Apprehensions of national identity and the Doctor by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who survived its end of history moment. The last three years of its first run saw a refocusing on the postwar Britain of paternalist, class-led social democracy not as the present or near future, but as the past just gone. The pastiche of Paradise Towers is drawn from the 1970s with its acknowledgements of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s architect sketch, but collides with a design aesthetic which doesn’t know how to navigate the fashions of the 1980s let alone reconcile them with the script, and consequently any statement on society which Paradise Towers makes is stifled. The first story to explicitly explore this new hinterland of the newly-lost present with some success is Delta and the Bannermen.
The next historical story is set a few years later, in 1963, and returns the Doctor to the side of government forces; but officialdom is no longer prone to being misled by technology or greed as in The Claws of Axos or The Green Death , but by ideology and expediency. Watching as a seventeen-year-old, I didn’t recognize the nature of Mr Ratcliffe’s ‘Association’ at first, assuming it to have parallels with the Territorial Army. Gilmore was instead accepting an offer of help from the enemy within. The presumption that the British state co-operated with Fascist groups as a matter of course betrays the author’s Communist heritage. While the third Doctor was an outsider who had painfully learned and deployed the language and customs of the British elite, the seventh Doctor instead moves outside, around and across official channels which offer structure he can use but which are too atrophied for him to flex.
As in An Unearthly Child, the Doctor is a visitor to London, depicted as most comfortable talking to his fellow-immigrant John in the café. Both John and the seventh Doctor represent aspects of British identity historically depicted as otherly in London, in the case of John a historic past which is his present, and in the case of the Doctor a Scottishness which itself was the subject of prejudice especially in the mid-eighteenth century. FromRemembrance’s standpoint there is a clear division between cosmopolitan London and xenophobic ‘othering’ London which imperfectly mirrors the division within the Daleks. The flimsiness to outsiders of the distinction between different armies of Daleks seems now a plausible parallel of the inexplicable (to the middle-aged of 1963 at least) battles between Mods and Rockers which kept the press occupied in early 1960s summers. The Daleks here are the disturbers of societal peace, who find fighting each other more important than universal conquest, like teenagers more interested in youth culture tribalism than perpetuating whichever brand of imperial ethos the older generation might favour.
The setting of 1963 for Remembrance is emphasized by a pre-credits sequence which (interpreted diegetically) suggests the Daleks monitoring the world’s broadcasts; it is international, with several languages and nationalities represented. Silver Nemesis takes a comparable measure but instead loops a threat to the world back into British history. The while becomes a curious exercise in re-enactment. Lady Peinforte hopes to replay, on better terms, an earlier encounter with the Doctor by which she will assume something of the powers (unspecified) of Gallifrey; the Cybermen return to play the role of old enemy; De Flores and his soldiers want to restart the Second World War (the principal point of comparison for most of Doctor Who’s villains); Ace notes the Doctor is retracing Remembrance of the Daleks. The serial offers Doctor Who as self-consciously invented tradition. Only the Doctor knows how to deploy ritual effectively, because he has learned from his enemies’ mistakes as well as his own. In this laboratory of Doctor Who, Lady Peinforte is a jealous ex-research partner, her status as (apparently) an English gentlewoman obsessed with Time Lords balancing the Doctor’s preoccupation with her world and country. The Doctor becomes the successful thesis candidate, and quite possibly the examiner all along, while Lady Peinforte’s conclusions are referred to a higher authority for perpetual reassessment. The others fulfil their roles and are removed from the narrative as their plans become irrelevant to the conclusion; the continuity of Doctor Who, the Doctor’s still hidden personal history, and the history of England-Britain, is safe.
A further, perhaps disturbing, element in Silver Nemesis is that it promotes a cyclical view of history. This isn’t new in the series, but previously the outlook has been applied to alien worlds such as Solos, Traken and Deva Loka. all with either pseudoscientific or cultural explanations. Here Earth becomes the unquestioned focus of mystical energies which shape the decisions of historical actors.The Doctor is both the principal author of the cycle and its investigator. It’s possible that the tale of the Nemesis comet is folklore planted to entrap those who would seek to use the powers within it, but the serial seems to request that it is taken seriously.
In season twenty-six Doctor Who moved from inventing a programme mythology which intersected with national history or historical dress, to assuming that the Doctor could take his place as a mythological figure at times of crisis and not seem out of place. Though clumsily presented, the Doctor is Merlin both to an Arthur in his future and to Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The serial projects an awareness of Doctor Who’s own narrative as important in a way it had not for some years; in the early 1980s it was past narratives which had priority, whereas now, despite the appearance of the Brigadier, the programme is weaving new tales in the present. The Doctor is mythologized as the programme re-situates itself historically, but is also the mythologizer who spun dreams to distract Britain from harsh realities.
