The Deadly Assassin entry is, of course, a bit of a tome. This results in an odd paradox. As the old joke goes, “I apologize for writing such a long letter – I did not have time to write a short one.” Length, to some extent, begets length – the nature of a nearly 13,000 word entry is that it raises further points that require following up. To this end, because Season 14 of Doctor Who had an unusually long Christmas break that ran from late November to January, this entry and the next (A Time Can Be Rewritten entry) will be cleanup crew – some expansions and tidying up on points raised in that entry before we dive back into the wreckage for the coda to the Hinchcliffe era.
In some ways, however, this is the coda to the Hinchcliffe era. Children of the Stones – which ran roughly concurrently with The Face of Evil and The Robots of Death, airing on Mondays, just after sunset, at a quarter to five – feels in a number of ways like a sort of lost story of the Hinchcliffe era. It is a natural extension of and response to many of the ideas animating Doctor Who in this period. Its tone, mood, and iconography are deeply compatible with that of Doctor Who. More, really, than any Pop Between Realities we’ve done, this feels like a case of making sure we cover something that is inextricable from Doctor Who.
There are two basic ways to make very good British television. The first is to try to make very good British television and succeed. This is the way of the prestige project – the stuff that forms the meat of the British television export. I, Claudius is the archetypal example, with later examples being things like Prime Suspect, Our Friends in the North, Downton Abbey, and, since 2005, Doctor Who. These projects work by getting multiple leading lights of the British television industry together on one project and giving them enough money to do it well. It’s a very good system and it makes very good television. HBO reinvented American television, basically, by pinching the system and using it in the US.
The second approach is the approach that characterizes the classic series of Doctor Who. In this approach, you slap together something to fill a timeslot on the schedule and shoot for nothing more than “sufficiently entertaining as to get people to watch it.” Then you miss horribly and accidentally hit “brilliant” instead. Children of the Stones is a perfect example of this approach – ITV Children’s entertainment, a style of television generally expected to produce things like Ace of Wands and The Tomorrow People, inadvertently turn out seven episodes of creepy supernatural horror of such quality that it frankly forces us to reevaluate our expectations of what television is.
By all accounts, Children of the Stones was a landmark piece of television – one children of the relevant generation were thoroughly spooked by. It’s one of those true classics of children’s media – in the tradition we talked about way back in The Ark in Space. The sort that are memorable and impacting because they go just a little further than children might be prepared to go, pushing them out of their comfort zone. And in the end, that’s what true classics of children’s literature do – they present children with something that’s hard to deal with. They require children to grow. How do you make a child into an interesting, thoughtful adult? Alchemy. Material social progress. Growth.
In practical terms, Children of the Stones manages an uncanny drift into creepiness. The first episodes are merely unnerving, but as the situation worsens the show gets considerably scarier, until in its final two episodes audience identification characters are getting mind-controlled and turned to stone while the dwindling number of good guys are under increasing pressure and running out of options. On top of that, it does an excellent job of nondescript creepiness – things like the eery atmospheric chanting used for incidental music that, while not something you can point and say “that’s really scary” in the same way that you can at, say, Goth drowning the Doctor, remains tremendously unsettling and effective.
It is, in other words, the sort of horror that is most effective – especially in children’s media, but really in general: conceptual horror. Hiding behind the sofa only works to avoid a scary scene. There’s no hiding from a scary idea. (The use of creepy sound – chanting and singing – instead of merely horrific imagery is similarly effective – it is easier to avert one’s eyes than one’s ears.) And this is what Children of the Stones does so well. Even if you do avert your eyes from the scene in which Margaret and Sandra are corrupted by Hendrick, and even if you’re young enough that the creepier sexual overtones of the scene sail past you, you’re still left with the idea that the kind of creepy man who invites your family for dinner might unexpectedly brainwash you. And that knowing this in advance won’t even help you, since the real brilliance of that scene is that both Margaret and Sandra have a basic understanding of what’s about to happen but are still unable to save themselves. That’s deliciously scary in a way you can’t look away from.
But the ways in which Children of the Stones serves as a sort of lost story of the Hinchcliffe era are more than just the fact that both of them were effective children’s horror shows that were on at the same time. It’s the specific content: the way in which the phenomena seen in Children of the Stones flit between magic and science, the way in which the scary thing is something returning from the past, and, of course, the focus on cyclical understandings of history. Children of the Stones doesn’t just act like Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who in that it’s scary and doesn’t bother talking down to its audience or dumbing itself down for them. It also talks about the same basic concerns.
Which are concerns we haven’t quite spelled out, even though we’ve been talking about them for a while. One of the things that’s been noticeable about the Hinchcliffe era is the frequency with which its threats emerge from the past. All three Season Fourteen stories to date have dealt with this to some extent, as did half of Season Thirteen and two of Season Twelve. This is not a complete transformation – Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell all dealt with evils returning from the past at one time or another. But no era has embraced them so thoroughly. We’ve seen, over the course of the last few seasons, a fundamental change in what the “default” mode of Doctor Who is.
One thing that Children of the Stones shows us, then, is that this is part of something larger. The most obvious thing to say is that a focus on the past is the obvious response to the crashing and burning of the future that the end of the 60s brought. There’s a sensible progression from the failure of revolutionary movements to treating the future with considerable anxiety to abandoning the future entirely in favor of the past. So in this period there’s a general turn towards the past across media. We’ve been seeing its effects for some time – the revival of interest in rural Britain that fueled things like The Daemons, for instance, or the rise of glam rock, which both came out of that interest (T. Rex traded in his Tolkien for glitter) and was, as the wise Chris O’Leary points out, rock’s first nostalgia movement.
