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Doctor Who Tackles Animal Rights Themes

Ood in chains

Ood in chains: what’s the difference between “alien” and “animal”?

The latest Doctor Who just scored another point in science fiction’s long history of skillfully addressing real world issues through metaphor. Saturday’s episode, “Planet of the Ood,” did an excellent job paralleling human oppression of a species called the Ood with a whole host of examples of human domination over those deemed “other,” including the modern animal agriculture industry.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, Doctor Who is the story of an alien called the Doctor who travels through time and space, currently with modern human Donna Noble. The latest episode concerns a “slave race” called the Ood, tentacle-faced humanoids who function as human servants in the 42nd century.

“Planet of the Ood” probably wasn’t intended as an animal rights polemic, although the creators did draw intentional parallels between the treatment of the Ood and the treatment of animals in modern animal agriculture. However, it (perhaps unintentionally) does an exceptional job of revealing the common patterns amongst the various ways humans subjugate and oppress others.

It’s not a direct parallel to any one situation in human history; rather, it draws together threads from several situations and creates a story about the overall human tendency to declare a group it doesn’t understand as “other,” then use and abuse that group for its own ends. In particular, we have:

  • Slavery. The most obvious; Donna explicitly calls the Ood “slaves.” The guards use whips on those who fall behind. The Ood “business” is a family legacy, passed down through the generations. The Ood “song of captivity” brings to mind African American anti-slavery songs.
  • Sweatshop labor. The parallel is surprisingly clear when Donna protests that she doesn’t have slaves and the Doctor responds by asking “Who do you think made your clothes?”
  • The Holocaust. The Ood warehouse resembles a concentration camp; the Ood are exterminated via poison gas. Lefaym has a great post here analyzing the episode in relation to the “banality of evil” theory.
  • Modern animal agriculture. Halpen calls the Ood “livestock” and “animals” and refers to their “breeding farms”; exterminating “contaminated batches” of Ood is “the classic foot and mouth solution from the old days”; on the commentary, writer Keith Temple explains that he was explicitly drawing comparisons with battery hens. And, of course, there’s the fact that the Ood aren’t human; what exactly is the difference between “alien” and “animal”? Why is it okay to exploit one and not the other? Are the Ood more or less similar to humans than, say, dolphins or great apes?

“Intelligence” is not the determining value of the Ood’s right to freedom; it’s their ability to feel, their pain and their joy, as symbolized by their song. One of the main arguments against animal rights is that animals are less “intelligent,” therefore humans can do whatever we want with them. Vegans, of course, counter this with the fact that animals are able to feel, so it’s wrong to cause them suffering. Sadly, this episode does offer the defense that the Ood shouldn’t be abused because they aren’t “just animals”–would their abuse be justified if they were? As if animals don’t feel?

The “processed” Ood have their hind brains cut off, taking away their memory and emotions, which brings to mind a whole host of methods used to mutilate and control the oppressed. The episode compares it to lobotomization; you could also compare it to debeaking, or the consequences of selective breeding, or to female genital mutilation, or (stretching the metaphor a bit, and bringing in the “circle” that prevents the Ood from connecting to each other) to the practice of keeping oppressed groups uneducated or of denying them their own languages and cultures.

The Ood transportation method, hundreds of Ood crammed into huge crates and shipped across the galaxy, once again brings to mind a whole list of atrocities: Africans crammed into slaver ships, Holocaust victims crammed into cattle cars, and, yes, the horrific methods often used to transport animals in factory farming.

This episode also emphasized the importance of propaganda; the topic of “advertising” recurs throughout. And the commercial that opens the episode perfectly highlights the pretty lies that justify oppression; the “other” has “one purpose”: “to serve.” The Ood programmed to speak in amusing voices was also particularly horrifying, in highlighting how dehumanization happens not only through violence but through ridicule.

Marketing Director Solana’s pretty speech (“We keep the Ood healthy, safe, and educated”) is directly contrasted with the harsh reality of Ood life (the red-eyed Ood being chased down by guards with guns). Not to mention, of course, the later whipping and several references to the stench of the Ood pens. If you’ve ever compared a slaughterhouse video to a fast food commercial, you know what I mean. Do people really believe that stuff? Or does it just make the denial easier?

What impressed me most is that this episode managed to avoid so many of the pitfalls common to tales of oppression and revolution.

