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Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Doctor Who, like all science fiction, has always rooted its storytelling in allegory—raising ideas to challenge its contemporary audience through stories of the past, the future, of monsters, and running down hallways. It always makes the moments the show wants to step away from an allegorical message and explicitly discuss a societal agenda tricky to navigate: what can be left to audience interpretation, what has to be made clear, what is the moment to make your break and be explicit about your message?

“Dot and Bubble” is an episode that thinks about this a lot—but whether it’s an episode that really succeeds in effectively conveying its real message makes for what is one of the most difficult episodes to talk about the series has done in a very long time.

So why is “Dot and Bubble” so difficult to discuss? It’s an episode that is, ostensibly, about one allegory—the influence of social media on our lives, filtered through a society of futuristic Not-TikTok (the title is in fact the device/platform, a holographic bubble that projects a hemisphere of social media screens around a user’s head) influencers in a seemingly idyllic community called Finetime. But what the episode actually is, like “73 Yards” was before it, is a mystery box, structured around a final-scene reveal that radically realigns the rest of the episode you’ve just been served for 40 minutes.

What you are served, on the surface, is a perhaps well meaning, but clunky warning about the perils of social media usage. “Dot and Bubble” largely follows the story of Lindy Pepper-Bean (Callie Cooke, a guest star in a role that, as we’ll get into, becomes incredibly fraught), one of Finetime’s ditzy inhabitants. Endlessly scrolling through video feeds of her friends from the moment she gets up, Lindy is a walking, talking embodiment of the worse kind of assumptions people make about chronically online social media addicts—airheaded, rude, young, and inexperienced with the reality of the world beyond her metaphorical and literal bubble. All her screen friends are the same: loud, garish, petulantly ignorant, and annoying, and all Lindy does is natter back at them from her own screen, complaining how hard it is that they have to work doing mindless data inputting for two hours a day before they can get back to endlessly scrolling through videos of vapid person after vapid person, regurgitating endless, empty content back at each other.

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

So when it turns out that Finetime is actually being attacked by an army of giant alien slugs—picking off one resident after the next, devouring them because they’re so controlled and addicted to their Dot and Bubbles they can’t see the threat staring them in the face until it’s eating them alive—Lindy, at the behest of the Doctor and Ruby digitally sliding into her social feed to warn her of the threat to her life, becomes our increasingly unlikeable protagonist. Barely stumbling her way through our actual heroes’ advice, she tries to escape the giant slugs that, push comes to shove, you ultimately begin to feel like should actually get to eat her. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Ruby try to figure out just how Finetime has turned into a Giant Slug Buffet. And if this was what “Dot and Bubble” was actually about, it would perhaps be fine, if a little rote—a heavy handed admonishment of the kids these days with their apps and their viral videos, but one that plays with Doctor Who’s messages of empathy and understanding to have us, and the Doctor and Ruby, support a distinctly unlikable protagonist as they face certain doom. Maybe there’s a version of “Dot and Bubble” where Lindy learns to touch grass or use social media for good instead of just endless sycophancy, and the day is saved, and we all move on to the next adventure.

But “Dot and Bubble” isn’t that episode at all. In its final moments—after Lindy has managed to survive and make her way out of Finetime, after cruelly and casually sacrificing a fellow resident and her social media idol, faux-internet celebrity Ricky September (Tom Rhys Harries)—the episode reveals its actual intent and the nature of Finetime’s society. Now that she’s finally met the Doctor and Ruby outside of her Bubble’s feed, Lindy and her fellow survivors are offered a safe way off world on the TARDIS—but they reject the Doctor, choosing to go beyond Finetime’s protective shielding and attempt to adapt to the wild on their own, because the Doctor is a Black man. “You, sir, are not one of us,” Lindy spits at him, admonishing the Doctor for daring to make in-person contact with her. Another survivor tells her to step back from him, lest they be “contaminated.” Finetime’s society is not just a social media-driven nightmare, it turns out, it is a white supremacist, colonial structure, dropped down onto an alien world by its presumably similarly racist home civilization to create what it envisions as mono-race haven for young, rich, white people who believe they have a god-given right to do whatever they want because of their race.

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

In the moment, it’s horrifying and hits you like a ton of bricks. Ncuti Gatwa delivers an incredible, tortured performance in just a single, brief scene, howling at first in baffled confusion, and then rage, that Finetime’s survivors are so catastrophically bigoted they’d choose certain death over being saved by a Black person. The episode ends in this moment of clarity, as Lindy and her racist friends go off in one direction, and the Doctor and Ruby, in tears, walk back towards the TARDIS. But for as effectively jarring as it is as a twist, this one single, final scene—a handful of minutes’ runtime at the very end of the episode—it’s also a moment that takes an incredibly serious message, and fumbles making it because instead of it being the dramatic crux of the episode, it is exactly that: a last-minute twist.

