Five Hundred Eyes

"It's the Jagaroth who need all the chickens, is it?"

Surrealism in Doctor Who

by Ian Levy

Don't you think that the term "the Surrealists" is positively mischievous in its implications of neat homogeneity? So do I, so instead of plunging in with dubious definitions, I'll use up some space by showing off and quoting some names ...

In the field of painting two well-known "Surrealist" figures are Salvador Dali (floppy watches; cf. The Edge of Destruction) and Rene Magritte (black bowler hats and strange white spheres; cf. The Prisoner passim). Which is the better painter is open to debate, but Dal' undoubtedly has the edge when it comes to titles : it's not every artist who can call a painting 'Atmospheric Skull Sodomising A Grand Piano' or 'Ordinary French Bread With Two Fried Eggs, Without A Plate, On Horseback, Trying To Sodomise A Crumb Of Portuguese Bread' and get away with it ...

In literature the seminal figure (not counting Maeterlinck and his fey, Romantic, Symbolist stuff, naturally) was August Strindberg who, having taken the naturalism (ie. suicide and syphilis) of Zola, Ibsen and Chekhov to its ne plus ultra with his laugh-a-minute play 'Dodsdansen' ('The Dance of Death'), then reacted violently against it with his surrealist triptych 'Til Damaskus' ('To Damascus'), 'Ett dromspell' ('A Dream Play') and 'Spoksonaten' ('The Ghost Sonata').

(Incidentally, Strindberg also wrote a krazee autobiographical novel describing a period of his life in fin de siecle Parisian Bohemia during which he was apparently suffering from acute alcohol poisoning, paranoid schizophrenia and psoriasis all at the same time; this fascinating human document was called 'Inferno', which, by a truly remarkable coincidence, is also the title of A DOCTOR WHO STORY.)

Anyway, these three plays sort of, like, began it all, if you see what I mean, influencing such later writers as Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett (whose 'En attendant Godot' sometimes plagiarises 'A Dream Play' to the detail) and Franz Kafka.

That's all very well, I hear you cry, but what exactly IS surrealism, wither as a visual or literary artistic movement? What indeed, and how has it influenced some crappy little TV show called, if I remember rightly, Doctor Who? (Answer to latter question: precious little, unfortunately, but all in good time ...)

Well, in the first place, surrealism is the opposite of realism (I should get paid for this!). What is portrayed in surrealist art Cannot Happen In Real Life (whatever THAT is). Does this mean that a mysterious alien flitting around the universe in a telephone box (or, more recently, a prat with an umbrella flitting around remarkably bad sets in a telephone box) is "surreal"? Probably not, 'cos the concept, although obviously "unreal", does have its own interior, imaginary "realism", just as, say, Tolkien's dreadful books do. (Ooh, we're going to get letters about that ...) The telephone box, we are told, is an illusion maintained by technological trickery - the Chameleon Circuit (or "Shameleon Circuit", as Uncle Tom would say). We can accept that and get on with watching the story (or, more recently, get on with doing something totally different, having set the video to record the story, assuming, that is, that you can be bothered to even set the video, which is extremely unlikely nowadays, the show being such a heap of guano). (Editor's note - Ian is, of course, taking the piss here, so don't write to me about unnecessary bias in FHE.) By contrast, the main rule about surrealism is that there are no rules, no internally-coherent set of constants, if you like. And therefore no explanations - no NEED of explanations, in fact. As the Mad Swede put it : "Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns; a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble ..."

Anything goes - this has always been at the root of surrealism, although one should obviously note the subtle shift from the 19th-century "Expressionism" with its really fantastic imagery (eg. buildings that are also giant flowers (man, that's MELLOW!)), to 20th-century "Absurdism" which is just a shade closer to reality, often being set in familiar locations, and rather more frigid in its vicariously- masochistic cynicism and pessimism.

It works in three ways. Firstly, by depicting totally imaginary objects, such as Magritte's weird spheres. Secondly, by depicting (relatively) ordinary, banal objects in unusual contexts and so lending them a mysterious appearance of significance (Dali's fried eggs, or the lovely pennyfarthings in the The Prisoner). Thirdly, by depicting sudden shifts in perception: for example, a kneeling man in Dali's 'Metamorphosis Of Narcissus' is also made to look like a giant hand clutching an egg. The Prisoner exploited this rather well, with people and locations vanishing or changing in an instant, great blobs of ectoplasm appearing from out of fountains, etc., etc.