If the Arthurian cycle serves as a kind of British foundation myth, pointing to a common experience obscured by later invasions and divisions, then the Second World War became a refoundation story for the post-war Britain of social security and nationalized industries. The Doctor is placed in The Curse of Fenric as a guarantor of a British settlement then being dismantled. Like much of the Cartmel period, there is something misplaced in time about its politics.Its message of class solidarity against powerful elites and warnings about said elites starting the Cold War might have been more at home in the Britain of the early 1980s, but the environmental concerns were certainly fashionable in 1989. Likewise the Soviet soldiers represent not the crumbling power bloc of that autumn’s news reports – a development which had seemed long distant when the Cold War was projected into the future of 2084 in Warriors of the Deep – but an optimism about social solidarity and cohesion of a liberated and enfranchised people against self-serving elites. This seemed naïve in the age of the great privatizations when people were being invited to join a new money-driven propertied caste, and public sector bureaucracies which drew their legitimacy from the Second World War and its aftermath were being pulled down. In the context of a seemingly inevitable future where humanity has evolved into leeches, however regretful their leader, perhaps the vows to fight the real enemy were always a threat.
In-between these stories came a reflection on imperialism as a cataloguing exercise. Knowledge of something and then naming it is a form of power. For many early modern historians, the editing and publication of texts from earlier centuries was a method of striking blows in arguments about the nature of state and church, rather than attempting to explain past events and societies on their own accounts. Ghost Light’s Victorianism reflects its villain’s misunderstanding of the complexities and contradictions of Victorian imperialism and the era’s intellectual life, seeking to bend them to a cause which did not quite exist beyond propaganda. Josiah’s failure to appreciate informal empire could be read as a comment on the move towards a more formal structure of imperial governance which in turn contributed towards the conflagrations of the early twentieth century. The Revd Matthews, by 1883, was an easy target for Josiah; the notorious exchange at Oxford between Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford and opponent of Darwinian evolution, and the rationalist Thomas Henry Huxley over the merits of The Origin of Species was twenty-three years in the past and the Church of England had abandoned its opposition to evolution. The Doctor, meanwhile, stands outside the process, acting as critic, concentrating on the psychological effect on Ace of her (personally) earlier visit to Gabriel Chase. Ace doesn’t stand outside the historical argument, though; her incendiary activities in 1983 are situated by date and by association with post-imperial tensions between different ethnic youth groups in London – there are two alienations at least present in the distance she places between the ‘white kids’ who firebombed the house in her first account, when Ace groups herself with her (Asian) friend Manisha, and her later admission that she burned the house down. Ace, Manisha and the house are all victims of Britain’s and Light’s incapability to deal with their imperial inheritances. The Doctor is there to heal, though he can only do so for Ace’s present. There, and for the viewers in 1989 and more so after, the lost Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline are already in the past and (in a return to the mantra of the first season) their fate can’t be changed, just like Britain’s imperial course.
Survival addresses the identity crisis of late 1980s Britain through transparent metaphor. A country to which solidarity had been preached for decades, whether through ideas of church and community or upon memories of the Second World War and the late imperial myth, now seemed to be urged to adopt extreme forms of competition and consumption, a philosophy given quasi-religious voice in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘Sermon on the Mound’ to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in Edinburgh, and increasingly personalized by the prime minister’s embrace of the label ‘Thatcherism’ in the final years of her rule. Rona Munro came from a parallel and often contradictory impulse in British culture, the late-twentieth century Scottish intellectual and creative renaissance which drew not only on the socialist traditions of Red Clydeside, but on older assumptions of mutual obligation and support which Thatcher seemed to have rejected in her ill-judged bid to explain herself to the Scottish kirk and which could not celebrate survival of the fittest as preached by Sergeant Paterson. Had Paterson been a policeman as earlier intended, a reading encouraging criticism of the use of the police as political tools by Margaret Thatcher’s government would have been difficult to avoid. This was never going to be something John Nathan-Turner was comfortable with, being a Conservative supporter (according to anecdote). He was more attuned to an early 1980s middlebrow reading of what the Conservative election victory of 1979 had meant, a retreat to the interwar values gently exposed as hollow or celebrated according to taste by Black Orchid, rather than Munro’s attack on the Thatcherite society where deference was earned not by status but by wealth and force.
Nevertheless, the pretensions of the Territorial Army sergeant and self-defence instructor are still useful. They encourage a critique of the manipulation of the imperial legacy by a Thatcherite agenda which in distancing itself from the more consensual rhetoric of other European countries, while courting investment from former imperial antagonists outside Europe (the United States, Japan) could be argued to be promoting denial and evasion of the facts of British decline and the opportunities for a more cohesive, egalitarian society that this presented. If one wishes to gender the politics, the co-operative hunting and pooling and sharing of food offered by Karra to Ace is presented as a female model for a reconstructed society rather than the hierarchical male order offered by the Master and his hunting dog Midge. When the Doctor rejects fighting like an animal so as not to die like an animal, he is also rejecting the (ironically) hypermasculinised social and economic order of the Thatcher settlement, whether for Britain as a whole or for Scotland. Perhaps.
1989 was the end of Doctor Who as a BBC Television Centre production. It went in search of a new home and new institutional context which would see it embrace uncomfortably a commercially marketable form of Britishness within the equally awkward courting of American audiences and an interpretation of genre at odds with its historical success. This, and its subsequent reinvention and rediscovery of popular appeal as a mainstay of British television, is another matter and the subject of a further instalment of this essay.