Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 32 (Knights of God)

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.…

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