September 27, 2003



Pleased to see that both cnwb and troubled diva are celebrating the just-announced return of Dr Who. And I know that Angus will be cheering, too.

Can it be done successfully? The signs are not encouraging. As everyone knows, the series was in decline long before the plug was pulled. It couldn't survive the unforgiving light of the eighties, and sloped off to die in embarrassed solitude. Tempting but misleading to date the effective end as Baker's departure. Baker's last season - culminating in the peerless Logopolis ('there will be no future') - was full of presentiments of doom, deep melancholy and Jerry Cornelius-style riffs on entropy. If you watch the stories from the Davidson era now, though, (and they are currently being rerun on UK Gold) you'll see that they were shadowed by a similarly bleak mood. There was still enough imagination at work to generate stories that were off-kilter quirky and fascinatingly paradoxical. (Davidson's first story 'Castrovalva' was named after an Escher painting, and was a 1982 BBC's attempt to generate a world collapsing [in on itself {in Eschereque} recursion.]) Perhaps recursion and entropy are where all mythos ends up, eventually. The Davidson period was the last time when the series could thematize rather than fall victim to these self-referential vortices. By the time of the arrival of Colin Baker, Dr Who was nothing but a palimpsest of empty signifiers, circling around its own entrails with diminishing returns.


Take the clothes. The brilliance of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Baker's wardbrobes was that - in their different versions of estanged Edwardiana, out-of-place in any place, out-of-time in any time - their eccentricity was plausible. The thing is, you could imagine someone looking like that. In that respect, the rot had already set in with Davidson, whose cricketer's whites too obviously looked like a uniform that only someone dressed by the BBC's wardrobe Dept would wear. Colin Baker's question-mark lapels and two-coloured coat, well, kinder to say nothing....

There was also a problem with looks . The first four doctors had a naturally alien quality. Davidson's problem was his winning, fresh-faced toothsomeness; something intelligently offset by his reading of the character as beset by an ancient melancholia. Colin Baker, on the other hand, looked like a smug office manager in pantomime costume. He had a solid, doughy ordinariness, more deadly to Dr Who than any Cyberman or Dalek.

The point is, Dr Who was, at its best, uncanny, in both Todorov's and Freud's terms. Todorov's typology of the Fantastic famously distinguishes between the Marvellous - the full-on supernatural - and the Uncanny - in which the apparently supernatural is explained away in terms of 'the laws of reason.' (The Fantastic proper has no postive presence, and is defined as the hesitation between these two other modes). The Pertwee period was particularly given to discoursing on the supreme value of scientific enquiry (witness the Doctor's attempts to tutor Jo Grant). Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit - which attempted to wholesale swallow Horror into SF by tracing a whole slew of ostensibly supernatural phenomena back to scientifically-plausible phenomena - provided the template. The signature Pertwee serial 'The Daemons' - a more-or-less straighforward rewrite of Kneale's story - was only the most blatant Quatermass remix of the Pertwee era. The absorbtion of Horror tropes into SF naturally had an effect on Dr Who's science-fiction - most notably in the period when Philip Hinchcliffe was producer, when Dr Who went through a foggy, gorily Gothic phase, in which Victorian Horror was Burk-and-Hare graverobbed and reanimated.

The series was also uncanny in Freud's sense. The uncanny, that species of dread evoked by the strangely familiar, what is here but which should not be... Pertwee's famous insistence that a 'yeti on a toilet seat in Tooting bec' was more terrifying than an alien on the planet Zarg was borne out by the furore caused by the episodes featuring the Autons. The Autons - very Kraftwerk - possessed showroom dummies and plastic chairs. Children were mortified when these everyday objects - objects which any way evoked a frission of uneasiness - came to life. But more even than any of the monsters, it was the Doctor himself, the familiar stranger, who was unanny.

