Colonialism By Any Other Name…

10.9 The Empress of Mars

The Empress of Mars provides a one-sided view of colonialism and empire state building. On the one hand it rightfully critiques old school colonialism as practiced by the major western powers until the 1960s. On the other hand, its stark and blunt portrayals of old school colonialism masks the dangers of neo-colonialism which often uses the language of self-defense and humanitarian intervention to disguise its true selfish purpose. It is easy to see how antiqued and horrible the Victorian soldiers’ attitude towards Mars is. But it is important to remember that modern actions are not above reproach. The fact of the matter is that we try to hide the horrific actions perpetrated by western military intervention throughout the world.

In the Empress of Mars, the Doctor, Nardole, and Bill come across a handful of Victorian British soldiers…on Mars. And needless to say their attitude is a bit…well dated. This is most vividly and humorously expressed when the soldiers scoff at the notion of a female police officer.

BILL: Well, we’re sort of police. 
DOCTOR: Speak for yourself. 
BILL: What, you can deal with big green Martians and, and, and rocket ships, but you can’t deal with us being the police? 
GODSACRE: No, no, no, no, no. It’s just such a fanciful notion. A woman in the police force. 
BILL: Listen, yeah? I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because, well, you actually are Victorian.

But their dated attitudes are also expressed in their frequent references to the British Empire. Tied with notions of empire are of course individual greed.



One striking aspect of this conversation is how blunt and nonchalant Catchlove is. He freely admits that their purpose is to gain personal wealth and to expand the British Empire. Today, while you might hear such candid discussions in leaked government memos or conversations, “empire building” is now often discussed in terms of self-defense or humanitarian intervention. This is not to suggest that old-school colonialism also did not pretend to adhere some higher humanitarian or divine mission, but they were also pretty clear that they believed it was their divine mission to conquer and tame “savage” civilizations. Today the conversation centers around notions of self-defense and helping the marginalized, even though modern western military action often endangers both national security and the very marginalized groups it claims to save.

In this episode, it becomes clear early on that Catchlove is the villain of the story. And for many of us today, we can clearly point to how devastating and awful European colonialism was. Acknowledging the awfulness of the past and making reparations to those who suffered is a must, but at the same time, such an attitude makes it easy to pretend that our modern day actions are not as horrific as those committed in the past.

For instance, the war in Iraq was based around false notions of self-defense. The US claimed it needed to attack Iraq because Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda and had weapons of mass destruction.  The nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration attempted to exploit the nation’s renewed thirst for military violence and the wider world’s sympathy for America’s pain in order to ram through their military and political objectives. Of course, as it became increasingly clear Saddam Hussein had no ties to al Qaeda.  (Shough he did support other terrorist organizations at some points during his reign. See Trump’s Saddam.)

When it became clear that the there were no weapons of mass destruction or evidence of Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda, justifications quickly took on a humanitarian tone. Conversation shifted to how horrible Saddam Hussein was.  Of course it was true. Hussein was a vicious dictator and as a dictator the rights, freedoms, and even lives of his citizens mattered little. His concern was with political power. However, if that were truly the impetus behind the 2003 war in Iraq then Saddam Hussein should have been removed a long time ago. And if concern for human rights really is the basis of American military intervention, then allies such as Israel and Egypt would be at the receiving end of our military might rather than beneficiaries via money and arms. The discourse on human rights often serves to legitimize unjust western action regardless of the consequences.

In addition to claiming that the only reason they helped this ice warrior that they decided to name Friday (see how colonialism has no qualms about renaming the people and lands they have conquered) they have turned him into little more than a glorified butler/slave. Though of course, as it becomes clear, the belief that Catchlove and the soldiers have control over “Friday” backfires spectacularly.  A key part of European colonialism was turning the portion of the population that survived disease and slaughter, into slaves. Modern western intervention, often depicted as fighting for the rights of marginalized groups, of course rejects enslaving the population. Yet westerners seek to control the population in other ways including by enforcing their notion of democracy which is less about human rights and more about capitalism. This  form of capitalism  seeks to place western and private interests over the needs and desires of non-western nations.


