The stereotype, of course, is “stiff upper lip.” Or as I put it last Christmas when my sister was stranded until December 23rd in Heathrow and she was baffled how a couple of inches of snow were something that took four days to clear, “why would the British fix something that they could just stoically endure?” It’s one of the classic national myths of self-identity in the world. Every nation has them. The US are ambitious cowboys, the French have better taste than everyone else, and the British have the ability to keep a level head through anything. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as the idiom goes these days.
Which brings us around to Dad’s Army, which is one of those shows I’ve been meaning to get to in one of these entries and never quite had room for, and so now goes into the hopper with the rest of the glut of end-of-era entries. Partially because I don’t think I’ve done a sitcom yet, partially because it was extraordinarily popular, but mostly, and I admit that I kind of missed the best timing on this (I should have done it with Monty Python, though this entry works too), because it’s the other major show in the early 70s featuring a comedic version of the military.
On its most basic level, Dad’s Army bears a considerable similarity to the UNIT era. We’ve talked already about how the Brigadier was always conceived of as a character who worked more like a Monty Python sketch character than like a dramatic character in the traditional sense, and how understanding this and the implications it has on the narrative structure is essential to being able to see how something like The Claws of Axos, to pick a particularly vivid example, works. But saying this presents UNIT as if they were figures of pure postmodernism. And while they obviously work very well as postmodern figures, that’s not the only thing going on there. And Dad’s Army is what illustrates the other angle.
Some history: In World War II era, the bulk of able-bodied British men, were for obvious reasons, busy in the army fighting abroad. And so the Local Defense Volunteers, or, as they were eventually savvily rebranded, the Home Guard, were formed. Consisting of men who were unfit for active duty, generally because of age (hence the nickname), the Home Guard was intended as a line of defense for when (as it was expected to be when, not if) the Germans invaded. Dad’s Army was a sitcom about members of the Home Guard in a fictional seaside town (where they were often centered).
Central to how the show worked was the disparity between the sheer absurdity of a bunch of old men with insufficient provisions usually allocated because they, like the Home Guard itself, weren’t suitable for the real army, preparing to fight off a Nazi invasion and the basic nobility of their unflinching willingness to do so anyway. Essential to the show was the fact that the characters, while on the one hand utterly and hilariously inept, are on one level aware of their ineptness. And the way in which they are aware of it is fundamentally noble, in that they continue to risk their lives.
And in a real sense, the silliness of UNIT, with Benton being noble but thick and the Brigadier being insanely unflappable, is a variation of this – nobility in the face of the absurd. And that’s something I haven’t talked about much that needs to be acknowledged, because it is part of what is beloved about the Pertwee era. And a lot of that came from the time the Pertwee era was made in as well. See, the Pertwee era and Edward Heath’s tenure as Prime Minister coincide almost exactly, with only Season Seven (save the last episode of Inferno) and the tail end of Season Eleven airing outside of his leadership.
In the course of the just under four years Heath was Prime Minister, a state of emergency was declared in the UK five times. This fact is, in many ways, the single easiest way to characterize his tenure – a state of constant crisis. Unsurprisingly, then, the sort of comforting competence of the Brigadier and the Doctor and UNIT was a nice tonic to this. And a lot of the show’s popularity in the Pertwee era does, in a real sense, come down to that. And there’s a major generation of fandom – one that is still very much influential in the making of the show (Mark Gatiss and Russell T. Davies are both children of the Pertwee era, with Gatiss being about the age of George from his most recent episode, and Davies being about eleven) – who see this era of the show as absolute comfort food.
And it’s good comfort food. But there’s a dark side to all of this, and we need to deal with it briefly to see where the next era of the show is going. And this means looking at the tail end of the Heath era. The 1970s was not a great time. In fact, it was a pretty shitty time for an awful lot of people. And the period of the show we’re looking at is one of the really nasty and for a lot of people scary bits of the 1970s. And there’s two sides of it. On the one hand, Heath’s colossally inept term as Prime Minister came to an end and Britain got a brief period of relative stability.
There’s a view in history where people refer to “the long X,” such as “the long 18th century” or “the long 60s.” Basically, what this means is that the decade is looked at in terms of the lifespans of the major forces within it, so that the arbitrary calendar lines don’t cut off important bits of history. And “the long 60s” extends, in most accounts, to right about here. And there’s a brief pause before you get to what people would start counting as the long 80s if people talked like that about the 80s, which they don’t really yet.
