Science-fiction series on television often define the culture we live in at the time, and many shows serve as ‘publicity’ for the country in which they are made. Where science-fiction is often concerned with a loss of freedom and free will, these programmes allow an element of individualism to stand out, and can show how we regard other cultures and societies.
It has often been suggested that Doctor Who is ‘quintessentially British’, in fact it was the main argument used by fans against the most recent American-made television movie, which ‘couldn’t do justice’ to the show’s concept. To some extent, this was true; the show was relaunched in an attempt to bring a larger audience to it than there was before. Despite having been sold to numerous countries, Doctor Who has always built up a small fan following, but never been a major ratings success anywhere other than in the UK, although even the local audience consisted mainly of fans by its ‘end’ in 1989. In America, for instance, the show obtained a cult following, but a very scattered one, causing the poor performance of the telemovie.
The main reason behind its 30-plus successful years as the vanguard of the science-fiction genre is in its innate adaptability. The format of one man, a time machine and one or more companions is possibly the most diverse any series has come up with; the potential exists to visit any time and place almost instantaneously. There is also the regular changing of the Doctor’s appearance and character, which provides new life and new possibilities each time it occurs, while still retaining his essential goodness.
One of the show’s script editors, Robert Holmes once pointed out that “We only ever use original ideas on Doctor Who, but not necessarily our own original ideas.” Nearly all the influences on Doctor Who over the years have been from major cultural sources such as Greek legend, Roman stories or British books and ideas.
So what are the elements of ‘Doctor Who’ that have made the series ‘quintessentially British’? So many of the stories are set on Earth in England, because it is ‘the Doctor’s favourite planet’ and, apparently, country. However, the Doctor invariably lands in a ‘sleepy’ English village, which is part of the reason why the series is so successful; many of the most dramatic stories juxtapose a seemingly innocent and tranquil setting with an alien invasion or another otherworldly menace.
When filmed abroad on several occasions, the storylines always seemed to take a back seat to the scenery, as the production team tended to have to justify the expense of overseas filming by getting footage of recognisable landmarks. This means that each story where this occurred has some kind of chase sequence written in to show as many sights as possible.
A classic example of Doctor Who’s moulding into the British psyche is the 1973 story ‘The Daemons’. During the period in which Jon Pertwee’s (third) Doctor is stranded on Earth by his own people for roaming the galaxy without permission, he investigates Devil’s End, a typical English country village with a rather atypical problem relating to its unfortunate but descriptive name. Throughout the late sixties and seventies,
Although used in many series of the time, the image of a simple country community hiding something more sinister was especially popular in Doctor Who and was used regularly to unbalance the viewer. It was more scary because Devil’s End could so easily be associated with many other villages across the country. This is one area where the US cannot compete, as everything is much larger there, therefore most people know only cities.
Jon Pertwee had become well-known before ‘Doctor Who’ for appearing in comedy films and radio series such as ‘The Navy Lark’, and had decided to take the role of the Doctor completely seriously. This was another aspect that went down well with the viewers, and aided the series rise to prominence. Pertwee took the role and injected it with elements of dashing ‘Boy’s Own’ adventurers, and many aspects of the also-in-vogue James Bond. In his own words:
Indulging Pertwee’s penchant for all things electric and electronic, the Doctor got himself a ‘souped-up Edwardian roadster’ (to utilise its traditional description) called Bessie, and Pertwee himself helped design and build the Whomobile, a type of futuristic hovercraft for two people. Bond himself always has his own trademark car, (although it varies, it is always a very ‘British’ make such as a BMW), and also has numerous gadgets that he is seen to use regularly. James Bond was once described as ‘the man every man wants to be, and that every woman wants in her bed’. This was how every Englishman wanted to be; suave, debonair, sophisticated, able to escape the toughest situations with apparent ease, and a tremendous hit with women. Although the Doctor always remained sexually aloof (a fact ‘rectified’ to fans’ horror in the latest telemovie), he was still always in some way an attractive man, with admirable qualities.
With his smoking jacket and cape, Pertwee’s Doctor looked elegant and powerful; however, the cape also enabled him to look protective of his companions with its ability to wrap around them. Many of the Doctor’s quirks are also stereotypically very English; his love of tea and later jelly babies; his disrespect for those in authority, and his innate superiority complex (although in the Doctor’s case, it was probably well-deserved). Another aspect of the show was the absence of violence on the part of the ‘good guys’. Where most US shows were providing gun-toting heroes, the Doctor always refused to use weapons; even his violence was blood-free and not deadly. In fact, it was Pertwee’s idea to use ‘Venusian Aikido’ when the need arose to fight. In the recent telemovie, on obtaining a gun, the Doctor threatens to shoot himself rather than anyone else to get what he wants.