Treating the existence of white supremacy as a “gotcha” in this manner is an incredibly fraught idea, and it’s a topic that needs to be more than a revelation in the final minutes of an episode if Doctor Who is actually going to tackle it as a direct idea, rather than through layers of allegory. “Dot and Bubble” is structured in such a way that it can never do that, and support the bite of its final scene. Lindy is a caricature of an unlikable character even before just how vile she is becomes explicit in the final scene, but “Dot and Bubble” still asks you to root for her for the vast majority of its episode—even at what initially appears to be the depths of her selfish cruelty when she deliberately gets Ricky killed so she can escape—because the vast majority of the episode is not really directly about Finetime being “Planet of the Racist TikTokers,” and Doctor Who is a TV series that makes asking us to be empathetic without judgment one of its key values. Even when the character is, on the surface, extremely annoying as Lindy appears to be, Doctor Who wants us to have empathy for its focal perspectives, because that is what the Doctor would do. You can’t just take that idea, and then twist it by going “Whoops, it was a racist all along!”

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

You can’t ever watch “Dot and Bubble” again for the first time. You can’t watch any mystery or plot-twist driven narrative again the way you did for the first time—every viewing after that is fundamentally altered by your knowledge of whatever the mystery or reveal actually is. Every further engagement with the text after that becomes about being able to examine and identify clues with in its structure, to see how effectively that reveal is built towards. “Dot and Bubble” is no exception to this, but it is both an episode that is completely, radically reformed on re-watch by the knowledge the final scene lays out, and also one that has its crucial flaws exposed in doing so. In being set up in service of a mystery with a last-minute twist, everything about the episode’s actual intended allegory—the evils of white supremacy in our society and in online spaces, not just the idea that kids on social media are rotting their brains for non-racist reasons—is left up to the broad interpretation of what is likely a majority-white audience.

There are indeed plenty of “clues” throughout “Dot and Bubble” that click into place with the final reveal. It’s there in Lindy’s ceaseless annoyance whenever the Doctor tries to help her, but can grin and bear it when it’s Ruby that tells her what to do to escape the slugs instead. It’s there, too, in the background realization you make that everyone on the screens in Lindy’s bubble, everyone walking around Finetime, every glimpse we get of its administration, is a white face—that the Doctor is the only person of color in the entire episode. That last point, in particular, is the authorial intent that writer Russell T Davies hangs the episode’s “mystery” on. “What we can’t tell is how many people will have worked that out before the ending,” Davies notes in an interview for Doctor Who Unleashed, the BBC’s behind-the-scenes support series released after each episode of the series, “because they’ve seen white person after white person after white person [in the episode]… I wonder, will you be 10 minutes into it? Will you be 15? Will you be 20, before you start to think ‘everyone in this community is white,’ and if you don’t think that, why didn’t you?”

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

But leaving that realization up to the assumption of a predominantly white audience to solve as a clue, rather than making it something explicitly addressed and engaged with by the narrative of the episode before its final scene, is not only an extremely neoliberal approach to handling the topic of white supremacy—that recognizing that it exists is the thing that should be rewarded, instead of actually saying or doing something about it, especially in the context of a series like Doctor Who, which has a 60-year record of predominantly casting white people in major and supporting roles—it also weakens what the episode itself can say about the evils of this ideology. The structure of the episode is designed as such is that the intent is you are keeping the reveal that Finetime is a bigoted enclave a secret until the final minutes of the episode. This is a struggle that the current season of Doctor Who has faced multiple times already—that its episodes leave, intentionally or otherwise, gaps in logic or exposition to ask of its audience their own interpretation for why something is the way it is in the story, for better or worse. That’s something you can do with, say, how the supernatural abilities of “73 Yards” and its time loop paradox works, or the computer logic that leads to the creation of the Boogeyman creature in “Space Babies.” It’s not something that should be done when what you want to ask the audience to interpret is the existence of white supremacy and its horrors: that is something you have to reckon with clearly in the text itself.

So let’s come back to that final scene with the Doctor and Lindy then, and examine how “Dot and Bubble” actually approaches being a story about the evils of white supremacy as its ending reveals. Isolating its choice to be explicit until its final minutes—and leaving every hint that Finetime is a racist society up to the audience divining it as a clue before the reveal—means that, structurally, “Dot and Bubble” can never give the Doctor a chance to be mindful of, or even address, the repeated microaggressions and discrimination he faces trying to find out what’s going on in Finetime, until he is explicitly told to his face that the reason Lindy and the survivors don’t want his help is because he is Black. He’s never given a chance to be frustrated about the fact that Lindy and the other Bubble users won’t listen to him, even as he’s trying to help them avoid being devoured alive, but will listen to Ruby—every moment of frustration along the way that he feels has to be made vague enough that it looks like he’s just annoyed that Lindy is unlikable and selfish, and for so many other reasons, because the episode is structurally treating her bigotry as a secret to be revealed later. “Dot and Bubble” wants its audience to interrogate the world of Finetime, and see how long it takes them to notice its structural racism, which means the Doctor himself is never allowed to comment on it along the way.

