Monday, June 24, 2013

Doctor vs Doctor

Recently, courtesy of the Baron's library card, I've been watching old episodes of Dr Who - the Doctor from the sixties and seventies and eighties, I mean, when the Doctor was old, he wore impressive flowing capes and scarfs instead of leather jackets, sex and romance was absolutely inconceivable, and the show was actually good. I had a great time starting off with the Jon Pertwee Doctor's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Scenario: the Doctor and Sarah Jane-Smith find themselves in the middle of London that appears to be completely devoid of people. "No cars, no pedestrians, no police, nothing!" cries Sarah. "Maybe it's Sunday. London always closes on a Sunday" says the Doctor conciliatorily. Later they try to call the police on a public phone, which doesn't work, maybe because it's been vandalised. "Nothing wrong with vandals", says the Doctor, "They're very nice people".

All this niceness was highly amusing; by the time a dinosaur appears - halfway through the first episode, demolishing a city building - I was actually cheering. There were the good old boys from UNIT HQ, of course, with their bullets that never worked, trying to fell a dinosaur; and the villain, with clipped nasal tones and sinister glasses (I'm not sure how but they really are sinister glasses), operating in some secret London laboratory. In, I suppose, the fourth episode Sarah gets abducted onto a futuristic spaceship full of colonists fleeing an ecologically-devastated earth - it's actually a fake spaceship, and the colonists have been brainwashed, in a clever 1970s twist that recalls various J G Ballard plots - and is sent to the 'Reminder Room' for 're-education' so she can be part of this grand ecological repopulation scheme as well. (I liked this bit very much: for one thing, it's refreshing to see a science fiction plot in which ecological paranoia is actually viewed as suspect. For another  thing, people always used to say about Doctor Who that 'the sets wobble'; well, here was an early Doctor Who plot in which the drama actually depended on the characters not noticing that the sets wobbled. No need for us to willingly suspend our disbelief when the actors do it for you.) And yes, it really does all end with the Doctor reversing the polarities of something or other because science.

Quickly, Doctor, reverse the polarities of this cup of tea before it's too late!

Hard Science Fiction adherents might object to the somewhat cavalier way that the old BBC show adopted scientific terminology, but it never bothered me as a kid: it's just science fiction with an emphasis on the fiction. In the other show I watched - The Android Invasion ('Invasion', along with 'Fatal' and 'Deadly' and 'Death' and 'Curse' and 'Evil' was always one of the Doctor Who team's favourite words) - there's a scene where Sarah has to free the Doctor from a post he's been tied up to so they can escape a 'matter dissolving bomb'. She can't cut through the cords with a knife, and the Doctor says 'The sonic screwdriver! Quick! Set it to Beta Omega!'  'Science as magic' appeared in those episodes of the new Doctor Who that I watched too, of course, though as usual the old series did it better: when the Doctor begins gallivanting around the universe with Rose Tyler, he gives her a mobile phone that, magically, allows her to call back home whenever she feels like it, no matter how far back or forward in time she is, or was, or will be, and no matter how far away earth is, or will be, or was.  You'd never get this sort of thing in the old Doctor: science may have been powerful, but the adventure relied upon characters being thrown onto their own resources, marooned in incredibly remote locations, and isolated from their family, their country, their world, and sometimes even their universe. The old Doctor Who show trusted its characters to be resourceful and independent and courageous in a way that the new Doctor Who show doesn't: that's progress - the new is less than the old.

Aside from all this, what really stands out about the old show is the technology, in all its rustic charm. No more are the computers and televisions and radios that I grew up with in the 80s new. They wobble, they blur with static, their knobs are too big or too small, there are no remote controllers, in short they don't impress anymore with their bizarre otherworldly gleam. The future is certainly not futuristic; whenever the BBC producers wanted to convey an image of the earth in, say, 100 or 1000 years from now they either seemed to go for the 'apocalyptic wasteland' look (empty desert, dotted here and there with grimy scowling men, probably with Yorkshire accents, going about in rags), or the ' claustrophobic spaceship' look (cream-grey walls, the occasional sets of flashing lights, electronic doors that slide open or shut on command for the characters).

