Doctor Who was the product of a time when Britain was casting around for a new role, a new identity. British television still is, which is why the show is backby David Herman / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
The more Dawn Airey and Mark Lawson sneer at the idea of a golden age of British television, the more desperately today’s television executives raid the past to stop their ratings from going into freefall. First came University Challenge and the return of Parkinson. Now we have got the return of Doctor Who, Come Dancing, Ask the Family, The Two Ronnies and Quatermass—all retro-television. There is no doubt which has had the most impact. Over the past weeks you could not escape the Dalek jokes, Ron Grainer’s haunting music, the forty-something nostalgia. Part of its secret was the format which gave the writers the freedom to take the doctor and his companion(s) anywhere, any time. Yet it was always very much about one place at one time: 1960s Britain.
The first episode of the revived series, like the last episode in 1989 and the very first episode in 1963, is set in contemporary London. As executive producer and chief scriptwriter, Russell T Davies, said the doctor and his new companion “are deliberately running past Big Ben, they’re on Westminster bridge, there are double decker buses, because that’s a great big signal at the start saying, ‘This is British.'” But what kind of Britain? Trafalgar Square and black cabs or Rose’s single mum, glued to daytime television, tower blocks and Cockney accents.
This uncertainty about Britishness was always at the heart of the original Doctor Who. Comparisons with another early-1960s science fiction series are interesting here. Star Trek was a product of the same time, but its high-tech team were, as Bryan Appleyard recently wrote, “sensible, post-Kennedy, liberal American heroes, sane and reliable.” Although Doctor Who first went out the day after JFK was assassinated, it had no sense of the new frontier. Like 1960s Britain, caught between Lord Home and Harold Wilson’s “white heat” of technology, it was a strange mix of the old and modern. There was the science and technology (“I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow”), but at the same time there was the shabby police box (out of date even then), the long woolly scarves and old gent clothes, the funny references to cricket (“with a talent like mine I might have been a great slow bowler”). The very first time we encounter the doctor, in the 1963 pilot episode, the Tardis is in a junkyard, more Steptoe & Son than Kennedy. Where was Britain…