There’s a shift between the early and late 1980s that is difficult to articulate, but nevertheless clear. The cultural moment of the late 80s – one that, in practice, extends a few years into the 90s – is clearly a vibrant one. Swaths of really good bands release career high albums in this period, the much-feted British Inavsion of Comics hits high gear, you’ve got the Second Summer of Love, and, for good measure, Doctor Who has a creative renaissance.
Knights of God, which ran in 1987, airing the day before the episodes of Season 24 of Doctor Who, is clearly a part of this era. Which is interesting, as it was held back by two years and actually belongs to 1985, a very different era of television. And yet the delay is in many ways absolutely perfect – a case of something that would have been a few years ahead of its time instead ending up being an iconic example of its time.
Throughout the Baker era one of the running defenses we could fine was that it’s not entirely clear what Doctor Who should have been in the context of television of that period. Starting, well, not quite next story, but definitely the one after, Doctor Who starts to figure this out. And the solution it comes up with is very similar to the one that Knights of God turned out to have come up with two years previously.
Last time we focused on children’s television we noted that there was an awkward gulf confronting Doctor Who between its children’s television tradition and the considerably darker and edgier tradition that serious-minded science fiction was taking. The question left hanging was how to mix the aggressive and dark weirdness of something like Max Headroom with the traditional structure of children’s television.
It’s worth reflecting, though, on what the nature of this tension is. It’s not, obviously, that children’s television can’t be dark. Indeed, for the most part good children’s television is defined by an aggressive darkness. Rather, it’s that in the end children’s television tends to be about making the bewildering understandable, which means that while estrangement might be a tool along the way – indeed, a very important tool – it’s rarely the endpoint.
The troubling bit is that so much of the energy of this cultural moment comes from estrangement. It’s a cultural moment based on new, often more cynical takes on the epics of the past, and on disillusionment and alienation. The ostentatious and gaudy approaches of the earlier 1980s gave way to an angry depression – a situation that only increased come Thatcher’s third election in 1987. So children’s television’s had a real problem at this point, especially children’s television that wanted to deal with science fiction at all.
Enter Knights of God. On the one hand, it’s a searing, angry dystopia positing a fascist futuristic Britain in which the north and Wales have been brutally subjugated by the eponymous Knights of God. It’s not the sort of actively weird estrangement of, say, Max Headroom, but it’s a vividly unsettling milieu. The opening shots of the credits sets the tone well – a burning Union Jack and an ominous fleet of helicopters flying toward the camera – do huge amounts to set the tone for the series. Even within the series there’s a real edge to it. The regions of Britain to hold out against the Knights of God – Wales and the north – are the same ones hit hardest by Thatcher’s tenure. So on the one hand what we have is a venomous piece of disillusioned dystopia.
On the other hand, the basic plot – a young boy discovers he’s the secret king of Britain and goes through some Arthurian symbolism in the course of overthrowing the Knights – is fairly standard “light reskinning of an existing mythology” stuff that one would expect to populate a lot of children’s television. In practice the story is a modern day King Arthur type story, albeit one with a surprisingly good cast and a dark tinge to proceedings. Nevertheless, there’s something very safe and familiar about the basic arc of the story.
So far this isn’t anything new, though it is something about which we’ve found much to respect in the past. It’s a fairly standard “let’s mix two sets of narrative codes” approach of the sort that Doctor Who started doing reliably and well in the Tom Baker era. It’s an approach that has fueled most of the best Doctor Who stories since that era too, if we’re being honest. So even if the basic form isn’t a radical invention, it’s something with a lot of legs and potential.
But in this case there’s a tough spot – the basic fact that disillusioned and dystopic depictions of fascist Britain and a King Arthur adventure aren’t just two different sets of narrative codes, they’re two different sets of narrative codes that actively jar. Much like panto and dramatic piece about domestic violence and its aftermath turned out to combine with spectacular lack of success at the dawn of the Colin Baker era this combination risks being really unpleasant and uncomfortable.
But let’s think for a moment about why The Twin Dilemma was so bad – indeed, why much of the Saward era was problematic. The trouble was that Saward had an unfortunate tendency of flaunting his supposed edginess in a way that badly overestimates just how edgy he’s being. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all of the problem with The Twin Dilemma comes down to this, but certainly a part of it is that the show is clearly going “Oh look, we’ve got a violent and unpredictable Doctor, isn’t this dramatic” while the audience is going “you have a man in the worst coat ever made in a story about a giant slug with a deely bopper, and so having him try to strangle somebody isn’t dramatic, it’s just horrid.” That is to say, The Twin Dilemma swings for drama and hits stupid panto, which is bathetic.
