Friday, 29 December 2017

We Don't Go Back #73: Doctor Who, twice more

The thing that few commentators on Doctor Who outside of the hard-core fan communities ever properly get across is how it isn't really one show. When its entire cast, production crew and writing team change every few years, this is inevitable. Pretty much every sweeping "Doctor Who is/does" statement you can make, even on the most fundamental level, in terms of theme and content, needs to be suffixed with "except when it isn't/doesn’t" to be true.

I think the one real exception to that rule is only this: Doctor Who is a cultural artefact that reflects the prevailing atmosphere of the time, and because it's science fiction (except when it isn't) it can comment on the milieu it's in more freely, and with more feeling.

Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid
Incantation.
At the beginning of The Dæmons (1971), Jo Grant (Katy Manning) announces to Jon Pertwee's paternalistic Third Doctor, apropos of nothing, that it is the Age of Aquarius, but when the Doctor asks her the precise meaning of this, she falters. The best she can offer is "the occult and all that" and inevitably, the Doctor mocks and patronises her, because Jo Grant is usually written to be a bit dim and the Third Doctor is usually written to be a bully.

Everything, he says, must have a scientific explanation. This is put to the test when Strange Things begin to happen at the village of Devil's End (and since this serial was filmed in Wiltshire, we'll assume that's where it was set).

An archaeological dig disturbs an ancient evil under the nearby barrow. Meanwhile, disguised as the new vicar, the Doctor's archenemy, the Master (Roger Delgado) exploits this, organising the locals into a satanic coven, the better to deal with the newly awakened creature and, hell, I don't know, take over the world or something.

The Doctor and his friends – Jo and the friendly but variably competent soldiers of UNIT – wind up dealing with uncanny atmospheric phenomena, an animated gargoyle, hostile Morris Dancers and chanting, robed cultists. Devil’s End is rich in the tropes of folk horror, the low key parochial paganism, the ancient barrow, the spinning fingerpost, the cellar bedecked in occult paraphernalia, the maypole, the Morris. But the tropes of folk horror are just tropes, and explicitly declared as such by the Doctor, who explains cult magic as an access point to communication with Azal, one of the alien Dæmons who came from Dæmos long ago and who inspired legends of horned gods and goddesses throughout history. In The Dæmons, the popular early 70s fascination with Aquarian spirituality turns out to be a smokescreen for the ancient astronauts theory, which exploded into the popular consciousness with the 1969 English edition of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?
The two things you must never do: violent assault and Morris dancing. 
This wouldn’t be the only time aliens would be shown to have inspired earth religions and superstitions in Doctor Who, but it’s in The Dæmons that the ancient astronauts narrative first becomes an explicit substitution for the folk horror narrative. This will recur – in The Stones of Blood (1978) and Image of the Fendahl (1977) ancient gods, standing stones, witches and supernatural phenomena all turn out to be down to memories of ancient aliens.

Azal the Dæmon is therefore exactly a Dänikenesque ancient astronaut, and the Doctor and UNIT counter his powers with state-of-the-art technology and rational argument. The Doctor’s power is science; science to defeat science. Bok the gargoyle might turn out to be bulletproof, but at no point is giving it five rounds rapid, as the Brigadier (the great Nicholas Courtney) so memorably orders, seen to be a necessarily bad idea. Azal is argued into defeat, reasoned to destruction, which, for the one version of the Doctor who most champions liberal rationalism, is the most obvious ending I could imagine.

Erich von Däniken’s ideas are of course wholly as magical as anything Gerald Gardner could have come up with, but they have on the most superficial level a veneer of science, and science is respectable, meaning that respectable people will believe any old magical nonsense as long as you can convince them it’s scientific, and that’s one of the themes that runs – accidentally – all through Doctor Who from 1963 to the present (except when it doesn’t).

The interesting thing about The Dæmons is that even when it’s substituting magic for pseudoscience, it still has space to introduce a character like Olive Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman), who allies herself with the Doctor’s party quickly and introduces herself freely as a witch ("white, of course"). Miss Hawthorne is by some distance the most interesting guest character in the serial, and possibly for the whole Pertwee era.

