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Who's Who in the time warp?

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Ottawa Journal, October 9, 1976


Dr Who: Time Lords run for ever

Those, like myself, privileged enough to have had an early literary taste formed by the Wizard, find an immediate affinity echoing with the very vibrancy of music from the Radiophonic Workshop as we watch Dr Who. The Wizard—for those who have never had the pleasure of its company—was a boy's magazine with a cover that appeared to be printed almost entirely in tomato ketchup. It enlivened prewar Tuesdays with adventures concerning Martian invaders, and the dire exploits of a vehicle which corkscrewed its way through the earth. There was also a series in which a cricket bat was endowed with magical powers in the cause of making Right prevail.

So, for those who recall all that, there are immediate references in the mind as Dr Who apprehends the power-mad Professor Zaroff boring his way through the earth's crust, or the creatures of alien planets, or enlists his own apparently magical powers in order to prevail. Captain Justice of the Modern Boy would be another hero to strike a chord, particularly as a character reference. Similarly, anyone whose reading included some of the following would be predisposed in favour of the good Doctor: Jules Verne, Eddington's fascinating bút apparently now-discredited The Expanding Universe, some of Priestley, much of H. G. Wells; more compulsorily, perhaps, the feats of Heracles and Odysseus, the doings of the three-headed

Typhon, the one-eyed giants, hundred-headed serpents, and Greek gods doing their quick-changes of classical mythology, as well as certain passages in Ezekiel and

Revelations. Also, more recently, Quatermass and the Triffids, although the gone sci-fi addict tends to be slightly sniffy about Dr Who.

Children who are repelled, and at the same time fascinated, by Grimm, may also hide from time to time behind the sofa from Dr Who's opponents, but emerge for long enough to admire him while he defeats (one more time) the Daleks, the ghastly Cybermen, the revolting Ice Warriors, as well as, in no preferred order, assorted Krotons, Ogrons, Silurians or the pulsating mass of the Great Intelligence. Or (meanwhile back on Earth) has a hand of cards with Kubla Khan, meets Wyatt Earp, Shakespeare and Count Dracula, assists at the Fall of the Roman Empire, has a stab at the Saracens on behalf of the Crusaders, deals Catherine de Medici one for the Huguenots, or—an admitted friend of Nelson's—is not out of countenance to find himself on board the Marie Celeste.

Thus residual bits of knowledge of certain history and fictions, myth, folklore and theories of Time in viewers' minds are on the side of the programme planners when projecting the continued existence of Dr Who—something which does not work to the same extent with, for example, Star Trek, because of its basically less literary approach. Given this, however, the entire reason why a programme designed for children should appeal as much to adults is not thus explained. An analysis of the viewing figures of Dr Who has been carried out, and it has been proved that as many adults as children watch it—which, in turn, is sufficient to explain large viewing figures, but not the reasons behind them, nor, at the same time, why Dr Who has been running—or, more accurately, time and space travelling—for so long.

For nearly 12 years, Dr Who has been part of the fabric of winter Saturday afternoons, with the fires going, an antidote to recently received intelligence that West Brom have scuppered the coupons once again; an interlude with toast and patum peperium, before the time Dixon appears to touch his helmet and say 'Evenin' all '. Why has Dr Who achieved this, through no fewer than four actors playing the lead, and a score or more younger performers playing his companions, while those older children who watched the first Daleks and immediately rushed round shouting 'Exter-min-ate' now have families of their own who are able themselves to shout 'I o-bey'?

A broad answer must lie in the character of Dr Who, as originally conceived, and as developed over the years. The idea was cooked up by Sidney Newman, in 1962 the Head of BBC Drama, and Donald Wilson, Head of Series and Serials, to fill a Saturday afternoon gap between the sports results and what Malcolm Hulke, one of the subsequent scriptwriters, referred to as 'the go-go show' It was to be simply a children's serial with an original budget of only £2,000 for the first series, with a hero who could move about in time and space, who was to be portrayed as 'a crotchety old man at least 745 years old'. The controls of his space vehicle (the TARDIS—or Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) were to be faulty, to enable scriptwriters to engineer unexpected places for his adventures. As realised over the years, however, the character of Dr Who moved a significant light-year or so in development.

