Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea is a recurring feature in which things that are not Doctor Who are looked at in terms of their relation to Doctor Who. Today we look at various and sundry objects from the summer of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love.
We have to start, I suppose, with Sergeant Pepper. There’s a monolithically long essay in About Time, after all, called “Did Sergeant Pepper Know the Doctor” that tackles this directly, although if we’re being honest it mentions both Sergeant Pepper and the Doctor somewhat less than its title might suggest. So let’s start with the album itself. The first thing to point out about it is that it is ostensibly the first ever “concept album.” In practice, hardly any concept albums are, and it’s difficult to quite figure out what the concept of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is or how it impacts most of the songs.
So when we call it a concept album, what do we mean? Generally what we mean is this – past Beatles albums were simply collections of songs with no unifying factor beyond having all been written and recorded around the same time and in the same set of sessions. Indeed, past albums from most bands were like this. What the Beatles did with Sergeant Pepper was add a continual soundscape between the songs so that they flowed into each other and the album basically never faded to silence from start to finish. Indeed, in the original UK vinyl pressings, it never faded to silence at all, the record being manufactured so that it would just play a continual noise loop at the end.
What was so significant about this was that it made the album one coherent experience instead of a set of short separate experiences. Even though there wasn’t really a unifying concept to the album, the album without question felt different from albums before it – bigger and stranger. Listening to it meant spending time in a weird new place – real, substantial time.
In other words, the album was a forty minute training wheels drug trip. This is the big connection between the album and psychedelia. Not the fact that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was obviously about LSD, but rather the fact that the album was a concentrated effort to create a strange and different mental space. Which is what psychedelia is actually supposed to be all about.
This is the thing that’s lost under the debauched patina of the Summer of Love. The description of it all as “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” turns the experience into an unchecked hedonism. Which, to be fair, in the classic Summer of Love – the Haight-Ashbury scene of San Francisco – it was. San Francisco in 1967 managed to be positioned, partially through actual events and partially through a gigantic self-feeding media story, as the place to be. And so San Francisco filled to the choking point with youth on break from school looking for what they were told was the cool place to be.
In other words, people were coming because they wanted to experience the scene, you had a focus on the superficial – the clothes, drugs, and sex were, for the crowd coming in, the point of the experience. In other words, it was a mess ripe for exploitation. The San Francisco government had no plan in place to deal with the influx, and a bunch of doped up college kids looking for adventure were easy prey for criminals. By October, the whole thing had crashed to the ground, setting the stage for the long post-revolutionary hangover that characterized American culture from about 1968 to… oh wait, we haven’t come out of that one, have we.
The problem with that story – perfectly accurate as it is – is that it suggests that the underlying social movement was in some sense inherently doomed and thus inherently flawed. It may or may not have been, but the failure of the Summer of Love (and let’s be honest, in terms of the Haight-Ashbury scene, it was an unambiguous failure) shows nothing other than that psychedelic counterculture doesn’t work as a mass commodity fetish.
The thing is, anyone who had even thought about psychedelia could have told you that. I mean, just look at something like Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, which I quoted way back in the Power of the Daleks entry. Look at what’s going on with that book – a description of LSD couched in terms of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and full of phases like “ego-death.” This is not what would be described as “effective marketing.” But that’s the point. Psychedelia isn’t about fun. LSD isn’t a pleasurable drug. It’s a drug about intense spiritual experiences. There’s a reason it was the most immediately available metaphor for the trauma of regeneration.
So why do it? What’s the point? Remember back to our last between-season entry on 1966 underground culture in London. Specifically, remember how psychedelic culture in London was adjacent to the Situationalist International style of radical Marxist imported from France. Let’s talk about that approach some more, then. Jumping back to San Francisco, one of the most interesting facets of the Summer of Love was what the pre-existing population of San Francisco – the ones whose actions sparked the feeding frenzy – did to try to keep things under control.
Take, for instance, the Diggers. This is the sort of group that was at the heart of the Summer of Love, and they are maddeningly forgotten in favor of the flashier parts of it. Combining SI techniques of guerilla theater with a commitment to social justice, the Diggers took their name from a 17th century English movement to abolish private property. Opposed to the entire idea of commerce, the Diggers responded to the wave of people by opening a free health clinic to go alongside their “free store” that distributed essential goods in a parody of traditional commerce. Throughout the Summer of Love the Diggers mixed in-your-face theatrical stunts (it was they who declared the whole scene dead in October with the “Death of a Hippy” performance).