In this case, the Doctor is warning Catchlove and the other British soldiers to leave. Mainly for their benefit since the Doctor recognizes that Friday was tricking the British. But Catchlove stubbornly refuses to leave because Mars is now the property of the British Empire. Plus, of course they belong. The British have a mandate from their empire and from God to conquer. They belong everywhere. One may be tempted to say, “well, there. Today, such a notion of owning another country is completely off base. At least for westerners.” (SARCASM ALERT: Because westerners are supposedly the most enlightened of people who are above petty political squabbles revolving around “owning” others.).

But while western powers may not claim to “own” other people or their countries, there is a continued presumption of the right to use their land at will. For instance, the United States continues to build bases throughout the world, in developed and in developing countries.   While the bases need to be built with the support of the hosting nation, American imperialism thinks nothing of building/maintaining thousands of bases throughout the world-something it would loathe to allow other nations to do.  Moreover, because the US is such a power house, it can threaten to withhold much needed aid to any country that refuses to give in to US demands.

In The Empress of Mars, the critique of British colonialism is obvious. Catchlove in particular is portrayed as selfish, egotistical, and greedy. He does not even pretend to hide the fact that he and the other British soldiers arrived on Mars to gain riches nor does he gloss over his belief that Mars rightfully belongs to the Empire. Yet this bluntness also hides the nefarious character of modern day western action throughout the world. Whether or not recent foreign interventions such as the war in Iraq can technically be called colonialism is up to debate, (though I personally view it as a form of colonialism) western action continues to devastate and is often based on the notion that western countries have a right and duty to intervene in other countries affairs or to topple governments. The language used to disguise such misadventures reference self defense and human rights, but the aftermath is filled with death and destruction.  In other words, modern western countries have more in common with the likes of Catchlove then they would like to admit.




The Witch’s Familiar: A reflection on justice, mercy, compassion and the War on Terror

DAVROS: Compassion then.
DOCTOR: Always.
DAVROS: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
DOCTOR: I hope so.
DAVROS: It will kill you in the end.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t die of anything else.
DAVROS: You may rely on it.

After 9/11, George W Bush promised that those responsible would be brought to justice, “The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts. I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

And to be sure, those who participate in a crime should be held accountable. Of course, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the actual hijackers were killed. But those who helped plan and train the hijackers as well as provide funding could be held responsible. But in this case justice was equated to American military might. While the American approach to justice is ostensibly about prevention, in reality it is about punishment and revenge. Those in the highest levels of the government were embarrassed by 9/11. How could a group of terrorists, no matter how well organized or funded, manage to attack the world’s only super power? Those in the intelligence agencies were embarrassed. The FBI, The CIA, The NSA, etc. the very ones charged with protecting the nation failed. And as a result, they vowed, “never again.” The nation embarked on a path that led to two failed wars, to massive government surveillance with very little oversight, to the scapegoating and vilification of American Muslims, to the stripping away of civil liberties and in a twist of fate: the very actions the American government took to eradicate terrorism simply created a power vacuum which enabled new terrorist groups, such as ISIS to thrive. And of course, in an attempt to defeat the new terror threat, the US government provided aid and/or weapons to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two nations well known for funding various terrorist groups throughout the world.

The United States, in a quest for revenge and punishment, has killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iraq and Afghan civilians. Some wonder if one could claim that the United States committed genocide.

In Witch’s Familiar the Doctor is supposedly provided with the opportunity to destroy the Daleks. If there were any group in the universe that should be destroyed without a second thought, the Daleks would be it. They are hell bent on dominating the universe and are intent on creating a pure species. They are based on the Nazis who have to be one of the most hated villains in the world. In fact, the term genocide was coined after the Holocaust and the Holocaust stands as a marker of injustice and oppression. Who wouldn’t want to be able to go back in time and destroy the Nazis? Yet the Doctor refuses to destroy the Daleks. (Of course, he also knew that Davros was trying to trick him. But genocide isn’t an action that the Doctor takes lightly so I can’t imagine his response would be different if Davros had not been tricking him.)

DAVROS: The cables, Doctor. Touch them. Imagine, to hold in your hand the heartbeat of every Dalek on Skaro. They send me life. Is it beyond the wit of a Time Lord to send them death? A little work and it could be done.
DOCTOR: Er, why would you be telling me this?
DAVROS: Genocide in a moment. Such slaughter, not in self-defence. Not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice. Are you ready, Doctor? So many backs with a single knife. Are you ready to be a god? 

