Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Doctor Who, Tom Baker, K-9, and the Wars Among the Stars by John A. A. Logan



The first Doctor Who I remember being conscious of as a child was Jon Pertwee, and the story was The Green Death – all about toxic slime, rogue industrial chemists, and malignant maggots.

I liked Jon Pertwee, but then the following year his face metamorphosised into that of another actor, Tom Baker, and this new incarnation was such a spectacle of drama and bombastic tour de force that for me, looking back, my “Dr Who years” must be the Tom Baker years.
He came into the role straight from a stage of thespian unemployment which had led him to take up a job operating a Kango drill as a labourer on a building site.
He must have thought he was never going to get anywhere as an actor during that period, and then the next second there he is in the Dr Who role, hat and scarf in place, and throwing himself so hard and desperately into the performance that the Dr Who sets sometimes shook even more than they always had, perhaps set off just by the timbre of his voice alone, though he certainly threw all his bodyweight into the work, too, even breaking a (real-life) collarbone one day while fighting an alien Sontaran warrior on a river bank.



Recently, on UK Freeview Channel 70 (the “Horror” channel), repeats of Dr Who have been showing regularly, including Tom Baker classics, such as The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Sun Makers.
The Doctor has a variety of companions on these adventures, of course, but my favourite perhaps is his “dog”, K-9.
I haven’t seen these episodes for about 40 years but, re-watching them now, that robotic canine impresses me more and more with each outing, and Baker’s Doctor seems fonder of that metal dog than I ever saw him being of any other “assistant”. In one episode, he plays chess with K-9, finds himself losing, and so deliberately causes a wobble of the Tardis on rematerialisation which upsets all the pieces on the board; the Doctor also gets into all sorts of philosophical debates and arguments with this stubborn electronic dog; and he is very often saved by this faithful hound, even, in one story, to the point where K-9 has exhausted his own battery life-power saving half a planet and as he temporarily fades away is still whispering neck-saving practical advice to a grateful Doctor.


The intelligence of the writing, the scale of the complexity and ambition in the realisation of the storytelling, is marvellous, but also, of course, depressing when we turn to modern day television and make comparisons in terms of quality/vision.
The stories written by Robert Holmes stand out, for me, most of all, though that doesn’t mean that many of the other stories by other writers aren’t of the highest quality also.
The Pirate Planet, written by Douglas (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) Adams, is a fascinating piece, with lots of Hitchhikers echoes resounding around its space corridors.

It’s interesting to see also that, as in the earlier Jon Pertwee story, Inferno, which I re-watched recently, and the 1960s-written Dalek stories, the vision behind many of these 1970s-written stories is still strongly influenced by that Post-World-War-Two consciousness of the dangers of fascistic totalitarian governments, Nazi-like scenarios are constantly being re-imagined throughout space and time. Likewise, in a great many of the stories, humanoid races throughout the galaxy are described as futuristically enslaved drones, their lives drained off, drip-like, for the benefit of a tiny ruling elite at the top.
Scientific knowledge and power often underpin these ruling elites, but likewise, in the hands of the Doctor (with a bit of help from K-9 now and then), that scientific power, including knowledge of the mysteries of Time and Space, can be used to liberate instead of only enslave. This seems to be the fundamental battle for the future outcome of the destiny of mankind (or humanoidkind), that is being playfully experimented with in the telling of the Doctor Who stories.
The context is usually the logos of science, not the mythos of religion, but again and again in these tales it seems to be very much the same ground that is being fought for, salvation of the human soul, albeit a soul defined in purely humanist terms.

The difference between Dr Who’s many-authored 1960s/1970s vision, and, say, for example, Shakespeare’s 16th/17th century vision, is that in both scenarios a whole truck-load of psychics may very well crop up (psychic phenomena being “almost” scientific, especially in an Extra Sensory Perception-soaked transcendalist 1960s/1970s culture), and hasten along the plot and narrative forthwith, but, in the world of Who, it seems to me, whenever a ghost or a god or a magician crops up, they will always be a kind of plot-device used by the author to illustrate that, in fact, such phenomena are not truly real, but always the projections and tricks of some scientific Oz-behind-the-curtain sleight of hand.
An apparent god in Doctor Who will always be some future Time Traveller, come back in time to dazzle the locals with science which to them is magic etc, or some long-lived alien hanging around at the edges of mankind for centuries, bewitching the locals of some Stonehenge-like village, waiting indeed for the passage of time to allow for human technology to catch up with that alien’s need for spare spaceship parts.

In the Whovian universe, quite understandably, Science itself is God, and in the 1960s/1970s this was still a relatively new god at that.
Unlike the George Lucas Star Wars universe, for example, with its underlying elements of implicit “theism”, there is no inexplicable-yet-malleable “Force” hidden behind the scenes in the 1960s/1970s Who World, no “Cosmic Consciousness” or “Infinite Intelligence” as such, which may be directing the affairs of men, and women, and aliens, and even robotic canines.
No, in the Whovian universe when we close our eyes we are on our own.

