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Published on January 21st, 2010 | by James Colvin

Doctor Who Gothic

Doctor Who is a genre show. But there is no such thing as a pure, homogenous genre: genre reinforces and reinvents itself constantly. Doctor Who has survived by adapting and incorporating elements from other genres to become its own unique hybrid. An impression of the fluidity of the show can be made by focusing on the development of one of the many genres absorbed into Doctor Who: the Gothic. Doctor Who is not, nor has it ever been, a Gothic show. Many themes of the death-obsessed Gothic genre – pessimistic mistrust of the industrial, the scientific and the rational – clash with Doctor Who’s ethos on an a fundamental level that is irresolvable. Despite this, there remain many commonalities.

The original Gothic novels of the turn of the 18th/19th Century, such as Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Shelley’s Frankenstein were entertainments responding to the rise of industrialisation. Late Victorian gothic developed by treating urbanisation itself as a threat and tapping into the fears surrounding social Darwinism – think of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The constant that is being addressed is humanity’s alienation from its environment, and even from itself. This isolation that is treated with ambivalence in the Gothic is treated with an optimistic sense of something that can be overcome in Doctor Who.

Doctor Who was conceived of as an educational SF Adventure show for children. Whilst the original producers of the show may have been keener to emphasise the educational role, the genre characteristics would always be present. SF itself is an inheritance of the Gothic. The Gothic is reliant on a limited number of props, and Brian Aldiss, in his historiographic critique of SF, Trillion Year Spree, argues that many of the archetypal Gothic figures – the cruel father and the seductive monk – transformed on a superficial level into those of the scientist and the alien.

The charm of 60s Doctor Who is its simplicity. It is SF Adventure in its purest, simplest form. There are the most basic thematic and archetypical traces of the Gothic here. One Gothic theme is a character’s descent from the “natural world” into a fantastical hell. This narrative device is currently experiencing one hell of a resurgence, especially since the success of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. And poor Vincent Price went through many. This transition is one that almost every companion of the Doctor has experienced, even if most of them are returned to their own time by the end of their adventures.

Bennet/Koquillion - Demon Daddy

One of the best examples of Gothic influence in 60s Doctor Who is the wonderful two-part The Rescue, which benefits from a minimal cast. Bennett occupies two classic Gothic archetypes. As a paternal figure to Vicki’s Susan-replacement, he is a Demon Daddy; patriarchal, repressive and abusive, which eventually leads to his downfall. His is a very Gothic downfall, the return of the repressed. The repressed is a fully internalised oppression. Bennett has succeeded in repressing the civilization of Dido from himself and Vicki. Yet at the conclusion of the serial, the people of Dido return and wreak their revenge off-camera on Bennett. All 41 years before Fear Her. Whilst Bennett is not of a completely divided conscious, as many tragic Gothic figures have been (Jekyll/Hyde), there remains a dual personality about Koquillion, even if it largely acted.

Doctor Who grew into a(n ever so slightly) more adult show in the 70s. This kind of change is what has ensured the show’s continued success. The show had already used Gothic-influenced SF archetypes to address modern concerns. The Cybermen, especially of The Tenth Planet, are nothing if not Frankenstein’s Monsters of replacement surgery. However, they were still housed within a SF Adventure show. The 70s was when Doctor Who refigured its genre in a meaningful way for the first time, and in many ways the most radical way.

There were many exceptional British Gothic films being produced in the early 70s. Virgin Witch, Blood On Satan’s Claw (starring The Master and Zoe Heriot!) and, most famously, The Wicker Man. As ever, these responded to contemporary anxieties, specifically countercultural concerns. More specifically still, the rejection of post-industrial definitions of national identity, with an appeal to pre-historical paganism. Think III/IV-era Led Zeppelin.

Azal – The Man

The major thematic carry-over from these films into early-70s Doctor Who is the core binarism of a Christian Establishment versus a Pagan Counterculture. The Dæmons casts the villainous Master as both the establishment Reverend and closet Satanist in a British village community. The serial revels in bringing down both with the help of White Which Olive Hawthorne. Where The Wicker Man burned Edward Woodward’s dogmatic Christian copper in a harvest ritual, The Dæmons blows up a Church. This vaguely anti-establishment philosophy should be jarring with Jon Pertwee’s patrician Doctor working for The Man. But the Doctor develops and softens in the serial; always open to Miss Hawthorne’s ‘magic’, finally enjoying a dance around a maypole with Jo (the large phallic symbol danced around by young girls with ribbons to ensure offspring …shhh…).

The Tom Baker years are where the Gothic is typically regarded to be most present in Doctor Who. It is certainly most visibly present. The shows’ transposition of older gothic iconographies is much more aesthetic than thematic. Contemporary anxieties wouldn’t be as overtly alluded to again until the Gothic visuals were shed by the time of The Sun Makers.

Commies Under The Bed

In terms of iconography pretty much everything left got thrown in: walking mummies in Pyramids of Mars, underground labyrinths in The Deadly Assassin, all of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The Masque of Red Death, Frankenstein and many others get ripped off. This is all well-documented. The responses to contemporary anxieties do remain, but become a little broader than the Jon Pertwee years. For instance the Zygons could be interpreted as an extension of the Reds Under The Bed Cold War fears, but this had been about for years. I’m not arguing the standard of the show was lower. It was at its absolute peak. Genre had been refigured in a different, and immensely successful way.

Byronesque Hero?

However, for much of the 80s, there were very few further embellishments to the genre tropes of the show. The serials mainly riffed on what had already been developed, to varying degrees of success (Kinda and Revelation of the Daleks have most relevance to this argument). Not until Sylvester McCoy’s final two seasons as the Doctor, when the writers began to develop the Doctor himself, having him become a post-Gothic arch manipulator. There are many reasons the McGann TV Movie was a wasted opportunity, but a romantic, Byronesque Doctor matching the promise of his outward appearance could have been a fun, worthwhile development, and a logical extension of the tragic hero McCoy’s Doctor had become in the New Adventure books.

When Doctor Who came back in 2005, everything about the show was ramped up to the max, including Gothic genre tropes. The barbaric forces of the past became the Time War, which still hasn’t stopped returning. Contemporary anxieties are addressed more regularly than ever, with Daleks becoming religious zealots and the Master as a smarmy policy-free Prime Minister. Gothic’s other obsession (sex) finally figures, with unrequited love and ambivalent sexual relationships as recurring storylines. Lawrence Miles has even suggested a reading of The Parting of the Ways in which the Dalek army is vanquished by an unfulfilled Rose Tyler’s time-space orgasm.

Angels & Demons

The Devil himself showed up again, and divine powers have overtly been in conflict, albeit in a Paradise Lost- via His Dark Materials-inspired secular world. Last year the Doctor finally became a lone wanderer in the spirit of the Gothic Wandering Jew, Melmouth the Wanderer, something hinted at in the occasional serial, audio drama or novel, but never previously fully realised onscreen.

Any number of these genre characteristics can be applied to almost any Doctor Who story. Genre gets refigured in exciting new ways, but the heart of the show remains the same. This makes Matt Smith’s recent description of some of the episodes having a Tim Burtonesque fairy tale feel to them all the more exciting.

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