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“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

The archetypal Hinchcliffe era story involves the Doctor encountering a sinister and seemingly supernatural set of circumstances that is inevitably traced back to a threat that was actually defeated long ago. The resurrection of this threat is treated as a rejection of the natural order of things, something inherently monstrous and grotesque. There are any number of examples of this trope from the three seasons.

In Pyramids of Mars, the alien Sutekh is the last of the Osirans, a mad dictator who “destroyed his own planet, Phaester Osiris, and left a trail of havoc across half the galaxy.” He was imprisoned on Mars seven thousand years before the events of the story, but plots his escape. Morbius from The Brain of Morbius is described as “one of the most despicable criminally minded wretches that ever lived.” He was executed by the Time Lords for inhuman experiments, “his body was placed in a dispersal chamber and atomised to the nine corners of the universe.” Naturally, it didn’t stick.

In The Hand of Fear, the alien dictator Eldrad seeks to restore his dictatorship by reconstructing himself from a severed hand that is unearthed in a quarry. In the final season, the show begins to play with this format. The Deadly Assassin positions the Master as that resurfacing threat, emerging from the show’s own internal history after a four-year absence as a scarred monster. The Face of Evil positions the Doctor himself as a returning evil, revisiting a society that he accidentally warped generations earlier.

Indeed, the era arguably climaxes by taking this idea to its logical extreme with Magnus Grell in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Grell is not a threat from the past, but a threat from the future. He is a refugee from “a scientific dark age” who will yet be “the Butcher of Brisbane.” He retreated into the past with “the Peking Homunculus”, a monstrous creation that almost started “World War VI.” This is the ghost of a nightmare that has not yet happened, a vanquished foe that has not yet risen let along been toppled.

Of course, there are any number of reasons why this template might have appealed to Hinchcliffe and Holmes. On a practical level, this set-up allowed for Doctor Who to tell stories with an epic sweep on the modest BBC budget afforded them. It didn’t matter that Morbius was hanging out on a single soundstage, because the character was clearly meant to be at his lowest ebb. These stories could feel like part of larger-than-life sagas, but within the trappings of a British family science-fiction show produced in the mid-seventies.

It’s notable that so much of the Hinchcliffe era ended up being folded into the revival’s narrative of “the Last Great Time War.” The Doctor’s attempt to meddle in Dalek history in Genesis of the Daleks was reworked by Russell T. Davies as one of the opening shots of the conflict. In The Day of the Doctor, Steven Moffat retroactively folded the destruction of the Zygon homeworld in Terror of the Zygons into the narrative of the Time War.

The Hinchcliffe era employs the narrative logic of “the war in heaven”, referencing conflicts so large and so harrowing that they can cannot be shown on screen – which is pretty convenient when operating on the production budget of Doctor Who. Russell T. Davies would essentially treat “the Last Great Time War” as the ultimate extrapolation of these sorts of back stories, hinting at a level of spectacle that is certainly beyond the BBC’s budget and perhaps beyond the human boundaries of perception.

It also added an instant level of threat and danger to the stories. What better way to establish these monsters as credible opponents to the Doctor – who had been travelling around the cosmos toppling despots and embarrassing villains for over a decade at this point – then to suggest that these fiends had already won in the past? In most of these cases, the villains were only toppled when an entirely civilisation rose up against them, which raises the stakes when they come up against a single travelling Time Lord and his human companion.

However, rewatching these stories today, it is interesting how many of these resurrected monsters are framed in explicitly totalitarian terms. In The Hand of Fear, Eldrad is vanquished by his people because he longed for them to become “masters of the galaxy.” There are hints of eugenics in Eldrad’s plans to resurrect his people using “the race bank” to build “a whole new race of Kastrians.” Most unsettling, however, is the way in which Eldrad warps the minds of those who serve him, how his ring “affects the will of people who’ve been in contact with it.”

