|The Doctor and Tobias Vaughan make their way through|
It’s November 2, 1968. Mary Hopkin is at number one with “Those Were The Days,” with Joe Cocker in number two. He overtakes her one week later, and is in turn overtaken by the theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It lasts until the last two weeks of this story, at which point “Lily the Pink” by The Scaffold, a comedy band featuring Paul McCartney’s brother, takes over. Elsewhere in the top ten over these eight weeks one can find Jose Felicano’s cover of “Light My Fire” and Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower.” Elsewhere in music, Elvis makes his comeback and the Beatles release the White Album.
In other news, Richard Nixon is elected President of the United States, bringing, in effect, all hope the left might have ever had over the 1960s to a crashing end, as we talked about last Friday. In more subtle news, Douglas Engelbert demos the NLS, or oN-Line System, in an event called the “mother of all demos.” Although at the time known only to a small core of technical users, this is one of the most important events in the history of computers, and the technology Engelbert shows off here ends up being the basic underpinning of the modern desktop computer. Among the concepts debuting here are the mouse and the idea of “windows” within a computer system, and the first major debut of word processing on the computer.
While on television we have The Invasion. Essentially a backdoor pilot for the Pertwee era of Doctor Who, this story exists primarily to try out a new format whereby the Doctor is the assistant of a military organization called UNIT who battles alien threats on Earth. Here, to kick things off in a big way, the Doctor reteams with Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart from The Web of Fear – now given his more famous rank of Brigadier-General – to fight the Cybermen in London.
This is not, of course, the first time that the series has been set in London. In fact, it’s the sixth major instance. First of all, An Unearthly Child opens there. From there contemporary London is avoided until the end of the third season, but futuristic London is attacked by Daleks in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Contemporary London finally gets its day in the sun in The War Machines, where it gets attacked by evil computers. From there we nip off to Gatwick Airport for The Faceless Ones and the start of Evil of the Daleks, before returning to the Underground (and brief aboveground shots) in the aforementioned Web of Fear.
But something is different this time. For the first time in a story set in a more or less contemporary London (the “more or less” aspect of it will be dealt with later), we have a focus on the idea that London – the very home of the program – is under real attack, with the sixth episode culminating in one of the great money shot cliffhangers of Doctor Who as the Cybermen burst from the sewers and storm down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In other words, to understand this story we must first understand London itself. And so it is time here for the blog to pay off a debt. I’ve quietly described what we do here as psychochronography – a term adapted from the existing concept of psychogeography, in turn yanked from writers such as Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair, both of whom I saw give a talk this week, making this a particularly opportune time for some debt repayment. Psychogeography describes a form of writing in which the nature of a place is captured via the experience of moving through it. Its most common technique under Iain Sinclair is the walking tour, in which the physical experience of walking through an urban space provides the narrative frame for an exploration of its history and future. (Psychochronography, a term of my own invention, attempts to move through stories and histories, providing a “walking” tour of a time period, generally through a specific cultural object.)
To that end, and since I was there anyway on vacation, I decided I’d go full psychogeographic for an entry. A walking tour of the London of 1960s Doctor Who – the major locations of the four of the six London stories to be set in central London, culminating in the steps to St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the hopes that through this walk it is possible to understand The Invasion. An attempt to see what was invaded in 1968, and what remains of it over forty years later. The result, I fear, is an oddity for TARDIS Eruditorum. But Doctor Who, for its first 26 years at least, is a story of many things, and one of those things is London.
Begin by emerging from Westminster station, a bizarre monument to neo-brutalist architecture renovated around the millennium – the most recent one, to be precise. Exit straight onto the Thames at one end of the Westminster Bridge. Originally slated for a good Dalek menacing in 2150, some four hundred years after its initial construction, plans for this invasion were shelved unexpectedly in 1999 when another one of London’s myriad of architectural war crimes to celebrate the new millennium was committed. London, never a city with an excessive investment in its own skyline, was perhaps uniquely suited for the perversity of slapping up a Ferris wheel for the purposes of a broad city view.
