by Alan McKee
Paul Magrs is a consumer and a producer of cult media. He has written many novels, which can be broadly divided into two groups. His working-class magic-realist 'literary' novels - including Marked for Life (1995), Could it be Magic (1997), and All the Rage (2001) - have been extremely highly regarded, and reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. His Doctor Who novels - The Scarlet Empress (1998), The Blue Angel (1999), Verdigris (2000) and Mad Dogs and Englishmen (2001) have not been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. They are, however, highly regarded by many Doctor Who fans; and despised by many others. These novels - born of a love for British popular culture in general, and Doctor Who in particular - have rewritten the adventures of the BBC's time-travelling hero as a series of self-referential fictions; as a conspiracy faked by an arm of the British government; and as the dreams of a mentally-challenged man living in a working-class council estate. They have featured dragons, robotic sheep, and nasty parodies of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Straddling the consumer/producer boundary, Paul manages to play both roles simultaneously - as do many fans of cult media.
This interview is part of a wider project that aims to approach the question - central to Cultural Studies - of the relationship between culture and politics, from a new direction. Rather than taking abstracted concepts from political philosophy - such as 'ideology' and 'hegemony' - and using them to read political stances from texts, which are then imposed on readers, the project approaches the relationship from the other side: by asking people who consume particular texts (through choice) to articulate their own politics, and to discuss these in relation to the program they choose to watch. In this way, it is hoped that the relationships between 'culture' and 'politics' can be understood in a more nuanced way than is possible with the use only of determinedly high-level political-philosophical concepts.
The interview is annotated in two ways: firstly to suggest how the discussion might be relevant to thinking about relationships between culture and politics; and secondly to facilitate interpretation of some of the slightly more opaque discussions of Doctor Who it includes.
AM: How would you describe your own politics?
PM: God. Ehm. I'm quite lazy, in the sense of watching things and being cross [comments like this in the interviews for this project have brought home to me just how limting is the Marxist-derived political philosophy so often employed by Cultural Studies for trying to understand everyday political thinking and behaviour. There is, in the cold-war binary ethos of reactionary/progressive - or cognate terms - by which we continue to judge culture, no place for the messy, contradictory and everyday politics which most people live. A conscious awareness that one finds it difficult to 'watch things and be cross' - an inspired definition of traditional politics - is surely not the same thing as simply being 'reactionary', or 'progressive']… and everybody's appalled that I don't make stand-up statements about things, and didn't vote at the last election, because it was raining. But it's obvious, even to me, that that's a cover up for something else. I would resent the suggestion that it's my generational apathy. I think I'm a more engaged than that. But Jeremy's [Paul's boyfriend] always amazed that I know as little as I do about things.
AM: Do you think of yourself as political in any sense?
PM: Yes, I do. I still hope you're making statements of some kind, you're producing [culture], so you're always engaged with it, every act you do is political. And because I can't let go of things, I will bang on about things. I think I probably am political. Yeah, I get worked up about things. I think because I came up through a generation of very serious people involved in student politics, I kind of removed myself from that, kept away from it, but I do get worked up.
AM: What do you get cross about?
PM: Privilege, ease, stupidity, ignorance, people making broad sweeping statements about things they know nothing about. The usual kind of race and gender stuff. Blair offering America anything they want, you know, like "Point us out any enemy you care to mention and we'll give you anything you want, because this is democracy and freedom" - just the stupidity of that, toadying.
AM: Is that linked to a political project?
PM: I suppose it's about faith, responding to moments of people allowing themselves to get sucked into some narrative not of their own making, that they've just kind of linked on to some kind of easy line. And I think it is about response to bad faith, it just comes easier to them just to go along with it and not think about it
AM: So you don't have a utopian vision?
PM: I think I used to. I'm not even sure what it was. But I don't think I do now. I think it's just about getting older. Realising the extent of my own bad faith.
AM: So you're not waiting for the revolution to come?
PM: No, no. It's interesting in sixties novels, what's leaping out of Michael Moorcock and Doris Lessing is: "Well, it takes a lot of energy, doesn't it, to have a revolution, and we're dissipating it in talk". How do we get the energy back? And it's endless. I mean, it was the generation that spent its time waiting for the revolution to happen, it's going to happen the day after tomorrow. I left a place - the North East, working class North East - where there was none of that sense. You just got on with it. Intellectuals won't do it for you. And they never did. It's always this sense of disenfrachisement, coming from the North.
