The Genesis of the Dads
Doctor Who and the sublime silliness of the mid-'70s
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.
On second thoughts, let’s not go to Camelot.
‘Tis a silly place.
King Arthur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Britain in 1975 is a silly place, and full of silly men. At the cinema it is the year of both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. TV is ruled over by Eric Morecambe and The Goodies, and the gloriously, splendidly silly Tom Baker is the new Doctor.
This is both the raving of a country at the end of its tether, having just endured the Three Day Week, and also a vision of a country more at ease with itself, getting over the fever of a ‘60s adolescence and settling into a slightly daffy middle-age.
The Genesis of the Daleks
6 episodes, colour, March to April 1975
Tom Baker as the Doctor, with companions: Harry Sullivan, a naval medic and, at last! Sara Jane Smith, a reporter (on a magazine called… Metropolitan. Didn’t know that when we named this newsletter but by crikey it's a lovely coincidence)
The Time Lords send the Doctor back in time to the planet Skaro with a mission to stop a great evil. He finds himself caught up in a war between two races, so devastating that it has set back science generations, and to which the mad scientist Davros has an unlikely solution: inventing the Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Daleks.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
92 mins, colour. Directed by a brace of Terrys.
Clever Python, Tall Python, Welsh Python, Charming Python, Canadian Python, Pointless Python and Neil Innes.
92 minutes of long-winded debate over the haulage capabilities of swallows. And some light mockery at mediaeval epics.
Well, here he is. Large as teeth and twice as alarming. My Doctor.
For several generations of a certain kind of British adult, it's how we classify each other: who was your Doctor? Tom Baker was mine. On the school run, my mother would entertain me with long, improvised stories about the Doctor, and that Doctor was and could only be Tom Baker (with Liz Sladen as Sarah Jane, of course). He was a letraset on the back of the Weetabix box at breakfast and the Target novelisation I read at night instead of sleeping. He arrived in the role when I was five and left when I was eleven, pretty much the entirety of my Doctor Who watching childhood. And I watched a lot of Doctor Who. I was a TV child, and Tom Baker was my TV dad.
He was a very ‘70s kind of dad. Every Saturday he would bundle the kids in a malfunctioning, rickety vehicle, a time-machine by way of British Leyland, and take them to a quarry somewhere in the suburbs, where he would absentmindedly let them play with dangerous equipment, only intervening to stop them killing themselves. Most of the time.
He was also, in the great tradition of ‘70s dads, very silly. In his first episode, having just transformed from being Jon Pertwee, he dances, sings and dresses as a Viking, all with a delighted, manic glee. Where Pertwee was all crushed velvet suavity, hovercraft and Venusian aikido, Baker is daft. He is impertinent and impatient, off-hand and off-subject, and his pockets are full of yoyos and jelly babies. He is constantly wrong-footing galactic despots and monomaniacal monsters by simply refusing to take them seriously.
There were a lot of silly dads on TV in March and April 1975. Genesis of the Daleks shared the schedule with TV dads par excellence: Brian Cant and Derek Griffith on Playaway, the Goodies on Lulu, and Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe in a re-run of their 1967 film The Magnificent Two.
Eric Morecambe is, of course, the acme to which all silly dads aspire. Some of his iconic power undoubtedly lay in his appearance: thick horn-rim glasses, billowing brown suit, comb-over. He looked like a middle manager from a biscuit factory, or a trades union spokesman on some dreary news programme your parents insisted on watching. The sort of dull, overlooked beetle that suddenly turns in the sun with a glimmer of iridescence and opens stained glass wings. Wings of resplendent, stupefying, uplifting silliness.
Most importantly, on camera, Eric Morecambe had silly bones. Just reading The Dandy and narrating a comic strip, he’s funny. “Desperate Dan’s already eaten four cow pies, he’ll never manage another one. [Strangled gasp.] He has, you know!” It helps, of course, that he’s doing this while wearing pyjamas and sitting in bed next to Ernie Wise, who’s reading The Financial Times.
The whole set up is entertaining, of course, but it is also slyly subversive. Eric is an adult who knows that The Dandy is as important as The Financial Times. He knows that the silly people are the ones who think that money is more important than cow pies; the people who are going to spend their one, precious, fleeting life chasing after meaningless social markers instead of laughing at cartoons. He is not taking being an adult seriously, and we love him for it, for we suspect he is right. Like Frankenfurter in 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he has discovered the liberating power of taking apparently light things seriously. (Frankenfurter’s indulgence in mad B-movie science frees him from the stultifying suburbia of Brad and Janet; he has found a greater self beyond the bounds of sense.)