The erection of Merlin Entertainments’ London monument rendered this the first of many abandoned futures scattering London. Cross the bridge away from it and towards the Houses of Parliament, mysteriously visible from every window in every American comic book set in London, and you can just about feel it pulsing out the thoughts of the Nestene Consciousness – another future, unimaginable in the 1964 Lime Grove heat to which Jacqueline Hill, Alan Judd, and Ann Davies returned following their run.
Walking on, past the pipers and living statues that make up the mass and fabric of the modern London, past the monument to Boadicea, 1st century queen of the Iceni tribe who led a rebellion against the Roman occupation of Britain, torching their settlement at Londinium. Boadicea is neither the first nor last person who will be honored for London’s destruction, nor is she the first or last woman with which London shall have a strangely ambiguous relationship.
A block past the bridge, turn onto Parliament Street amidst another iteration of that fantasy – the 21st century version of trench warfare in which London’s streets are vivisected in the name of progress. On one corner, the row of anti-war protesters outside the Houses of Parliament, a mockup of the TARDIS inexplicably sitting next to a sign exhorting Obama to close Guantanamo. Given the distance of Obama from this place, it is difficult to say which is the more inappropriate monument.
Turn away from it and work your way along Parliament Street and Whitehall to the north, a sea of white stone edifices, monuments to the very offices of government now turned to watchtowers. Pass Downing Street, or rather, the mass of roadblock and security that constitutes David Cameron’s literal public face. Then continue, past cabinet offices and more – the functions of government stocked behind a tourist facade that calls into question just how far from the American politics one is. On the right, down the middle of Whitehall, are a row of monuments to Britain’s modern military history and its dead, most notably the Cenotaph under which Barbara and her friends from an abandoned future sought brief refuge.
Emerge at last in Trafalgar Square, our final stop in our tour of this lost 2150. Encircled by a seemingly unbroken chain of double decker busses, this square pulls an odd double duty for Ms. Wright. Made strange and hostile in 2150, with Daleks milling about the famous lions, upon her return to London a year later it is one of the destinations in which she and her apparent lover Mr. Chesterton celebrate their return. In this gesture, we see the odd core of London – its abandoned futures and ossified pasts stacking up upon each other until every location has become strange. Even with its unceasing crowds and countdown to the London Olympics, seemingly little more than another excuse to shred the city in the name of that ever-withdrawing future, there is the sense of stability here, four lions anchoring it through all these imagined destinies of London.
Move on, up Charing Cross Road. Here the process Trafalgar Square began is under way in full, with London giving way to its tourist trap twin. This stretch of road seems a mortuary of former television stars – Diana Rigg headlining Pygmalion, and, of course, David Tennant and Catherine Tate holding down Much Ado About Nothing. As Charing Cross ends and we depart Westminster, pass the latest film remade as a West End Musical, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert shoved, complete with garish high heeled shoe, into an otherwise innocent theater.
Move on towards Tottenham Court Road, where expat American retailers like TJ Maxx and formerly McDonalds owned burrito joint Chipotle sit across the street from Foyles, the landmark London bookstore where I was finally able to acquire a decent set of Iain Sinclair books, the author being maddeningly out of print in the US. Cross Manette Street, complete with helpfully labeled “licensed sex shop” and emerge to the ruins of Tottenham Court Road tube station, now a smoldering pile of “improvement.”
Ease slowly around the construction border, around metallic-tinted plaster cast of Freddie Mercury advertising the West End hit musical starring his zombified essence. At last round to Great Russell Street, turn once, and arrive at Bedford Square. Here, in another lost future, the TARDIS alit upon Bedford Square, a private garden ringed by distinguished tenants. Here we arrive in the false London of The War Machines. Continue down Bayley Street to return to Tottenham Court Road, then cross it and continue into Percy Street. Here we reach a tangle of small streets. The main, Rathbone Street, vents to several pedestrian alleys – Charlotte Place ahead, where the titular War Machines menaced London.
Duck through a small passageway to reach Eastcastle Street, and then the small throughway Berners Mews, which exits out to Goodge Street. Cross it and take Charlotte Street until it becomes Fitzroy Street. Here Doctor Who’s false pasts meet its real past, as we are in the immediate vicinity of the famed Fitzroy Tavern, where those portions of fandom not too notorious for their work on the series itself meet monthly for a drink. Stories abound of puzzled fans resplendent in cosplay showing up unsuspecting and wandering the tavern bereft, assuming they have the wrong place. I’d not know, having never been in London on the right day of the month.