AM: How do you feel about traditional party politics?
PM: It's kind of like if you were going to talk about why Robbie Williams is really a continuation of the poetic tradition [a point I had made earlier in the discussion, making fun of English Professors who wail about the fact that 'young people' aren't interested in poetry anymore - my position being that poetry has never had a bigger audience; it is simply set to music in youth culture], you'd have to work your way through that narrative, there's no easy jumping-in point, unless you just start to fictionalise it and make your own free-standing utterances. Same with politics, you see - I wouldn't do the long apprenticeship.
AM: Do you see your own writing as a political act?
PM: Yes. To start with, it was quite simple. I didn't know books that wrote about people or places or things that I knew. And I just assumed that that would be welcome. That's what fiction does, it shows you those things. And then realising that it doesn't. Literary fiction is as specialised and parochial as any genre. So breaking into that was always a political thing, rubbing their noses in it, this is what living in a new town in the seventies was. And you need to know about this, because this is a crucial moment that you will miss, because you're listening to Drabble, or whoever, going on about what they thought was important. That easy assumption that a degree from Cambridge or Oxford entitles you to salient cultural knowledge and this wealth of experience, that's nonsense. I think it would disqualify you. Shoving everything into the books, owning up to your own experience, that's political. And that does come from a position where you refuse to see the distinction between high and low culture - to bring in Sontag alongside Are You Being Served. You should be able to take that for granted. And it's not resistance from above, from the generations who went before. They love it - they all wanted to be doing that in the sixties. I think it's more from younger kids, really. They think it should be separated out, and nice and discrete. I think I'm always in a position of making things more complicated, and that's a political act. Saying, No, it's more complex than that. And more ridiculous than that. I think that's a political act.
AM: Is it about getting more aspects of culture, different groups of people into the public sphere? Working class culture becomes part of the public sphere, so you can no longer call them "the masses" and treat them as …
PM: Yeah, but that whole kind of politics of representation thing is something that's always pissed me off as well, because it is something that's easily co-opted. And it is repressive at one level, letting a few faggots on, doing their own shows on Channel 4 at midnight, and everything's OK then. I've never been interested in those distinctions. Which is why I've never got on with having my own TV show, which is something that could well have happened if I'd played the game nicely. You can have literary novels written by working class people about working class people, but they still have to obey certain rules, they still have to be Realist with a big R, still. Which is why we end up with Irvine Welsh. Or the new puritan thing where it's middle class boys loving working class culture and reinventing realism for this generation. It's entirely within its place, and it's quite nice but you're not allowed to take on what mainstream literary fiction's been doing at the same time, you can't respond to magical realism, you're not supposed to, that's being ridiculously ambitious. And you can't take all of that stuff and then write through a TV show for kids.
AM: To what extent does Coronation Street address these issues? It's working class, with a certain realist impulse but also anti-realist elements, in its grand camp melodramatic elements, and use of vaudevillian comedy traditions.
PM: That's not how it's seen, and that's what I love about Corrie - and spending the summer two streets away from it [the set in Manchester], I've been absorbed by it all over again and thinking about it - is it began aping the social realist novels of the fifties. When you hear Beryl Bainbridge, who was it in at one point, talking about it, she comes out with the usual crap that it's just following on from John Osborne on telly, and it's not, I mean Tony Warren is a big fag writer who knew what he was talking about. I mean, Elsie Tanner begins looking in the mirror, she's Joan Crawford, and she's aware that she's Joan Crawford, she's a character who grew up with 1930s' women's pictures. Then you get the comedy, the music hall act turning up, Ena Sharples is Hilda Baker, she's Audrey Webber from the music hall. And it pulls them together on one set, in the same genre, but still with a commitment to the voices and the language that he grew up with. Which is why I like that Russell [Davies, creator and writer of British TV series Queer as Folk, as well as of Doctor Whonovel Damaged Goods], bless him, is doing Bob and Rose [ITV series about a gay man who falls in love with a woman] and yes, there's all sorts of sell-out things about representation you can say about moving to ITV, whatisname [Bob and Rose star Alan Davies, best known for BBC drama Jonathon Creek] trying to look queer, and he looks bollocks, but Russell still has that commitment to where he comes from [Manchester], and of course it is the most interesting and geographically emblematic space, Deansgate and Canal Street, in the middle of the city, two rows of lounge bars where you get people out on the pull, and of course those stories are going to happen, you've located it. It's a matter of yards from Corrie row, Tony Warren looked at that years before. And they're staying true to that. But not seeing it just as social realism at all, it's drawing upon the stuff you can buy, what also goes into Corrie is how it screens novels of the forties, about prostitutes and show girls, and businessmen in Manchester, and how it does that very knowingly. They're entirely camp, those novels, but also with touches of noir-ish stuff as well. It's always in the blend. And Corrie is massive, it's a huge influence, on everything I've done.