So we’re really on the cusp of moving from one era of history to another. And interestingly, we’re also on the cusp of moving from one era of Doctor Who to another. So let’s step back and look at what this looming 80s thing is. It’s essentially a five year jump to where the long 80s could be said to be in full swing – to about 1978/1979. And since we’re talking about British culture here, we’re talking about Margaret Thatcher. And the fall of Heath is also the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher is going to, by necessity, exert a lot of gravity on this story as she ascends. This is mostly because Thatcher was, from the leftist perspective that I continue to argue Doctor Who is necessarily allied with, is basically the raw embodiment of all evil. And in Britain, there is a whole seething and vitally important network of subcultures that is defined first and foremost by the way in which they fall against Thatcher in the 1980s. Huge figures in British comics – Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison – come out of that anti-Thatcher tradition, as does Paul Cornell. David Tenant is steeped in the tradition of that era. The goth and punk scenes – artists like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, or U2 – stem entirely from that tradition. As does the Sylvester McCoy and New Adventures eras of Doctor Who, making that tradition incredibly important to the series as it exists today. So basically, Doctor Who hates Thatcher’s guts.
And one key aspect of Thatcherism that we need to just introduce on stage now, before we put the whole thing to bed for a number of years and get on with this nice period of calm in which Doctor Who goes into one of its absolute creative high points (albeit after some rough tumbling in the next season), is the manufactured crisis. One aspect of Thatcher, and of Heath, for that matter, is that they are in many ways textbook examples of disaster capitalism, aka the shock doctrine. (The term comes from Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which is a deeply flawed book in the sense that most populist summaries of major lines of thought are flawed, not in the sense that what it is saying is hugely wrong)
The basic premise of disaster capitalism – a practice that is now wholly normal on both the left and right – is that occasions of large scale crisis are useful tools to dramatically reshape the order of things. On the left, Chicago Mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s admonition that one should never waste a crisis is emblematic. On the right… well, take your pick, really. Naomi Klein makes much of the events going on in Chile around the time we’re talking about here, whereby a bunch of University of Chicago trained economists aided Augusto Pinochet’s brutal rise to power over the democratically elected (but, to US interests, inconveniently socialist) government.
The logic of the shock doctrine is simple. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. And once those measures have been taken, it’s a very small step to go from that to having them be normalized. In its crassest form, this leads to conspiracy theories about manufactured crises. And certainly that happens (c.f. the recent debt ceiling debate in the US). But disaster capitalism can work just as well off of real ones.
The reason I call this a dark side of the British valorization of the stiff upper lip is that disaster capitalism is almost uniquely suited to take advantage of that mentality. A population that makes a virtue out of muddling through adversity is one that is incredibly easy to force drastic action onto. The resulting anxieties over mind control and social conditioning are not a uniquely British phenomenon by any measure, but on the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine The Prisoner ever getting made in the US, because part of what is going on in that series is that a fundamental cultural virtue of British society is turned into a real threat. (And in an emotional and aesthetic sense, this is what is so appalling about Thatcherism, and what Doctor Who is going to end up being a particularly damning critique of – not only did Thatcher enact brutally cruel and regressive policies that did abhorrent damage to vulnerable populations, which she did, she pushed those policies through by playing an elaborate con artist’s game with a deeply held aspect of British cultural heritage and morality.)
Which brings us to Edward Heath’s great misapplication of the shock doctrine, the Three-Day Week. Some context – one thing we haven’t talked about in the blog much is the fact that much of the world began to hit peak oil in the 1970s. This resulted in massive spikes in energy prices, which helped set off nasty recessions, among other things. In the UK, one of those other things was an increased reliance on coal. This increased demand, combined with massive inflation, meant that coal miners were routinely working overtime without the sort of corresponding pay raises appropriate for that.