Returning to ‘The Daemons’, it also features the Doctor’s arch-enemy The Master, posing as a vicar. The Master was created as the Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Moriarty to his Holmes. Another very British type of character, Holmes had much in common with the Doctor: intellectual, instinctive, patronising to authority figures, fond of the simple pleasures in life such as a cup of tea and music and at times barely aware of the world around him. The Master was, like Moriarty, suave, well-dressed, extremely intelligent, a master criminal who could charm people to his way of thinking and from a similar background to the Doctor.
Also featured in this story are the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (or U.N.I.T.). A band of soldiers created after a Cyberman invasion that the second Doctor stopped, they take on alien threats to Earth with varying degrees of efficiency. Their leader is Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart; a classic British character in the mould of Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. Complete with double-barrelled surname, public school education, and stiff upper lip, the Brigadier is the archetype of soldiering, and has many run-ins with the Doctor due to his insistence on shooting first and asking questions later. This, along with his ability to remain calm in any situation is amply demonstrated in The Daemons when he is confronted by an animated gargoyle and delivers his most famous line to a nearby soldier: “Chap with wings. Five rounds rapid.”
Although it baffled elements of the American populace, there are many people who appreciate Doctor Who precisely because it is British. We have only to look at the amazing success of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ to confirm this. Two middle-aged women staggering about permanently drunk was immensely popular in America, where their characters tend to be upright citizens who never misbehave. A science-fiction show that went down extremely well stateside was ‘Red Dwarf’. In a country where every sitcom is filled with beautiful people (or at least, successful people), this was a breath of fresh air. There was Lister, an unhygienic Liverpudlian; Rimmer, a loathsome dead man who only cares about himself; the Cat, a vain, shallow, selfish creature, just like a real cat; and Kryten, a manic mechanoid trying to learn how to lie, cheat and be unpleasant because “they’re the human traits I admire the most”. The series proved how rooted in British culture it was when a US company decided to create their own version, vaguely using the UK pilot episode. However, they felt it needed some changes: the Cat became female, Rimmer was made more likeable, and Lister was turned into a hero who could (and did) get the girl, a total reversal of our version:
These kinds of radical changes in the characters removed many of their motivations for their behaviour. The network were surprised when their version of ‘Red Dwarf’ flopped miserably; they couldn’t understand what they had done wrong. Removing all the nastiness and backbiting from the show made it no different to anything else on US television, while the viewers wanted ‘our’ ‘Red Dwarf’, not a sugary ‘Happy Families’ version. The networks didn’t realise that the show’s popularity came from conflict, not peaceful co-habitation.
In a similar way to ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Star Trek’ is a much loved institution in its country of origin, but has a relatively small viewing audience over here. In America, it is known by many programme makers as ‘The Franchise’ due to the astonishing size of the industry that exists around it these days. However, it was the adventures of Captain Kirk and the original crew that inspired the deluge to come. Never extremely popular in any of its first-run three seasons and narrowly saved from cancellation twice, ‘Star Trek’ managed to gain a small consistent audience although it the end it wasn’t enough. ‘Star Trek’ really took off when it began repeats in syndication.
Although made in the late ‘60’s, ‘Star Trek’ was set in the 23rd century, and as such represented creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of what the future would look like. In the same way as Superman, Kirk always stood for truth, justice and the American Way of life, even though he was supposed to be part of a UN-like organisation. America was proud of its rich and diverse culture, and from the outset, attempts were made to show an ethnically diverse crew which included an alien (Spock), and a collection of cultures from Earth (Scottish, African, Asian). However, this was not universally pleasing for the network, who wanted Spock out. The creator of the series had other ideas:
Further aiding Roddenberry’s cause was Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura). She often tells the story of her meeting with Martin Luther King; she was considering leaving the show when he told her that her presence gave the black community hope that in the future they would be able to live in peace with everyone else, free from prejudice. Being a woman was another coup as
A Russian (Chekov) was added to the mix at the start of the second season when the Russians complained that they had been first into space, so why were there none of their kinsmen on board the Enterprise? Late in the third season, viewers even saw television’s first inter-racial kiss between Kirk and Uhura.
