5 years, 6 months ago
And now, then, for the other part of the argument. The Daemons was revolutionary in terms of how it expands the domain of what Doctor Who can do. But wait a moment. This is a show that only two and a half years ago was exploring the land of fiction
. This is a show where one of its dominant creative forces over the first five years was obsessed with alchemy
. And yet on the other hand the show has always praised science over superstition, promoted the idea that there is a rational explanation behind everything, and treated scientists as enlightened men of peace who can bring about positive social change. So to some extent, what's happening in The Daemons is the resolution of a fundamental tension that has been in place in Doctor Who ever since the Doctor equated the TARDIS with television in the first episode
, making it simultaneously a scientific marvel and something that is primarily understood in terms of more wooly notions like "the power of stories." It's not accidental that this resolution happens in 1971. But understanding why is a big project. And that's what this entry is.
Let's start with Jo's first line, invoking the Age of Aquarius. The most obvious cultural association with that phrase comes from the 1967 musical Hair, which memorably began by proclaiming that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The idea is that the world is passing out of one era and into another, and that this new era will be one of peace and harmony. But this is just utopian eschatology. Every generation is convinced the world is going to end on their watch because they were dealt such a shitty hand by their parents' generation. And then they narrowly survive and deal a shitty hand to their kids, and the cycle cheerily repeats itself. Eschatology is just a way of being. The end of the world is a lifestyle choice.
More interesting than the idea that we're at the dawning of some new eon of possibility - or than the idea that we're all going to die of some terrible misfortune - is what sort of apocalypse we imagine (remembering that the apocalypse can be positive or negative). And so what's most interesting about the Age of Aquarius is not that everyone believed an egalitarian society based on peace and love was inevitable. It's that they believed it to be inevitable because of astrology.
I mean, pause for a moment and look at the essential idea of the Age of Aquarius. Basically, over time the direction that the north pole is pointing changes, moving backwards through the Zodiac. Each change takes a bit over two millennia. The idea is that when these changes take place, it maps to massive social change on Earth. The opportune question isn't why everyone believed a utopian society was going to dawn - that happens all the time. The question is why people were basing this belief on what stars the north pole was pointing at.
But let's back up and look at what astrology is. The bulk of it is a pre-modern version of astronomy: an observation-based practice of cataloguing celestial phenomena. Onto this is grafted an elaborate system of symbols that ostensibly explain aspects of day to day life. But think about how this system worked. Most people were not astrologers. So a farmer would ask an astrologer "Hey, astrologer, why are my crops failing this year," and the astrologer would consult a bunch of charts and data and say that it had something to do with the influence of Saturn in Aries. But from the farmer's, this is not a substantially different process from asking a climatologist and getting an answer about how El Nino has changed the course of the jet stream. They're both a chain of explanatory jargon involving things the farmer has no direct interaction with.
The thing to recognize here is that there are some key ways in which scientists serve a function otherwise most analogous to the priesthood. Science is, socially speaking, a modern day religion. Which is why, throughout the Hartnell era, you saw characters appealing to the Doctor by saying "we're both scientists, we're reasonable men, we can surely work this out." Because science is not just an empirical process as theorized by Karl Popper or someone. It's also a social phenomenon. And for a significant time period, it was a social phenomenon given a tremendous amount of credence. Scientists were, broadly speaking, the people we turned to in order to design the world.
Explaining the new age movement, then, is a piece of cake. Just look back to Doomwatch
. The entire point of that show was that scientists left unchecked would kill us all. And it's not hard to see the immediate causes for that. First and most obviously is the prospect of nuclear war. Consider the social position around the late 60s and early 70s. Massive global conflict was still something that happened. It had, after all, happened twice in the first half of the century. But we knew now that if it happened again, it would be apocalyptic. And this was because of how science changed war from something that was nasty but basically survivable to something that would kill us all. So when, in the late 60s/early 70s, it started to feel like it might be time for World War III, science was to blame for the fact that this meant a looming apocalypse, and not one of the good ones. Second is the rise of the environmental movement, which we've talked about a bit before. There was, in this period, a growing awareness that there were unintended and dangerous side-effects to an industrialized and technological world, namely that it might eventually kill us all just as an incidental byproduct.
