The Long Sixties
A version of this article first appeared on the 13th Course of Shockeye’s Kitchen in December 2002 and it’s an attempt at a Marxist analysis of Doctor Who. I’m going to have more to say on the subject of ‘interpretation’ at a later date but be warned this contains sentences like ‘Pop takes as its ideological project the symbolic resolution of the contradictions of modernity…’
Doctor Who is a Sixties show. That might come as a shock to those who think it peaked in the Seventies or that it has been completely reinvented for the 21st Century but I’d like to show here how the series not only grew out of the Sixties but how that decade continues to shape the show even today.
In the Fifties the most successful drama series had been historical swash-bucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960) and Ivanhoe (1958). William Russell was cast as Ian Chesterton largely on his association with this genre as the star of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956) and Doctor Who mined this tradition successfully for several years, only abandoning pure historicals after The Highlanders. However, the popularity of historical adventures was waning as the Sixties began to distinguish itself from the previous decade and Doctor Who needed to change direction in order to survive.
The contemporary adventure series was already proving popular on ITV, with Danger Man (1960-1968), The Avengers (1961-1969) and The Saint (starring ex-Ivanhoe Roger Moore, 1962-1969) having considerable success here and in the USA. This genre was to dominate popular television for the rest of that decade and into the early part of the next: The Prisoner (1967-1968), Man in a Suitcase (1968), The Champions (1968-1969), Department S (1969-1970), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-1970) and Adam Adamant Lives! (produced for the BBC by original Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert, 1966-1967) were to follow. These programmes were to have a profound effect on the development of Doctor Who – and vice versa. Writers like Dennis Spooner, Ian Stuart Black, Malcolm Hulke, John Lucarotti, Terry Nation and Terrence Dicks drifted between these series taking themes and storytelling techniques with them. Together, these series constitute one huge ‘meta-text’ creating meaning between them through the process Julia Kristeva calls ‘intertextuality’ and – through supplementary texts such as reviews, interviews, articles, merchandising and comics (such as TV 21, Countdown and TV Action) – what Tony Bennet and Jane Woollacott confusingly call ‘inter-textuality’. One of these series can be fully appreciated in isolation.
Though I refer to these shows as ‘Sixties’ adventure series some of them fall outside the ‘calendar Sixties’: they belong to that period identified by the Open University Sixties Research Group as the ‘Long Sixties’, a period of rapid social change stretching from 1958 to 1974. This period is the object of study of Arthur Marwick’s book The Sixties and the Group’s Windows on the Sixties. James Chapman’s Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s also extends to early-Seventies shows such as Jason King (1971-1972) and The Persuaders! (1971). An episode of the TV show SF:UK dedicated to the ‘Sixties’ featured Jon Pertwee’s era of Doctor Who.
Arthur Marwick outlined the following distinctive features of Sixties culture which I will return to: the rise of the influence of young people over fashion, music and popular culture in general; the formation of subcultures critical of the Establishment; new concerns with civil and personal rights; a new ‘permissiveness’; an explosion of initiative, individualism and enterprise; advances in technology; the advent of ‘spectacle’; international cultural exchange; multi-culturalism; improvements in material life; upheavals in race, class and family life; new modes of self-expression; participatory, innovatory and uninhibited popular culture; striking developments in ‘elite’ thought; the expansion of liberal, progressive presences within institutions of authority; and a countervailing reaction among the police and religious bodies. The distinctive feature of Sixties culture is then, is a struggle between modernity and tradition.
Some of the series named above have been described as ‘Pop’ series and I’d like to argue that Doctor Who is one such series. David Buxton introduced the term Pop series in From The Avengers to Miami Vice to distinguish such shows from ‘human nature’ series like Star Trek. In Pop, ideological determination replaces such ‘outmoded’ concepts as ‘human nature’ and ‘psychological depth’. It’s not that there is no psychological motivation on display, more that such motivation is simply ‘paraded’, much as ‘literariness’ is ‘paraded’ through ‘facetious quotation’ (anyone who thinks the occasional Shakespeare quote in Doctor Who means anything deeper than ‘Look, this is how easy it is to quote Shakespeare’ is sadly deluded). The Pop series required new ways of viewing to be understood, ways of seeing based onstyle rather than depth.
Pop is light-hearted, daring anyone – old-school conservative or the modern, politically correct alike to take it seriously enough to take offense. Pop is gleefully irreverent – even ‘jokily sadistic’ in its treatment of death. (Terror of the Autons being a particularly fine example). For Pop read ‘postmodern’, a Sixties buzzword now thrown around as casually as ‘surreal’ but which, in its original Sixties form carried considerable rhetorical force.
