Union Jack on the Tail-fin: Uses of the Future in 1960s Doctor Who

This was the paper I gave at the 2012 Pop Culture Association conference in Boston.  

From its very beginning, Doctor Who used the concept of the future as a destination, setting, or dramatic tool.  As far back as the unaired original, version of “An Unearthly Child,” for example, Susan pegs her origins as “the 49th century.”  During the 1990s, writers like Lance Parkin developed comprehensive—obsessive—chronologies of the future history depicted in the series and its spin-offs.  The revamped series visits the future on a predictable schedule.  During the 1960s, however, the show presented its vision of the human future in an inconsistent, piecemeal way.

What’s so special about the 1960s?  After all, the original run of Doctor Who ran until 1989 and the revamped version which appeared in 2005 has made the human future a regular stop.  I’m focusing on the 1960s because, for a start, I have to focus on something—the history of Doctor Who on television is so vast that one has to be ruthlessly specific.  Second, during the 1960s, the show’s vision of the human future was still very much in flux.  Of course, the entire series was in flux during those first few seasons and—during its first three years—one could argue that there  was no coherent vision of what a “Doctor Who story” was; not necessarily a bad thing.

So in the 1960s, particularly during the William Hartnell era of the show, Doctor Who could be a different show every week.  The only continuity that really mattered from episode to episode, serial to serial was the characterization of the regulars.  Thus, we find the future of humanity presented in several different ways over the course of the 1960s.  As early as partway during the first season, the show encounters an explicitly human future.  The varied ways in which Doctor Who portrayed this during the 1960s illustrate, from a creative standpoint, different uses for the concept of the human future.

Broadly, and with exceptions of course, during the Hartnell era the story of humanity’s future in Doctor Who existed as a tool to be used, not as a set of criteria to be slavishly adhered to.  As a tool, it was used in a variety of ways.  For example, humanity’s future could be used as a setting; a way to get the regular characters into a storytelling situation without having to provide a great deal of backstory.  The future could also serve as a tool for conveying lessons or broader themes.  Futuristic science fiction is, in many cases, a lens through which creators comment on the present day.  The future could do almost anything the producers needed it to.

What these human futures did not necessarily have to do was demonstrate a connection to any other vision of humanity’s future presented by other stories.  This means that writers and producers had the enormous freedom to use the future in any way that made sense at the time, without needing to follow the strictures of continuity, creating bespoke environments that fulfilled the needs of the particular story.  Fans would, in the future, construct elaborate timelines which attempt to incorporate the totality of future history into a coherent whole but, at the time, a coherent continuity of the future was haphazard and not a priority.  At the end of the Hartnell era and during the Troughton era, however, the image of humanity’s future would become more consistent but not necessarily more coherent as the show’s creators honed in on a formula for what Doctor Who was supposed to be and do .

Doctor Who’s use of the human future begins in “The Sensorites”, during the first season of the show.  Here, we can see that Doctor Who was still in its “educational” mode, telling the children of Britain about self-winding watches. [Clip: 1.avi, 4:00]  Alongside that, however, it’s establishing a future—in this case the 28th century—in which humanity is in the process of establishing interplanetary colonies.  “The Sensorites”, for the first time, features non-regular human characters from the future who play a crucial role in the plot—it is humans from the future who are eventually exposed as the antagonists.  Despite its future setting, however, “The Sensorites”—with its psychic aliens—plays off of established British works like John Wyndham’s The Midwich CuckoosDoctor Who had already in its short life, taken inspiration from a number of earlier science fiction sources.  This is a turning point for the series—as much as the first appearance of the Daleks, if not as flashy—it establishes that humanity has a future.

In a similar way, the human future is a setting in two crucial season two stories, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” and “The Rescue”.  In the former, we see the future Earth for the first time.  The crumbling infrastructure and iconic vision of the Dalek rising out of the Thames are designed to give viewers the frightening chill that comes from seeing something familiar and comfortable entertainingly wrecked.  Viewers had already seen the Daleks defeated on their home turf—this was different.   It’s difficult, from our vantage point, to realize just how new this was.  The first time a defeated enemy returned, the first time the viewer glimpses an Earth of the future.  Doctor Who, with this story, and the next, takes viewers into new areas—using those viewers’ own expectations of the future as a storytelling technique.  While “The Sensorites” showed humanity among the stars, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” illustrates a nearer, darker future; familiar, yet shockingly different and frightening.

