CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Season 13 / 'Gothic Who' Part 1

Once again I've been asked to throw a few ideas around about classic Doctor Who for that august publication Celestial Toyroom, the publication of choice for all Doctor Who Appreciation Society members. To coincide with the launch of the new series they've had the decorators in and spruced up their own website so why not pop over or, better still, join. Once again, thanks to editor Tony Jordan for letting my self-indulgence get into print!

For issue 384, the cover of which is an homage to the Virgin Missing Adventures, I've been let loose on Season 13 of the original series. Yep, the 'Gothic' one. So, without further ado here's:

Season 13: Gothic Who
Part 1 / The Gothic continuum

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Gothic broadcasting policy
With the transmission of Terror Of The Zygons in August and September 1975 and the subsequent run of stories in Season 13, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his script editor Robert Holmes completed their transformation of Doctor Who. They had swept aside the modernising period overseen by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, where the series had reflected and popularised many contemporary social and political concerns of the early 1970s in its storylines, and had turned instead to Grand Guignol adventure stories, to a pastiche of familiar ‘ripping yarns’ within the science fiction and horror genres, to perfect a sustained run of stories that have often been labelled as ‘Gothic’ by fandom.

The truncating of the previous season to 20 weeks then held over the four episodes of Terror Of The Zygons that were completed for Season 12. The story commenced the next season in August rather than January and indicated that current producer Philip Hinchcliffe not only wanted to demarcate his episodes from those of Letts and Dicks but wanted to return the series to a late summer start as opposed to a New Year one. Psychologically, it meant that most episodes would be transmitted during the long winter evenings deemed more suitable for telling darker, Gothic stories and strategically they would also be shown during a period when more people would be watching television. This policy, combined with the emphasis on the Gothic adventure story that Robert Holmes was keen to develop, ensured that between the period of 1974 and 1976 the series attracted huge audiences and developed a distinctly adult flavour.

The Hinchcliffe and Holmes partnership used a wide range of Gothic characteristics to define their era. English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, is generally credited with originating the genre. Gothic fiction offered a ‘pleasant terror’, extended the Romantic literary form, supplementing it with melodrama and parody, even self-parody (something that Holmes would exploit), that embodied extreme emotion, the vicarious thrills of fearfulness, atmosphere and an appreciation of the sublime (Edmund Burke described the sublime as anything that “is productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling” – and by example the co-existence of terror, pain and delight). The Gothic style is full of blasted landscapes, decaying buildings, psychological and physical torture, doubles, secrets and curses. The style used extremes of the mysterious and fantastic that David Punter in The Literature Of Terror: A History Of Gothic Fictions, in part, summarises as: “an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense”.

Doctor Who at this time was not an isolated example of how the Gothic genre was being expressed on television. Season 13, with its surface narratives full of castles, threatening jungles, monsters and mummies, linked directly into the contemporary popularisation of the form as well as a British televisual legacy that had already explored the same genre tropes. Just before the transmission of The Brain Of Morbius the BBC had aired their annual Ghost Story For Christmas ‘The Ash Tree’ in December 1975, a striking version of the M.R. James story, but even that tradition stretched back to the first adaptation ‘The Stalls Of Barchester’ in 1971. Bearing this in mind, Doctor Who’s penchant for mixing science fiction and the Gothic sat within a continuum of similar programmes, acknowledging such anthology series as Out Of The Unknown (BBC 1965 - 1971) and Late Night Horror (BBC 1968).

A key influence on the Hinchcliffe and Holmes approach to the Gothic would also have been Mystery And Imagination (ABC/Thames 1968 – 1970) with its very modern approach to adapting Stoker, Le Fanu, Stevenson and Shelley. Further to these influences were the children’s supernatural anthology Shadows (ITV 1975), various plays - including a much regarded ‘Play Of The Month’ adaptation of The Picture Of Dorian Gray (BBC 1976) - and the later Supernatural (BBC 1977) horror anthology series and, probably the zenith of the BBC’s infatuation with the Gothic, their prestigious adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (as 1977’s highly acclaimed Count Dracula) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1981).

