Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Growing up with the Doctor – Part 4

Growing up with the Doctor – Tom Baker (1974 to 1981)
When Tom Baker became the Doctor in 1974, I had turned 17, and was just about to embark on 13 driving lessons, after which I was finally deemed to be safe enough to drive on the roads of Jersey. I was stopped, incidentally, shortly after passing my test, for what a police motorcycle rider told me was "careful driving". I was going so slowly and timidly that he thought I was drunk!
Tom Baker saw me through the 6th form at school (what is now termed, confusingly to me, year 11 and year 12) and onward through my student days at University. And he was definitely the student's Doctor, with his witty repartee, and his bohemian clothing. It was only in his final year, that John Nathan Turner decided to change the image, and replaced what had been just clothes – albeit with a technicolour scarf – with a uniform – question marks on the shirt, a long burgundy coat, and a scarf that was now just burgundy, plum, and red scarf.
Tom Baker also managed to get engaged and married. Myself, I only got engaged during my time as a student to a girl called Ruth, and unhappily the engagement was broken with much heartache on both sides. Baker's marriage ended soon after he left the show.
The very early Baker stories were a gradual move from the old style Pertwee stories, and a very mixed bag. For every atmospheric Genesis of the Dalek and Terror of the Zygons, you had the more plodding and traditional Robot and Revenge of the Cybermen.
But after that, the show moved on to become a Gothic delight, with the historical settings given the full strength of the BBC production values, giving the show a rich sumptuous look, which can be seen at its best in stories like Pyramids of Mars, Masque of Mandragora, Talons of Weng-Chiang, gradually fading but still present in Horror of Fang Rock, Image of the Fendahl. Even the non-historical stories drew upon roots in literature, Planet of Evil (Jekyll and Hyde), The Brain of Morbius (Frankenstein), The Robots of Death (Agatha Christie), The Seeds of Doom (The Thing from Another World).
These were the years after the end of the Heath government, when Harold Wilson came to power, and clashes over pay negotiations with the Unions led to Jim Callaghan's Government "Winter of Discontent". Inflation rocketed, and by the end of 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, prices of everything from food to cars and houses had soared.
There was little reflection of this in Doctor Who. Unlike the Pertwee era, comment on the topical issues of the day had largely vanished. That's not to say that Doctor Who had lost its moral compass – far from it. Genesis of the Daleks confronts issues of warfare and takes the Daleks back to their post-war roots in reflections on Nazi Germany. Planet of Evil looks at scientific responsibility. And The Deadly Assassin presents government power struggles, and the corruption that power brings. The Doctor is still fighting evil, and he takes pains to tell Leela not to use weapons to kill. But the moral imperative was more universal rather than specific.
Orwell looked at Charles Dickens, and concluded that Dickens is a moralist. In his novels, he fights particular evils in society where he encounters them, but he has no clear cut remedy of his own, and no political agenda like socialism. That's very much like the Tom Baker Doctor. He enters the situation, and defeats the evil, and leaves. There's no word of advice or comment like Jon Pertwee's Doctor sometimes used to give at the end of a story. Baker's Doctor has done what was needed, and that is all the improvement he needs to do. And of course, he is far less an establishment figure than his predecessor, much more of a maverick. It's like playing the joker in the pack.
Coming from Jersey, I found at University everyone wanted political labels. Were you Conservative, Liberal or Labour? Fellow students found it hard to understand that there could be a form of politics, as in Jersey, where party systems did not exist. I rather relished the fact that like Tom Baker's Doctor, my politics could not be pinned down, pigeonholed, and neatly categorised. People love labels; it makes them secure.
Gothic stories, by their very nature, are dark, and the violent nature of the stories, albeit enfolded in a fantasy setting, drew criticism from Mary Whitehouse, and her self-proclaimed "National Viewers and Listeners Association"; now it goes under the name of "Mediawatch" which at least does not try to suggest a spuriously large membership. The NVLA eventually gained about 150,000 members, which is about the size of York.
As a result of prolonged criticism, and one drowning sequence in particular which it was agreed did overstep boundaries, Philip Hinchcliffe was rapidly moved on, and Doctor Who under new producer Graham Williams was under strict instructions to tone the level of violence down.
The Williams period was a mixed bag. There were some extremely good stories, such as many of those in the "Key to Time", and a high note with "City of Death". But there were some very silly stories, and the sets began to look too over lit, too lacking in detail. Watching "The Invisible Enemy" and "The Sun Makers", despite being good stories, the sets are a failure, with far too many bright and cheap looking corridor scenes. Inflation was also beginning to bite very hard at Doctor Who, and without the benefits of modern digital technology, some of the monsters – the giant prawn in "The Invisible Enemy", the weather balloon with phallus in "The Creature from the Pit", and the Mandrels in "Nightmare of Eden" opened the show to justifiable ridicule.
Even in the student common room, attention was waning during Doctor Who, and sometimes I remember a tussle over continuing to watch "Happy Days" on ITV or turning over to "Doctor Who". The latter always won, but that there could be a conflict was an indication that even the core audience was becoming alienated. I rather liked seeing a bit of "Happy Days"; the alternative was to watch "Basil Brush" on BBC1, an exercise in endurance as we groaned at the ""Ha Ha Ha! Boom! Boom!"" jokes. Basil Brush is wonderfully described in Wikipedia as a "fictional anthropomorphic fox", primarily portrayed as a "Glove Puppet".
I eventually moved out to student digs, a flat in St David's Hill Exeter, where we had the flat on the first floor, and the ground floor was taken up with fellow students, most of whom were doing theology degrees and looking for ordination in the Church of England. Their standards for house-cleaning, however, were so bad that the one girl down there rapidly moved out. The Young Ones may have been a wild exaggeration, because we all did study as students, but in terms of cleaning, the downstairs flat could well have passed muster as a set. I had to go down with my friend Charles to look it over before Christmas, as he was nominally in charge of both flats. The mantelpiece had a glass with something green and purple growing in it. The kitchen sink was full of dirty grey water and dishes, and the bath was home to a family of slugs.
After Exeter, and a year at St Lukes, I had spent a short spell teaching mathematics at Bideford, and then Gloucester. Both schools, and others that I applied for and visited, were redolent of the decay of the early 1980s, with plasterboard cracked, paint peeling. Bideford had a good maths team, however, and I enjoyed my brief stay there. Gloucester was a larger comprehensive, where caning was still enforced by the headmaster. It was a troubled time for me, and I had to witness the beating with a cane on the hand of a boy who had apparently threatened another with a knife.
Change was also happening in Doctor Who. John Nathan Turner was bringing a more serious tone to the series, going back to concepts based around hard science supplied by his script editor Christopher Bidmead. Gone were the informal clothes, and in came an outfit. The production values gained a glossier look to them. The swirling patterns were replaced by an exploding star field. Some of the stories from this time were memorable, but despite the emphasis on hard science, there were still moments of silly scripting – the Master presenting an ultimatum to "peoples of the universe" with a cassette tape recorder. But there were some fine stories. It was as if the Baker years had sought a last gasp of the early greatness before the end. The thread that binds the universe together.
It was the end, but the moment had been prepared for. The final Baker story saw Tom change into Peter Davison. It was a moody gloom laden story about entropy and decay, about things falling apart, and it more or less mirrored the period of intense depression that I was undergoing at that time. But as Peter Davison took over, so the fragments of my life would gradually reassemble themselves.

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