Doctor Who And The Electrans
|FEATURES - TV|
Is it time to break a half-century of self-restraint in the TARDIS...? Will it ever be time?
Some comments on my review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special 'A Christmas Carol' got me thinking about how it came to be that everyone's favourite Time Lord can never seem to get any 'action', romantically speaking. It's not been for want of attention or admirers; even back in the William Hartnell days, The Doctor was capable of flirting and even having a matrimonial 'near-miss' in the 1964 Who outing 'The Aztecs', so Matt Smith's Doctor is breaking no new ground in running away from connubial bliss with the 1957 version of Marilyn Monroe in 'A Christmas Carol'.
Can 47 years of sexual tension ever be released without killing the fundamental dynamic of the show? I've come to believe that it probably can't - which, if true, puts the Gallifreyan rogue at least neck-and-neck with Star Trek's Mr. Spock in terms of 'attractive unavailability'.
When the show came on the air in 1963 as a sci-fi vehicle intended to recycle the sets and wardrobes of BBC historical drama, the creators didn't have in mind any more longevity for this 'odd' children's series than a typical (and fairly successful) 3-5 seasons. By the time Doctor Who began to prove itself a resilient and perennial favourite, no feat of 'retroactive continuity' could supply our ever-younger hero with the kind of consequence-free clinches that Captain Kirk was enjoying over in the States at the time - because the dynamics of the relationships in the show had been struck from an already out-dated template that left little room for manoeuvre without killing the premise that had brought it such success.
The trope of the Mad Scientist's Daughter wasn't quite as simplistic or as two-dimensional an excuse to introduce 'romantic interest' as it may have seemed when William Hartnell and his 'grand-daughter' Susan (Carole Ann Ford) first appeared on British screens in 1963. For one thing, Doctor Who was a children's and 'young person's' show, with Ford present as a hook for younger viewers rather than as bait for a leading man. Yet the social dynamic between her and her uncle was struck from a boiler-plate model that had been invented to involve 'normal' women in complex science-fictional plots in periods where social morés made them unlikely otherwise to appear - and only for as long as it might take the show's handsome hero off the hands of her father - or father-figure. Unlike Doctor Who, the set-up itself wasn't built for long journeys.
The notion of a mature woman eschewing her own domestic, emotional and sexual needs in favour of the needs of an aged or supporting male relative was Victorian in the strictest sense, a real and pragmatic arrangement reflected in numerous works by Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and their contemporaries. In all versions of the protracted father/daughter symbiosis, the arrangement is either seen as a brief and often happy interlude before the woman's inevitable courtship and marriage, or as some kind of obstacle whereby the woman cannot marry, has somehow overly-negated herself in favour of her daughterly duties, or is caught in some kind of willing or coerced Electra complex with her father - or father-figure. Since Doctor Who, if nothing else, has developed the 'mad scientist's daughter' trope well beyond its original scope, one could identify this platonic relationship in sci-fi and horror as 'Electran', since it seems to have no other name.
Even in its crudest uses, the Electran relationship had more work to do in sci-fi and horror movies than just deliver 'the girl'. Electran configurations of the period range from the frankly perverse (Fu Manchu's daughter in the Hammer cycle of Sax Rohmer adaptations) to the guileless (Ann Francis's cosmic innocent in 1956's Forbidden Planet) to the saintly and unselfish (Sylvia Van Buren's care of saintly preacher uncle Lewis Martin in 1953's The War Of The Worlds).
Between 1945 and 1965, the 'atomic age' trend in horror movies treated feelings of public fear, awe and apprehension about scientific accomplishments during the Cold War, in the early days of the Space Race and - most importantly - in the horrific wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science held all the answers, but - from the outside - seemed driven by the amoral curiosity of intellectual luminaries such as Robert Oppenheimer - a race apart, a breed of scientific savants who would not understand the consequences of their power and actions until they were actually looking at the mushroom cloud; by which time it would be too late.
Thus does the daughter - or daughter-figure - appear at the side of these eccentric characters, good and evil alike, as a moral counterweight, trying to hold back disaster with the ballast of common-sense and some (depicted) notion of gynal transcendence and goodness. If the main role of the Electran is to free herself from her protracted bond with a father-figure, her secondary role is to provide remembrance of the Mad Scientist's love for his (inevitably) dead wife, and the happier days long before those 24-hour sessions at the blackboard. The Electran is the buried heart of her 'ward', keeping his humanity safe as he reaches out into the darkest and most dangerous corners of scientific pursuit. She's the one who doesn't forget the milk, either of human kindness - or just the stuff that he likes in his coffee.
In Them! (1954), the scientific genius (Edmund Gwenn) to whom the protagonists turn in the face of atomically-mutated ant-monsters is half of a professional partnership with his doctor-daughter (Joan Weldon); in When Worlds Collide (1951), Barbara Rush is the one constantly attending to her scientific-genius father Larry Keating; in The War Of The Worlds (1953), Sylvia Van Buren is the niece of a theological idealist rather than a scientific one, in the shape of doomed Pastor Lewis Martin.