AM: So what about Doctor Who? How does that fit into these discussions about class and culture? Why does Doctor Who always end up in country houses? Why isn't it until year twenty-six that they can actually get into a council flat, in the second-last episode of the program ever? [Survival, by Rona Munro, the last ever regular Doctor Who story, broadcast in 1989, features the Doctor taking his companion Ace to visit the suburb from which she originally came]. Why is that?
PM: I don't see it as that. The first Doctor Who story for me is David Whitaker's novel [Doctor Who and the Daleks. This was based on the second Doctor Who story broadcast - variously named The Mutants, The Dead Planet or The Daleks, depending on the sources one consults. However, as it was envisaged on this book's release that the first broadcast story - 100,000 BC or An Unearthly Child - would not be turned into a novel, this book invented a different origin for the series], and it begins with Ian Chesterton in his digs, that novel really is a pastiche of Nell Dunn, and it begins on Barnes' Common, it is Up the Junction, and that's where it begins for me - with Ian Chesterton in his digs. I've got a whole parallel Doctor Who in my head, which is not about stately homes. They're literary tropes, the stately home as it would be in Angus Wilson. It's a joke, it's like Angela Carter using the mansion as the mother's gothic dead body, they're straight out of horror fiction, it's not about representation in that way. But for me there is a parallel Doctor Who which stems from David Whitaker's Ian, which is why I end up doing The Blue Angel, which is social realist anyway - it's all about tranquilizer withdrawal - where the Doctor actually does live in a three-up, two-down house. The stately homes are about tropes from old stories. Stories that involve flats or houses - ordinary people's places - belong to a different genre. They were part of adventure stories, but they were thrillers and Doctor Who never quite did that.
AM: I have a huge chip on my shoulder about classed culture. I find the thoughtless reiteration of high culture as innately worthwhile incredibly annoying. And yet so much of the culture that I have a real emotional response to - whether it's Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories - is about this fantastic, upper-middle class world. I treated myself to June Whitfield playing Miss Marple in the Radio 4 adaptation on tape yesterday, and there's this whole scene in 4.50 From Paddington where she comes in and says to this patriarch, in his big country house, "Oh it's so wonderful to have this gorgeous old house, the suburbs building up around you, you've managed to keep this area untouched". And that's it - managed to keep this kind of old country house. Why do I have such an emotional response to that?
PM: Nostalgia for what you never had?
AM: Exactly. But I should hate it. My politics ….
PM: Like The Avengers, It's not just Doctor Who, it's grabbing The Avengers and putting them into my work, but I love bringing them down to earth in some way. It's a kind of physical thing, grabbing those things that you like, that were never quite right because they didn't belong to your world, they were a complete fantasy, and pulling them into what you do know. Line them up and see how they crash. That is quite visceral, I think, to do that. At some level I must be wondering why I like those things, which on one level had nothing to do with where I was. And The Blue Angel was about - what would the Doctor look like in the precinct down our town? And what made me write the first one, having left the Virgin books behind [the first series of officially licensed spin-off Doctor Who books, 'The New Adventures', was produced by Virgin Publishing between 1991 and 1997], the first one I read after that was Russell's, [Davies] Damaged Goods, where he does the council estate, and I was like, why am I not doing this?
AM: The need to grasp it, to bring it down to a world that we are familiar with - is this from a sense of dissatisfaction?
PM: Yeah. That's why you do it.
AM: So there is a sense of dissatisfaction with these programs, even as you love them. And is that about politics?
PM: Yeah, they weren't written for me.
AM: But still we love them.
PM: It's always that childish thing - it's not written exactly for me. It almost might be, but it's not quite. Why can't you meet the Sisterhood of Karn [camp cultists of Tom Baker story The Brain of Morbius], and then turn up in Ipswich town centre and explain what's going on there? I think for me there was a certain amount of queer father figure, growing up, in Tom Baker's doctor especially, wanting him to explain what was going on. But once you realise you can't have that participation, you try and bring it as close as you possibly can. Which is The Blue Angel, it's the Doctor going to queer bars, and shagging Fitz, and all of that.
