Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Doctor Who at 50 by Sasha Simic

 From LSHG Newsletter 51 (Spring 2014)

“Here’s a great idea for Saturday afternoons. What do you think?”
– Sydney Newman pitching Doctor Who to Donald Wilson, Head of Serials BBC TV 1962

The fiftieth anniversary episode of Doctor Who was a great success for the BBC. An audience of 12.5M watched The Day of The Doctor as it was broadcast in the UK on BBC1 on Saturday, 23th November 2013. The episode was also broadcast in 75 other countries and was screened in selected cinemas in 15 countries The cinema takings for a one-off screening in the US alone were $4.7M. The episode broke a number of records for on-line viewing and engagement with social media including accumulating “the most tweets for a drama” (1) In it the BBC went out of its way to celebrate the show’s past, with the Doctor’s current side-kick, Clara, teaching in the same school his original companions taught in.(2) A number of economic, social, and ideological currents have transformed a modest series about a time-travelling “crotchety old bugger” (3) into a world-wide cult featuring a messianic figure akin to “fire and ice and rage…like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun…ancient and forever.” (4)

In the 2007 adventure Human Nature a temporarily human (and deluded) Doctor insists “My father Sydney was from Nottingham, and my mother Verity…was a nurse.” (5) That was an in-joke. Doctor Who started with Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. Newman was a Canadian television producer who had worked in Hollywood and New York. In 1958, at the age of 41, he was brought to Britain by ABC television. ABC wanted higher ratings. British television was still very influenced by theatre and radio. Newman thought television drama should reflect the lives of the people who actually watched it. He was dedicated to mass quality drama for mass audiences. He later argued that British television “presented a condescending view of working class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays, and invariably about upper classes. I said, "Damn the upper classes - they don't even own televisions!"(6)

In 1961 he accepted the post as head of drama at the BBC. By then commercial television was well ahead in the ratings war and bragging it was the “the people’s television”. Newman was given unprecedented executive powers to win back an audience for the BBC. Doctor Who was created as part of his strategy for capturing viewers on Saturday nights: “…there was a gap in the ratings between BBC’s vastly popular sports coverage, ending at 5.15 and the start at 5.45 of Juke Box Jury. What was needed was a new programme that would bridge the state of mind of sports fans, and the teenage pop music audience while attracting and holding the children’s audience accustomed to their Saturday afternoon (classic) serial” (7)

Newman built the show on the Reithian ideals that it would ‘educate, inform and entertain’: “I was intent upon it containing basic, factual information that could be described as ‘educational’ or at least mindopening… my first thought was of a space-time machine…space meant outer space, intergalactic travel, but again, based on understood fact. So no bug-eyed monsters which I had always thought to be the cheapest form of science-fiction” (8) Time travel would also provide an educational opportunity: “How wonderful if today’s humans could find themselves on the shores of England seeing and getting mixed up with Caesar’s army in 54BC, landing to take over the country; get involved in Europe’s tragic thirty years war…” (9) The show’s lead would be : “…a man who is senile but with extraordinary flashes of intellectual brilliance. A crotchety old bugger….” (10) The project was handed over to Verity Lambert - the first woman television producer to work in BBC television. She cast William Hartnell as the Doctor, an actor type-cast in ‘tough’ roles as sergeants and gangsters. She also commissioned the first scripts.

The first episode, An Unearthly Child, went out on 23 November 1963, fighting for an audience in wake of Kennedy’s assassination. It’s still an interesting piece of television. Delia Derbyshire’s treatment of Ron Grainer’s theme tune is still the best version and the TARDIS set still impresses. But Hartnell’s Doctor is an acquired taste. The heroes at this point were the two companions - Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright – teachers from 1963. The Doctor was very much an anti-hero. When the TARDIS takes the crew back to “100,000 BC” the Doctor is not above the attempted murder of an injured caveman. It’s Ian who delivers a moral lesson to the Tribe of Gum that a single tyrant “is not as strong as the whole tribe”. Only 4.4M watched the first story and the reviews were tepid. It was the second story, The Daleks, which made the show a success. The ratings rocketed up to 8M and for a time in 1964 ‘Dalekmania’ rivalled ‘Beatlemania’.

