CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Season 13 / 'Gothic Who' Part 5

Season 13: Gothic Who
Part 5 / The Mary Whitehouse experience
(c) 2010 Frank Collins. If you wish to quote from this article please ask the author's permission. If you'd like to commission the author please email via the blog.

In my green cathedral: The Seeds Of Doom

Just who was Harrison Chase? The general consensus was that actor Tony Beckley played Doctor Who’s first gay villain. But was he? In looking at the way the Gothic genre evokes disruptive gender forms then Chase has the potential to be regarded as such. He seemed to have wandered into the final story of the season via a left turn at The Italian Job. Ironically, Tony Beckley did play the character of ‘Camp Freddie’ in Peter Collinson’s celebrated British caper movie and was often seen playing the suave villain in a range of films and television shows, including Get Carter, Callan and Special Branch. It is this notion of 'camp' that Beckley plays upon in his performance in the story and which also draws the story into notions of 'camp' where it is typically read as ‘theatrical’, ‘hyperbolical’ or ‘artificial' that initially offers that Chase's sexuality is subject to scrutiny.

However, in the Gothic, a more contemporary reading of camp is offered that uses queer theory to question the naturality and authenticity of gender. Rather than read Chase as 'gay' we should read him as a disturbing figure that epitomises Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s own definition of queer where it is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”. Chase's 'queer' body and behaviour make his identity ambiguous and resistant to categorisation or, for some, even definition. This is further compounded by his eventual possession by the Krynoid where his body is enmeshed and overlaid within an anxiety about seeing and understanding the creature's own body (itself generated from his assistant Keeler). He provokes a crisis of reading in the unstable relationship between himself, Keeler and the Krynoid, between the genders of both man and alien creature. 

As well as featuring a contemporary queer reading of Chase (one which could equally be applied to Morbius, Sorenson and Sutkeh) The Seeds Of Doom, no doubt a clever pastiche on The Thing From Another World and The Day Of The Triffids, is dominated by a series of male and female characters that emulate the Wildean double identities of both The Importance Of Being Earnest and The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Wilde espoused the doctrine of "art for art's sake" by seeking to subordinate moral, political, and social concerns in art to matters of aesthetic value. To socialism's cult of the masses, he proposed a cult of the individual; and in opposition to what he saw as the middle-class fa├žade of false respectability, he encouraged a struggle to realise one's true nature. Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is typically considered one of the defining literary works of the Decadent movement and also features numerous Gothic themes and techniques as it details in elaborate, ornamental prose the moral degeneration of its morbidly narcissistic protagonist.

If Harrison Chase can be codified both as 'queer' and 'camp' then this binary ambiguity is part of his amorality as a decadent aesthete. Writer Robert Banks Stewart aligned the character’s love of plant life to an appreciation of art with the inclusion of the scenes between Chase and artist Amelia Ducat and in a later scene where Sarah and the Doctor track Chase down through a painting (‘I camped out on the Chilterns night after night to catch it at sunrise’ says Ducat rather knowingly) found in his henchman’s car. This featured a direct parody of The Importance Of Being Earnest where the Doctor meets Ducat (‘We found it in a car boot. A Daimler car boot,’ admits the Doctor. ‘The car is immaterial’, responds Ducat). Therefore Chase, like Dorian Gray, can be read, along with ideas of 'camp' and 'queer' identity, as the epitome of the Gothic villain aesthete, depicting regressive tendencies through his extreme narcissism, a decadent Gothic subject whose wealth, intellect and artifice is the wellspring of horror in the story.

Banks Stewart used the character of Chase to show the shallowness of his aestheticism, embodied in a drive for perfectionism, that failed to recognise the need for a human conscience and positioned him thus in contrast to his henchman, Scorby. The discourse of masculinity featuring Scorby and Chase was bound up with capitalist acquisition in the story, with Chase’s dandy aestheticism contrasted with Scorby’s manly, violent mercenary where the only crossover lay in their desire of money and the Krynoid (‘I have sent my most efficient man’, claims Chase of Scorby in recovering the Krynoid pod). Beyond the dandy dualism of Chase and the Doctor, the other male relationship - between Scorby and botanist Keeler, in the first two episodes - symbolically played out the pathological psyche of the mercenary and the feminised conscience of scientific enquiry as they went to hunt down the pod.

One of the more troubling disruptions in the serial is the Doctor’s repositioning as atypical action hero, thumping Chase’s chauffeur, engaging in fisticuffs with Scorby and leaping through a window to rescue Sarah. This seeming paradox is echoed in the Gothic depiction of the disruptive hero-villain and the Doctor here reflects the ice and fire of Maturin’s Melmoth, suggesting he has become an anti-hero momentarily, a tension between ego and id. Perhaps Banks Stewart was proposing that the Doctor is only a figure capable of embodying these contradictions because of the human society that surrounds him, one where the apparently enlightened world is corrupted by the likes of Chase, Dunbar and Scorby.

The Seeds Of Doom also reinforced many of the themes of the monstrous that informed The Brain Of Morbius. Instead of the constructed monster, here the monstrous Other infected and colonised human beings. The multi-faceted figure of the Krynoid, once it has absorbed its human hosts and possessed Harrison Chase, suggests that thoughts, emotions, fantasies and fears are not incorporeal and ethereal states but rather living entities affected deeply by the bodies they inhabit and influence. The Gothic monster was a subversive force threatening to undo the socio-ethical fabric around it and revealed as much about Chase and Scorby in their mental and moral bankruptcy and dissipation. As in all of Doctor Who’s use of the monstrous, the Krynoid underlined the series’ role in the evocation and exorcism of fear, alerted us to our vulnerability and embodied the Gothic ethos of excess, disorder and physical and psychological disturbance.

