An occasional series looking at popular stories of Doctor Who, a peculiarly British kind of TV hero, and the cultural contexts that influenced the ever changing character and his stories.
The Doctor Who story The Caves of Androzani, the last to star Peter Davison in the lead role, essentially drops the Doctor into the plot of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune. The titular desert planet, Androzani Minor, is the source of a highly valued substance, ‘Spectrox’, produced by the indigenous bats; it prolongs life in humans but is poisonous when unrefined. The production of Spectrox has been halted by terrorist leader Sharaz Jek and his indefatigable army of androids, so the ruling corporate conglomerate of Androzani Major has sent in the army to defeat him.
Meanwhile, in Frank Herbert’s book, the planet is actually called Arrakis but is nicknamed Dune because it is entirely covered by desert. It is the only source in the galaxy of Spice, a highly valued substance that prolongs life, produced by great sandworms that swim in the deep desert. Production of Spice has been halted by terrorist leader Muad'Dib and his indefatigable army of native Fremen, so the ruling corporate conglomerate of CHOAM has demanded the Emperor of the Galaxy send in his army to defeat them.
Possibly not entirely incidentally, David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune was also released in 1984. Dune is not ‘so bad it’s good’; it is so bad and so good in equal measure, a quantum superposition of quality. Lynch famously hated working on it, and after shooting was finished it was hacked about by the producers to such an extent that they had to add a voiceover at the start summarising the story, during which the narrator actually forgets a couple of key points and has to come back again to clear them up.
It is full of cringingly awful things, like the homophobic portrayal of the villain and Sting’s rubber underpants; and deliriously wonderful things, like Brad Dourif’s unhinged performance and Patrick Stewart charging into battle cradling a pug. It is stuffed with undigested gobbets of Herbert’s ludicrous sci-fi folderol and glorious Lynchian visuals. It is one of the few space operas that actually looks like it was filmed on location in an alien civilisation, and it is cursed with an equally alien approach to storytelling.
It was certainly timely. Dune is, among other things, an allegory of the petrochemical industry, in which the control of valuable resources by Imperial and neo-Imperial powers has radicalised indigenous populations to the point where they can be inspired to launch - and Herbert uses the word - jihad. (Muad’Dib is the battle name of Paul Atreides, the scion of a noble house turned extremist; an Osama bin Laden avant la lettre.) Britain in 1984 had been subject to a bombing campaign by Libyan religious and political radicals, culminating in the murder of P.C. Yvonne Fletcher; the legacy of a tangled Imperial history of mucking about in the Middle East.
Empire and its legacy were everywhere in the media of 1984, most particularly the British Raj in India. Jewel in the Crown was on TV and A Passage to India (and a re-release of Disney’s The Jungle Book, of all things) were in the cinema.
A Passage to India tells the story of the naive Dr Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor, and the equally innocent Adela Quested, an English rose newly arrived in India. Through a series of social mishaps, Aziz ends up inviting Miss Quested, her prospective mother-in-law Mrs Moore and English teacher Cyril Fielding on a trip to see the Malabar Caves, even though no one can think of anything noteworthy about them as a destination. In the caves Adela has a disturbing experience and goes on to accuse Aziz of attempted rape before retracting the accusation during his trial.
It’s as visually beautiful as you’d expect from David Lean, although marred for contemporary viewers by the weird decision to cast Alec Guinness in brown-face as Dr Godbole. Watching it now, it clearly lays out how the experience of Empire radicalises both the ruled and the rulers. Quested, as her name suggests, starts out anxious for adventure, keen to escape the cloistered existence of the British civil servants in their suburban bungalows and their whites-only country club. Like a middle-class backpacker, she wants to meet ‘real’ Indians. But racism is revealed as a necessary part of Imperialism. Ruling over someone else’s country is not compatible with seeing them as equal and valid humans; it becomes necessary to view them as another order of being, if only to justify to yourself the nature of your job.
You can see these attitudes filtered through Victorian pulp fiction in another 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which the swashbuckling archaeologist finds himself up against a black magic-practising Thuggee cult, despite the latter having been effectively eradicated by the British some fifty years before the story (which is set just ten years after the setting of A Passage to India). The film is full of Orientalist depictions of Indian culture, not least in the banquet scene, which is full of outlandish - and not very Indian - dishes like beetles and monkey brains. Mind you, the actor Roshan Seth, who also appears in A Passage to India, claims that the scene was intended to be read as a joke being played on Indiana Jones and his bigoted assumptions about India, but perhaps that joke has since backfired on Spielberg and Lucas.
(Interestingly - but not altogether relevantly - I also watched the 1984 Star Trek movie The Search for Spock when researching this piece, and was struck by how Orientalised the alien races are in that, and the use of American cliches about Japanese culture: the military ‘honour’ culture of the Klingons and the zen mysticism of the Vulcans, all floaty robes and gongs. Anyway…)
In the cave it appears to be India itself - the Imperial possession, the jewel in the crown - that overcomes Adela. She revolts into conservatism, retreating into the safe bigotry of the ruling class. It is only by retracting her racist accusation that she frees herself, whereupon her fellow countrymen cast her out.