In Android Invasion the Doctor and Sarah travel back to the earth on a rocket, and back on earth there's a whole impressive room for communication purposes with the rocket - that is, it's meant to look impressive but the computers just look incredibly dated, with probably less data space than my Dad's old Commodore 64. The Androids themselves are incredibly hokey - occasionally their faces spring open to reveal a metal plate with a few lights on it; when they don't have faces they're given suits to look like beekeepers, and are able to fire bullets out of their fingers. Invasion of the Dinosaurs ends in an underground bomb shelter of the sort that were constructed by the British government during the Cold War - incredibly extensive spaces complete with deep frying vats and a labyrinthine series of rooms for meeting up (or, in the case of this show, constructing a time warp machine in order to bring a series of dinosaurs into central London to terrify the populace to create a devastating distraction in order to continue on to the final stages of their diabolical plot which I'll get around to in just a moment when I have a glass of water). They do this using a nuclear reactor, which of course was down in the bomb shelter as well. Maybe the Doctor's fashion sense - capes, mile-long scarves, question-mark collars - was meant to anticipate a kind of future trend amongst his own people, the Time Lords, but then again his fellow Time Lords all had terrible taste in clothes, save, perhaps, The Master. Nothing dates quite so quickly as science fiction, something which Michael Moorcock - one of the shrewdest of Dr Who's fans - realises in his novels, which involve intercontinental, time-travelling, dimension-hopping characters moving through dimensions, places, and times that all seem to have been envisaged in other dimensions, places, or times - futures as imagined by the past, pasts as imagined by the future.

It's all very lovely, this look at the past Doctor Who and his journeys into a future that never was.  In just about every scene there's something that makes you sit up and remember how things were. Communications are by intercom, public telephone, landlines, not mobiles or computers. (Even when the aliens talk to their fellow conspirators via television it feels like an intercom conversation with images). The computers don't even seem to have keyboards; there are just large fiddly knobs on the right hand side. The TARDIS itself is an exceedingly eccentric device for travelling - no steering wheel at all, just a gigantic octagonal computer in the middle. Just watching the show makes me daydream now about the world I grew up in, where remote controls didn't even exist, and televisions really did have impressive arrays of knobs and switches and notches on them. I thought about the achingly beautiful, comforting televisions of the past - sturdy, squat little boxes, standing on legs in the corner of the room, pleasantly rounded around the sides, in warm brown and ochre colours - and compared them with the sleek, flat, gigantic, digital, plasma televisions of the present. Is it any wonder that the new, disappointing Doctor Who has been made for such an obviously inferior medium?

Take back the future, I want to go back.


Steve said...

Hmmm. I've probably told you all this before, but anyhow.

I watched it a bit as a kid in the 1960's (actually read a novelisation or two from the library) but could not maintain interest in it when I became a teenager, particularly with actors like Pertwee (I just could never stand his fey manner) and, as you point out, I could not handle the completely silly magical use of science when I got a bit older.

Many people have recognized that the latest series has started using the sonic screw driver purely as a magic wand, and aren't happy about it.

My view has always been that it was, right up to its return in the 2000's, basically, just science fiction for kids; and the success of the new series under Russell T Davies was that it often felt more adult emotionally. (And, perhaps, a little bit more science-y than it used to be. That might be because science has moved on to accept the multiverse as quite possibly true, and those ideas can help time travel stories.)

TimT said...

I always felt right at home with the science-as-magic. The believability always depended at least as much on the actors, the script, and the delivery as any quasi-explanation you could whack on what happened. Hence lines like 'quick, set it to Beta Omega!' Of *course*, why didn't I think of it before....

In the Tom Baker years I think there was a bit of a move towards adult entertainment - you know, pairing the Doctor up with another Gallifreyan like Romana, or even Leela - she didn't know much about the science, but damn she was good at the hunting, much better than the Doctor.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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