In December 1971, Wiccan leader Doreen Valiente, at the peak of her prominence, would perform a Wiccan ritual on TV in the BBC documentary The Power of the Witch: Real or Imaginary? While Miss Hawthorne’s character can't have been directly inspired by The Power of the Witch, since The Dæmons was filmed in April that year, Valiente was very well known, and even if she isn’t a direct inspiration for the character of Olive Hawthorne, her style and demeanour are very much the stereotype of the parochial modern witch of the 70s, a stereotype that Valiente created. Miss Hawthorne might not be a stand-in for Doreen Valiente, but she’s got her style. And more than that, Miss Hawthorne has the moves: in the first episode, a supernatural wind rises, and brings with it a sinister control over the village policeman, who comes close to attempting to kill Miss Hawthorne. But the village witch raises her arms, and imperiously declaims an incantation – and then the wind dies down. And the implication is that however you frame what Miss Hawthorne does, the most obvious reading of that scene is that she’s the one that made the ill wind die down before harm can come to her, because the other reading, that it’s a coincidence that the wind fails at the same time as she’s incanting, makes no sense – why would the Master (for it is he who is behind this) stop just then? Why would it fail at that moment unless something got in the way?
Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid.
And does it matter that she’s (perhaps unconsciously) accessing a means to stymie an alien? No. It’s all magic. And Olive Hawthorne can bring the goods.

To a modern viewer, The Dæmons appears daft and goofy; it comes from one of the eras (and there are more of them that most long-time fans admit to existing) where Doctor Who was explicitly pitched for kids, but that era also coincided with an era of British TV where drama made for children was a lot spookier than it is now, if by no means as complex.

And in the first episode, before things receive explanations, there are moments of tension. There are scares. In The Dæmons, you get something that’s intending to be cuddly and reassuring and spooky at the same time. And its ambivalent attitude to its spookiness (and I think this isn’t entirely deliberate on the part of showrunner Barry Letts, who co-wrote the story under a pseudonym) makes the story more unsettling the more you think about it. The Doctor says that magic isn’t real, that demons aren’t real. But in The Dæmons, they are. The Dæmons wants to be a rejection and substitution of folk horror. But the serial ends up doubling down on it.

The Dæmons is of the Devil’s party.

A psychochronograph
A technological Knealegasm.
2013’s Hide is 42 years and a universe away from The Dæmons.

The mercurial, old-young Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith, still easily my favourite of the revived series’ Doctors) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive in haunted Caliburn House in 1974. Here, Dr Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) is investigating a haunting that goes back centuries with the aid of “empathic psychic” Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) and some wonderfully complex Knealean technology.

And that adjective that I just made up, “Knealean”, is both the heart of this episode and the primary thing it critiques, since the first half of the episode is very much part homage, part pastiche of Nigel Kneale, especially The Stone Tape and Quatermass. In fact, writer Neil Cross freely admitted in an interview with SFX (April, 2013) that he had originally intended the episode to feature Kneale’s signature character, Bernard Quatermass, but that this was made impossible by rights issues.

But the episode, which I think I’m more or less alone in thinking one of the best of the 2010-13 run, is better, I think, for the lack of Quatermass. While it is, like The Dæmons, pretty tropey in terms of its source material – witness the oscillators and toggle switches, the haunted house interrogated with 70s science, the dull grey-brown grades of the clothes and setting, the flashes of something hiding in the shadows – Quatermass could not be in this story. Hide takes a look at Kneale’s worldview and actively denies it. 
It's not what I thought it would be. It's not fun.
Nigel Kneale’s scripts, as consistently excellent as they were, were generally pessimistic, and he more or less always preferred the bleak ending. Whether he was doing horror or science fiction, his work tends quite deliberately to take the stance that The Dæmons accidentally takes: whether or not science can explain this stuff, it doesn’t matter because it’s still terrifying, it’s still malevolent, ancient, waiting, and you see this in The Stone Tape, and Quatermass and the Pit, and this is compounded by the fact that Kneale really didn’t like people. Quatermass and the Pit is a science fiction horror that supplies a definitive answer to the question “Why are people so universally terrible?” And that’s a question which has more to say about its querent than about anything else. On the other hand, Doctor Who is essentially humane (except, of course, when it isn’t).