Knights of God makes a savvy move to avoid this. For the most part, it’s content to act like children’s television. It never over-emphasizes its darkness or strains to wring added drama from proceedings. Instead it plugs along as a straightforward sort of Arthurian remix and allows the bits of it that are more serious and unnerving to cut against that. It’s a small but significant thing. Instead of aiming for drama and ending up a bit silly, Knights of God purports to be light children’s entertainment and then goes further than it should for that.
This is a good general principle to hold to when crossing genres, particularly those of differing levels of seriousness: it’s better to have hidden depths than appear oblivious to your own shallowness. And it’s a lesson that Cartmel and Nathan-Turner quickly start to apply to Doctor Who. Indeed, this can fairly be described as the basic approach of the Cartmel era. It goes back to making stuff that feels like children’s television, but constantly bristles with deeper implications. This isn’t just children’s television that works for adults too, but something more fundamental. The depths are visible, if not always entirely understandable, to children, and the show is far more compelling for it.
Indeed, this approach is more compelling than the maturity in play even in the Colin Baker stories that worked. As an adult I can see perfectly well that Vengeance on Varos is brilliant and satirical, but as a kid I didn’t see any of that. Whereas I knew that stories like Survival or Ghost Light had things going on that I couldn’t see, and they were altogether more compelling for it. Knights of God isn’t a show I saw as a child, but it has that same approach down where it’s clear that there’s something bigger and darker lurking about in the subtext.
Ironically, the trick to hinting at these depths is to have actors who don’t play towards them. Knights of God does this well, casting actors who are both experienced with children’s television and skilled at drama. Gareth Thomas, Patrick Troughton, John Woodvine, and Julian Fellowes are confident enough actors to play their scenes as straightforward drama. Woodvine occasionally stops to gnaw gently upon the scenery, but his overacting remains firmly within the range of what is normal for children’s television villains, and as evil fascist overlords go he’s profoundly restrained. The result are actors who are neither overly stressing the serious portions of the show nor undermining them, but who are instead acting as though they are making serious children’s television. This lets the larger darkness of the series lurk about the edges, given enough room to exist and thrive by the actors’ seriousness but never foregrounded.
It’s not a foolproof strategy. The problem with hidden depths is that it’s easy to have them not quite be deep enough to carry what they’re doing. The result can be a troubling level of glibness. For all that it’s compelling, for instance, Knights of God trends uncomfortably towards a dictatorial monarchism of its own in its endless focus on how a good king will rise up and rule everybody wisely and justly. There’s something off about the ethics of the show – something that stems, ultimately, from the fact that its genre is just a little too facile to really deal seriously with the issues of fascism in British culture.
There is, in other words, still that lurking problem of bathos. Foregrounding the lighter half of the juxtaposition reduces the danger and makes for something compelling, but there’s still, at the end of the day, the problem that children’s television is limited in its capacity for the avant garde or for serious social commentary is real. There’s a constant danger of glibness. Or perhaps even worse, there’s a slight inevitability of glibness. No matter what you do with it, the uncanniness that is so compelling within this approach remains a weakness as well.
But equally, this fusion opens doors that other approaches just can’t touch. There’s something about pitting Arthurian legends against a stand-in for Thatcherism that is compelling. If its virtue isn’t that it’s a fully functional piece of serious thought about political issues, well, fine, but this doesn’t make what it does offer any less potent. So much of pragmatic politicking these days hinges on the realization that people think about the world narratively. And children’s television has access to a set of narratives that are deeply powerful. The iconography of children’s stories makes up for its lack of seriousness in its ability to be haunting and striking.
And beyond that, what good are our childhood mythologies if they cannot be pitted against our adult demons? We do not need King Arthur to defeat Margaret Thatcher any more than we need him to defeat the schoolyard bully. That’s not his purpose or his value. Our imaginary heroes exist to defeat the imaginary dimensions of these things. And children’s television is unique in its ability to make use of that. Children’s television that thinks to turn that tool towards things not normally confronted by imaginary heroes is a striking idea worth taking seriously. Imperfection is not the opposite of good.
And Knights of God is good. It’s very good, in fact. It’s gripping, it’s well-made, it’s well-acted. It’s the sort of show that worms its way into your consciousness as a kid. And, for our purposes most importantly, it’s a show that demonstrates how Doctor Who could be that while still making a real, material social engagement. It is, to put it another way, a map of alchemy.
It’s fitting, then, that this is the last television appearance of Patrick Troughton. Not the last thing he filmed, but the delay from 1985 to 1987 meant that it was the last thing that he appeared in to air. And this seems a good place to end – with a final nod to the man who did so much to map out the alchemy of Doctor Who. Here, for the last time, he gives a sense of what Doctor Who could be. And twenty-four hours after the first episode of it aired, we’d have a chance to see whether the new regime could make it work.