Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (9)

Everyone knows that, on December 25th 1965, in the seventh episode of The Dalek Master Plan, William Hartnell "broke the fourth wall", appearing to turn to camera and say "A Merry Christmas To All of You At Home." 

In a small way, and in the margins of the Who-text, there is quite a lot of this "acknowledging the audience" stuff -- think of Tom Baker looking into camera and bursting out laughing when he opens up K-9 Mark II at the end of Invasion of Time; or being warned of the return of the Daleks by a BBC continuity announcer. Think of Patrick Troughton warning the viewers that their mummies and daddies might find this weeks episode too frightening; or even Sylvester McCoy winking at us from the title sequence. 

Think also of the blurring of the line between actor and character. Think of Jon Pertwee explaining the Whomobile to Peter Purves on Blue Peter; think of William Hartnell being followed around by children as if he was the Pied Piper; think of Tom Baker...well, just think of Tom Baker. William Hartnell's Christmas greeting may or may not have been ad libbed -- but Tom Baker really did make up his own lines, and the more lines he made up, the more like Tom Baker the Doctor became. If it wasn't quite clear whether it was Tom Baker or Doctor Who signing your book at the school fete, it was equally unclear whether the person playing chess with K-9 or suddenly taking up oil painting was the Doc or Tom. 

Television is weird. The word, as a great man said, is half Greek and half Latin. It's a piece of furniture which sits in the corner of your living room, in front of the proverbial sofa. But it's also as magical as a Narnian wardrobe. Valerie Singleton used to talk about whisking us away "through the magic of television" to the Ivory Coast or France or whatever exotic location she had visited during the summer recess. We had a strange, intimate relationship with TV presenters, which we never presumed to have with the movie "stars". They wore smart suits, talked politely, and regarded themselves (they sometimes used the phrase) as guests in your home. Everyone knows the story about how, one evening in 1977, Doctor Tom became literally the guest in strange families home. It may not be true: but if it wasn't true, it would have been necessary to invent it, and it's an important truth about Tom that stories like that cluster around him. We feel that the TV screen is permeable; if we are looking at the TV presenter, then surely he must be looking back at us. Kids shows like Play School were built on the conceit that Brian Cant and Chloe Aschcroft were relating to the audience on a one-to-one basis: they would pretend to be otherwise occupied, look up in mock surprise and greet the viewer as if he had just arrived in their house; or else they would pretend to be able to hear them joining in with the songs and nursery rhymes they were singing. Dixon of Dock Green did a similar thing. (Speak to the audience, I mean, not recite nursery rhymes.) 

Sometimes, the metaphor seems to be that the magic box in the corner is taking us to strange places; sometimes the presenters seem to be visiting us in our world; sometimes we are asked to imagine that we are visiting them in theirs. 

The magic window. The box that we are both inside and outside at the same time. Transcendental.

The analogy between the TARDIS and the television was made quite explicit by William Hartnell's Doctor: not only did he say that the bigger-inside-than-outside phenomenon was like showing a picture of a skyscraper on a nine inch TV screen, but when the TARDIS refused to go where he wanted it to, he claimed that the horizontal hold was malfunctioning. (Horizontal Hold was the bane of old black and white TVs, which used to make the screen scroll three minutes before your favourite show was about to come on.) The opening credits, which became a tunnel and then merely a starscape, were originally completely abstract, and resembled nothing so much as the random snow and interference you would have seen on an old fashioned TV which wasn’t working properly. Very similar imagery was used in the Outer Limits, which made the connection quite explicit. 



Andrew Rilstone said...

Invasion of Time. Duh.

Steve said...

Actually I think it was faulty vertical hold that made the screen scroll, not horizontal hold. Memory of my grandmother thumping the telly and saying IT'S GOING OOP AND DOWN LIKE A RUDDY YO-YO.