This Mad British Monster I: A Weird Wizard, Jamming, 22/01/2016

I was going to follow up yesterday’s post about the nature of revolution with further thoughts on Antonio Negri's ideas. But I'm honestly not sure where to go, at least as far as a blog post. 

So I thought I'd dedicate a few Fridays to a set of ideas I threw out a couple of weeks ago, in my post about the end of George Lucas’ long shadow over Star Wars. I wrote a brief paragraph contrasting Star Wars to Doctor Who, which embraced variation and narrative diversity from the beginning.

Phil Sandifer at TARDIS Eruditorum has already done a ton of work unpacking the complex ideas that run throughout Doctor Who. This won't be nearly so comprehensive as his project. I want to talk more about these eras and what they mean to me personally. Maybe you'll gain a different shade of insight from Sandifer's epochal work.

Verity Lambert (right, in case you weren't sure) on an
average day at the Doctor Who set.
Verity Lambert was Doctor Who's first producer, who helped develop the basic concept of the show. Doctor Who was a show that could literally do anything and go anywhere, because it would. 

It could bring its characters into any story – sci-fi adventure, historical drama, comedy. And in any setting – the austere dystopia of The Daleks, the space age colonial contact with The Sensorites, Marco Polo’s caravan across Asia, the Crusades, ancient Mexico, England under alien occupation, just for a few examples.

Doctor Who in the mid-1960s had nothing like the episodic character arc we've become accustomed to today thanks to the style of streaming media. But its central characters were strong and complex, for the most part. 

And an ensemble show as well, since the Doctor wasn't at first designed as a conventional hero. I only appreciated Hartnell's performance after rediscovering the Lambert era as an adult, the phase of the 1960s harmed least by the BBC’s videotape recycling policy. 

Untrustworthy at first and unreliable at best, the Doctor is a mysterious eccentric that the rest of the cast find themselves stuck with. As a child, I was too accustomed to the Doctor as a hero, but his dynamic as a supporting lead crafts the character as a mad wizard.

There’s a strong feminist current to Doctor Who, thanks to the character of Barbara, the Doctor's central foil and sparring partner. 

Jacqueline Hill, who played Barbara Wright, probably
the strongest and definitely the most popular
character of her acting career. Her place as an ethical
counterweight to the Doctor's occasional short-
sightedness made the companion as challenger a key
dynamic of Doctor Who's approach to character.
All that feminism is undone by the waste of Susan's character, though. What started as a star child became a peril monkey all too quickly. It was no surprise that Carole Ann Ford was the first cast member to leave. 

Doctor Who was defined by variety and change, and Lambert herself would leave after just over two years in charge. One presence from her era that would stick around is David Whitaker, who began as a script editor and became a regular writer for the rest of the decade.

Whitaker was not only the best writer Doctor Who had in the 1960s, he also introduced some of the metafictional elements that gave the show its peculiar power for genre play and commentary in the middle of an adventure.

He was also the primary architect of the wizard-like conception of the Doctor, a notion that was explored more deeply in his stories featuring Patrick Troughton, The Power of the Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, and The Enemy of the World. These three stories, especially Power and Enemy, are true classics of Doctor Who and television sci-fi more broadly.

Whitaker also made a key decision as script editor in the first season, when he junked the historical The Masters of Luxor. This was a story that ended with the Doctor praising praising the British Empire as a force that brought the light of Christianity to the black savage masses. 

It would have made Doctor Who a safe, conservative, authoritarian show. Doctor Who never would have become the remarkable beast it is today if The Masters of Luxor had been made and broadcast. 

Patrick Troughton's inventiveness and subtlety as an
actor was put to great use in the (now almost all missing)
crazy melange of stories in Season 4, but the repetitive
stories of Season 5 didn't serve him well at all.
Doctor Who needed Whitaker to maintain Lambert’s style of inventiveness in the Troughton era. The producers of this era, primarily Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, redesigned the show as an action-adventure serial. Almost every story in Season 5, The Enemy of the World being the only exception, was a standard alien invasion plot that became depressingly samey.

It was a let-down considering the potential of Season 4, which brought the same inventiveness of the Lambert era to Troughton's Doctor and an exclusively sci-fi series of settings. 

An underwater city, a moonbase, a modern airport infiltrated by shapeshifting aliens, a claustrophobic human colony in a sulphuric ecosystem, a mining colony run like an English holiday camp by way of Stalinist indoctrination from a secret cabal of giant crabs.

I’m serious about that last one. The Macra Terror was awesome.

That year, what I call the Innes Lloyd era, was a breath of fresh air following John Wiles, who took over from Verity Lambert to produce the most pessimistic stories of Doctor Who’s history.

The thing is, the epic 13-part Daleks’ Master Plan is one of William Hartnell's best stories. Same with its follow-up, The Massacre. But they’re both stories where the Doctor and his companions make a series of fatal mistakes. 

Sara Kingdom's horrifying death, aged to dust while
entirely conscious in a swirling time vortex, is one of
the strongest moments of the Wiles' era's nihilism and
hopelessness. Sadly, it has competition.
They’re on the run and desperate in Master Plan, nearly five hours of continual violence until the Doctor achieves victory by scorched earth. The Doctor is entirely absent from The Massacre, and main companion Stephen badly misjudges everything that's happening and ends up getting thousands of innocent people killed.

Wiles’ next two stories before leaving the show in production chaos were incompetently made and incredibly racist. His directions for Doctor Who were neither appropriate for a character defined primarily by hope and inspiration, nor were they sustainable for a long-running program.

Doctor Who had to be creative and utopian to last as long as it did, and become the inspiring television that it is. That’s why its most important producers in the 1960s were Verity Lambert (and her executive producer Head of Drama Sydney Newman), Innes Lloyd, and David Whitaker.

Next week, the 1970s.

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