It’s a complex interplay of power and subversion. Eric appears to be the outsider and the underdog, but he is, in fact, free of the social strictures that encumber everyone else. Like a dad at a family gathering, he can stand outside the knot of mothers, turn to the camera and wink over his glasses. But also, like the dad at the family gathering, he knows he is in a position of power. Eric, after all, is the main act. Of course he’s nothing with Ernie, without his straight man, but it’s Eric they all come to see.
Also on BBC TV through that spring of 1975 were reruns of Bewitched, the ‘60s American sitcom about an advertising executive who unwittingly marries a witch. Darrin, the husband, is the archetypal sitcom dad: ostensibly master of the house but never in it, ostensibly in control of his life but having it run by others. He is the butt of every joke, the victim of every conspiracy. Out of work all day earning the family bread, the ‘70s dad is, like a comedian, both an outsider and a focal point.
Like The Doctor, in fact: the consummate outsider, an alien whose own people have cast him out, no home or moment of his own, an aimless visitor in all parts of time and space and yet, at the same time, the fixer of the Universe; the person to whom the all-powerful Time Lords turn to get things done. He is, in every sense, the star of the show.
This strange power dynamic can also make dads dangerous, especially if they are insufficiently silly. Silliness is benign; you are being frivolous, amusing, thinking of your audience, of others. Without it, power is unconstrained and dangerous. Davros, the mad scientist responsible for The Genesis of the Daleks, is a particularly bad dad, a perfectionist who wishes to mould his sons to supersede him. He creates in the Daleks a sort of extreme parody of masculinity, devoid of emotion and possessed only of rationality, driven purely by self-obsession and self-preservation.
Even the flagrantly silly Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a fallible father, creating in Rocky a child who is a parody of masculine appearance (unlike the Daleks, who are possibly a little too dumpy to be truly phallic).
The progeny of these perfectionist fathers become monstrous and turn against them. Both father figures are modelled on Frankenstein, and like him by usurping the maternal they have perverted the paternal and are doomed to destruction. They simply took it all too seriously.
Silliness means taking serious things lightly, the entire concept behind Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons take the great founding myth of the country, The Matter of Britain, and take it very lightly indeed. Light enough to be carried by a swallow, possibly.
Some of this comes from the fact that these university-educated smartypants knew that La Morte D’Arthur was quite silly enough already. Anyone who’s read Malory will know that the Black Knight progressively losing limbs is barely a parody at all, as when Arthur biffs Sir Accolon in Book 4:
“And therewith Sir Arthur rushed on him with all his might and pulled him to the earth, and then rushed off his helm, and gave him such a buffet on the head that the blood came out at his ears, his nose, and his mouth.”
But also it comes from the fact that the Britain they are in is already a very silly place; it has just been through the strictures of The Three Day Week, brought to its knees by striking workers. In The Magnificent Two Eric refuses to take the part of Britain when they’re playing soldiers, because the British always lose. There is a sense that those in power should not be taken seriously, and that those beneath are beginning to question their authority.
That’s certainly what the peasants do to Graham Chapman’s King Arthur, refusing to take the language and mode of epic seriously, questioning every ludicrous tradition and ritual.
The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.
Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
The peasants sound like children encountering an inexplicable adult command for the first time: “Why?” They both misunderstand the rules and understand them all too well; they understand them, as Dennis does, as structures that are there to preserve power.
This is the great power of silliness. In questioning the established norms, the accepted seriousness, it becomes philosophy. This is where the Doctor ends up, contemplating the mission he was given by the grim galactic fathers, the Timelords. Having wired the Dalek incubator with explosives, he holds the wires to the detonator in his hands. He has the power to prevent, before it begins, a reign of terror that will spread across the cosmos. And he stops, and he wonders.
Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that's it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek.
Sarah Jane Smith
Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn't hesitate.
But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks.
He is saved from the decision by plot contrivance, but that moment, in which he pauses to question his commands, to examine the reasons and morality of his actions, is a product of his serious, enlightening silliness.
Even from the silliest dad, it turns out, we might learn a serious lesson.
You can find Genesis of the Daleks on BritBox: https://www.britbox.co.uk/series/S12_45615
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/771476
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is available on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/0FO2OY381C93YQLV1AEC7O5HTI/
For more on Doctor Who, check out our other posts in this series: