Saturday, August 17, 2013

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.
Although Doctor Who was ostensibly a science fiction series, it took its real inspiration from the past. The makers of the programme looked back to the centuries before the industrialisation of Britain, when magic and science marched together. Doctor Who's ancestor is not Darwin or Edison but John Dee, the Elizabethan sage who combined astronomy with necromancy, and cast a magical spell against the Spanish armada. The classic episodes of Doctor Who, with their abrupt yet strangely logical transitions from one place or era to another, recall Shakespeare's late romances, where the medieval poet John Gower could be transported through time to the Renaissance, and an Italian duke could be deposited suddenly on a tropical isle.
Plays like The Tempest and Pericles were performed  at the Blackfriars theatre, an indoor space fitted out with twisting pipes and hidden levers that enabled Shakespeare to fill the stage with steam or foam, and thereby simulate a shipwreck or a fire or a magical rite. Blackfriars was reborn in the London warehouses that were the backdrop to so many of Doctor Who's classic episodes.

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 played Doctor Who from 1970 and 1974, years in which Britain's postwar malaise hardened into a crisis. Mass strikes shut down the economy and brought down Ted Heath's Tory government, students occupied universities and declared their solidarity with the revolutionaries of Vietnam, Enoch Powell and a revived fascist movement campaigned against 'coloured' immigration from the Caribbean and Pakistan, and senior members of the military and Mi5 began to make plans for a coup against the Labour government that had replaced Heath.
It was in this context of social disorder and right-wing reaction that Pertwee chose to reinvent Doctor Who as a patrician, wealthy, institutionalised figure who respected the British state, worshipped science, and both hated and feared aliens. Instead of acting as a freelance friend of humanity, Pertwee was attached to Unified Intelligence Taskforce, or UNIT, a secret arm of the British state run by the strutting, moustachioed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and dedicated to countering the threat that extraterrestrial invaders posed to dear old Blighty. With the help of UNIT Pertwee established his own laboratory, where he worked on devices that would defend the British state and slaughter dangerous aliens. Pertwee's Doctor was a martial arts enthusiast, who seemed to relish knocking out anybody who annoyed him. Pertwee also gave the Doctor a plummy voice and a passion for sports cars.

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]



14 Comments:

Anonymous khaosworks said...

Fans of Star Trek will know that Gene Roddenberry's initial pitch was a "Wagon Train To The Stars". Most kids today, even if they know this, probably don't remember that Wagon Train was actually a TV show, set in the Old West. So when we look at Star Trek, and all the liberal baggage that has built up around the show, how it was so progressive in showing an integrated crew, in dealing with social issues of prejudice and racism head on, and of course that infamous "not-a-kiss" between Kirk and Uhura, we've got to remember that, at its core, Star Trek is simply a transplanted Western.

In that light, several things become apparent, especially the Turnerian view of the universe. The galaxy is the new frontier, beckoning the brave explorers on. We have colonists on far flung worlds, facing new dangers, and new life forms to deal with. We have Kirk and crew as the new marshalls, bringing law to the lawless, and imparting lessons of tolerance, and peace and goodwill to the natives, and welcoming them into the brotherhood of a galactic Federation of Planets.

But let's look closer at what the Federation really is all about. It's not about diversity, it's not about tolerance, it's not a celebration of the things that make us unique or individual. It's about assimilation, about homogeneity, about forcing everyone to a particular political or social culture - even if it is, in their view, a "good" one. The comparison is so much clearer when it comes to The Original Series, of course.

Sulu, Uhura, Spock, the three examples touted as being part of Trek's multicultural nature. We don't get many hints of their individual cultures affecting who and what they are. Sulu is culturally indistinguishable from any other crewman. Aside from a couple of words of Swahili in "The Man Trap" (and aside from a couple of "Nubian princess" references), Uhura's ethnic identity is never mentioned.

The silence about their identity is deafening. Obviously, there is a defense - what kind of stories can you tell with Sulu's Japanese heritage, or Uhura's African one, say. But you don't really have to make it all apparent. If they really wanted to celebrate multicultralism, there are all sorts of subtle ways to do it. Make Sulu's passion one for samurai culture, not fencing, for example. Or have Uhura dress in traditional African dress off-duty.

The counter argument to this is, well, why should Sulu and Uhura be identified by their ethno-racial ancestry? Aren't they free to form their own identities outside of what their ancestors did? That's a fair question, and my examples are a little simplistic in what the show could have shown. But the disturbing vision of this 23rd century future is one where everybody's the same - and while there may be nothing wrong with that vision from some points of view, that is not the same as being multicultural, or pluralistic. Don't get me started on Scotty, who's a racial stereotype.

12:42 pm  
Blogger HORansome said...

Ahem!

"It was in this context of social disorder and right-wing reaction that Pertwee chose to reinvent Doctor Who as a patrician, wealthy, institutionalised figure who respected the British state, worshipped science, and both hated and feared aliens. Instead acting a freelance friend of humanity, Pertwee was attached to Unified Intelligence Taskforce, or UNIT, a secret arm of the British state run by the strutting, moustachioed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and dedicated to countering the threat that extraterrestrial invaders posed to dear old Blighty. With the help of UNIT Pertwee established his own laboratory, where he worked on devices that would defend the British state and slaughter dangerous aliens. Pertwee's Doctor was a martial arts enthusiast, who seemed to relish knocking out anybody who annoyed him. Pertwee also gave the Doctor a plummy voice and a passion for sports cars."