The individuals playing Dr Who successively brought their own acting contributions to the outward signs of character. Critical nature being what it is, the viewing public, or those veterans such as myself who have intermittently watched since the beginning, have their own favourite form of Dr Who; yet each one has contributed a perceptible, direct and evolutionary factor to Dr Who, within the attitudes which gradually evolved in the long series of scripts and ideas.

William Hartnell was the first Dr Who, escaping at last the type-casting that had followed from his portrayal of the hectoring sergeant with a heart of at least 9-carat gold, in the war-time film The Way Ahead. His Dr Who was white-haired, grandfatherly, often kindly, but just as often tetchy and cantankerous, and, as the original idea demanded, eccentric-looking in astrakhan hat and oval spectacles.

After more than three years, and in a notable screen transformation scene, Patrick Troughton became Dr Who, and an immediately different one within the basic idea. He worked to Sidney Newman's suggestion that he should be 'a sort of cosmic hobo'—in a taller hat than Hartnell's, Peter Pan collar, playing a flute, dancing a jig from time to time, bumbling about in general, and altogether being vaguer, and more understandably not in charge of the complications of a TARDIS.

After another three years, Jon Pertwee took over, and he was the most spry, and longest-running, Dr Who of all: more trendily dressed (frilled cravat and scarlet edges to the velvet cape), more athletic and mechanically more efficient (you had the feeling with Pertwee that the TARDIS really was permanently at fault and not, as with the previous incumbents, Dr Who himself).

Now Tom Baker has taken over, and paradoxically, possibly in keeping with the treatment of Time in the series, he is the youngest Dr Who so far. Although popularity of previous actors is difficult to overlay, and particularly that of Jon Pertwee, Baker has already made his mark, while not pleasing every fan. His cataleptic eyes seem particularly appropriate, his throwaway technique with the wit in the scripts is the most diffident so far, and he seems, of all the Dr Who characters, the one likeliest not to succeed, even with a cosmic screwdriver, at mending a 13-amp fuse in a kitchen, let alone an interplanetary differential discobobulator aboard a spacecraft.

Thus all four, while bringing their own ideas to bear on Dr Who, have helped the composite character to evolve into a coherent idea that, even as we write, is grappling on the Planet of Evil on the edge of Creation itself (another notable error for the TARDIS, which, at the end of the previous series—still the London police-box familiar to many of us, but no longer to most children—was seen and heard with its noise, like a very sick saurian, supposedly leaving Loch Ness for London).

But, taking script ideas, too, Dr Who has been built as the writers went along, so that by now it is known that he is a Time Lord who offended other Time Lords and is condemned to travel space for ever (echoes of the myths of the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, etc.) and that he is but a mathematical formula, and, for all his human form, works at a temperature of only 60 degrees Fahrenheit, possesses two hearts and a blood group unknown to Harley Street. None of this emerged until successive later series, just as the Daleks, the creation of Terry Nation, and supposedly named from a section of encyclopaedia labelled Dal-Lek—appeared as long ago as 1963, zooming the viewing figures from three million to eight million in the process, but had origins that were only hinted at from time to time. The sinister creation of them was shown only this year.

So, while both the Daleks and the Doctor are palpably inhuman, Dr Who himself conveys only the literal meaning, and, far from fulfilling the meaning defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as 'brutal' and 'barbarous', represents almost model patterns of human and humane behaviour. He demonstrably works for Good against Evil —though not quite in the way the inexplicably popular Kojak does, where the programmes, to me at least, give more than a tainted whiff that realistic scenes of rape, murder and shoot-out are as much a raison d'étre as the shining purposes of Kojak.