The final serial of Season 13 completes Holmes and Hinchcliffe's repositioning of Doctor Who, where it uses the formulaic tropes of the Gothic adventure to widely reflect on ideas of the self, identity, queerness, the sublime, violence and body-horror. It offered Holmes a way of particularly subverting the series' storytelling and, as Max Fincher demonstrates in The Gothic As Camp, "filling it with symbols that initially we interpret as real, natural and masculine/feminine but then turn out to be false, supernatural or feminine/masculine; they become inverted". Fincher's reading of 'camp' also suggests that the season is a "twisted discourse of improvised and stylized performances", a fluid parade of settings that change before our eyes and places where the supernatural and horror work as "a metaphor for deconstructing the natural behaviours of their characters including sex/gender roles and desires".

Hammer, Censorship, Doctor Who and Mary Whitehouse
The oft-recited mantra about Season 13 is that it was an obvious pastiche of the Eastmancolour Hammer horror films of the early 1960s. However, the season went beyond mere pastiche as we've seen and embraced a deliberate strategy of quite another kind.

One of the noticeable effects of the Holmes and Hinchcliffe penchant for the Gothic were the ways the series dealt with visualising horror and the critical consequences of displaying more overt violence and body horror. Much as Hammer’s heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s used their horror film output to subvert the censorship restrictions imposed by the British horror comics campaign and the BBFC, the production team of Doctor Who took the risk of injecting the family orientated series with darker, adult thrills as part of their policy of extending the appeal of the series to the older teenage audience.

The British horror comics campaign in the 1950s and 1960s, effectively banned the importation of American horror comics because they were seen as ‘full of sadistic violence, horrific obsession with death and lustful representations of women.’ Campaigns in the UK and in America established new moral value codes and censorship restrictions limiting what forms of entertainment the public could legally consume.

Whilst this campaign raged Hammer was continually attempting to push the envelope as far as they could with the depiction of violence, gore and disfigurement and yet stay within the guidelines of the X certificate. The X certificate was introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1951, following the recommendations of the Wheare Committee report. It replaced and extended the remit of the H certificate, which largely covered horror films.

Hammer voluntarily submitted its scripts to the British Board of Film Censors for comments before beginning production. Regarding the script of X - the Unknown, one reader/examiner (Audrey Field) commented:

"Well, no one can say the customers won't have had their money's worth by now. In fact, someone will almost certainly have been sick. We must have a great deal more restraint, and much more done by onlookers' reactions instead of by shots of 'pulsating obscenity', hideous scars, hideous sightless faces, etc, etc. It is keeping on and on in the same vein that makes this script so outrageous.”

Whilst the censorship of sex and violence in films eventually relaxed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what was permissible on television was still open to debate. Doctor Who, under the auspices of Holmes and Hinchcliffe pushed at the limitations of what would be acceptable within a family series and, like Hammer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the production team were heavily criticised for it. Holmes and Hinchcliffe must also have been aware of the raging censorship battle between the BBFC and local authorities in the 1970s. The BBFC had passed both The Exorcist and Last Tango In Paris with X certificates but many local authorities effectively banned them. It was also quite possible to locate these changes in Doctor Who with the wider problems caused by other television programmes made within the, as then perceived, leftist BBC, with the bans inflicted on Roy Minton’s Scum and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone And Treacle.

As the series' popularity hit new heights, Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers And Listeners Association (NVALA), a self-appointed media watchdog, waded in with comments of a very similar nature to the BBFC’s Audrey Field, regarding the censorship of Hammer horror films of some twenty odd years previous. Here, Whitehouse specifically criticised both The Seeds Of Doom and Season 14’s The Deadly Assassin.

“The programme contains some of the sickest and most horrific material ever seen on children’s television, but no-one has to take my word that such material is likely to disturb. For young children, even a week may be too long to wait for reassurance that the characters with whom they identify are safe. Doctor Who has turned into tea-time brutality for tots."

"My personal reaction to the sight of the Doctor being viciously throttled underwater is unimportant. What’s important is the effect of such material – especially in a modern setting – upon the very young children still likely to be watching. Strangulation – by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter – is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close-up so that they get the point. And, just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail.”

Whilst the production team likely rubbed their hands with glee in the knowledge that any criticism of the show’s violence and horror would bump up the viewing figures, Whitehouse’s critical offensive was instrumental in the break-up of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes production team. She was also successful in squeezing an apology from BBC Director General Sir Charles Curran and the BBC went as far as editing the master tape of The Deadly Assassin to remove the sequence. There were also growing criticisms of the left wing bias at the BBC which would then intensify when Margaret Thatcher swept into power in 1979. As a result, the series underwent a distinct change of direction under the helm of producers Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner and the Gothic horror content was gradually reduced.

Back to Part 1: The Gothic continuum
Back to Part 2: Tentacles and penetration
Back to Part 3: Pyramid Power
Back to Part 4: Brains and Byronic androids

  • The Gothic - Punter, David & Byron, Glenys
  • The Literature Of Terror: A History Of Gothic Fictions - Punter, David
  • Nightmare On Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism and the Culture Of Gothic - Edmundson, Mark
  • Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Culture - Caputi, Jane
  • The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction - Haggerty, George
  • Queer Gothic - Haggerty, George
  • The Epistemology Of The Closet - Kosofsky-Sedgwick, Eve
  • Gothic Television - Helen Wheatley
  • Empire and the Gothic: the politics of genre - Smith, Andrew & Hughes, William
  • Gothic masculinity: Effeminacy and the supernatural in English and German Romanticism - Brinks, Ellen
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