The language of Doctor Who, Part 2
Following on from part 1 of this series, our second lexicographer takes the reins and looks into the language of Doctor Who throughout the years.
Ticket to ride: the 1960s
Some of the best stories for this are when Who is going through one of its periodic phases of self-reinvention. Take The War Machines (1966): for the first time since he dematerialized out of Foreman’s Yard, the First Doctor is back in the ‘here and now’. The production team, wooing a new teen audience, are dumping the ‘educational’ stories and are heading straight for the Inferno – the most ‘with it’ club in town. With her Twiggy hair, make-up, and miniskirts, the Doctor’s new companion, Polly Wright, is Swinging London personified. Unmissable – if only for the First Doctor’s response to being complimented: ‘dig your fab gear!’
In The Invasion (1968), the Second Doctor has an early encounter with feminism in the unlikely form of Isobel Watkins – model and would-be photographer, clad in vertiginous, lipstick-print minidress and feather boa. ‘Of all the bigoted, anti-feminist… Oh you, you MAN, you!’ she rages at the Brig (who won’t let her go and photograph Cybermen in a sewer). By the end of the show, though, she’s bagged the photographs, the coveted job – and the handsome Captain Knight. ‘Here comes my dolly [attractive] soldier’, she chirps, appropriating an adjective generally used by men about women.
RHIP (rank has its privileges): the 1970s
When the Third Doctor comes down to 1970s Earth, his UNIT ‘family’ continues to provide a window on contemporary British culture. It’s Captain Mike Yates (twenties, officer-class) who gets to take Jo Grant (niece of a diplomat) out on the town. Well he would have, if the Doctor hadn’t whisked her off to planet Peladon. Meanwhile, Benton – newly promoted from Corporal to Sergeant – fetches Jo tea on command and addresses her as ‘Miss’.
It’s not all tea, sewers and ascending hemlines, though. Sci-fi frequently holds a mirror up to the social and political concerns of its day, and Who is no exception. The way the thirtieth-century Earth colonists exploit and oppress the people of Solos in The Mutants (1972) reflects the increasing prevalence of this narrative of Empire on late-twentieth century Earth. And, while ‘Mutt’ (as applied to ‘the natives’ by their colonial masters) obviously refers to their ‘mutation’, it also echoes the derogatory ‘Munt’ used by Apartheid-era white South Africans, Zimbabweans and Zambians of black Africans.
Well cool? The 1980s
The Eighties sees the advent of the Doctor’s first ‘American’ companion, Peri. Poor Peri. Not only does she get leched over by assorted villains and alien life-forms across time and space– she gets lectured on her use of language, too. ‘Do try and speak English, Peri,’ admonishes the Fifth Doctor (after she refers to the two of them as ‘the fall guys’). And the Sixth Doctor is driven into a spluttering fit of outrage by her denomination of Professor Arthur Stengos as ‘this guy we’ve come to see’. Thus illustrating both the ubiquity of American usage (guy had been over here a while by 1986), and the frequently negative reaction it provokes. For once, the Doctor’s definitely on the side of the Establishment.
With the Seventh Doctor we’re well into my own personal Nostalgia Zone. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a ‘my’ Doctor. But Ace was definitely ‘my’ companion – a sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent with a tendency to exclaim ‘Ace!’ or ‘Wicked!’ at the slightest provocation (also, occasionally, ‘Gordon Bennett!’, which sounds more like someone’s Dad). I thought she was brilliant (She blew up her school Chemistry lab! She wore a leather jacket! She had that massive ghetto-blaster!).
Sixteen years is a pretty short hop for a TARDIS. And ‘new’ Who (surely the show’s biggest self-reinvention to date) dusts off the mirror and gets straight to work. On us. In World War Three (2005), the Prime Minister provides ‘absolute proof’ of the existence of WMDs ‘capable of being deployed within 45 seconds’. And when Donna protests the lot of the Ood slaves (Planet of the Ood, 2008), the Doctor asks her: ‘Who do you think made your clothes?’
Like it or loathe it, another of the most thoroughly ‘now’ aspects of regenerated Who is its (post-) postmodern self-referentiality. ‘Spoilers,’ purrs River Song, through hallucinogenic lipstick; withholding information about the future from the Doctor and key plot twists from the audience. Her character is a walking, talking embodiment of the internet message boards frequented by more devoted fans; she knows all the things—the Doctor’s name, his future—Whovians would like to know but know they shouldn’t. Her catchphrase is gently mocking; the writers are reminding us – in the midst of our suspension of disbelief – that, yes, it’s just a TV show (albeit a cult classic). This may invite the conclusion that Doctor Who has finally disappeared (with a loud vworp-vworp) up its own space-time vortex; but they know they’ll get away with it. In our heart-of-hearts, after 50 years with the Doctor—we don’t really believe them.