Pop takes as its ideological project the symbolic resolution of the contradictions of modernity. It is a response to increasing commodification and built-in obsolescence; its focus is on the patterns of consumption rather than the relations of production. Pop portrays social divisions as existing between the modern, consumer culture, and the reactionary forces of tradition, cutting across class divisions rather than between them. Professionalism and merit are championed over heredity.
Characterisation is expressed primarily in terms of dress codes, manners and posture, identifying these shows with the world of fashion – with clothing as a commodity. Costuming has been perhaps the most significant indicator of character in Doctor Who – just as in The Avengers and such series as Jason King. The dual nature of fashion both identifies the wearer with particular groups within society, and expresses individuality. These characters are what they wear – and heroes don’t wear tank tops!
The Pop hero’s role is essentially to police society in the name of modernity. The hero would usually work for – or at least informally with – a secret agency of some kind, sometimes national (The Avengers) but more often one with international jurisdiction (Danger Man, The Champions or the UNIT stories). Narratives are resolved through action – even the cerebral The Prisoner explores its complex themes through the medium of helicopter chases and punch-ups! The Pop hero lives a life of conspicuous consumption and is licensed to do so because he or she fights both the reactionary forces of conservatism – those who resist modernity – and those who take modernity to excess.
Popular pleasures are spectacular: they exaggerate the pleasures of looking (scopophilia) and revel in excess. The extended action sequences of Ambassadors of Death, The Mind of Evil and Planet of the Spiders go far beyond what is required by the plot, playing HAVOC with acceptable norms. The violence of the Hinchcliffe era is every bit as ‘excessive’ as Mary Whitehouse complained – though the Gothic mode gives it an artistic, ‘literary’ alibi for some – while the Colin Baker years are indeed as ‘sadistic’ as the authors of The Disco Guide claim. Note that taste distinctions cross professed political sympathies: for all their platitudes, the middle-class ‘left’ are indistinguishable from the middle-class ‘right’ in their contempt for popular pleasures – working class culture is permitted only to express itself in ‘respectable’ ways. Russell T Davies’s often derided season finales are the very definition of excess.
The skimpy outfits of Leela, Peri and Amy make a (‘sexist’ ) spectacle of the female body. The pleasures of the spectacle create a physical response in the viewer: fear, excitement, arousal or the urge to hide behind the sofa – and so the viewer participates in the spectacle at a somatic level.
As fandom became more middle-class these physical aspects of the show became more repressed – but they were always present. In the early years viewer identification was with the Doctor’s companions: as Ian Chesterton, William Russell carried over his action hero persona from Sir Lancelot, and Steve, Ben and Jamie kept up this tradition. Not that even the older Doctors were incapable of action – or even violence: the first Doctor fighting with a sword in The Crusade and even bare knuckles in The Romans, the Second Doctor bashing a soldier’s head against a table in The Highlanders. It was in the Third Doctor’s era that the Doctor himself became more of a man of action and audience identification shifted from the companions to the Doctor himself. Like Bond of the Batman, the Doctor was an upper-class figure with which a working class audience could identify because he embodies working class values of physicality and bodily participation – particularly through his proficiency in Venusian Aikido.
Harry Sullivan was introduced to compliment the fourth Doctor until it became obvious that he was more than capable of looking after himself, bashing heads together in Genesis of the Daleks, clobbering people with chairs in The Seeds of Doom, fencing in The Masque of Mandragora and The Androids of Tara. Peter Davison’s Doctor was more effete butEarthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks delivered the requisite thrills, while The Caves of Androzani showed the Doctor enduring grueling physical hardship: it is indisputably his finest hour. And I don’t need to elaborate on the Sixth Doctor’s bear-like physicality. Even the seventh Doctor – while generally insulated from physical activity as a behind the scenes manipulator – has a brutal physical duel with the Master in Survival. Paul McGann’s physical exuberance enlivened the TV Movie no end, as did the elaborate motorcycle chase.
Even battles of will take on physical form in Doctor Who: mental duels manifest as physical battles in The Three Doctors and The Deadly Assassin and the ‘Mind Bending’ scene in The Brain of Morbius is described as a form of ‘Time Lord wrestling’.
Those clinging to outmoded beliefs are – at best – vulnerable to manipulation (as in Malcolm Hulke’s Avengers story The Gravediggers or his final Doctor Who story The Dinosaur Invasion).
