Decadence meets the Doctor
The corruption of children by an old friend
by Peter Fleming
Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee were mine. Younger ones say Tom Baker. Older ones have a warm regard for the imperiousness of William Hartnell. After them, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy hardly rate. And Paul McGann – well – he may have been good, but his one story was a shoddy bastardised version of what we had all grown up loving.
If you are thoroughly confused by now, then this may spur you: Daleks? Cybermen? The Tardis! Now you’re getting it.
I was raised on Doctor Who, the British science fiction series that trounced all competition on account of its wit, its endearingly inexpensive sets and special effects, and its unique premise: that an ordinary object like a police telephone box could carry an eccentric to any place, any time, any adventure.
And when the original actor playing the lead wanted to leave, the producers came up with the idea that the Doctor could “regenerate” into a different looking person entirely, thus ensuring that the programme outlasted even its principals.
Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee were “my” Doctors. One’s “own” Doctor or Doctors tend to be defined by the actor who played the role when one was leaving childhood and becoming teenage; insecurity craves familiarity, and there could be no more reliable presence than that of a hero in a weekly television serial.
Amongst many other delightful qualities – his self-effacing nature, his ability to seem so shocked one minute and then to shrug and throw off a joke the next – Patrick Troughton’s facial expressions resembled my own father’s, and dad was a doctor too, a real one. I didn’t really know what dad did specifically, but I reasoned that if the Doctor was out in the universe saving lives, then my dad was out doing the same whenever he wasn’t at home, which was a lot of the time.
I learnt at a subconscious level that this was the mission of life: to help others, regardless of their planet of origin, a kind of neo-Hippocratic Oath furnished by a half-hour, black- and-white, BBC children’s weekly serial.
Dad died of overwork, and it was there that the comparison ended: he did not regenerate.
But Troughton did; he became the oh-so-elegant, oh-so-socially conscientious Jon Pertwee.
Other Doctor Who fans have written amusing reflective articles along the lines of “All the Morality I Ever Learnt I Learnt from Watching Jon Pertwee’s Doctor”, and in my case, I must admit that what morality I didn’t learn from the Sunday morning serial called “Mass!”, I accrued from Pertwee’s era.
He would side with oppressed, indigenous miners against extra-territorial empire-builders. He would stand up for environmentally aware agrarian colonists against greedy corporate exploiters, or fight the evils of industrially generated pollution in a notorious story involving giant maggots which had mutated as a result of the effect of a reckless oil company’s effluent in Wales.
Yes, the Doctor fought for the perceived powerless against the perceived powerful. That he never carried a gun, and that he tended to reason his way out of a tight corner, or sometimes resorted to the imaginative use of a jelly baby, only strengthened his hold over me.
Forget Harry Potter; the Doctor was a mature man who abjured magic for science and lost none of his childlike enthusiasm or his magical quality for it.
When word came of the new series being launched last year by the BBC, I was apprehensive at first: would the show stand up? How would the producers adapt it to the vastly different, modern “grunge” culture that prevails? Would its high moral tone – together with its redeeming sense of irony – be maintained? Could they possibly walk the tightrope again?
To gauge their success or otherwise, take this fact on board: from time to time I buy the new magazine which was tied to the series, the Doctor Who Magazine. I leaf through it, read an article or two - now mainly about the writing of the series, such has the focus of my interest changed - and then pass it on to the son of a good friend of mine, who had become a fan through and through. But recently, having read one of the articles, I had no choice but to chuck it in the bin. I could not give that edition to a young boy.
What had changed?
Well, in a sense, everything. Society. The world. Morality itself. Perhaps children. Oh, the Doctor still flew around the universe rescuing people. He still sided with the oppressed. But somehow he had lost his own personal sense of responsibility, and everything associated with that seemed to have slid too.
In that edition of the magazine – and I emphasise, a family magazine - I had come upon an interview with the actor, Noel Clarke, who plays the boyfriend of the Doctor’s companion Rose. The pictures were already alerting: one of Clarke himself, topless, not in an action shot from the show, but rather, posed, like something out of some kind of adult women’s – or perhaps men’s - magazine.