It is important to remember that none of this, as you've probably gathered, necessarily MEANS anything at all. Surrealism aims to shatter and poke fun at ALL framing conventions, including the stodgy assumptions of conventional symbolism. The fishes and fried eggs may well have some hidden meaning - or they may not. Anarchy rules, if you'll forgive the phrase.

By thus destroying all certainties, surrealism quite deliberately aims to induce PARANOIA in the watcher, to reproduce the feelings of disconnectedness, schizophrenia and alienation which are felt to be a natural response to life in the 20th century. The doodles and drawings of schizophrenics have one constantly-repeated motif - the staring, all-seeing EYE, and this ultimate image of paranoia recurs in Magritte's work, where men have their heads replaced by single huge eyeballs ...

(If you've got this far you may be wondering what's happened to Doctor Who. Gentle reader, your patience will now be rewarded ...)

Now, Doctor Who has undoubtedly tried on occasions to be weird and "surreal". The Matrix escapade in The Deadly Assassin goes some way towards satisfying the criteria. We have a series of weird, alarming, disconnected images thrown at us in a rapid series of perception-shifts: to wit, a crocodile; a Samurai warrior wearing a chillingly sinister, corpse-grey Noh mask; a mad surgeon brandishing a giant hypodermic; a gasmasked World War I soldier; a giant green egg; a clown; and so on and so forth. There is a very strong atmosphere of paranoia: the bulk of the episode three depicts the Doctor being remorselessly hunted down by a rifle-toting assassin with no face. Then there are the Wherever sequences in Kinda. Again we have the perception-shifts: Tegan splits into dozens of Tegans, Dukkha vanishes and reappears. Again we have the paranoia: Tegan is taunted and tormented by some thing she does not understand. (Incidentally, Tegan's whole experience of being somehow detatched from and outside her body, and of her body being "taken over" by some outside force, is a very common delusion among genuine schizophrenics.) And we have images which may or may not have a hidden significance: Anicca (= Impermanence) and Anatta (= Impersonality) playing chess on a strange hexagonal board. (Not to mention whalebones, windmills and wibbers.)

(It's probably a coincidence, but the presentation of the Wherever in Kinda is remarkably like that used at the turn of the century in putting on productions of Maeterlinck's symbolist plays, namely: "... white phantoms sitting motionless in the half-dark intoning monotonously ...") (Sounds like the Trek room at a convention to me.)

The trouble with Doctor Who's attempts in this field, however, is that they have always been hedged around by the fictional conventions of the series itself, instead of breaking out of that framework. Even Warrior's Gate, for all that story's admirable narrative complexity (and it would have been a lot less enigmatic on screen if Steve Gallagher had had his way), is there to tell a story, and ultimately quite a simple one with a Lettsian moral message (ie. yesterday's oppressed are tomorrow's oppressors, and vice versa). A truly surreal Doctor Who would have to be one that dispensed with conventional "narrative" altogether ...

Everything flows from this. Let's look at some other aspects of surrealism. Dreams, hallucinations, dream-like, 'A Dream Play' ... Explicitly, surrealism tries to portray the dream experience in concrete form, "to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream." (Strindberg.) For the surrealist artist, as for Freud, dreams were felt to be windows into the unconscious, into a reality somehow higher and more primal than the physical world. The unconscious mind has long been regarded thus, and ways of unleashing it (not infrequently using through the use of ingestible chemicals) have long been sought after and revered. The visions of saints and holy men; the Romantic linking of genius with madness; Coleridge and De Quincey getting thoroughly zonked on laudanum; the theosophical ecstasies of the composer Alexander Scriabin; the psychedelia of the 60s LSD culture (as Hunter Thompson, writing about the Hashbury hippies, put it : "Who needs jazz, or even beer, when you can sit down on a public kerbstone, drop a pill in your mouth, and hear fantastic music for hours at a time in your own head? A cap of good acid costs $5, and for that you can hear the Universal symphony, with God singing solo, and the Holy Ghost on drums."); - these are all manifestations of the same basic belief in the importance of the dream/hallucination-state, and surrealism shares this belief, often with a particular emphasis on the aberrant or DISTURBED psyche.