By contrast, Dr Who never carries a gun —although he has deployed sonic rays and a laser beam in the Good Fight. More important, perhaps, in that fight he demonstrates quite clearly his contempt for power for its own sake, his opinion of societies who pursue not only power, but material benefits to the exclusion of all else, and individuals who have no feeling for their fellow beings.

Societies who behave thus degenerate into Daleks, or creatures of the War Lords, or Chameleons. These and other monsters are but what the human race could become. Or that seems to be what Dr Who suggests, and his appeal must lie greatly, to many adult viewers, in his quite uncompromising moral attitudes, and his holding of a crazed looking-glass to a possible future where such attitudes have disintegrated on earth ... and human beings, sadly, have perished in the unnamed holocaust of their own making.

Beyond that, his special quality is to make it seem that a magical myth is possible for everyone. In one of the scripts, he was given these lines by David Whitaker: ' Can you imagine silver leaves waving above a pool of liquid gold containing singing fishes? Twin suns that circle and fall in a rainbow heaven, another world in another sky? If you like to come with me, I'll show you all this—and it will be, I promise you, the dullest part of it all ... '

So Dr Who comes close to making myths for the 20th century, and a good future examination question might be framed: ' Examine Dr Who in relation to the idea that " it is the object of the myth, as of science, to explain the world, and to make its phenomena intelligible ".'

Yet this is not to argue that Dr Who—the programme rather than the main character—has only, however unconsciously realised, this level of appeal. Like all good entertainment, there are many levels. Purely mechanically, Dr Who works in a fairly comforting framework: whatever the situation, the Doctor must survive for the sake of the pure survival of the series. So, too, when Sarah/Susan/Dodo or any of the young girls is left alone, the viewer knows a scaly claw is bound to appear, but, at the same time, that she will be rescued; just as comforting, perhaps, for some parents is that when Sarah/Susan/ Dodo is left alone with Harry/Ian/ Jamie there is no danger of an outbreak of sex.

Ingenuity there is to be admired in the scripts, particularly the cliff-hanging endings of most episodes—which, with equal ingenuity, sometimes lead to beginning the next episode with a kind of 'With one bound, Dr Who was free' situation. Wit, too, as in the most recent Zygon series, where the redoubtable Brigadier was heavily in action with the Doctor. The telephone rings:

'It's for you, sir—the Prime Minister.'

'Lethbridge-Stewart speaking ... absolutely understood, Madam ...'

On another level, admirers of polystyrene suitings—to say nothing of shareholders in plastics firms—must like the work to be seen on Dr Who. To name but one monster, and the most recent, the Zygon was a creation of genius—an amber-coloured, heavy-duty plastic individual—and yet another tribute to designers who have, through this programme alone, over the years put the BBC well ahead, in a field whose first drawing-board effort was no less than Frankenstein's creation.

And so to the sound of the music of the Radiophonic Workshop, an effect so new back in 1963, and so sincerely flattered by imitation ever since, we must leave, up the cosmic stethoscope for ever. Dr Who, now in the hands of a new team, appears set for continued success, and there certainly seems no earthly reason why the series should not at last give proper meaning to a normally misused phrase, and run for all time.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Waterman, Jack (1975-10-02). Who's Who in the time warp?. The Listener p. 437.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Waterman, Jack. "Who's Who in the time warp?." The Listener [add city] 1975-10-02, 437. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Waterman, Jack. "Who's Who in the time warp?." The Listener, edition, sec., 1975-10-02
  • Turabian: Waterman, Jack. "Who's Who in the time warp?." The Listener, 1975-10-02, section, 437 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's Who in the time warp? | url= | work=The Listener | pages=437 | date=1975-10-02 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=24 February 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who's Who in the time warp? | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=24 February 2024}}</ref>
  • Title: Who is the Doctor?
  • Publication: Ottawa Journal
  • Date: 1976-10-09