Friday 23 November 2018

Time & Time Again: Doctor Who’s Cultural Connections

As today is Doctor Who Day (this year marking the 55th anniversary of the BBC TV show's first screening on 23 November 1963), I hope you'll indulge a departure from travel to revisit the article I wrote for the program's 50th anniversary. It originally appeared on the Issimo Magazine site, but as that version is no longer online I'd like to share it with you here...

River Song, Rory, the Doctor and Amy in the American west.
Photo courtesy of the ABC.

One of my earliest memories of Doctor Who is the five-part story The Mind Robber, which screened in 1968. After a fascinating 25 minutes trapped in a pure white void (a cheap-to-make episode created at the last moment due to scheduling issues), the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe arrived in the Land of Fiction.

For a television series that had become famous for encounters with scary rubber-suit monsters in a nominally science fiction setting, this was a surprising change of tack.

Jamie and Zoe among the White Robots in The Mind Robber.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

Challenged first by Gulliver, who could only speak the lines Jonathan Swift gave him and was therefore somewhat cryptic, the time travellers met numerous mythical and fictional beings – a unicorn, the Minotaur, Medusa, Rapunzel, D’Artagnan and Lancelot among them – before defeating the master of the land.

It was a lively foray into the realms of myth and literature, but not the first or last such excursion. Though commonly dismissed in those days as a children’s show of no substance, Doctor Who has often borrowed from literature and other cultural forms.

The basic conceit of the show – a ship’s crew travelling to distant lands full of strange and wonderful creatures – is an age-old concept, employed by Homer in The Odyssey.

The Doctor meets legends of Greek myth in
The Myth Makers
. Photo courtesy of the BBC.
This resemblance was particularly apt during the tenure of the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, who kidnapped his first travelling companions and had no control over where the his space-time vessel, the TARDIS, would take them.

Like Odysseus, the Doctor and his companions were cursed to wander to far lands, encountering villains and monsters on the way.

The two sagas intertwined in 1965 in the story The Myth Makers, in which the TARDIS crew met the great figures of Greek myth; in fact the time machine’s sudden materialisation was a crucial distraction which allowed Achilles to slay Hector.

After encounters with Agamemnon, Cyclops and Odysseus, it was – somewhat inevitably – the Doctor himself who suggested the use of a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans.

Literary retellings or appropriations continued over the years, no doubt one of the factors in Doctor Who’s remarkable adaptability to changing times; a mutability no other TV series could match.

In the 1967 tale The Evil of the Daleks, the series crossed science fiction with a Victorian setting in a foreshadowing of steampunk.

Three years later, its “bases under siege from assorted monsters” formula having grown tired, Doctor Who completely reinvented itself along the lines of the then popular “spy-fi” genre, with a new Doctor, Jon Pertwee, fighting villainous Earth-bound masterminds and invasions along the lines of James Bond or The Avengers.

The Docttor and Sarah Jane Smith in The Pyramids of Mars.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

The best, however, was yet to come. With the arrival of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in 1974, the program embarked upon an enormously popular series of stories explicitly borrowing from Gothic horror.

In this bracket of classics were adventures drawing on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, along with aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon and cinematic mainstays such as malevolent Egyptian mummies.

Doctor Who also adapted the detective/murder mystery concept more than once in such stories as 1977’s Asimov-style The Robots of Death and 1982’s Christie-esque Black Orchid. Later in the 1980s Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor would get to hob-nob with the Arthurian legend’s Mordred and Morgaine, being intriguingly identified by them as Merlin.

The Doctor and shipmate in The Curse of the Black Spot.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

The revived Doctor Who, launched to instant success in 2005, has borrowed cultural templates less overtly; though it couldn’t resist a walk-the-plank pirate yarn in 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot, nor a full-blown Western in A Town Called Mercy in 2012. Christmas specials have also drawn on the work of Charles Dickens and CS Lewis.

In the new version of the show the Doctor is much more likely to meet the great writers and artists of the past, than emulate their work. In recent years the Doctor has bumped into the likes of Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and Vincent van Gogh, not to mention those two influential authors Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.

The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

It’s been pointed out that Doctor Who is basically an anthology series linked by continuing characters; and even they change regularly, including the Doctor as he regenerates into new bodies with subtly different psychologies.

This flexibility may form part of its remarkable durability. A humble teatime TV program launched in 1963 when such things were seen as utterly disposable, has certainly managed to fashion itself into an ongoing saga of heroic proportions.

The Doctor broods in the TARDIS. Photo courtesy of the BBC.

As Philip Sandifer has pointed out in his TARDIS Eruditorum series of critical essays on the program, there is literally no story which cannot be told within Doctor Who, given its remit is the entirety of space and time.

Sandifer posits a fascinating theory in the volume in which he discusses the Second Doctor, as played by Patrick Troughton. In referencing The Mind Robber, Sandifer cheekily suggests this story may supply the true origin of The Doctor, above and beyond his identity as a Time Lord.

What, asks the author, if the Doctor is actually an escapee from the Land of Fiction, a story writer gone rogue? From this angle, the Doctor has slipped his bounds to gallivant through space and time as a literary catalyst, creating new stories wherever he goes.

I have to say, I like that explanation. Happy birthday, Doctor.

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