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

For all the clues to pick up along the way, “Dot and Bubble” is not structured to allow itself to be “The Episode Where the Doctor Experiences White Supremacy as a Black Person” until its final scene—and in a scene that’s a handful of minutes long, that’s nowhere near enough time to unpack what the episode would possibly intend to say about what it means that the Doctor, who, for the vast majority of the series’ history, has been able to barge into any room and get what he wants from complete strangers because he is in the form of a heteronormative white man, to be confronted with a scenario where his physical form of a different minority background. There’s perhaps a comparison here to “The Witchfinders,” the rare episode of Jodie Whittaker’s run on Doctor Who that engages with the fact that the Doctor is presenting as female during its narrative. Was it a good episode? Not really, but at the very least it allowed the Doctor to realize that she was being discriminated against because of sexist ideology, and made it the crux of its dramatic conflict, because it allowed that moment of conflict to be revealed earlier than the final minutes of the episode.

Doctor Who can and should use the meta-narrative of it breaking boundaries with diverse casting to, within its text, comment on real world issues of prejudice and discrimination that can be confronted by making those casting choices: casting female Doctors, casting non-white Doctors, casting queer Doctors, and so on. Not only is that an important agenda for a series that is about a hero who prides themselves on empathy and understanding of the wide universe around them, it also opens Doctor Who up to more storytelling opportunities, to tell more stories about more kinds of people that have, historically up to this point, not been represented by having the Doctor’s default form from one incarnation to the other be that of a white man, and even have people from those backgrounds tell those stories, too. But when you choose to do so, you also have to reckon with the question of what it means to not just be treating the Doctor as “the Doctor” in that kind of story, but also explicitly treating them as a person existing in the body of a minority, and examining that minorities’ struggles in the real world—and what you then ask of the audience represented on screen to examine of those struggles in turn.

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

That in and of itself becomes an issue in the final scene of “Dot and Bubble”, because part of the point of the Doctor’s anguished horror when Lindy and the other survivors reject his help is that his empathy—he practically begs them to let him save them from certain doom—does not work. The Doctor is allowed to be shocked at the revelation of Finetime’s white supremacist underpinnings, but his ultimate response is not about white supremacy’s existence in this society, but the grief that he cannot overcome that hateful ideology and save the people beholden to that ideology. Like we said, Doctor Who is a series about empathy—but in this moment the Doctor, in the body of a Black man, is asked to empathize for people who hate his very existence because of his skin color. The Doctor isn’t allowed to tell Lindy and her racist friends to fuck off and get eaten by giant slugs, for all he cares, because he’s the Doctor. He has to care about saving people, even when they are blinded to his help by their horrifyingly evil beliefs.

That’s an incredibly fraught message for Doctor Who to have to try and convey to its audience—either the assumptive broader white audience it has left clues for throughout “Dot and Bubble,” or the audience of people of color watching and seeing themselves in Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor. And even then, in this final moment, with “Dot and Bubble” and its intention to leave so much of it open to the interpretation of its audience, we never get to see Lindy and the other survivors face comeuppance for their racism. The episode ends with the exposure of white supremacy’s existence, and then can’t say or do anything more beyond that, because it’s saved that exposure for a handful of minutes before the end credits. Sure, it can be implied that after the credits roll, Lindy and her bigoted friends get into a boat to sail off into the wilds beyond Finetime and immediately die excruciating deaths, because they’re stupid bigots who have spent their entire lives up to that point living in the bubble of faux-TikTok, but the episode never actually tells us that that’s the case. It can never make the explicit jump that these people will face hubristic death for their racism, because it chooses to end on them sailing away and the Doctor leaving in tears. If anything, by leaving so much of the intended message of “Dot and Bubble” up to the audience to divine and interpret themselves, you make enough space for some of that audience to assume that Lindy and the others go on to survive and even thrive beyond Finetime’s boarders. After all, for most of the episode we see Lindy learned and adapt long enough to escape the slugs—there are as many clues that she could survive as there are clues to Finetime’s supremacist racial structure!

Image for article titled Doctor Who Swipes Right on an Incredibly Fraught Allegory

Image: BBC/Disney

I’m sure a series as progressively minded as Doctor Who doesn’t want any part of its audience to have a chance of thinking “well, did the racists come out okay, actually.” But if you don’t want that to be your message, you have to be crystal clear about your message, even if it’s one that on the surface is as simple as “white supremacy exists and is bad.” “Dot and Bubble” falters because it is structurally unequipped to be clear about that message until its final scene—and the point is that it is unclear about this, because its intent is to maintain the aspect of its twist ending for the majority of its audience. And even then, there’s is just not enough time for it to unpack and discuss the incredibly real topic it hopes to lay out to that audience. There is a version of “Dot and Bubble” that brings its racial allegory into the light much earlier, and much more explicitly, and makes it the crux of its story rather than the mystery of just what is happening in Finetime in the first place—and in turn, has the time to be much more full throated about the evils of white supremacy, instead of simply acknowledging that it still exists. Maybe that is, even, a story told by a writer of color, too.

But we are left to wonder all that, and what that episode might have been, for good or ill. Because whatever it might have ended up being, it was most certainly not the episode we ultimately got.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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