What is Doctor Who?

An Adventure In Space And TimeI can’t let Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary pass without a Whovian post. For me, the highpoint has been Mark Gatiss’s excellent, and wonderfully moving, drama about William Hartnell and the beginning of the whole thing, An Adventure in Space and Time, plus the recovery of The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World. Though I wrote a while ago about Why I Like Doctor Who, I’ve been thinking that that blog entry only answers — or, perhaps, asks — half the question. I might know why I like it, but what is it, exactly, that I like? What is the thing I’m liking when I say I like Doctor Who?

Kim Newman, in his excellent little critical appraisal of the show for BFI TV Classics, offers a few nuggets. It is, he says:

“BBC-TV’s most eccentric saga, at once cosily familiar and cosmically terrifying.”

(Though I wouldn’t say it’s cosmically terrifying in the Lovecraftian sense — something else I wrote about a while back, on Lovecraftian Who. It is, however, most certainly eccentric and cosy.)

It is, he says:

“…a continually rewritten fiction…”

BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who by Kim NewmanWhich answers my own feeling that I don’t really care too much about the continuity, or world-building, aspect of the show. It doesn’t matter to me that, for instance, Atlantis gets its comeuppance in — is it three different ways? They might be alternative Atlantises in alternative time streams. I don’t care. I don’t care either that the Time Lords in The War Games seem to be different to the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin. All I care is that there are good stories, and that each one is in done in, as a lawyer might say, a good and Doctor Who-like fashion.

So, what is a good and Doctor Who-like fashion? What is the essence of this thing called Doctor Who? Newman says:

“Boiled down to its simplest format, Doctor Who is a character actor and a police box.”

The best definition of fantasy, as a genre, comes from, I think, Brian Atterby, who says it is a “fuzzy set”. A fuzzy set is a group of things where we’re more sure of what belongs to the set than why. “Games”, for instance, is a fuzzy set. If you try to define “a game” as, say, “something with rules”, then you realise that some games don’t have rules — childhood make-believe games, for instance — or if you define it as “something done for fun”, then you realise that sports are games done by professionals, and so on. For everything you can say is a defining feature of “a game”, there will always be at least one example of something that is a game, but doesn’t have that feature, yet it shares enough other features with other games to be a game. Doctor Who is a fuzzy set, too. There have been episodes without the Doctor, and stories without the TARDIS, but they were still Doctor Who. Each story simply has to have enough Doctor Who-ish ingredients to overcome any potential non-Doctor Who-ishess, and then it can be classed as Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Weekly 1Of course, Kim Newman was writing about the TV show, and Doctor Who is so much more than that. For me, at the start, although the TV show was the focus of it all, it was such a rare event (only 26 or so episodes per year, a poor-but-perfect 25 minutes each), that other things had to make up the bulk of my Doctor Who focus. And for me, this meant the Target books and the weekly/monthly magazine (as well as an awful lot of making up stories in my head).

Without access to the TV show, you had to be a sort of archeologist, piecing together fragments of the past. Doctor Who and the Web of Fear (cover)The magazine had photos and plot summaries, the books had covers and fleshed-out stories. You married it all together in your own head. I remember, at the Brighton World Horror Convention a couple of years ago, a panel discussing people’s experience of the old black & white classic horror movies, where someone said they first learned of these old horror movies through books and magazines, where all you’d have would be the same small set of stills, and that these stills were full of such promise, it made you long to see the film. But when you got to finally see the film, the result was often a slight disappointment. My experience of much old Doctor Who has been the same. I knew those few oft-recycled stills from the old shows so well, and each new, not-seen-before photo was like a treasure. Seeing the actual shows often came as a shock — mostly, for instance, at how clumsy those fantastic-looking monsters moved (the Ice Warriors, so fearsome, noble and warrior-like in photographs, so clumsy in actual motion). Similarly, though I loved the Third Doctor’s Earth-bound adventures in the novelisations, I found him off-puttingly arrogant and short-tempered in the actual TV shows. But I wonder how much part of my experience of Doctor Who was all about that effort of reconstruction — putting together the stories with the photos, archeologically reconstructing those (as I thought) never-to-be-seen adventures of yesteryear from what remained. Being involved in Doctor Who was as much an effort of imagination as it was of passive appreciation.

