SEASON FIVE: “The First Duty Of A Revolutionary Is To Get Away With It” - Part Two
(c) 2009 Frank Collins. If you wish to quote from this article please ask the author's permission.
Above: Blissed out in the Detsen monastery in 'The Abominable Snowmen'
Psychedelic VictorianaThe Tomb Of The Cybermen and The Abominable Snowmen both concern themselves with expeditions, and the notion of various British eccentrics plundering the cultural riches of Earth and outer space. On the surface these are pastiches of well-established fictional tropes, everything from 'The Mummy' to H. Rider Haggard, but Tomb also alludes to the environmental disaster of the Aswan Dam, where in 1956 it was revealed that flooding behind the dam would destroy a number of ancient Egyptian tombs, whilst Snowmen riffs on Hilary’s patriotic conquest of Everest. Let’s also not forget that Hammer Films were also treading a Victoriana influenced path through these post-colonial anxieties with a successful run of Mummy themed films as well as a filmed version of the Nigel Kneale play, 'The Creature', entitled uncannily enough The Abominable Snowman.
This avid interest in the cultural glories of Empire seemed to act as some compensation for, in the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘culture of decline’ apparently linked with the loss of imperial status. Hammer Films, the Bond films, The Avengers and Doctor Who all suggest a British culture of that time reluctant to abandon the virtues of Pax Britannia, the period of relative peace in Europe when the British Empire controlled most of the key naval trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power, which led to a period of overseas British expansionism. Harold Wilson was also rather keen to build closer links with the Commonwealth rather than reluctantly drive policy away from Empire and towards Europe and the Common Market. By the mid 1960s Britain’s influence on the world was less political and more cultural, with a strong international focus on music, cinema, design and fashion leading to the now clichéd Time magazine article of April 1966 labeling London as ‘swinging’. Youthful expeditions and cultural visitations, as opposed to colonisations, into Indian and Buddhist philosophies were a further counterpoint to this and affected everything from the decline of Western religion to the re-contextualisation of Victorian design in the 1960s.
Golden lawns, village green. Victoria was my queen
For the period between the Evil Of The Daleks and Fury from The Deep, the series subtly, and not so subtly, captured this cultural zeitgeist. Not only do we have a companion aptly named Victoria, who rather like Adam Adamant and Alice before him, is taken out of her Victorian comfort zone and plunged into surreal adventures with the Doctor and Jamie, but we also have many of the stories thematically and visually summarising the fusion between a number of 1960s cultural obsessions; the modernist, forward thinking, and ‘futuristic’, the influence of India and Tibet and the plundering of Victorian design. The Victorian aesthetic heavily influences what we regard as the psychedelic too. The psychedelic is seen as fantastic, metaphysical and surrealistic subject matter (as in Carroll and Lear) but that also uses kaleidoscopic, fractal or paisley patterns, highly contrasting colors, stylization of detail, collage, spirals, concentric circles, and diffraction patterns. The psychedelic is enshrined in the opening titles, where the fractal patterns and spirals of the iconic Bernard Lodge design have been developed and expanded to fill the screen and now incorporate the face of actor Patrick Troughton who literally explodes out of the screen amidst a barrage of scudding electronic clouds.
Above: A whole lava love in 'The Wheel In Space'
Later, we get the target range for the Cybermen in Tomb Of the Cybermen with its hypnotic Bridget Riley-esque visual motifs, the paisley patterns of the costume worn by Kaftan (an appropriate name for a character in 1960s Who), the environs of the monastery and the costumes of the monks in The Abominable Snowmen, the bizarre effects of the sonic guns and the groovy futuristic costumes in The Ice Warriors, the paisley scarf and handkerchief sported by Travers and the rather groovy costume with hippy style beads that Victoria wears in The Web Of Fear. Even Jamie’s costume is enhanced, supplemented with a trendy paisley necktie and some afghan like trimmings to his waistcoat. There are also the trippy electronic effects that enhance and then uncover the true nature of the Cybermen eggs and the freaky positive-negative effects, similar to the Dalek exterminations, when Cybermen shoot their victims or are electrocuted by the Doctor in The Wheel In Space as well as some very gratuitous use of lava lamps as part of the set design for the oxygen supply room.
