Signs of the Times

Ian Jones on Doctor Who, popular culture and the politics of science

First published July 2000

The start of Doctor Who in November 1963 did not mark some grand turning point in the history of British television. It was born out of a time when symbols and resonances of the past, specifically of the late ’50s (already being seen as some golden period that was, thanks to the US Army taking Elvis and the deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, now long gone) were the dominant force in politics and popular culture. At the same time, those strange new programmes that took issue with the government and dared to lampoon the Prime Minister (That Was The Week That Was) or weird kinds of popular music performed by new singers and musicians that wrote their own songs (most pertinently The Beatles) seemed to engender a kind of response that is familiar when you’re facing anything believed to be new, progressive or offensive: to immediately seek other forms of culture that reassure, familiarize, comfort. Doctor Who, as a cheap and throwaway 25 minutes of TV every week, bought into this atmosphere by reworking traditional myths of the science fiction/fantasy genre which themselves dated from that same period in the ’50s. And so for the first few years of its existence Doctor Who‘s job was to deliberately not reflect the 1960s; it was in no way “of its time”; and the adventures that were set on Earth were always either in the future or way back in the past.

The first stubborn gatecrashing of reality – the spectacular cultural explosion in music, film and TV of the mid-late 1960s – into the show was a typically terrible ham-fisted one, in the story “The Chase” (1965). Here the Doctor and his three companions (clearly none of whom are below the age of 30) contrive to tune in, via some strange technical whatchamacallit device, to what appears to be a performance of Ticket to Ride by The Beatles (a pre-recorded film for the BBC’s Top of the Pops), then proceeding to dance in a ghastly uncoordinated British way. Top of the Pops and Doctor Who – two programmes colliding from either end of popular culture, the former a key development in the Beeb’s consolidation as the dominant public service broadcaster and cultural barometer of the world, the latter still, as this stage in its existence, as far removed from reality in all senses of the word as was possible.

It was changes in personnel behind the scenes – most presciently the departure of original producer Verity Lambert – which helped with the gradual evolution of the show towards a more credible and worthwhile relationship with the society and culture it was being written, filmed and transmitted in. In spring 1966 a story was made that saw the TARDIS arriving in present-day London for the first time. “The War Machines” typifies all the problems the makers of Doctor Who had to now acknowledge after keeping their creation away from contemporary Earth for so long. The story finds the Doctor swanning about central London very much as if a member of the √©lite establishment, aloof and patronizing towards those representations of the political and social condition of 1966 London he comes face to face with (workers, teenagers, the middle classes). And significantly, in being so detached from the popular culture he is surrounded by, the Doctor ultimately ends up falling in nicely with this high culture of the establishment: aristocratic military toffs, scientific boffins and so on. Basically, when it comes down to it, the Doctor isn’t, can’t be and doesn’t even want to be a part of popular culture.

Crucial too is that whole story is actually set around the key technological emblem of the ’60s: the Post Office Tower, an icon of the 1964 – 70 Labour Government and its efforts to realize the potential of harnessing scientific advancement with political and social empowerment, pluralism and equality. Equally symbolic of the time was the creation of the first Ministry of Technology, headed by Tony Benn, responsible for advancing the twin causes of engineering and socialism; the Post Office Tower was the ultimate representation of this: aesthetically confident, technologically ultramodern, and built for and by the people of Britain (who could, unlike now, visit the capital’s tallest building and sip tea in its revolving restaurant – neither of which were possible once the Tower was privatized).

So it’s telling that here was the Tower cropping up in Doctor Who, in the same story that also recreates somewhat tokenistically the London scene of the mid ’60s (there’s even a visit to an late-night club). Something of a one-off, and easily the best story of the entire period with Hartnell playing the Doctor, “The War Machines” was a brave effort to comment on and reflect the changes in real life rather than showing pictures of alien races and faraway planets every Saturday evening. It’s ironic then that this story was so hated by Hartnell, and that two adventures later he had left the series.

It quickly became evident, however, that unlike the aspirations of the Labour Government, as far as the producers of Doctor Who were concerned technology did not really equal progressivism at all. “The War Machines” had been based around a malevolent consciousness harnessing the power of engineering and science to try to swamp London with the eponymous mechanoids. This theme of the misuse and threat of science became steadily more emphatic through the latter part of the ’60s when Patrick Troughton took over in the title role; historical adventures – stories where the TARDIS conveniently turned up at a crucial moment in world history – were stopped, while three more visits were made to contemporary London (taking in Heathrow airport, the Underground, plus plenty more bamboozling professors). Some evidence of late-’60s design styles sneaked into the last Troughton story “The War Games”, with its pop-art pastiche sets and leather-wearing thugs (though The Avengers had done this at least five years earlier); but come the early 1970s and the advent of Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, topicality and realism were suddenly right at the heart of the programme’s agenda.

