In 1989 Doctor Who ended and Steven Moffat’s writing career began. This latter event provides a bookend for Doctor Who’s 25th season, propped up on the other end by The KLF/The JAMs/The Timelords hitting number one with “Doctorin’ the TARDIS,” all of its explorations of the program’s history suspended arbitrarily between these two events.
1989 is a conceptual oddity for me – a year zero in every sense of the term. It is the first year I have any associations with – the first one in which I was aware of the calendar as a force unto itself. There is no visible reason for this. It was the end of first grade and the beginning of second, and in that regard a transition from something of an idyllic year in my childhood to something rougher and more uncertain. But those are school years – a calendar that my life has always been well attuned to, but a separate one from the calendar. I am aware that 1989 existed, that it is the first year I have any memory of as a year, but it is an empty signifier, carrying weight but no content.
I was too young to grasp the nature of the fall of Communism, although it is in some ways difficult to imagine that I was completely insulated from them. We learn our eschatologies young, and they are always imminent. A shift in the nature of the end of the world such as the winding down of the Cold War would have been noticed, if not understood. But I remember the end of the year, at my grandparents’ house outside of Dallas, realizing that the calendar marked something significant this time.
I was unaware that less than a month earlier Doctor Who had ended. Or, for that matter, that twenty-six years earlier it had begun. Still, my grandparents’ house carries some significance in this regard. Their PBS station was showing Doctor Who late, and my first copies of the Colin Baker and early Sylvester McCoy stories came from them. The first time I ever watched Doctor Who transmitting, on a television screen, was Time and the Rani (oh well) at their house. I read the novelization of Survival there. Their local Blockbuster had videos of stories I’d never seen – it was where I first watched The Web Planet and The Mind Robber. More broadly, on long and somewhat boring summers there I would get books on tape out of their local library, marathoning Douglas Adams books. There’s a beautiful, formal neatness to the association I have between this place and 1989, marred only by the fact that it is a complete reconstruction after the fact.
But that’s my paternal grandparents all over. Living as they did in Texas they were always the side of the family I felt some distance from. It was my mother’s side of the family – largely my grandmother’s, specifically – that I knew. New York Italians. My maternal grandfather was Irish, though his family was an absent presence – he’d had to leave home very young because of the intense poverty he grew up in, and I never got to know any of his relatives well. My father’s side of the family was less distant, but was still understood primarily through their distance and the strange, obsessive pride in me that this engendered. On top of that, let’s be honest, nobody at age seven wants to be whisked away by a time zone a few days after Christmas to spend a week in the house of old people. Even if their grandfather is sure to take them for a haircut and then bribe them with ice cream after. Even if there’s a cool old computer with odd games and a monitor that only displays the color green. Even, in later years, if there’s Doctor Who involved.
In hindsight this is a terrible misunderstanding. For years I thought of my self primarily as the Italian/Irish split my mother was, considering my father’s “American mutt” heritage to be a sort of bland vanilla. More recently I’ve learned, first of all, that my grandfather was Welsh and just claimed to be Irish because he liked them more, and that second of all, the Italian side of my family and I have a more strained relationship than I’d realized. (As with all childhood, these unknown facts seem oddly prescient – for years I had a fondness for the Welsh dragon symbol, instinctively setting aside the pound coins stamped with it whenever I went to the UK, and favoring the fictitious noble house that appropriated the symbol when playing my tabletop RPG of choice. Only after this was well-established did I learn that I enjoyed any actual heritage on this front.)
My mother’s family was present and gregarious, but it was not until years later that I understood how my more antisocial tendencies set me apart from them – how my bookishness and geekery made me fundamentally unlike them. Over time these differences grew to political ones – their pride and identification with the narrowness of a generations-old Italian-American ethnicity leaving me, a quarter-Italian nerd, on the outside. I came to think of them as willfully insular and conservative in ways that left me profoundly uncomfortable.
