This Mad British Monster II: “He’s My Hero, Man” Jamming, 13/02/2016

This weekend, I’m back to my series on the production eras of Doctor Who. After pausing it for weeks and writing the last part second. And again, the history of Doctor Who has been catalogued for decades by better qualified people than me. 

Katy Manning's Jo Grant was a key part of the Letts-
Dicks era aesthetic. She was cast as a generic screaming
peril monkey companion, because Terrance could be
pretty sexist sometimes. But they cast an actress with
the bubbly energy to take over the whole screen like
an adventurous elf.
But there's a development in Doctor Who of the 1970s that changed the show forever. The Doctor became an action hero. 

Now, the Doctor had been a hero since pretty much the seventh episode just after the start of 1964. But he wasn’t an action hero. The original TARDIS crews of the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, Susan, and then Vicki were ensemble casts. 

William Hartnell played the role as a mischievous wizard. In Hartnell’s actual stories on TV, it was only his last full season that moved his character to the centre of the cast. And this was under a producer whose approach did the character few favours, either outright losing, winning with unacceptable costs, or standing up for racist regimes. 

It was really only in The War Machines that Hartnell’s Doctor played the lead hero unambiguously, though we can write all kinds of ancillary stories and fan fiction can explore his character in that role. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor was unambiguously heroic, but always maintained a similar aura of the elfin wizard or mad scientist.

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was a clear, in-your-face action hero. He played a large role in shaping his own performance, but Doctor Who’s creative producers themselves had similar ideas about the character.

Terrance Dicks, script editor during the Pertwee years, was probably the most traditional adventure writer ever to work for Doctor Who. You can see it most clearly in the novelizations of televised stories, many of which he wrote, and which have a cracking, fast pace typical of mid-20th century young adult books targeted toward boys.

Barry Letts on the left, Terrance Dicks on the right.
Producer Barry Letts accepted this action-oriented direction for the show as part of his radical transformation of Doctor Who. That radical change was a product of necessity, as the Troughton era was very nearly Doctor Who’s last.

The highs of the Troughton era (The Macra Terror, The Power of the Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, The Enemy of the World, The Mind Robber, The War Games) were very high indeed. But the psychedelic values and tone that Troughton’s weirdest stories carried clashed with the priorities of the producers to make a straight-ahead action show to compete with American imports of Adam West’s Batman.

The result was a fascinating, but very uneven and schizophrenic show whose audience in 1969 was just over a third of what it was in 1966. Letts’ mission was to save the show.

So just in time for Adam West’s Batman to stop production in 1970, Letts, Dicks, and Pertwee launched a Doctor Who that could have won the competition. Keeping the Doctor mostly on Earth for three seasons and giving him a large supporting cast of camp soldiers tasked with protecting the Earth from science-fictional threats paid enormous dividends throughout the era.

It was full-colour, it was action-packed, it had a large recurring cast that included a regular villain in Roger Delgado’s Master. It fit in perfectly with the spy-fi shows that were popular at the time. 

There's a 12-minute video on YouTube of Jon Pertwee's
Doctor having an adventure in anime style. If I ever get
the opportunity to make whatever Doctor Who property
I want, I think I'll pair up with a comics artist and make
a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who manga. The visual weirdness
of his era is perfectly suited to the style.
Letts and Dicks produced Doctor Who with the high octane style of Adam Adamant, the camp fun of The Avengers, the surreality of The Prisoner, a visual style that was of a piece with the fiery madness of Ziggy Stardust. Even when Letts-Dicks-Pertwee era Doctor Who fell on its face, it did so with such a spectacular insanity that you couldn’t look away.

And Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was the egotistical patrician middle-aged drag queen kung-fu master whose unflappable charm held all this craziness together. He was frequently the (didactic) voice of Letts’ firm ethics, which had fascinating roots in his peace activism, vegetarian morality, and Buddhist religion. It made this Doctor a wonderfully insane assemblage.

But every style runs out of steam eventually and nothing lasts forever. By Letts and Dicks’ fifth year at the helm, they were tired of the grind, and everyone was demoralized by the death of Roger Delgado in a car crash as The Green Death wrapped filming.

So Dicks ceded his script editor’s chair to his era’s best regular writer, Robert Holmes. And Letts helped his successor’s transition, Philip Hinchcliffe. They took Doctor Who into an explicit horror sci-fi style. 

Their stories were designed to frighten, a combination of H. P. Lovecraft’s existential terror at the alien unknowable and a visceral body horror that’s of a low-budget piece with the masterworks of David Cronenberg.

