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…

Hawkwind 1970-1975

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of Time2013 is a bit of a year for long-awaited reissues. First off, in March (in the UK, anyway — the US got it earlier), there was the Blue Öyster Cult’s Columbia Albums Collection, a box set that polished off the band’s back catalogue, digitally remastered and extra’d up with rarities and archive live material, meaning I could finally replace my vinyl rip of Imaginos. (Ditto for 1975’s double live album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, whose opening riff to its second track made me take up the guitar.) And this September will hopefully see the last classic-era Doctor Who finally make it to DVD: Terror of the Zygons, also from 1975. (It feels I’ve been waiting for that one since 1975.) And last month Atomhenge brought out a hard-fought-for deluxe remaster of Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time… Also from 1975. It’s the kind of thing to make me want to look back at the massive output of one of my favourite bands and try to make sense of it. And, at over forty years of mostly continuous studio albums, live albums and touring, it’s not going to be done in one Mewsings post. So, for now, Hawkwind’s first major musical era: from their self-titled debut in 1970 to 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time.

Hawkwind on Stage

A note on the sleeve of their first album outlined the band’s initial intentions:

“We started out trying to freak people (trippers), now we are trying to levitate their minds, in a nice way, without acid, with ultimately a complete audio-visual thing. Using a complex of electronics, lights and environmental experiences.”

Hawkwind - HawkwindI like that “in a nice way”. Because there’s nothing nice about Hawkwind’s debut. Aside from two songs that are basically Dave Brock busking numbers Hawkwinded up (both of them about breaking out of a complacent worldview to see life for the potentially miserable thing — “it may bring war”, “the tears you’ve shed” — it is), the rest of the album is a series of frankly terrifying instrumentals, full of moans, groans, echoes and disorientatingly weird sounds. Two of them are called “Paranoia (Part 1)” and “Paranoia (Part 2)”, for Heaven’s sake. (And the theme of mental illness keeps popping up in songs of this era, from the robotised weirdness of the next album’s “Adjust Me”, to its successor’s “Brainstorm”, a B-side called “Brainbox Pollution”, and Warrior‘s “The Demented Man”. If Hawkwind really were trying to sell the psychedelic experience, they weren’t putting the best face on it.)

Hawkwind - X In Search of SpaceThe band needed something better than paranoia and despair if they wanted to present their audience with a truly immersive experience. Fortunately, “oral space-age poet” Robert Calvert had the answer. He decided the band needed a mythology, or at least a viable stash of imagery and story that could take the place of their bleak inward mental journeys of doubt, disintegration and “a world of emptiness”. The answer was science fiction. Michael Moorcock was already associated with the band. (His first impression: “They seemed like barbarians who’d got hold of a load of electrical gear.”) He provided some poetry, as did Calvert. Calvert also penned the “Hawklog”, a booklet included with the band’s second album, X In Search of Space, which told of how the technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind arrived on Earth only to be transformed into a two dimensional black platter, indistinguishable in size, shape and function from what you Earth people call a vinyl LP. Hawkwind were now a — if not the — Space Rock band, and suddenly they had a universe of dystopian nightmares to take the place of their previously merely psychotic ones.

Hawkwind - Doremi Fasol LatidoThe message remained bleak: “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago” and “Time We Left This World Today” are just two SF-tinged tales of pessimistic environmentalism. “The Watcher” was looking in on us, had found us wanting, and promised that “The last thing you will feel is fear” before avarice destroys our sphere. The tales of psychic disintegration took on a science fictional tone — “Space is Deep” taking its cue from the opening passages to Moorcock’s 1969 novel The Black Corridor, about a man getting cabin fever in the utter nullity of deep space (and which was itself read out to freaky-spacey trip-music at concerts); meanwhile “Master of the Universe” hints at how hitting the borders of madness might at least help you break out of the complacent worldview attacked in the first album (“If you call this living I must be blind”). There were bursts of optimism: in the sheer vitality of Bob Calvert’s lyrics (and their delivery) in his paean to the spaceward urge, “Born to Go”; in the defiantly solipsistic hedonism of his “Orgone Accumulator”; or in the gleeful destructiveness of his “Urban Guerrilla”; also in the rather more gentle optimism of Nik Turner’s SF-tinged flower-power dreams like “Children of the Sun” and “D-Rider”. Even Dave Brock’s shamanic “Assault & Battery/The Golden Void”, though it may make him “Lose my body, lose my mind”, at least has a message of hope:

Lives of great men all remind us
we may make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time

(Even if it is nicked from Longfellow’s “Psalm Of Life“.)

Hawkwind enlightenment, it seems, is enlightenment through psychosis. As Brock says in “You’d Better Believe It”:

The gentle madness touched my hand
Now I’m just a cosmic man

Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain GrillOne thing that’s notable about Hawkwind’s output in these five years — particularly when compared to the next five, which is dominated by the fierce Icarus-like individualism of Robert Calvert’s manic side — is how much the lyrics are about “we” and “us”: “Deep in our minds”, “we shall be as one”, “So that we might learn to see/The foolishness that lives in us”. Consciously tribal, Hawkwind were seeking to create a communal experience. Their trance-inducing guitar grunge and join-in chanted choruses were trying to lift everyone to the same plane — if not through the previously promised levitation, maybe through a blast of sci-fi rocket power.