Hide takes the tropes of Kneale and combines them with several of the tropes of the Pertwee era of Doctor Who. The Third Doctor was the Technobabble Doctor, and his UNIT lab was full of the sort of kit that we see in Hide. A crucial plot point in The Daemons depends upon the Doctor using doohickeys and technoboxes to counteract the demonic (dæmonic) powers of Azal over the environment. And part of this is down to the 2013 series of Doctor Who being of course the lead up to its 50th anniversary celebration, so every 2013 episode (the run from The Bells of St John through to The Name of the Doctor) had some element that celebrated the history not only of the series but of British TV over the preceding five decades. So Hide served a specific function. It was irrelevant that the Doctor(s) hadn’t spent any real amount of time mucking about with RF cables and oscilloscopes and reversals of the polarity of the neutron flow since the time of Pertwee, because the Doctor's sudden interest in these things is a conscious call-back to Pertwee.

The Doctor, having witnessed Emma Grayling’s powers in action and the hauntings in Caliburn House, investigates the source of the haunting, and figures out almost straight away that The Witch of the Well, the spirit of the house, is in fact an innocent time traveller, trapped in a decaying pocket universe that exists parallel with history. But she’s running from something. There is still a monster.

The Doctor builds a machine he calls a “psychochronograph” and centres it around a blue crystal from Metebelis III (the most explicit Pertwee reference in the episode), and uses that device to rescue the time traveller, Hila Tacoreon (Kemi-Bo Jacobs); and he finds that there is indeed a monster. But by the end of the episode he realises that while the creature hides with facility and is indeed hideous, it is no more malevolent than Hila; it is just trying to be reunited with its mate. And as the Doctor himself says, reaching through the fourth wall and declaring power over the episode's genre itself, the story ceases to be a ghost story, and becomes a love story, although of course it’s already a love story since the central tension isn’t really the ghost, it’s the dawning realisation of Alec and Emma that they love each other. This was hiding in plain sight; this is the key to the episode's title.
Empaths are the loneliest people.
Raine and Scott supply wonderful, understated performances, and their human drama is far more compelling than the monsters and ghosts.

Not everything ends, says Emma. Love survives.

And of course that’s the antithesis of horror; it’s the antithesis of Knealean horror, and it’s the antithesis of folk horror, which is at least partly born of a horror of folk.

While the tropes of the Pertwee story are present and correct, no pretence is made that it’s all about science. Emma is an empath, and no one makes any attempt to explain or justify her psychic power. It’s only accepted: some people are psychic, and that’s all there is. What we have is an episode that rejects folk horror in general and Kneale in particular, even while ostensibly celebrating the tropes of both. Here, science doesn’t have to explain everything and doesn’t try. A magic crystal from the Planet of the Spiders powers the psychochronograph. The monster hides, and it is apparently immortal, but in the end it turns out to be by no means hostile. Nothing is here to fear.

The Dæmons attempts to illuminate with science, and only deepens the darkness. There are no ghosts, it says, and then it shows you the ghosts. Hide, meanwhile, goes further: it shows you the ghosts, but then asks you to embrace them with compassion. The Dæmons tries to deny folk horror and only doubles down on it. Hide tries to celebrate folk horror, and then tells a story entirely incompatible with the genre.


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2 comments:

  1. That's a lovely essay. I must watch Hide again.

    (I think it's generally the best thought of story in Season 7 isn't it? At least among people who don't hate the Smith-Capaldi years in general.)

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  2. I think you might have put into words why I feel such ambivalence towards folk horror as a genre: while I love the trappings of the genre and I am fascinated by folklore in general, I’m an optimist at heart and so I will always lean towards stuff like Hide, and not the stuff that more purely embodies the horror part of folk horror.

    And now I feel I should re-visit Hide. I don’t remember it as well as I’d like to. And it’s got Scott and Raine, both of whom I like very much.

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