Doctor Who, junkyard

I recently re-watched the first ever episode of Doctor Who — still one of its best — and realised how appropriate it is that it all starts in a junkyard. Because, if it’s anything, Doctor Who is a junkyard, a junkyard of the imagination, as much full of wonders as rubbish — and often of things that are both at the same time. Like a junkyard, one of the great charms of Doctor Who is unusual juxtaposition, the fantastic beside the familiar — Daleks trundling over Westminster Bridge, Cybermen emerging from the sewers, a hulking Krynoid charging round the grounds of some old country house, Egyptian mummies in a Victorian Gothic folly.

And, of course, junkyards are full of old things. Doctor Who is full of old things, too. And old things means nostalgia. There are, I’d say, three types of Doctor Who nostalgia. The Making of Doctor WhoThere’s the most obvious one, of revisiting the episodes I watched as a kid — and not just that, but re-experiencing the whole texture of TV back then, something that, for me, is particularly evident in something like The Brain of Morbius, with its gloomy studio feel, its flash-bang effects, and the peculiar look of the period’s video technology, that conjures up a whole aesthetic of that time. Another sort of Doctor Who nostalgia is a borrowed nostalgia that comes from learning about shows from the past that I never saw, and vicariously experiencing other people’s fondness for them — the whole quaintness of Dalekmania, for instance, or realising just how 60s the 60s shows were. But there’s a third sort of nostalgia, which is about how Doctor Who plugs you into a much larger stream of the culture as a whole. Mostly, it has to be said, this comes from the show’s own junkyard mentality, of grabbing ideas from elsewhere and trying them out — Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who does Hammer Horror, or Doctor Who does dinosaurs — but also from the way it makes use, as any long-lived, pulpy kind of story-anthology of its type can’t help but do, of all those stock characters and situations of adventure fiction, or science fiction, or British fiction — the retired colonels, the stuffy bureaucrats, the stodgily unimaginative politicians, the mad scientists, the embittered ex-soliders-turned-mercenaries, the fanatic idealists intent on reshaping the world, the dangerously eccentric millionaires, the disfigured geniuses lurking in catacombs — from the way, then, that it plugs you into a cultural nostalgia for archetypal adventure stories.

Wheetabix QuarkPresiding over this junkyard is, of course, the Doctor — I. M. Foreman from 76 Totters Lane — who lives, and travels, in a box. It may take the outward form of a Police Box, but this is, really “the box” — the telly itself — and it is through this, the medium of telefantasy, that the Doctor travels, changing time zones and planets as you might change channel, then pausing to observe them through his own TV screen. I’ve never really cared that Doctor Who’s effects haven’t been that great; I like, in fact, its very televisualness, its staginess, its sets-and-rubber-monsters-ishness, its wobbly spaceships on strings. Perhaps this is because my initial experience of what Doctor Who was came as much from those still photos and book covers, which allowed my imagination to bring the stories to life way before I got the chance to see them (again, or for the first time) on DVD. And so I know that the TV show itself can only ever be an approximation to the real thing that is Doctor Who, which is formed within my head.

So to me, Doctor Who isn’t just a TV program. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. Particularly, it’s a whole bunch of random, weird stuff shoved haphazardly together, presided over by a cantankerous and oddly changeable proprietor, who occasionally fits these cultural cast-offs and odd bits of the past together into futuristic or fantastic shapes, and puts them to strange but ingenious uses.

When I say Doctor Who is a junkyard, I really do mean it as a compliment.

Sign off with a Zygon...

Sign off with a Zygon…

“David Lindsay’s The Violet Apple” in Wormwood 21

Wormwood 21I have an essay in the latest issue of Wormwood, on David Lindsay’s posthumously-published novel, The Violet Apple. Of all Lindsay’s novels, it’s the one I most wanted to write about, perhaps because it’s one of his lesser-known and rarely-read works, but also because, although his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, is undoubtedly the most impressive in terms of sheer ambition, The Violet Apple is his most muted, and human — the novel of a writer with some experience and craft — as well as perhaps being his most artistically unified. I even named my website dedicated to David Lindsay after it. (I’ve always thought it the most filmable of his novels, too, and would love to see it as a sort of Merchant Ivory style period piece!)

