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. This time, we look at two pre-Doctor Who police serials, Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars.
The thing you have to understand is that in the mid-60s, Doctor Who was one of three extremely important shows on the BBC to feature police prominently. The other two being Dixon of Dock Green, which aired on the same days as Doctor Who, and Z-Cars, which aired on Tuesdays. (A quick side-note for unfortunate Americans. There is nothing more embarrassing in life than making an erudite, informed point about mid-century British television only to be corrected on the fact that the show is pronounced Zed-Cars, not Zee-Cars. Trust me.) Admittedly, Doctor Who is the only one of these three shows to be a science fiction show. The other two were good old fashioned cop shows.
Still, the fact of the matter is that if you talk about early Doctor Who for long enough with people, one or both of these shows will come up. Usually as follows – Dixon of Dock Green is, typically, cited in terms of the prominence of the Police Box, being as it’s the other show to feature them at all regularly. Z-Cars is cited more broadly – often in terms of how badly other shows fared in the Old Episode Demolition Derby years of the BBC, though occasionally more esoterically. (Steven Moffat has a hilarious bit on the commentary track for Forest of the Dead in which he notes that anybody complaining about the effects on Doctor Who should look at Z-Cars, where they couldn’t even get cars to look realistic despite driving them to work every day.)
For our purposes, I want to talk about the two shows in terms of realism.
Let me back up and say that I hate realism. Passionately. I consider it to be ethically bankrupt as an aesthetic and think that texts that claim to be realist are perpetuating active fraud upon the reader.
Now, to be fair, there are a lot of things called realism, and only some of them should be shooting offenses. I’m not saying that all fiction should be sci-fi or anything. There is such a thing as realistic sci-fi, and there is such a thing as a non-realistic cop show. So let’s make some distinctions. In fact, let’s ask this – what’s more realistic? Dixon of Dock Green, or Z-Cars?
On paper, you’d say Z-Cars. After all, Dixon of Dock Green is a bizarrely slow-paced drama that presents a ridiculous and idyllic view of what London police officers do. It exists purely to reinforce the social order and teach people that police officers are kind, good people who should be respected, adored, and trusted. Episodes begin with the whistling George Dixon strolling up to the camera, delivering a rambling monologue, and then treating us to half an hour of characters standing in various rooms talking before George Dixon sums up the moral of the story and sends us on our way. The show is overtly theatrical – huge stretches of characters arranged at 30 degree line of sight so they half face the audience as they talk to each other. The show also flagrantly telegraphs character motivation – no effort is made to conceal when a character is lying so as to build dramatic tension or anything. The show would lose no subtlety whatsoever if a giant blinking light came on whenever someone lied and said “Oi! He’s lying!”
So clearly it’s not realistic – it’s practically children’s theater. Z-Cars, on the other hand, is a landmark piece in the development of gritty realism. (Though as Miles and Wood point out, why is it that realism is the only aesthetic to come in a peanut-butter like crunchy variation? Which really is a fair point. I want gritty impressionism, dammit.) It features cops with personal problems who face morally ambiguous situations. Of course it’s more realistic.
Except that Z-Cars is estimated to have an average length of shot of 12 seconds. This is turgidly long by modern standards, but is blazingly fast by the standards of 1962, when the show debuted. (For comparison, Dixon of Dock Green started in 1955. It ran to 1976, while Z-Cars went to 1978.) Which means that Z-Cars was presenting its stories heavily via editing and cutting.
The thing is, editing and cutting are non-realistic. Well. At least by one very sane definition of realism – namely that it means you try to minimize or eliminate the presence of the television so that watching a TV show is as like being a fly on the wall of real events as possible. In that case – and I think that’s very close to what a lot of realism ostensibly strives towards – the editing-based storytelling of Z-Cars is profoundly non-realistic. And the staged theatrical storytelling of Dixon of Dock Green is relatively realistic.
