Don't Shoot- He's British! Part One

NEW SERIES Apprehensions of national identity and the Doctor
by Matthew Kilburn. Part One.
Lots of Doctor Who commentators seem to agree that the Doctor is somehow quintessentially British. This is inevitable when Doctor Who has been produced over five decades by one of the United Kingdom’s principal binding institutions, the BBC. It’s often assigned to a genre, dramatic science fiction, widely regarded for much of Doctor Who’s history as dominated by the United States. This is the first of three articles which will suggest how Doctor Who’s Britishness is constructed, not only through its production (until 1989) from a base which is not only British but London-English, but through some of the other contextual markers evident or implied in production. Few seem to be agreed on what qualifies the Doctor as a character to be considered British. Indeed, a mark of Britishness is that its qualities are difficult to identify. While all national identities are to some degree constructions consciously assembled by political, business, military or literary figures, or built upon assumptions and identifications particular to one cultural centre and then disseminated across territories as a secondary consideration to commercial or administrative needs, British identity is more self-aware of its artificiality than most. On the one hand, this confers a greater ‘authenticity’ upon the national identities of the component parts of the United Kingdom, but on the other it opens Britishness up to be adopted more readily by incomers.

Though loomed in the British Broadcasting Corporation, the threads from which the Doctor was spun came from many countries and represented the cosmopolitan nature of London’s creative industry. Verity Lambert was a native Londoner, but descended from Jewish immigrants; Waris Hussein was a second-generation BBC contributor (his mother being Eastern Service and occasional Woman’s Hour presenter Attia Hosain) but forever reminded of his Indian birth in a white BBC; Sydney Newman was Canadian and of Russian Jewish descent; Anthony Coburn, Australian and Roman Catholic at a time when the latter faith was still regarded as otherly by many protestant Britons. To pursue this line of argument is to risk a determinist essentialism, but it suggests that the makers of the first Doctor Who story might have been more exposed than most to the conflicts surrounding identity in post-war Britain.

Even in its toned-down broadcast form, An Unearthly Child plays upon early 1960s paranoia about immigration and assimilation. ‘I suppose she couldn’t be a foreigner,’ says Ian of Susan as he and Barbara wait in his car in Totters Lane. Indeed Susan turns out to be foreign both to time and planet rather than simply to Britain. The parallels between the Doctor and Susan and real-life immigrants are many. Susan’s surname is that of one of the best-known exiles from McCarthyite Hollywood, the screenwriter Carl Foreman. The technological superiority of which the Doctor boasts evokes associations with the many exiles from Germany and Austria who fled to Britain after the Nazi takeover, several of whom were leading scientists. The Doctor’s patrician air is a rebuke to the complacency of interwar and post-war Britain from an outsider who is determined to remain such. Yet Susan wants to become part of twentieth-century London, and Barbara indicates that she will be welcome.

In An Unearthly Child/100,000BC  the fire-seeking cave-dwellers are used in part to comment upon the gulf  the Doctor perceives between his civilization and that of Ian and Barbara. Ian in particular regards the cave-dwellers as primitive and less than human in their turn, and it is Barbara (despite her obvious discomfort) who defends the cave-dwellers’ status as human beings. Barbara is the voice of modern British civilization; Hur’s bemusement at the failure of the TARDIS travellers to kill her and Za undermines Barbara’s own optimism about innate human values but privileges Britain in 1963 as the nobler society, if possibly self-deceiving.