The Daleks broke Newman’s injunction against “bugeyed monsters”. They also seriously damaged the educational premise of the series. It was originally intended that science-fiction episodes would alternate with historical dramas. The ‘historicals’ didn’t fare too badly in the ratings. The adventure with Marco Polo (1964) was watched by 9.4M, “The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1965) drew in 6.4M. (11) But there were dramatic limitations inherent in the show’s straight historical dramas. In The Aztecs (1964) Barbara tries to stop the practice of human sacrifice only to be told by the Doctor: “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” This principle meant the ‘historicals’ often resulted in stories where the TARDIS crew met the great and the good as passive observers. Trying to create convincing costumed drama on a budget of £2,000 wasn’t easy. New Statesman critic John Holmstrom scorned the series’ “pasteboard Romans, Saracens (and) French Revolutionaries.” (12) When Patrick Troughton replaced William Hartnell as the Doctor in 1966, the “historicals” were phased out. Incoming producer Innes Lloyd told Television Today “One change we have decided on is to drop the historical stories because we found they weren’t very popular.” (13)

Lloyd argued the show’s appeal lay in its monsters. He told The Observer: “I want the stories to have less obvious history, more guts” (14) Lloyd preferred to spend his budgets on a single impressive set and monster costumes. This meant Troughton’s stories tended to be repeated plots featuring bases under siege. His Doctor fought Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, Ice Warriors over and over again and his Doctor developed into a fully moral hero with the TARDIS crew materialising to instinctively help the oppressed wherever they found them before moving on. There was little overt politics in the programme at this point. That started to change as the outside world grew more militant and with the involvement of writers like Malcolm Hulke. Hulke had been involved with the socialist UNITY Theatre Company and was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s. He wrote a few stories for Troughton’s Doctor including the 10-part anti-war epic War Games (1969) which introduced the Time Lords to the show’s mythology. He later insisted “..really all Doctor Who stories are political. I’d say it’s a very political show… although I say it myself, philosophy and politics in my science fiction, and Doctor Who in particular is a great opportunity to get across a point of view.” (15) The increasingly radical political landscape of the early seventies gave space for more politics in the show.

Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor (1970-1975) was rooted in the Quatermass stories of the 50s (The start of Pertwee’s first story Spearhead from Space copied the start of Quatermass 2 [1955] shot-for-shot). In this period the Doctor was exiled on contemporary Earth. It was argued that cutting down travel in Time and Space would result in a more adult (and cheaper) programme. The show’s producer for much of this period was Barry Letts, a man very much rooted in the counter-culture of the period being a Buddhist with leftist sympathies. Working with radical writers like Malcolm Hulke he produced a number of stories which reflected the political issues of the day. The Silurians was ‘about’ racism (1970), Colony in Space (1971) tackled Imperialism, alienation and industrialisation. In Colony in Space the Doctor is sent to a backward planet in 2471 which has been settled by a counter-culture movement because “At least it’s better than being back on Earth…No room to move, polluted air, not a blade of grass left on the planet and a government that locks you up if you think for yourself.” But the Interplanetary Mining Corporation (IMC) is after it too because: “What’s good for IMC is good for Earth”.

The Mutants (1972) paralleled apartheid South Africa, and The Green Death (1975) was based on environmental destruction and corporate greed. The Curse of Peladon (1972) reflected the negotiations about the UK joining the “Common Market” with a feudal planet mired in superstition negotiating to join an alliance of more sophisticated aliens. The follow up story two years later involved striking miners but most people missed an episode because of black-outs caused by the miners’ strike! These stories were written against the back-drop of rising industrial militancy and political radicalisation. This was a period when the Doctor fought BOSS (Bimorphic Organisational Systems Supervisor), the head of the multinational Global Chemicals, an enemy who was motivated by: “Efficiency, productivity and profit for Global Chemicals…Nothing and nobody can be allowed to stand in the way of that. Not even you, Doctor.”  The feminist movement had an influence on the show in the appearance of companion Sarah-Jane Smith who screamed less, and took more initiative, than previous ‘assistants’.