Even stories that sympathize with the oppressed often work to distinguish their heroes from “those crazy activists” (see Futurama or South Park). In contrast, Doctor Who presented the activist group, Friends of the Ood, as heroes in their own right, who were not treated with ridicule by the narrative and whose actions did have a positive effect in helping to free the Ood. Doctor Ryder wasn’t misguided; his years of infiltration paid off, and his death was portrayed as tragic.

But they also avoided taking away the agency of the Ood by having them saved by a heroic outsider whose demographic resembles that of the presumed audience (which is what Hollywood would have done). Ultimately it was the Ood subconscious that rebelled and enabled them to fight back. It was appropriate that the Doctor had little to do in this episode but assist the rebellion that was already happening.

The episode showed how dehumanized the workers had become after spending so much time abusing the Ood. This is apparent in Commander Kess’ sadism when attacking the Doctor (who, as far as he knows, is a fellow human being). But the injustice also was not caused by one or twobad apples“; instead, the entire culture was implicated. Ignorance isn’t an excuse; as Solana points out “Of course [the people back on earth] know… they don’t ask. Same thing.” Even CEO Halpen was not pure evil, given the kindness he showed his personal servant, Ood Sigma. And Solana was a great character, because she represents the majority of people in these situations, those that close their eyes and ignore what’s happening. She’s probably sweet and funny and goes home to a family that loves her, but she’s also complicit in a great atrocity. In a typical Doctor Who story, you’d have expected her to join the Doctor and reform. Instead, her behavior was darkly realistic; she did what most people do and kept her eyes shut. It was also good that the oppressive group was composed of humans of several races, which very clearly indicated that this isn’t the dark side of one human ethnic group; this is the dark side of humanity as a whole.

It was also surprising that this episode chose to advocate violent revolution, or at least not to condemn it. The story could’ve easily been about the Doctor protecting the stupid humans from the rabid Ood, who’d gone wild due to human mistreatment but now sadly had to be stopped. It still would’ve been a story about oppression being wrong and coming back to bite the oppressors in the ass, but it would’ve condemned the Ood just as much as the humans. Here, their violent revolution works; the Ood end up free, Solana and Kess are killed along with many of the workers, Halpen is turned into an Ood (ah, poetic justice), and the narrative presents their deaths as justified. Donna nails it when she says she doesn’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.

In a show that frequently presents heroic humans battling dangerous aliens (see, er, pretty much every invasion-of-earth episode thus far), it was nice to see an episode that presented the other side. Here, the aliens were sympathetic, and the humans were at fault. Even if most aliens are dangerous, you can’t be complacent and assume that they’re all bad. The Doctor rightly points out that it’s better not to know what’s right and wrong, because thinking in absolutes is what leads to atrocities in the first place.

Donna asks “Are [humans] like explorers or more like a virus?” The beauty of Doctor Who is that it sees the ambiguity of human nature; we’re both. We have the potential for both good and evil, and the episodes about human good wouldn’t be so powerful if we didn’t have episodes like this, that explore humanity’s dark side. And even here, we see both sides–Halpen’s greed, Kess’ sadism, and Solana’s cowardice are balanced by Ryder’s convictions and Donna’s compassion.

“Planet of the Ood” didn’t let the modern audience off easy. It didn’t say “Look how this parallels atrocities in the human past”; it said “Look how this parallels atrocities that are happening now.” It was shocking that the Doctor asked Donna who she thinks made her clothes, and it was very realistic that Donna’s reaction was thoroughly human, and quite similar to the 42nd century’s response to the Ood–she lashes out at the messenger and doesn’t want to hear it. (And perhaps a lesson for activists: the Doctor’s snarky tone just puts her on the defensive and leads her to ignore what he actually said.)

Donna’s reaction to the horrors she was experiencing was also very realistic–she didn’t want to deal with it, she wanted to go home. And, of course, the thing that makes Doctor Who inspiring is that it doesn’t just show us horrors; it firmly believes that they can be changed. Isn’t this what former companion Rose’s speech in “Parting of the Ways” was all about? “The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. That you don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away.” Donna gets a taste of this, that the Doctor’s life isn’t just about travel and adventure but about taking a stand and making a difference, and in the end, that’s why she decides to stay.

For U.S. viewers: “Planet of the Ood” airs Friday, May 9, at 9pm EST on the SciFi Channel. You can also find it on YouTube.

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