I hope I managed to set down exactly what it is I like about the book, and why it should be approached on its own merits, not just as “another book by the author of A Voyage to Arcturus“. It’s a great pity there’s no affordable edition out at the moment; I always feel guilty recommending a book it’s expensive to buy.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Wormwood since its first issue, so it’s great to be a contributor, and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.

(My essay has gained a glitch in the first paragraph — the last sentence uses “He is described as…” to refer to a tower; I just had it starting “Described as…” — but hopefully it still makes sense!)

Oliver Onions’ Ghost Stories

4 Classic Ghostly Tales (cover)I first came across Oliver Onions through his most famous ghost story, “The Beckoning Fair One”, in a book called 4 Classic Ghostly Tales. A story of artistic obsession, it’s about a writer, Oleron, locking himself away in an unfortunately-chosen house to finish his latest novel, and there becoming distracted by a spectral woman who taunts him with her barely-perceptible presence. Detectable at first only by a faint static crackle as she brushes her hair, once she knows she’s captured her victim’s interest, she does the very un-ghostly thing of withdrawing, rather than intensifying, her manifestations, leaving Oleron, desperate and addicted, doing nothing for hours but standing there watching & listening for the slightest sign of her. As much as it works as a ghost story, “The Beckoning Fair One” is the tale of a writer cutting himself off from the real world to pursue an impossible, all-too-idealistic beauty that can never be captured.

The Dead of Night (cover)The Dead of Night collects all of Onions’ ghostly and near-ghostly tales, some slight, some disappointing, but a good few coming close to “The Beckoning Fair One” in power, subtlety, and depth. Many share the same basic theme, of the artist caught in a choice between an impossible ideal and a compromise with what reality has to offer, often contrasting the pursuit of an ideal muse with a failing connection to a real woman, less ideal and less inspiring, who often comes off the worse. (Elsie Bengough, in “The Beckoning Fair One”, is a very real, and practical, woman — “the mere thought of Elsie was fatal to anything abstract” — who’s attacked in subtle ways whenever she tries to get between the Fair One and her latest victim.)

“Resurrection in Bronze” is the most powerful such tale. John Brydon, an artist on the verge of wider success, locks himself away in his studio to finish his latest commission, a sculpture than may earn him thousands, rather than his usual hundreds, of guineas. But while doing so, he neglects his family, his health and his sanity. It’s a taut psychological study with no supernatural element. Nevertheless, it feels at home between the same covers as “The Beckoning Fair One”. The haunting is real, even if there is no ghost.

“The Smile of Karen” adds a twist to Onion’s tales of obsessive artists: this time it’s the muse who’s the focus of the story. Walther Blum is an illiterate woodsman with a powerful, natural artistic talent in sculpting wood — powerful to the point of torturing him with the need to capture the “anguishing and untranslatable beauty” he sees in his seventeen-year-old wife. Karen, though, finds the atmosphere at home unbearable: “I had married a man who growled over pieces of wood. I was something to turn into a piece of wood.” As much as the artist of “The Beckoning Fair One” is torn between two muses, one real, one ghostly, Karen is torn between being the beautiful statuette her husband would make of her, and her own, real, normal woman. To escape him, she flirts with a local womaniser, galvanising her husband’s violent jealousy.

In his introduction, originally for a 1935 compilation of his ghostly stories, Onions writes of how too many hackneyed ghost stories have stripped the ghost itself of much of its power:

“the spectre is apt to be swamped by the traditional apparatus that makes the stock illustration for the Christmas Number, and there is little to be said about this region except that here the ghostly texture is at its coarsest…”

And so he decided to explore the “surrounding” territory — “no less haunted… and with far subtler terrors”. And though The Dead of Night does contain a few rather mechanical attempts at doing something new with the traditional tale of ghostly haunting (“Rooum”, with its engineer pursued by an insubstantial thing that runs through him, taking more and more out of him each time; “The Rocker”, in which a gypsy sees what an old woman rocks in her arms as she sits each night by the fire; or the very traditional “and when I came back the next day, it was all gone” style of “The Cigarette Case”), there are some that transcend the genre so much as to be barely related to it, but nevertheless make excellent stories. Two of these, “The Honey in the Wall” and “The Rope in the Rafters” (long tales both), provide an excellent variant on the ghostly tale. As much psychological studies as anything else, these stories lead you into feeling that their protagonists are becoming ghosts themselves, though metaphorically, rather than in any Sixth Sense kind of way.

