Well we couldn’t not cover Monty Python, now could we? All the same, if you want to find yourself mildly taken aback by the nature of British culture in the early 1970s, consider that the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired its twelfth episode, The Naked Ant, the day after the first episode of Spearhead From Space aired. Seriously. The first two episodes of the Jon Pertwee era were followed just over 24 hours later with the last two episodes of the first season of Flying Circus, both on BBC1. Superficially, it’s tough to wrap one’s head, in 2011, around the enormity of this – the degree to which those two weeks of January 1970 crackled with what we now recognize as real cultural fire. Upper Class Twit of the Year and the story that brought one of the most iconic images ever from Doctor Who are literally from the same week (although the iconic shop dummies attack sequence was, to be fair, in episode four of Spearhead).
The question is whether this is simply a nifty coincidence or whether there’s actually some fundamental understanding about Britain at the dawn of the 70s to be gained from knowing this strange factoid. As it happens, the answer is the former, but to understand why we’re going to have to answer a different question first – why the heck is Monty Python such a big deal?
Put on your sweeping generalization hat, because we’re about to do a very whirlwind tour of the history of British comedy after World War II. If we leave Monty Python out of the equation for the moment, there are essentially two crucial things to know about British comedy from 1945-1970: Spike Milligan and Carry On. Among comedy snobs, there is no ambiguity over which one of these is superior. Spike Milligan is one of the most famed and accomplished comedians in history, and the Carry On films have a reputation round about the Friedberg/Seltzer comedies of the 2000s (Scary Movie, Date Movie, and the like).
Let’s get them over with first, then. Since it’s the Carry On film to directly mention Doctor Who, let’s look specifically at 1966’s Carry On Screaming – a parody of the Hammer Horror film line that we’ve also mostly ignored before now, but will have to get a post out on some time before Philip Hinchcliffe shows up. Carry On Screaming also has, for the discriminating Doctor Who fan, appearances from Peter Butterworth and Jon Pertwee.
The essential premise of a Carry On film is delightfully formulaic. You take a popular genre and do a story in that genre in which every single character is replaced with a blundering idiot. So, for instance, in Carry On Screaming you have a situation that is a familiar horror movie setup – a monster is kidnapping women, and the police investigate. All fairly straightforward. Then you take all the figures this story requires – girl to kidnap, boyfriend looking for his missing girlfriend, police, mad scientist, etc – and have them all be incompetent. The trick, however, is to have all of them be, generally speaking, aware of everyone else’s incompetence.
So, for instance, in Carry On Screaming, one of the running gags is Constable Slobotham, played by Peter Butterworth, who is continually given the job of taking down testimony, and constantly gets hung up on the wrong details when writing it down instead of getting the important information. So, for instance, in the scene where he encounters Doctor What, Slobotham gets hung up on the question of “what’s your name,” (which is where the Doctor Who joke comes from) while the other characters all recognize that he is being thick. But in his next scene, Sergeant Bung is himself incompetent and unable to function, getting rings run around him by his shrewish wife.
Perhaps more importantly, however, when Bung and Slobotham are confronted with Doctor What, they panic and run away in a manner that is also foolish and ill-advised. In other words, everyone is aware of everyone else’s incompetence, but only when they are in conflict with one another. If two characters are on the same page, they will reinforce each other’s incompetence, if they are at loggerheads, they will attack it.
Spike Milligan, on the other hand, is a comedian’s comedian. Starting on the radio with The Goon Show, he effectively waged a decades-long career in sketch comedy in which he was the defining and most acclaimed comedian of his generation. His reach and untouchability was such that Terry Nation even let him use a Dalek in a sketch, virtually the only break in Nation’s otherwise absolute policy of never letting the Daleks be treated as jokes.
So when we flip on his 1961 special Spike Milligan Offers a Series of Unrelated Incidents at Current Market Value, we can see this in the first real sketch, which consists of an orchestra conductor standing in a bathtub conducting a bunch of men with buckets of water who continually drench him. So. Um. That’s strange. Later in the special we get to see coverage of the Australian 440 Yard Standing Still race, in which four competitors race 440 yards by standing still, constructed via stop motion animation of people standing but nevertheless steadily advancing around a track as an announcer breathlessly and enthusiastically covers the unfolding events.