And we’ll see its impact in numerous ways, including in the rise of punk rock. There are perhaps no lines in music more focused on a relationship with the past than “No Future / England’s Dreaming,” but more to the point, punk music rose in part out of the pub rock movement, which was about reclaiming rock from the starry-eyed sci-fi nerds doing glam and progressive rock and taking it back to good old fashioned pubs. Punk’s driving aesthetic has always been authenticity, and authenticity is always nostalgic.
But punk also highlights another aspect of a focus on the past. In a society focused on the past, utopianism has two options. It can become intensely reactionary, advocating for the rolling back of history towards some prior design. This, however, is unsuitable for our progressive purposes. Progressive utopianism, then, is left with one alternative: anger. It is left advocating for a “rip it up and start again” approach that serves to eradicate history. Not eradicate in the sense of forget about or erase, but in the sense of destroying it – leaving the past as smoldering rubble.
This brings us around to the problem of cyclical history – something we’ve talked about in passing for several entries now without quite defining. There are in essence two ways in which the past repeats itself. The first is simply through parallelism – human nature dictates that certain patterns of behavior will recur. The second is through a stubborn refusal of the past to die. This is the sort of recursion characterized by something like Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech – a vicious piece of xenophobia that was decried as antiquated, racist thinking when Powell gave it. And which then proceeded to tediously influence people and be praised for decades and counting.
This latter form of cyclical history is particularly potent in Britain, a nation ruled from a palimpsest of a city. In a nation where dead history routinely abuts with living memory, the sense of an undying past that looms continually over the present has particular power. And both Children of the Stones and the Hinchcliffe era trade on this fact.
But what the Hinchcliffe era never quite does is connect the two. It never manages to have a story in which the persistence of material elements of the past causes specific types of events to occur. It’s a bit of the underlying philosophy of the show that never quite gets its day in the sun. And in that regard, Children of the Stones fills in a useful gap for the Hinchcliffe era. Because what’s interesting about it is that the physical detritus of the past – the ancient stone circle – is also the source of a recurring social event. The whole premise of Children of the Stones is that the events taking place in this village are part of an ancient, recurring pattern. But this pattern is linked to old, dead ideas in a more Lovecraftian tradition. It’s a very neat little move, and one that draws an important parallel that underlies the Hinchcliffe era’s ideas.
Indeed, this link helps clarify another recurring motif of the Hinchcliffe era, possession. Characters are finding themselves possessed and mind controlled with alarming frequency these days in the show. I mean, you always had the Master as a Svengali, but these days people are having their bodies taken over by alien presences like there’s some sort of intergalactic corporeality shortage. But in Children of the Stones the possession angle finally snaps into place along with the other key elements of the Hinchcliffe approach. Here we have characters who are possessed by ancient forces, but the possession amounts to social conditioning with a clear level of inspiration from The Prisoner.
The result is oddly fortuitous for the Hinchcliffe era – a show that is routinely remembered in the same breath as Doctor Who that, instead of being a cheap knockoff, adds real depth and character to the era and serves to enhance the show. It also suggests, pleasantly, that we have not been overdoing it as much as might have been feared.
One thing that comes up in conversation about this blog sometimes is the extent to which I believe what I am saying here. Certainly I willfully and deliberately overplay my critical hand just slightly, pushing just a bit further than is quite justifiable with my interpretations. As I have said before, though I forget if I’ve actually said it on the blog, I don’t actually believe that the writers of Doctor Who were consciously designing a sentient metafiction to continually disrupt the social order through a systematic process of détournement. Except maybe David Whitaker.
But on the other hand, I view this as a slightly overly optimistic, slightly doting, slightly over-sentimental version of accurate readings of what’s going on in the stories. I think I’m turning the volume up just a little too loud on accurate criticism. And here is a nice moment of underlining the fact that, yes, this is still an argument about the actual material history of the show. Because the ideas I’m picking out in Doctor Who are picked up seamlessly elsewhere in the culture. These ideas are not a weird alternate history of British culture, but a thread that really is unspooling across the culture, with Doctor Who, if not at the literal center of it, at least central enough to serve as an adequate derivé.
So yes, I do think that there were plenty of people watching The Deadly Assassin in 1976 and getting many of the ideas and themes I was seeing. Not necessarily in the obsessively and conspiratorially organized form I put them in, but in some form. If nothing else because here is another show, also popular, that clearly does do many of the same things. And that, for good measure, does them with surprising complexity. Children of the Stone is, as the idiom now goes, massively timey wimey. This is a show whose existence and popularity should really force everybody complaining that Doctor Who is “too complex” to just shut up. Children’s entertainment in 1976 was doing understated plots about elaborate time loops.
But one consequence of this is that it tells us that, yes, children did watch television rigorously. Because for Children of the Stones to have worked, they would have had to demonstrate good memories across weeks and ability to think through and anticipate future developments of complex ideas. This is not television to watch inattentively. And that means that there were plenty of children who were watching Doctor Who with savvy eyes. Subtleties of the show were communicated. And as Children of the Stones teaches us, once these subtleties were made material in the culture, their influence can be made to recur indefinitely.