The Doctor Dances accidentally tells a very Jewish story

if you know me, you know i’ve spoken a lot about how doctor who really should not touch WWII. every time it does, it ends up being insanely clumsy at best and horribly offensive at worst. let’s kill hitler and spyfall are particularly sickening to me, as a jewish fan, and i know several other jewish fans who feel similarly. thing is, doctor who is 90% of the time missing out on a key jewish perspective on things – which is kind of crazy to me, given that both verity lambert and sydney newman were jewish! this is something that could be rectified if they hired more jewish writers or had one (1) jewish character, but that hasn’t happened. so as a jewish fan, and as someone who likes analyzing media through that lens, i have to take what i can get.

given how much i talk about how much i want doctor who to totally avoid WWII, people sometimes ask me how i feel about The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. perhaps surprisingly, i actually think it’s utilized quite effectively in that story, mostly because it’s not really About The Nazis; it’s about poor children trying to survive during wartime, contrasted with a doctor fresh from the time war. more than that, the message it sends by the end of the story is just so… jewish. which i don’t believe for a second was on purpose (not an insult – moffat is just a painfully goyishe man)

something you’ll see a lot of in Jewish art is the theme of dance as a representation of freedom. anarchist Emma Goldman wrote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.” poet Ilya Kaminsky, in an interview I think about more or less every day, said about his father’s experience during the war: “The Russian woman who hid him, Natalia, hid him for three years. It’s not an easy thing, to keep a restless child inside for three years. Natalia taught him how to tango. And so they danced for three years of that war, in a room where the curtain was always drawn. […] All my friends tell me there is too much dancing in my poems. Is there enough? I don’t know.” in perhaps my favorite example, in the movie Jojo Rabbit, Jojo asks the jewish girl, Elsa, hiding in his house, “what’s the first thing you’ll do when you’re free?” elsa simply replies, “Dance.” and at the end of the movie, that’s exactly what they do. i could keep listing examples, but i don’t want to be here all day, and i hope you get the picture.

in The Doctor Dances, dancing is used as a pretty thinly veiled metaphor for sex, but i think the symbolism goes far beyond that, whether that’s intended or not. these episodes genuinely speak to me so profoundly. this is a story that is fundamentally about love and healing from trauma and learning to care for others again and learning to allow yourself to be cared for. we see this, of course, with Nancy and Jamie and all the other children, and we see this with Jack opening himself up, but more than anything, i think it’s about a post time war doctor learning that actually, the universe doesn’t end when the doctor dances.

DOCTOR: Rose! I’ve just remembered!
ROSE: What?
(The music changes from waltz to swing - Glenn Miller’s In The Mood.)
DOCTOR: I can dance! I can dance!
ROSE: Actually, Doctor, I thought Jack might like this dance.
DOCTOR: I’m sure he would, Rose. I’m absolutely certain. But who with?
(Rose dances with the Doctor while Jack watches. This style he can do, and Rose loves it when he dips her.)

it’s okay to heal from trauma, it’s okay to heal from the pain of war, it’s okay to move on from all the people like you dying. we mourn the dead, but we keep living, we keep moving. we laugh, we fall in love, we save the world in our own way. we dance.


i love this!!! i already loved the use of dance in that episode but your insight adds another layer of importance and emotion to the whole thing…
i also recently had a longggg conversation with my jewish mom about how hard Spyfall flops on several points but especially re: the whole WWII segment. it didnt even need to be set in WWII!!! they couldve done virtually any other war… its infuriating
i may need to rewatch tEC/tDD now you’ve inspired me lol. its such a sweet story in the end


yeah, spyfall is pretty horrifying, it’s just so massively disrespectful and unnecessary. i have a lot of thoughts on it and none of them are particularly complimentary :sob:
and i’m glad i’ve inspired you to revisit those episodes!! i think i’m just about due for a rewatch myself

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A fascinating take on the story.

