I’ve written previously about science fiction’s essential truth: defining what it means to be human.
But a recent episode of Dr.Who, ‘Amy’s Choice,’provided a new slant: defining what it means to be a Time Lord. (Warning: a few plot spoilers ahead: for those of a nervous disposition, look away now.)
With the revelation that the Dream Lord was in fact the Doctor himself – the clues were there, in retrospect: who else might know the Doctor’s dreams, and has been with him all the time ? – in fact, the dark side of the Doctor, given voice through psychic pollen that feeds on one’s innermost thoughts, the true thrust of the episode became clear: it was about what it meant to be a Time Lord.
As the Dream Lord himself says: ‘The old man prefers the company of the young.’ He was giving voice to the dark preoccupations lying with the Doctor, about abandoning his companions, never making real friends, losing touch with them ‘once they leave the Tardis’ (and what about poor old Adric, sometime companion to Peter Davison’s incarnation, who left the Tardis not by choice, but by dying ?).
And the dilemma for Amy: does the Doctor really trust her when he hasn’t even told her his name ? The Dream Lord voiced the self-doubts that plague us all when we lie lost awake at night and the demons come knocking…
Here, all those things that are important to defining the human – relationships, trust, friendship – are presented as elements that the Doctor does not, indeed, cannot ever, have.
It seems to suggest the Doctor, as a Gallifreyan, is the opposite of human: his whole existence is diametrically opposed to the human condition. And he even has two hearts.
Since April, the Matt Smith incarnation of the Doctor has been enjoying the benefits of a new Tardis. It’s not a new vehicle as such, more of a reconditioned one. His ride has been pimped.
However, since the very beginning it’s always been a rather pimptastic craft. When Xzibit and his streetwise crew of funky mechanics get down to a serious bit of ride-pimping in their MTV show, they often fit a fridge into the clapped out old banger that they’re doing up, in which the owner can put cans of beer or tubs of ice cream or, er, whole sides of beef.
Back in the William Hartnell days, the Tardis went one better than this – it contained a food machine. In one of the first episodes, dating right back to 1963, the Tardis crew are hungry, and one of them says they fancy bacon and eggs. We see the Doctor fiddling with some slightly improbable dials on a big metal thing, and out comes what looks like a chocolate Club biscuit. His earthly companions, Barbara and Ian, have a taste and – would you believe it? – it tastes just like bacon and eggs. In fact, one of them says that it’s as if one mouthful is bacon and the next is egg. The obvious comparison is the chewing gum meal in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but luckily in this case nobody ends up turning into a giant blueberry.
What’s interesting to me is that this relates to a popular idea in twentieth century science fiction – the idea that one day we’ll be able to dispense with all that food nonsense, and instead take our meals in the form of a convenient pill. In some cases, the idea of synthetic food is shown as being something scary. In the dystopian future of Soylent Green, for example, only the super rich can afford to eat actual food, whereas the rest of us have to eat weird little nutrient biscuit things made out of something unpleasant (which I won’t reveal here in case I spoil the ending). In many cases though, synthetic food is shown as something to look forward to. Ian and Barbara certainly seem to find their egg-and-bacon Club biscuit pretty yummy.
This made me start to think about what food was like when I was growing up in the 1970s. Current ideas about food being fresh, organic and natural were nowhere to be seen. The more unnatural the better. This was an age where powdered fruit juice, called Rise and Shine, was made out to be a convenient luxury, and where metallic aliens laughed at any sucker who bothered to peel and cut up actual potatoes when they wanted to make mash. Why bother, when you can pour a kettleful of boiling water on some beige granules and get a dish of vaguely potato-tasting crap in around ten seconds? Real ale was the preserve of bearded, folk-singing nutcases. Adverts showed us what modern, futuristic beer looked like: sterile lager, in a gleaming steel can, encased in a block of ice. Vimto, Tizer and Irn Bru – a soft drink that actually purported to be made out of metal – were far preferable to anything that actually tasted like fruit. Instant soup came in little cubes that you added to water and brought to the boil. It was advertised as ‘square shaped soup’ because, supposedly, it made a square meal. Then there was Angel Delight, a strange pudding made of milk and coloured powder, which wasn’t truly delightful and didn’t actually contain angels. The ads showed it served up in a kind of fat wine glass, which had to be moored with a piece of string to stop it floating away, so light and fluffy was the pudding it contained. I always used the think to myself that if Angel Delight really was lighter than air, surely it would squelch out of the chubby wine glass and float away in an unappetising gobbet, possibly ending up on the windscreen of a passenger jet and causing a terrible crash.
The excesses of the 1970s have largely disappeared, but some fake food still survives, and there’s a popular markets for things like Jammy Dodgers, Golden Nuggets and Pot Noodle. The hard truth is that the food industry will always want to make products like this, because they’ll always be more profitable than, say, an apple. The more ‘added value’ there is in a foodstuff (i.e. the more that’s been done to it), the more profit there is in it. There’s practically no added value in an apple, whereas there’s an absolute ton in, say, Dairylea Lunchables. Of course, the supermarkets try to get added value into apples by slicing them up and putting them in a plastic bag to go in our kids’ lunch boxes, but there’s not a lot more added value potential than that. That’s why there’ll always be more adverts on TV for processed crap than for fruit.
