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Doctor Who and the Future of Earth and Humanity

Moo takes a whistlestop tour of the future. It’s bleak.

Doctor Who just delivered Orphan 55, the latest in a long-running tradition of looks ahead to the future of Earth. It would seem that the future of the Doctor’s favourite planet is in a constant state of flux in this show. So much for those fixed points they like to go on about so often!

But what exactly have we seen as our future? And can we see if there’s any consistency in all these competing visions? It’s a long-running question dating right back to the 1960s that hints at a deeper quest for meaning in the heart of ourselves.

Take, for instance, the question of what happens to us before Earth is abandoned. We get several distinct views on this during the show. The Waters of Mars (2009) shows humanity having established a base on Mars within fifty years of broadcast. The Tenth Doctor is present to see a disaster there, but it leads to a greater desire for mankind to explore the cosmos. Yet here lies the difficulty in attempting to follow any coherent throughline as this isn’t entirely consistent. Set only ten years before, Kill the Moon (2014) seems to directly contradict it. This time, humanity is inspired to explore space after seeing the moon hatch. It’s weird but sure, I can go with it. The end result is the same.

And yet it seems for every human who does leave the planet for whatever reason, many more stick around on Earth. These however are subject to the worst fate in every era of the show. Russell T Davies played around with this in the 2005 season with The Long Game, in which humans are still subject to the corporate machine and the motivation to do anything challenging is no longer a thing. Anyone with ideas above their station gets efficiently disposed of. Then, in season finale Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways, it turned out to be the Daleks behind it. The Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler sort it out of course (fatally in his case) but during this incident the Daleks still managed to firebomb most of the planet, likely the mortality rate was high and humanity suffered. Get ready for this kind of pessimistic outlook, we’ve got a lot more of it coming!

What is worth noting here is that this all occurs during the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. So it’s not all doom and gloom, humanity has reverted back to imperialist ideology… four times… not exactly a good thing. But it seems to be a recurring theme. Planet of the Ood (2008) has humanity in the 42nd century selling slaves like they’re smartphones.

You may have noticed I’ve focussed exclusively on the revival era, so is future earth any better for us in the classics? I hate to disappoint, because the answer is no. The 22nd Century is an era of Dalek oppression according to The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964). The First Doctor sorted it out but he would see other difficulties for the human race after that. Take for instance humanity’s subjugation of the Solar System sometime before the forty-first century, as established in The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965-66). All you need is one corrupt leader like Mavic Chen and everything is doom and death and depression once again. The same cycle still plays out, whether Russell T Davies is showrunner or still in his nappies.

Similar themes are present in the seventies. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) introduces the 51st century as the era of World War Six, with various eastern nations on one side against Iceland and the Philippines. The dynamic of power shifts, but the story is the same as ever. Long before that in-universe we see similar themes touched upon. Warriors of the Deep aired in 1984 at the height of the Cold War. It seems an identical conflict plays out in the 2080s as a hundred years prior. It’s interesting that the theme is consistent in both the 70s and 80s.

Perhaps one of the best understandings in this area that has been present almost since the start of the show has been humanity reaching beyond the stars to explore space. We’ve seen what motivates this, let’s see what actually happens. We have seen a number of stories here, starting with The Ark (1965) which places humanity in, well, an ark. Oh, and they’re slave owners too. Great. Long after Noah pioneered the concept, humans set off in a vessel in a bid to preserve their species. The Ark in Space (1975) does what it says on the tin and Smile (2017) revisits the idea looking at what happens when the human race gets there. High body counts both times.

Elsewhere we have The Beast Below (2010) which expand this to a point where entire nations have reestablished themselves on a starship, bringing all the same deep-rooted problems as before with them. This time they’ve gone full Orwell, profiting off a combination of fear, surveillance, and cover-up.

It’s not a perfect future then by any means, but there’s still hope if you know where to look. The Mysterious Planet (1986) sees earth get dragged across space and reverting human society to primitive tribes, but they’re still finding ways for society to live on. By the time Earth is destroyed by solar expansion, depicted in The End of the World (2005), humanity has survived by interbreeding to the point where the last surviving “pureblood” human doesn’t acknowledge them as the same species. While New Earth (2006) has them settling on a series of new worlds to call home, the same rot seeps in again and again. We get stories like Gridlock (2007) where they break the cycle and rise up to see the light – literally in that case – but we know from experience by now that it’s only temporary before it inevitably goes back to the same old thing. But what exactly is “the same old thing”? The Seventh Doctor in The Curse of Fenric (1989) seems to believe humanity will ultimately enter a vampiric haemovore lifeform so I suppose it’s not a great outlook.

The Tenth Doctor disagrees when he goes to the end of time.
“You always revert your the same basic shape,”
...he explains. This is undercut by the Master in that same story though – Last of the Time Lords (2007) sees the human race as petulant children in the form of cybernetic murderballs. In-universe this is apparently the final form of the human race when history concludes, but such an ending is hardly inconsistent as we have seen so far. In fact, it’s an entirely fitting endpoint.

So why does the pantheon of Doctor Who writers, a group that disagrees and rewrites each other at every conceivable point, seem to reach a consensus? Varying details yes, but they can settle on a pessimistic outlook. It’s not clear why. Perhaps it’s a reflection of society’s view of itself? It’s not a new thing to look at ourselves and see a problem in need of fixing, practically every religious or philosophical worldview states this in some capacity.

But the solution varies depending on who you ask, which only drags it further and further away from being solved. A solution that will work thus appears to slip out of reach and it only gets worse. The view is summed up really well in Orphan 55 (2020). In this story, Earth is a desecrated wasteland. In this vision of the future, the 1% took the planet for granted, left it to rot, and the 99% were sent spiraling, setting off a nuclear war. In this future, they only live on as mutated abominations known as dregs while the rest live a life of luxury free of any consequences.

Those maniacs, they blew it up.

Yet the Thirteenth Doctor stresses that this isn’t a fixed future. The sense of optimism is present in other stories as well of course. The Fourth and Tenth Doctors both describe the human race with fondness, praising it for being “indomitable” again and again. The Twelfth Doctor’s demands for peace and the Ninth dying for exactly that cause also follow this theme. The Third Doctor returned to Earth to die, calling it his home.

So there is a thread of optimism going through all of this then. The Thirteenth Doctor captures that nicely.
“Be the best of humanity,”
...she says after the dreg incursion. It’s easy to criticise the ending of Orphan 55 for being preachy and very on-the-nose, and that’s because it is both of those things.

The message however is a good one. We’ve seen how Doctor Who has explored our future, though in reality the future hasn’t been written yet. It doesn’t have to be pessimistic.

Not always.

“Moo” is the pseudonym used by this Doctor Who fan. He can usually be found procrastinating by thinking about Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @z_p_moo for more of his unusual takes, but do so at your own risk.

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