When Tom Baker took over the lead from Jon Pertwee in 1975, the new creative team – producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes – took the series in another direction. They were less politically committed and more interested in introducing elements of gothic horror to the series. The first years of Baker’s tenure were hugely popular but the increasing levels of violence drew the ire of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners‘Association. The BBC capitulated to her campaign and in 1977 instructed Hinchcliffe’s replacement, Graham Williams, to tone down the horror and replace it with comedy. Holmes submitted a political story of his own. The villain in The Sunmakers (1977) is a Usurian, an alien who conquers through loans and excessive taxation. The actor playing the part was deliberately made-up to look like Denis Healey – then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Under the BBC’s new restrictions the show entered a period of protracted decline. Its low-budget special effects looked shoddy compared to the space-operas which filled cinemas following the success of Star Wars. By the time Peter Davison took over the role in 1981 too many stories were self-referential and caught up in its own mythology. BBC executives began to undermine what they saw as a show long-past its sell-by-date. The show moved from its traditional place in the Saturday schedules and was given a twice-weekly early evening slot as it limped towards inevitable cancellation.

There was one last attempt at a renaissance. During Sylvester McCoy’s time as the Doctor (1987-1989) a new generation of programme makers with a political agenda joined the show. When Andrew Cartmel went for the job of script editor he was asked why he wanted to work on the show. He replied: "I’d like to overthrow the government”. He later confessed: “I was very angry about the social injustice in Britain under Thatcher and I’m delighted that came into the show.” (16) Under his tenure there were a number of overtly political stories that recalled the 70s. For example the dictator Helen A, played by Sheila Hancock, in The Happiness Patrol (1988) was clearly meant to be Margaret Thatcher. Sylvester McCoy was happy with this approach:

“The idea of bringing politics into Doctor Who was deliberate, but we had to do it very quietly and certainly didn’t shout about it. We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. At the time Doctor Who used satire to put political messages out there in the way they used to do in places like Czechoslovakia. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered. ” (17) The show did not bring about Thatcher’s overthrow. It was cancelled in 1989.

The return of Doctor Who in 2005 was a triumph, but hardly foreseen. One attempt to revive the series, Doctor Who – The Movie (1996), had already failed. Even once the new series was commissioned and underway, nervous BBC executives asked if it was too late to scrap it. (18) Russell T Davies was an inspired choice to oversee the shows return. He was an innovative television dramatist (Queer as Folk, The Return) and a fan. He went on to write more original scripts for Doctor Who than anyone and re-wrote many of the scripts he commissioned. His Doctor Who was shaped by social media, reality television and New Labour. With the war in Afghanistan and Iraq still headline news, his Doctor was a veteran of the “last, great time war” – a loner, tortured by survivor’s guilt.

There’s an interesting theme of resistance that runs through the first season of the revived series. There’s the character of Harriet Jones, a back-bench Old Labour MP who becomes Prime Minister destined to (or not – she’s later exterminated by the Daleks) lead Britain into a ‘Golden Age’. There’s the use of Socialist Worker posters declaring “No Third term for Thatcher” to establish 1987 in Father’s Day (2005), there’s an Anarchist Group in the far-future – The Freedom Fifteen – referenced in The Long Game (2005). But the necessity of eternal resistance is there because oppression seems to be eternal too. The Daily Telegraph picked up on this theme in an interview with Davies in 2009: “There are an awful lot of evil bankers and capitalists in your series of Doctor Who”. (19) His reply was very New Labour: “I was listening to this teenage demonstrator on Radio One, and she was saying ‘Ooh, I’m anti-capitalist’. I’m not anti-capitalist – look at me, I’m wearing clothes, I own a house, I’m about to catch a train. That’s what capitalism is – it keeps the whole thing running. I’m against greed, any day. But it’s not a bad society – it’s not that bad. [laughs] There are worse.” (20)