From a UK perspective, I think a lot of our WWII set TV is firmly rooted in Dads Army and the concept of Blitz Spirit. Blitz Spirit is what is threaded through The Empty Child. Dads Army leads to a fair amount of WWII stories having a comedic edge - it’s there in ‘Is it possible you miscounted’ gag about Mrs Harcourt’s extra leg (admittedly a re-engineering of a Moffat joke from Coupling).

But it’s even more present in Let’s Kill Hitler which treats Hitler in the same way a lot of contemporary propaganda did - as someone to be mocked and made look ridiculous (most evident in things like the Careless Talk Costs Lives posters).

This is my review on the main site:

So I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the WWII stories come from, very much, a British perspective on the war and are often more about something else than trying to say anything about the war itself - using it as more of a backdrop (The Curse of Fenric, for example, is more about the Ancient Evil of Fenric and Ace’s history).

Now whether this is a good or right thing is debatable obviously but it is, of course, telling that the show didn’t go near WWII till the 80s when enough of the creatives involved would not have had direct experience of the war necessarily. What I’m trying to say is that it took time for it to become just another ‘period of history’.

What specifically in Spyfall - aside from that weird bit with the Master as a Nazi officer - horrifies you? I think it’s good it involves someone like Noor Inayat Khan - a historical figure not spoken about much in general WWII conversations in the UK.

And just to add - I’m not ignorant of the horrors of WWII and don’t want to downplay your culture’s experiences. My paternal grandfather survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp but never spoke of his experiences because of the traumatic nature. I would be wary of Doctor Who touching something as specific as that so can see where you are coming from in terms of a Jewish perspective.


well, you’ve touched on my main problem and criticism of the episode. it’s got some british nationalism and some pretty inaccurate ideas about the role britain played in the war, but for the most part i can get past those issues because, like I said, they aren’t the main focus of the episode. (and, well, doctor who is a television show made by the bbc. i usually have at least a couple of eyerolls per episode in regards to its politics)

Let’s Kill Hitler, however… well, the first time I watched it I felt so physically ill I stopped watching the show for several months, and nearly gave up on it entirely. so that should tell you how I feel about it. i read your review, and I understand the point you’re making about propaganda, but i would argue that while that served a purpose at the time, and in context made Hitler seem less terrifying, which made a difference for people currently fighting that war & gave them confidence, we don’t live in that time anymore. these days, it’s the opposite. when before, the nazis were seen as a real threat, it benefited us to knock them down a peg and make them seem less powerful, now, nazis are seen as a joke or a bland, faceless, fictional villain like stormtroopers, when they DO still exist and they DO still pose a threat to people. we live in a different context to when something like that would have been appropriate and what LKH ends up doing is making a joke out of the suffering of millions of people.

before anyone calls me out for hypocrisy, i mentioned Jojo Rabbit in my original post – a comedic movie about a little boy whose imaginary friend is Hitler. the movie makes a joke out of Hitler for two hours, and yet it’s one of my favorite films. why that is is actually pretty simple: the guy who made the movie is Jewish. jewish comedy is often quite dry and dark, understandably so, and that’s how we end up with movies like Jojo Rabbit. i vastly prefer a comedic take on Hitler from a Jewish person than a gentile. it’s a question of when it is appropriate and who has the ability to tell those stories, and I really don’t think Doctor Who or Steven Moffat are the right place or the right person to make that joke, if that makes sense – especially when it’s basically being used as a backdrop for character drama that could have taken place anywhere. the other thing is that Jojo Rabbit, despite making the nazis look like bumbling idiots, treats the threat they pose very, very seriously, and focuses on a.) a young boy unlearning the propaganda he’s been fed his whole life, and b.) a young Jewish girl fighting fiercely to survive. Jojo Rabbit is also not a perfect movie, I have my criticisms of it, and I wholly disagree with the director on several political issues, but, like TEC/TDD, the positives outweigh the negatives for me. these two things, despite ostensibly looking very similar, are actually incredibly different when you look at the context. does that make sense?