“The Rescue” is another milestone—the first new companion, Vicki, appears here after the departure of Susan.  Once again, the future is distinctly British—it is a future designed to appeal to the viewers, to connect with them.  Vicki the space orphan is stranded aboard the crashed UK-201 spaceship which features a British flag as part of its identifying decoration.  [clip- The Rescue 8:30] Ian and Barbara—and this is worth noting—say the spaceship is from “home”—not “Britain.”  Thus the vision of the future presented in “The Rescue” is the audience’s future.  Producers intended Ian and Barbara, from the beginning, to be audience-identification figures.  We enter the TARDIS along with them.  Together we encounter prehistoric man, meet Marco Polo, and fight the Daleks.  By making the UK-201 from Britain, even in the far flung 25th century—by creating an explicitly human, and a British one at that, future—the program’s creators used the future as a tool to draw in viewers and make them part of the adventure.

This British vision is not, however, too surprising.  As Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles point out in their essay “What Kind of Future Did We Expect?” the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who coincided with the age of the Eagle comic paper and its star attraction Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future.  Children of 1963, then, were used to the idea of a British space program, at least in fictional worlds.  “The Rescue” as did “The Sensorites” before it, pushed humanity into the stars, confirming the future laid out by Dan Dare and similar stories.

As yet, however, the future is a somewhat variable setting.  Throughout the Hartnell era, the human futures as presented in these stories, as well as “The Chase”, “The Dalek’s Masterplan”, or “The Ark” all vary.  They are futures custom tailored to the needs of the plot, theme, and characters.  Whether the story calls for a marooned astronaut, an interplanetary government with a corrupt leader, or a race of enslaved aliens, the show’s producers created a future to fit..

This flexibility, of course, ends, or at least takes a break.   When Innes Lloyd takes over as producer at the tail end of the Hartnell era, we begin to see a standardization of the future that will persist throughout the Patrick Troughton era of the show.  It first appears in “The Tenth Planet”—an isolated base with a multiethnic/multigender crew faces some invading villain.  The Doctor clashes with the authority figure, and everything ends up okay in the end.  With little variation, this formula will appear in stories like “The Moonbase”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Wheel in Space”, and others.  For the remainder of the 1960s, Doctor Who rarely goes into the future outside of this base-under-siege scenario.  A crucial exception is “Enemy of the World”, which again shows a future Earth in an attempt to do James Bond on Doctor Who terms.

Beyond the attempted standardization of the future that comes to Doctor Who in the Troughton era, there is a standardization of the type of story that creators believe Doctor Who is designed to tell.  These are adventure stories with monsters.  There is little ambiguity or complexity in these stories—which is not to say they are unentertaining.  They are, however, formulaic—and these stories’ presentations of the future are a key part of the formula.  One indicator of the increasingly formulaic nature is the way that a story like the sixth season’s “The Mind Robber” stands out.  It exists outside of time and space, in a bizarre dreamscape.  This is revolutionary for Troughton Doctor Who; but not for the series as a whole—a series which included stories like “The Edge of Destruction”, “The Web Planet” and “The Celestial Toymaker”.

Within this standardization of the future are embedded concerns of the time.  In the late 1960s, one particular example is climate or weather control.  “The Moonbase”, “Enemy of the World”, and “The Ice Warriors” all deal with weather machines, or weather control as a key component of the plot.  By the mid-1960s, environmental concerns were on the rise in Britain—it’s not surprising the Doctor Who stories would deal with issues of climate change just as it had with the dangers of pesticides in “Planet of Giants”.  What’s interesting about the weather control meme in late 60s Doctor Who is how often it is used.  Like the future settings in general, the concerns expressed within those settings have become standardized.

In the end, so what?  Why is the manner in which Doctor Who portrayed the future significant?  Why is it worth examining?  One reason is that it gives insight into the creators’ changing visions of what the show was for.  During the Hartnell era, there was a sense that Doctor Who could do anything; tell any type of story.  As the 60s wear on, financial and creative concerns lead to a reassessment of what the show should be doing; what types of story it should be telling.  Thus, we see changing images of “the human future” as a kind of bellwether for the creative motivations and circumstances behind making Doctor Who.

The show’s use of human futures also provide the contemporary viewer with insight into the concerns the producers—and, by extension, the public—had about both the present the future.  The dangers of a new ice age, over-reliance on technology (eg. T-Mat in “The Seeds of Death”) and the like work well in a futuristic story-telling context.   Similarly, projecting current concerns onto a future setting is a well-worn science fiction technique that the creators of Doctor Who used well.

The future was a moving target for the creators of Doctor Who in the 1960s.  Without an established history of the future (and with little desire to create one), producers and writers were free to use the show to explore diverse futures, suited to the stories they wanted to tell.

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