What may not be completely apparent from these descriptions is that Milligan and Carry On are both actually doing the same joke, only from different angles. But to understand that, we have to remember that Britain has a hierarchical class system, or, at least, the remnants of one. British humor classically depends on this. The point of a Carry On film is that everybody goes into the film knowing what the correct roles are and how they should be played (since Carry On films are all genre parodies), and then laughs as everyone is too thick to perform their role. The joke, in other words, is that all of these people have social power but they don’t actually have any skill. It’s the basic overturning of social structures – the people at the top are really daft fools.
Spike Milligan, on the other hand, takes the opposite tack. Look at the sketch I described earlier of the standing still race. The humor, as I said, is that the announcer is taking this race completely seriously even though it’s absurd. But noticeably, this is the same joke only looked at backwards. If the Carry On films are funny because they tell us that our entire social structure is actually run by raving lunatics, Milligan offers the corollary – that most of us spend a lot of our lives blindly taking raving lunacy seriously. It’s the same joke – serious business is secretly ridiculous, and the ridiculous is secretly gravely serious.
Now, it’s worth noting that Milligan himself was pushing the envelope there in realizing that the joke could be flipped like that – and that his own comedy advanced at pace with the envelope – which is to say, his work follows the same trajectory we’re about to trace out. Because now we get to what Monty Python figured out that went a step further. Let’s start by looking at the two major proto-Python shows – At Last The 1948 Show, featuring John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and Do Not Adjust Your Set, featuring Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and, behind the scenes, Terry Gilliam.
Both are genuinely funny, but for the most part they stick to one extreme or the other. For the most part. For instance, there’s a sketch in At Last The 1948 show where the four main cast members, dressed in more or less identical Hawaiian shirts and talking in identical funny accents, discuss their vacation, indeed turning out to all have the same name and act exactly the same, even though they insist they are all from different places and play at individuality. This is interesting because it starts to blur the line between the two approaches. Is the joke that the four Sydney Lotterbies are all stupidly failing to appreciate the absurdity of their conformity? Or is the joke that the package tour of Spain has the same rote conformity of the holiday camps it replaced in the popular culture, and these four men are still taking the holiday in Spain seriously despite the absurdity of it? It doesn’t straightforwardly resolve into one or the other.
Likewise, in the Do Not Adjust Your Set sketch in which a vet is called to make a house call on a hamster, and flips out because he’s allergic to and afraid of hamsters, having something of a nervous breakdown, at which point the doctor shows up and turns out to be allergic to vets, creating the same problem. Again, it’s not quite clear whether the joke is the people who are supposed to be competent (the vet and the doctor) being idiots, or the woman who is stuck attempting to take care of her hamster in a world run by lunatics.
But it’s not until Monty Python’s Flying Circus that we finally get to the point where the two approaches collapse into one. Look at the opening of the first few episodes, in which a man is shown to struggle to cross a considerable distance, only to collapse at the end and utter “It’s…” before they cut to the theme music. On the one hand, the joke is “man takes the absurd seriously” as he puts considerable personal effort into the trivial and stupid task of saying “It’s.” On the other hand, the camera engages in, basically, unrepentant sadism in this sequence. When the shot begins, the camera tracks the man’s motion briefly before zooming out and sitting as he approaches. In other words, the camera is an active participant in the scene. The man can’t say “It’s” until he reaches his appropriate place in the shot, and the camera deliberately makes him go further than he needs to in order to get there. The camera could zoom in and end his torment. Furthermore, it’s the camera that cuts away when he says “It’s” instead of letting him finish his announcement.
In other words, you have a psychotic and crazy camera torturing someone who is endeavoring to take it all seriously and do what he’s supposed to do in an apparently mad world. Or, to take their most famous sketch, you have one character who is either a completely unethical pet salesman who knowingly sold a man a dead parrot and is trying to cover it up or is a complete idiot who doesn’t recognize a dead parrot when he sees one. And you have another character who is either earnestly trying to correct an absurdly stupid wrong or is too foolish to realize he’s being screwed. But it’s never clear which – both parties of the sketch inhabit both roles.