In recent years I came to realize that the Iowa farmer background of my father’s side of the family, scattering from there across the country in an effort to exit the circumstances of their birth and become something different, made them closer to who I was than the proud certainty of my mother’s side of the family. I expressed it once by saying that my mother’s side of the family seemed to think less of me for studying comic books and video games, while my father’s side seemed to think more of comic books and video games for my studying them. But by the time I started to realize that I had, as a child, drastically misunderstood my own identity the ground was already shifting out from under me – my father’s side of the family had a series of health downturns and was rapidly exiting my life forever. The heritage I now wanted to choose was lost to me, a series of relics coinciding uncertainly with my memories. As ever, by the time I could understand 1989 it was long, long past.
History repeats itself. Once I’d become aware that there was a Sylvester McCoy era and that it was my favorite, I not long after became aware that it was the end of the series – that this Doctor Who thing I so loved had died three or four years back, my Doctor having been cut off at the knees. In 1989, already a mysterious year I had affection for without understanding. My notion of myself as an I and the end of the series coincided in a house that was only understood in hindsight, a swirl of lost histories buried in my mental landscape, defining me invisibly.
The Dreamtime serves as a useful enough model for the conceptual space mapped and explored by psycochronography. In Aboriginal mythology a person is considered to have a special custody of the place where their mother first feels them move in the womb, that movement being the moment when the spirit of that place entered them. Are we not, then, also custodians of a plot of ideaspace? Do we not ourselves form berms, ridges, and outcroppings of ideaspace? Are we not the physical geologies of that realm? The metaphor is solid enough, a close enough description of the strange intersection of this spirit of 1989 infusing my life.
Taken this way our identities blur. No man is an island, as they say. Instead we are the cominglings of vast strata of thought and concept – convergences of figmental ley lines and conceptual chalk faults. Given this, any archeology of the self will inevitably discover previously unknown veins of ideas. These ideas are not necessarily obscure or marginal – merely buried.
Lawrence Miles, presumably as part of an conscious campaign to spite me, or, potentially, out of raw coincidence, wrote Tuesday about many of these issues, and in many ways more movingly than this post. He even used a similar geology metaphor, so much so that I feel the need to point out that I wrote the bulk of this post a full week before his posted. The passage that stood out to me:
If you’re old enough to remember growing up with the Old Series, then there’s a CSO clock superimposed over your life; if you’re young enough to know only the New Series at time of broadcast, then I suspect you’ll soon discover the CGI equivalent. We humans don’t have built-in, biological chronologies, yet I can assemble randomly-remembered days from my childhood into something close to a narrative. Wny? Because I know, instinctively, that “The Leisure Hive” was two-and-a-half years after “The Sunmakers”. The Norms – all of whom are, apparently, our enemies – can recall where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when Paul Gascoigne cried at the 1990 World Cup. Our version of the past is a little more hardcore. I know exactly what I did on the day that episode one of “Four to Doomsday” was broadcast, and that’s not even one of the good ones.
Yes. Exactly. This is what our psychochronographic existence is – a string of hazy memories glued together by the rhythms of a ropey television show. The rest of the world – all the chart data and history – stretches out from there, imperceptible in memory and yet clearly, inarguably there.
Much as we might pretend, until fairly recently covering Press Gang would not have seemed like essential business at this stage of things. Maybe in the 90s, in amidst the Virgin stuff, but now? In the midst of when Doctor Who is still running? No, the justification for doing this in terms of 1989 is thin. Yes, it’s the start of a series that eventually won a BAFTA, but what was the last Children’s Drama/Entertainment BAFTA-winning program we covered? I mean, yes, the fact that I didn’t do Box of Delights alongside Tripods and Max Headroom will remain one of the enduring mysteries of this blog, but we’re already back to 1984 there. Before that, well, we covered a nominee in the 80s with The Adventure Game. And again in 1977 with Doctor Who itself. (Amusingly, Hinchcliffe’s final season – the one that Mary Whitehouse went nuts over, was also a nominee.) But in point of fact, we’ve never covered a BAFTA winning children’s show before, and starting with a show about a student newspaper makes little intuitive sense.