Both the BBC and ITV also regularly scheduled seasons of classic horror and science fiction films during the period of 1975-1977, perhaps introducing and augmenting the young viewer’s experience of Doctor Who’s Gothic stories with choice selections from, amongst others, the Universal, AIP and Hammer archives. In 1975, as Terror Of The Zygons began transmission a season of fantastic films, stretching from August to September on BBC2, was already underway and included The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Quatermass 2 (1957), The Tell Tale Heart (1963), The Premature Burial (1961) This Island Earth (1955), Barbarella (1968) The Cat and the Canary (1939) The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Similarly, when The Masque Of Mandragora went out in September 1976 on two Saturday late evenings you could indulge in double bills of The Mad Genius (1931) The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Walking Dead (1936) and Dracula - Prince Of Darkness (1966).

The bohemian masochist
As Season 13 unfolded, where was the figure of the Doctor located in the Hinchcliffe and Holmes Gothic pastiche? The Doctor was reinstated as alien outcast in this period – moving away from the avuncular, patriarchal father figure of Pertwee - and became a figure representative of the Gothic novel’s tragic outsider, at odds with himself, society and the cosmos. He reassumed the form of outlaw, undergoing a Romantic metamorphosis into the Shelleyan and Byronic hero. The series returned to the central idea of the Doctor as the outcast-hero, expelled from the Gallifrey of his childhood, an alienated misfit. As a truly Byronic figure the Doctor defined his own moral code, defied the oppressive authority of his enemies through his self-sufficiency and independence and often through his egotistical sense of his own superiority.

He became Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer, yearning for a place in society but doomed never to find it. This was elegantly summarised by Holmes in the opening scene of Part One of Pyramids Of Mars, where the Doctor gloomily proclaims to Sarah, "The Earth isn't my home, Sarah. I'm a Time Lord." After she mockingly acknowledges his status, he retorts to her, "You don't understand the implications. I'm not a human being. I walk in eternity."

Having the Doctor positioned within the Gothic and the Byronic subtext of the wandering hero, he also helped to demarcate and then repeat an underlying theme of the Gothic - the destabilising paranoia that threatens to reveal and perplex, via the use of the supernatural or the fantastic, social and "natural" distinctions concerning masculinity and male sexuality to produce multiple, often contradictory, identifications. It is an aspect of the Gothic that is rarely explored in relation to Season 13 and develops from the idea of the Doctor representing the male English ‘aristocrat’, a common Gothic symbol of confused masculinity and sexuality, where the Gothic also suggests a Victorian repression coupled with lurid "secret" lives - the fear of sexuality on the one hand and the struggle for sexual expression on the other - nurtured and given strength in the castles and subterranean vaults which the Gothic style popularised. Whilst the Doctor never demonstrated his own sexuality in Season 13, his presence does act as a catalyst to unearthing the troubling forms of masculinity and sexual aggression present in the adventures.

The Doctor as the locus for masochism and sadism in the narratives could be offered as an underlying proposition in Season 13. He is attacked and tortured by the monstrous and the alien or often, in acts of self sacrifice, submits to painful processes to recover information, effect an escape or accelerate the destruction of the threat. Whilst we have witnessed scenes of the Doctor interrogated and tortured before, most notably in a truly physical sense in the Pertwee era, these sequences became more prominent during the Hinchcliffe productions, conferring upon them a potential masochism on the Doctor’s part, where he must endure and, perhaps even gain pleasure or humiliation, from self-inflicted pain and trauma.

The reverse of this relationship was the increased sadism on the part of those wishing to harm the Doctor. The aliens and evil humans seemed to gain gratification by inflicting physical or mental pain on him and other characters. There was a palpable delight in torment or excessive cruelty from the monstrous foes and Season 13 specifically utilised the motifs of sadism, helplessness, and human destruction. It is an aspect of power that formed a significant feature of Gothic art and literature and as American critic Mark Edmundson says, "You cannot have Gothic without a cruel hero-villain; without a cringing victim; and without a terrible place…in which the drama can unfold".

And the drama unfolded in the form of six serials which I'll now examine.

Forward to Part 2: Tentacles and penetration
Forward to Part 3: Pyramid Power
Forward to Part 4: Brains and Byronic androids
Forward to Part 5: The Mary Whitehouse experience

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