Not as Primitive As They Look: An Anthropologist On "Doctor Who"
By Fiona Moore
Originally published in Tides of Time
The "primitive" tribe, it must be said, is so much a cliche of science fiction, particularly of the time-travel variety, that it seems useless to look for any sort of deeper meaning behind its appearance. Doctor Who is as guilty as any programme of portraying tribal societies without the slightest nod towards anthropological evidence. However, the way in which so-called "primitive" tribes have been portrayed in Doctor Who over the years can tell us a good deal about the way in which the public perceives the traditional subjects of anthropology, and on how this perception has changed over twenty-six years.
The very first two serials of Doctor Who present us with the Tribe of Gum and the Thals. Anthropologically, these tribes are almost completely unworkable. Despite the fact that known hunter-gatherer tribes, such as the Inuit ("Eskimoes") and !Kung ("Bushmen") generally produce quite sophisticated clothing, have rich canons of theatre and fine art, and build quite serviceable if temporary shelters, Gum's lot wear skin loincloths (despite the cold), talk in near-grunts and are sufficiently unimaginative not to recognise a skull hung on a torch for what it is. Even if they are-- their appearance to the contrary notwithstanding-- meant to be Neanderthals, Neanderthals do show evidence of a quite sophisticated artistic and religious tradition. The Thals, although more sympathetically portrayed, seem to have no means of subsistence other than sponging off the Daleks, which makes one wonder where they sleep and how they produce their Naugahyde trousers. Like the Tribe of Gum, also, they are said to be leading a "stagnant" existence. The first two tribes in Doctor Who thus appear owe more to Tarzan serials than they do to scientific research.
In fact, the portrayal of both tribes stems from two related sources. The first is popular film and literature, which generally portray hunter-gatherer groups as ignorant "savages"; the second is colonialism, which, as Gary Gillatt notes, unconsciously informed Doctor Who throughout the Sixties. Here, both groups are not only ignorant (or, more politely in the sense of the Thals, "innocent") and lacking in "culture," but they are seen to be in need of being given "culture" by some more sophisticated interloper, either the Doctor or Ian, although Barbara has a go at introducing the Thals to feminism as well. Finally, it seems to be expected that both tribes will "progress" to more "sophisticated" social forms, in accordance with popular notions of evolution, even social, as progress; the Thals, in fact, have already "progressed" from being ugly mutants into "beautiful" humanoids. Both tribes thus reveal a good deal about the popular anthropology of the period.
One very interesting point, also, is the fact that both stories tie into what was a very hot debate in the anthropology of the 1960s: the "Killer Ape" hypothesis, that is, the debate over whether humans are essentially violent or essentially peaceful. The Tribe of Gum represent one position: that is, that humans are inherently violent and only civilization keeps them from mass murder. The Thals represent the other: that humans (or humanoids) are essentially peaceful, and civilization is achieved only through their learning violence. Perhaps significantly, given that neither side seems to have won the debate, neither position prevails, and both groups seem to lead equally (un)likely lifestyles.
Moving on to the 1970s, we encounter Leela's tribe, the Sevateem. Again, the actual anthropological portrait which we get is fairly sketchy-- we form no impression of how the Sevateem survive other than by hunting, and we see no children and only two women throughout. However, we do get a more detailed portrayal of the tribe than of their predecessors, following on the surge in popularity of anthropological writing of the 1970s, particularly that of Margaret Mead. We see their huts, which argues some form of sedentary cultivation to supplement the hunting activities, and, more importantly, get a detailed account of their belief system, which is both shamanistic (i.e. led by a religious specialist who speaks to one or more spirits in a trance state) and millenarian (i.e. believes in the imminent arrival of a particular event which will reverse the extant social order).
Furthermore, the Sevateem's religion is broadly influenced by accounts of a well-known millenarian religious movement from New Guinea, where Mead worked: the Cargo Cults, which (to reduce what is actually a fairly complex religion to caricature) stem from the local people, not unreasonably, assuming that European colonists used a form of magic to acquire trade goods and social authority, and trying to acquire some of this magic for themselves by imitating certain European "rituals," such as writing letters and building airstrips. Despite its relative sophistication, however, one must note that "The Face of Evil" is also heavily influenced by the pseudo-anthropological writing of Erich von Daaniken, who claims that all human religion stems from prehistoric encounters with aliens. In keeping with the Gothic quasi-Victoriana of the rest of Season Fourteen, it also shows heavy indebtedness to H. Rider Haggard novels, in which the hero-colonialist demonstrates the invalidity of their belief system to the local people, who are, somewhat oddly, grateful for this intervention. "The Face of Evil" is nonetheless in many ways a step up from the 1960s stories.