The success of Doctor Who and criticism from management led the tensions between the regulars in Doctor Who to be softened within its first few months, by which time the BBC had adopted the programme as a major part of its self-presentation strategy. As fear had made companions of those aboard the TARDIS, so fear of post-Dalek failure moved the Doctor closer to the viewer. When he lectures Barbara on history in The Aztecs, the point from which he surveys what can and cannot be changed seems to be Barbara’s own time. The Doctor has become an agent of humanist values in a series where humanism is often equated with the worldview of the liberal wing of the British establishment. The most blatant example is The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where the Doctor leads a re-enactment of the defeat of Nazi Germany by Britain, with the proviso that in this case the Daleks have first succeeded in occupying Earth-Britain. As another 1964 interpretation said, It Happened Here; and like the Nazis in Kevin Brownlow’s and Andre w Mollo’s film, the Daleks are seen for much of the time through their collaborators. The Doctor and his friends enable and instil a spirit which is at once both human and presented as specifically British; the defeat and exclusion of the Daleks is marked by a sound which represents parliament’s authority over Britain and Britain’s conversation with the world, the chimes of Big Ben. Doctor Who of the late 1960s builds upon this precedent as the Doctor battles monsters against a series of British monuments: the Post Office Tower, the London Underground, St Paul’s Cathedral, and by projection the fossil fuel rigs about to spring up in the North Sea. 
This is a British identity based around the present and the future, but the future is expressed in terms of the present and the past. The worldwide crew of The Moonbase is British-dominated and led. In The Tomb of the Cybermen the Doctor acts as a conscience for a British-accented archaeologist leading an expedition to Telos funded by the foreign-accented, dark-complexioned Kaftan and Klieg. This conscience is at once scientific, moral and white-British. The story is a homage to the Mummy genre and the cult of Egyptian archaeology, portrayed as a struggle between British (often amateur) archaeologists and foreign (often Egyptian) looters or magician-priests.

Gerry Davis once described Patrick Troughton as having a ‘fey’, ‘Irish’ quality to him, which he brought to his Doctor. This probably refers to this Doctor’s rejection of the obvious in favour of the oblique, but also chimes with the second Doctor’ s early penchant for adopting identities foreign within his the story’s context: not just the extra-colonial Examiner in The Power of the Daleks, but the German ‘Doctor von Wer’ in The Highlanders. These ‘quirks’ are juxtaposed with the younger, trendier, more superficial variants on Ian and Barbara, Ben and Polly, who represent a Britain which is again metropolitan London. By The Tomb of the Cybermen, in contrast, the Doctor is accompanied and contextualised by two figures from British cultural myth – the Highland piper-soldier, potential rebel turned loyal maker-defender of Empire, and the vulnerable young woman of good breeding who combines fragility with pluck. The idea at this point that the Doctor built the TARDIS – suggested by The Tomb of the Cybermen and again stated (to be denied) in The War Games – places the  Doctor in the tradition of the gentleman scientist-explorer, an idea identified as British by outsiders such as Jules Verne in creating Phileas Fogg.

In recent years, much has been made by newspaper columnists such as Janet Daley of American national identity being ideological, but the same could have been said of British imperial identity, particularly in its later phase. One of its propagandists, the novelist and politician John Buchan, depicted an empire run by men who were determinedly non-London, non-English, non-metropolitan: Scots, Boers, Americans. They followed a cause identified with fairness and order while acknowledging that they were outsiders from the point of view of most of those commonly thought of as at the empire’s heart, even when decked with knighthoods, peerages or possessed of country estates. In his late 1960s phase, the Doctor might be considered as this kind of person: an auxiliary to the establishment, an outsider with license who validates authority through constructive criticism. Perhaps he disappears so quietly and invisibly from the various bases from which he lifts a siege because he is a reminder to officials of what they are ruling for – the apparently eccentric but broadminded and inclusive ideal of the later British Empire.

This identification works more readily with the second Doctor than with the third. The second Doctor is persistent rather than lordly, subtly manipulative rather than hectoring. Deprived of his liberty, the third Doctor is at first keen to emphasise that he is an outsider, resenting his exile and antagonistic towards the representative of the British (and world) establishment which protects him, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. However, there is something about British identity as a performance at which the third Doctor becomes adept. He convinces a civil servant that he is an establishment figure who knows the right people at the right gentlemen’s clubs. Yet at the same time he can fail to ‘pass’, as in Carnival of Monsters  where he and Jo are readily identified by crew and passengers on the SS Bernice as charlatans. Instead, Vorg recognises him as a vagabond showman of no fixed abode.
(The first two parts of this series were orginally published in Plaything of Sutekh fanzine in 2013)

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