The usual technique would be to look at what else was going on in TV sci-fi in Britain. But we have slim pickings for this era, so in this case that becomes where we start. Or, rather, in the difference between them.
See, Doctor Who has always existed in a liminal space between children’s television and science fiction. This may seem a bit of a strange claim given the rather obvious fact that there’s a good deal of children’s television is science fiction, but it’s important to realize that these are two distinct traditions with a subtle but significant philosophical difference at their heart, and that Doctor Who has always had to do at least some active work to bridge them.
If one were to make a horrific overgeneralization about children’s fiction then one of the least inaccurate ones available would be to observe that children’s literature tends to focus thematically on the existence of a threshold between two worlds, whether they be mundane and fantastic or otherwise. The logic of this is not difficult to figure out – it’s as sensible a metaphor for coming of age as exists. But at the heart of this approach is the fact that a children’s story tends to be about obtaining some degree of mastery and sense over the strange second world. Put another way, the basic arc of children’s fiction is that it makes the strange familiar.
Science fiction, on the other hand, when considered as a genre instead of as an iconography, does almost the exact opposite. Science fiction’s main trick is to use the expanded possibilities of its iconography to reflect our own world back at us from an odd angle. So science fiction goes not for making the strange familiar, but for making the familiar strange.
These ideas are not impossible to reconcile, not least because science fiction can serve equally as a vague iconography that is easily made familiar, and because children’s literature often involves making the world that its protagonist starts in strange along wiht making the new world familiar. But there is a difference in approach here, and it’s well illustrated by looking at the two of the major bits of British science fiction television going around these days.
In one corner we have Max Headroom, which, prior to being a short-lived but well-remembered American sci-fi series in the late 1980s was an hourlong TV movie on Channel 4 in the mid-80s. Max Headroom is an exceedingly early example of cyberpunk, a short-lived and hugely influential subgenre of science fiction that took the possibilities of technological progress extremely seriously while completely rejecting the idea that they would be connected to social progress. Focusing particularly on the rise of computers and information technology, cyberpunk tended to be at once high-tech and grungy. (Another way to phrase this is that the rest of the world abruptly realized Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard existed.)
In practice, though, the original Max Headroom, entitled Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which barely features Max Headroom at all, is basically an attempt to do a television version of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The giveaway is the sequence in which we see someone explode from watching TV commercials, but the whole thing has similar themes. Both are centered on the physicality of the media – a sensible enough extension of the interminable debate about sex and violence, given that both sex and violence are intensely visceral acts. They imagine a world in which, essentially, media has won – where sexual extremity and extreme violence are widespread aspects of society, and where the mass media itself has gained more physical and visceral aspects. And they end up creating a sort of oddly double-edged world – a “cool” dystopia that is at once nightmarish and oddly sexy.
In the case of Max Headroom, this seems exceedingly deliberate. Watching the pilot episode one is struck by the difficulty that there’s very little of the title character in it, and he’s barely relevant to the plot. But that’s because the TV movie isn’t actually his debut. He was originally the host of a music video programming block on Channel 4, and was wildly popular, hence the idea to make an origin story. And even between his origin story and being picked up as a TV series in America he made appearances here and there in the popular culture. In other words, For all its dystopic trappings, it’s clear that everyone involved in Max Headroom knew that their job was to make a character everyone was going to think was cool.
(Indeed, if you want to be one of those people who insists that only televised Doctor Who is canonical then it is notable that Max Headroom is canonical. Just ask anybody who was watching The Horror of Fang Rock in Chicago in 1987.)
Implicit in this fact that any of this worked is the fact that we have clearly, in the background, made the switch to where postmodernism is completely mainstream. That’s not to say the point where postmodern things can be popular, which has been true at least since David Bowie, but rather the point where the postmodern doesn’t need any justification or explanation and can simply stride calmly onto the public scene without anyone noticing. (If you really want to dial it in, the switch is somewhere between this entry and The Cleopatras.) Suddenly the blending of different codes of reference and commentary on those codes of reference becomes something everyone can do.
Or, at least, everyone who’s grown up. The rise of postmodernism left children’s media relatively untouched, and to some extent continues to do so. This is on the one hand not surprising. There is an earnestness to children’s media that cuts against postmodernism. And so in some ways nothing illustrates the gap that was opening up than comparing the BBC’s only non-Doctor Who sci-fi program in 1984 with Max Headroom. That program, of course, is Tripods.
Tripods, I should stress, is not a bad show. Indeed, one can fairly reasonably call it timeless, in that its look, feel, and storytelling are almost but not quite impossible to distinguish from children’s television for years on either side of it. It is an earnest action-adventure show about plucky youths and Orwellian mind control that, production values aside, could have fit into the 1970s or the 1990s.
That’s not to say that Tripods is an overly simple show. It does a really nifty job of starting with a very pastoral view of the world and steadily making it a source of horror. It’s a clever inversion, particularly given the fact that the idyllic pastoral world is, as a concept, intimately connected to idealizations of childhood. It’s quite a good show, and clever. The fact that it’s a fairly linear adaptation of books means that the transformation it makes between seasons is big and striking. One can absolutely understand why this was popular.
But look at the last time we looked at children’s drama (as opposed to The Adventure Game), which was Children of the Stones. There what was striking was how astonishingly complex and intricate the children’s show was. And if I’d compressed entries a little and done it alongside an adult sci-fi show, namely Survivors, what that entry would have been talking about would have been just how much more sophisticated the supposed children’s show is.