The 96 revamp with Paul McGann - and oodles of $ - failed because it couldn't muster this sense of the uncanny. Nor, more damagingly, did it appear to realise that this was what the series' strength was. The whole enterprise couldn't escape what it was: an American TV-funded attempt to graft some of the signatures elements of the original series onto the standard format of an MOR American serial. McGann's manic enthusiasm seemed formulaic rather than charismatically alien, the chase scenes and the (eugghhhhh) love interest were perfunctory and unnecessary but worst of all, really, were the sets. Money badly spent. The TARDIS had become anonymously vast, all smoke, sulphur and moody lighting, a blandly portentous sanctum-cum-spaceship straight out of the mediocre dreams of Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy and mainstream SF.

Rusell T. Davies is to produce the new one, eh? Well, last year's 'The Second Coming' was rather brilliant - in addition to the audacity of its 'assisted suicide of God' denoument, it was genuinely, shiveringly disturbing in parts. But what gives most hope is that 'The Second Coming' rendered a sense of the otherworldly numinous in the context of the drably contemporary. The uncanny, exactly. And Christopher Eccleston as a Mancunian Christ was, all at once, intense, self-deprecating, charismatic --- and weird. What price Eccleston for the role of the Doctor?

Posted by mark at September 27, 2003 11:03 PM | TrackBack

Mark, I'm really surprised to hear you uttering kind words in the direction of 'The Second Coming'... I found its theology to be cheap and sensationalist, and the drama by and large to be obvious. Eccleston's Christ was a tedious fuck-wit, pontificating about a revelation that neither he, nor the writer, really understood. I have no idea what possessed Davis (tee hee) to write it, but clearly the spirit was malign.

Posted by: Philip at September 28, 2003 01:49 AM

Mark, you have an unclosed italics tag again! Just after "know" in "And I know that Angus will be cheering, too." (I am cheering, of course!)

Posted by: Angus at September 28, 2003 04:05 AM

Could the next Doctor be a woman? Paul McGann would like to think so.

Posted by: cnwb at September 28, 2003 04:23 AM

Phil ---- hmmm, 'The Second Coming' was far, far better than I expected; maybe my expectations were too low ---

Angus --- unclosed italic tag now closed. I wish these glitches would show up on my machine/ browser!

Chris --- for God's sake, let's hope no-one with McGann's ideas is allowed anywhere near the series. He sounds like a cross between a coked-up American TV executive and a crazed Politically Correctionist: 'Sex it up.' And how is one to read this last line from the Telegraph piece? "There are currently no women on the shortlist, although Sir Michael Caine has an outside chance at 66-1." Is there something about Sir Michael we should know about? Or is it a reference to Dressed to Kill ?

Posted by: mark at September 28, 2003 11:25 AM

Bloody brillaint piece on Dr Who...I was never that entranced by it but was scared witless by the episode where the Master made people into little dolls.
Ecclestone lost my vote for his appearance in Gone in 60 Seconds. AND hes crap in 28 Days Later.

Posted by: Baal at September 28, 2003 01:25 PM

Davies had in fact quite an established telefantasy pedigree before _The Second Coming_; _Dark Season_ (1991), _Century Falls_ (1993) and _Springhill_ (1996).

He also wrote the late-night vickerage soap _Revelations_, so bad even ITV wouldn't network it, which in a bid to look like a feature film was converted to chroma-heavy field-suppressed video (imagine CBN's Barbara Wintergreen at an Elvecution and you're halfway there).

Posted by: michael at September 28, 2003 01:30 PM

There's a Davies SF fansite, here:

Posted by: michael at September 28, 2003 04:27 PM

He wrote Revelations? That settles it ---- I used to love that show; it was completely addictive schlock. Hey Michael, have you seen any of his other SF stuff? Is it any good?

Posted by: mark at September 28, 2003 08:40 PM

interestingly, Australia's version of the BBC (the ABC) has just started re-screening all the Dr Who episodes from the very first one (I think). Have watched it a few times and have had a little laugh but everything about it is so cheap and stuck in time that it feels like a museum piece and nothing else. But then i never did like it that much.