Sarah Jane falls under the influence of Eldrad in The Hand of Fear. She conspires to resurrect him. At certain points in the story, she raises her hand is what is fairly overtly a fascist salute. She repeats the mantra “Eldrad must live” while locking the hand inside a nuclear power station where it might feed on nuclear energy. When the Doctor tries to reason with her, she replies, “There’s nothing more to say because Eldrad must live.” The script makes note of Sarah Jane’s youthfulness and status as a child, with one character describing her as looking “just like Andy Pandy.”

The horror of abuse of power haunts these stories, often framed in such a way as to evoke the cultural memory of the Second World War. In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Doctor recognises Magnus Grell as “the infamous Minister of Justice”, suggesting he operated as part of a state machine. In The Brain of Morbius, the eponymous villain was accused of conducting “unnatural experiments.”

Even outside of these particular stories, the Hinchcliffe era keeps coming back to the spectre of Nazism. This is obvious even in The Ark in Space, which both introduces the concept of a long-dormant threat and inverts the dynamic, by focusing on a newly-revived humanity that has become prey for the Wirrn. The resurrected human specimens on the eponymous space station are obvious the audience identification characters, but the script is deliberately and pointedly unsettling in its portrayal of them – down to their description of the world as “purified by flame.”

The human survivors are obsessed with genetic purity. “Noah will not permit contamination of the genetic pool,” Vira warns Harry. “All regressive transmitters have been eliminated.” This seems like a very polite way of arguing in favour of eugenics. Indeed, there’s something decidedly unsettling in their categorisation of Harry Sullivan as “a regressive”, as if implying that he is an evolutionary dead end. Elizabeth Sandifer has quite astutely identified the aesthetics of the The Ark in Space as fascist in nature, down to the presentation of the Wirrn as vermin to be eliminated.

At the same time, even if The Ark in Space doesn’t directly acknowledge this, there is a strong sense that it reflects the fear that human history bends towards totalitarianism. It is too much to describe the Wirrn as sympathetic, given how they are portrayed and how monstrous their lifecycle is, but there is perhaps something in the revelation that this monstrous clash between human and Wirrn only arose because of humanity’s destruction of the Wirrn “breeding colonies.”

Indeed, it’s heavily implied that Wirrn inherited their monstrous ambition from their human hosts. “Now we shall use the humans in the cryogenic chamber,” the monster boasts. “We shall be informed with all human knowledge. In one generation, the Wirrn will become an advanced technological species. We shall have power!” Thanks to its feeding on Technicial Dune, the creature claims to have knowledge of “high energy physics, quantum mechanics” and that every subsequent Wirrn will “possess the sum of your race’s learning.”

It’s too generous to suggest that The Ark in Space is a story where humanity is the true monster, but it is unsettling in that larger context of the Hinchcliffe era because it puts humanity in the position of the archetypal Hinchcliffe era monster by presenting them as a reawakening fascist threat that will not tolerate “regressives” and which wipes out entirespecies because they do not conform to humanity’s expectations. There is something monstrous in this, in the idea that humanity might end up embracing a fascist world view after fighting so hard to defeat Nazi Germany.

This fear of resurgent fascism bubbles through Genesis of the Daleks. As the title implies, it is a story that reinvents the Doctor’s iconic nemesis. It does this by taking the Daleks back their roots and showing their origin story. It also overtly ties the Daleks back to fascism, in keeping with how creator Terry Nation had originally envisaged the mutants. When introduced in the William Hartnell era, the Daleks represented the very real fear of Nazi Germany, which was within living memory for a large portion of the audience.

After all, The Dalek Invasion of Earth wasn’t really about the nightmare of Earth being invaded by a bunch of fictional aliens. It played out the nightmare of Nazi occupation of Great Britain. It offered a glimpse into the alternate world where the totalitarians had actually managed to invade the Island Fortress and imposed fascism on the nation. The unsettling horror of The Dalek Invasion of Earth was the imagery of monsters giving fascist salutes near British landmarks. (A fear that apparent has less currency today than it did fifty years ago.)

