Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara

Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara December 7, 2018

The Doctor Who episode “The Androids of Tara” is part of the Key to Time sequence. According to the BBC website, it was apparently based on a late 19th century novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. It is just one of many episodes that features something that would be bound to happen in endless time and space, namely encountering people that look precisely like someone else. The Doctor encountered individuals who look just like him in the episodes “The Massacre” and “The Enemy of the World.” This time it is Romana who has a lookalike, and in fact, thanks to there being android duplicates of individuals in the story, Mary Tamm actually ends up playing essentially four different roles.

Towards the start of the episode, the Doctor decides to go fishing, and sends Romana on her own to retrieve the 4th segment of the Key to Time. She finds it quickly, and transforms it from its disguised form into its real form. But then things get complicated.

The stories feature android duplicates of humans, and in particular of a prince and princess, with political intrigue and machinations at work.

It is interesting that the only mention of religion in the episode comes up in connection with one of the most interesting bits of dialogue from the standpoint of ethics.

DOCTOR: Go on, ask him a question. Go on.
ZADEK: The question of monastic lands. That’s bound to come up at the convocation. What is His Majesty’s position on that?
GEORGE: Monastic lands are held by the religious orders under the protection of the Crown. Those lands and that protection may be withdrawn at my discretion at any time.
ZADEK: Good.
GEORGE: I propose to be discreet for the time being.
ZADEK: Yes. Doctor, the Prince
ZADEK: Oh, quite so, your Majesty.
DOCTOR: Zadek.
ZADEK: Oh, drat. I keep forgetting he’s only an android. Doctor, the King seems to be, how shall I say, a trifle more
DOCTOR: Intelligent than the real one? Well, of course he is. I programmed him.
ZADEK: We don’t want him too intelligent, Doctor. You can’t trust androids, you know.
DOCTOR: It’s funny, you know. That’s what some androids say about people.

Humans are indeed prone to treat artificial beings with distrust, perhaps even discrimination – and to never think to ask what those beings might say about them. And as we know from countless sci-fi stories, mistreating AIs never has a happy ending for human beings…

Note as well the similarity with the Doctor’s retort in Kerblam! about generalizing in negative stereotypes about robots. After 50 years of the show, even though I know sometimes the show’s writers are deliberately echoing and drawing on its past, I still wonder whether convergences like this are intentional in a given instance, or are just a reflection of the fact that a show that continues so long will continue to intersect repeatedly with particular themes and ideas, and even happen once again upon similar phrasing. It is the same sort of question that one confronts when asking about direct borrowing in biblical and related literature – sometimes it is just reconvergence of an extensive and long-running franchise…

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