Sunday, 24 November 2013

An Adventure in Space and Time

So who is Doctor Who? The Mark Gatiss-penned An Adventure in Space and Time last week provided us with some clues, ahead of the global brand-fest of The Day of the Doctor on Saturday. I don't mean by this the secret name of the Doctor (probably Gerald), or what moral traits he embodies as a humanised deity (something called lurv, no doubt). What I mean is where do you position the character in social and cultural history?

The title of Gatiss's drama is suggestive. The official guide to the coronation of ER2 in 1953, written by the rhapsodic historian Arthur Bryant, claimed that "a nation is a union in both space and time. We are as much the countrymen of Nelson, Wesley and Shakespeare as of our own contemporaries. Our queen is the symbol of that union in time" (the echoes of Burke are clear). In 1963, the Tardis (a metaphor for the powers of TV and film generally) allowed us to escape from a particular space and time, i.e. the UK's diminished position in the postwar world and the burden of post-imperial history, and go gallivanting through these earlier, more glorious epochs, not to mention a wonderful future. The appearance of ER1 in The Day of the Doctor was quite knowing.

Another important clue was the CV of William Hartnell, the first Doctor. As Gatiss noted, he had previously been type-cast as a tough soldier, usually a hectoring NCO, having featured in the films The Way Ahead and Carry On Sergeant, plus the TV series The Army Game. This was a neat link to the appearance of John Hurt as the "war Doctor" in the 50th anniversary spectacular. The legacy of wartime was all-too apparent in the original TV series, from the Daleks, who combined nostalgia for a dependably evil enemy (the Nazis) with high tech weaponry (the Nazis), to the Doctor's initially authoritarian style and obsession with secrecy. The WMD in 1963 was the threat of mutually assured destruction (Dr. Strangelove came out the following year). Today, John Hurt gets a finely-worked box with a big red button, which he ultimately declines to press (Gallifray is saved to some sort of inter-temporal USB drive).

The coincidence of the first broadcast with the assassination of John F Kennedy means that Doctor Who is associated with a pivotal moment in the orthodox (and sentimental) narrative of US-inflected postwar history: the moment when political illusions were lost and the counter-culture started (the pains of adolescence etc). This obscured the British significance, which started in the late 50s with the acceptance that empire was over (the "New Elizabethan Age" didn't last long) and the breakdown of class rigidities marked by kitchen sink realism and the false dawn of meritocracy. The formal moment was Harold MacMillan's "Winds of change" speech in 1960, while the informal moment was the birth of Europhile mod subculture (first jazz and French style, then R&B and Italian style).

British establishment dramas about international relations tend to employ one of two tropes: the spy or adventurer who must defend British interests alone (an extrapolation of nineteenth century self-reliant liberalism and imperial honour, from Samuel Smiles to Gordon of Khartoum), or the quintessential (yet paradoxically eccentric) Briton whose mere presence is reassuring (from Phileas Fogg to Henry Higgins). The most popular examples usually combine both tropes, from The Lady Vanishes to The Avengers. The 1960s was a particularly fruitful period for new variations on these old themes. The James Bond film series (with Q as significant as 007) is the most territorially aggressive (i.e. the most resentful at loss of empire), while The Prisoner turns frustration and doubt into existential crisis within a claustrophobic society (despite the 60s style and fashionable paranoia, this was about 50s conformism).

The character of Doctor Who for the first 25 years was essentially Edwardian, with stylistic nods to Prospero (via Forbidden Planet, and ultimately repaid via the Sycorax) and the Great Oz. This meant an emphasis on brains over brawn and an insistence on a certain deportment - i.e. upper middle class values. For all the scary aliens and innovative music, the initial series was as comforting as a Sherlock Holmes story in The Strand Magazine (another influence), hence its popularity across generations. This was a Time Lord, not a Time Pleb, who dressed in a fashion that would not have been out of place in 1900 (steampunk avant la lettre), and who was always associated with the "deep state" of UNIT and other loyal but covert agencies (I suspect Doctor Who is very popular at GCHQ, and only copyright kept him out of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). The choice of a police call box was not arbitrary.

In An Adventure in Space and Time Gatiss subtly suggests that the Doctor's growing eccentricity and kindliness in the first series was as much a product of Hartnell's declining health as a conscious decision to lighten-up the authoritarian sourpuss. As such, the Doctor became a sympathetic emblem of national self-doubt: you don't have to be a psychologist to recognise eccentricity as anxiety displacement. Over the years, Doctor Who has fruitfully overlapped with Monty Python (no one expects the Spanish inquisition in much the same way as no one expects the Doctor) and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams wrote and edited a number of Doctor Who scripts). In its modern incarnation, the programme's affinities have tended towards retro adventure (the many juvenile spin-offs) and a hankering for Edwardian stability (Steven Moffat's Sherlock, despite the contemporary setting).

The modern revival of the series in 2005 was interesting because it initially went for the gritty, modern, pan-sexual style of Christopher Eccleston. (The best Who joke ever? When challenged on his accent: "Lots of planets have a North"). This has gradually reverted to Edwardian type, via the retro New Wave style of David Tennant to the teddy-boy-about-to-become-mod style of Matt Smith. The suspicion is that Peter Capaldi will be a full-on Robert Louis Stevenson tribute act, complete with cavalier 'tache and wee goatee. I really hope they let him have a Scottish accent.

The 1989-2005 interregnum (excepting the 1996 Paul McGann TV film) can retrospectively be bracketed by the Lawson Boom and the early warning signs of the Great Recession. The series had been canned by the BBC not simply because of its declining quality (it had always had imaginative production values, but never what you'd call quality ones), but because it seemed to have lost touch with modern concerns. In an era of sanctified individualism and conformist ambition, the more traditional values of Doctor Who (loyalty, sacrifice, selflessness etc) seemed out of tune with an audience flitting between Neighbours and Eastenders. In fact, Doctor Who never went away. The torch was simply handed on to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future series of films (a conservative trilogy about restoring the natural order), complete with juvenile companion, a somewhat sexier time machine, and a running nerd joke (the flux capacitor = reverse the polarities).

The 90s was the era of large-scale and often circular (i.e. going nowhere) American SF TV series, such as the revamped Star Trek, The X-Files and Stargate, plus bullish cinema spectaculars about defeated threats to Earth, such as Armageddon, Independence Day and Men in Black. Parallel to this was the growth of a more interesting strand of films dealing with the nature of reality and power in an increasingly networked and virtual world, such as The Matrix, Existenz and various Philp K Dick adaptations, which, unlike the popular pyrotechnics, could at least survive the return of history in 2001. In this rich speculative ecology, the spirit of Doctor Who eked out a shadow life in the student rag-week deconstruction of Red Dwarf.

In retrospect, the attempt to relaunch the Doctor in 1996 made one crucial error: Paul McGann should have been the youthful companion and Richard E Grant the main man. That would have been brilliant, particularly if he could have channelled full-on Withnail. In fact, Grant did play the Doctor, first in a 1999 Red Nose Day TV skit, and then looking like a disappointed Dracula in the 2003 animation Scream of the Shalka. That would have been one Bad Doctor in the flesh. Perhaps that's the secret of his longevity: he is a vampire on our nostalgia as well as our aspirations. Perhaps the real Who is the woman they call ER2. Or perhaps she's a shape-shifting Zygon, and has been for over 400 years.

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