Monday, April 08, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (8)

But, of course, I left two rather important items off my list of things which I like about old Who. Let's add them now:
  • Tom
  • Baker

I liked his wit. I liked his floppy hat. I liked his teeth. I liked the way he was clever enough to get away with being cheeky in the face of authority. 

I didn't, in fact, particular care about his jelly babies. I liked them  -- and of course this is a Type 3 interpretation which I could not have articulated at the time [*]  -- but only because because they were tangible expressions of the Doctorness of the Doctor. He's a grown up, but he has childish, old fashioned sweets in his pockets. My grandfather had sweets in his pocket, but they were serious grown up sweets like extra strong mints and liquorice. [**]

That is why Peter Davison never really worked for me. The jelly babies encapsulated the idea of the schoolboy pretending to be a grown up or the grown up pretending to be a school boy. The stick of celery, not so much. But if we are actually going to find some continuing essence of Doctor Who, that's the place we need to be looking. In the central, Peter Pan conceit. There is a temptation to come over all Joseph Campbell and say that the Doctor is the embodiment of a universal jungian archetype: trickster of somesuch. But he really isn't. He's just a man who thinks that there is no point in being grown up if you can't sometimes be childish.

We think of the yo-yo's and sherbet lemons as being mainly part of the Second Doctor's era. And it is true that Troughton is the definitive Doctor, in the sense of having defined the role for everyone who came after him. Hartnell had been a patronizing old man: almost the first thing Ian had said to him was "Doctor, you are treating us like children." But the child-like thing was already there, despite, perhaps because, he was "really" an old man. It's the first thing the makers of the Really Awful Dalek Movie latch onto when they want a single image to tell new readers what Doctor Who is like. In the opening scene, "Susan" is discovered reading Physics for the Inquiring Mind; , "Barbara" reading The Science of Science and "Doctor Who" reading...the Eagle. ("Most exciting, most exciting.")

"But Andrew: saying that Tom Baker is the best Doctor and that the true essence of Doctor Who is jelly babies tells us nothing except that you were born in 1965. Everyone knows that the Golden Age of Doctor Who is 'about twelve'. All this talk of atmosphere and texture really amounts to a set of audio visual cues which remind you of your last year in junior school. Everybody thinks that the popular culture they grew up with this the best popular culture."

Actually, what everyone thinks is that the popular culture they grew up with is the correct popular culture; the way popular culture would be if political correctness hadn't gone mad. I don't intellectually believe that vinyl is better than MP3: in fact I have never owned a turntable in my life. But it is still obvious that, in the natural order of things, music lives on heavy black discs. I still refer to my music collection as 'records'. (I also say "hang up the phone" and "pull the chain".) I was brought up to believe that English children had enjoyed Dick Barton and Muffin the Mule since the time of Alfred the Great at least, and that my generation had broken the apostolic succession by turning to Rentaghost. Our generation has done the same thing: Blue Peter is obviously part of the natural order of things and has to be kept going at all costs, even though the young folks show no interest i it. (Who cared, or noticed, when the Dandy ceased publication?)

But it must be the case that some things are better than other things; and some things are better than some other things at some particular times. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had to contend with some of the very worst popular music that there has ever been. (Garry Glitter, the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers.) We had a very bland light entertainment culture, give or take an Eric and Ernie. (Val Doonican, for crying out loud. Little and Large. The Black and White actual Minstrels.) On the other hand we lived at a time when Oliver Postgate was creating miniature worlds at the rate of approximately one a year; Blue Peter was being presented by Valjean and Pete and the Wombles and Magic Roundabout weren't half-bad either. If I had had my wish to be born in the 1955, I'd have lived through the Golden Age of pop music and the Totally Forgotten Age of Children's TV. 

I don't think Bagpuss was great because I happen to have been a kid when it was on; I just happen to have been a kid when the best children's programme ever made was being transmitted. Actually I was rather too old for Bagpuss, but that proves my point. I think. How many people have you ever heard claiming that Busy Lizzie was the greatest children's programme of all time?

Tom Baker is not the greatest because he was "my Doctor". But one of the reason that the expression "my Doctor" has gone on meaning something to me for more than thirty years is that I happen to have been twelve years old when the role of the Doctor was being played by the person who most perfectly embodied the part. 

"Embodied" being the operative word. You can't say "Jon Pertwee is playing the same character as William Hartnell, only younger" in the way that you probably can say "Roger Moore is playing the same character as Sean Connory, only worse." The different Doctors are different takes on the idea of the Doctor, and the notion that there is an idea of the Doctor that needs different people to embody it has increasingly been written into the metaphysics of the programme itself. 

I don't know what Patrick Troughton thought he was doing when he played the Doctor. He was probably the kind of actor who didn't think that he was doing anything except remembering his lines and not bumping into the scenery. But I have a strong sense of his Doctor being multiple. When the Second Doctor fools around with a recorder or passes round a bag of sherbet lemons, he isn't playing a role -- pretending to be stupid so people underestimate him. It's really him. He likes the toys and the sweets and the silly hats. But when he confronts the War Chief on his own terms, or makes that series-defining speech about how some areas of the universe have bred the most terrible things, he seems to be something else as well; or instead; or mostly. It's as if sherbet-lemons-Doctor has slipped under cosmic-entity-Doctor, or Sherbet-lemons is floating on a big sea of Cosmic. Which applies to jelly-babies-Doctor and fast-cars-and-gadgets Doctor and bow-tie-and-fez Doctor as well. The trouble with cricket-whites Doctor was the lack of conviction that there was anything very much going on beneath or alongside the stick of celery. 

Every attempt to sum up the Doctorness of the Doctor gets you involved in obvious banalities -- that he always does what is right, that he prefers to solve problems without the use of violets, that his dress sense is questionable at best. True but unhelpful. (Christopher Eccleston rather pointedly avoided all the superficial Doctor signifiers, but was clearly the Doctor. Tennant was full of Edwardian mannerisms, but just didn't seem to get it.) 

So I don't insist on my child-man thing. I merely throw it up in the air.

And I am going to make one other, very tentative, stab in the dark.

Part and parcel of the Doctor's child/man persona is that he transcends categories. He is both real and fictional; inside and outside the TV set; able to break the rules because to some extent he knows he's in a story. And that's what people who say "oh, the home-made quality is part of the charm" are groping towards.


[*] and yes, that is a Type Two comment: do you want me to draw you a venn diagram?

[**] Grown ups bought sweets like that because they smoked and needed to clear their breath. That has literally only just occurred to me. 


K said...

Lordy. You're right about the sweets. I always wondered who all those people were who actually LIKED mint and cinnamon sweets, because they clearly don't taste good, yet they're everywhere. Smoking explains so much.

Mattyoung! said...

Andrew, I really enjoy your writings here, which is why I want to point out that I don't think you meant to say of the Doctor that "he prefers to solve problems without the use of violets," which I read four or five times trying to figure out if it was a bit of word play or allusion and not a spell-check error. Please keep up the great work and forgive the nit-picks of your readers (even if those nits, oddly enough, have a very Doctor-y sensibility to them. "violets," indeed, is something I could quite expect to hear the Doctor say.

Mike Taylor said...

I am quite sure that Andrew did mean to write "violets". I am also sure that when we wrote it, that wasn't what he meant. He's a slippery one.

On the actual subject ...

I agree that that youthfulness is one of the Very Important Things about the Doctor. But I also think that great age is one of the Very Important Things about him. And the number one reason why Matt Smith is my absolute favourite bestest Doctor ever is because he is so very good at being both of those thing at once.