What about content? On the surface, Z-Cars seems to have the edge in realism again. The show is set in a clear analogue to Liverpool. Regional accents are on full display. You’ll recall from past entries that Liverpool was a fading industrial city and also the center of the emerging youth culture. It’s not an accident that Vicki has a Scouse accent. It’s another part of the concentrated effort to have her be the iconic representation of the youthful future. And so centering Z-Cars on Liverpool consciously allies it with a real investment in the urban. This is why it comes in crunchy flavor. And that effort to capture the spirit of a real place is intensely realist.
Except let’s think about this for a moment. Z-Cars is Liverpudlian, yes. But it’s manifestly not trying to represent Liverpool to the audience. Rather, it’s using the tropes of Liverpool – the fact that it’s a rough, working-class city with angry, rebellious youth like those Beatles fellows – to tell its stories. Now, to be fair, Z-Cars pre-dated the explosion of the Beatles, but the Merseybeat scene they emerged from was at least a known quantity, and anyway, the show may have started pre-Beatles, but that has little to do with how it developed. It would quickly be the case that Z-Cars is not depicting youth culture, but rather using the existence of an anarchic youth culture as stage dressing to make the stories more exciting.
Compare to Dixon of Dock Green, where Ted Willis, writer of all 432 episodes, insisted the plots were based on actual police cases. Which means that, regardless of whether the representation was accurate, the show was accurately positioning itself as showing what police life was like. Which is consistent with its moralizing tone – in order for it to make the continual claim that the police are what ensure a polite, civil society, it has to have the conceit that it is showing the police accurately. Whereas Z-Cars is not a moralizing show – it’s an exciting show.
So when I say that I despise realism, let’s be clear – I am talking about Dixon of Dock Green, not about Z-Cars. What I oppose is the idea that art directly represents life in a straightforward way such that its lessons can be ported to reality. And that flashy storytelling techniques (as the editing of Z-Cars was for 1960s television) should be eschewed in favor of more “representational” techniques. No. Television – any narrative medium, really – should use every storytelling technique it has available.
(To be clear, I have no objection to naturalism, which I take to mean that the show uses the assumption that the world being shown basically works the same way as the real world. Both Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green are naturalist. That is, the assumption is implicitly that, for instance, gunshot wounds are fatal. As opposed to Doctor Who, where the assumption that, for instance, police boxes are not bigger on the inside than they are on the outside does not apply.)
OK. So what do these two shows teach us about Doctor Who? Well, quite well. For one thing, its central image was straight out of Dixon of Dock Green. The sturdy police box is, in Dixon of Dock Green, a symbol for the sturdy, reliable police who use it. And so to travel around time and space in a police box evokes that image of safety – which is part of why Doctor Who is consciously British. Because the Doctor travels around bringing an image of British culture – an image that means safety and stability – all over the universe.
But Doctor Who is miles from the didactic realist ethics of Dixon of Dock Green. The Doctor may be bringing the police box to the whole universe, but the show is ultimately subversive in some crucial ways that we’ve already seen in the last few stories. If anything, Doctor Who is a complete rejection of the sort of authority-based stability that Dixon of Dock Green lionizes. The Doctor may be a reliable force that protects you, but he protects you by blowing shit up.
And in many ways, Doctor Who is more easily allied with Z-Cars. Indeed, one of the original concepts for the show was a sci-fi Z-Cars. But that hardly lasted either. Perhaps back in, say, Marco Polo – though making any conclusions about editing in a serial from which not a frame of footage exists is a rough business. Still, the tone of the serial, where sci-fi is rough, dangerous, and grueling, does evoke the original Z-Cars style.
But since then? No. The show has, by this point, largely abandoned grit in favor of the theatrical. So what we’re left with is a sort of dialectical evolution from the two shows. The basic ethics of Z-Cars re-wedded to the theatrical tradition of Dixon of Dock Green, albeit with plenty of the visual flare of Z-Cars.
Which is to say what should not be a huge surprise to us – that Doctor Who genuinely and meaningfully advanced what television was. It moved meaningfully and concretely beyond other popular shows of the time, and started merging techniques and styles from two very different traditions and views of television to produce, well… something new.