctor and Carson were the same.
The first story of the second season of Doctor Who, called Planet of Giants, aired on October 31 1964. It involved the Doctor and his companions, Susan, Ian and Barbara, landing on a planet which they immediately assumed was an alien world due to their small size in relation to everything else (they later discovered they were on Earth but that they had been shrunk).
Over the course of three episodes, the Doctor and his companions experienced attacks by giant insects, had to climb a plug hole in a sink, and became ill from touching an insecticide. Eventually they returned to their normal size and left. The sub-plot involved a government scientist who made an insecticide which killed indiscriminately. Regretting this, he tried to withdraw his findings but was murdered. The Doctor and his companions destroy the insecticide and save the day.
It is through this sub-plot that the Doctor and Carson become one. On several occasions, the language of the characters mimics that in Silent Spring. The insecticide used in Planet of Giants is called D65, similar to DDT, the main pesticide which Carson discussed. D65 was said to be deadlier than radiation.
The first chapter of Silent Spring describes a fictional town ravished by an unknown chemical (playing on the theme of radioactive fallout). Several times in Doctor Who, the insecticide is described as killing indiscriminately and one chapter in Silent Spring is called Indiscriminately from the Skies, detailing the aerial spraying of pesticides.
In Planet of Giants, on witnessing the effects of the insecticide on insects, Susan claims, “The thing that bothers me is that so many different things are dead. […] It’s all so indiscriminate.” Barbara comments that “it’s wrong to [kill] bees and worms”, to which the Doctor replies that they “are vital to the growth of things”. In the fifth chapter of Silent Spring, Carson claims how, of all the inhabitants of the soil, “none is more important than the earthworm”.
The Doctor and companions’ horror at the effects of the insecticide on living things is echoed in the descriptions Carson made about the effects of pesticides on the natural world. Both Carson and the Doctor understand how everything is connected and the science of ecosystems. In Planet of Giants, the insecticide was “everlasting”; Carson described how DDT stays in the food chain after initially absorbed and finds its way into humans.
This was the first, but not the last time that Doctor Who tackled an environmental theme. As Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary, along with the appointment of a new actor to play the Doctor, it is worth considering that even in 1964 the series was tackling contemporary issues through stories like Planet of Giants.
In Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor, broadcast in August 2013, it was commented that science fiction allows people to look at human problems with a degree of distance from them. So the Doctor can deal with issues which might seem fantastical but which would also resonate with people.
Whilst in later stories (such as The Green Death) the Doctor takes a more overtly environmentalist position, it was here, through this Carsonesque story, that the Doctor first went green.
The Day of the Doctor is simulcast globally at 7:50pm on Saturday November 23.
Mark Wilson is a second year history PhD student at Northumbria University. His thesis explores environmental activism in 1950s and 1960s Britain. He has interests in history from below, environmental history, and leftwing/radical history and the history of protest movements. This article originally appeared on One Eye on the Past.
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