To mark the triumphant return of the Season 22 classic Venegance on Varos as a special edition DVD (due some time in 2012), we present the feature article from Zeus Plug issue 3.
The earliest association between the Doctor and acts of violence may well occur in An Unearthly Child where, notoriously, the first Doctor contemplates using a rock to euthanise a mortally-wounded caveman. Though he is ultimately interrupted, there is still something shocking to the scene; but not so much that the Doctor intends to kill a dying man, it’s that he sees it as an option. The Doctor Who universe has always been a dangerous place, and scarcely ten years after this scene the perils of his livelihood became a lot more visceral on-screen. ‘Body horror’ featured on a semi regular basis as a motif during the Philip Hinchcliffe-produced stories of the early Tom Baker years, as the tortuous effects of bodily transformation, mutation, and alien possession all formed part of the spectacle. Protests by Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association led much of the outright violence in Doctor Who to be curtailed, but it crept back – why? And why in the era of a Doctor whom many fans might consider the least aggressive of all, Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor?
Preceding Davison was a fourth Doctor reborn large and self-confident after Hinchcliffe’s departure and the arrival of new producer Graham Williams. This Doctor strode the universe like a colossus overthrowing evil with little more than a laugh and a robot dog. It is arguable that the series’ then comic tone diminished many of the show’s menaces – Williams’ replacement John Nathan-Turner brought the Doctor down to earth (quite literally). In contrast, the fifth Doctor was once more a vulnerable individual in a hostile universe. His adventures were fraught – indeed some met with disaster, including the death of a companion; and his final run was in every sense breathless and very nearly futile. Davison’s Doctor was a desperate man living in increasingly desperate times, with serious and real limitations, because his enemies were suddenly prepared to employ brute intimidation and traumatic physical abuse to bring about his downfall. Season 21 is where this begins to feature most strikingly, and its chief architect upon whose shoulders responsibility is most often laid is Script Editor Eric Saward.
This is also where the show’s return to violence invited criticism in the Eighties, but not for the reasons identified ten years earlier, where the violent image and its suspension between episodes as a cliffhanger drew the most objection. There is no convincing evidence the Saward Era glorified violence nor depicted it as a means to an end – indeed, violence was still the mainstay of the coward, the inhuman, the professional killer. The Doctor’s participation in it however was up for question. When employed by the Doctor it was almost always as a last resort, when the odds were against him, and with little premeditation. More often than not it is ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’, addressing a clear and present danger. This may not be the best response, nor the most satisfactory one, but it is worth bearing in mind that Saward also ensured his hero held a sense of self-belief that was itself somewhat shaky: “there should have been a better way”, “I misjudged Lytton”. Regret follows drastic decisions, and this contributed to the motif of the fallible and sometimes un-heroic Time Lord of the Eighties. Viewers see this concept extended further in the screen era of the Ninth Doctor, where his reluctance to act and shape events produced mixed and sometimes dangerous results. For the sixth Doctor, whose ‘character arc’ was in effect incomplete, it is this image which has stuck firmly, while his predecessor, having charted similar waters gradually over two years beforehand, is generally offered the benefit of the doubt, given some ‘gentler’ stories to buffer his reputation. Outside of fan circles it was business as usual, with few publicised protests at the level of violence in the series.
One might infer this was indicative of smaller audiences; that such behaviour was being overlooked or, indeed, that it was deemed more acceptable by viewers of the day. After all, the pop culture world outside of Doctor Who had plenty of examples of ‘men of action’ who were handy with their fists and quick with a punning dispatch line – witness The Terminator and The A Team. Popular heroes outside the series also alternatively became grittier and more physical, although interestingly, under another script editor, the era of the seventh Doctor became noted for its hero’s metamorphosis into a ‘cosmic chess player’, whose manipulation of time replaces the act of urgent resistance (and, one might argue, some of the necessary dramatic tension). One might argue that Sylvester McCoy and Andrew Cartmel’s version of the Doctor was a reaction against the prevailing Eighties obsessions, and yet not ten years later on the seventh Doctor’s swansong was itself censored in the UK for its scenes of handguns and shootings.
Today the pendulum has returned – the alien threats remain, but violence as depicted in the new series is bloodless: cybernisation is suggested, infection with ‘every disease’ occurs in a two-second special effect and swiftly passed by, Ood are dispatched offscreen. Perhaps a lesson has been re-learned, that family audiences require measured doses of fright rather than graphic horror. But while the camera script appears more merciful to the viewer, the question remains – is the Doctor similarly aligned toward his enemies now? What should we make of a Doctor who observes his own diminished ‘mercy’ in School Reunion – is it symptomatic of a forty-three year old series that we will no longer accept a hero who leaves the door open for his enemies to return and cause more suffering? Or was the gap between season 26 and Eccleston large enough that time had really moved on for the Time Lord?
The Doctor as confident trickster or violent man of action is alternately frustrated. The Saward experiment with a fallible and impulsive Doctor may have been at times ill-advised, but perhaps for that it was all the more courageous.