Without taking sides or positions it is interesting sometimes to note which end of the Theistic vs Atheistic spectrum, a piece of imaginative work is coming from, or if not from either Polar end, even better, to try to define some mid-point on the spectrum that would define the locus and origin of intent.
With Dr Who this analysis gets more interesting than most:
We have Tom Baker, brought up a devout Roman Catholic, who from the age of 15 to 21 lived as a monk in a monastery, before losing that faith and going on to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. Ever since, he has maintained, when interviewed, an avowedly sceptical or, as he calls it,  “irreligious” position. So he has experienced life, as it were, from both sides of the Theistic/Atheistic spectrum and possibly all points between?
As we’ve already seen, Douglas Adams wrote a couple of Who episodes and described himself as “a ‘radical atheist’, adding radical for emphasis so he would not be asked if he meant agnostic.”
Another publicly-stated atheist friend of Douglas Adams was “The Honourable” Lalla Ward, daughter of the 7th Viscount Bangor, who had played the character of Romana (or Romana 2 as she is known), Tom Baker’s companion in Dr Who, and who was later married to Tom Baker from 1980-1982.
And, in 1992, Douglas Adams introduced Lalla Ward to Richard Dawkins, perhaps the Most Famous Atheist in the World, and they also married that same year.

Now, again, without “taking sides” necessarily, it is interesting to contrast the amount of solid, scientific atheism standing at the back of the Dr Who universe, as opposed to, say, George Lucas’ own theist or even Einsteinian/Spinosian pantheist views influencing Star Wars, being filmed at the same general time and place at Elstree Studios, London:


“Lucas set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" and Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," of Arthurian legends and Japanese samurai epics, of Carlos Castaneda's "Tales of Power" and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis.”
(From 'George Lucas, the Force and God' by Terry Mattingly) 

Lucas is known to have borrowed heavily for Star Wars from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so this scion of 1970s Western cinema has its source in 1950s Eastern cinema, which, in turn, had as its source a long tradition from the Samurai at one end of a spectrum to the Zen Buddhist at the other.
In fact, such have been the extent of the mythological, philosophical and religious influences attributed to Lucas for the genesis of Star Wars, that over the years writers have included among them Zoroastrianism, the yin and yang of Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Manichaeism, Qi, Hinduistic pranaism etc etc…

Anyway, I love a dose of both ends of this huge spectrum, it seems, from Atheist to Theist, and many points in between. Reality is so vast after all, I wouldn’t want to too strongly rule anything out at such an early stage…

Interesting now to think, though, that when Shakespeare, in The Tempest, sets Prospero down on that island amidst storms and rains, Dukes and Kings, usurpations and machinations, rational magic versus Occult Magicks, witches and spirits and outcast monsters, shipwrecks and slaves and drunkards in search of celestial liquor, spies and romances and harpies, goblins in the shape of hounds, captivities and departures and the drowning of magic books, and epilogues and ultimate shornings of all magic powers…it’s interesting now, to think, did Shakespeare view himself at any or all ends or positions of such imagined spectrums, working out what he believed in first…or…did he just embark upon the seas of the world’s stories and let them tell themselves, no matter what shape the Runes might make later when examined by posterity?

No Theism perhaps…or even Atheism…or rigid staging points between…no agendas…nothing to prove…no setting down the Law of what is Real, or what is not real…not in advance at any rate…just, following along with the story and seeing where it really does take us, and where it really does end?









9 comments:

Deb said...

Excellent blog - especially since you mentioned my main man Dr. Joseph Campbell, also an Irish Catholic who felt a tension early on between mathematics,science and his early religious training. Interesting to note that Scottish kids got an introduction to comparative mythology and/or comparative religion via the tardis. Also interesting because as I mentioned "the other" John Logan was just discussing atheism vs. theism with his mam this very day. K-9 literally a deux ex machina? Will have to catch up on Dr. Who youtube episodes while on the lookout for archetypes!

Deb said...

I meant to type deus ex machine. My own robot got it wrong.

Dennis Hamley said...

John, I can't begin to do justice in this little comment to the wealth and complexity of your argument, which will keep me thinking all day now. I see exactly what you mean about the Theism/Atheism spectrum and have in my life lodged for a while at every point along it. Yes, Dr Who is a key text in this. By the way, I remember William Hartnell's very first incarnation - and when he was twelve, my son built a staggeringly realistic model of K9, though sadly it couldn't talk. I loved your musings on Shakespeare and Prospero. I'm sufficiently persuaded of Shakespeare's comprehensive genius to believe that he didn't have to or need to work out where he stood on the spectrum. In my Spirit of the Place, the poet Nicholas Fowler's final estimate of the Spirit is that it 'knows all nature's laws at once' and I think that describes Shakespeare - and he knew that the great sea of stories collectively contained these truths and he was there just to lead them out and lodge them in our minds.

Susan Price said...

Great post, John. - I always thought Dr Who was 'god' - battling evil to protect mankind, using seemingly supernatural powers, insight, intelligence.

Wendy Jones said...

Great blog. I agree that Tom Baker was iconic. Saturday nights were not complete for me as a child unless I could watch Doctor Who. Thanks for the trip down memory lane

madwippitt said...

Enjoyed this very much! Now looking forward to reading your blog on that other marvellous Terry Nation creation, Blakes 7 :-)

Nick Green said...

'Have I that right...?'

Somehow he's still the definitive Doctor.

Lydia Bennet said...

A lovely Whovian tribute John, there is something so classically British about Dr Who compared with Star Wars - the police box time machine, the sheer bonkersness of the plots and monsters, the shambolic Docs so far from the steely eyed, granite jawed US sci-fi and adventure heroes (though of course Han Solo is something special!). I remember watching the original Dr Who and being scared stiff, I also liked Pertwee but I have a soft spot for Patrick Troughton, a fine actor and a delightful Doctor. I did used to wonder if there was any sort of 'god' figure behind these Time Lords, or any authority above them, since they seemed to have limited control of what they did or became. There were some lovely jokes in the episodes, I seem to recall the Master watching the Clangers on tv and speculating on what alien life form they could be.

Leverett Butts said...

You've said everything I've ever thought about Tom Baker's Doctor. Very good post!