In many ways, ‘Star Trek’ embodies the so-called ‘American Dream’; understanding and tolerance across cultures and between races. The United Federation of Planets acts as a metaphor for the United States of America with many cultures co-existing peacefully (although Spock appears to be the only alien on board the Enterprise, and he is half human). The original series main thrust was its patriotism. In the episode ‘The Omega Glory’, Kirk’s crew encounter a planet with two warring factions: the Yangs and the Kohms. An unconscientious Starfleet Captain has altered the planet’s development, and now the two sides are fighting as if they were Yankees (Yangs) and Communists (Kohms). The situation also allows William Shatner as Kirk to undertake a spirited reading of the US Constitution which he insists the two sides must live by. Accidents, or deliberate efforts by other Captains were responsible for the Enterprise crew meeting Romans, Nazis and even Chicago-style gangsters, all of which allowed the writers of the series to make points about our past and deliver cautionary tales. These so-called enemies of America were good examples of control of the masses, and Kirk getting one up on them acted as a metaphorical victory over oppressors, something the American Declaration of Independence resisted with all force. There was also the Prime Directive which states that the Enterprise crew must not interfere with the development of another culture that is technologically inferior. Kirk’s interpretation always seemed to be that he knew best, and many cultures were ‘set free’ from some type of slavery, although whether for better or worse was never determined. The viewer was led to believe that Kirk had done things for the culture’s own good, even if they didn’t know it yet. This ‘playing god’ has been used more effectively in the newer series where the Captains no longer shoot first and ask questions later.
The original ‘Star Trek’ became an icon of 60’s America, and reflected the wonder and excitement of the space race before the first man set foot on the moon; space really was ‘the final frontier’. Gene Roddenberry described the original series as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’, and The Next Generation continues this theme of exploring new frontiers in true American Old West philosophy, with its replacement on television, ‘Star Trek: Voyager’.
Although certainly true of the original ‘Star Trek’, this statement could apply equally well to ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Star Trek’s’ current incarnations. ‘Star Trek’ has often been rich in allegory; ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ used the Klingons as a metaphor for the Russians as the Cold War was ending and cast Kirk and co. (as America) as their saviours. ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ has taken the idea of politics a step further; the setting is an immovable space station, and any problems are there to stay. Continuing the pioneering frontier theme, the creators of Deep Space Nine described the station thus:
The station does serve the purpose of protection from the evils of the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. The series started off with the Cardassians leaving the planet Bajor after many years of slavery. The Cardassians have swift, deadly justice, created concentration camps, and committed heinous crimes against the Bajorans. This can be taken as a metaphor for Nazis and Jews, and has allowed for many cleverly written stories featuring holocaust allegories. There are various other races vying for supremacy that give Deep Space Nine a more interesting background for storytelling as it can cover war issues and show how characters are changed by death and destruction. When a race of shape-changing aliens were discovered to have taken positions of power by replacing leaders, even the normally paradisical Earth was placed under martial law due to the intense paranoia resulting from knowing that anyone could be a changeling. This mirrors the paranoia sweeping the US at the moment about the actions of their government, their undercover work, and not knowing who people really are.
In Deep Space Nine’s ‘Past Tense’, Sisko, Bashir and Dax are accidentally transported back in time to Earth of 2024, where they find all of society’s unwanted hidden away in so-called Sanctuary districts where no-one can see them. The government of the time seems to believe the saying ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. By the end of the episode, riots have begun in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of these homeless and jobless, an important issue in the US and Europe at the moment.
In the latest film, ‘Star Trek: First Contact’, the Enterprise crew travel back to the Earth of 2063. In this period, the planet is apparently recovering from the effects of the third World War, and is about to make contact with its first alien race; the Vulcans. According to Picard, this is the catalyst that makes the people of Earth realise that they are not alone, and start in earnest trying to reach the stars. This in turn leads to the elimination of poverty and hunger, as everyone turns their attention to peace and exploration rather than war, returning to the series more optimistic background, with an alliance of friendly worlds.
‘Star Trek’ has an interesting position; set far in the future, it can actually create a history in the above types of episode, showing how its own future came to be. A lot of other science-fiction sets stories much closer to the present day, and it is with these stories that visions of past, present and future begin to blur.
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