It is a bit intoxicating to imagine that one has the power to eradicate an embodiment of evil. I, know that if given the option to destroy the Daleks, the Nazis, the Islamic state, etc. I would have a difficult time passing up the opportunity.  The United States, after 9/11 believed it had the power to destroy terrorism. Not just Al Qaeda, the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan were not called “the war on al Qaeda” or “the war on Saddam Hussain” but the US launched a “War on Terror.” And this war continues not just in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite the official “end” of the Iraqi war) but also in Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan. Not to mention the hundreds of countries that US Special Forces are in. Even now, even as Iraq is falling to pieces and the Islamic state continues to advance in Syria, the United States continues to at least publicly push the idea that it can eradicate terrorism.


The United States government did not hesitant to deploy its military force into Afghanistan on the wake of September 11. And it even attempted to use 9/11 as a justification in Iraq.  The desire to eradicate terrorism is used to explain the US involvement in Syria and Yemen, even as it is forced to join forces with Al Nusra front in and other terrorist groups in Syria-the very ones they are fighting in Iraq!

For the Doctor genocide is not even an option.

DAVROS: Compassion then.
DOCTOR: Always.
DAVROS: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
DOCTOR: I hope so.
DAVROS: It will kill you in the end.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t die of anything else.
DAVROS: You may rely on it.

Davros viewed the Doctor’s compassion as a sign of weakness and stupidity. In fact, that would be Davros’ undoing. The Doctor recognizes that Davros is using him and when the Doctor’s regeneration energy flows to the Daleks, the he knows that it would also strengthen the Daleks in the sewers who would then rise up against the “living” Daleks. Now one wonders, isn’t the Doctor being unjust when he leaves the Daleks and Davros to be killed by the sewer Daleks? Isn’t the Doctor being unmerciful? I’m not sure. I struggle with that question. On the one hand, part of me wonders, “Well isn’t he just leaving Davros to die? How is that merciful?” Yet on the other hand, I can also see Davros’ fate as the result of his own actions. Davros continued to try to manipulate the Doctor and he tried to use the Doctor’s regeneration energy for his own purposes. If Davros hadn’t been so blinded by his desire for immortality and his corruption, if he had thought about his actions a bit harder, he might have realized that the Doctor’s energy would spread to ALL the Daleks on Skaro. Not just the ones directly under his control.  This brings up the question of justice and mercy/compassion. Are those concepts incompatible with one another? Does justice negate the possibility of mercy and compassion or vice versa. If the answer is yes, then the Doctor was behaving unjustly. But if justice and mercy/compassion can coincide, I wonder if it is possible to state that justice was served yet the Doctor was able to also show mercy/compassion? And what his actions toward Missy? He tells her to run and refuses to take her with them on the TARDIS to safety, after he discovers that she was trying to get him to kill Clara. Though perhaps he knew that she would somehow escape? She always does.

In regards to American domestic and foreign policy after September 11th: there was no discussion, at least publicly on what justice and compassion/mercy would mean in this context. Justice was immediately equated with punishment and American military might. Very little thought, if any, was given to alternative reactions to Afghanistan. What if the United States, in an attempt to truly get serious about ending terrorism, decided to stop sponsoring terrorist states? For example, Saudi Arabia was not condemned for its endorsement and spreading of Wahhabism, which can be argued is the underlying theology of many terrorist organizations. What if the United States decided it was going to stop supporting authoritarian regimes that oppress its people? What if instead of invading Afghanistan (and later Iraq) the United states decided to up its humanitarian aid and send an “army” of diplomats, activists, nonprofits,  who would work with the civilians there in an attempt to make joining terrorist organizations less applying. Even if all the aforementioned suggestions sound horrible, what if the government spent the same amount of money trying to think of nonmilitary options as it does on expanding the military?

The Doctor, who is by no means perfect, is at least willing to entertain questions of mercy, compassion and justice. The Doctor is willing to entertain the idea that sometimes mercy and compassion should hold sway rather than a desire for punishment and revenge.