AM: OK - here's Doctor Who. Here's Blue Peter. In many ways, they're similar. The accents are the same. The ideas about what's interesting are the same - the Doctor quotes Shakespeare, and Blue Peter gives you a condensed version of his life story. Blue Peter takes you back to learn worthy bits of history, just like the early Doctor Who. And yet I loathed Blue Peter. I wanted to slap their smug little faces
PM: Did you watch Magpie?
AM: I didn't really watch anything in that genre. When I was a kid, it was Are You Being Served, that was my children's TV. So why is it I still have this love for Doctor Who, I can overlook the accents, where I can't do it in Blue Peter?
PM: Because he was on our side, it was Tom [Baker], he was on our side, for whatever reason. You might look back now … he was queer, but not gay, because he became straighter because of all the kind of chemistry [with Lalla Ward, the actress who played his companion Romana, and then went on to marry Baker for a brief period]. You always felt he was on our side. He was a kid. Any establishment figures, he would mock, talking nonsense, and having that kind of grasshopper thing where he would just be off, onto the next thing that came into his head. He was naughty, I suppose.
AM: Describe the Doctor's politics.
PM: At which point? I think he changes. You're talking about an interventionist hero, a pacifist, and so it really depends on the writer, and that's what's so interesting, even on TV, it allows the writer to come in and use this, you create a status quo and then introduce a character who is going to change it somehow. And there's no way of reading any continuity with that, it changes each time. And what the writer creates as the thing to be changed can be, presumably, quite revealing, and what they have the Doctor do. And the point of doing Verdigris was to look at that - why is it different for that third Doctor [Jon Pertwee, 1970-1974], than it would be for the McGann Doctor [Paul McGann, eighth Doctor, who appeared in a one-off co-produced telemovie in 1996, and has since appeared in a series of audio adventures produced by Big Finish]? Who doesn't exist, that really is literally what the writer's going to make of him, you've got this kind of younger version of Tom Baker is how I always see him and that's more wide open than ever. But if you go back to an older Doctor, you are kind of wedged within those stories. And Verdigris really was a job of deconstruction. I mean, that's the reason that Iris [Wildthyme, Paul's creation of a distaff version of the Doctor - a renegade female Timelord] is there, to say, you're just a conservative old fart, you like getting this wage from the government, for pretending there's alien invasions, it's just a big scam, isn't it? And she's always disenfranchised. In that one it comes out that she came from quite a common end of Gallifrey, and is just getting herself in there. She stole a TARDIS because she's a dork, not because she was fed up with having it all too easy [the official reason for the Doctor abandoning his home planet]. But I do think it is to do with the different writers and the periods of the show. But the essential thing is, I suppose, that there are a whole set of status quos, and they need changing somehow, by somebody, and he has to go in and radically deconstruct it.
AM: I like a phrase from an American writer called Thomas McLaughlin, he talks about 'vernacular philosophy', making the point that philosophy is still seen to be something that happens in philosophy departments at university. When you study 'philosophy', you're taught about the writings of previous academics. They don't teach you about the thinking about philosophical questions that takes place outside the academy. His idea is to reclaim that term for thinking about how popular culture works, thinking about the questions that philosophy traditionally addresses - what does it mean to be human, what is a good life, how might we achieve it? I'm interested in science fiction in particular because as a genre, it can do thought experiments about how societies might be run …
PM: When I was at Lancaster University, somebody there was teaching Foucault all the time, and I was saying, how is that different from A Clockwork Orange? That's a novel, isn't that our business rather than Discipline and Punish? And he said, you have to realise that Foucault is much, much more important than Anthony Burgess ever will be in this kind of place. It's much more interesting for me to look at Malcolm McDowell as a kind of moveable feast through the films of the sixties, for example in O Lucky Man, still doing the same character. And the difference between Malcolm McDowell and how he's used as this kind of Alex figure in the sixties, to Ewan McGregor now, in the same kind of position. Why was it Alex, and the boy in If… and O Lucky Man, then, and why is it Obi Wan Kenobi and Iggy Pop now for Ewan McGregor? It's the same kind of position - the slightly kind of effete boy. Rather than going through Foucault - again!
