The Loved/Hated One
Doctor Who, Britain and America in the ‘80s
‘Morning in America’, and bedtime for Britain. The ‘80s felt like a time of increasing American dominance in the UK. What had once been exotic wonders glimpsed in the backgrounds of Hollywood movies were becoming commonplace. There were mall-like shopping centres, people wore running shoes for doing things other than exercise, pizza was a thing you could buy. In 1985, the British arm of McDonalds finally posted a profit.
The ‘60s icons that had so defined Britain’s last moment of cultural relevance were starting to look a little shopworn. Bond was still out there, in the increasingly leathery form of Roger Moore, and in 1985’s A View to a Kill he was joined by Patrick Macnee. The Avengers, Macnee’s big break, started in 1961; the following year, Moore broke through as Simon Templar in The Saint and the Bond series began. Moore and Macnee were both around 60 years old in 1985, creeping gingerly around the fancy Bond sets in baggy leather blousons like they were looking for the gents at an unfamiliar golf club.
Doctor Who started the year after Bond, in 1963, but he’s still here too. In 1985’s The Revelation of the Daleks, Colin Baker’s Doctor Who arrives on the planet Necros with his companion Peri. Approaching the funeral home and suspended animation storage facility Tranquil Repose, the two of them wander through a memorial garden and stumble on a funerary monument of the Doctor’s face (and being Colin Baker’s face, it’s a big monument). The Doctor stops, aghast at the edifice. He is even more aghast when the monument falls on top of him, crushing him with his own legacy.
It’s an appropriately morbid tone. They’re all starting to feel useless, Bond and Who and Steed, in this post-Star Wars age, after George Lucas showed us that with enough money and technology you don’t need new ideas or good writing. A View to a Kill has Bond riding to the rescue of Silicon Valley, saving the technology that will doom him and his old-fashioned movies, trying to prove that Britain is still a vital partner in the ‘special relationship’. But who are we kidding? They have the Space Shuttle and we have the ZX Spectrum. They have The Death Star and we have the TARDIS.
Subscribe to The Metropolitan for essays like this in your inbox for free every Saturday, like new episodes of Doctor Who, only with fewer Daleks.
Revelation of the Daleks was inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948), his scathing dark comedy about American culture. Expat English poet Dennis Barlow falls in love with Aimée Thanatogenos, a post-mortem cosmetician working at a Los Angeles funeral home called Whispering Glades, where the corpse is only ever referred to as ‘the Loved One’. The book, as one might expect from Waugh, is one long sneer at American commercialism, mawkishness and mainstream culture, but tinged with a kind of horrified awe at its relentless power and energy.
Revelation has much of its dark humour, and its ambivalent attitude to America. The cryogenically preserved inhabitants of Tranquil Repose are ‘entertained’ by a determinedly witless American DJ who pipes ancient rock hits into their capsules. This portrait embodies the prevailing British caricature of American culture as being full of meaningless platitudes and grating cheerfulness. How we mocked the naivety of wishing everyone ‘a good day’, how we cringed at their optimism and scorned their ruthless commercialism.
1985 saw the end of the ‘Eady Levy’: money that had been clawed back from British box office takings, some of which funded The Children’s Film Foundation. The Foundation was instituted in 1951 in direct response to the influence of Hollywood: British films for British children. But this heavy handed provincial paternalism was vanquished by the energetic money machine that gave us movies like The Goonies (1985), an implacably vapid piece of extruded entertainment and exactly the kind of thing that made Brits cringe.
Not that Britain wasn’t cringe-worthy too. The domestic TV hit of 1985 - at least as far as Guardian readers were concerned - was nuclear thriller Edge of Darkness, which threw every political concern of mid-’80s Britain into a blender: unions, atomic power, nuclear weapons, police corruption, spies, free market economics, eco-terrorism, pollution, women’s lib. Unsurprisingly, it’s a lumpy mess of poor writing and ‘interesting’ acting. Britain is again portrayed as a playground for Washington politicos and the CIA: it looks like a poor, under-lit, formica-clad country, peeling at the edges and unremittingly grey. Everything is grey, or at best oatmeal, in Edge of Darkness: the buildings, the cars, the clothes, Bob Peck’s complexion.
Compare Edge of Darkness to Miami Vice, the American TV smash of 1985: all slab-hued pastels and neon, fast cars, fast boats, city lights, throbbing electronica and the unimaginable innovation of rolling your jacket sleeves up. Compare it, indeed, to the same year’s Back to the Future, a popular time travel adventure in which an old man helps his young companion solve mysteries and fight injustice. The disparity in money and technology is clear once again. The McFly house, positioned as grubby and undesirable, looks unimaginably opulent to British eyes, and the film is as gleaming and streamlined as a DeLorean.
This moment - in which Britons were radically unsure whether they found American culture deeply embarrassing or enviably vital - is best captured in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and most specifically the strange story of its two endings. Brazil is set in alternate post-war Britain, a sort of Attlee-punk retro-future, full of overcoats and antiquated plumbing, neon and postmodern architecture. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a minor clerk in the monolithic bureaucracy, sees the woman of (literally) his dreams and pursues her, a pursuit that leads him into excitement, danger and ducts.