We should pause briefly and note specifically the role of the theatrical in this thicket of concepts. Almost no matter where you go in 1967, you’ll see counterculture movements with an oddly theatrical flair – a tendency to go out and do bizarre things. Events like the Human Be-Ins that prefigured the Summer of Love are all about this. Organized strangeness was important. There’s a whole wealth of theory behind this approach, but the thing I want to underline is this – all of it stems from ideas in avant garde theater that would have been wholly familiar to anyone working at the BBC. Absurdist and existentialist theater – a bread and butter concept – was a direct predecessor to people like the Diggers, which means that something like Doctor Who (which had, admittedly disastrously, already attempted absurdism) was not all that far from this vein of culture.
The Diggers, in other words, were an illustration of the fusion of psychedelia and social action. Their goal was to create functioning social institutions that were unmistakably products of psychedelic counterculture. Hence the entire idea of a free store – an entity that at once provides an essential social service and directly confronts the inadequacies of the larger social order. It’s an intensely politically radical idea – let’s do away with money – that is not merely proposed but put into action, and put into action in a way that is useful.
With that approach in mind, we can head back home to London and start to see the impact of this when you get far, far away from the mass of smelly hippies and virtually indistinguishable smelly hobos. (The “Hobo or Hipster” game started here.) Psychedelia was in full swing in England as well, but there, separated from the commoditized San Francisco events, it functioned more or less as intended. The psychedelic was there to help you see the wold in a way more conducive to changing it.
In the British tradition, and this is the thing that Miles and Wood hit on very nicely in their essay (which this really is a companion piece to, which is one more reason to use that beautiful spinning widget on the side of the site to buy a copy of it. The main reason, of course, is that I’m a horrifically underemployed PhD in English and I need the $1 kickback I get from that), the obvious thing to connect this to was the existing tradition of creating doorways to other realms from children’s literature. Which is why, broadly speaking, Victoriana exploded in 1967 (as evidenced by Sergeant Pepper).
But what’s crucial is that this wasn’t just about the occultist tradition we talked about last time we were in this web of concepts. Once you get to 1967 you start to get a different facet of it – the desire to make functional playgrounds and odd spaces in the middle of normalcy. Psychedelia became a tool to bring the unusual and the revelatory in contact with day to day life. This – more than any particularly psychedelic feeling to the imagery – is why Alice in Wonderland became such a fantastic metaphor for the scene. It’s not that there’s any inherent connection between talking caterpillars and acid. It’s that there is an inherent connection between tumbling down a rabbit hole into a bizarre new world and acid. There’s nothing particularly acidy about Alice in Wonderland except for the basic idea of having a strange new world intrude on the normal one.
The relevance to Doctor Who here should be obvious. The Doctor provides a psychedelic intrusion into an existing society, and in doing so causes a revolutionary moment that reforms the society. That’s the plot of… well, pretty much half the stories since Troughton showed up. Troughton is a societal drug trip with his own personal portal to another world. The perfect emblem of psychedelic culture anywhere outside of San Francisco.
Is this at all deliberate? Oh, probably. The artistic community of the BBC was exactly the sort of place psychedelia would have been influential. It’s basically inconceivable that no one involved creatively with the show dropped acid in this period, and it’s a fun game to guess who it might have been. (My money is on Whitaker, personally.) Yes, there are other competing tendencies – the 60s were every bit as much about the scared reaction of the existing seats of power in society as they were about youthful revolution. For every David Whitaker the series has, there’s a Kit Pedler who seems to want to hide under a rock until all this social and technological change goes away. And so Doctor Who is frequently going to be at war with itself. We’ll see that really clearly in the next two stories, one of which is a maddeningly reactionary piece of xenophobic bullshit and the other one of which is a rather sweet piece about Buddhism.
But on the other hand, there’s a distinct arc that the series has taken. The Doctor’s anarchic tendencies – which we’ve seen in play since at least The Romans, are starting to gel into a coherent approach to the series that answers the question “what is this series for” in a much more interesting way than any of the forms of entertainment/education that have preceded it.
If nothing else, the link between psychedelia and children’s literature helps us here. Psychedelia, at least by one reasonably fair definition, is about using childish ways of looking at the world for practical purposes. Children’s literature is about couching adult concepts in ways that work for children. Doctor Who, with a foot in each camp, manages something truly extraordinary. It’s a show that teaches children that the world is a scary place without teaching them to grow up.
Do you mourn for a more psychedelic time? Perhaps Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, The Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or, if you have that proper Victorian flair, Alice in Wonderland would do you some good. As always, buying things is an excellent way to keep your friendly neighborhood blogger from starving.