Apprehensions of national identity and the Doctor by Matthew Kilburn
Specific models of Britishness were important to a series which was beginning to be marketed more consciously and more aggressively towards stations in the United States. In 1978 Tom Baker was pictured at the head of a queue of monsters in front of the US visa applications office in Grosvenor Square, London. The launch of Doctor Who Weekly by Marvel UK in 1979 was presented as the meeting of a distinctively British hero, cerebral and eccentric, with the marketing values of the costumed American superhero. This was in part a misrepresentation, given how far Dez Skinn’s Marvel UK sought to assimilate American characters and storytelling to British comic traditions, and how the Doctor’s British identity and perceived eccentricity depended upon subtler layering than reporting suggested. However, the tone of the campaign may have influenced the fashioning of the Doctor’s identity in the ensuing decade.
Most defined of all – at least in one story – was the Britishness of Peter Davison’s Doctor. In Black Orchid he seems to revel in an unreservedly English-British cultural identity, cricket being an English game spread throughout the British Empire. With its strong class associations, the Doctor is here firmly a gentleman among gentlemen rather than a player of a lower social class. The kinship the fourth Doctor had with the Cockney-accented Time Lord Drax, as seen in The Armageddon Factor just three years earlier, is long forgotten. While the exposure of the Doctor as an ‘impostor’ seems to strip him of his class status, the discovery of the TARDIS restores his lordly nature and naturalises him within the class system in a way never achieved before. It’s possible that Johnny Byrne’s part-reinvention of the Time Lords as angels, celestial spiritual guides for lesser beings, flattered this interpretation of the character, the Time Lords standing in for a benevolent British elite. The wish expressed by some fans in the early 1980s to see the Doctor spend an entire season on Gallifrey may also have drawn from this identification, a fanbase in, educated by or aiming for higher education seeing the Time Lords as emblematic of the British post-war technocracy which was about to be dismantled under the Thatcher government and its successors.
Running alongside these signs of alignment with traditional and new British elites were some critiques of British conservatism which were very much of their time. Kinda pursued the conventional chauvinism of depicting humanity as British and the otherworldly as foreign, but pursued it further than before; the Doctor was institutionally estranged from both parties and definitely distinguished from an exploitative, destructive masculinity that might deserve exploration from the point of view of male gender identity and British imperialism. Frontios presented a pioneer society undermined as much by its command structure as by the Tractators. Its people of the far future was recognisably English-British in names and types, complete with a leader called Plantagenet. In these circumstances the Doctor represented an English-British gentlemanliness, passive aggression acting as the face for a determined focus on abuse of power fuelled by awareness of lost innocence, redolent of literary adaptations set between the world wars.
The fifth Doctor’s cultural identity was shaped by trends in television drama which had buoyed Peter Davison’s previous career both in ‘family’ series such as All Creatures Great and Small, and though literary adaptations such as ITV’s Brideshead Revisited. Both mourned a lost inter-war Britain at the same time as they condescended to it or brutally satirised it. It’s tempting to see the fifth Doctor as a Charles Ryder, maintaining his chippiness but imbued by moral purpose and then placed in the shape of a Sebastian Flyte. The production office’s growing awareness of the American market as a possible route to enhance an increasingly meagre budget encouraged a playing up of a more narrowly nostalgic identity for the Doctor than had obtained beforehand. The fifth Doctor’s cricket-playing Englishness would be a comparatively brief interlude – indeed, after his first season cricketing analogies are rarely made if ever. The remainder of the 1980s saw further reconstructions of the Doctor’s association with British identity which would pursue first reactionary and then radical emphases, while the contrast with the American hegemony in both the science fiction and fantasy genre and television and film fiction production in general would loom ever larger in the ensuing decades.
Colin Baker's Doctor represents a programme which could no longer adequately translate a sense of Britishness. Davison's Doctor had expressed a nostalgia for selectively imagined certainties of the interwar period, of a stable hierarchical social order contrasted with futuristic or present-day chaos. Even in Mawdryn Undead, where public school isolates Turlough and allows him to be exploited by the Black Guardian, the confined institutional life is also presented as a secure berth for a figure emblematic of Britishness and of Doctor Who, Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. Colin Baker's Doctor engaged with a 'now' which was already passing out of fashion in television - the world of Lytton and his gang, straight out of the turn of the decade releases of Euston Films - and with a 'then', the world of heavy industry and organised labour - with which government was at war. The Rani's efforts seem ill-timed in the age of Arthur Scargill. Timelash misrepresents and mocks H.G. Wells, a pillar of genre identity and of the collectivist intellectual Britain under attack from proudly philistine Conservative backbenchers such as (the irony was one I appreciate more in hindsight) Terry Dicks.
The opportunity to portray the Doctor as a beacon of decency was lost. Where stories in this period have a moral heart, it lies elsewhere, such as in the DJ in Revelation of the Daleks. Even there, this is a Briton, a Liverpudlian by accent, representing American culture to the future, just as Nicola from Putney represents America to a British audience in a similarly inauthentic fashion as Peri. The impression is a lack of faith and confidence in British society as well as a condescension towards America. Where in the 1970s Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had encouraged writers to display a skepticism towards the postwar status quo, this was now being torn apart, but an ersatz transatlanticism was all mid-1980s Doctor Who could find to replace it, as the series’ sense of futurism faltered in the age of the ZX Spectrum and high end television drama’s migration to film. The nostalgia for imperial certainties seen in the programme since at least the Hinchcliffe-Holmes days was also bankrupt.
The crisis becomes acute in The Trial of a Time Lord. The Doctor’s fate is entrusted to a jury trial, a totem of Anglocentric Britishness, compounding the Doctor’s identity as both prosecuted and prosecutor. The trial is stage-managed, with echoes of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century judicial murders which blood the foundations of the British state. The first story and the arc it initiates tease a parallel between an all-but-obliterated London which has forgotten its identity, and a Gallifrey which uses its imperial power over time and space cynically and mercilessly. The framing device of this bleak season might be largely stagnant dramatically, but it argues for the end of Doctor Who’s and Britain’s phase of post-imperial reflection, written by authors who had lived through or fought in the Second World War. The argument is confused by the script changes forced by the death of Robert Holmes and the departure of Eric Saward. The apparent mutually assured destruction of the Doctor and the Valeyard at the end of Saward’s withdrawn part fourteen plays into 1980s renewed cold war concerns, but those so inclined could find a metaphor for a polarized British political system unable to learn the lessons of the past, or the dichotomous interdependence between exploitative imperialism and the liberalism it encourages in the empire’s governing elite.