Above: Dedicated followers of fashion - 'The Ice Warriors'
These psychedelic tropes then bash up against the Victoriana and futurism that litters the season. The interiors of Brittanicus base, in The Ice Warriors, with its ornate furniture contrasting sharply with the all white futurism of the computer room, the wallpaper and the kitchen in Salamander’s central European zone headquarters in Enemy Of The World are redolent of psychedelia’s grabbing of elaborate, stylized leaf and floral patterns and the modified styles taken from various time periods in history like Gothic, Tudor, Elizabethan, English Rococo, Neoclassical. These merge with the influence of John Bates, who designed Emma Peel’s costumes for The Avengers and Pierre Cardin’s futuristic, space-age catsuits and bodystockings, Beatle suits and cut-out dresses, as reflected in the futurism of the costumes in The Ice Warriors and The Wheel In Space. And let’s not dismiss that triumph of Victoriana, the London Underground, as pioneered, designed and engineered by John Fowler, which is pretty much the entire setting for The Web Of Fear.
Listen To The Voice Of BuddhaThe late 1960s and 1970s was, of course, a period in Western history when many Westerners, particularly young people, were turning to the East for wisdom, and when travel to India and Nepal was for the first time relatively easy and inexpensive for people in Europe and the USA. Looking at The Abominable Snowmen, for example, there are a number of themes in the serial that reflect this search for enlightenment in the increasingly industrialised and commercialised society of the 1960s. The decline of Western religions into secularism accelerated in the 1960s and as Hugh McLeod suggests in his book, ‘The Religious Crisis Of The 1960s’ “common to almost all writing on the religious history of the 1960s is a sense that something very important did happen to religious beliefs. In the 1950s, the majority of the population were, at least nominally, affiliated to one of the Christian denominations. By the end of the period, the kaleidoscope had been vigorously shaken: the range of practically available alternative systems of belief had widened”.
Above: The bells are ringing in 'The Abominable Snowmen'
The Abominable Snowmen situates itself at the nexus of this crisis. Its subtext concerns the development of alternative belief systems here in the UK, first seen in the successful founding of Tibetan Buddhist temples and centres in England and Scotland. This was also taking place against the background of the Cultural Revolution in China, which had been particularly devastating to minority cultures such as those in Tibet, with the destruction of 6000 monasteries and the Dalai Lama’s exodus to India. In this light, is it too much of a stretch to note that The Great Intelligence, possessing humans to do its bidding and using an army of robots to maintain order, symbolises the corrosive effect of Chinese Communism on its own cultures and religions of enlightenment and acts as a palpable threat to Western democracy? This force strives for physical existence through expanding its mental powers, or brainwashing by any other name, to dominate the Earth. The Doctor’s symbolic position is clear: he is the keeper of the Holy Ghanta bell, a symbol of the feminine power of nature according to Buddhist beliefs, and is therefore the story’s prime force for balance and restoration. He recognises the Yeti as robots as opposed to the shy, human fearing creatures that live on the mountain. He knows the true nature of the now possessed Padmasambhava, having previously visited the monastery in 1630. He represents the marriage between Western and Eastern philosophies and alleviates some of the general public’s natural fears of the counter-culture’s embracing of Eastern philosophies in England at the time.
The Abominable Snowmen not only reflects the expansion of Eastern religious philosophies in the West but it also situates the Doctor’s own journey within the ‘hippy narrative’ of the 1960s. This narrative, broadening the spiritual landscape beyond the Judeo Christian, included such texts as the 'I-Ching' and 'The Tibetan Book Of The Dead'. Timothy Leary’s ‘translation’ of the latter, written in 1964, positioned the text within the psychedelic experience of experimenting with drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD. A key text, embraced by the counter culture movement and that has certain parallels with the narrative of Doctor Who itself, is Hermann Hesse’s 'Siddhartha', the story of the lifelong quest of a man who leaves a life of relative privilege as a member of the Brahmin caste. Like the hippies, the Doctor, as we later discover at the end of Troughton’s era, was himself a child of the ruling class, the Time Lords. This makes his own Siddharthian rejection of the privileges of his own class all the more significant in this reading of the series development in the mid 1960s, providing a key to understanding the inner, spiritual disquiet that leads the Doctor, and his hippie equivalents in the 1960s, to reject the trappings of their affluence and to supposedly seek a higher peace.
Back to Part One
More in Part Three
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who Season Five Patrick Troughton psychedelia 1960s