Problem: Doctor Who is not going to be used as a vehicle for portraying whatever goes on in Doctor Who writers' deep dark mind-wells as long as those writers are striving after cosy coherence. The best we can hope for is the decaffinated version, where writers agree to peel away the id like onion leaves, so long as it's not THEIR id that's being peeled, their dreams and fears that are being portrayed - but those of the characters in the story! In Kinda, therefore, Dukkha, Anatta and Anicca represent Tegan's subconscious perceptions of the Doctor, Nyssa and Adric. In The Mind Robber Jamie and Zoe are lured from the TARDIS by false images of what they unconsciously wish to see - Scotland and the Wheel respectively. Outside the TARDIS they are confronted by weird, dream-like distortions of what they unconsciously fear they will come up against in those very places: Clockwork Soldiers (ie. Redcoat troops) and White Robots (ie. Cybermen). (You think THIS article is getting out of control?!? Elsewhere in this 'zine David is gibbering on about pigs!)

The Celestial Toymaker tries to be a bit more adventurous by having its protagonists face up to unconscious dream-terrors which are rather more universal - in this case the malevolent 'Alice in Wonderland' of the nursery- school as it really is: full of the jealousy, spite and fear of the helpless and unprotected child. But here too, Toymaker is fatally crippled by its dwelling on the particulars of a PLOT which, like that of Warrior's Gate, Kinda and The Mind Robber, is pretty straight-forward when stripped of its surrealist trimmings.

So we come back to the central question: why does Doctor Who not try to be truly surreal for four or six episodes by abandoning coherent narrative? Because Doctor Who is, by its very nature, exactly the opposite of what surrealism is finally all about. Surrealism aims to shock, to smash accepted conventions, to deliberately spit in the eye of all that is secure, comfortable and bourgeois. The home of surrealism is a film like Luis Bu-uel's 'L'Age d'Or' (1930), the (reportedly) shocking scenes of which (toe-sucking!) caused George Orwell to recoil with an almost comically fastidious shudder of horror.

If Doctor Who tried to go non-narrative, even for a short while, the viewers would be up in arms. The destruction of its own narrative conventions would be the most shocking thing Doctor Who could ever do, and just as thought-provoking as any amount of explicit moralising or explicit violence. And Doctor Who will never take that risk as long as it remains the secure, optimistic, comfortable, bourgeois show it always has been.

Indeed, the only television drama programme which approaches real (!) surrealism is The Prisoner; more specifically, the infamous final episode 'Fall Out', which caused the ATV switchboard to stage a mini-meltdown after it had been screened in 1968. 'Fall Out' was only possible because a single, strong-willed individual seized absolute, personal control of the programme- making apparatus before anyone realised what was happening; as soon as they did, Lew Grade and the appalled American buyers pulled the plug on The Prisoner, pronto!

What chance of Doctor Who getting such a producer with such vision? We certainly won't get it in Season 25 from John ("Art should be there to soothe the mind, not make it think") Nathan-Turner. (I credit the achievements of Warrior's Gate and Kinda to Gallagher and Bailey respectively, and above all to Bidmead. The Matrix scenes in The Ultimate Foe show just what happens when JN-T and co. try their hand at something quite outside their limited capabilities ...)

Ironically, the one producer who has had the courage to approach even remotely the ethos of the surreal was Graham Williams - whom Ian Levine sneeringly described as "a weak producer"; whose ideal script-editor, Douglas Adams, JN-T mocked as being "very, very keen on two things: on the juvenile silliness and the sending-up."

True, the Williams/Adams team stuck to coherent "plots" - the SUBLIME City of Death shows just how important the intricacies of plot details were to them. But by emphasising the actual show's own fictionality to an extent that no one, not even Hinchcliffe, had done before them, they did something that was truly revolutionary - they pricked the cosy bubble of "belief" that Doctor Who had up to then operated within. Coherent they may have been, conventional they most certainly were not! (Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that the explicitly self-referential approach should be the ONLY one; I enjoy exciting, "realistic" stories as much as anyone. I'm only saying that it was enormously refreshing and different at the time, and should be attempted again.)

And the result? Mindless execration on the part of "fans" who are only now beginning to realise that they didn't know when they were well off!

Perhaps for "surrealism" to work in Doctor Who we don't need a different type of producer so much as a different type of fan audience - one that will not unthinkingly reject whatever goes against its jaded expectations.*

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