Here also we duck around the central setpiece of The War Machines, the BT Tower, then known as Post Office Tower. This bizarre building – officially a secret until 1990, despite the fact that it looms massively for blocks in every direction – remains a communications hub for London, but casts now, as it did in 1966, a strange aura, its inappropriate architecture another lost future. Designed by Eric Bedford and G.R. Yeats in a striking and visually iconoclastic status, the building had a clear whiff of futurity around it when it was constructed across the early 1960s. But the future aesthetic it augured never arrived. It sits there still, unable now to look either forwards or backwards, left merely to spin madly in place.
By legend, then script editor Gerry Davis asked prospective scientific advisors to the show what menace might lurk in Post Office Tower seeping evil into London, and Kit Pedler proposed a computer which became WOTAN. Traces of this future still stand – the officefront of a random business named City Electrical Factors Ltd oddly evoking Tobias Vaughn’s International Electromatics. But by and large, looking at these comfortable pedestrian alleyways, it is difficult to imagine this lost future. The paranoid aversion to the mainframe computer – the only kind known to 1966 – seems ridiculous. I photograph Post Office Tower with my iPhone, itself more powerful than WOTAN could have dreamed of being, the slip it back into my pocket, leave this abandoned future to rot, and make my way down Cleveland Street, cthonic tower receding behind me.
A brief outbreak of London punk, still a decade out from the era of Doctor Who I’m tracking, reminds me that “If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal.” From this helpful reminder I make my way to the other side of the Tottenham Court Road rubble, past the massive sex store querying why lingerie is so popular if love is blind. Ignore the advertisement offering me an excellent price on a rabbit vibrator and work my way down the alley until my eye is caught by the bizarre Tudor-style gardening hut in the center of Soho Square. Working my way through the square, I wind down Greek Street, sidle up Shaftsbury for a few blocks, and then turn southeast once more to reach Covent Garden.
Here we make our transition away from the lost future of The War Machines and continue approaching the most vexed of Doctor Who’s lost futures. Our final War Machines location is a minor one – a bustle of morning activity shot at Covent Garden Market. Here we must pause to consider the arc of history and of this walk. The name Covent Garden comes from the Anglo-French, and is synonymous with “convent.” The convent in question is the Abbey at Westminster, where first we set foot in the vicissitudes of London’s streets, and this space originally formed a garden for that monastery before it was leased out in 1515. In 1552, Edward VI granted the land, seized from Westminster by his father in the process of dissolving the monasteries, to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford.
The plot stayed under control of the Russell family, who leased it out for various purposes, until 1918, becoming, at various times, a posh neighborhood, a red light district, and an outdoor market. For our purposes, the most notable fact about it is probably the opening of the Church of St. Paul’s in a 17th century redesign, creating a through-line from here to our final destination. But for now, let us turn our attention to the stretch of Covent Garden along Floral St – a row of archways caught on camera in The War Machines. This is more or less the furthest reach of WOTAN’s malign influence, the last gasp of our Post Office Tower-centered tourism.
Pushing through the archways, we discover, then, the nail in that future’s coffin – an Apple Store. This observation may seem nitpicking. Surely the ubiquity of computerized phones, still responding to the signals of the BT Tower, is in some sense a confirmation of The War Machines. But look again – this image of gigantic robots moving by the control of a single computer depends on the idea that these massive machines are extraordinary. Flip open a copy of the Guardian to read about the latest US drone strikes in Pakistan, or just look at it on your iPhone, and the idea of a single computer exerting such control becomes mad. The fear, like so much else, has dissolved into the cloud – or, as we see standing here, the iCloud.
From here we need step forward only in time to reach The Web of Fear in 1968. Where before we have been tracking the London of spires – Big Ben, Nelson’s Column, and the Post Office Tower, here we switch to what Neil Gaiman memorably called London Below in his own homage to this mythic city, Neverwhere. Far below Covent Garden rumble the trains of the Picadilly Line, carved out in the early days of the 20th century in an outbreak of unexpected science fiction through the very ground of London.