That's a fairly radical reading of the Third Doctor and his stories, I must say (one that was common in the late Nighties and early part of the 20th Century, I will admit), but one that doesn't actually fit the stories. For example, in Pertwee's first season of "Doctor Who" he tried to prevent the genocide of an ancient Earth race by UNIT, ("Doctor Who and the Silurians) brokers peace between the misunderstood Martians and a fascist arm of the British Militrary ("Ambassadors of Death") and tries to redeem a Fascist alternative version of Britain ("Inferno"). In subsequent seasons he promotes tolerance of difference ("The Mutants"), is revealed to be a fan of Buddhism ("Planet of the Spiders") and an ecologist ("The Green Death"). Sure, Pertwee was a fan of sports cars and used "Doctor Who" as a vehicle (excuse the pun) to engage in his favourite pursuit (excuse the second pun) but the Third Doctor was no fan of authority. Indeed, in most stories of the Earth-based he is acting against the State and for the oppressed and the misunderstood. A lot of the pathos in the show at that point was the Doctor and the Brigadier being at loggerheads as to how to solve a problem, with the Brig wanting a military solution and the Doctor arguing for pacifist solutions.

(The Doctor's Venusian akkido was used to stun enemies as a last resort).

3:11 pm  
Blogger HORansome said...

I should also like to point out that the only reason why the Doctor ends up working with UNIT is because he is stranded on Earth and is using UNIT's access to technology to fix his TARDIS so he can get back to wandering the universe.

3:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a cowardly attack on a distinguished man who is NO LONGER HERE TO DEFEND HIMSELF

disgraceful

7:02 pm  
Anonymous jon pertwee tory favourite said...

Jon Pertwee is the most right-wing Doctor, beloved by 11 per cent of Tories and 13 per cent of UKIP voters, and 0 per cent of Lib Dems.

http://www.newstatesman.com/broadcast/2013/06/lib-dems-hate-jon-pertwee-and-ukip-wants-straight-doctor-most

7:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Dee the quintessential black magician who formed a partnership with Edward Kelly known as the greatest partnership in Occult history.

John Dee had been queen elizabeths black magician before going off with Kelly on a journey to find out the hidden secrets of the universe on a journey took him to the highest point in europe and nearly got him killed by Rudolph 2nd. On a journey that ultimately wrecked both their lives as they went so deep into Occultism they unearthed a hidden language from the time of the book of enoch which is said to be understood backwards ruling out any possibility of Dee making this language up himself, and spent his life ruinning dangerous errands for angels that he worried were demons in disguise but ran those errands anyway as he was willing to give his immortal soul to unlock the codes the angels were giving him. One of the errands was to go to Rome and tell Rudolph the 2nd, the most powerful man on the planet at this time, that he was an evil man possessed by demons.
The angels told Dee that he and Kelly had to wife swap. Kelly later ran off after believing he was getting to deep into the underworld were he soon got killed by Rudolph. Dee was left as the step father of Kellies child

A very dark and bizarre video, but well worth watching

7:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://youre-standing-on-my-scarf.tumblr.com/page/3

6:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt Hill is the worst Dr
http://theidiotboxx.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/what-is-wrong-with-doctor-who/

6:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I can see the points here: but I watched only the first run of Star Trek and I loved it! I suppose I was in a different "space" then. In fact I was studying engineering as well as working as a Lineman.

I suppose I just wanted to blob out and enjoy it.

I sensed it was "American propaganda" but so was probably along series called "The Fugitive" I enjoyed and I even liked "Dallas" mainly because of the nice women in it!

But there were some more "quality" things then also including "Taxi", and horror films presented by Bradbury or Hitchcock and a series of such things as Eisenstein's film etc

But I have seen a few Dr. Whos and can't really watch them.

Pertwee I really only recall from "The Navy Lark" on Radio in the 50s.

Those were the days, no TV, no calculators, no computers, three radio stations: much fewer adverts. Less crap overall.

9:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Jack Ross and the late poet Alan Brunton are or were keen on Dee and others of his ilk.

Newton, as well as developing calculus etc spent a lot of time in the area of Astrology, Alchemy and other strange things...

Dee is described by the way as "an Imperialist" amongst other things...

9:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dee brought fire down from the sky.

8:31 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Matthew,

you make some very fair points - and expose my comparative ignorance of Doctor Who history! I suppose I always felt, even as a kid, that Pertwee wasn't quite the right chap for the show - he seemed like a wannabe James Bond to me! And his popularity amongst Tories and UKIP supporters, as revealed in the poll linked to above, is quite suggestive...

4:05 pm  
Blogger HORansome said...

What ho!

There's been some fan speculation about why the Third Doctor is so popular with the Tories and UKIP folk, and one theory which has been advanced is that throughout the early Nineties (before VHS reissues where popular) it was just common wisdom that the Pertwee Doctor was sympathetic to the Establishment (probably because of the James Bond analogy: Pertwee liked stunts and fast cars and the producers let him have his way in that regard). As such, a lot of people who haven't revisited the show still think of Pertwee as an Establishment Doctor and thus, if someone is kind of Right-of-Centre and is asked to rank Doctors, Pertwee/the Third will come up on top.

Which just goes to show that common wisdom is problematic.

For my money, McCoy was the most interesting subversive Doctor, and not just because of his previous acting life as a member of Ken Campbell's Roadshow. The McCoy era was a quite deliberate reaction to Thatcher, some of it not even particularly disguised ("The Happiness Patrol"). I always hated Peter Davidson's Doctor because he was so bland and whilst I like a lot of individual seasons of Baker, his run is so long and so inconsistent in tone and style, that I can't bring myself to favourite him.

4:15 pm  
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2:21 am  

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