This period, 1970 – 74, corresponded exactly with Edward Heath’s Tory Government, four extremely disruptive and unsettled years of industrial unrest, constitutional reform, economic disaster and a near national strike. Above all, faith and trust in scientific progress was completely undermined and rejected. At the same time, striding across the shires of England in glorious BBC Colour, Pertwee and his pals at UNIT seemed to have their hands full seeing off countless corrupted scientists and sorting out myriad technological schemes that had gone disastrously wrong. A cascade of acronyms and codified jargon tumbled across the screen during this period – T.O.M.T.I.T., the Keller Machine, Stahlman’s Gas, Miniscopes, B.O.S.S., Project Golden Age – while there always seemed to be a world peace conference or environmental summit hanging in the balance.

Certain stories were written as direct echoes of key political events, the 1971/2 debate over entry into the EEC and the 1974 miners strike (which brought down the Heath Government) coming in for bizarre reinterpretations both set on the alien feudal world of Peladon. But with the majority of Pertwee’s adventures set in present day England, and based around himself as a representative of positive, decent science, battling exponents of bad science over and over and over again, tedium quickly set in. Variation in plot and setting was forfeited for endless visits to what looked eerily like the same factory/science complex/power plant; the same villain even appeared in five consecutive stories.

The rest of the 1970s witnessed a Labour Government back in power and another new actor, Tom Baker, taking over as the Doctor. The show developed its own style and agenda during this time, totally removed from whatever was happening in the respective areas of popular culture and politics. Adventures set in contemporary times were more or less phased out; the tensions of late ’70s Britain, with a global recession eroding much of the post-war affluence and standards of living which had nurtured the confidence of the ’60s, were not ripe for dramatic treatment and satire on teatime TV.

Then a new producer took over in 1979: John Nathan-Turner, whose period in charge of Doctor Who corresponded almost exactly with that of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. The mood of those times, the long unravelling of post-war ideas about full employment, Government intervention, public ownership and a controlled economy, seemed to impact upon Doctor Who in a number of profound ways. For example, Thatcher was a scientist – and suddenly the Doctor was a serious scientist again as well, an enterprising, competitive character distinctly lacking in those irrational, eccentric and extrovert characteristics he had displayed through the ’70s. A violent makeover in the programme’s look, style and content – a new title sequence and theme music, a clear step-up in the amount being spent on sets and special effects – saw the programme also subconsciously reflecting the emergent influence of a new style and fashion culture (the first Nathan-Turner adventure, “The Leisure Hive”, was transmitted three months after The Face magazine was launched).

Perversely, out of all the different images Doctor Who has had across the years, the glossy, over-bright, sparkly extended fashion parade that was the early 1980s is the one that now seems the most dated, simply because it remains the period where the series went furthest out of its way to mirror the appearance of the society it was being manufactured in. Peter Davison as the Doctor now seems to stand as the ultimate distillation of the would-be entrepreneur and patriotic nationalist, parading around time and space dressed as an 1800s England cricketer – the perfect fictional representation of Thatcher’s vision for a Britain peopled by a million sportsman upholding Victorian values.

Doctor Who became so entangled with aspects of 1980s society and symbols that, like Thatcher, it could never have survived beyond the decade it tried so hard to shape/reflect. A clumsy attempt to deal with some ideological issues being played out in the mid ’80s (Thatcher’s attacks on the miners, the GLC, unions, the press and of course the BBC itself) in stories like “Vengeance on Varos” (1985) ostensibly considered questions of media manipulation, violence, greed and corruption; but perhaps inevitably the show went too far, substituting clever implied satire for bludgeoning obvious hectoring, unnecessary violence and unfunny scripts, all made worse by the casting of the inept Colin Baker as the Doctor. Michael Grade wisely cancelled the series for a year to make it sort itself out; but on its return in late ’86 it was no better, a terrible protracted in-joke (the Doctor on trial!) taking up the whole of one series, followed by three more years with Sylvester McCoy in the title role and stories increasingly disappearing into impenetrable mysticism, yet more in-jokes and glossy set pieces. Each of these traits became more pronounced as the decade reached its end, and just as Thatcher’s political project became more extreme and unpopular post-1987 (typified by the Poll Tax fiasco), so the programme’s relevance and credibility, its reason for existing, and not least its audience, all disappeared.

Doctor Who worked best when distilling elements of popular culture and science within new and enticing templates (as happened during the late ’60s, right at the start of the ’70s, and then again through most of the mid-late 1970s when Tom Baker was the Doctor), not simply referencing styles, ideas, fashions and issues for the sake of it. As this trend became more pronounced during the ’80s, so the programme became ultimately, irreversibly detached from its original, and strongest, premise: that all the show was supposed to do was tell interesting fantastical stories about time and space for a short while every week.