Yes, this is a matter of selection bias – had I compared The Tomorrow People with Survivors the results would have been different. The big difference is that by 1985 Tripods was the only other piece of science fiction on the BBC besides Doctor Who, and so there’s not any selection bias to be had anymore. There’s just the uncomfortable gap that’s visibly opening up between what children’s science fiction can do and what adult science fiction can do.
And this gap poses real problems for Doctor Who because, as I said, it has a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, Doctor Who has always been firmly science fiction with a clear mandate for estrangement. It’s supposed to be a show about making its audience uncomfortable. On the other hand, its basic iconography is, as we’ve discussed, steeped in a vast history of children’s literature. And this has always been reflected in its somewhat odd audience. It’s not a children’s show, nor is it a family show inasmuch as that term is defined as “a children’s show adults don’t hate to watch.” It’s a show that functions not just satisfyingly for both children and adults but independently for each population.
For much of its run this isn’t that hard a balance to strike. The fact that adults like good children’s television is well documented, and Doctor Who’s tricks in terms of actively bridging the gap are relatively narrow – it mostly comes down to the fact that melodrama is a really effective way to suture the two audiences together. But around this period the gap starts to become very big. And this is something we’re going to see with troubling vividness in the next season.
Simply put, on the one hand Doctor Who’s cultural reputation is as a show for children. This is a problem for it in two ways. First of all, it may be thought of as being for children, but a substantial number of the people writing for it want it to be a serious and often satirical drama. This eventually leads down a rabbit hole of perversity when you have serious actors agreeing to appear in Revelation of the Daleks for their children. Second of all, the program’s self-justification increasingly hinges on its fans, with stars and the producer alike milking the convention circuit. When these fans are easily caricatured as grown men who are obsessed with a children’s program then you find yourself facing a bit of a PR problem.
On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that the next two seasons are going to work far better when they try to work for adults than when they do for children. Doctor Who may be seen as a children’s program, but that’s a misperception. It’s more than that. It’s telling that in some accounts it was the cancellation of Tripods that justified bringing Doctor Who back. Because watching them, the two shows aren’t even trying for the same audience. And the “for children” bits of the next season are by and large the most cringeworthy, which is comparatively terrifying.
But equally, Doctor Who trying to be grown up is, if not cringeworthy, at least a bit embarrassing. In many ways the grotesque failures of The Twin Dilemma come from the series making a hash of an attempt at adult drama. This whole “make the Doctor abrasive and mellow him out” idea, even if taken seriously (and it is, I’ll grant, the most sympathetic reading of the trainwreck), runs into the problem that you’re trying to do angst-based character drama about a man wearing a willfully tasteless costume that was apparently designed to serve as an Edwardian Hawaiian shirt and is fighting giant slugs with deely boppers on their heads.
To put it another way, one of the problems the show is having in this period is that its gestures towards children and its gestures towards adults are becoming completely separate. But, crucially, so was the culture at large. Doctor Who is in a bizarre position of, between its ambitions and the expectations of it, trying to compete simultaneously with Max Headroom and Tripods. And it fails spectacularly.
Or, rather, it doesn’t fail because it doesn’t bother to try or to recognize that this is what it’s supposed to do. More than anything what the show needed right now was someone to come at it with a bit of distance and see a structural issue like this. The current production team has been around for three years, and, more troublingly, this is for Saward his second reinvention of the show and for Nathan-Turner his third. It barely matters how good you are at that point – you’re almost certainly too close to the show to be able to see what the show needs to change. When you’re reinventing your own reinvention you run into the basic and unavoidable problem that all of the flaws you’re reacting against are ones you introduced, and thus ones you’re the least likely person to be able to see.
The reality is that this needed to be when Saward and Nathan-Turner stepped aside, leaving Doctor Who’s reinvention for the mid-80s to people with fresh ideas. If they had the Nathan-Turner era would be remembered at least as well as the Letts era. For all that I pummelled them during the Davison era the fact of the matter is that the slow motion disaster that’s going to unfold over the next two months of the blog looms unfairly over the rest of their era. It’s been pretty good for the past four seasons.
But four years on a program and two reinventions is a long time, and after it the fact is that one probably ought move on. But it seems as though nobody seriously considered this. Nathan-Turner talked a little bit in interviews in the early 80s about wanting to move along after another year or so, but nothing came of it. And so you had a program that tried to keep one foot in two very different traditions without any real awareness of how they were diverging. The problem isn’t even that Saward and Nathan-Turner are out of ideas. It’s that the ideas they have are solutions to problems that don’t exist and they seem to genuinely not see the problems that do exist. They’re trying to recapture the nostalgic past of the show while television is pulling itself apart around them. If ever there was a moment in Doctor Who’s history where “sod the past, whatever you do come up with something new” was a good idea, it was 1985.
Equally, though, they have the misfortune of facing what is a genuinely hard problem in terms of coming up with something new. It would take a very, very good writer to figure out how to bridge the widening gap at the heart of what Doctor Who was. Even Robert Holmes, fresh from a classic, doesn’t have the answer this time, as we’ll see. It’s easy to criticize the decisions made in the mid-80s and to pick over the gossip and assign the blame. What’s harder is coming up with a realistic model of a show that can look like a stablemate to both of these shows that doesn’t rely on production and writing techniques from decades in the future. Just because the production team failed spectacularly doesn’t mean that the problem of how to make good Doctor Who in 1985 and 1986 was easy in the least.