The film ends when Sam is captured by the security forces. In the version that made it to the screen, he is about to be tortured (by Michael Palin, and thus the kindest, nicest torturer you can imagine) when a group of freedom fighters storm the building and free him. They help him blow up the Ministry, find his dream woman and escape to the country. In the original, correct and good ending, which originally ran on from this sequence, this happy bucolic ending is revealed as a flight of imagination. Sam has cracked under torture, losing his mind and retreating into fantasy.
Universal, who were distributing the film in the US, weren’t having this, and instead forced Sam, a cynical misfit, into its accustomed bright and happy shape (as with Ally Sheedy in 1985’s The Breakfast Club). It's too late, though; the film has already made its distaste of Hollywood clear. It’s evident in the bathetic heroism of Robert De Niro’s Tuttle, who applies free-wheeling, free-enterprise to his job, which is domestic plumbing: ‘I came into this game for adventure: go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there's trouble, a man alone.’ Whenever the film descends into action movie cliche it undercuts it. During a car chase, the camera lingers on the burning occupants of a crashed vehicle.
Mind you, the film isn’t that keen on British culture either. It shows a Britain that hasn’t moved on from the Second World War, and where public services are the arms of an oppressive state. Tuttle is finally literally consumed by paperwork, disappearing into a flurry of forms. Sam’s own apartment tries to strangle him, the growling, bulging ducts writhing out from the walls to surround him. The infrastructure has become the monster, consuming the people it serves.
Revelation of the Daleks has a similarly fraught approach to American and British cultures. The glib Tranquil Repose DJ is revealed to be a fake who has been putting on a (questionable) American accent simply because he thinks it's cool. (Nicola Bryant, who plays the Doctor’s American assistant, had to pretend to be American in real life press interviews and appearances in a desperate attempt to make the show feel exciting.) But it is simultaneously weirder and quirkier than machine-tooled Hollywood entertainments, making a knowing joke of its own cheapness (the massive monument that falls on the Doctor is merely polystyrene) and revelling in dark, sarcastic Britishness. Tranquil Repose is run by arch-villain Davros, who is turning the cryogenically stored into Daleks. And those he doesn’t convert he sells to Eleanor Bron who processes their bodies into food - something which, if it were known, might, she admits in sardonic American marketing speak, meet some ‘consumer resistance’.
In Back to the Future Doc Brown is the sidekick while the hero is the conventionally charismatic ‘teenager’. It is a product of the post-Star Wars school of screenwriting, under the influence of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell argues that all hero myths are initiation stories, providing a framework for the young to enter the adult world. The young hero must refuse the call to adventure, wanting to remain in childhood, but under the tutelage of an elderly male mentor (sic) they will venture out into danger, passing through a chthonic transformation in which they contest with and overcome symbolically parental forces. They return as an adult, bringing the prize of maturity back to the community.
Campbell’s theory was that this structure was universal to all human cultures, and Hollywood seized on it as a means to make stories that could be sold all over the world. (This is the kind of uniquely American conjunction of mysticism and marketplace that Waugh savages in The Loved One.) Thus Luke Skywalker, encouraged by Obi Wan Kenobi, goes out to struggle with the dark father figure Darth Vader before using his new found abilities with the force to save the day. And thus young Marty McFly, encouraged by Doc Brown, travels into the past to struggle with his parents (physically, in the queasy encounter with his mother) before returning to his own time having changed history.
It is conventionally the job of British actors to play the wise old mentor in these Hollywood movies - Sir Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi was just the first of many - but that is not the case with Doctor Who; in fact, in many of the better Doctor Who serials the Doctor drops into apparently conventional stories and messes about with them. The Doctor is not the guru or the sidekick: he is the protagonist. The crotchety, centuries old outsider is the hero, and the young American is his companion. There is not much scope, for an old country, in the worship of youth.
Doctor Who was not a carefully packaged, focus-grouped entertainment product. It was a very different kind of thing, a legacy of its origins in the post-Imperial ‘60s when Britain considered itself to be both an elder statesman and a vital force in the world. It incorporated confident Imperial poise and a cringe at declining status. Perhaps this helps explain why, in Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor doesn’t actually do much in the way of heroics. He doesn’t even defeat the Daleks; that is accomplished by an entirely different, somehow politically oppositional group of Daleks, summoned into the story by a couple of minor characters. The Doctor is a bystander in his own story, sardonically chipping in from the sidelines over the top of someone else’s adventure. An avatar, in other words, of tired, grey Britain in a vibrant and forcefully American ‘80s.
Doctor Who is available on BritBox
Films available on Amazon Prime: A View to a Kill, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future
The original TV series of Miami Vice is available on AppleTV
Brazil is on Disney+
Edge of Darkness is available to buy on Amazon Prime
For more Daleks:
Other pieces in our Doctor Who series can be found here: