Sunday, March 23, 2008

...Of Death

As I write this, Film4 is showing Doctor in Clover. This is a '60s medical comedy starring Leslie Phillips, and not - as modern fandom might like to imagine - a movie about David Tennant being rolled in low-fat butter.

However, I don't want to talk about David Tennant being rolled in low-fat butter. I want to talk about something which isn't much more insightful, but which is morbidly obsessive in a very different sort of way. I want to talk about famous people dying.

Traditionally, there's always been a skulking, unspoken connection between Doctor Who and Celebrity Death. The reason for this is simple and obvious: one of the most important Big Facts we were told about the series, when we were learning its ancient history from the fanzines and guidebooks, was that the first episode was broadcast while the world was still recovering from the hangover of the Kennedy assassination. For those of us who started reading Doctor Who Monthly before we started thinking about girls, it may even have been the first time we heard of the Kennedy assassination. At first sight, it's hard to see any direct correlation between the "Camelot" Presidency (motorcades, mafia connections, power and glamour, Jackie Kennedy's early-'60s ultra-chic) and Hartnell-era Doctor Who (junkyards, police boxes, very small sets, Barbara Wright's cardigans), however desperately "Silver Nemesis" might try to link the two. More importantly, though, the hype and pizzazz of Lee Harvey Oswald's Grand Day Out has overwhelmed all the other legends and oddities surrounding Doctor Who's arrival in the world. Which is unfortunate, when you consider that the very same day - 22nd of November, 1963 - also saw the deaths of both Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis.

Even on its own, the death of Lewis is striking, far more so than what was going on in Dallas. Not that I want to heap any praise on the pompous, reactionary old bore (obviously I'm bound to be on Philip Pullman's side in this argument, although the Narnia books are actually far less offensive that Lewis' Perelandra trilogy, which is the SF equivalent of being shouted at by the angry man who stands outside the supermarket and tries to give you pamphlets about the Love of Jesus), but it is true to say that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gave us the most important single prototype of the TARDIS. Yes, even more important than the H. G. Wells model, since the Ship's "magic wardrobe" qualities have always been closer to the heart of the programme than its "time-travel" ability: q.v. the final scene of "Rose". We can go further, and suggest that Doctor Who was the post-War descendant of the same children-find-a-secret-world-down-the-back-of-a-sofa tradition, even if "An Unearthly Child" presents us with a version in which the grown-ups are the ones who discover Fairyland. Had Lewis lived just another twenty-four hours, then he would have been able to watch the first episode and say to himself: 'Haaaaang on a minute…'

But when you consider the three fatalities in combination, a more interesting picture emerges. (We're not the first ones to try this, incidentally. Peter Kreeft wrote a novel entitled Between Heaven and Hell, in which Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis meet each other in limbo on their way to the afterlife, and drone on about the nature of Christ for 120 pages. The justification for this is that all three men were Christians of varying philosophical breeds, but if it's acceptable for an author to use their deaths as an exercise in Catholic propaganda, then I'm fairly sure it's all right to use them to talk about Daleks.) Consider the following…

Early Doctor Who was never explicitly conceived as "sci-fi", and the parts that seem most "spacey" came from experiments in TV production rather than the Arthur C. Clarke school of rocket-ship fiction. But the '60s version of the programme did exploit all sorts of popular anxieties and aspirations about the future, specifically those parts of the future that most concerned the British, at a time when the country was still in the process of rebuilding itself after the Austerity years. The fact is that the people of 1963 considered Thinking About the Future to be an important pastime. Our twenty-first-century society, being wholly consumer-driven and largely run by Rupert Murdoch, fetishises the idea of having things now and discourages us from thinking about what-happens-next. To the '60s mind-set, what-happens-next was at the root of all modern culture. For the British, anything American was considered futuristic, and the Yanks seemed determined to build fully-functional space-colonies by the 1980s. Across the western world, questions of social order and population control were making us wonder whether the White Heat of Technology really could save humankind. And amidst all of this, the BBC was attempting to make reasonably cosy, reasonably highbrow family entertainment with its roots in popular literature rather than Hollywood razzle-dazzle.

This is the crucible in which Doctor Who was given shape, and in that light, can you think of any better combination of blood-sacrifices than the space-happy President of the US, the man who wrote Brave New World, and the country's best-known children's fantasist? The only name which might perhaps be better-suited to the list of casualties is John Wyndham, given that Susan Foreman can safely be considered a "nice" version of one of the Midwich Cuckoos (and certainly a product of the same post-War generation-gap angst), but Wyndham didn't pop his clogs until 1969. He may even have seen Doctor Who, although God knows what he thought of it if he did. Maybe he watched "An Unearthly Child", and found himself thinking 'oh good, it's not just me'; maybe he watched "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", and wondered if he was in some way responsible for either the vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain or the giant shambling plant-creature; maybe he watched "The Dominators" in his final months, and just thought it was a load of cobblers.