Yes, it’s got a Doctor Who reference in the first episode, and UnXpected is clearly about Doctor Who, or, at least, is clearly about Doctor Who to anybody who knows that the writer is a massive Doctor Who fan and that that’s why Michael Jayston was cast in it. But these are feeble justifications. We know why we’re here. We’re doing this show because its writer is Steven Moffat, and he goes on to be the showrunner of Doctor Who as a whole. But why do it here? The first season of Press Gang aired in between The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and Battlefield, yes, but it aired through to 1993. I could have put it anywhere. But there’s something appealing about slotting a gesture to the future of the show right before its final season.
The inexorable teleology of the present lets us edit the past like this. But our editing is, in this case, better understood as a filmic process, not a literary one. We’re not changing the words so much as we’re finding a narrative that was there and picking our shots to bring it out. Undoubtedly, Press Gang happened in 1989, and in this exact gap within the series. But to highlight that fact now, right before Doctor Who’s final season, is to edit the past, to add the foreshadowing of the series return prior to its cancellation, and to implicitly erase the seeming finality of that event. Or, more than erase it, to pre-empt it, removing the possible impact of it before it is even established.
Of course, it in turn works backward – how different would our understanding of the Colin Baker era have been had the series taken off again with Remembrance, spiking to the top forty and securing a future for the show? The future always explains the past more than it does itself.
And so the narrative this edit implies is, like that of finishing my Doctor Who watching with Greatest Show int he Galaxy, not quite true. We could call both conspiracy theories – the para-sense making revelations we’ve already discussed. But there’s another term I’ve been bouncing around that may be familiar to a handful of my readers: secret histories. The term was a mainstay of my first blog, the Nintendo Project, an aborted effort to play every game that came out for the NES that was abandoned partially because I had set the bar for complete insanity high enough that I could not clear it on a regular basis and partially because I just ran out of things to say about really crappy NES games.
My first use of the term came in this entry, in which I talked about the childhood pasts that never happened or almost happened. Speaking of the cultural gap between people who like monster trucks and people who like science fiction, I wrote:
I can readily imagine, on the other side of this seemingly insurmountable cultural divide, someone sitting at a monster truck rally. A sense of sorrow creeps over them. They are past the point where their childhood imagination ever took them, past having grown up and into some strange twilight state their childhood never made room for. For no reason, a pang of memory strikes, and they remember an afternoon watching a scratchy VHS tape of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Their intake of science fiction is limited now to the culturally prescribed mass appeal movies. They have no concept that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, among other things, an elaborate send-up of Doctor Who, the longest-running science fiction show of all time. They are unaware that most of the best jokes in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey come from parodies of The Seventh Seal. All they know, and even this they know in a way that is beyond words, is that there is some secret history, some alternate mode of being contained in this thing that is not a memory, that is an uncanny other to their entire cultural apparatus. Before a tear can form, a gigantic truck crushes a mobile home, and all is forgiven.
This idea proved the cornerstone for the few months in which I feel like the Nintendo Project was really quite good. (And I do, modestly, think that the period from about July to the end of October had some pretty good stuff in it. I confess to thinking that this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever written.) Looking at it with some critical distance, I can see why it had such legs. Childhood is defined in part by a slow and gradual transition from the world being a terrifying and incomprehensible place to the world being a terrifying and all-too comprehensible place.
The things we remember from childhood are the things that remained, for a time, incomprehensible. I’ve spoken warmly of the fact that the best children’s television is the stuff that screws you up for life, a statement that I mean to be humorous but not untrue. The aberrations of childhood – the things that happen that cannot be placed or contextualized in what we know at the time – are the most important parts. There are two interesting things that follow from this: first, childhood becomes defined by the things that one didn’t know were going on at the time. Second, one begins to see the vast selection of alternate possibilities: the selves we could have been. It is, in other words, a useful metaphor for the business of unearthing lost strands of personal memory and identity. And so I larked on this in terms of NES games, and for a while, it was pretty good.
