The first and most obvious thing to say is that the Sixth Doctor does, in fact, work. More than anything else, we ought to acknowledge the fact that Rob Shearman, with Jubilee, makes it so that Colin Baker has an unambiguous classic of Doctor Who under his belt. Baker has a lot of good audios, actually, but this is one that is blatantly a classic. So before we get into anything else we ought look at what it did with Baker’s Doctor that finally got the character to work.
I would argue that there are two things. The first is a trick the show should have picked up from Jon Pertwee, who was so often at his best when his confident and at times outright arrogant Doctor was put on the back foot or the defensive. Baker’s Doctor is helped enormously by the scenes in this story in which he gets to play the Doctor driven mad by a hundred years being locked in the Tower of London. Seeing his Doctor so weakened and afraid has the same effect it does for Pertwee, on top of letting Baker show off some acting ability that he was rarely given the opportunity to on television. Indeed, the mad Doctor in the tower is in many ways an idea perfectly suited to Baker’s Doctor, whose bluster and confidence can be subverted with a wickedness that the Doctors on either side of him couldn’t hope to match.
The other major trick that Jubilee manages to improve Baker is not Shearman’s invention, but a brilliant idea nevertheless: Evelyn Smythe. Evelyn is an interesting concept for a companion – a middle-aged history teacher. OK, so actually, that’s more accurately described as the original concept of a companion, though Evelyn is a good twenty years older than Barbara was. But it’s a compelling move away from the horribly sexualized peril monkey Peri was stuck playing that doesn’t go straight to comedy as Mel, by dint of her casting, did.
The result is a companion who can actually stand up to the Doctor in such a way as to make him no longer seem nearly so nasty. Again, this is largely lifted from the Pertwee era. Pertwee worked because he had Jo Grant for three years and she, no matter what Pertwee did, could smile winsomely and reassert herself with a moment of sheer pluck and charm. That meant that Pertwee’s character was always kept in check. It’s the same thing that made Tom Baker’s grandstanding in the latter days of his tenure bearable – the fact that Lalla Ward could hold her own. And in Evelyn Smythe Big Finish created a character that could stand up to Baker’s Doctor in that way and thus keep him charming instead of overbearing. She was in many ways the companion he should have always had.
That, at least, explains the infrastructure changes Jubilee enjoys. It starts at a higher baseline of quality and potential, and that makes it easier for it to achieve greatness. It doesn’t, however, explain why Jubilee is great. And this question sets up an interesting opportunity for us. If we were only covering Jubilee, of course, this would be an entry for talking about all the terribly clever things that Rob Shearman does with the Daleks. But if I do that I’m going to have very little to talk about when I get to Dalek, which is a partial remake of Jubilee for television. So instead I’m going to do something that hardly anybody has done for the much-acclaimed Jubilee and talk about all the brilliant bits that get overlooked for the Dalek stuff, and keep the Dalek bits to a minimum here in favor of talking about them with Dalek, a story that, while also very good, doesn’t have all the other clever stuff Jubilee does.
In practice Jubilee is a piece of snarling political leftism of the sort that I’m predisposed towards liking. Let’s start with its title, an oft-overlooked detail. It’s not called Foo of the Daleks or anything like that. It’s called Jubilee, a title that focuses attention away from the Daleks and towards an act of celebration, specifically celebration of history and the anniversary of a monarch’s reign. But what’s crucial to Jubilee, and what the whole of the plot and theme revolves around, is the fact that a jubilee is not a piece of history itself but merely a ritualized celebration of it.
Jubilee is, of course, tremendously skeptical of this logic. Actually, more than skeptical, it’s outright hostile to this logic. It openly accuses the celebratory commemorations of history of being tools of oppression that sustain and justify imperial horrors. It’s a remarkably compelling piece in that regard, especially coming in a year where the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has proven an opportunity to force people to work a fourteen hour shift for no pay and sleep under a bridge. Or one where the Olympics are being used as a reason to install missile batteries on residential buildings and have London patrolled by helicopter-based snipers. Or one where a government preaching austerity slashes benefits while funding both of the above, because these “celebrations” are, after all, absolutely essential to Britain. (Not that my country is any better on any of these fronts. Celebration capitalism knows no national boundaries.) The sequence where Rochester dismisses the idea of spending money rebuilding houses demolished as part of an aborted redevelopment of London on the grounds that the jubilee is more important is particularly chilling in light of the Olympic-instigated leveling of swaths of East London.
So off the bat we have a story that’s baring teeth and going for the political throat – something I’ve been itching to see the show do for several years now. And it’s a flat refutation of the idea that this sort of approach requires being heavy-handed or obvious. Yes, Jubilee goes on a bit about how people shouldn’t be like the Daleks, but as we’ll see even that’s more complex than it appears. But nobody complains about the excessive anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism of Jubilee. It’s not a heavy-handed allegory. It’s a damn good piece of drama.