And so for the second time in a few years, they struck. And in what was, depending on your perspective, either a feat of staggering political suicide or a badly botched attempt at disaster capitalism, Edward Heath imposed the Three-Day Week, in which businesses were only open for three consecutive days, with no overtime or extended hours allowed, in order to save energy. It was a bad situation. There were lots of real monetary policy issues that were making it very hard to keep the working class afloat, but there was still a genuinely strong sense of working class and union spirit that kept Britain sympathetic to the unions. Heath made a political gamble and tried to break the union’s back by taking decisive action to try to refuse the miners’ demands, then call a snap election and hope that the British public would rally behind the government in hard times and support their crackdown on the miners who were just going to have to tighten their belts like the rest of us. It’s an early version of the Thatcher/Reagan playbook, plain and simple.
Except Heath got it all wrong. The attempt to manufacture a crisis to break the back of the unions failed spectacularly, and turned into a political disaster. Popular sympathy stayed with the miners, and the Conservatives crashed to a defeat at the polls, gaining a larger share of the vote than Labour, but fewer seats in Parliament, bringing an end to the Heath government. The shock doctrine just plain failed. As I said way back when the 60s peaked, the leftist torch did not burn out in Britain with quite the crashing brutality that it did elsewhere. And Britain has this nice moral flicker in which a desire to side with the working class miners plays up, and it kicks the Conservatives out for a few years. The US goes through an adjacent process two years later when lingering anger over Watergate hands a very nice and well-meaning peanut farmer the Presidency and it all ends in tears after a very nice try. (A situation that the left in America is currently looking very nervously at the memory of) Both run about four years, but Britain’s starts two years earlier, here. So if you just want to think of things in terms of American politics, just imagine that Carter gets elected midway through Invasion of the Dinosaurs instead of way off in The Deadly Assassin.
And, permitting ourselves to look ahead for a moment, Doctor Who, as I said, goes into a very, very big creative renaissance in a year. One that it is very hard for even the most ardent defender of the Pertwee era to deny is a massive, massive uptick in quality for the show. We’re about to get what is by many standards the most undisputedly brilliant run on Doctor Who there ever was. And so this period of deeply uneasy political calm that settles in for four years between eras ends up as a sort of second psychedelic 60s off in the recesses of a sleepy little children’s show that ended up being a real and genuine highlight of television as a medium. Essentially this is Doctor Who’s victory lap coming up – the point where it goes from an incredibly successful and long-running program to one that garners enough accumulated good will to be immortal – to actually be able to survive as a real candidate for what will be seen as one of the great immortal literary characters – like Odysseus or Faust or Satan or Sherlock Holmes – one that survives as a centuries or longer old idea. (There are ones that seem certain to get there – Batman and Superman seem like incredibly strong candidates for characters that will live to have a hundred years of continual storytelling about them. In terms of creating English language versions of this, Britain had ruled the art in the Victorian era, spitting out Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan while the US managed The Wizard of Oz as it’s one feeble attempt at immortal literary characters of that sort. Come the World War II era, however, the US kicked Britain’s ass in this department – the superheroes most obviously but also Star Trek, Star Wars, and, in one of the most jaw-droppingly cruel stabs at British literature, swiping the legacy of Tolkien out from under the UK and running off with fantasy. Doctor Who is, in this extended and grotesquely over-generalized analogy, the UK’s version of The Wizard of Oz – it’s one prize-fighting contender in the “let’s create myths and gods” sweepstakes. This, if you were wondering, is why you read an insane epic on William Blake a week or two ago.)
But though Doctor Who is excellent in this period, the era of history is still unsettled. The result of the public’s beating back the manufactured crisis of the Three-Day Week and what it represented, the UK had a hung parliament and a massive recession to face. One practical effect was that BBC budgets became increasingly stretched, and panicked cost cutting measures became the order of the day, which is going to have immediate effect on Doctor Who. Another, much subtler shift that goes on in this period is that the tone of the counterculture begins to shift. The glam rock aesthetic that has so been informing Doctor Who for the last three years, and its link back to the older psychedelic/alchemical aesthetic that informed it from day one suddenly explodes, with glam rock bottoming out in popularity suddenly. The gaudy opulence of Ziggy Stardust gives way to a far more cynical rejection of society and willful dirtiness of punk, with the key date in punk there looming about two years away from where we are now. And off in Doctor Who, the winds of change start to whip up, and we’re going to have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about the implications of the Pertwee era as it brings itself to a close and attempts to sum itself up.