The problems were severalfold: NES games were both too long a list of things and too narrow a time period, stretching, in practice, from 1985-1994. The degree to which that historical period could be excavated for secret understandings of the future was limited. The very practice that allowed for the compelling juxtapositions involved in, for instance, putting monster trucks and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure up against each other meant that I was covering the history randomly, making context harder. In short, the project was useful for developing some philosophical ideas, but once those were developed it had nowhere to go.
And so I realized I needed a different approach. Something with a larger swath of history. Something I’d tackle chronologically this time. Something I could be a little more grounded and straight-faced with fewer departures into mad flights of fancy. So I went for the other defining childhood obsession of mine – one from a few years older in my life, and one that could draw a line from a time well before I was born through my childhood and up to the present. This blog, by and large, has worked better. Certainly it moved quite quickly to being more read.
In hindsight it’s fitting to discover that I built the concept of the secret history in the post about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I remember loving that film and its sequel when they came out, just as Doctor Who was quietly ending, without my knowledge that it had ever existed, on the opposite side of the ocean from me. I had no idea that Bill and Ted was flagrantly parodying Doctor Who, a show that in three years time would suddenly begin to define my life. Nor did I understand what the blue piggy bank my father owned that said “Police Box” on it was, although I understood enough to recognize that it was A Thing of some sort, and thus was fascinated by it.
Press Gang, in 1989, was not part of Doctor Who’s story. But in hindsight, in secret histories, it clearly was. Moffat has said that he didn’t write for the classic series mostly because it went off the air more or less exactly as he was starting to inquire about it. Russell T. Davies apparently had a script rejected by Cartmel. In hindsight we know how closely related these two shows were even at the time. It is not that the future has created the significance of Press Gang. Rather, it is that the future serves as an archeology of history, excavating this fossil in the landscape, showing what the terrain of our 1989 really was.
This is fitting. Press Gang’s success as a piece of children’s television stems from the fact that it posits teenagers with inner lives with adult complexities. This isn’t just a refusal to talk down to its audience – though Moffat’s willingness to trust that young audiences can follow structurally complex television is both interesting and of future relevance. It’s the fact that the characters – most particularly Lynda – tend to be confronting self doubts of forms like “I don’t like the person I seem to be.” I mean, Lynda is far from the only good character in Press Gang, but she does anchor the entire piece masterfully. (Spike is also quite good, but the regrettable decision to saddle him with a bad American accent blunts him in key moments, while the phenomenal decision to have her be played by Julia Sawalha gives Lynda truly remarkable depth for a character in any genre, little yet children’s drama) And she anchors it by being on the one hand a successful and brilliant character and on the other being someone who is frequently disliked by the people around her and, at times, by herself.
Press Gang, in other words, shares with Cartmel-era Doctor Who an interest in finding out what children’s television can do as an adult medium. On one level there’s an exceedingly simple explanation for this: by the late 80s people who grew up on a diet of high quality children’s drama were in a position to make more of it. Even though their narratives are intertwined by events further down the road, in hindsight you can look back and see that they were distinctly part of the same aesthetic – the beginnings of the process where people who grew up on Doctor Who started making television of their own. The fact that the Cartmel era was such a return to first principles – what Tat Wood describes as people working from a folk memory of what Doctor Who was – is in its own way proof that the series would eventually return.
Press Gang was not a part of my childhood – I first watched it in the early stages of writing this blog, spacing episodes in between chunks of Hartnell and Troughton on nights I needed to watch more than one episode. But it forms secret history enough. It’s unmistakably the sort of show I grew up on, though I watched the American flavor: Nickelodeon ensemble pieces like Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts that attempted the same children’s drama structure. Unlike Press Gang, these shows were wretched – things I recognized as only worth watching because of the absence of anything else. For my generation the rabbit hole – the strangely aberrant show that sticks in memory as clearly far, far better and more interesting than it needed to be – was The Adventures of Pete & Pete, a spectacular piece of children’s television surrealism that at various times had Iggy Pop, Adam West, and Steve Buscemi as guest stars. Or Clarissa Explains it All, another Nickelodeon show with unexpected depth and charm.