Part of this is down to the quality of its cast. When the lion’s share of the dialogue for the non-regulars is going to Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, and Nicholas Briggs doing some stunningly disturbing Dalek voices you have a strong baseline. On top of that, Shearman doesn’t take the “moralizing polemic” approach in the first place. He takes the Robert Holmes “deeply uncomfortable joke” approach, letting the characters take on comedic roles and then pushing the comedy past the point where it’s funny in order to make it disturbing and upsetting.
But the other tremendously interesting thing about Jubilee is that it uses the history of the program as one of its weapons. The story is one that only works because it has the Daleks and all of the history they imply. What’s key is that the Daleks play a double role in the story. On the one hand they are themselves nostalgic fetish objects – the subjects of their own jubilee. (Indeed, this is Big Finish’s Dalek story for the 40th anniversary.) They’re repeatedly treated as the silly pieces of history that, in the larger culture of the show, they are. (There’s a choice line about how slapping a picture of a Dalek on anything increases sales.) But this jubilee purpose is continually subverted by an alternate version of the Daleks – one in which they’re a genuine, terrifying menace.
Here’s where Jubilee differs from Dalek, then. Dalek was entirely about establishing the Daleks as a credible threat. Jubilee, on the other hand, depends on the fact that the Daleks continually move back and forth from being jubilee monsters – empty signifiers of nothing more than the series’ history – and seriously disturbing threats. These two positions aren’t even presented as opposed to one another. The Daleks are dangerous in part because of their history, and, more specifically, because of the way that history is obscured by their jubilee nature.
The big moment in terms of this comes in the phenomenal scene in which the Dalek orders Farrow to cut Lamb’s head off, leading to Farrow nervously asking whether the Dalek knows the history of the Tower. In response the Dalek thunders that it is the history of the Tower. This is a wonderful concept – the Dalek is claiming to be the gore and violence and horror that constitutes the material history of the Tower of London. The Daleks, in other words, are reconceptualized as the erased material remnant of history – as the very thing that the jubilee serves to obfuscate – while simultaneously being presented as the jubilee itself.
This is what stands at the heart of the Dalek’s concluding paradox whereby the Daleks, to conquer the universe, must never conquer the universe. It’s not a drab “blow up the computers with a paradox” ending, but an acknowledgment of this fundamental tension at the heart of the Daleks. The Daleks are dangerous precisely because of the jubilee’s erasure. The entire threat of the Daleks is based on the fact that they are the horrific consequence of reiterated history.
This also gets at what’s actually going on in the Doctor’s rather overlong and unconvincing speech to the people. The Doctor is, in fact, going about it the wrong way – a point reiterated by the awkward echoing effect given to his speech, making it sound like every bad commencement speech you’ve ever heard. He’s trying to persuade people not to be like the Daleks. But the rejection of the Daleks is, in fact, the problem. The fact that everybody has pushed the Daleks into the darkness of an erased history is what’s dangerous about them in the first place and where their power comes from. Or, to put it another way, the fact that the Daleks are mythic wildly enhances the threat posed when their visceral horror reasserts itself.
This is a relationship with the series’ past that is, in 1986, still a bit ahead of what the series can actually do. It’s not until 1988 that the ideas underlying Jubilee even start to emerge in the program itself, and it takes time for the techniques to develop to where Jubilee is possible. But we do, here, have a very different sort of take on the idea of continuity and the past. Here the excess of history that the program has is one of the tools it uses to make its point. The irreconcilability of the program’s continuity is, here, where its power comes from. The fact that the Daleks are simultaneously ontologically defined as the most dangerous thing in the universe and obviously nothing more than homicidal salt shakers is used as a concept not in spite of the contradiction but because of it.
And, fantastically, deliciously, this feeds back into the story’s point. The story makes much of its anti-imperialism. On the one hand, this is prescient – the story came out months before the invasion of Iraq and all of the sublimated dreams of empire involved in that. On the other, “the British empire was really bad” is, while undoubtedly true, a bit of a bland point to be making in 2003. But under Shearman’s approach the degree to which “imperialism is bad” is a banal cliche is exactly what makes it dangerous. The fact that we all know that imperialism is bad and have relegated it to the past is what allows it to sneak out and rear its ugly head again. (Compare to how, in the US, the victories of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and Obama’s election are used to obscure the continuing existence of racism, and indeed, how Obama’s election worsened racism in America.) The same processes through which the Daleks gain their potency are the ones through which real-world structures of oppression disguise themselves and their intentions.
So we have the past of Doctor Who being used to creative effect in a story that has real, concrete things to say, and that says them with devilish, skewering cleverness. And with Colin Baker, of all Doctors. It’s a pity he couldn’t have had this era on television – if he had, he’d be remembered as one of the greatest Doctors of all time.