Wasn’t that bit of the Olympic opening ceremonies where Mary Poppins fought Voldemort in defense of the NHS great? Here’s a fun fact – in the US, instead of the NHS we have this cool alternative where people can’t afford necessary medical care to deal with debilitating illnesses. It’s just like the NHS, only instead of being worth celebrating in front of the world in spectacular fashion it’s an abiding source of shame that leads to needless suffering. One such person suffering is a friend of mine named Valéria, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while in grad school and without adequate health insurance. As a result, she could really use some help affording her medical bills so that she can keep doing frivolous things like “walking.” If you can chip in even a few bucks, pounds, euros, or whatever over here, I’d be tremendously appreciative, and it would make a real difference to someone who could use it.
|Sophie Aldred receives instructions from the director in|
the Big Finish studios.
It’s November 22nd, 1989. Doctor Who goes out to the tune of New Kids on the Block’s “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” which is almost sadder than the cancellation itself. Iron Maiden, UB40, and Big Fun also chart, so really, it’s dismal through and through. In real news, a bomb attack on the President of Lebanon’s motorcade kills him. The Velvet Revolution takes place in Czechoslovakia, bringing down the Communist government and, in late December, bringing Václav Havel to power in a more or less unprecedented moment of a nonviolent revolution deciding “what we really need is for a playwright to be in charge.” Marc Lépine guns down fourteen women at École Polytechnique, blaming feminism for his rampage.
While on television, as mentioned, Doctor Who ends with Survival. One of the things that the dismembering of Doctor Who’s chronology engendered by non-linear DVD releases has done is to obscure some of the subtler shifts in what Doctor Who does. For instance, there’s a big and often missed shift we pointed out back with The Hand of Fear, a stark dividing line that ended a period stretching back to The War Machines where nearly half of all Doctor Who stories were set on contemporary Earth and began one stretching forward to Survival where only about fifteen percent did. But because most people experience the classic series non-linearly the nature of this shift is obscured – Survival looks like a very standard “Doctor Who in contemporary Britain” story because it came out between Logopolis and Robot, and about six months after The Invasion, all of which spend time there.
In reality, the last time the TARDIS landed in contemporary Britain was Silver Nemesis, where it mostly hung out at tourist sites. The last time it just landed in “ordinary” Britain, so to speak, was Attack of the Cybermen, five years ago. To get one where a majority of the action took place in contemporary Britain you have to go back six years to The Awakening. To get one set primarily in London you have to go all the way back to Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The idea of Doctor Who as something intersecting with contemporary Britain, and particularly with London, isn’t something that’s a part of the John Nathan-Turner era at large.
In this regard Survival is something of a return to the heart – a checking in on things that the program used to do, just to see what’s going on in those ideas. And this occurs on several levels. As Tat Wood points out, there’s an inadvertent parallel that gets built here, with both Survival and An Unearthly Child/100,000 BC juxtaposing contemporary London with a primal and prehistoric order. In this regard it’s interesting to note that both of the series’ “final” stories – the final one made and the final one aired – echo back to its first story.
Survival is also yet another entry into the standard themes of Season Twenty-Six, the show’s most conceptually coherent season since Bidmead. Like Battlefield and The Curse of Fenric it’s a Cold War story. Like Ghost Light and Curse of Fenric, it’s another story about evolution. (Unlike Battlefield, Ghost Light, and Curse of Fenric it’s not about the arc of history, but only Curse of Fenric hits all three of the season’s big themes.) Once again they’re in a new configuration. Where Battlefield lashed out at the moral logic of the atomic bomb and Curse of Fenric dismantled the idea of the Cold War as an inevitable clash, Survival looks at the twin logics of mutually assured destruction and survival of the fittest, dropping the thread of historical inevitability that animated the evolution/history themes of Ghost Light and Curse of Fenric in favor of just delving wholesale into the elision of biological progress and moral superiority.
So this time the fact that survival of the fittest implicitly believes that the less fit have to die. This isn’t just a critique of the way in which survival of the fittest is just a restatement of “might makes right,” but a way in which the idea that only the strong survive becomes a death sentence for the weak. It’s not just that strength leads to power, it’s that strength necessitates its own use. And so Munro lays that over the material reality of mutually assured destruction (set up straightforwardly by the Cheetah planet) and proceeds to have fun.
Crucially, however, Munro doesn’t treat survival of the fittest as merely a matter of military strength. This is where the social realist strand comes in, and where the return to depicting contemporary London fits in with the story’s goals. What’s crucial here is the contrast between the euphoric spectacle that London has previously been in the program (even if the spectacle is an apocalyptic one, in which we cheer for the city’s potential destruction, there is a euphoria to something like The Invasion) and Ace’s London, a dead-ended Perivale. Far from a spectacle, Perivale is presented as a place where nothing happens, where a generation of youth can vanish into thin air without significant concern simply because they’ve already all but vanished from any cultural relevance.
We’re in anti-capitalist territory here, and the neoliberal insistence that profitability and probity are synonyms. Perivale is a collapsing and dead-end culture because it’s weak – the sort of outer London area prime for a nice spot of redevelopment. The kids who are disappearing are just “the waste” – detritus to be swept away in capitalism’s own form of violence, “creative destruction,” missed only because they hurt their parents’ feelings. London isn’t a glistening monolith to thrill at the potential destruction of, but a setting that has just collapsed into nothingness, twin landscape to a self-immolating wasteland. (Note the way in which the profusion of cat food brands subtly puts the lie to the idea that capitalist competition leads to any notion of the fittest.)