Press Gang would have fit perfectly amidst these shows – indeed, it got a late 90s rerun on Nickelodeon, though I’ve not quite managed to be clear on what countries that was true in. In any case, Nickelodeon was prone to removing “disturbing” episodes like the uncannily good The Last Word, and the late 90s were too late for me anyway. And, of course, Press Gang has its own engagement with secret histories in UnXpected, a story about finding surprising and poignant depth in the discarded detritus of childhood, specifically in a thinly veiled Doctor Who parody.
This is the thing about secret histories. Things that were not a part of our childhoods fit perfectly into them. To some extent this is just me being obvious: Press Gang is a show I surely would have watched if I’d been British. I’d have been the perfect age for it. Instead I was American and it missed me, and a pair of shows that my British readers have probably never heard of grabbed me instead. This is predictable.
But equally, there is a strange power to the understanding. The particulars of my childhood were almost irrelevant to my upbringing; transplanted to a different culture I’d have ended up much the same. One rocky outcropping’s much the same as another down the ridge. My girlfriend is a few years younger than me – just enough for there to be a substantive generational break whereby I mention some classic children’s movie and she looks at me puzzled and points out that it came out three years before she was born. And yet despite childhoods with few overlapping touchstones our adult tastes coincide well, our identities governed by some unknown strata deep beneath the consciousness’s bedrock.
This strangeness holds equally to the things that are a part of one’s childhood. For the wholly obvious reasons you’d expect, for instance, I bought the KLF’s greatest hits compilation, which included “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” at the end – a song that hit number one for a single week in the summer of the 25th anniversary. As bizarre trojan horses go, this is one of the strangest. Two of its tracks fulfill my actual goal in buying it – to be a weird piece of Doctor Who merchandise. The rest are, well, KLF songs. The only one to really stick dramatically in my head is the first track, “All You Need is Love,” a bizarre mess of British-accented rap, samples, and stuff that made no sense whatsoever. It was terrible. I loved it. I didn’t understand it at all, but something about it was clearly substantial and meaningful.
Subsequent years have brought me circling around to the KLF repeatedly. First I made sense of their Discordian/Illuminatus! references when I discovered the Shea/Wilson trilogy, itself a strange aberration that failed to make sense until I learned a larger context of 20th century occult and magical thought. Then I came to appreciate their Marxist rabble-rousing and political views, finally realizing that “All You Need is Love” is about AIDS. Eventually I got around to reading The Manual, their guide to writing a number one hit (and in turn understood the joke implicit in Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping,” and why an anarchist band would record such a piece of drek). Each time I came to understand that this weird and trashy artifact of my past, picked up because of an oblique Doctor Who connection, was more substantive than I could possibly have imagined at the time, and that my childhood confusion was wholly accurate.
Is this mere confirmation bias? The things I remember are the things that continue to bear some relationship to my life and thought? Perhaps. Equally, perhaps this is not so much of a vice. The geographies of ideaspace are associative. That’s why secret histories have their power. If who we are is a mysterious and alchemical process then, if anything, the para-sense of secret histories is a needed comfort, a confirmation that some coherence is possible absent our own conscious awareness. That beneath our awareness there is a geology and geography to this psychotropic terroir. That our imaginations have precambrian eras too.
By this point in its history Doctor Who has itself grown to be a colossal landmass within this psychic space – one that winds through a large enough nexus of ideas that there are few stories that can be told without intersecting it. And so yes, it gets cancelled next season. Due, ultimately, to low ratings that never recovered from the drama of the seasonish. But the slight extension it got was sufficient to bring us through to these strange islands of futurity. Doctor Who went out as a good, well-remembered show, when just three years earlier it would have gone out as a disheveled remnant of its past glory. It went out as a show that would never die. Not as one that would always come back, but one that it was next to impossible to imagine ever stopping in the first place. As one that existed in so broad a context that some version of it would persist. How could it not? A show with as many secret histories as Doctor Who, by extension, must have at least as many futures.