Davies’ Doctor was a catalyst. The companions who travelled with him – especially the working-class Rose – are transformed by their experiences and grow as individuals. This sits with Davies own belief in self-improvement: “You can come from anywhere, and be of any sexuality, and do whatever you want in life.” (21) Steven Moffat, who succeeded Davies as the show’s Executive producer in 2009, has a similar approach. He is capable of infuriating the right: “Doctor Who …was execrable…Labour Party supporter and chief writer Steven Moffat turned in a script that could have pleased few outside the living room of Harriet Harman. Every trite Left-wing cliché was in place....Steven Moffat's politics are his own business, but when one of the most-watched children's television characters becomes a cipher for Harmanism, then I object.” (22)

But his future is also populated by big business and capitalists. Just one example of many is Solomon the Trader featured on “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (2012) who searches out “opportunities for profit across nine galaxies.” Doctor Who is now being made by a generation that grew up in a period of political reaction and working-class defeats. There have been 800 individual episodes telling 240 stories. Its writers seem to have absorbed the sentiment expressed by US Literar critic Fredric Jameson in Future City, (2003) that: “…it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Perhaps imagining the “end of capitalism” is asking too much of the “crotchety old bugger”. If there is oppression and exploitation across time and space in the world of Doctor Who, it has always been resisted and fought. As Rose said in The Parting of the Ways(2005): “The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know he showed you too. 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…” Events in the real world will continue to shape Doctor Who as it enters its second half-century. Perhaps we will once again see stories less centred on individual resistance and development and ones where the moral is, once again, that oppressors are “not as strong as the whole tribe”
Sasha Simic

 Sylvester McCoy on the March against Cuts in Camden

1) http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/363237#ixzz2mtf8GR7H
2) Indeed Ian Chesterton, the Science teacher who travelled with
William Hartnell’s Doctor seems to have been made Chairman of
the School’s Governors according to the sign outside the School
3) Sydney Newman from The Quotable Doctor Who, Blue-Eyed Books,
2010, 9781907338151
4) The Family of Blood, (2007)
5) John Smith (The Doctor), Human Nature (2007)
6) Benjamin Cook, Chaos and Creation in the Junkyard, Doctor Who
Magazine, January 2006.
7) http://www.doctorwhonews.net/2013/01/unearthly-series-origins-tvlegend-
8) http://www.televisionheaven.co.uk/Sydney_Newman.htm
9) http://www.doctorwhonews.net/2013/04/unearthly-series-9-
10) Sydney Newman from The Quotable Doctor Who, Blue-Eyed Books,
2010, 9781907338151
11) Stephen J Walker, Doctor Who – The Scripts, The Crusaders, Titan
Books, 1994
12) New Statesman, 11 April 1965
13) Innes Lloyd, Television Today, quoted by Stephen J Walker, Doctor
Who – The Scripts, The Crusaders, Titan Books, 1994
14) Innes Lloyd, The Observer, 17 December 1966
15) http://drwhointerviews.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/malcolm-hulke-1970s/
More on Hulke’s politics here:
16) “Doctor Who in War with Planet Maggie”,The Sunday Times, 14
February, 2010
17) “Doctor Who in War with Planet Maggie”,The Sunday Times, 14
February, 2010
18) http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-07-03/russell-t-davies-thebbc-
19) Robert Colvile, Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2009
20) Robert Colvile, Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2009
21) Robert Colvile, Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2009
22) Grame Archer’s review of the 2011 Christmas episode The Doctor,
the Widow and the Wardrobe from The Daily Telegraph, 27/12/2011

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