However, when the chips are down, the dominant attitude in the 1970s towards tribal cultures is one tending towards the "noble savage." This reflects a shift in attitude, influenced by the postcolonial and civil rights movements, from considering tribal peoples as "backward" and in need of transformation, to viewing them as "knowing things we don't." The Doctor often rails at Leela's "stupidity," but seems to acknowledge (if grudgingly) that she picks up on things that he misses, such as the Voc robots' lack of body language. The Sevateem are portrayed as intelligent, albeit misguided, people who pick up the use of Tesh technology rapidly, and, in a rare acknowledgement that evolution and progress are not necessarily the same thing, are descended from a spacefaring, high-tech society. The Thals, to be fair, are also supposed to be the remnant of a more technologically advanced group, but they had the excuse of a nuclear war and decades of debilitiating mutation, and were on the technological upswing again by the time the Doctor came by. Finally, other tribal societies of the period are portrayed as noble and intelligent people: Ky of "The Mutants", for instance, or the aliens of "Colony in Space". Nonetheless, there is an unfortunate down side, in the form of a tendency to show tribal people as the helpless victims of crass colonialists, requiring the Doctor's intervention to redress the balance.
The 1980s saw the appearance of probably the most interesting group of tribespeople in Doctor Who: the Kinda. This may be due in no small measure to the fact that they were based on actual anthropology and on the science fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin, daughter of anthropologists and herself not unknown to social science publishers (A single example of ethnographic detail: the scene in which Karuna speaks of "one of my fathers." Anthropologists will recognise that this does not necessarily mean that the Kinda are polyandrous, but that their kinship terminology, like that of many languages, includes a single term for many or all male relatives of the father's generation). Sanders pays a drastic price for his discounting of the Kinda as "primitive" and in need of "improvement." While "Kinda", like "The Mutants" or "The Face of Evil", depicts a small tribe under threat from colonialists on one side and a superior power which they believe to be a god on the other, in this case the Kinda for the most part solve their own problems, while the Doctor and company either stand aside or get in the way. The Doctor, in fact, defers to the Kinda women's knowledge in a way that one could not picture the earlier Doctor doing to the Sevateem shaman.
The remarkable thing about these portrayals, however, is that this sensitivity comes in a time period in which not only colonialist and cave-man novels (arguably with the exception of Clan of the Cave Bear, which it is reasonably safe to say was read more for the sex scenes than the archaeological detail) but also popular anthropology are very much out of fashion. It is possible that the Mara stories have so much anthropological detail because the production at the time was looking for more realistic social science (the same era, after all, saw the brief reintroduction of the "straight" historical to Doctor Who), much as in the mid-to-late Sixties it experienced a sudden fad for stories based, if only in theory, on hard science rather than science fantasy. One advantage the Cave Bear books and their ilk have over earlier works is a claim to being rooted in tangible archaeological fact.
It is more likely, however, the stories were picking up on the fact that, with globalization and the interest of so-called "Westerners" for other lifeways, the trend in the 1980s and '90s was to de-exoticise the primitive. Popular science articles repeat over and over that there is not much difference between a "primitive" and a "civilized" person. English teenagers wear Peruvian ponchos without exciting comment; Zulu, stereotyped by everyone from Haggard to Hollywood as credulous, alien "savages," are now be encountered every day in the British Library, reading for degrees or preparing lectures. While this is not to suggest that we live in a world without inequality and prejudice against tribal peoples, it does suggest that, by the time "Kinda" was filmed, it was easier to see hunter-gatherers as people, rather than as ignorant near-monkeys or noble paragons of virtue. In the same season, the Australian Aborigines of "Four to Doomsday" are accorded equal status with the ancient Greeks, Mayans, and medieval Chinese as worthy of emulation by Urbankan androids.
Perhaps the crowning example comes in "Ghost Light", in which Nimrod the Neanderthal, who twenty-six years earlier would have been portrayed as a beetle-browed thug in untanned skins, and despite being arguably a different subspecies than the Homo sapiens sapiens characters, demonstrates easily that he is perfectly at home in both a Victorian mansion and a futuristic space ship. Nimrod thus stands as a prime example of how Doctor Who's portrayal of tribal society has changed over the series' twenty-six years, reflecting shifts in the wider British popular culture.