5 September 2016

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

Apprehensions of national identity and the Doctor by Matthew Kilburn

It’s in the third Doctor’s period that the programme makes its most deliberate critical allusion to British imperial history. In The Mutants, the Doctor’s mission to Solos and his conduct represents one strand of British establishment thinking, the civilized British administrator as liberal interventionist. The Marshal and his regime embody the grubby reality of exploitation and subjugation. The Doctor’s open-mindedness and persistence leads him to play his part with Sondergaard and crucially the Solonians in the restoration of an all-but-obliterated Solonian culture and self-knowledge. One thinks of British anthropologists and ethnologists reaching in the late imperial and immediate post-imperial phase to demonstrate appreciation of the cultures which had previously been officially dismissed.

This does nothing to shift the centre of the third Doctor’s universe away from London. Visits to the west of England and South Wales are very much open to interpretation as establishment condescension to localities not able to look after themselves. There is belittling dialogue: a ‘funny little Welshman’ and ‘darkest Mummerset’. London is where everything happens: in Invasion of the Dinosaurs it is the centre of an attempt to change the past and future of humanity. If this is an analogy of empire, the Doctor and UNIT represent an establishment determined not to repeat past mistakes but who exercise post-imperial power rather than abdicate it. Though often expressing anti-colonial ideas, the twentieth century drive for world government of which UNIT is a fictional offshoot can be shown to arise from the diplomatic manoeuvrings and global aspirations of European empires. The Doctor’s membership of the British and global elites is contingent upon his accommodation with a Britishness which sees international co-operation as the successor to the British imperial project. In seasons seven and eight in particular, it’s tempting to regard the Doctor as a person colonised, rather than as the inhabitant of a Gallifreyan penal colony containing himself and occasionally the Master. UNIT and its trappings are briefly reinforced in Robot to help emphasise that while this is still Doctor Who, the Doctor’s relationship to the establishment has shifted as a result of his regeneration. His mockery of the Brigadier’s confidence that Great Britain was the only country which could house the missile launch codes of the atomic powers places him outside comfortable patriotic assumptions; he appears once again to be the rogue auxiliary.  
The recasting of the Doctor as Tom Baker and his deformalized costume point towards the exploration of a more transgressive strand of British identity than hitherto undertaken. I’ve been told by one viewer, then in his teens, that the replacement of Jon Pertwee by Tom Baker meant that suddenly the Doctor was ‘not a gentleman’. Unlike the public school rebel Pertwee, Tom Baker was born on the wrong side of several tracks for conventional definitions of British identity: from the port city of Liverpool, Irish on his mother’s side, Jewish on his father’s, Catholic by upbringing, he was an inhabitant of four borderlands and brought this sense of disconnection to his performance and characterisation. The fourth Doctor’s outfit seems to pick up on stereotypes associated with Baker’s background too. There is something of the pedlar about his ragamuffin look in season twelve, a job associated with the poor Irish or Jewish immigrant in England, but his demeanour, vocabulary and delivery echo (while not strictly imitating) another model of Irishness, Oscar Wilde. 

Irishness has a contested relationship with British identity, playing out in active politics (see for just one example http://sluggerotoole.com/2008/11/28/irishness-incompatible-with-britishness/) as well as academic debates on history and cultural and political identity. In the nineteenth century alone, forms of Irishness were othered, excluded and yet incorporated into a ‘metropolitan’ British-Imperial identity, with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales being presented in propagandist graphics as pillars supporting a worldwide empire. Neither Ireland’s poverty nor her political resentment of rule from Westminster were widely understood. At the same time Ireland was represented as possessing an ancient culture closed to and disconcerting the English-speaking heart of empire. The Doctor’s Time Lord perspective may draw something from a nineteenth- and twentieth-century fear of Irishness as an unknown element in the imperial make-up, in this case principally as offering a disconcerting perspective on prejudices accepted as truths.

Added to that is another layer of ethnic stereotyping: the Doctor as wanderer, walking in eternity as shown in Pyramids of Mars, recalls the depiction of the Jewish people by early Christian writers as condemned to wander across the world until the Second Coming of Christ. The fourth Doctor is a space vagrant like none of his predecessors, a member of a universal diaspora, at home everywhere and nowhere, clothes he wears by necessity as well as choice. The idea of the Doctor as political exile was more strongly signified here than at any time since the first Doctor’s period.

Though his look was identified by contemporaries as that of a student, the 1970s were still a time when to be a university student was to be a trainee member of the establishment. The Deadly Assassin, with its lavender-list wielding president and rule-obsessed quasi-clerical bureaucracy suggest s that this establishment remains a British one, with its nods to the ecclesiastical origins of the ancient English universities and the recent resignation of Harold Wilson. The Doctor is a spirit the leaders of his society have failed to assimilate, relevant to historical ideas of political Britishness. Great Britain relied on institutions largely English in origin, but they were unable to deal with the customs of particularly Ireland but also Scotland and Wales. England and Scotland had two distinct official  forms of protestant Christianity. More relevant to the 1960s and 1970s was the expansion of higher education and hence the governing elite, including people from varied backgrounds who were less likely to respect the incumbents of authority, with whom they had little in common.
The initial direction of Tom Baker’s Doctor was largely set by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, even as they were departing the series. Philip Hinchcliffe has said that he would have preferred the Doctor to be a ‘man who built the Empire’ figure. This once more calls up the model of Richard Hannay, as well as anticipating the combination of man of learning and action hero seen in the Indiana Jones films. The fourth Doctor displays more than a dash of Victorian self-help, intervening to lecture first and enable second: in Planet of Evil he urges Sorenson to deal with his infection himself, only intervening at a much later and more dangerous stage, and in The Seeds of Doom insists at first that the Antarctic base crew must ‘help themselves’ rather than rely on his expertise. Season thirteen’s Doctor sees paternalist intervention as a last resort, and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps as a preferred route, meeting growing mid-1970s nostalgia for the supposed merits of the nineteenth-century British economy.

The fourth Doctor can only embody the nineteenth-century British industrialist up to a point; circumstances dictate that he develops principally as resourceful gentleman-scholar-adventurer (especially in season sixteen) while also being a seemingly irresponsible aesthete who might land on a planet by mistake (The Sun Makers) or protest that he doesn’t work for anyone and is just having fun (Nightmare of Eden). The fourth Doctor successfully triangulates a position between several contradictory models of nineteenth-century British male: the enigmatic non-Anglo-Saxon, the aloof puritanical man of industry, the socially-concerned paternalist and the threateningly degenerate aesthete.

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