Three of the clearest influences on Red are Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Ridley Scott-directed 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner: the different classes, the chips and the brainwashing, the absolute surveillance, the interest in Artificial Intelligence…and the rain. If you’ve got dystopian rain, you are influenced by Blade Runner: it’s a known fact. While dystopias in Doctor Who turn up relatively frequently, and probably even more so in Seventh Doctor stories (look no further than LIVE 34 for the most recent), there are a number of ways that help Red to stand out. Though it lacks LIVE 34’s structural innovation, it more than makes up for it by setting the story in a very creatively written society and by blending it with some terrific psychological horror.
The Needle, ever-adapting to its inhabitants’ thoughts, is a world in which computers use us as a guide of reference to help run society, rather than the other way round. As Lyons did in Time Works, a thorough amount of world-building is going on here; see the effective nuance of the ubiquitous category “subject” being a word that denotes scientific monitoring and civilian fealty simultaneously (one of the sentences best illustrating this is “I constantly monitor my subjects for their wellbeing”). There is Sheargold’s fascinating use of synaesthesia and the symbolism of colours. Take the red/blue dualism: there is Chief Blue and various other “Blues” who police the violent colony and hold back the “Red”; that blue ship the TARDIS is highly uncomfortable landing in the colony; red in this story as a perversion of rubedo, the final stage in the alchemical Great Work of the Middle Ages, often paralleled with the colour blue in the new series; Mel’s red hair leads to her nickname “Red”; the parallel with Paradise Towers’ Red/Blue Kangs. The names themselves have a linguistic fascination to them (Celia Fortunaté is my favourite), as do infantilising terms to keep each subject in their place like “cradle room”, or indeed riffs on known phrases like “it opens up the synapses”, “friends in low places”, “a Red Tape”, and “I wish some harm on you”. The 24-hour clock isn’t quite as we know it (only twenty hours in a day, but at least 80 minutes in an hour), and birds’ calls sound like bleeps and honks. There’s a drug called “Slow”, which allegedly helps you feel and slows your body clock right down, and while the upper-class are “irresponsible and hedonistic snobs”, the underclass regularly cut themselves to ensure they still feel pain. Easily digestible, populist, smile-on-your-face Who this is not. It’s cerebral, and engaged with the politics of our world, and angrily so.