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Published on February 16th, 2010 | by James Colvin

Influenced By, Influence On…


“They don’t call it plagiarism anymore, they call it homage” – Tom Baker

Doctor Who has a fine heritage of pilfering from literary sources. The Frankenstein episodes and The Prisoner of Zenda knock-off are famous for being just that. But Doctor Who isn’t literature. It doesn’t even feel literary in the aforementioned stories.

So what else feeds into the old serials and the new episodes? And where else do those threads of inspiration lead?

Genesis of the Daleks – Disability Studies – Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks

Evolution of the Daleks

Monocular vision, limited mobility, staccato speech: the Daleks are disabled. Not to mention the physically disabled mutant they house. Laura Waite, a lecturer on disability studies, delivered a paper, ‘Are the Daleks disabled? The portrayal of evil in Doctor Who,’ arguing that the revelation of Davros as creator of the Daleks (in Genesis) affirms this: wheelchair, blindness, head brace, one withered hand. I would argue that this is an irony, punctuating Davros and the Daleks’ rhetoric of racial purity with hypocrisy. But it is right to question the association of disability with evil. Which is what the Daleks In Manhattan episodes do.

These episodes are about empowerment and acceptance. Dalek Sec decides their casings are a limitation and sets about overcoming it. He succeeds, overcoming his limitations, and tries to impose this on an entire race with barely a second thought. He is still a Dalek. But this is not what the remaining Daleks want. So they overthrow their leader. Their status is a legitimate one they wish to live with, not a limitation to be overcome. Like Sec, they are still Daleks, their morality is still aggressive. They enslave their leader, as he would have enslaved them.

Surrealism – The Mind Robber – Eraserhead

The Mind Robber

Surrealist art often hinges on the uncanny, something that is at once familiar and yet strange. And boy is that The Mind Robber. Doctor Who should probably achieve this more often. The travellers eventually arrive at their destination (check) and leave the ship to explore (check). Fine, just as we’d expect. But nothing is there. A void. So when the monsters show up (check), it’s somehow more eerie, more threatening than any other episode. We have no point of reference for them at all. They aren’t invaders and they aren’t indigenous people. They’re just coming after you. But their narrative unfamiliarity is juxtaposed with their real-world familiarity.

Even if you don’t recognise the robots from Out of the Unknown, their generic design reminiscent of a child’s toy is somehow familiar and innocent, making the fantasy clash with the viewer quite confrontationally. David Lynch would use these juxtapositions of the innocent everyday with the horrific and the surreal void in his 1977 breakthrough film Eraserhead. His protagonist, Henry, suffers a head explosion very like the TARDIS’ in the cliffhanger to Episode 1.

Project Mohole – Inferno - Kola Superdeep Borehole

A real-life Project:Inferno

Coincidence? With a working title like The Mo-Hole Project? Not a chance. When Jon Pertwee’s Doctor says of the Inferno project “it’s been tried before,” he’s referring to Project Mohole, which ran from 1958 to 1966 off an oil rig. Mohole was named after the Mohorovičić Discontinuity, the boundary between the Earth’s crust and mantle. The idea was to obtain a sample of mantle and find more evidence of continental drift (which was still a topic of contention at the time).

Three phases were planned, only the first of which was carried out. Being an intraterrestrial science attempting to complement burgeoning extraterrestrial study, the Soviet Union drilled their own borehole, bigger and better. The Kola Superdeep Borehole (aiming for the same Mohorovičić samples) consists of one central borehole, with several others branching off it. Drilling began on 24 May 1970, or the day after episode 3 of Inferno was broadcast. Research? Or Cold War-tech-race paranoia founded on BBC transmissions?

Ichneumonidae wasps – The Ark In Space – Alien

predator alien Wirrn inspiration - Ichneumonidae wasp

The plot similarities between The Ark In Space and Alien are well documented. In his survey of the Alien and Predator films, Beautiful Monsters, David A McIntee suggests that the life cycle of the ichneumon wasp inspired both the Wirrn and the xenomorphs in Alien. These wasps lay their eggs in a host. The larvae grow inside, eventually eating their way out of the host. They are very common all over the world, usually residing in decaying trees and damp forested areas, but are rarely seen by people. They are harmless to people, but useful for controlling pests.

When applied to human victims in these SF stories, this behaviour can be made to seem as though a malevolent natural force is aggressively attacking humanity, contributing to the existential horror, especially in Alien. A working title for Alien, by the way, was The Star Beast.

Week-End – High-Rise – Paradise Towers Gridlock

Bonnie Langford as Mel in Paradise Towers

Paradise Towers uses a dystopian tower block setting to satirise bureaucracy and the bourgeois classes of the late 80s. Highlights included elderly cannibals. Stephen Wyatt and script editor Andrew Cartmel acknowledge using JG Ballard’s novel High-Rise as a model. The Ballard novel (published in 1975) also features an affluent tenancy casually descending into brutality. And cannibalism. Ballard may not have modelled his novel as directly on Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 black comic film Week-End, but he almost certainly would have been aware of it.

Ballard listed Godard’s earlier Alphaville (1965) as one of his favourites, and both their oeuvres share thematic similarities. Week-End is a picaresque road movie, featuring a monstrous bourgeois married couple planning each other’s death. And hippy cannibals. By the time Russell T Davies’ Gridlock comes along, the road is back in place of the tower block and the pessimism and misanthropy get brought right down.

No cannibals either.

Doctor Who (2005-) – Mark Wallinger’s Time And Relative Dimensions In Space

Time and Relative Dimensions

Only four of Mark Wallinger’s own works were a part of the 2009 exhibition The Russian Linesman, which he curated. One of them, famously, was Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, a stainless steel and MDF replica of the TARDIS. The exhibition sought to subvert definitions of boundaries. The polished steel of his TARDIS reflected much of the exhibition back at you, helping to blur the boundaries between Wallinger’s own artwork, and his work in curating an exhibition of other people’s work.

The image of the TARDIS created associations with time and space appropriate to the exhibition, as an icon of a modern popular mythology. The same associations would not have existed had the show not returned a huge success. It would not have been a popular mythology. Doctor Who’s (2005-) success provides a context for such a work being a central part of a mainstream gallery which would not have existed in other circumstances.

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