At the centre of it all was Tom Baker, the most famous and longest-running of the classic series Doctors. He had a charisma (and an ego as a performer) that put him at the centre of every scene he was in. 

Tom Baker and the first appearance of Davros, in
Genesis of the Daleks.
Every actor who appeared with him in Doctor Who had to tune their performance in relation to his. This was a virtue in creating a strong, attractive leading man for a show that anchored the BBC’s Saturday night programming. 

And the best scripts put this unflappable anchor in dangerous, horrifying situations – the terror came from the fact that this man was taken from his usual total control over a situation to a position of immense danger. 

That was the drama of the Hinchcliffe era to me. You can talk about the aesthetic of horror pastiche in a sci-fi context, which does define their style. But the narrative hooks of the best Hinchcliffe stories are about making you feel the real danger the characters experience when even the supremely confident Tom Baker gets terrified.

Ultimately, that narrative hook brought the Hinchcliffe years to its premature end. Britain’s highest-profile moralistic Christian whack job Mary Whitehouse had, since the horror pastiche aesthetic took hold on Doctor Who, coordinated a letter writing campaign to the BBC calling for its end.

Whitehouse considered the only appropriate programming for the BBC to be 24 hours of G-rated inspirational programming about Christ and British patriotism, with Blyton-level pablum for the children. But she was able to mobilize enough of her fellow repressed ogres to make BBC brass very uncomfortable.

So they caved. Hinchcliffe took over the cop show Z Cars, and Z Cars’ producer Graham Williams took over the production of Doctor Who. Williams had a mandate to tone down the horror of the show. So he rebuilt Doctor Who as a sci-fi adventure-comedy. 

The Williams era also saw the first Doctor-Companion
romantic relationship backstage, between Tom Baker
and his co-star Lalla Ward. They'd go on to get married
and divorced after both left the show. It's now become
accepted in official Doctor Who lore that the Doctor
and Romana themselves had a romantic relationship
during her Lalla Ward incarnation, the invasion of
real life into a fictional world.
This resulted in notes from the BBC brass to tone down the comedy, as executives felt Doctor Who was becoming too silly, at least according to notes from Williams’ therapist.

In terms of quality, the Williams years are something of a mixed bag. A lot of this is because the production values are terrible. Late-1970s Britain was undergoing a period of terrible inflation, and BBC budgets weren’t adjusted in kind. So the money just wasn’t going as far as it used to.

So Williams tried to help his writers develop a tone where the low budgets and largely silly effects contributed to a satirical message. A light-hearted tone that masked incisive messages, themes, and metaphors that explored the injustices of modern Britain and the modern West at every level of cultural analysis. 

Stories explored heady topics like freedom of speech in a religious society, how autocratic governments use welfare state policies to silence opposition to war crimes, the collusion of the wealthy with a violent international drug trade, and the oppression of indigenous peoples to strip natural resources from their land. 

I mean, wow! Why isn’t the Williams era remembered as the satirical tour de force that it clearly is from that description?

Because while the first two of those stories are Robert Holmes’ masterpiece The Ribos Operation and Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet, the other two are the disastrously made Nightmare of Eden and Robert Holmes farting up a first draft and walking away from the program with The Power of Kroll.

It takes perfectly pitched writing, acting, direction,
design, and overall on-set production to overcome the
budget difficulties that plagued British television sci-fi
in the late 1970s and create a masterpiece.
That aesthetic is actually very difficult to sustain. For one, the writer must be a genius of balancing tone and characterization while keeping the plot tight and weaving countless themes and ideas into as many different elements of the story as possible. And the rest of the production has to approach the story with the same deft skill, especially when trying to do sci-fi on a late-70s BBC budget.

That’s why the most successful and essential stories of the Williams era were by Douglas Adams.

Because that is, basically, what the Williams era was trying to do. When it was firing on all cylinders, Doctor Who was pretty much indistinguishable from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. 

The problem is that Doctor Who has always been a massive show to make, and there are so many cylinders that getting every aspect of production up to that quality is extremely difficult. The Williams era was a wonderful idea that rarely had the resources to succeed.

Some modern writers have tackled the aesthetic of the Williams era pretty successfully. Gareth Roberts is probably the most notable, and his scripts for the Moffat era have achieved a tone and approach similar to what Adams did on his best days. But that era remains best for its few highs, and what we imagine that it could have been.

And ideally, what we can write ourselves today.

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