|The idea of a Doctor who looks comfortable riding a
motorcycle is a major transition for the show, and one I
hope to someday see.
It’s November 2nd, 1987. The Bee Gees are at number one with “You Win Again,” but are unseated only a week later by T’Pau with “China In Your Hand,” which remains for the rest of this story. George Harrison, Rick Astley, George Michael, Fleetwood Mac, and Whitney Houston also chart, as do Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes with “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.) This being spectacularly unpromising, we ought peruse the lower charts where The Smiths, Boy George, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Public Enemy, Suzanne Vega, and The Sisters of Mercy all appear.
In spoken-word news, eleven people are killed by an IRA bomb in Enniskillen. A worker revolt in Bra?ov, Romania takes place, another crack in the facade of Soviet Eastern Europe. London City Airport opens, and customs officers in Southamption seize over £50 million in cocaine. Also, the government announces that the Community Charge will be taking effect in 1990. This can only end well for Thatcher. Finally, a fire in the London Underground kills thirty-one two days after the story ends.
While on television, Delta and the Bannermen. But let’s pause for a moment here and jump forward a quarter-century. In October of 2011 the American sitcom Community, beloved by American Doctor Who fans for an ongoing parody of Doctor Who within the show entitled Inspector Spacetime, aired an episode titled “Epidemology.” The conceit of the episode was that a Halloween party at the community college where the series takes place is infected with a disease caused by tainted army surplus rations that leads to a zombie epidemic. The episode is, in effect, a half-hour zombie film. In which the soundtrack – the iPod playlist that the Dean had been playing at the party – consists entirely of ABBA songs. The episode was enormously popular among fans of the show and critics, and is generally seen as one of the show’s finest hours. And rightly so – it’s clever, it’s funny, and it creates a coherent fusion of an unlikely and frankly completely mad set of ingredients.
Why, then, is Delta and the Bannermen, created a quarter century earlier, largely despised? It is, after all, a gritty action movie featuring a bunch of Kurosawa-homage mercenaries attempting an alien genocide that’s set in a Welsh holiday camp in the 1950s, features a bunch of aliens disguised as rockabillies, and features a soundtrack consisting of Keff McCulloch covers and pastiches of 50s rock music. And its title is a parody of a goth rock band for good measure. This is, on the face of it, the same basic concept of “Epidemology.”
The usual brief against this story, as with all of Season 24, is that it is “silly.” Doctor Who, apparently, is not comedy. This is a line of thought that plagued the Graham Williams era as well, and it was patently ridiculous then, based as it is on the false nostalgia for the past that willfully ignores the fact that Doctor Who was doing comedies in its first season. Much like Paradise Towers, it’s very tempting to accuse this story’s critics of being so invested in Doctor Who nostalgia that they’ve missed the fact that this, not Attack of the Cybermen or The Mark of the Rani, is what Doctor Who was actually like for most of its history. To criticize this story – or Paradise Towers before it, or, to a slightly lesser extent, Dragonfire after it – one has to accept a set of standards for Doctor Who other than “it combined familiar elements in a new way that wouldn’t be possible on any show other than Doctor Who.” And that’s been the reigning standard for Doctor Who for most of its history.
Throughout the Davison years I discussed a concept that, borrowing from Miles and Wood, I called “heritage theme park Britain.” This term apparently confused some readers, who were puzzled by the lack of actual theme parks in the stories I discussed in these terms. Perhaps a better term to be retrofitted when I edit together the book version would be “Britain for tourists.” That is, Britain reimagined into a set of fun high concept images that exist on their own merits. A slightly classier version of the Britain depicted in American comic books, described by more than one member of the British Invasion of Comics as one in which Big Ben is visible from every point in London.
Britain for tourists is, of course, a real and important thing. Heck, one of the most common arguments for keeping the monarchy is its tourism value. And for a healthy chunk of my life tourist Britain was the one I was most familiar with – the standard list of places you go on a one week visit to London, where the history of Britain is collapsed to some opulent rooms and a highlights reel of gory executions and murders. The sort of image of Britain where one knows Henry VIII as “the one with six wives” instead of in terms of his actual historical import.
And there’s something troubling about it – something that’s not entirely dissimilar to the totalitarian modernism critiqued in Paradise Towers. It’s a master narrative that erases actual people and lived experience. And by this period the erasure was becoming hostile, the superficial tourist simulacrum actively crowding out real people and real lives. This is, in many ways, the essential tension of Thatcher’s Britain – the brutally harsh line taken against miners and urban poverty and the feckless embrace of capitalist splendor, whether military or architectural.
The notion of the past as something that can be refitted for tourist purposes by its nature evokes the problematic statement that the past is a foreign country. I label this as problematic not because it’s untrue, but because it gets used to reduce the past into something we must be detached from. Often the maxim is used to turn the past into something where we must choose between the detachment of tourism, where the substance of the past is abandoned in favor of its spectacle, or the detachment of the distanced ethnographer, where we may learn endlessly about the past but make no claims to understand it.
The third role – one I’m obviously drawn to given the tone and approach of this blog – is that of the expat. I make little secret that I am eager to emigrate to the UK some day. This is both the product of and the motivation for quite a lot of time spent understanding Britain and British culture. I do not pretend that this makes me someone who has even partially assimilated into Britain. I am acutely aware that my perspective on Britain is and always will be, no matter how much study I put into the matter, that of an outsider. Equally, and obviously, given that I clearly think this blog has something worthwhile to say despite my garish accent and failure to spell words like “colour” correctly, I do not think this has any immediate effect on the validity or usefulness of that perspective. Learning a culture from without instead of within is merely a different sort of understanding. Neither is better, and the twin errors of assuming they are equivalent or assuming that they are incompatible are better known as imperialism and xenophobia.
