Choosing the wrong Doctor Who
Once again my fellow New Zealanders have disappointed me. In a poll run by the Herald, they have chosen Jon Pertwee as their favourite of the eleven actors who have played Doctor Who. Pertwee may have been a fine actor, but it seems to me that he had little understanding of the ethos and aesthetics that have made Doctor Who such an important cultural artefact.
Doctor Who could only have been created in postwar Britain. Exhausted by two World Wars, separated from much of its empire, and usurped as a political and economic power by the United States and the Soviet Union, mid-century Britain was a society attempting to adjust to altered circumstances. The hyper-jingoism which had characterised Victorian and early twentieth century popular culture in Britain - the 'muscular Christianity' of Tom Brown's Schooldays, or the mystified imperialism of Kipling, or the good-natured xenophobia of Billy Bunter - seemed suddenly to be both absurd and dangerous.
Born in Gallifrey, the planet of mandarin Timelords, and destined to roam the universe, Doctor Who was a rarified but erratic being, a sort of displaced and impoverished but nonetheless charming aristocrat. His TARDIS, with its telephone box facade and inefficient machinery, mocked the scientific versilimitude that American science fiction writers were fond of creating for their heroes. In adventure after adventure, the Doctor won victories over evil through a combination of chance, cunning, and the sort of eccentric, aleatory thinking that is usually the province of visionary artists.
At the same time that the BBC was filming Doctor Who in cramped and chilly warehouses, California's dream factories were turning out television series like Star Trek, which projected the American Imperium into the distant future and the distant universe. Where the Doctor was anarchic artist, who assisted earthly creatures on his own terms, Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was a servant of the American military-industrial complex, a twenty-first century James Cook who loyally reported and interpreted his geographical and ethnographic discoveries to his military and political masters. Where Doctor Who's absurd vehicle, sonic screwdrivers and blundering journeys through time mocked the pretensions of postwar science to exactitude and objectivity, Captain Kirk and his crewmates gave tedious lectures that seemed intended to make the Starship Enterprise seem a logical outgrowth of America's space and weapons programmes.
Jon Pertwee was replaced as Doctor by Tom Baker, a man who won a massive new following for the series. With his Bohemian trenchcoat and scarf, his habit of winning over apparently sinister aliens by offering them jelly babies, his contempt for rules and regulations, and his penchant for poetic monologues about the perversity of human ambition, Baker rescued Doctor Who from Pertwee's innovations.
For decades, Tom Baker tended to come out on top when fans of the programme were asked to name their favourite Doctor. What does the triumph of Pertwee's violent, authoritarian, reactionary Doctor Who in this new poll tell us about the mindset of Kiwis in 2013?
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]