The Doctor, Rose, and her hanger-on almost-boyfriend Adam arrive on a space station in the year 200,000. Satellite 5 broadcasts 600 channels of news to the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. The Doctor et al have landed on Floor 139, where everyone seems intent on gaining “promotion” to Floor 500. Apparently, the walls are made of gold up there.
They see a team of journalists at work. A senior journalist opens a little port in her forehead so that her brain can be used to transmit data, while her underlings perform the same trick through placing their hands on hand-shaped terminals. They have access to every bit of information about the human race, ever. The Doctor feels that this technology is wrong.
Adam wonders off and gets a forehead port of his own so he can transmit data back to the 21st Century. The Doctor and Rose get themselves to Floor 500, where they discover that the walls are not made of gold. They meet the Editor, a smarmy man working for a giant alien. With the help of the senior journalist they met earlier, they destroy the giant alien. They take Adam back home and leave him there.
As far as satirical representations of media manipulation go, this is a fairly heavy-handed attempt. It seems a little too far, even for the most paranoid conspiracy theorist, to imagine that the news media is controlled by a vast alien overlord who wants to suppress the human race. In truth, large parts of the human race want to be suppressed; the rest use the media as an excuse for what they would otherwise have to recognise as an innate human characteristic.
Really it’s a question of cause and effect. The Editor believes that he is behind the herd-like mentality of humanity over the past 90 years or so. He explains his tactics to the Doctor:
Create a climate of fear and it’s easy to keep the borders closed. It’s just a matter of emphasis. The right word in the right broadcast repeated often enough can destabilise an economy, invent an enemy, change a vote.
Yet he has got it wrong. He is not really overseeing the fulfilment of Orwell’s dystopia. Instead, he is giving the people what they really want: removing any feeling that they ought to think for themselves.
The freedom of information
Once our generation has sorted out our issues with identity, the next big thing on the agenda will be handling our attitude towards information. The philosophy of information and data is only in its infancy.
So far, one of the most influential voices in the space has been Stewart Brand. In 1984 (ironically) he spoke about the tension inherent in the value of the information we possess:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Teenage boys with too much time on their hands and other Internet campaigners have taken part of this message and turned it into a trumpet-call for their keyboard wars: “Information wants to be free.” I had a classmate at school who did a bit of hacktivism on the side – this was his favourite catchphrase. It is used as an excuse to make public what would otherwise be private. Think WikiLeaks.
The keyboard warriors are missing the point, though. The value of information corresponds to its utility for the person holding or receiving it. Information is devalued by two things: a lack of relevance, and the increasing ease of distribution. One increases the value of information either by making it more relevant to the audience or by controlling its distribution (or, ideally, both).
Why this lesson on the freedom of information? Because the business model for Satellite 5 is even better than the Doctor thinks it is. He has the mindset of the teenage hacktivist: he thinks Satellite 5 is built upon the control of media distribution. He has failed to recognise that it is equally concerned with giving people what they want by broadcasting information that it suits them to receive. It is monetising relevance as well as distribution.
The pursuit of information
Let’s step aside for a moment to consider the various motivations we see at play in this episode.
The Editor’s motivations are easy enough to identify. He is the stereotypical greedy not-even-a-mastermind who has sold out to a controlling power in order to live an easier life. Simply being human doesn’t pay very well,” he says, in a matter-of-fact explanation of why he has put himself in league with an alien. So money is his idol – but he had help:
The Doctor: You couldn’t have done this on your own.
The Editor: No. I represent a consortium of banks. Money prefers a long-term investment.
(Yes, in the world of Doctor Who the media is controlled by the same people who control the financial institutions. This is frighteningly close to another conspiracy theory… but I’m sure it’s an innocent enough accident.)
The upshot is that the Editor is working for the banks because they pay better than anyone else. At heart, he is greedy and self-interested. In his final act of ignominy he tries in vain to flee moments before his alien master explodes.
As a foil to the Editor, we have Rose’s hanger-on Adam who appeared in the previous episode and (thankfully) disappears at the end of this one. He is a kind of fallen companion: instead of the naive young woman who wants to travel with the Doctor to see the universe, here is a naive young man who wants to travel with the Doctor because he could get some benefit from the experience.
Adam tries to download information about the future of the microprocessor and beam it back to his mum’s answerphone back in 21st Century Britain. He’s not doing things by halves, either; he gets a port installed in his forehead so he can gather more information more efficiently. Although he never states his own motivations, it’s unlikely that he wasn’t going to donate the information to an open-source foundation.
The Doctor: The whole of history could have changed because of you.
Adam: I just wanted to help.
The Doctor: You were helping yourself.
Adam wants to get rich off the information he has access to. It would be useful to people back in his era, so he could sell it at a profit. He, like the Editor, could control people’s access to relevant information and, therefore, could monetise its distribution.