AM: I'm interested in the kind of political philosophy that Doctor Who does. But from these interviews, I'm realising that there's no kind of consistent political philosophy in the program at all. Except for perhaps two things that are consistent. One is that there's bad and there's good, and you can never predict which side will be bad and which will be good, except that there will be bad, and there will be good, and the Doctor will know which side is bad and which side is good. And the good will be called 'rebels'. As soon as you call someone 'rebels', you know that they're good [one of the interesting findings of this research project was that many of the interviewees were easily able to produce interpretations of elements of Doctor Who in generic or aesthetic terms, with no need to link them to other parts of culture. So, for example, when asked, How do you know which group of people are the goodies on any planet, several interviewees gave answers in the form of 'whoever he gets captured by first']. So it is kind of anti-status quo. The status quo is always bad. Because you have to have conflict - that's a requirement of the story. Except on the earth stories, of course, when the status quo is good, and then you have to protect it.
PM: That's about the threat coming out from underneath, something that predates you - the Silurians, the Zygons, anything that is buried … that threatens ….
AM: The second thing I think goes through Doctor Who is a revolutionary politics - that you don't reform things gradually. You blow something up and then leave.
PM: That's an adventure trope. That's one of the great lost chances of Doctor Who, the kind of 'one hundred years on Earth' thing last year [a story arc across six of the BBC novels published in 2000 which saw the Doctor stranded on Earth for a hundred years]. Which is why I had nothing to do with that, I needed to work it out. But here was a chance to write novels, at last, that were diachronic rather than synchronic. We're talking about the form of the series, and they were always synchronic. You don't get five years in the life of Sarah Jane Smith [1970s companion]. I wish we did, because then you'd get the chance to see the shifts and developments. But actually they stuck to the adventure thing, which is: you go on a journey, you blow something up.
AM: I realise now that the stuff I like best is simple adventure stories. I like easy answers.
PM: The Blue Angel just stops and gives you questions, and the fans just hated that. And Iris gets a bad reception from some people because she can't be seen as good or bad, she's just muddling through. I think that's when I stand for something that's doing a bit more, when I do lose patience with the way popular narrative is read, the expectations of what you should be doing. Maybe there's a high culture judgement there, implicit in that. High culture is the place where … no I don't think so. There are genre complications in the literary novel as well.
AM: But your impatience with those restrictions leads you to try and rework the genre. Rather than simply sticking with high culture, and not engaging with the genre at all. There's still something there that's pulling you back.
PM: Well it's locating the restrictions and thinking, how do I fuck that up? I want to do a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel, or a Catherine Cookson one. Fuck those up. That's what it's about. I wanted to do, can't do it now because of The Eight Doctors [the first Doctor Who novel published by the BBC after it took the license back from Virgin, written by series stalwart Terrance Dicks, who has been writing for Doctor Who since 1969], fucking travesty, was a multi-Doctor story [it is now traditional on big anniversaries and to mark other events in the series' history to produce stories featuring more than one incarnation of the Doctor - see The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors, Dimensions in Time, The Eight Doctors, The Sirens of Time, The Infinity Doctors and The One Doctor] where they're stuck in a lift. Because The Scarlet Empress was this Arabian Nights, let's make it as big as possible, and as ridiculous as possible, but even there, they're on a bus and having breakfast. On TV, the closest they ever got to everyday life was to sit down for a meal. And there was almost a kind of erotic frisson about that, the idea that an adventure story can be grounded suddenly in that kind of bathos, those everyday things.
AM: The first episode of Survival does those kind of things.
PM: But it was still the south [of England], so it was still kind of alien …
AM: I can see that. But the thing that really spoke to me was Sunday afternoons, that was it, the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, when there's no revolutions going on, and there's no aliens invading [the first episode of Survival features the Doctor going to a supermarket, buying cheese and chasing stray cats, while Ace, his companion, wanders round her old haunts - park, community centre - looking for her old friends, but finding everywhere deserted]
AM: But that reminds me of all those … I was a great Puffin reader in the seventies, and it was all those kind of Alan Garner things where you begin the other way round to Doctor Who, you begin with the kids, and then gradually this world opens out to them. John Christopher as well. And of course I take those as read, I assume everybody's read those, and of course, people haven't [and many cultural critics haven't. The form of discussion in which Paul partakes throughout this interview - drawing the meaning out of texts by discussing them in relation to the cultural moment of their production, and the dense web of intertexts which might reasonably be assumed to inform both their production and their consumption - is one which is still, after thirty years of Cultural Studies, much more common in relation to high culture - 'the influences on the texts of James Joyce', for example - than it is in relation to popular culture. To find informed, learned scholarship about popular culture - that is, scholarship which knows its popular culture rather than scholarship which knows its academics who have written about popular culture - is still very rare] . I suppose they're all predicated on H G Wells, in one way or another.
