This Mad British Monster IV: Men in Dresses, Jamming, 27/02/2016

Doctor Who almost died a sad, notorious death in 1986. If the show had been outright cancelled on the heels of the Colin Baker era, when everything behind and in front of the camera that could go wrong did, I’m not sure the BBC would ever have gotten behind a revival, or even the degree of post-cancellation product licensing they did.

Any sensible television executive would never have kept
Doctor Who greenlit after 1986. But thankfully, they did,
so we got the greatest Dalek story of the classic series
and the template that the show would follow for its
2005 revival and its worldwide mass success.
Leave all the production explosions and criminal activity aside. Look at the arc of Doctor Who aesthetically from 1963 to 1986. A popular hit almost straight out of the gate that was able to adapt to several different eras of culture: the pop sci-fi of the 1960s, psychedelic camp of the 1970s, ratings triumphs with styles of sci-fi-horror, sci-fi-comedy, and sci-fi-action. 

But then all the tropes that the show not only relied on, but that practically defined Doctor Who, all ran out of steam and could no longer function. 

The prickly Doctor became an abrasive ass. Companion actresses were mere screaming peril monkeys who defined male gaze victimization. Monsters were generic, uninteresting, and unavoidably xenophobic. Its plots consisted of running around corridors marking time until the closing credits

All the writing on the wall, combined with a production staff in total chaos, would have signalled the complete bankruptcy of Doctor Who as an artistic institution. Then something utterly unexpected happened.

Marginalized in a time slot opposite ITV ratings powerhouse Coronation Street, the BBC expected to let the show die out, fading from public consciousness. John Nathan-Turner was kept in the producer’s chair so his career could die in peace. It was probably a punishment for humiliating the BBC with Ian Levine’s incompetent Save Doctor Who campaign in 1985, featuring a moronic image of himself smashing a TV in Doctor Who Magazine and producing one of the worst songs of all time, Doctor In Distress.*

If you include the books (and you totally should), the
McCoy Doctor had three major companions. The
first was Melanie Bush, a holdover from JNT's taste
for musical theatre and camp. She embodied the giddy
sci-fi pantomime of his era's first stories.
* Don’t click the link. Why would you do that to yourself?

So he hired a new script editor, and it was Andrew Cartmel, who said in his job interview that his goal for Doctor Who was to bring down the Thatcher government. Impressed with his ambition and chutzpah, JNT hired him.

Cartmel fulfilled his contractual obligations to produce one last (atrociously cheesy) script from Pip and Jane Baker, and then hired no writers who had ever worked on Doctor Who before.

Unlike when JNT and Saward implemented this policy during the Davison era, he actually found good writers. Likely, this was because he looked for people in the community of frustrated left-leaning television, fiction, and comic writers. 

It was quite a contrast to Saward’s Davison-era contention that Doctor Who stories should be free from explicitly political content and depict only classless futures.** The first story of the proper Cartmel era was Paradise Towers, a new kind of optimistic symbolic dystopia that Doctor Who had never done before.

** Saward abandoned this anyway when he produced the cruel dystopian satires of the Colin Baker years, the only television stories of the era that are at all watchable, and the style where Colin’s Doctor works best.

The McCoy era eventually embraced a kind of darkness,
but it usually remained a hopeful darkness. You could
look into the worst potential of the universe and wring
redemption and goodness from it. The nihilism of the
Saward era was definitively over thanks to Cartmel's
sensibilities and the performances of McCoy and
Sophie Aldred.
Paradise Towers is a story that only Doctor Who could do, they did it only once, and they did it perfectly. It was a pitch-perfect combination of the cruel dystopia of the Eric Saward era with an aura of pantomime camp that even the gayest highs of the Letts-Dicks years couldn't approach.

It was a brutalist tower block of apartment condos whose society had degenerated into chaos. Roving gangs of neon-coloured punk girls roamed the corridors. Portly old women who’d fit in perfectly at a bridge game with Mrs Slocombe had become cackling cannibals. The concierge staff had become a grey, bureaucratic, authoritarian guard. 

The building’s architect had uploaded himself into its mainframe computer and gone insane, sending the garbage collector robots to hunt down the remaining humanoid inhabitants. 

In the middle of all this was Sylvester McCoy’s devious clown of a Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Mel, a grown-up Shirley Temple on a permanent mescaline overdose. Paradise Towers combined narrative innovation and a brilliance of execution that Doctor Who hadn’t seen since Douglas Adams was writing.

The show continued in this vein for three years, even though its reduced budget means it only produced 12 television stories through the entire Cartmel era. The best stories of 1988 and 1989 – budgets aside – could have fit seamlessly with the best of the Davies era next century.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Doctor Who stories Cartmel produced starring McCoy and Sophie Aldred as the street-smart punk kid Ace combined deep character development, trippy ideas, and an open engagement with social and political concepts and problems deeper than Doctor Who had ever done.

The father-daughter relationship between the Doctor
and Ace became a template for the future of Doctor
Who. They were equal partners in adventuring,
which Doctors and companions had never really
been until 1988.
Remembrance of the Daleks wasn’t just the tightest, best-paced Dalek action story of the entire classic series. It also confronted the messy, complex reality of everyday racism in society, and showed how our feelings of hatred and nationalism could be manipulated by evil forces.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy wasn’t just a tongue-in-cheek statement of love for a show increasingly on the margins of its culture. It was also a critical examination of how utopian ideals of art and politics can be corrupted by greed. 