One of the journalists on Satellite 5 has a secret. She’s a freedom fighter; an anarchist warrior who has got a job at the Satellite in order to bring it down from the inside. The Editor senses some “fiction” on Floor 139 and discovers that Suki has been lying to everyone. He “promotes” her to Floor 500, where she pulls a gun on him and fires shots at the giant alien. When we next see her she is dead, her body being used as part of the computer processing system.
Suki knows something that nobody other than the Editor does: the media is being manipulated. She believes that the truth must be exposed, by force if necessary. She dies before she can explain why she thinks the world would be a better place if the media was not being manipulated.
At first Cathica is one of the useful idiots – she is loyal to Satellite 5 because she wants to earn her promotion to Floor 500. She has believed the lies about patronage and has sought her own personal advancement at the expense of her mental faculties.
The Doctor is scathing of her attitude. She is a journalist who is unable to ask interesting questions about the world that she finds herself in. Adam notices that there are no aliens on board the Satellite. Rose notices that it is uncomfortably hot. But senior journalist Cathica notices nothing at all because she is too busy dreaming of the golden walls of Floor 500.
Cathica is just like every other human who has passively accepted the broadcasts from Satellite 5 as gospel truth. Facing the Editor, the Doctor despairs of the state of humanity:
No one’s going to stop you because you’ve bred a human race that doesn’t bother to ask questions. Stupid little slaves believing every lie. They’ll just trot right into the slaughterhouse if they’re told it’s made of gold.
Of course, Cathica comes good in the end. She can’t shake the truth out of her head, and opens her forehead port to beam it back around the Satellite. She reverses the heating system so the alien overheats and explodes, liberating the Satellite.
But this isn’t a total transformation. She is still a typical sheep-like human at heart. Even then she declares “you should have promoted me years back!” suggesting that, despite having discovered that “promotion” meant being killed and having your corpse used as a computer processor, she is still angry at having been slighted all these years.
Setting the truth free
“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” said Jesus. (Jn 8:32) The Doctor operates by a different doctrine. For him, “you will know the truth, and you will set the truth free.”
Christian theology maintains that truth is God’s truth, and is therefore good. Particularly here in John’s Gospel, “truth” is a shorthand for the truth about Jesus Christ (who later said, “I am the way and the truth and the life”). In him, there is freedom. Freedom from the curse of sin. Freedom to live a transformed life. Freedom to seek God wholeheartedly.
By contrast, at the end of this episode of Doctor Who the people are no more free than they were before. It is the truth that has been liberated, not the people who have received it.
The people have been lied to – and that is wrong. They have been manipulated – and that, too, is wrong. Exposing their exploitation might lead to a change in their circumstances – and that would be a positive development. But exposing their exploitation will not solve their real problem.
Objective knowledge of how you have been led astray only gives you freedom if you respond to it with a change in behaviour. One must make different choices in order to achieve different outcomes: it is not enough to know that different outcomes are available. Which takes us back to that stuff at the beginning about how the people want to be enslaved.
The Editor: The right word in the right broadcast repeated often enough can destabilise an economy, invent an enemy, change a vote.
Rose: So all the people on Earth are like slaves?
The Editor: Well, now, there’s an interesting point. Is a slave a slave if he doesn’t know he’s enslaved?
The Doctor: Yes.
The Editor: Oh. I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I’m going to get? Yes?
The Doctor: Yes.
Much as the Doctor objects to it, there is a philosophical debate to be had here. Slavery is wrong (let’s just agree on that) but knowledge of slavery doesn’t necessarily make you free. It is not enough to tell the human race that they have been controlled by the media: the bigger challenge is to ensure that they are able to think for themselves. The Doctor can achieve the first one, but he cannot achieve the second.
You will know the truth and you will set the truth free. It won’t do much good, though. Not for as long as the human race will prefer to accept easy answers rather than difficult ones. Not while the effort of absorbing and assimilating subliminal messages is less than that of critical thinking. In other words, just as the Editor has found the human race easy to manipulate because they have so readily sought someone to tell them what to think, removing from them the trouble of having to make enquiries of the world themselves, so too will the next guy. And the one after that.
Only one of the Doctor’s “stupid little slaves” was able to stand up to the Editor. “They’ll just trot right into the slaughterhouse if they’re told it’s made of gold,” he said, which says a lot given that even after she had gone into the slaughterhouse Cathica was still bitter about the fool’s gold she had been denied.
In the end, the human race is still lost. It still needs to be fed easy lies to suppress it. It still needs to negotiate its way out of engaging with its critical faculties and asking deep but obvious questions of the world around it. It is no more free once the big controlling alien has been destroyed than it was before.
The truth that the Doctor can give you can be set free. And it might even do some good to set it free, on a good day. But it will never change lives. Only truth that will set you free can do that.
Doctor Who Doctrines
- You will know the truth, and you will set the truth free.