Away from Victorian situations - and particularly in the face of growing female emancipation - the Electran dynamic became so hard to credibly explain as to cause a shift from using 'blood-relatives' (like father/daughter team André Morell and Diane Clare in Hammer's 1966 Plague Of The Zombies ) to 'daughter-figures' (such as Raquel Welch's besotted scientist-apprentice in 1966's Fantastic Voyage). This had in fact already proved a perfectly adequate substitute arrangement in the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), wherein genius palaeontologist Thurgood Ellison is moved to help the protagonists by his more thoughtful assistant/sidekick Lee Hunter.
In the case of 1957's Night Of The Demon, the object of the Electran's devotion is actually dead by the time we meet her; when Peggy Cummins loses aged uncle Maurice Denham to his unwise scepticism about a Satanist's power, Dana Andrews takes his place as a more sexually-available cynic on which to continue her work.
Forbidden Planet (1956) goes further in revealing the 'Electran bond' than any of its rivals, when genius scientist Walter Pidgeon's unconscious telekinetic fury - boosted by alien technology - kills an entire human colony, and threatens to do as much for the visiting astronauts who want to remove him and daughter Ann Francis to a 'healthier' and less reclusive existence back on Earth. Alta, Ann Francis's character, is happy, innocent and well cared-for by her doting father and the technology that she has been provided with, whereas Walter Pidgeon's Morbius only wants time to study the ancient wisdom of the Krell race. Yet Morbius's unknowing massacre of the colony by his 'Id' was designed to provide seclusion for his wife and daughter; when his wife died of natural causes shortly after, Morbius seems happy that the superficiality of his short marriage has been unconsciously recreated on Altair with his daughter - even at the expense of her personal development.
Forbidden Planet not only utilises the 'Mad Scientist's Daughter' trope, but analyses and resolves it as an integral part of the core plot and the motivations of the central characters. Very few films were to add that kind of depth to the 'Electran dynamic', and perhaps only the relationship between Deborah Kerr and her aged poet-father Cyril Delevanti in Tennessee Williams' Night Of The Iguana (1964) bothers to do so again.
Which brings us back to 1963, to Doctor Who, and to the use of an increasingly clichéd Electran dynamic that would ultimately prove to be politically problematic. If Susan ever had to be written out (as she did), it was neither reasonable to write in a 'handy' new blood-relative for the Doctor, nor proprietous for an old and strange man to gad about the universe with an unchaperoned young woman. The net curtains would have been twitching all over the cosmos.
Instead, a series of revolving male companions entered and exited the TARDIS in the Hartnell/Troughton years, and the show generally retained the wholesomeness of a school coach-trip gone wrong. With the advent of the Jon Pertwee era, the Doctor's exile on Earth was so permeated by regular characters from UNIT that Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was able to survive a season without any other official companions; as a doctor herself, the character was also more mature than her predecessors, both in terms of age and outlook. And the 'golden age' of classic Doctor Who was beginning.
With the waters tested, and with Mary Whitehouse more worried about on-screen violence than any hint of in-TARDIS nookie, the show swapped the cheerful-but-safe Caroline John for 21 year-old glam swinger Jo Grant (Katy Manning), whose two seasons with Doctor Who would forever cement the Electran relationship as the most successful configuration for the show.
By this time the sexual tension between the Time Lord and his lone female companion was not only apparent, but increasingly part of the success of Doctor Who. When Katy Manning finally left Pertwee's Doctor for 'a younger version' of himself in The Green Death, it was one of the show's emotional milestones, and only the second time that The Doctor had got so much as a kiss on the cheek (as he had done from Zoë in The War Games).
The 'partings' became increasingly tender, even when they were underplayed, as with Leela's apparently-insouciant departure from Tom Baker's Doctor at the end of The Invasion of Time. The Leela/Baker relationship had been fashioned by Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes after the 'Pygmalion' model, wherein the Doctor's role as 'educator' would be re-emphasised. Together with lines such as "You're a beautiful woman, probably", as said by Baker's Doctor to Countess Scarlioni in City Of Death, the production seemed to be actively pulling back from hints of TARDIS-bound nookie.
But the ever-diminishing age-gap between The Doctor and his assistants combined with the producers' wish to 'get the dads watching' (for instance, via Leela's skimpy costume) to give Doctor Who a fairly charged sexual air - for anyone over ten years old.
If ever The Doctor was presented by his ideal match in an assistant, it was in the casting of Lalla Ward's 'Romana' in 1978; a Time Lord herself, Romana was at least an intellectual equal to the Doctor, and once the problematic earlier casting of Mary Tamm had been dispensed with, it seemed that the Doctor's decades-long TARDIS dating-game (if we can assume that of him!) might finally have produced the goods.