The joke, in other words, is that the entire system is insane – that it’s actually impossible to tell who is sane and who is crazy, and that the terms don’t actually have any meaning. Which brings us to the other piece of true genius of Monty Python – the decision to abandon an actual structure to the sketches and instead thread together a sequence of scenes stitched together out of random transitions and Terry Gilliam’s psychedelic collages. In other words – and this is also part of what’s going on with the camera in the opening – the show is as thoroughly mad as what it depicts. The comedian in Monty Python is not a detached observer who pokes fun at everything else. Instead, the comedian is just as ambiguously sane or mad as everyone else – caught in the same absurd system, and not even able to find a separate vantage point to mock it.
OK. Now that we’ve elaborately killed all possible enjoyment anyone might ever take from Monty Python in favor of explaining the jokes, we can ask what this has to do with Doctor Who. The answer comes in the seventh episode of the series, “You’re No Fun Anymore.” The majority of this episode consists of an extended sketch entitled “Science Fiction Sketch” that is a dead-on, absolutely savage parody of UNIT-era Doctor Who – indeed, several sources refer to it as Monty Python’s parody of the Pertwee era.
The sketch has everything, basically. Aliens who are attacking random and pointless locations like New Pudsey by turning Englishmen into Scotsmen via a ray that instantly turns them into redheads wearing kilts who march in unison to bagpipe music that begins as soon as they are turned. This is part of an overly elaborate plot to, inexplicably, win Wimbledon. And they are opposed by a scientist (specifically an anthropologist, helpfully situated in a room full of microscopes and bubbling beakers) who exposits, often by asking questions and then immediately answering them, while a completely moronic blonde hangs off of his arm and generally annoys him. It is, through and through, a dead-on parody of UNIT stories. And being Monty Python, it’s a brutal parody – one that shows the entire structure to be an absurd farce and sick joke. It’s not Carry On Sergeant Benton, in which the structures are lovingly parodied with idiots. It’s a mockery of the entire logic and approach of the UNIT era that suggests the whole thing is a pointless recitation of formulaic science fiction that makes no actual sense. It’s a pretty devastating response to the Pertwee era.
Those who have been paying attention, however, will note the problem. This is the seventh episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The first episode of Spearhead From Space debuted six days after the eleventh episode. In other words, Monty Python’s Flying Circus let loose a devastating parody of the Pertwee era five weeks prior to the Pertwee era actually beginning.
This poses a real problem, and one I want to set up before we actually start the Pertwee era in no small part because it was set up before the Pertwee era got started. I’ve alluded in several posts to the fact fact that I am not entirely thrilled with the Pertwee era as eras of Doctor Who. Which, to be fair, neither is a lot of fandom. Though the heyday of Pertwee bashing came in the 1990s, it’s notable that when Time Unincorporated began collecting major fanzine essays it devoted an entire chapter to the Pertwee controversy, while admitting that it had largely boiled over. Still, there is something about the Pertwee era – something that isn’t true of either the Troughton or Hartnell eras – that invites a love-it-or-hate-it controversy.
One of the biggest problems is that the Pertwee era has an at times unbearable level of self-seriousness. More than any other era of Doctor Who, as we will see, it has a bewildering lack of self-awareness of when it’s gone over the top. Doctor Who frequently is over the top, but in most of its history it knows when it goes there, allowing a sort of camp awareness of the whole thing. Pertwee… you run into problems like him seemingly being unaware that, in Terror of the Autons, when he berates Jo as a “ham-fisted bun vendor” it’s supposed to be a joke. And he’s not the only actor to frequently find himself on the wrong side of a script’s sense of humor.
Another way to put all of this is that the Pertwee era is ridiculously easy to parody in a way that the Hartnell and Troughton eras were not. In fact, it’s so easy to parody that the definitive parody predates the Pertwee era. Monty Python’s parody, especially given the degree to which their comedic style made it an extremely barbed joke, seems to effectively get the last word in on the UNIT era before it even begins.