So, of course, when the Science Priests began to look like they were leading people off a cliff, people reversed course, building a utopian vision out of the debris of the past. And since they were trying to get out from under the dangerous yoke of science, they turned to pre-scientific concepts like astrology and, as The Daemons picked up heavily on, the pagan traditions that were still very much visible and prevalent in rural Britain. All the bits about Beltane and maypoles and Morris dancing in The Daemons is there because there was a growing interest in the pagan roots of these archaic practices. (We saw the earliest roots of this way back in 1966
when we looked briefly at the underground magazine Gandalf's Garden, which embraced the various connections between Tolkien's work and the mystical tradition of rural Britain.)
But just because science and magic were intensely antagonistic does not mean that they're utter polar opposites, nor that the entire world was faithfully divided into one camp or the other. Instead you had a weird, schizoid state in which magical thinking and scientific thinking butted up against each other in the popular consciousness. Exhibit A here, of course, is Erich von Daniken.
On one level, von Daniken is a textbook new age nutter. His major contention - that in ancient human history Earth was visited by aliens who guided its technological progress - is, of course, utter lunacy, full of downright hilarious moments like the assertion that numbers with fifteen digits are evidence of alien intervention because they're so big not even computers can handle them.
But underneath the nuttery is a fundamentally interesting approach. The entire second chapter of Chariots of the Gods
is concerned with imagining the space-based future of Earth as a way of showing the supposed ease of interstellar travel. In other words, von Daniken isn't just spinning a ludicrous new age theory, he's spinning one that adopts much of the iconography and logic of science. He has a foot in both worlds, which is enough to make him exceedingly trendy in 1971.
We can see the von Daniken approach reflected several times in the Pertwee era, and not just at its most obvious in The Daemons. The idea in Colony in Space that the Crab Nebula is a result of the test-firing of an ancient alien weapon is distinctly Daniken-esque, and the entire plot of The Silurians is based on Daniken-style ideas.
But The Daemons went further than von Daniken. Remember, the key point of The Daemons isn't that the Devil is secretly an alien. It's that the Devil is real, and black magic works to summon him. This isn't just "aliens built the pyramids." It's not even von Daniken's idea that Biblical and mythic stories make an equal amount of sense if reskinned as science fiction stories. The idea is that black magic and the occult are accurately preserved guides to how to summon Azal.
Of course, the sort of black magic we see in The Daemons is one very small portion of the new age pool. Unsurprisingly, when interest in everything old and mystical ramped up, one beneficiary was anyone who happened to have some useful legal rights to the last big mystical revival, which started up in the Victorian age and wound down in the early 20th century. One effect of this was Kenneth Grant, who we talked about in the context of the 1966 entry since that was when he was having the mystical experiences he started writing up in this period. It was Grant whose ideas I ended up using as the framework for understanding the change undergone by the Doctor in The Tenth Planet
and Power of the Daleks
. Grant, though, was really just a bit of a second rate follower of one of the more prominent figures of the Victorian/Edwardian magical revival, namely Aleister Crowley.
The relevance of Crowley to The Daemons is obvious to anyone familiar with both subjects. The Master in The Daemons is obviously based on Crowley. For all that his incantations are made up and, in some spots, apparently just Mary Had a Little Lamb read backwards, in other spots they demonstrate that either Letts or Sloman (probably Letts) had at least a passing familiarity with Crowley. The Master repeatedly invokes the tetragrammaton, a mainstay of Crowley and hermetic mysticism, and twice delivers variations of Crowley's famous "do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," including the truly hilarious "do my will shall be the whole of the law." (Also, at some point one must acknowledge the cross-story parallelism here. In Colony in Space, I described the Doctor as playing the role of science vicar. Not only does he repeat the performance here, quite literally turning the ethos of science into a form of spiritual gospel that he preaches to a congregation, but his explicit double is playing a literal vicar in this story. Keep an eye on this concept of the Doctor as a spiritual leader. We'll see it several times more in the Pertwee era.)