The problem is that the food industry’s interests are pretty much the exact opposite of ours. Generally speaking, the less that’s been done to a foodstuff, the greater its nutritional value. The healthiest way to eat an apple is straight from the tree. Even cutting it up and putting it in a plastic bag will deplete the vitamins and minerals it contains. Besides which, simple fresh food is usually delicious. A really fresh, tangy Cox’s Orange Pippin will always be nicer to eat than an apple-flavoured chew.
All of this means that the idea of aspiring to replace food with pills is appalling. It’s anti-life and it’s anti-pleasure. The Doctor should get rid of his food machine and replace it with a highly skilled robot chef that can makes actual meals from fresh ingredients.
While enjoying the whizzy new Matt Smith led series of Dr Who with the kids, I’ve also been watching some very old William Hartnell episodes that I got in a box set for my birthday. The footage, dating back to 1963, looks as alien to me in 2010 as the Daleks must have looked to the Doctor’s earthly companions. It’s black and white of course (colour not being adopted until the Jon Pertwee era), and with the kind of graininess that makes you think they must have carved every frame out of wood.
I’ve heard it said that early Dr Who footage looks as old as a Chaplin film. With magnificent pretentiousness, I’m going to admit that it reminds me of footage of the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, films of which I saw as an undergraduate. Scoff if you will – I would, if someone else said the same – but they’re both grainy, black and white, and teetering between being spooky and plain ridiculous. And if that isn’t enough, Carole Ann Ford (who plays the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan) bears a striking resemblance to Grotowski’s lead actress, Rena Mirecka. Check out the photos below.
The pace of Harnell-era Who is positively leisurely. Episodes dawdle along like a tortoise laden down with heavy luggage. The Matt Smith Who would fit the events of a William Hartnell episode into the pre-title sequence. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to like.
For one thing, Hartnell’s Doctor is a really interesting character. The modern Doc strives with every fibre of his being to protect not just the whole of humanity but also all those who are inhuman. Hartnell’s Doc gambles (for the Tardis in a game of backgammon) and smokes a pipe (thus being enlisted by cavemen to show them the secret of fire). He’s even a tiny bit evil. At one point, he contemplates sticking a sharp flint into a caveman’s skull. On another occasion, he endangers his companions’ lives by pretending he needs some mercury for a broken fluid link, and later plans on leaving them behind to die of radiation sickness. What an excellent role model for the kids of the early 1960s!
Something else I like about Harnell-era Who is that it’s beautifully composed. The stark contrasts in the black and white tones are bold and exciting – far less bland than the dull washes of the early colour years. The designs of the costumes and sets feel utterly classic. I challenge you to look at shots of the original Tardis interior and not to want to go in and have a nose around. There’s a stylishness about British television set design in the black and white era that’s rarely achieved today.
In the early 1960s, British TV drama was produced more like theatre than film, but the composition of shots and edits is simple and elegant. The episode title is often overlaid on a still image, perhaps a character staring at something, but it’s not a still as such – the actor is actively staring, and you can see them breathing. There’s something oddly enjoyable about that.
Then there’s the music. The sounds produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are extraordinary, and really manage to put the appropriate eeriness in there. It’s extraordinary to think that people like Delia Derbyshire were making sounds which two decades later would send bands like the Human League into the charts, given that she was doing this before the synthesizer was commercially available – and certainly unavailable to her. The original version of the Dr Who theme was made with improbably-named gadgets like wave modulators and far from being played on a keyboard, it was assembled, note by note, on reel-to-reel tape.
To sum it up, there’s something tremendously appealing about seeing what the future looked like to those who lived in the past.
Lying at the heart of most science fiction, it seems to me, is the attempt to define what it means to be human. Authors from Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson to modern darlings like Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville are, beneath their paranoid technicolour or cyber- or gothic steam-punk surfaces, offering an exploration of the human condition.
A recent episode of cult television series Dr Who caused viewers to complain to the BBC about the racy scenes between the Doctor and Amy Pond, admitting a previously, if not unadmitted then unexplored, sexuality into the canon: resisting the lavish advances of a mini-skirted Pond, the Doctor declares ‘I’m nine-hundred and seven years old: think what that means!’ Even here, science fiction is exploring the difference between Time Lord and human and the implications for their relationship.
As Dr. Tyrell, head of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, remarks; ‘More human than human is our motto.’ The famous speech Batty gives at the end of the film is all the more poignant because, like all the replicants, he is aspiring to be human and his experiences, whilst short-lived, define his humanity: ‘I’ve seen things…attack ships in flames off the shores of Orion.’ There’s poetry here, as well as a lament for the loss of his all-too-brief glimpse into the human condition.
Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story ‘The Pedestrian’ from his brilliant 1982 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is set in 2053: the narrator, Mr. Mead is the only one walking the streets at night, everyone else is indoors being indoctrinated by their television sets. Arrested by a robotic police car, he is driven past a house – the only house with all its lights on. ‘That’s my house,’ he declares. The computer-controlled car cannot understand what he is doing: ‘Just walking, Mr Mead ?’ it asks him.
In the Matrix-indebted Equilibrium, the suppression of human emotion using controlled drugs in pursuit of a society without crime and violence results in a society stripped of its humanity.
As the hybrid being that is Lieutenant Ripley remarks in Alien Resurrection, as the good ship Betty heads towards the Earth: ‘I’m a stranger here myself,’ articulating a sense of isolation that we have all perhaps felt to some extent at some point in our lives.
It’s what Batty and the other doomed replicants are fighting for, what the robotic police-car can never understand, and what science fiction, in its myriad incarnations is expressing: it’s what makes us human that counts.