New Left Project
March 19, 2013
March 19, 2013
Andrew Cartmel, script editor of Doctor Who from 1986 to 1989, takes a look back at Doctor Who’s nonconformist history, in conversation with Carl Rowlands.
I love the quote from Sydney Newman, one of the creators of Doctor Who, back in 1963. He once described science fiction stories as "a marvellous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society." Though Newman was the son of a Jewish émigré in Canada, I don't see the Doctor as a refugee or a nomad, but purely as an enigma. I'm a bit of a bore on this subject, but I think the show's creators had a similar idea—they wanted a mysterious character and probably just saw him as a blank slate.
So few of the early Who episodes survive it's hard to make a judgement about them. Whilst it had some ‘kitchen sink’ elements, I think it was more of a pure science fiction fantasy than a social drama set in space. Without the Daleks, it might have survived, but I suspect it would have been touch and go. The Daleks resonated because of Raymond Cusick's brilliant physical design, and for no other reason. If the design had been rubbish, they would never have come back. Incidentally, Cusick only got the job when another designer called Ridley Scott, who was working at the BBC at the time, was unavailable.
Doctor Who in the 1960s wasn’t exactly a ‘beat’ programme. Part of me wishes Who's roots had indeed been in Beat culture. We could have done with a lot more bongo drums, drainpipe jeans and stripy sweaters.
But I don't think science fiction should be a bald parable of current events. That can be dull and formulaic and strident. I do feel that resonance with the real world—and even some polemical force—makes for a much more interesting script. It means the script is about something and has some meaning and depth. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by citing a script that I inherited which has no such qualities—Time and the Rani. There were many things I didn't like about that particular script, but ultimately I think its failure to speak to anything in the real world was its greatest weakness. I wrote extensively about this episode in Script Editor. This was a story which wasn't about anything—and, frustratingly, it was Sylvester McCoy’s debut.
Sylvester McCoy was perhaps more working-class than his predecessors, or at least, he was more likely to talk to people in shops and cafes. His companion, Ace, who was intended to be both more working-class and fiercer than most previous friends of the Doctor, was developed (masterfully) by the writer of Dragonfire, Ian Briggs. Having said that, I started the process when I gave him a brief about the character—a teenage explosives expert wearing Doc Martens boots called Alf (at that stage)—and I myself was drawing on the Love and Rockets graphic novels, about kickass chicks who were very much blue collar. So that was definitely intentional.
Through the fifty years of the programme, a few themes keep emerging. One of these is imperialism and colonialism. There are planets where there are dominant species that subjugate the weaker ones (such as the original Daleks episode). There are also repeated encounters with exploiters and explorers, those looking to interfere or capitalize on the resources of indigenous peoples, such as those in Ghost Light, or Kinda, which was heavily influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin. I love Ghost Light. But ultimately, what we were trying to achieve was a creepy, Victoriana-rich science fiction tale, rather than make a statement about colonialism. If anything, Ghost Light is slightly flawed by an overly complex backstory. It has puzzled people for decades. Personally, I always thought it was entirely straightforward. I even ran a Twitter competition for the best summary of the script in 140 characters or less.
Doctor Who has also handled militarism and the apocalypse, from a more-or-less pacifist perspective—as in, for example, Curse of Fenric, Genesis of the Daleks and Battlefield. Of course, these stories were influenced by other series of the time. For example, the excellent Edge of Darkness hinted that the sheer existence of a substance such as plutonium—which, of course, does not occur naturally—carries its own implications and represents an existential threat.
There’s a speech which I wrote for Battlefield, which became known as ‘the CND speech.’ I don't see why such a speech couldn't be used today, and it still seems relevant. Since we feel ourselves now to be further away from the brink of nuclear war than we did back then (under Reagan and other Cold Warriors) it's probably less contentious. But in writing the speech I learnt something invaluable.
The writer of Battlefield, Ben Aaronovitch [brother of columnist David], didn't want to write it, simply because he'd grown up in a left-wing family where such arguments were so tediously commonplace that he was fed up with them. He certainly didn't disagree with the sentiments, he was just heartily sick of the rhetoric. So he suggested I should write it. Which I did with passion and what I thought was searing poetry. When Ben read it he said, "This goes on for a bit..." But I was adamant that not a single priceless pearl of my wonderful writing should be cut. And then I saw how it played on screen. My god, it went on for about 20 years. So we cut it down in the editing. The most valuable lesson I learned was that it's easy to spot someone else's over-writing and self indulgence, but when it's your own, there's a tendency to have a blind spot. It was a really important lesson. I still think it's a fairly effective speech, but I should have borne in mind that less is more. And by the way, the kid's eyes turning to cinders was pinched from Peter Watkin's magnificent The War Game (which was banned by the BBC when it was first submitted for broadcast).
Then, there’s this other theme in Doctor Who, troubled teenagers. During my time as script editor, stories of 'feral youth' were becoming increasingly prominent in tabloids and popular culture. BothParadise Towers and Survival touch on this in very different ways. Arguably, the topic goes back right to the very start of the programme—An Unearthly Child—where a couple of schoolteachers are led to the Tardis by their concerns about one of their pupils, Susan. Doctor Who wasn’t unique in covering this, perhaps. A perceived absence of reliable paternal figures has arguably been a recurring theme since the First World War in British and Commonwealth culture. But Doctor Who’s finest ‘feral youth’ story of them all, in my opinion, is Rona Munro's brilliantly-scriptedSurvival, which is a complex exploration of these tropes.
I believe that Mrs. Thatcher was later to refer to people on the Left in her autobiography as having ‘something dark in the imagination.’ Perhaps appropriately, in The Happiness Patrol, writer Graeme Curry devised a plot where a reactionary leader enforced a conformist culture based on upbeat sentiment. Sheila Hancock and Ronald Fraser splendidly channeled Margaret and Denis Thatcher. The story took place on a planet where melancholia had been effectively banned and all ‘Killjoys’ were executed.
It also featured a unique monster, called the Kandyman. He was not initially intended as an embodiment of consumerism, though such an interpretation makes sense. He was just intended as a groovy and unusual villain. In a world like that of The Happiness Patrol, where false cheeriness is the order of the day, it makes sense that the state executioner should be this kind of grotesquely 'sweet' figure, who used to drown people in a sugary solution, which he described as his ‘Fondant Surprise.’ I seem to recall his sweets were so delicious that people died of pleasure.
I was obsessed at the time (still am) with food safety and was very much against additives and E numbers. I even did some research on the subject for a TV thriller that I wanted to write. Did you know the Official Secrets Act was used to prevent people from finding out what's in their food? I believe that was true at the time. It probably still is.
Andrew Cartmel (@andrewcartmel) is the author of Script Editor: The Inside Story Of Doctor Who 1986-89 and has also written novels, comic books and various episodes of different television serials. His new series of crime novels featuring the Vinyl Detective, a record collector turned sleuth, are due out shortly.
Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.