Here's where things get just a little bit odd. Invoking Crowley for this sort of thing is a no-brainer. Crowley was a decadent attention whore who liked talking about how he was the Great Beast and talking about lengthy sex magick rituals with the Scarlet Woman Babalon. He proudly played the role of the wickedest man in the world, and as such spent the remainder of his life typecast as an over the top villain. But the thing is, in practice, he was a fairly garden variety occultist of his time with a flair for publicity.
And garden variety occultists of his time were common. The big thing to talk about here is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn - the occult secret society from which Crowley split. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is a surprisingly big deal. Among those who belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were such relative luminaries as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker, and William Butler Yeats. More to the point, though, it proves to be a kind of common ancestor to virtually any British-based magical tradition going. Both of the major British Wiccan traditions owe major debt to the Golden Dawn.
The thing about the Golden Dawn is that it was much closer to an aesthetic movement than it was to a religio-scientific movement. Britain's current greatest living occultist, Alan Moore, makes the most extended version of this argument, claiming that the optimal way to think of magic in general is as an art. (His extended essay on the matter, Fossil Angels, can be found in two parts here
) We're a ways from where it's quite fair play to actually use Moore as our interpretive lens for Doctor Who, but here his basic point stands: magic is
an aesthetic movement as much as anything. There's a narrative logic to occultism. And here comes the shoe anyone who's been faithfully reading this blog could see waiting to drop from the start of this entry.
The thing about Doctor Who that made it uniquely poised to do something like The Daemons is that this aesthetic occultism has been a part of the show from day one. And (here's the shoe) that's mostly down to David Whitaker. It is, after all, Whitaker who repeatedly wrote Doctor Who by taking the iconography of science fiction and wrapping it around a plot structured on an occult aesthetic. From day one, Doctor Who existed in the gap between science and magic.
To get a sense of how important this is to how a story like The Daemons comes off, it's helpful to compare to another show that was the nearest equivalent to Doctor Who on television in 1971: ITV's Ace of Wands. Unfortunately, both of the first seasons of Ace of Wands are lost, and so in this case I had to pick from ahead of 1971 to look at the show. As usual, I grabbed a story at random after cursory research to make sure I wasn't picking something known to be absolutely terrible. The result was a four-parter entitled The Power of Atep by Victor Pemberton
So, Ace of Wands is basically a younger, hipper, more Age of Aquarius take on Doctor Who. Remove the Doctor and instead sub in Tarot, a stage magician with real powers. Give him a pair of sidekicks: A female who's basically Polly
only psychic, and a male who's... well, basically Ben, actually. And then have him fight crime/evil magicians. The Power of Atep falls into the latter category, featuring a former friend of Tarot's, now going by the name John Pentacle, who now serves the ancient Egyptian magician Atep, whose power cowed even the Pharaoh and can still be accessed today.
Quality-wise Ace of Wands is nondescript - a perfectly serviceable children's adventure show for the early 70s. Like Doctor Who it has some real skill at iconic set pieces. And like Doctor Who, the acting is sometimes cringeworthy. But for our purposes, the interesting bit comes in the climax. See, it turns out that Atep was actually a fraud in his own time with no great power. But the strange thing is, the ancient evil merely lacks the great power John Pentacle ascribes to it. It still has some power, as we spend four episodes watching Atep and his followers wage various psychic attacks on Tarot and his friends.
