Arriving on a satellite, the Doctor, Rose and Adam find out that what was meant to be the next great intellectual expansion of the human empire has been overrun by fake news. Worse still, they’re in the middle of journalist headquarters and not a single person is questioning a thing around them. Something’s going on!
The Long Game is one of several Doctor Who episodes which falls into the good-to-strong category, meaning it tells a solid and consistent story, gets interesting character work in, and then jumps out without ever reaching some of the top heights that the series is able to attain. For me, that’s probably the most important category, because it gives the series long-term strength. Doctor Who doesn’t live or die based on its worst or best – it thrives on delivering episodes like this one, which are consistent and solid, entertaining and memorable. It rises the tides for all boats, I guess.
It’s also an episode which now, in 2018, accidentally hits onto some new relevance, surprisingly. Set on a satellite which is meant to be the base of operations for humankind’s journalists, it turns out that their ‘editor’ is actually doing everything he can to blind the species to what’s really happening around them. It’s an episode literally about the effectiveness of fake news as a concept, years before the term became part of common use.
Set 90 years into a secret coup of humankind, this episode reveals that the news’ editor-in-chief is actually a ceiling monster who works alongside a sinister ‘news consortium’ to control everything in the media, to the extent that the humans have forgotten their natural curiosity. In the most brilliant aspect of the script, the journalists write whatever they think will get them the most praise and respect from the unseen editor, in the hopes that they’ll one day be promoted to a floor where “the walls are gold”. There’s no indication why this is something they should want to aspire towards – it simply suggests that the corporation makes all the money, not that the journalists would themselves gain anything from the promotion. And yet that’s all they work towards anyway, going so far as to implant programming chips into their own heads in order to ensure they can help their overlords best.
The whole system is set up to keep the public unfocused. A lengthy side-sequence in the episode sees Adam tricked into putting a chip in his own head – one which ultimately allows the editors to scan his thoughts and find out just who The Doctor is. This sequence, guided by Tamsin Greig as a first passive and then passive-aggressive ‘nurse’, sees Adam interested in the idea of a chip because he can see ‘benefit’ to it, although it’s again hard to see what the benefit is beyond a vague plan to make some money somehow. But what makes the sequence work in hindsight is the knowledge that Greig’s character is likely in on the whole conspiracy, and is calmly and methodically tricking Adam into thinking he needs the chip.
Once he gets it, it turns out that she’s also hidden a load of secret features in the code too – he has nanobots in his throat which turn his vomit into small, controllable cubes, but the point here is that he did not read the small print. He’s agreed to take on this chip without checking to see what it allows the corporation to do to him. He has access to everything, but at the same time the corporation can now essentially read his mind whenever they want. He’s just signed away his privacy for the sake of a free app, in other words.
It’s fascinatingly prescient, especially if you’re like me and enjoy warping stories to fit particular narratives that feel interesting. And here it feels a lot like Doctor Who is able to almost predict the rise of social networks – where everybody is climbing towards ‘something’, even if nobody knows quite what that is. More followers? More attention? More opportunities? There’s nothing tangible at the end of the journey, which makes the laughable nature of the journalists’ goals even more clear for both the audience and The Doctor. Questioning by nature, he immediately suspects that something is wrong, and spends the episode watching everyone around him to see if they’ll pick up the clues as well.
This is the Doctor as a directly inspirational figure in a way we possibly haven’t seen to date. He grasps that the humans are missing the point because they’ve been so distracted by their own fake ambitions, and over the course of the episode he calmly but forcefully shows everyone why it’s so important to act individually. This is most shown in his interactions with two of the journalists – one of whom is killed off early, the other turning out to be the key to saving the day. The Doctor doesn’t actively save the day here, but without his push to Cathica that she should try to look beyond what’s presented to her, she wouldn’t realise that she needs to take down the system and the day would never be saved to begin with.
By casting likeable actors like Simon Pegg and Tamsin Greig, the episode makes authority seem cosy and fun – but at the end of the day they’ll suck the life out of the public regardless. The episode juggles several storylines together, but neatly ties them up at the end. Adam ends up being dumped back on Earth by the Doctor and Rose, neither of whom have much respect for him anymore. He got sucked into his own vanity, and this iteration of the Doctor has no time or interest in somebody like that, who acts in self-interest first. It’s why the Doctor has to take down the system – but it’s why he doesn’t want to take it down personally, even though he clearly has the power and intelligence to do so.
Instead, he sees how important it is that somebody like Cathica is the one to fight her own system, rebel against her programming, and show the rest of the public what’s going on outside the sphere of fake news and disinformation. It’s the first genuinely subversive episode of Doctor Who from the new run, I’d argue. It may not be a standout, top-tier episode, but Doctor Who needs some good quality ‘middle’ episodes. By luck, it’s become a lot more interesting in hindsight than it was at the time, and in sci-fi that’s usually quite a good sign.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 7: The Long Game
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Brian Grant