Hawkwind - Space RitualThey achieved their goal of presenting the “complete audio-visual thing” in their Space Ritual tour, whose double live album (1973) is the quintessence of this era’s recorded output. By this point they weren’t just a band of musicians. They had their poets (Moorcock and Calvert), their artists (Barney Bubbles), their light show (Liquid Len), their dancers (Miss Stacia). They had their tribe. They were the Technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind, and had achieved lift-off.

At the end of their confusingly-titled 1999 Party album (recorded live in 1974, released in 1997), someone says: “You have been experiencing the imagination of Hawkwind.” A shared imaginative experience. As it says in their first recorded song, “Hurry on Sundown”:

Look into your mind’s eye, see what you can see
There’s hundreds of people like you and me

Or in the later “Brainbox Pollution”:

Take my hand, I’ll lead you on
To learn so far, my dream’s your own

Hawkwind had shared their dream. Oh, and they also released a silly one-hit wonder single called “Silver Machine”.

Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

That Alien Aesthetic

The latest Doctor Who DVD release, The Sensorites, has got me thinking about my eccentric Doctor Who buying habits. I get all the Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton DVDs on principle, but pick and choose from the William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee stories, perhaps because I like the comic Doctors better than the cranky ones. I’ve only just realised, though, that the First Doctor stories I buy are always the science fiction ones, never the historicals. To me, those early stories are usually too slow-paced to succeed as dramas, so my enjoyment of them has to come from their atmosphere. And when it comes to atmosphere, the old TV shows couldn’t help doing minimalist sci-fi better than they did history.

I love the aesthetic of old sci-fi (the sort of thing that begs to be called sci-fi, rather than SF). Despite Coleridge’s most famous remark on the subject, I think there are two ways to make fantasy work. One is, indeed, through the suspension of disbelief, but the other is what I might call suspension by disbelief — by which I mean the sort of thing that kicks in when you’re presented with something so strange it doesn’t matter whether it’s convincing or not, it conquers by aesthetics alone. Limited by budget and technology as they were, the old Doctor Whos, to be successful, had to rely on artistry as much as craftsmanship. A single fault (a sticking-out zip or a wobbly mask) will puncture the “convince them it’s real” suspension-of-disbelief approach, but the alternative, “convince them it’s alien“, works top-down, not by the evidence of the senses, but through the sense of wonder. Doctor Who’s early aliens work by being so weird you don’t so much believe in them, as bask in their strangeness.

"Does he mean me?"

It’s impossible to see the Daleks in this way nowadays, due to overfamiliarity, but their extremely unconventional, not-a-man-in-a-suit design goes to the heart of it. The Dalek design looks like a very alien solution to the problem of how to survive in an overly radioactive environment (encase yourself in a life-support machine and stay indoors, after which you’re bound to get a bit cabin feverish and want to conquer the universe). A more obvious example is the Alice in Wonderland sensibility of The Web Planet, with its stagey, almost balletic make-believe world of man-sized moths and giant ants, as well as those crawling things that were a cross between The Magic Roundabout‘s Dougal and a hairbrush. It would take a billion dollar budget to convince you the Web Planet was real, and perhaps another billion to make sure you didn’t laugh, so why not just convince you it’s so strange it’s worth doing away with your disbelief altogether? With this approach, it’s the surprising details that convince, not the realistic ones, so the Sensorites’ circular feet — the first detail of theirs you see, after that spooky scene where one peeks into the spaceship from the outside — as much as their long, wispy-bearded, old-man faces, that goes towards making you believe in these alien creatures.

Most of all, I love the original Cybermen, from William Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet. I would probably have first seen them on the wonderfully Art Nouveau-ish cover (by Chris Achilleos) to the Target novelisation, where their peculiarly feminine looks make them all the more spooky, like futuristic mummies in white bandages. Watching them in action (via YouTube, though I long for them on DVD), the awkwardness of their design only makes them all the more alien. Those huge chest units they lumber around with are exactly the sort of thing a Cyberman would design — all function, no ergonomics — as are the chillingly minimal childlike doodles of their faces. In fact, watching them waddle about with all that front-loaded weight, and their head-mounted guns, I can’t help feeling they look like robotised pregnant women in beehive hairdos, which makes their ultra-modernist emotionlessness all the more scary. And a world apart from the tramping little-boy militarism of their latest incarnation. In this way, it’s the rough edges, the feeling of those early Cybermen’s make-do approach to self-design, that convinces.

Perhaps this is why William Hartnell’s alien stories were always set away from contemporary Earth. Except for the Daleks (who had already invaded everyday life by the time they hit the Earth on TV), the First Doctor’s encounters with alien life took place on other planets, or on spaceships, or in the future, and I’m sure it was only this happening-in-another-place feel that made the aliens work. Were a Menoptera or a Sensorite to appear in contemporary London — except for Carnaby Street, where it might get invited to a Love-in — it would undoubtedly wither before the glare of reality. But out in space, where no-one can hear you say “It’s got a zip up the back!”, they’re in their own weird, modernist, minimalist, unnatural environment, where it’s not belief, but sheer strangeness, that wins the day.