There's a really strange vacillation here. On the one hand, this is a skeptic plot. Ancient evil turns out not to be all that. On the other, it's a straight supernatural/new age plot. Magic works, psychic attacks happen, there are ancient Egyptian tombs with dead mystics that can post a problem for people. It's simultaneously confirming and denying magic, and ends up feeling a bit like a cheap cop-out. Especially when compared to the delicious strangeness of magic and science both being right in Doctor Who. As ancient evils go, Azal is far more interesting than Atep.
But why is Doctor Who able to bridge that gap? I mean, yes, Whitaker had been doing it since day one, but why and how? What makes Doctor Who better at sitting in the gap between magic and science? Because it is. Its two closest cousins on television right now are Doomwatch and Ace of Wands, but nobody would suggest Doomwatch and Ace of Wands of being very similar to each other.
The answer comes if we look closely at the Victorian/Edwardian magical revival. Victorian England was absolutely gaga for spiritualism. In the UK, at least, the new age movement is really just a repeat of the Victorian craze for the mystical. And remember, it's Whitaker's Victorian story - Evil of the Daleks - where his occult and mystical themes come most to the forefront. These aspects of Doctor Who have always had an antiquarian flare to them, which is why The Mind Robber's hat tip to Victorian children's literature was so inevitable and necessary.
But that's not the only Victorian tradition Doctor Who belongs to. William Hartnell's version of the Doctor was also always in the mould of the Victorian inventor. Remember, in the early days the strong implication was that the Doctor had built the TARDIS himself. In the Peter Cushing films
, this is explicit and the Doctor simply is a human inventor with a distinctly Victorian flare. There's a particular British image, tied with the Victorian era, of the lone eccentric who through plucky cleverness figures something out that had eluded the more mainstream thinkers. In the late 60s and early 70s, this figure was a sort of yearned for prophet in the UK - the Science Priest who would finally show up and, through good old fashioned British cleverness, suddenly put the UK back on top of the world through some brilliant method of generating energy or flying or something.
And one way of understanding Pertwee's take on the Doctor is that he takes the charismatic leading man aspects of Troughton's performance and weds them to the Victorian inventor flare of Hartnell's performance. Which is to say, this Victorian tradition was alive and well in Doctor Who at this point. Just as the Victorian spiritualist tradition was still knocking around in there. In fact, the two were never entirely separate in British culture. The first great occultist in England was John Dee, spymaster, occultist, and mathematician for Queen Elizabeth. Dee invented the idea of the British empire, was a major mathematician of his era, and, oh yeah by the way, regularly spoke with Enochian Angels by scrying through crystal balls at his magical table and engaging in complex numerologically-derived rituals with his assistant Edward Kelly.
Which is to say that there has always been, in British culture, the possibility of this odd fusion of the wizard and the scientist. And that Doctor Who, given that it was heavily indebted to both magic and science from the last era where both were intensely dominant in British culture, is connected with this merged figure more than virtually anything else in the culture in 1971. The Daemons marks a significant change and advancement in the relationship between these two aspects of Doctor Who. Furthermore, remember its decision to aggressively seem to break the rules in its first three episodes by having the Doctor appear to be on the wrong side of the science/magic debate only for it to turn out that not only is the Doctor on the right side after all, but the whole debate is wrong and there aren't actually sides in the first place. This decision allows it to powerfully unite the two.
It is, in effect, a brilliant conjuring trick. The audience, forgetting that both elements exist in Doctor Who's cultural DNA, assumes that the current feuds between science and spirituality in the culture are in play in Doctor Who. When in fact, Doctor Who is far smarter and more interesting than that. And now that the moment is right in the culture, Doctor Who is able to do more than exist within the gap between science fiction and fantasy - it's able to reach across the entire span of that gap. By letting the relevant two elements of its past seem to be pulled apart and made irreconcilable before quietly showing that not only are they reconcilable, they aren't actually two different elements at all, Doctor Who manages to find an approach that isn't between science fiction and fantasy, but rather a pure example of both at once.
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