Posted by: philT at September 28, 2003 09:33 PM

Fuckin' tasty. Accurate. Truthful.

Posted by: Nick at September 28, 2003 10:24 PM

Nick, thanks for the comment and for kind words on gutterbreakz ---- felt there had to be a gutterbreakz-k-punk convergence at some time; our aesthetics are so similar.

Phil, the early 60s episodes are very difficult to watch; it's antique TV, painfully ponderous... But the late 60s, 70s and early 80s was a glorious period. Yeh, the effects remain risibly poor, but only people without imagination make that complaint. FX destroyed SF. Discuss. :-)

Posted by: mark at September 28, 2003 10:38 PM

Springhill was a C4 teatime supernatural drama set in Liverpool about a young boy haunted by the death of his grandfather. Psychologically adept with a correspondingly disturbing use of atmosphere.

Dark Season from what I recall was good, original BBC children's telefantasy from back in the day when viewers could have reliably expected it. Jacqueline Pearce and Kate Winslet were in it. Also included a character called Mr Eldritch. Oh yes.

From the late eighties to the early nineties Davies wrote the scripts (and apparently also the recipies) for Why Don't You, and is thus responsible for that bloody freak Ben.

As to how he sees the Doctor, his Whovian novel looks to be straightforward Urban Gothic.

Posted by: michael at September 29, 2003 01:27 PM

Sounds like he's got a serious pedigree then... It's good that he has a background in children's TV; it should never be forgotten that Dr Who is a children's show...

Posted by: mark at September 29, 2003 07:11 PM

> it should never be forgotten that Dr Who is a children's show...

The stated target audience was of a 7-15 years age range, thus dovetailing impeccably into the Anti-Oedipus's key demographic.

Davies' (unlike a lot of that generation of telefantasy writers who'd otherwise have been writing for Who; Gaiman, Horowitz...) hasn't a hope in hell of his pre-_Queer_ work getting a TV repeat. It might therefore be an idea to agitate for a DVD-release via The Mausoleum Club forum, which is a link of sorts between the cognoscenti and companies catering to the specialist market.

Posted by: michael at September 29, 2003 08:31 PM

Might have some hope with the Dr Who connection, don't you think?

Posted by: mark at September 29, 2003 11:08 PM

> Might have some hope with the Dr Who connection, don't you think?

We're all of course assuming the revival goes all the way from pre-development, press release stage to FX-laden, multi-million pound realization, and that Mal Young won't make it risible by casting his mistress, who otherwise specializes in surly medical receptionists (, as the assistant.

BBC Four are having a Ballard Night of sorts on Monday:

11:00 Profile
JG Ballard talks to critic Tom Sutcliffe about his life and works.

11:40 Towards Crash
Films from the BBC archive anticipating the world of JG Ballard's novel _Crash_.
[The Whacky Races?, Maureen from Driving School?]

12:10 Thirteen to Centaurus
Ballard's interstellar sci-fi story, first broadcast in 1965. Donald Houston stars.
[The Out of the Unknown episode, briefly mentioned here:]

Posted by: michael at September 30, 2003 11:36 AM

Full listings for next Monday:

22:00 Home

Antony Sher stars in this new psychological drama, based on JG Ballard's story, The Enormous Space, and shown as part of BBC FOUR's JG Ballard season.

Gerald Ballantyne is about to return to work after a period of convalescence following a car crash. During this time he has reflected on the collapse of his marriage and his dissatisfaction with his job as a senior scientist for a food company. He suddenly has a flash of inspiration that he feels will end his troubles. He will become a suburban hermit.

Ballantyne withdraws into his home and severs all contact with the outside world, descending into semi-starvation and resorting to increasingly desperate measures to drive away visitors.

As time passes, he becomes aware of a mystery about the house itself, a secret which slowly possesses him and drives his project to a startling conclusion.