And it featured the Doctor battling immortal stone gods in a timeless no-space dimension whose gateway was an impossibly deep pit with a giant staring eye at the centre of a blue energy hurricane. He fought them with the same weird stage magic he used for years in touring absurdist theatre – escape acts, juggling, gymnastics, and swordplay. 

Plus, there were the creepiest killer robot clowns that I’ve ever seen. Makes Pennywise look like the overcompensating wuss he really is.

Ghost Light returns to the horror tropes of the Hinchcliffe years with a literal haunted house story that openly confronts the British legacy of colonialism and its social Darwinist justifications. But it also provides character development for Ace that the companions had never gotten on Doctor Who before.

Cartmel’s only problem was that he had trouble getting scripts to fit coherently into their allotted episode length, meaning that they’d sometimes shoot an extra 20 minutes of footage. The final cuts would sometimes suffer from a too-fast plot. But better too much story than none at all. 

Ace also had a depth of character development continuity
that no companion ever had before 1989. The last season
of classic Doctor Who saw Ace in a narrative of
confronting the parts of her past that she'd hidden from
herself and others.
Ultimately, it only meant that the extended cut of Curse of Fenric on DVD was even better than the TV version. That story would provide the basic model for Doctor Who going forward after cancellation. 

The issue was that its basic model included more than one model. Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, and began as a series of novels in 1991 with Virgin Publishing. Its first editor was Peter Darvill-Evans, who generally did a good job getting regular writers, but who didn’t contribute much vision to its concept.

It was up to the best writers to manage that, and in the Darvill-Evans years, that was Paul Cornell, whose hallucinatory fable Timewyrm: Revelation provided gripping drama, surreal imagery (an English country church transported to the surface of the moon!), a gut-wrenching character story for Ace, and a metafictional examination of the ethics of Doctor Who itself. 

That can describe pretty much any Paul Cornell book going forward, if you substitute Bernice Summerfield for Ace.

As the experimentation of the Doctor Who: New Adventures line kicked into gear under the editorship of Rebecca Levene, the question of what Doctor Who should be (and its answers) gave the line a schizophrenic identity at first. 

The two sides, a matter mainly of debates among fandom on the early usenet forums, self-identified as Gun and Frock. One side embraced Doctor Who’s dystopian settings, and used the restricted audience of the novel range to tell more violent epic stories that couldn’t have made it to the BBC. 

The Gun-Frock duality of the Virgin
Publishing years of Doctor Who was
embodied in how Ace and Benny
Summerfield developed. Ace became
a hardened soldier, an action hero
gripped by PTSD. Benny remained
a fun-loving, adventurous drunk.
Doctor Who for the Guns was a hard-edged space adventure, examples of what Vaka Rangi would call grimdark. Stories about violence, war, the inevitable nature of ethical compromise, revelling in pain, conflict, and brutality. The Doctor as a secretive, manipulative figure, playing the cosmos at the level of a Lovecraftian god. 

Lots of space marines too. Basically, the cruel dystopias of when the Saward era worked best. 

The Frocks were about something else entirely. I'd say I don't really know how to explain the aesthetic in short form because it’s kind of complicated. But I already did explain it when I was talking about the McCoy era on TV. 

The Frock vision of Doctor Who. Conceptually complex stories that played with multiple genres and narrative styles, maybe also experimenting with the medium itself a little. Combined humour, sometimes a camp sense of fun, scares, freaky concepts, inventive monsters and aliens, and emotionally powerful narratives.

Novels like Love and War, The Also People, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and Sky Pirates! were of the same piece as television stories like Ghost Light, Survival, Dragonfire, Battlefield, and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. As well as television stories like Rose, The Empty Child, Midnight, and Daleks in Manhattan.

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. Because while that Levene/Frock/Cartmel aesthetic would eventually become the model the revived show would take, there was one horrifying period of diminishing grimdark returns Doctor Who would enter.


  1. Great post! Keep meaning to comment on these, I've been enjoying them greatly, but it feels like I have very little to add - you cover most of what I have to say. The McCoy/ Cartmel production era is probably my favourite of the Classic era - great stories and wonderfully brave counter cultural politics. I need to get back to rewatching "Paradise Towers", I'm finding so much more to appreciate in it after reading Phil Sandifer's defence of the story - it was never one that I hated, it clearly has a good script, but I appreciate the aesthetics of it so much more now (as Sandifer put it "Children's Panto JG Ballard" is just something I'm immensely glad Doctor Who did while it was able to).

    1. Also, I'm really looking forward to the next of these - I'm intrigued to see how you'll split the Mcgann, RTD, and Moffat eras into the remaining two posts (I'm assuming it's two more based on the numbering for the Chibnall post).

    2. I've actually relabelled the Chibnall post #7 because my original plan was to deal with McCoy and the whole Wilderness Years all in one go. But that would have been enormous, given how big McCoy + Virgin got. So next Sunday will be Lawrence Miles, post-Ancestor Cell, Big Finish, and maybe Scream of the Shalka. Then the following Sunday will wrap with Davies and a complicated take on Moffat.

      I might write an epilogue before starting another long project: A White Dude Listens to To Pimp a Butterfly.

    3. And thank you as well for following the blog, especially the Doctor Who related stuff. I'm always happy to know my ideas are at least worth talking about.