AM: Are there any Doctor Who stories that you can't watch because the Doctor's actions, or attitudes, or politics, annoy you too much?
PM: I think it was the late [Sylvester] McCoys [seventh and last regular television Doctor, 1987-1989], I know we disagree on this, but the idea of the kind of arch manipulator I couldn't be doing with at all, and I find that I don't watch them, actually. But that's also because, as well, I think they're mostly not very well written, and there's not much wit in them. I like the kind of … blithe stuff of the earlier stories, back to the Tom Baker thing: there's a revolution, I'll sort that out, but I'll do it while I'm thinking about something else. It's camp: Oh, it's the biggest, most important thing you can think of, and I'll sort it out over there, meanwhile I'm making a blancmange or something. Although he never quite did that, did he? But that kind of reversal. There's something quite serious and sententious about the McCoy stories - we're talking about Evil. If anybody says the word Evil in capital letters…
AM: You know it's fantasy?
PM: Not fantasy … well I suppose when I think about fantasy, I'm thinking about things like Wilde's fairy tales, or E E Nesbitt, or Lewis Carroll. Fantasy talking about Good and Evil - fuck off. That's the thing about doing Mad Dogs [and Englishmen, Magrs' latest Doctor Who novel, in which a Tolkien figure is persuaded to rewrite his version of Lord of the Rings so that it features talking poodles rather than elves] and going into Tolkien - Tolkien's to blame for this kind of crap. That's the point at which British fantasy sells itself to America. And that's done very literally in Mad Dogs - when Tolkien dies, his wife sells it to George Lucas. It sells itself out by rediscovering allegory in that way. It wasn't like that, it was more fucked up, it was Alice, and a particular strand of British surrealism which has nothing to do with morality. It's to do with decadence, and art for art's sake, and that's Doctor Who for me, it's in that strand of British surrealism, at the same time as New Worlds science fiction of the sixties, Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, Carter, part of that tradition. So for McCoy's Doctor to be going around talking about Evil in that way, without any sense of camp - that's H P Lovecraft, that's kind of fucked-up American stuff, we don't own that, that's not ours, we're much more ambivalent and arch about that stuff.
AM: So Sylvester McCoy comes in and he goes 'Evil', compared with Tom Baker, in The Pirate Planet, when he finds out what the Captain is doing [materializing his planet around others and sucking the energy out of them], he doesn't go, This is Evil, his response is: But what's it for? Why the hell are you doing this?
PM: Not that I like Douglas Adams world either, the world of, here's a blundering Englishman in his dressing gown, the Douglas Adams experience of the world - oh, isn't it all bewildering and silly, I don't understand, I'm from a disempowered empire - that kind of version of Doctor Who's bollocks in its own way. Tom lends it a certain … gravitas. But that Adams' approach, I'm not interested. Just because it's that Monty Python version of the world, which is just bollocks as well. And it's had far too much cultural credibility for too long, that kind of Cambridge footlights bollocks.
AM: Am I making too unlikely a linkage to bring this back to your own politics - that you're not into these metanarratives of, we'll have this revolution, and everything will be fine then? Your own politics is much more … strategic, which is precisely what you're liking about the Baker stories, he doesn't go in with a plan …
PM: Yeah. 'You're a meglomaniac are you? How interesting'.
AM What societies in Doctor Who are worth protecting? You've got Earth. Traken, that was worth preserving …. There's not that many, is there?
PM: He let the Thals go to the wall, didn't he? He was quite keen on them while they wore eyeshadow and bleached their hair, but once they stopped doing that …. That's a particular line through Doctor Who to do with Terry Nation [writer of the second Doctor Who story, creator of the Daleks, as well as later creating programs like Survivors and Blake's Seven], and his kind of rewriting the Second World War from this evacuee's position, that's what he's talking about all the time. He's always the one in the shed with the two old women, scrabbling over the rotten apples. In The Dalek Invasion of Earth, he's doing that, and that there's this war going on above. That's one strand going through. Why Traken?
AM: I'm just thinking about the way the stories are structured.