Also featuring Keith Allen, Deborah Findlay, Matilda Ziegler and Guy Henry.
Written and directed by Richard Curson Smith.

23:00 JG Ballard: Profile

BBC FOUR's short season dedicated to the work of JG Ballard continues with an interview with the man himself.

Overlooking a Ballardian landscape of a giant reservoir under a sky of aircraft on their final-approach flightpaths, writer JG Ballard talks to critic Tom Sutcliffe about his life and work.

23:40 Towards Crash

Two films from the BBC's archive anticipating the world of JG Ballard's 1973 novel Crash, which has shocked, disgusted or delighted readers for thirty years.

Ballard's 1970 film on the automobile features Gabrielle Drake and crash test footage galore, while Christopher Petit's 1990 film anticipates David Cronenberg's film released six years later.

"I think the key image of the twentieth century is the man in the motorcar, it sums up everything".

00:10 Out Of The Unknown: Thirteen To Cenaturus

JG Ballard's disturbing story of psychology, social conditioning and hubris was dramatised by Stanley Miller and was first broadcast as part of the BBC's Out Of The Unknown science fiction series in 1965.

Twelve people live in the only place they know that exists, known as The Station, a multi-generational spaceship. They are subject to mental conditioning administered by the thirteenth crew-member, Dr Francis (Donald Houston).

Abel Granger (James Hunter), one of the younger of the twelve, develops an unconscious vision of the sun, that he could never have seen. He even begins to work out the physics of The Station, and that it appears to be a spaceship. Then he deduces that the gravitational forces it is subject to could only exist if it was attached to an object as large as a planet, roughly the size of Earth.

Out Of The Unknown is one of the most cherished anthology series in television history. Four series were produced between 1965 and 1971, which veered from sophisticated science fiction, including dramatizations of authors such as Isaac Azimov, to disturbing psychological horror and supernatural stories. Although many episodes have sadly been destroyed, this treasure has survived and tonight is its first airing in nearly forty years.


In fact it's actually more of a Ballard week: on Tuesday there's Solveig Nordlund's 2002 film of _Low Flying Aircraft_, and on Wednesday the Bookmark tie-in to _The Kindness of Women_, 'Shanghai Jim', followed by Spielberg's rarely seen production of _Empire of the Sun_.

Posted by: michael at September 30, 2003 04:45 PM

Wow, thanks Michael....

Posted by: mark at September 30, 2003 07:56 PM

Great piece Mark. Spot on about Davison, I think he works best when Bidmead's writing and the centuries-old being peaks out from the youthful veneer more often. But I would say the accentuation of human qualities in his portrayl brought out a level of emotional engagement in me I've never experienced before or since with Doctor Who. In stories like Castrovalva, Kinda, Earthshock, Frontios and Caves of Androzani you really FEEL for his predicament in a way I don't think you do, or can with his predecessors or successors.

A BIG shout here for Springhill - low budget invention at it's best, some good actors (the show was a springboard for Christine Tremarco) and it worked brilliantly watched in close succession - C4 screened consecutive early morning repeats a few Christmas' ago and it completely dominates my viewing memories of the period.

Posted by: Nathan at October 1, 2003 02:37 PM

It just gets better.

BBC Four, Wednesday October 15:

The Kneale Tapes

The Stone Tape

Posted by: michael at October 1, 2003 04:43 PM

I'm wondering if The Kneale Tapes *isn't* the interview with Kim Newman filmed by the BFI, but instead another one, part of which was included in the Time Shift programme about The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Posted by: michael at October 1, 2003 04:56 PM

Thanks, Nathan.

Yes, Baker's appeal was his cosmic detachment; Davidson's his emotional involvement. Both had a strain of melancholia and weltschmerz (cosmoschmerz?).