In Danger Man the independence of Third World nations would often be threatened by imperialistic reactionaries – a theme which recurred in Doctor Who stories like Colony in Space and The Mutants. Xenophobic militarists would threaten peace at home in Danger Man, The Avengers and Doctor Who (Doctor Who and the Silurians, and Ambassadors of Death, for instance). The planet Peladon’s entry into the Galactic Federation – mirroring Britain’s own entry into the European Common Market – is resisted by the reactionary Hepesh in The Curse of Peladon. Carnival of Monsters, Revenge of the Cybermen and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood show us cultures wary of contact with outside worlds. Even the Doctor’s homeworld of Gallifrey is seen as reactionary and insular in The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time.
One the other hand, those with a fanatical belief in progress are equally dangerous: technocrats wishing to impose beurocracy and mechanisation over the world – even for ‘the greater good’ – feature in dozens of episodes of The Avengers (notably The Cybernauts and The House That Jack Built) as well as notably in Cybermen stories like Tomb of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel/The Rise of the Cybermen and The Next Doctor, but also in Robot). This suspicion of ‘expert knowledge’ in particular reflects a general intellectual trend in the Sixties associated with postmodern and post structural thought.
Pop series are known for their gadgetry – which serves to identify character almost as much as clothing. Fast cars, speedboats and helicopters signify the lifestyle of the Pop hero. Simon Templar’s Volvo, John Steed’s Bentley, James Bond’s Austin Martin DB8 and the Doctor’s Tardis (or Bessie, or the Whomobile for that matter) are more than a means of getting from A to B.
Smaller, hand held gadgets such as the transistor radio which transfixes Jamie in The Invasion and the EarPods from The Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen reflect the new experience of technology as portable, even pocket sized: in this way the Pop series really did predict the future. Modernity is expressed in proficiency in mastering these commodities. The Doctor has his sonic screwdriver, the Key to Time, the Randomiser and the ultimate in hi-tech accessories – a robot dog. The Master has his Tissue Compression Eliminator and the laser screwdriver. Sarah Jane Smith has her sonic lipstick in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Surveillance technology is a particular feature of the Pop series. The extensive use of recording devices, binoculars and scanners help further objectify the human body and defy psychological depth. The Tardis has it’s scanner as far back as An Unearthly Child. In The Daleks we see the Dalek’s camera eyes even before we meet the Daleks themselves. The Doctor uses the Time Space Visualiser in The Chase.
In Pop, the figurative is transformed into concrete representation: even the human mind is an object open to commodification and surveillance. The Prisoner is perhaps the ultimate expression of this trend – though the Doctor is no stranger to the Mind Probe himself. The Doctor’s mind is opened up for us in The Day of the Daleks.
Geography and nationhood are commodified in terms of tourism. While John Drake and his contemporaries were restricted to 20th Century Earth the Doctor turns other planets – and even history – into tourist destinations. Simon Templar can visit the ruins of the Coliseum but only the Doctor can visit it at its height. Of course, budget restrictions meant that much of the ‘international’ feel of filmed series like Danger Man and The Saint is achieved with dodgy back-projection; in the videotaped Doctor Who it would more likely be by CSO. However, even the technical deficiencies add to the Pop feeling of depthlessness.
Even Britain is represented through the language of tourism: as a picture postcard world of rural villages (The Daemons, The Android Invasion) and stately homes (Day of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, Silver Nemesis). We also see Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square under Dalek occupation in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Yet even this rather ‘conservative’ image of Britain – commodified through the ‘heritage’ industry – is balanced by equally powerful images of modernity: Swinging Sixties London in Adam Adamant Lives! and Doctor Who stories like The War Machines and The Invasion. Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ is on display in the modern power stations of The Silurians, The Claws of Axos and The Hand of Fear. The more contemporary series also plays on tourist attractions: the London Eye (Rose), the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street (Aliens of London/World War III), the Thames Barrier (The Runaway Bride), Buckingham Palace (Voyage of the Damned) and Route master buses (Planet of the Dead). The Tardis itself is stuck in the form of a Police Box which has become a tourist attraction.
Doctor Who has often tapped into ‘alternative culture’: the Edwardian costume is rooted in the same source as the then-current Teddy Boys and William Hartnell’s hair was fashionably long. The Second Doctor has a Beatles hair-cut. The Third is identifies as a ‘dandy’ – a figure Dick Hebdige identifies with periods of transition in Subculture: The Meaning of Style – and wears a frilly shirt only he and Jimi Hendrix could get away with. The Fourth Doctor is both a bohemian and a proto-New Romantic. Psychadelic imagery assaults the senses in The Mind Robber and The Claws of Axos.