We must pause here to look at the opening strains of a problem we deferred in The Web of Fear entry itself – one that will be a growing concern through the looming Pertwee era. Indeed, here in Covent Garden we must begin to face one of the great thorny continuity problems of Doctor Who: UNIT dating.
I will not spend excessive time tracing out the basic issue here. The crux of it is this – there are at least three completely contradictory accounts of when the UNIT stories take place which range from them taking place more or less in the year they’re transmitted to, in the most extreme option, based primarily on dating information in The Web of Fear, The Invasion taking place in 1980. Given multiple accounts that cannot be reconciled, we have a situation where fans have broken in to various camps on the subject of when the UNIT stories “happened.”
In 2011, standing in Covent Garden and staring at these abandoned questions, there is a sense of ludicrousness to it. Essential to the question of when the UNIT stories happened is dating events that firmly did not happen. When Doctor Who takes place in lost pasts or distant futures, it has a realism it can never have when it takes place in London near the time of broadcast. Whether The Web of Fear was meant to happen in 1968, along with its broadcast, or in 1975, some seven years later, it runs into the real problem – that London was never evacuated to escape the Yeti menace.
So when we walk two blocks north to Shelton Street and look at the ground the Yeti did not trod upon. These monsters, from a different sort of monastery, are not entirely dissonant with this territory, but then, what is dissonant with London? A palimpsest of a city, even its spires seem below ground, buried under their contrasting histories. What is there that cannot be in London?
Walk on towards our final destination. Here the web of symbols and histories begins to crystalize. Down Long Acre until it becomes Great Queen Street, we pass London’s Freemason’s Hall, advertising a by then long-closed exhibit entitled “Building Solomon’s Temple.” Reach Kingsway, and Bush House, still for another year the home of the BBC World Service, and turn south, reaching St. Clement Danes, 17th century design of Christopher Wren, although the idea of a church in that spot reaches back to the 9th century. Across the way is Australia House, the interior of which serves as Gringott’s Bank in the Harry Potter films, and the exterior of which was an establishing shot in The Invasion before the Cybermen burst from the sewers.
From here proceed to The Strand, which descends towards Fleet Street, named for the buried River Fleet. This is the sort of city London is – whole rivers lurk below the surface of its present. It is on Fleet Street that another spire makes its appearance on the walk, the peak of the Swiss Re building, another bit of millennial construction replacing the proposed Millennium Tower with the somewhat less ambitious Millennium Cucumber. By and large, however, that awful spire is the outlier here. Fleet Street marks a descent – a sloping down hill through increasingly aged buildings.
If London is a palimpsest city, nowhere is that more evident than Fleet Street. How much is entombed here. The river is just a start. By tradition, stemming off from the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet street is the haven of barristers, and legal bookstores dot its aged storefronts. Past that are the banks, with every major British bank holding an office on Fleet Street, most notably Child & Co Bankers at 1 Fleet Street. Buried deeper than these are the origins of the British printing industry, Fleet Street still being associated with that industry. Towards the eastern end of the street is St. Bride’s Church, another Christopher Wren design, although the church itself dates back to the 7th century. Exploded by a German bomb in 1940, the layers of palimpsest traumatically peeled back revealing the crypt below, now wrapped in tourist bunting, electrical conduits weaving through the ancient stonework.
St Bride’s, whose Wren-created design is said to be the model of the wedding cake (not Wren’s only inadvertent brush with fertility rituals, as we shall see), is known as the printers church by dint of the fact that the first moveable type printing press was brought there by Wynkyn de Worde in 1500. Here also was where Mary Ann Nichols wed printer William Nichols, who later abandoned her to have an affair, leaving her to slip into prostitution and become the first victim in the canon of Jack the Ripper. This, in turn, points to the last great strand of Fleet Street, and indeed one can just about smell Mrs. Lovett’s pies from any of the street’s numerous pubs.