But Aziz, meanwhile, is radicalised. He finally understands what all his anti-British friends have said: that there can be no accommodation with someone who does not believe you capable of being accommodated.
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The radicalisation of men like Aziz led to independence for India (and Partition, but that’s another story). But what did Imperial radicalisation do to Britain? Having persuaded themselves that they are special and born to rule, what do the governors do when there’s nobody to rule over? Soul-searching about Empire had been going on since the ‘60s; by 1984 it was the sons and daughters of Britain’s last colonial generation who were looking for a comfortable way to come to terms with what had been done, and how modern Britain had been made. And one way to do that was to point across the Atlantic and say that the Yanks were worse.
1984 is also the year - of course - of a new cinematic adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O’Brien. This is Britain as Airstrip One, a term that before the film’s release had already been revived to capture the idea of a Britain in thrall to the US. Britain is just as much a cog in a vast military-industrial combine as Arrakis in Dune or Androzani Minor in Caves of Androzani. This is the Britain of American missile bases and the Greenham Common peace camp. The grey, decrepit London of Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t feel that far from the grey, decrepit London of the real 1984.
Indeed, John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton (as Julia) could be a couple of East End artists in their ‘30s jumpsuits and haircuts. There was a great vogue for pre-war fashions in the early 80s, whether working class utility styles or the collarless shirts and linen jackets of Brideshead Revisited. Even Peter Davison’s Doctor Who is sporting a cricket jumper and a roll-up Panama hat.
The Doctor is a strange figure wherever he turns up in time and space, but he’s particularly out of place on Androzani. The corporate conglomerate are all decked out in primary-colour velour tracksuits (if you ever wondered what Robert Glenister might have looked like as a member of Bucks Fizz, now’s your chance to find out) and their pastel apricot headquarters look like the set of Good Morning Britain. A group of mercenary gun-runners resemble extras from Judge Dredd and terrorist Sharaz Jek, down in his goth workshop with his cyberpunk androids, sports a natty Kabuki style mask like the Phantom of the Blitz Club. The Doctor does not look like any of them; nor does he like the look of any of them.
The Doctor barely actually does anything in this adventure. Right at the beginning he and Peri are accidentally poisoned and the Doctor spends the rest of the story simply trying to find the antidote (it turns out to be - hilariously - the “milk of the Queen Bat”, which rather splendidly necessitates a scene in which Davison has to mime milking a large rubber bat). He wanders through all the mayhem, allowing terrorists and soldiers and mercenaries to ceaselessly slaughter each other, apparently sure that they all deserve it and there’s nothing he can do to stop them anyway.
In this he resembles A Passage to India’s Fielding, who wanders through the movie as everyone else clashes. He is one of the rare ‘good’ Brits; he believes in Aziz’s innocence and comes to Adela’s aid when she has been abandoned by everyone else. He tries to defend Aziz to the British authorities but when he sees that it's no use, he simply gives up, as The Doctor quickly gives up trying to talk any sense to anyone on Androzani Minor.
Is this the new model for 1980s post-Imperial Britain? No longer in charge, no longer the villain, just wandering about the world in a baggy coat, offering words of wisdom - but no actual help - to those who want it, letting those that don’t go on their merry way to damnation? It would be a nice trick if we could get away with it; tidy away all the records of atrocity and persuade ourselves all we ever did was bring people trains and legal systems and being polite.
The Doctor saves Peri from poisoning (by, and I need to repeat this, milking a bat), but not himself. This is Peter Davison’s last appearance as The Doctor; he dies at the end of this story, transmogrifying into Colin Baker. In just a few seconds at the end of the episode we get a feel of a whole new character. Where Davison was kindly, tortured, a little flip, Baker is steely, imperious, almost maniacal.
Change, my dear.
And it seems not a moment too soon.
The ‘80s are not over yet.
You can find
Caves of Androzani on BritBox: https://www.britbox.co.uk/series/S21_45512
Dune on Channel 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/dune/on-demand/6817-001
Passage to India on MGM: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/0LTT2P8SY2PZ7OJ1Z1MEU1K4DI/ref=atv_dl_rdr?tag=just016-21
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/0M6IL8BXJJM7VL2RYLL00DYAFP/ref=atv_dl_rdr?tag=just016-21
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock on Channel 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/star-trek-iii-the-search-for-spock/on-demand/32632-001
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/0H384HQKX51BTQEMLDQKQ488SU/ref=atv_dl_rdr?tag=just016-21
Check out the rest of our series on Doctor Who:
I love how you've woven these fictional works together by pointing out common themes. Excellent. I want to rewatch them now.