This is in many ways the most virtuosic of the program’s riffs on children’s television. The actual youth of Perivale are straightforwardly children’s television teenagers of the most banal sort. But the story throws them into a surprisingly adult world of working class despair. This is, at this point, something of a standard trick for the Cartmel era, but it’s worth contrasting this story with the first real Cartmel-era story, Paradise Towers. There the contrast of children’s television and adult themes was a source of gleeful shock. But on the eleventh straight story to play this trick it’s not shocking anymore. Instead it seems imbued with a sense of anger and cynicism. The children’s television world, in all of its entertaining simplicity, is being allowed to run smack into the brick wall of Thatcher’s England.
Implicit in this is something that’s been lurking around in the program for a while now, which is the fact that it’s been steadily allying itself with subcultures. Not just the straightforward geek subculture of cult television fans, but a broader array of post-punk and alternative cultures. We’ve talked a little bit about goth culture, which was always an obvious fit for a program with a lengthy legacy of playing with horror tropes, but it’s worth remarking on the fact that down the line goth and geek culture do, in fact, execute something of a merger, and that Doctor Who was more ahead of its time than anyone gives it credit for.
But there’s a larger issue here. I mentioned a few entries ago that we’re at a point where people who grew up on really good children’s television are now in a position to make more of it, and that this explains late 80s/early 90s children’s television. For all that counterculture remains a youth practice, people who grew up in the subcultures of the past were adults now. It’s not just that someone like Alan Moore, who was 15 for the summer of love and 24 for the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is now a major creator in his own right, or that Andrew Cartmel, who was 19 for the Sex Pistols, is now running Doctor Who. It’s that people who grew up in countercultures have grown up, had kids, and are, in more than a few cases, watching television with them. Doctor Who is, in other words, actively speaking to an audience that have themselves been in subcultures, and is speaking to the future freaks of Britain. And it’s doing so with an almost casual confidence. But the seeming ease with which the program is making children’s television with a foot in adult subcultures – something that other programs are falling over each other with embarrassing ineptness to do – obscures the degree to which this is an incredible feat.
Which is to say that we can see, in Survival, that the program is beginning to strain at the edges of what this “children’s television plus adult contexts” phase of the program can do. Survival seems in part to suggest that Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric were as far as that particular idea could be taken, and that going further requires some level of abandonment of the children’s television structure.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve been here. In many ways we’re just at the problem presented by The Talons of Weng-Chiang, albeit with less ethical cratering. To move forward Doctor Who needs to cut one of two strings. Either it can back away from its adult pretensions and go back to a simpler and more traditional sort of children’s television, or it can decide that it’s done being children’s television and that it wants something bigger. Last time, of course, it picked the former. Graham Williams came in and toned the series down, to mixed results.
But this time that option is off the table. There’s no way forward for the program as a children’s television program, or, for that matter, as any other sort of television program. Its only option is to go embrace its adult fans, simply because it needs to fund itself in a format where people pay for Doctor Who and adults are where the money is. But let’s hold that thought for a moment and ride out the last few paragraphs of Doctor Who on television for a while.
What’s notable about Survival is that it seems aware of its crossroads. This is largely what distinguishes it from Talons of Weng-Chiang, where the program seemed unaware that it was reaching a limit. Survival, on the other hand, knows full well that its children’s television world is inadequate. And it embraces a sense of moving on. This is where the Master comes in. Yes, he was a late addition to the story, but he’s really quite perfect for it, as he introduces a pre-existent myth. The Doctor and the Master are necessarily and fundamentally locked in conflict. It’s, on an absolute and ontological level, just what they are.
And in Survival, that absolutism threatens to lead them both to ruin. If they pursue their conflict then they are both going to die. This has the effect of finally making Ainley’s Master work. Seeing him nearly out of control, clinging to the edge of the abyss and threatening to drag the Doctor down with him through sheer force of narrative momentum makes him dangerous again. It’s a clever subversion – having painted him as a villain the Doctor is sure to defeat, the series puts him in a position where defeating him would be disastrous, and in doing so makes him properly scary in a way he hasn’t been since Logopolis.
The Doctor, meanwhile, has to find a way out of his own narrative structure. He can’t just be in a Doctor Who story anymore. He has to find a role other than endlessly defeating the Master. Ace, of course, has a similar journey to make, once again working her way through the libidinous. (Again, the televised order is better than people give it credit for. Not only does it make the most sense for Ace to finally be ready to return to Perivale once she’s sorted out her past, this story builds gorgeously from the Freudian undercurrents of Fenric.) In terms of Ace, at least, the Cheetah people offer not just an embrace of violence but an embrace of sexuality, and her arc in the story amounts to her learning to take the sexuality without taking the violence, allowing the barely contained eroticism of the Cheetah planet to live on inside of her.
In the end they both settle on the same thing: the identification of the TARDIS as their home. As ever, the TARDIS provides the central moral principle of the series. Fall out of the world. Keep moving. Find someplace new. And here’s where Survival’s parallelism with the start of the program pays off. Because Survival returns to the very roots of the program – contemporary London and prehistoric savagery – to find a hopeless wasteland in one and a death sentence in the other. Falling out of the world can only mean one thing here. There’s only one next step to take. Move into a realm where all the petty limitations of the past and of the show’s “format” are gone. Become the subcultural object, separate from the collapsing core of BBC One and mass culture, that you’re so obviously scraping at the edges of.
And so Survival picks the route opposite the Graham Williams approach. Instead of giving up on trying to push the limits of what’s allowed in children’s television, Doctor Who just leaves children’s television entirely. Instead of dialing it back, it decides to see if it goes any higher. Where else could it go, after all?