Saturday, May 18, 2024

Notes on Doctor Who and History: 'Space Babies', 'The Devil's Chord' and 'Boom'

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in Swinging London apparel (the Doctor's a blue pin-stripe suit), against a brick wall. The Doctor looks off to the left, Ruby looks at the camera.

I have neglected this series of posts about Doctor Who and human history for a long time. My Doctor Who rewatch stalled over a year ago early in Season 2 (largely because I found 'The Rescue' painfully bad), and I'm not likely to get back to it too soon. But, we've got new Doctor Who at the moment, and of course he's going to go back to the past, so it deserves writing about. Let me say right at the start, these are not reviews of the episodes concerned per se, though value judgements may creep in. Also, there are likely to be spoilers, so don't read these before you've seen the episodes if you don't want to be spoiled.

'Space Babies' is mostly set in the far future, though there are a couple of slips backwards in time. The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) takes Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) back to a beautifully-realised Wyoming 150 million years in the past. There, we get a brief gag that derives from Ray Bradbury's short story 'A Sound of Thunder'. There is also a flashback to Christmas 2004, the day on which baby Ruby was abandoned at the Church on Ruby Road, the one place the Doctor says he can't take Ruby, and therefore the one place we are guaranteed to visit before the end of the season.

But the historical meat of the first three episodes is, of course, to be found in 'The Devil's Chord'. The episode begins in 1925, with a character whose sharing a name with the third Robin (of Batman and... fame) may or may not be a coincidence. 1925 isn't sketched out in any particular detail, but it doesn't need to be. Then we switch to Ruby, asking to go to February 1963 to see The Beatles recording their first album, something the Doctor considers a much better idea than wanting to go to the Titanic or Bethlehem, presumably at the time of the birth of Jesus. (Incidentally, I don't think television Doctor Who has gone to either event, though there is a photo in 'Rose' of the Doctor with a family he persuaded not to go on the doomed liner, and in 'The End of the World' he says he was on a ship that is presumably the Titanic. No surprise that spin-off materials involve both events.)

Doctor Who has, of course, been to 1963 before, in 'An Unearthly Child', which is referenced here, and 'Remembrance of the Daleks', which is not. On neither occasion did 1963 look quite as it does here. The Beatles have also been on Doctor Who before, not that you'd know this from iPlayer, where the short clip of them playing 'Ticket to Ride' has been excised from 'The Executioners' (episode 1 of 'The Chase'), though fortunately not from the Blu-Ray, so it is still possible to watch William Russell's painful attempt to look 'hip'). 'The Devil's Chord' finds a very neat diegetic way in which to get around the fact that even Disney can't afford to license a Beatles song for this episode.

The Doctor and Ruby change into outfits that are very much Swinging London. But Swinging London didn't really exist until 1965, and the Doctor's suit is more redolent of 1967-1969. In 1963, most men dressed like accountants. Most bands dressed like scruffy accountants. Even The Beatles had yet to don their trademark collarless jackets. The truly hip (the Beat Poets, and the like) dressed all in black.

John Lennon in glasses, wearing a shirt and tie, and leaning on a Vox amplifier.
A rare photo of John Lennon in the style of glasses he wore up to 1966.
There are more anachronisms. Cilla Black wasn't even signed to a management contract by Brian Epstein until September 1963, so there's no way that she would be in a recording studio in February. John did wear glasses in the studio (though he whipped them off whenever he thought there was a camera nearby), but the round National Health 'granny glasses' were something he didn't adopt until 1966. The Beatles' hair was a lot shorter in early 1963 than it became later, and Ringo didn't even have his hair brushed forward.

Now, people can, and have, responded to lists of the anachronisms by saying 'look, it's just a silly fantasy episode, it's not meant to be the real Sixties'. To which I say, yes, that's my point. The episode presents an artificial idea of what 'The Sixties' was like. And what interests me is how and why that's been put together. So, John wears those glasses because those are the John Lennon glasses, the ones that everyone expects. The boys have longer hair because that's what everyone thinks The Beatles looked like. (Crueller writers than me might suggest such tactics are necessary because the actors don't look much like The Beatles, but then neither did Christopher Eccleston or Peter Capaldi.) The female singer could have been the more plausible Helen Shapiro (a friend of The Beatles) or Alma Cogan (a future friend of The Beatles), but that would make the viewers go 'who?' Everyone knows Cilla, and that she was associated with The Beatles. Pronouncing Brian Epstein's name as 'Epsteen' would be authentic - that's how Brian himself pronounced it - but the pronunciation as 'Epstine' is pretty ubiquitous these days (I try to avoid it when I do internet radio about the Beatles). When we see the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, we expect there to be a white Volkswagen parked on the left, and don't worry that the car must, therefore, have been abandoned for six years.

Fiona Moore observed to me that at least since the 1980s people have forgotten how different the early 1960s were from the late, and indeed how much fashion was limited in its distribution. (For an example of this latter point, watch Get Back or Let It Be and compare how The Beatles dress with how roadie Mal Evans or even director Michael Lindsay-Hogg dresses, let alone all the people on the street listening to the band play on the rooftop at Savile Row.) Television quite often prints the legend rather than the reality; the Doctor and Ruby's outfits are all part of this, perhaps slyly sent up by the fact that they change out of outfits that actually were more suitable to 1963 (Russell T Davies' Doctor Who is nothing if not knowing). This is a phenomenon that can be seen in other television, such as, if perhaps to a lesser extent, in the recent television version of The IPCRESS File, also set in 1963. It's much more obvious in fantasy versions of the sixties such as the Austin Powers movies, and the Doctor's suit looks like a deliberate nod in that direction. This sort of conflation is a thing we tend to do to historical periods; note the way cultural differences between the Victorians of the 1840s and the Victorians of the 1890s can get elided in popular culture, or, to choose my own period, differences between first-century Rome and fifth-century Rome. 

This is an episode filled with elements derived from various bits of the 1960s, and especially The Beatles' career. Matthew Kilburn rightly draws attention to the 'Aeolian tones' recalling the 'Aeolian cadences' that music critic William Mann attributed to The Beatles in 1963, and Maestro's outfit in the latter stages has hints of The Beatles' outfits for Sergeant Pepper, and more obviously the hussar jackets that almost everybody seemed to wear in the second half of 1967. Several people have rightly observed that the plot of 'The Devil's Chord' owes quite a bit to The Beatles' 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine. And the musical number at the end has its roots in endless 1960s pop musicals (though not any The Beatles made, with the possible exception of Magical Mystery Tour) - though again, Austin Powers is perhaps a more immediate influence.

It's a shame the final chord played by John and Paul wasn't the last chord of 'A Day In The Life', but you can't have everything.

The engagement of 'Boom' with the past is largely with the show's own history, in particular 'Genesis of the Daleks'; the main plot is based on the landmine scene from Part One of that serial, with Ruby Sunday in the role of Harry Sullivan. This follows the previous week's call back to 'Pyramids of Mars'. Apart from that, we get the Doctor singing 'The Skye Boat Song', but there's no commentary along the lines of 'I nearly met Bonnie Prince Charlie once'.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024


Bust of a white woman. The nose is broken.

Christopher J Garcia has done an issue of The Drink Tank on Ancient Rome, and I have a short piece in it about Octavia, the sister of Augustus. Lots of other interesting stuff in there as well.