Worse still, a small inset contained a photograph of one of the old series’ companion characters, Jo Grant, posing naked with a Dalek. In the interview itself, Clarke talked of the possibility of a threesome involving his character, Rose, and Rose’s mother. This amused him. He spoke of a scene in which he would appear soon, stripped to his boxer shorts and tied to a chair, which he said was someone’s idea of a nice “fantasy”. He joked about having a “penis reduction”.
Frankly, the phrase “toilet-brain” came to mind.
Had it only been an aberration, perhaps I might have limited my concern to that actor’s mentality. But, alas, the entire new series seems to have been created by people who lack a sense of propriety about what one should put before children.
In the first episode, Rose’s mother entertained thoughts of a liaison with the Doctor the minute she met him (“There’s a strange man in my bedroom”), a contemplation which verges on the positively pathological. In the second episode, an alien character, curious about the relationship between the Doctor and his companion Rose, asked him if she were a prostitute.
By episode nine, there was a bisexual alien companion who made gratuitous lewd suggestions at the drop of a hat, and who by the final episode of the first series had developed such a relationship with the Doctor that he kissed him full on the lips before setting off on a mission.
From website chatter, it’s been noted than in the second series of this new version of the show, the Doctor himself makes gratuitous jokes about bald men and homosexuality. He has an affair with a courtesan, Madame de Pompadour, in Versailles.
And then Noel Clarke entertains the children with talk of threesomes with his girlfriend’s mother.
What has all this to do with a children’s series? What is the hidden agenda? If it is the gradual sexualisation of young boys and girls as the series progresses, what is its longer-term purpose?
Now this is not to say that a story involving sexual matters is not reasonable fare for children. It could be. But gratuity and a kind of amoral, scattergun approach seems to smack of irresponsibility, or indeed, of perverted intent.
And what goes out the window with it is the Doctor’s broader sense of social responsibility.
In the original series, there was never any concern about an older man taking younger women with him into his mysterious travelling box; the question of propriety never arose. If it had, it would have instantly reflected badly on him. Imagine having complete control over a woman, having her locked up with him, and then eventually his leaving her behind as he moved on. The Doctor would have turned into a cad of the first order. No. In the original series, young women who travelled with him were called his “assistant”, and that was that. (And nor was that term necessarily demeaning; ironically people who claim the early companions were examples of sexism simply forget the intelligence, fortitude and independence of a Barbara or a Liz Shaw or a Romana.)
We may say that times have changed (but the world really doesn’t change). We may say that children would see this sort of material in many other places anyway, so why not in Doctor Who? Certain minds may even want young children to be made sexually aware even when they are still only six or seven. Perhaps this is what society wants. Perhaps society is happy for its heroes to associate with this sort of exercise in pedophiliac “grooming”.
But we must at least be prepared to say that. If that is what we want from our popular culture, we can no longer make any claim that ours is a Christian culture, for this seduction of children’s mentality is not an invitation into the world of love, but of sexual exploitation; “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck…” (Mark 9:42).
I thought we were meant to be horrified by children encountering pornography, or worse being lured into its web.
It is sad when one has to see an old friend fall into a state of physical decrepitude, but it is even more lamentable to see him slide into a moral one.
Out on some rubbish tip, under this bleak winter’s clouds, the discarded pages of that sorry interview flutter emptily in the empty wind. Somewhere in the Outer Space we bring to life with our imagination, what was once the great Tardis, which stood for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”, bigger and more generous and more inspiring on the inside than it was on the outside, has been cheapened into just another cold, unpromising box.
A peculiar, unexpected and disturbing coda to this matter was played out on The Chaser’s War on Everything. Noticing the way that young girls are encouraged by fashion houses now to dress like seedy streetwalkers, the Chaser Team, to expose the horror, went out into a shopping mall and satirically attempted to peddle bondage wear for infants and toddlers. They thought they would provoke duly shocked reactions. Perhaps parents would wake up to what was being done to their own children.
Several of the pram-pushing passersby showed an interest in buying.
Peter Fleming is a teacher, lecturer and writer, who lives in Sydney.