i would also push back against the idea that Doctor Who doesn’t touch Nazis until the 80s. they might not involve them outright, but the Daleks are famously a (thinly veiled) allegory for the Nazis, most notably in their first story in The Daleks, and later in Genesis of the Daleks. lots of people working on the show in its early years were involved in one way or another, and you can definitely feel that impact when you’re looking for it. a lot of third doctor stories are very much about fascism, for example.

spyfall is an interesting case. because no, i guess there isn’t anything “aside” from the master being a nazi officer, but to me that is such an upsetting and glaring plot point that i really cannot get past it in any way shape or form. i don’t think anyone working on the show did this to intentionally hurt anyone, and rather did it out of ignorance, and this is all symbolic of a larger problem we have with our general society, which is dismissing antisemitism as a thing of the past. i really think it’s a problem to have what is essentially a beloved supervillain with fifty years of history on this show wear the uniform of the people responsible for the deaths of millions of people. it’s a problem to have him work with them. it’s a problem to have him help them with raids. it is disgusting that they made a man of color wear that uniform and it’s disgusting to have your hero, portrayed by a white woman, expose him as nonwhite to the ■■■■■■■ nazis. it’s a problem that that moment is not treated as a fucked up exploitation of racism but rather as a heroic #girlboss moment.

that episode did not need to be set during world war ii. it was completely irrelevant to the plot. it could have been set during literally any other time period. they chose that time period because it felt like a cool backdrop or whatever for the fight between the doctor and the master, rather than a real event recent enough that people who lived through it are still around today. and they chose to make the master be a nazi because they see nazis as generic disposable bad guys and not a real group of people who committed genocide – a group that, like I said, is very much still around today.

i also just simply don’t believe that the master would work with nazis in the first place. they are an opposite to the doctor, a narrative foil, and they do terrible things, but they are not a mindless force of evil. and even if they WERE evil enough to be down with nazis (they’re not.) that doesn’t make it any less triggering and disrespectful to include. like yes they kill people but there is a marked difference between fictionally killing indiscriminately and. nazism. ethnic cleansing for the purpose of hatred. hell, the doctor herself says “this is low, even for him”, which just makes me think of the regina george meme “so you agree? this is out of character for the master?”

having the master assist the nazis is crossing the line from campy, silly evil into real life evil. chibnall is hardly the only writer to cross this line, for the record, simm master enslaving martha’s family comes to mind in particular, but Spyfall is a far more recent example and one that I feel doesn’t really exist in the minds of most goyishe fans as something that should not have been in the show in the first place, if that makes sense.

the fact is that the episode is set in nazi-occupied france with hardly a reference to that outside of a character based on a historic spy (they actually apparently filmed a scene where Noor gets sentenced to death and is killed, but cut the scene because they thought it was too much. which is hilarious to me because, okay, you recognized you crossed the line there, but not until wayyyy too late). in the commentary for the episode, chibnall says something like “oh i wasn’t sure I could get away with this”, which to me is like. ok so you knew this was too far, and you did it anyway, because…? why? it doesn’t have to be in the episode, it’s there for shock value and that’s about it.

one of the funniest (:neutral_face:) parts of it to me (and the part that proves ignorance rather than malice) is the four beats on the telegram scene. it’s a nice callback to the four knocks and everything, but. four short beats in morse code is the letter H. the doctor repeatedly sent “HH” to the nazis :sob:

i understand the urge to highlight someone like Noor Khan in your story about spies, but, like a lot of Chibnall historical figures, she doesn’t do much other than say “i’m Noor Khan and I am a spy”. if she was the only reason they set that section of the episode, i really don’t think they utilized her very well. or at all. i also think it’s kind of upsetting that the doctor erases her memories. i know foreknowledge is dangerous and everything, but this woman has to die at the hands of the nazis because she dared to resist against them. why not leave her with some hope for the future, the knowledge that everything she did amounted to something?

i’m sorry this got so long, i really have quite a lot to say on the subject :sob: I appreciate your perspective and everything, thanks for sharing. i hope my argument here is at least somewhat coherent, and can maybe help people understand my viewpoint a little bit more