This raises another point about death and Doctor Who: a lot of people we now think of as "historical", or at least "recent-historical", lived long enough to watch it. The 1980s taught us that if a series about time-travel goes on for long enough, then it'll eventually overlap with its own predictions about the future ("Attack of the Cybermen" might be seen as a symptom of this problem more than an actual story, or at least, it's half-tolerable if you think of it that way). Now the 2000s are teaching us that if a series about time-travel goes on for long enough, then it'll start treating the early years of its run as if they were an era of antiquity, fit for the Doctor to revisit. "Remembrance of the Daleks" was the first sign of this, but it's a lot more noticeable if you live in an age which is so obsessed with the present that it even considers time-travel to the 1980s to be in some way exotic (Ashes to Ashes, for Christ's sake…). Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis all missed the Doctor Who epoch by twenty-four hours, and Wyndham could theoretically have watched Quarks at play, but they all died in the monochrome 1960s. To someone of my age, the difference between the black-and-white era and the colour era is like a geological boundary layer, separating the Ancient TV Past from the Recent TV Past. What about casualties of the 1970s, then?

When BBC7 interviewed Agatha Christie's biographer in 2007, they remembered that geeks might be listening - because BBC7 always remembers that geeks might be listening - and asked her what Dame Agatha would make of the fact that she's going to be the subject of a Doctor Who story this year. The biographer fielded the question politely enough, but interestingly, both interviewer and interviewee spoke as if Christie would be vaguely puzzled by the existence of this strange, futuristic programme about a man in a time-travelling police box. Except, of course, that… she died in 1976. Specifically, she died between episodes two and three of "The Brain of Morbius". Whereas it used to be taken for granted that the Doctor only ever met historical figures of the Marco Polo oeuvre, it's now perfectly reasonable for him to bump into people who might actually have seen Philip Madoc trying to cut Tom Baker's head off.

This raises odd questions about the future, assuming our civilisation has one. Modern-day Doctor Who is, as we've already established, so addicted to celeb culture and showbiz parties that the monsters in "Voyage of the Damned" even look like walking BAFTA awards. Many of the celebrities who come into contact with the series in our own decade will be historical figures, of a kind, thirty or forty or fifty years from now. A producer of Sky-TV-owned Doctor Who in 2050 may well decide that it'd be "cute" for the Doctor to go back in time and meet legendary late-twentieth-century starlet Kylie Minogue, oblivious the fact that she was actually in the programme. Or how about soon-to-be-mythical Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who's surely guaranteed a cameo appearance in the show at some point in the next few years?

I mentioned a blood-sacrifice, and… I may not have been entirely serious. But human beings can still instinctively feel, even after centuries of evidence to the contrary, that no great work can succeed unless somebody's buried in the foundations for good luck (hence the creepy later verses of "London Bridge is Falling Down", and the more modern architectural tradition that a new bridge hasn't been "christened" until at least one suicide has jumped off it). It obviously worked for Doctor Who in 1963, given that the bridge is still standing, even if it was closed for repairs between 1989 and 2005. It's not always so successful, though. Jon Pertwee snuffed it just before the supposed "return" of the programme in 1996, which might have been interpreted as a symbolic laying-to-rest of the old before the ushering-in of the new, but all it seemed to get us was a "Planet of the Spiders"-style motorbike chase in the middle of the TV Movie. And the only notable person who died in the twenty-four hours before "Rose" was Jim Callaghan, which might be considered a bit of a damp squib on the Kennedy scale. Although it may be apt that Callaghan was Prime Minister during the late 1970s, the last time the series was a ratings-winning national institution.

Now Doctor in Clover has come to an end, and the TV ads are telling me that you can get free Doctor Who DVDs in this week's Sun. That settles it: the world is officially broken. Balance can clearly only be restored to the universe if, in the spirit of '63, Rupert Murdoch gets shot in the head twenty-four hours before the broadcast of "Partners in Crime". That might make even Catherine Tate seem bearable.

A Postscript. While we're feasting on the dead… these days, a lot of critics (rather unfairly) attack the film 2010 for being "dated", on the grounds that it depicts a world just two years in our future where the Cold War is still in progress. However, I'd point out that the movie also features a cameo by Arthur C. Clarke, who's seen reading a newspaper on a bench outside the White House. I'd tentatively suggest that Arthur C. Clarke reading a newspaper on a bench outside the White House is a lot less likely to happen in 2010 than a face-off between America and Russia, at least unless someone does something really weird with preserving fluid and animatronics.