Fleet Street gives way to Ludgate Circus. Here climb Ludgate Hill to reach the highest spire of Christopher Wren’s churchbuilding – St. Paul’s Cathedral. This towering edifice is familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the imagined depths of London, serving as the centerpiece of one of the key scenes if Alan Moore’s From Hell. In this scene, itself a buried text beneath this one, William Gull, fingered by Moore as Jack the Ripper, completes his own psychogeographic tour of London, tracing a pentagram of symbols around the center point of St. Paul’s.
By tradition, a force far stronger than mere history, Ludgate Hill, upon which St. Paul’s rests, is named after King Lud, apocryphal namesake of London, making this edifice the very beating heart of London. Strange then, that by tradition it is also on the site of an ancient temple to Diana. This strange fact forms the heart of Moore’s monologue. Walking through the cathedral, his claim seems compelling – that something about the lunar cannot be erased, even within this manifestly solar sanctum. The cathedral brims with statues a mere breath from the Weeping Angels, cold stone reflecting a dreaming darkness that extends beyond the radiant displays of gold. Moore makes much of the fact that, into the 20th century, women hugged the pillars of the building as a superstition to evoke fertility, the Goddess myth, like all other lost myths of London, having sunk into the very earth and stone itself. Raze London a thousand times yet – and have little doubt that, given time, this will happen – and Diana will always live upon this hill. Or does she rise up separately. Does this hill dream endlessly of a lunar goddess? Or was the lunar goddess – perhaps the moon itself – nothing more than the idle dream of Ludgate Hill?
Depart, down St. Peter’s Steps towards the Millennium Bridge, then turn to see the ground the Cybermen stormed down. Let us pause here to consider the basic spectacle here – the very idea of Cybermen in London. If London is a palimpsest of a city, then there are perhaps no monsters more suited to its streets than the Cybermen, themselves endlessly reinvented and reconceptualized. And likewise, if the lunar glow of Diana cannot quite be erased from the heart of London, leaving the city eternally a land of dreams and imagination, then the qlippothic terror at the heart of the Cybermen too cannot be erased.
Miles and Wood suggest that the real point of The Invasion is to relaunch the program, with the Cybermen just being invited along for the party. But it is more than that. The Cybermen, from the start, have been agents of strange and alien change. This is in the very idea of them, as much as Diana is in the very idea of St. Paul’s, or the buried river is in the very idea of Fleet Street. As much as tearing London down is in the very idea of London.
Is this, then, the key to UNIT dating? Had the UNIT stories emerged with any setup other than invasions of London it might be different. Instead we are faced with impossible monsters whose very setup – a non-existent invasion in 1986 – marks them as a lost future invading a city whose very nature is that no version of itself is truly lost, merely buried, waiting to be dug up and gutted anew. A city where nothing lasts and everything remains.
The true strangeness of the UNIT dating controversy is this – to anyone who came at the stories after all possible dates they could have happened – someone, in other words, of my generation – it is transparently obvious when they happened. The Brigadier’s line about the length of time from The Web of Fear to The Invasion not withstanding, it is clear that both are set in 1968. A lost future belongs nowhere but the time it was dreamed of. And The Invasion’s future was lost within weeks of transmission. Its first episode includes a shot of the far side of the moon, a vista revealed for the first time only a few weeks later by Apollo 8, which launched the same day the final episode of The Invasion aired.
To put it another way, it does not, in the end, matter when the UNIT stories happened. It is enough that the place the place they never actually happened is some imagined London, buried underground like everything else, and thus as real as anything that actually happened in London. The stories themselves are about the years they were transmitted, and their fears and terrors are fears of their audience. It does not matter if they never happened in the year they were broadcast or if they never happened in some future year that itself never really hapened. It is enough that they never happened in London, and thus live forever in its stones.
Move on. Glance down a few more streets where Cybermen marched in jackboot formation, recreating perfectly the steps of German invaders who never came. Step on the Tube at Mansion House Station, marking the site of the home of the Lord Mayor of London, itself the gravestone of one of the handful of churches Christopher Wren did not rebuilt. Return to a home you do not live in to rest and dream the dreams of London.
Tragically, London itself is not available from Amazon, but The Invasion is out on DVD in both the US and the UK, and buying from either of those links helps keep your friendly neighborhood blogger fed and happy.