Even Tom Baker was convinced, as he married Lalla Ward in real life and went on to take the character of The Doctor further into the realms of romance than he had ever been, in a series of Australian commercials for 'Prime Computers' in 1980:
Baker's marriage to Ward was not to last any longer than The Doctor's domestic felicity. By the time Peter Davison took over the role in 1980/81, the TARDIS was as crowded as it had ever been, and stayed that way for some years. Matthew Waterhouse's Adric was not proving a popular substitute for Ian Marter and the male companions of old, while Sarah Sutton's Nyssa and Janet Fielding's Tegan were either merely doe-eyed or antipathetic to The Doctor. When show-runner John Nathan-Turner responded to complaints about the toe-to-neck cover up of the female assistants by practically stripping them naked in season 20 and introducing their successor Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) in a revealing bikini in The Caves Of Androzani, it was clear that Doctor Who was yet again vacillating between its original mission as a children's show and the fact that so many of the children who had watched it were now all grown up.
The Doctor had apparently refrained from any assistant-oriented impropriety for over twenty years, but since he kept getting younger and more appealing to a female demographic, it seemed increasingly more difficult to write a convincing Electran relationship with no 'incestuous' subtext. John Nathan-Turner seemed to be handling the thorny problem by making female assistants such as Tegan and Peri actively combative with The Doctor; apparently it was better not to think about why they stayed together in the face of so much argument than to wonder how an attractive man and woman could enjoy each other's company through exciting adventures and never 'take it further'.
Sixth Doctor Colin Baker conspired with Nicola Bryant to play 'against the lines' when Doctor Who returned from an 18-month hiatus in 1986 with Trial Of A Time Lord. It was a pleasure both for the actors and viewers alike to watch Colin Baker's Doctor walking arm-in-arm with Peri through the forests of Ravalox in The Mysterious Planet, reciting Robert Holmes' antagonistic dialogue like two lovers teasing each other...
Peri was killed in the following story.
Though no reason for the chopping and changing of assistants ever seems to emerge from the otherwise excellent extras on Doctor Who DVD releases, those for Trial do reveal that the death of Peri was a last-minute script-change to Mind Warp. Perhaps those two were just getting on too well.
Therefore it was back-to-the-start with Bonnie Langford's exercise-obsessed Melanie Bush... and with all the assistants that were to follow, even up to this day, and the Karen Gillan era. There is no consummating an Electran relationship.
The Doctor has flirted a lot, and even - if you can accept it - even deflowered Elizabeth The First. We have yet to discover what relationship the character really has to Alex Kingston's admittedly untrustworthy 'River Song', but if she's kidding about having been his wife in the future (!), she's certainly done her homework, being the only character in the series to apparently know The Doctor's real name (you'd think the Gallifreyan High Council would at least have known this, but they never did).
Paul McGann's 1996 one-off Doctor Who TV film is a break from all this restraint, with the actor kissing assistant Dr. Grace Holloway. Officially that movie is canon, most particularly since Sylvester McCoy gave McGann the 'regeneration' that Colin Baker was denied, and since McGann's Doctor forms part of the counting that makes Matt Smith's Doctor No.11; but it's something a lot of fans try and 'unsee' as an out-of-character excursion.
No assistant in mainstream Who seemed to make a bigger in-road into The Doctor's emotions than Billie Piper and her three-season stint as Rose Tyler. The connection between the two characters was so strongly emphasised that Rose was ultimately left with a 'half-human', cloned version of The Doctor, able to live out a normal life with him in a parallel dimension (in 2008's 'Journey's End').
Like Doctor Who, a lot of TV shows face the problem of whether or not to pay off growing sexual tension, mindful of the negative effect that doing this had on Moonlighting in the 1980s. Currently J.J. Abrams' SF/horror show Fringe is in a stage of hot/cold deliberation as to whether or not Peter and Olivia will get together. But the producers of Fringe don't realistically have to face the possibility that their show will still be running in twenty years; nor do they have nearly a half-century's worth of canon and other baggage to negotiate in making the decision.
Does The Doctor deserve love at last? Every time he comes near, the producers du jour seem to fire the assistant in question or re-boot the show. On the one hand, the character started out as a grandfather; on the other hand many of the Doctor Who novels have established that the Time Lords do not reproduce sexually, but are grown in 'genetic looms', whereas the series itself has never been that specific (that said, the same novels maintain that The Doctor is an exception, evidenced by his unusual possession of a belly-button!).
There's nothing to stop Steven Moffat or his successors from breaking with fifty years of ascetic self-restraint in the TARDIS; except that it's perhaps more enticing 'to chase' than 'to catch'; and that it's worth considering that Doctor Who itself is still likely to outlive any relationship the current Doctor might embroil himself in, thus obviating any hope of a truly 'happy ending' for a love-match. And without at least that shred of hope, what's the point?
Perhaps if the show's original creators had demonstrated a little more forethought, we wouldn't be in this mess of Electran futility.
And perhaps the show would have ended in 1972, if that had been the case.
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