PM: But that's about seventies spirituality, isn't it? That's what the New Age was doing at the end of the seventies. It's kind of a combination of … a rewrite of the sixties, isn't it, Traken? It's a fantastic sequence of stories I think, that [the final Tom Baker stories, Keeper of Traken, Warrior's Gate and Logopolis, are very dark and sophisticated in their storytelling], very interesting for its time. It's the end of this ridiculous Douglas Adams seventies era on one level [Adams, creator of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was script editor on Doctor Who for its seventeenth season, 1979-1980], and it gets darker and darker and serious. And for me, Castrovalva's [the first story of fifth Doctor, Peter Davison] always linked with Thatcher, and the changing decade, everything getting worse. And Traken just before that is this destruction of the last vestiges of sixties utopianism. You know, everything works through everyone being terribly nice to each other, and goodwill. Goodwill as a cosmic force. You'd never do that in the eighties. That was the last gasp. And of course, the story's about it being destroyed - here's a bunch of withered old people, and here's somebody coming in and nicking it, and laughing. It just seems absolutely of its time. Ransacking goodwill - isn't that what it's about?
AM: I can see all of that now you say it.
PM: And the lethalness of that, as well, you're with the Master [the Doctor's arch-enemy, appearing in the series since 1971, who destroyed the planet of Traken] you're delighted that he's there, laughing his head off.
AM: Which brings us back to politics and reading. I don't like Keeper of Traken. I think it's really dull. But it seems to me that you are meant to think, what a nice society, and you are meant to think, how lovely, and my response is: Ugh. It looks awful, it looks incredibly dull. But I think you're meant to be sad about its destruction, rather than siding with the Master.
PM: No, I remember laughing, I remember thinking, it's fantastic that he was revived. It's interesting that he gets younger in that one, and the doctor gets younger in the next one. That really is the beginning of the eighties.
AM: When Doctor Who has done politics explicitly - two examples leap to mind: in The Daleks, the Thals have to be slapped out of their hippie complacency, and in The Dominators, the Dulcians have to be slapped out of their hippie complacency - when it has done politics, it's been to say, you bloody hippies, snap out of it, pick up a gun and shoot somebody.
PM: Yeah, but in the kind of mid-seventies Gallifrey stories [the Doctor's home planet, revealed after fourteen years of the program to be a cross between a traditional monastic college and a labyrinthine bureaucracy], they're about slapping Oxford and Cambridge out of their complacency, their privileged complacency, this is what's wrong with the establishment here, in this country. Although he does protect it, he does put it back together and say, well it's still not for me.
AM: Is there an Earth story, where there was something about Earth society that has to be changed …
PM: Enemy of the World. Enemy of the World does Murdoch long before Murdoch [an evil megalomaniac is creating natural disasters so he can save people from them and be a hero]. But usually it's tinpot governments. The world becomes globalised at some point in the future, again and again and again in Doctor Who, and there's always a tinpot tyrant who's responsible for much more of it than they should be, and they're always a fucker and they need taking out because …it probably is quite protective of Britain's interests, in the world, it's usually civil servants have that taken over, and they're devoid of values, so they need stopping.
AM: So the program's anti-bureaucratic?
AM: Which is worrying, because bureaucracy is the same thing as democracy.
PM: But talking especially about the Barry Letts [producer, 1970-1974], Terrance Dicks [script editor, 1969-1974], Robert Holmes' [script editor, 1974-1977] early-seventies' hatred of bureaucracy, they're always people who are privileged, who are in those positions, and they can't see what's under their noses. So it never makes that direct thing that bureaucracy is democracy - they're kind of useless at their jobs. Or they sell out. Or they're possessed. By something from outside. Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a really interesting one for that, of course, because you can be co-opted by a crew of nellies who believe in the Golden Age. That is an attack on utopian fiction. In favour of pragmatism. It's interesting that Star Trek goes completely militaristic as it goes on, through successive generations. It never was that at the beginning, it was always a bit more gung-ho and cowboy-ish. And then it turns into The Next Generation, which is this management training program, which is vile.
AM: And again, I love it.
PM: I can't bear it. It is management training, and marketing, marketing the Federation
AM: Everything about it, I should hate, and I know that. But still, there's something about it.
PM: Even when Doctor Who is involved in the military, it's not militaristic. Of course that's because they [UNIT - United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the Doctor's contact on Earth, and his employers during much of the third Doctor's reign] are big nellies, they can't do anything …
AM: They can't even run
PM: …straight, yes [it's a running joke in Doctor Who fandom that both Captain Yates, the character and Richard Franklin, the actor who played him, were more than a little queer]. The bureaucrats are no good because they're not pragmatic, they can't believe the evidence of their senses, they won't do anything, they won't widen their horizons. And neither will the military. Neither will any politicians. Prisoner governors won't do it, so they're evil and easily seduced by the Master [in The Sea Devils], or fish people, or whatever. Anybody in authority who isn't practical. And that's why Traken has to go to wall too, because it isn't practical.