This approach used to be how Doctor Who worked. For all the flaws of a story like The Aztecs it was a story about trying to understand what another place was like. Not in the sense of its iconography or in the sense of a laundry list of historical facts, but in the sense of what it thought and how it worked. Even into the Davison era there were frequent stories along these lines: Castrovalva, Kinda, Snakedance, Terminus, and Frontios, for example. Indeed, Colin Baker is the only Doctor to have no stories whatsoever of this kind. (Ironically, the closest thing to one he has is Timelash, the most history-erasing story of his tenure)
I make this digression for two reasons. The first is in order to suggest that the treatment of history as a subject for tourism within the Davison and Baker eras paralleled with a treatment of Doctor Who’s past as a subject for tourism in which the actual matter of telling Doctor Who stories was progressively erased. The second is to point out that one of the major plot points of Delta and the Bannermen is a tourist group of aliens dressed in pastiches of rockabilly style who, in the midst of episode two, get slaughtered and almost immediately forgotten about by the rest of the story.
So we can read that as being a bit barbed, then.
But the metaphoric dimensions of that moment aren’t even the most barbed part of it. What’s really shocking is that, like the death of Oscar in The Two Doctors, the casual destruction of the tourist bus breaks all the rules. Murray and the tour bus are obvious comedy characters – broad parodies who would, in normal circumstances, be safe from any sort of extreme violence. Instead, however, they’re casually blown up. And this isn’t even milked for shocking pathos – they’re just disposed of in pursuit of a plot point.
There’s a giddy thrill in the wrongness of this, and it’s one Delta and the Bannermen is consistently willing to wallow gloriously in. It’s the same thrill that underlies the sequence of Gavrok shooting Ken Dodds in the back, or, more broadly, of doing a gritty action piece about attempted genocide at Butlin’s. It’s not that the story is skeptical of nostalgia – it’s unapologetically having fun with the 1950s kitsch. But it’s also of the mind that the most fun one can have with a tourist trap is to blow it up.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that it’s not at all cynical. Yes, there’s a tinge of cynicism to making Mel effectively be one of the tourists, but for the most part there’s a real love for the material here even as the show is wildly unpredictable. You never quite know what sort of story you’re watching. Goronwy might be, as a charming beekeeper, safe through to the end, but if Murray can get blown up and Ken Dodd can get shot int he back, so can he. You’ve got to figure the Chimeron Princess is safe just because the show is unlikely to be so bleak as to have an outright genocide, but Burton, Ray, and especially Billy are all completely up in the air. Even Delta could go down in the last act if the story plays its cards right.
Which is to say that Delta and the Bannermen is on the one hand a romp through 50s kitsch and on the other an unpredictable action piece with a dangerously sociopathic villain in which anything could happen. It’s funny, thrilling, and we don’t know what the rules are even though we intuitively understand all of the component parts. It’s at once going for straight-up entertainment and unpredictability. It’s the second story in a row to be miles ahead of anything post-Androzani, and for that matter miles ahead of what’s been average for the show since Bidmead left. It’s using techniques that are still deemed to be terribly clever a quarter century later. So why is it so hated?
Well, here we must pause and note that we don’t really know how hated it is. We know how hated it is among outspoken Doctor Who fans, which is very. But as we’ve seen, it’s a thumb in the eye of those exact fans. The crowd that wanted Doctor Who to be safe, predictable, and traditional aren’t the audience for this story. There’s a degree to which this is a mildly suicidal move given that this crowd is also the only audience Doctor Who has left, but given that it was pandering to them that drove everyone else away there’s something to be said for pissing off your last remaining demographic.
But there’s another way to look at it. The Davison/Baker era starts with the show trying to emulate Coronation Street. After failing miserably at getting the character-based serialization to work it ends up with a different sort of emulation – the sort of rote, fixture-of-your-life reliability that characterizes soap operas, and is one of the numerous things shared between them and cult sci-fi.
But in this period the show was trying to emulate Coronation Street. Now it has a different mandate – it’s competing head to head with Coronation Street. Given that, well, it should probably attempt to be a bit different. And with Delta and the Bannermen you get something approximating a clear and sensible division. Both Coronation Street and it are shooting for straightforward entertainment, but Coronation Street is offering comfort food while Doctor Who is offering unpredictability.
It’s far too late for this ploy to work, of course, but it’s the right call. Doctor Who is finding a type of show it can be for the general public again, instead of trying to exist purely for Doctor Who fans who have, at this point, proven that they’ll watch anything with a blue police box in it, so really, why even bother catering to them. Had people watched it, and had the well not been thoroughly poisoned, this is a show that could have been a beloved bit of madcap fun, much as, contrary to the party line of the fan-industrial complex, the bulk of the Graham Williams era was.
But what’s really impressive is how swiftly confident the program has become. McCoy is quickly learning to do things that previous Doctors never would have been able to – ride around on motorcycles or be at a 50s dance party. Does he look entirely comfortable or appropriate doing them? No, but it’s far from clear that he should. The point is that he can even be there in the first place, and that the show is confident enough to make such a departure from orthodoxy. The show is willing to swagger its way through Gavrok in a Holiday Camp and trust that its own lack of apology is going to win over the audience. We’re back to a show that can believe its bubble wrap. There are still rough edges to smooth out – as there were after the first season of the Hinchcliffe era, lest we forget – but watched through any eyes other than mid-80s Doctor Who fandom this is one of the most stunningly fast turnarounds of a show in television history.