Very interesting discussion. You’d probably have a lot to say about the novel Timewyrm: Exodus (see the Book Club discussion: Book Club: Timewyrm: Exodus) in which it’s suggested that the Timewyrm and the War Lords were essentially responsible for the Nazis, and the audio Jubilee which uses the Dalek/Nazi correlation to say things about the desensitization to evil (which we’ll be talking about in October or November).


everything you said here :100::100::100: i absolutely hate what this does to the Master as a character, especially after we’ve spent basically every one of their appearances in the show since 2005 establishing them as a sympathetic villain and someone the Doctor loves in some way in spite of everything they’ve done. it’s insulting.

watching Spyfall with my mom she also took issue with the scene where Noor hides the Doctor under the floorboards to escape the nazi, because it’s just sort of treated as a neat trick rather than, historically, something Jewish people were actually forced to do to avoid getting killed. the whole episode feels inconsiderate and poorly thought out and it is FAR from the only one of the era like that.


Your argument is absolutely coherent and I am so glad you shared your viewpoint. It saddens me that any Doctor Who story would make you so angry and upset that you would stop watching and I think (hope) Steven Moffat would feel the same about something he had written.

I always like to err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt and to look at the positives. For all the inclusion of Noor Khan may seem cursory to some, it is at least symptomatic of how Chibnall was clearly determined to include more female figures from history - Mary Seacole, Rosa Parkes, Ada Lovelace - which is not something Who has been very good at. Remembering the fact that this is a family show, if those inclusions mean children at least are made aware of these figures then, for me, that is a positive.

Also, I’m well aware of the Nazi allegory in the Daleks but I was meaning about how using the actual setting of WWII didn’t happen till the 80s. We also get actual Nazis in Silver Nemesis and I don’t think they would have appeared as the villains of a story any earlier as the experiences of those living through the war may have still been too raw.

I also don’t think it beholds us to police who can or cannot tell certain stories. As long as those stories are not deliberately sharing misinformation or hate speech or promoting discimination, of course.

I hope I am not coming across as sterotypically ‘white, straight, gentile’ and that you do appreciate my point of view which, in no way, is meant to defend anything that actually offends you.

We are trying really hard to build a positive, safe space here for everyone. I hope my replies to you haven’t suggested anything else.


i’m not trying to “police” who can tell what stories, i’m trying to say that i would way prefer a story about WWII from a jewish perspective (or a Roma perspective), given that that’s so rare in the world and especially rare in doctor who. i similarly would have vastly preferred that, for example, Rosa had been written solely by Malorie Blackman without chibnall’s input, because I think she has a lot more interesting and meaningful things to say on the topic than he does, and as it stands I don’t think Rosa as an episode is successful in telling the story of Rosa Parks and actually ends up perpetuating a massive amount of misinformation. i’m not saying someone CAN’T tell a story that isn’t directly personal to them – people do that successfully all the time. i’m saying that they should consider if they SHOULD. a story Might not be yours to tell, and that’s okay.

I appreciate the urge to look at the positives, but I also think it’s worth looking at the failings of episodes that include female historical figures. chibnall episodes often use historical figures as setpieces, rather than an integral part of the story. think about how people like Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie are treated in their respective episodes versus how Mary Seacole is treated. it’s not enough to just Have Female Historical Figures in your show. it matters what you do with them. something isn’t feminist just because there’s a woman in it. spyfall is a particular failure to me because of the choice to erase Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan’s memories of their experience with the doctor. Chibnall said he did that because he didn’t want to take away their agency or imply that Lovelace’s contributions to the world weren’t her own, and I respect that he was thinking about that, but erasing their memories isn’t the best way of preserving a character’s agency – especially when they don’t do the same with a male inventor later in the same series. i also would argue that it’s different with agatha christie’s memories being erased because it’s not a choice the Doctor makes. there really isn’t an in-character reason for her to do that, and especially in a series that deals with the doctor feeling violated by knowing she has missing memories, it feels like a massive misstep.


All valid points and I apologise for my choice of words in ‘policing’.

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