However, in the intervening years, the Daleks had gradually drifted away from that original intent. The Daleks had largely just become part of the iconography of Doctor Who. Indeed, they were as much a star as the spin-off out-of-continuity movies as Peter Cushing himself. Terry Nation contributed to this sense of disconnect by trying to sell the Daleks independently. This led to a number of long absences from Doctor Who, which in turn served to make the Daleks more popular while also further removing them from their original context.

The Daleks actually appeared three times during the previous era of the show, overseen by Letts and Dicks. They were grafted into The Day of the Daleks at the last minute, which is perhaps an underappreciated Dalek story largely because it’s more of a story with Daleks in it. However, the Daleks failed to make much of an impact in Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks, two lowlights of Jon Pertwee’s final two seasons in the role. Genesis of the Daleks arrived only a year after Death to the Daleks, and served as a soft reboot of the concept.

Genesis of the Daleks reaffirmed the link between the Daleks and Nazism. It also introduced the character of Davros, the mad genius who created the Daleks and who seemed to owe more than a slight debt to the eponymous character from Doctor Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s notable that Strangelove himself was something of a relic of fascism, a former Nazi who had most likely been recruited by the United States as part of something like Operation Paperclip and placed in the heart of American national security.

Genesis of the Daleks offers its own twist on that Hinchcliffe era template of a resurrected threat. Within the world of the show, this represents a reinvention of the Daleks. Although they had appeared only the previous season, it was journeying back to their origins in a way that connected with The Daleks from twelve years prior. More than that, the episode ends with the Doctor effectively opting to delay the Daleks rather than destroy them, to set back their evolution by “perhaps a thousand years.” He turns them into a threat that will emerge from the past, eventually.

This recurring fascination with the resurrection or revival of fascism across the Hinchcliffe era is interesting in the context of contemporary politics. Neo-Nazism was an emerging force, which was understandably unsettling to a generation that still remembered the horrors of the Second World War. During the decade, there were reports of public clashes involving Neo-Nazi activists in countries like Spain and the United States. In Italy, neo-fascism was “almost reputable.” George Rockwell had even attempted to start a Nazi party within the United States.

Britain was not immune to this resurrected threat. During the late sixties, Enoch Powell had articulated a particularly unsettling strand of British political thought with his “rivers of blood” speech, which uncomfortably echoes through the “base under siege” era of Doctor Who and its insistence on the fact that “some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things” that “must be fought” when they encroach into human spaces.

By the seventies, things were more heated. In 1974, there was a minor controversy over the planned appointment of General Saad el-Shazly as Egyptian Ambassador to Britain, given his past involvement with British Neo-Nazis. The National Front was emerging as a potent force in British politics, often clashing with demonstrators. Racism was a common experience for minorities. It inevitably spilled over into culture. In 1978, Eric Clapton would give a racist speech at a concert in Birmingham. David Bowie flirted with fascism in the middle of the decade.

While the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era never engages with this idea directly, it does bubble through the era. The reawakened threat is almost always defined in terms that evoke the horror of the Second World War: eugenics, genocide, dictatorship, human experimentation, indoctrination. It’s impossible to fathom how seismic an event the Second World War had been, the scars that it left on the national psyche. The fundamental horror of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era is the worry that the threat of fascism has not been vanquished, simply that it lies dormant.

Indeed, a direct result of this classic template of an old evil reawakening is the simple narrative mechanic that these ancient monsters are often reliant on followers and servants in order to manifest their will upon reality. The villains of these sorts of stories are often close to abstractions, as much ideas as physical threats. As such, they work well as metaphors for fascism, occasionally becoming literal ideas manifested into reality by the mortals who serve them.

Namin is Sutekh’s servant on Earth in Pyramids of Mars. Solon devotes his life to the service of Morbius in Brain of Morbius. Hieronymous serves the Mandragora in The Masque of Mandragora. Sarah Jane and other characters find their will overridden by Eldrad in The Hand of Fear. Goth enables the Master in The Deadly Assassin, driven by his lust for power. Even Li H’sen Chang enacts the will of Magnus Grell in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

These followers commit to these ancient evils for a variety of reasons. Chang, Namin and Hieronymous seem to have a religious awe for their masters, treating their devotion as something of a cult-like following. Both the Mandragora and Eldrad are capable of hypnotising and brainwashing people like Sarah Jane, forcing them to submit to their wills. Other devotees have have more cynical motivations; Hieronymous is promised control of Earth, while Goth is assured the High Chancellorship on Gallifrey.