“The Honey in the Wall” is about a young woman trying to decide how to keep hold of her home in the face of dwindling family finances. She spends the story separated from her young and frivolous house-guests, haunting her home’s lesser-known rooms and passages. Particularly affected by the portrait of one of her ancestors, whom she imagines as so much more capable of facing such a crisis, young Gervaise at one point dresses up as “Lady Jane” and is mistaken for a ghost. The title of the story refers to a stash of twenty-two pounds of honey, long-abandoned by the bees that made it, found in a hollow wall, which Gervaise likens to the warmth and sweetness she feels she has to offer, but which is stifled in its expression by her withdrawn, introspective temperament. The supernatural element to this tale is so slight as to be maybe no more than a dream or a delusion, but it caps the feeling that Gervaise is a ghost in all but that she isn’t dead.

The protagonist of “The Rope in the Rafters” is another such living ghost. James Hopley, disfigured by a bomb in WWI, goes to a remote chateau to recover from a recent mental breakdown. His scarring causes several people to react to him as if he were a ghost, so he keeps himself hidden, haunting his own little part of the chateau and increasingly becoming detached from reality. The suggestion that there’s a genuine spectre at the chateau — “Jean the Smuggler”, who likes to drive people to take their own lives — is blurred with Hopley’s own feverish flashbacks to the week he spent in a wounded daze following the explosion that ruined his face. The identification between haunter and haunted feels similar, at the end, to that between the unbalanced Eleanor Vance and Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (the scariest book I’ve ever read, if you’re interested), in that its conclusion also feels like a final coming home, however horrific.

There’s a third strand that recurs throughout Onions’ ghostly tales, in which people are not haunted by ghosts, but by influences from the distant past — past lives or long-buried race memories, often going as far back as the myth-tinged times of Ancient Greece. The most successful of these, and the longest piece in The Dead of Night, is “The Painted Face”, in which Xena Francovilla, the devout daughter of a rich hotelier, is placed by her father in the company of an American, Mrs Van Necker, and her small gaggle of more worldly young charges. Coming to Africa, Xena’s religious devotion to Saint Rosalia slips and she finds herself becoming increasingly pagan, at the same time falling in love with a young man and feeling the first stirrings of womanhood. But the influence isn’t only biological — she seems to have, in some past incarnation, been promised to Poseidon, who cursed her for her faithlessness to forever be enchanting men, only to lose them after the first kiss. Xena embarks on a plan to rid herself of this curse. The final mechanics of the story, though, are less important than the extended psychological portrait of a young girl caught between two distinctly different but powerful influences — that of the chaste Saint Rosalia and the pagan Dionysus.

Oliver OnionsIn general, I’d say, it’s in the longer stories, where Onions can spend time with his characters and build up the strangenesses and subtleties, that he’s more successful, whether there are ghosts, ghostly influences, or no supernatural goings-on at all. The one exception to this longer-the-better rule is “The Real People”, an attempt to turn the artistic quandary of “The Beckoning Fair One” to comic ends, as a popular but uninspired writer creates a seemingly “living” character for once, and has her first take over his novel, then his real life. Apart from the humour being a little underwhelming, this long tale didn’t work for me because the supposedly “living” character (an initially meek and lowly shop-girl who starts social climbing) seems as clichéd as the protagonist’s other literary creations.

There are few conventional ghost stories, here, then. The best, and most ghostly, is “The Beckoning Fair One”, but there are plenty of good tales situated at what Onions calls “the ultra-violet and the infra-red of the ghostly spectrum”, where the haunting is as much metaphoric as actual: “The Honey in the Wall”, “The Painted Face”, “The Rope in the Rafters”, and “Resurrection in Bronze” being my favourites.