Posted by: mark at October 1, 2003 08:43 PM

Good point Mark. Spot on with the post Davidson Baker; Trial of a Timelord was when I stopped watching. I do feel it turned a corner in its last series with McCoy, but sadly so many viewers had been lost no one saw it (myself included; I only saw it years later on UK Gold). And uncanny is perfect as a description.

Russell T Davies has previous history of writing Who with Damaged Goods, a Virgin New Adventure. I consider it one of the best of the series and have no worries concerning the new series, provided Alan Davies is kept away from the role.

Posted by: Paul at October 5, 2003 10:40 PM

Thanks, Paul. I could live with Alan Davies, but I'd prefer someone a bit less well-known, and not so young. It looks like this chap Bill Nighy is the favourite, though, doesn't it?

Posted by: mark at October 5, 2003 11:44 PM

Could be Bill. In the roles I've seen him in, his hair makes me think of Hartnell. I'd be interested whoever the actor is. I'm hoping for the family drama that it was when I was little. When it comes out my daughter will be 5 and I have memories of Who from that age.

Posted by: Paul at October 6, 2003 10:33 AM

and christopher has got the role! this is great news i think...

Posted by: samantha at March 20, 2004 05:00 PM

Dearie, dearie, me. Dr.Who is a wonderful piece of tele-visual science-fiction. it is entertainment. If you are able to read into it some quasi-religious, Freudian, Jungian clap-trap then pity you. As for the Jerry Cornelius references - bollocks. I watched Dr.Who from the first episode and have read all the Cornelius stories/novels anbd recognise no similarities or recurring themes. Where are the needle guns, heaters, vibro guns? Where is Moorcock's/Jerry's ironic humour , laid back attitude in Dr. Who? (One might see it in Tom Baker's portrayal but he is hardly a Cornelius manque is he??) Also, the series may have been in decline before it ended but Sylvester McCoy was fabulous. Quirky, quixotic even, yet deeply thoughtful and deeply caring about humanity etc. The Davison period may have been weak in comparison but, "falling victim to these self-referential vortices" What the hell does that mean??? And Colin Baker may have been the poorest of the Doctors but, "was nothing but a palimpsest of empty signifiers" ?? What? And as for what follows, heavens spare us. People, people. It's a television programme. A very good one but still only entertainment. Not necessarily deep or philosophical. By turns just scary, funny, sentimental. A series of entertaining stories. The end

Posted by: Paul Eaton-Jones at March 21, 2004 02:14 AM

Thanks for your comments, Paul, but I fear that , if you don't like fairly light theoretical analyses of popculture, then k-punk isn't for you.

The Cornelius comparison; well, if you read carefully, then you'll see that the reference is to 'Jerry Cornelius-style riffs on entropy'. I'm sure that you are aware that entropy was a conspicuous theme of the last Tom Baker season, most especially in the last adventure, 'Logopolis'.

But I hardly think a Cornelius-Dr Who comparison is unwarranted. No similarities or recurring themes between the two? How about time travel, for instance? Also, the connections between Pertwee's dandyism and Cornelius frock-coated look are fairly evident, I should have thought. Then there's the Eternal Champion theme - a single character with diverse personae. The themes of renewal and regeneration. The Edwardian references, enormous in both. You yourself make the connection between Tom Baker's ironic humour and Cornelius.

As for McCoy, I beg to differ, and it's not as if I'm the first person to dare to suggest that his portrayal of the character was less than compelling.

'Falling victim to self-referential vortices' I should have thought was fairly clear in meaning from the context. Dr Who became increasingly concerned with its own past, consuming and regurgitating its own mythology rather than supplementing it or taking it forward.

C. Baker as a 'palimpsest of empty signifiers': well, it means that he was a collage of stylistic references without any meaning/ content.

And, good God, It's a television programme. What are you suggesting, that TV programmes aren't worth analysing, have no significance or hidden levels? That nothing can be read into them? I'm afraid I have no sympathy with this snobbery and the impoverished view of culture it implies.

Posted by: mark k-punk at March 21, 2004 11:54 AM