These dynamics are interesting of themselves, and help to contextualise these reawakened threats. It’s an aspect of the Hinchcliffe era that has aged remarkably well in the decades since these stories were originally broadcast. A lot of the fears and anxieties that simmer through these three seasons are as relevant today as they were when the serials were originally broadcast. It helps that Hinchcliffe and Holmes tend to approach these ideas abstractly, treating them not as simple allegories or metaphor, but as existential horror. They represent a threat to the fabric of reality itself.

The real horror that runs through the Hinchcliffe is the far that reality itself has become undone. Insanity and identity crises are a major recurring element as characters struggle to properly process the reality of the situation in which they are placed. Although the underlying mythology of the show is that of science-fiction, the language is often that of horror. This era of Doctor Who often looks and feels more like a horror movie than a science-fiction series, even in stories set against the distant future.

The version of Skaro presented in The Genesis of the Daleks feels more like a dreamscape than an actual place, with figures emerging from the fog holding anachronistic weapons and strange Time Lords just standing in the mist ready to deliver exposition. The anti-matter universe of Planet of Evil makes absolutely no sense in terms of basic physics, but that’s the point. It is so unsettling because it represents a rejection of the logic by which these stories are supposed to operate.

The stakes in The Masque of Mandragora are framed in those terms. The threat posed by the Mandragora is effectively to erase science and logic from the world. It strikes during the fifteenth century, in the space between “the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason.” When Sarah Jane jokes about the uselessness of astrology, the Doctor gravely warns her of the stakes, that under the Mandragora, “all this could become man’s only science.” After all, the Mandragora “doesn’t conquer in the physical sense.” It is a more primal force, threatening to unravel reason.

The third episode of The Deadly Assassin is perhaps the best example or illustration of this approach. The Doctor ventures into the Matrix to confront the Master, but finds himself facing a series of seemingly disconnected and abstract imagery that have no underlying narrative logic – trains, clowns, hunters, surgeons. There is nothing to connect these elements, except for the fact that they are inherently scary. That’s the way in which The Deadly Assassin makes sense, an assemblage of seemingly disconnected images that are anchored in mood more than logic.

This fear of creeping insanity simmers through these years of the show. Characters are often confronted with the deliberately uncanny and unsettling. In The Android Invasion, the characters find an entire facsimile of a village has been populated with androids. The Robots of Death avoids the standard story of artificial intelligence awakening, and instead opts to focus on humanity’s experience when confronted with a simulacra of a living organism that is not actually alive.

The servants in The Robots of Death drive the humans around them mad. Zilda’s brother was so horrified that he ran out of the harvester into a storm. This is not due to any sinister plot, but simply because of the limitations of the human brain. “While these robots are humanoid, presumably for aesthetic reasons, they give no signals,” the Doctor explains. “It’s rather like being surrounded by walking, talking, dead men. It undermines a certain type of personality, causes identity crisis, paranoia, sometimes even personality disintegration.”

The Robots of Death teases the idea of a robot uprising, a classic science-fiction trope. However, the story swerves sharply in another direction. The villain of the piece is actually mad scientist Taren Capel, a man who “lived only with robots.” He has taken it upon himself to campaign for their liberation, having projected humanity on to them. However, to realise this dream, he reprogrammes them to murder. The robot uprising is nothing but a figment of his imagination. By the end of the story, Capel has truly lost his mind, even dressing and making himself up to resemble a robot.

The Hinchcliffe era suggests the gods are truly mad. Mankind is driven mad by their own creation in The Robots of Death, while the carnage in The Face of Evil is driven by an all-powerful starship computer effectively having a nervous breakdown because it cannot discern what is real and what is fake. The Doctor admits this was down to an earlier botched attempt to repair the device using a memory transfer. “When it woke, it had a complete personality. Mine. It thought I was itself. Then it began to develop another separate self, its own self. And that’s when it started to go mad.”

Xoanon wears the face of the Doctor. As “the most powerful computer ever built”, its psychological meltdown presents a very real threat to the inhabitants of the planet. The Doctor’s return only accelerates the problem. “His first impulse will be to kill me,” the Doctor replies. “I contradict what he thinks is real. I’m a threat to his world.” Later, when Xoanon is repaired, it acknowledges, “I created a world in my own image. I made your people act out my torment. I made my madness reality.”

That is perhaps the Hinchcliffe era, boiled down to its essence. It is the story of human madness manifesting itself on the universe – a nightmarish dreamscape where reason is subject to the precarious nature of human sanity. All of civilisation seems to be hovering over an abyss. The great threat that was vanquished at the end of the Second World War still looms in the darkness, ready to revive itself. The laws of reality and time bend with the force of that gravity.

That’s the true existential horror of it all. It is as haunting today as it was when it was originally broadcast in the mid-seventies.

4 Responses

  1. This is, of course, the finest era of Doctor Who. While I could makes some argument for other extremely high points (say, “The War Games” through “The Mind of Evil” or “Frontios” through “The Caves of Androzani”), I’d say the show more-or-less peaks with the largely-consistently-excellent stretch from “The Ark In Space” through “The Sunmakers”. Obviously those last four serials are technically post-Hinchcliffe/Holmes, the shadow of that era hangs heavily over them (particularly “Horror of Fang Rock”, which might be my favourite Doctor Who serial, and “Image of the Fendahl”) and they benefit from having the Doctor’s ideal companion, Leela, introduced at the end of the Hinchliffe/Holmes Era.

    The focus on [gothic] horror really worked with the program, and that era also focused the program solidly in science fiction territory, rather than a lot of the more fantasy-addled misfires that have plagued the program in the 21st century. It’s not always the most plausible science fiction, but it tended to shy away from “creatures who feed on confusion” or that sort of power-of-love bollocks that so often substitutes for good writing. The program was actively hostile to superstition. Leela says (in “Horror of Fang Rock”), “I too used to believe in magic, but the Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science.”

    As you observe, while the threat of looming fascism has never fully gone away, its representation in many of these serials makes them particularly resonant with the current cultural landscape in huge swaths of the 21st century world.

    Nice essay. It’s good to hear from someone who appreciates how excellent the old serials were even if they aren’t full of Michael Bay fast-cutting and high budget CGI effects and hamfisted Murray Gold pop tunes and love conquering all…and even if the wardrobe department insisted on putting Sarah Jane in a series of increasingly horrific outfits for three-and-a-half years. I’d rather watch “The Mind of Evil”‘s “Forbidden Planet”-evoking effects with a BBC Radiophonic Workshop score any day of the week.

    • To be fair, I do also love the revival. I think it has a lot to offer, and is a worthy continuation of Doctor Who.

      But I also think that the show’s rich history is worth of celebration and discussion, and is an essential part of what it is.

  2. There are definitely some fine episodes of NuWho. I actually wrote snarky reviews for it (mostly Series 4) back in the day on Behind the Sofa, and I probably loved about as much of it as I hated. (It benefited from being Catherine Tate’s season.) However, I find that it relies [more] heavily on dei ex machina and magic and overwhelming bombast and spectacle, rather than decent plots or characterization.

    I started reading at this blog because I was checking your generally insightful reviews/essays of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, and you mentioned frequently how they were pressured (and sometimes resisted pressure) to tone down the more serious aspects of the program to focus on the network’s teen demographic, and there are times when NuWho seems like something produced for UPN/The CW, more “Doctor Who 90210” than thinking-people’s science fiction.

    • That’s true of some of the finales, yes, but certainly not the new series as a whole.

      Davies was more focused on character than plot, but even then, “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit”, “Blink”, “Gridlock”, “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”, and “Midnight” remain some of the best science fiction television of the 21st century.

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