AM: Sometimes Doctor Who does political allegory - for example, Curse of Peladon  has links with contemporary debates about Britain joining the European Common Market, and The Sunmakers  is an anti-taxation story. Do you like the series' attempts to do politics?
PM: I wouldn't watch Peladon again now. It pissed me off last time. I like any ensemble cast thing, I like disaster movies, and it's quite close to that. I like them being delegates, in their little rooms. I revisited it for Verdigris. Verdigris kind of takes some of that Galactic Federation thing around about that time. I like the kind of intergalatic Jon Pertwee, in his smoking jacket, blithely walking out of UNIT HQ into being this kind of statesman, this ambassador who thinks he knows everyone. I like the hemaphrodite in it as well [Alpha Centuri, an alien with a shrill voice, who looks like an erect green penis with six arms], I think that's quite a useful thing. I like the claustrophobia of it. But it's got these long boring fighting bits, which I've never really got into.
AM: And it's got the wigs as well [famous within Doctor Who fandom, their stripy wigs make Peladonians 'alien']
PM: It's the whole kind of thing from Wells, where above-ground they've got one kind of hairstyle and below ground they're all common and they've got another kind of hairstyle …
AM: I've always thought it would be awful living in a Doctor Who society because you don't get to choose your hairstyle. Watching Meglos again recently, all the scientists have blonde bobs, I just wondered, what do teenage scientists do to rebel? Do they dye their hair purple and get slapped around by their parents because of it? "No, you will not have hair like that. You're from Tigella".
PM: I always thought that Doctor Who did that stuff because they thought they had to for science fiction. It all came from Star Trek - Oh this is just what science fiction - fifties science fiction - does. And actually it would have been happier doing something like a Sunday TV serial, a classic serial, which of course in the early Tom Bakers it was more like [seasons 13-14 featured many remakes of gothic horror stories, often in country house mansions - very Hammer House of Horror]. Then it stopped doing that stuff so much. In that period, if people wore a uniform, it's for a reason - because they belong to a cult and they're all mad, but it wasn't millions of people all with blonde bobs and eyeshadow. But it always seemed it did cheap science fiction because it felt it had to make an effort at it.
AM: Back to Curse of Peladon. It tries to do politics - does that bother you at all when you watch it? Or is it not even there for you?
PM: It's there, because I like thinking about the moments that things took place. And I like things like The Daemons [1971 Jon Pertwee story in which the Devil is disturbed by an archaeological dig, and turns out to be a member of the alien race, the Daemons, who have developed 'psionic science'], being around before The Wicker Man, and that's one of those cultural moments … I suppose it is belabored, and that does get on my nerves. These kind of cod Shakespearian speeches in the throne room that you have to have. And the easy reversal, of the Ice Warriors being good now, and all that business. But they're just kind of moments, aren't they? The kind of moments that you expect to have. It's a game. You have these rules, this is what you're going to see, you have these kinds of crises and reversals. But I suppose the reason I don't like the political underpinning is because it's making characters stand for types very deliberately and quite crassly, because in the end it's a tea-time serial for a broad audience, which means that the characters are usually written as types. The most interesting thing, the most humanised character in it, is probably the squid-thing with the big eye, Alpha Centurai. It's the most rounded thing there. Or, not rounded, the most potential. You want to see it stuck in a room with the Doctor and Jo, waiting …
AM: Making small talk
PM: Yeah, it's not required to stand for any kind of type or position, it's more of an open space. Yes, I can't bear it when they bring on four people and say "We are the working class, what about our rights, then?", and you're meant to go, "Ooh". Yeah, of course that pisses me off. Things like Hepesh who stands for the old order of magic, and the other one saying, "We must have progress", that would be the first five minutes, where you sort of put the other side on for five minutes before the Doctor gets on. You always have this dialectical thing at the beginning of every Doctor Who where you get the first scene where two or more characters come on and outline the ideological playground for the next four episodes - "Oh, it's magic!", "No it's not, it's science!". Which is political, but it's a ritual [this ties in again to the question of whether fans are using 'political' moments and points from the program in order to think about 'political' situations outside of the program itself. It seems that in interpreting them in generic, 'ritualistic' terms, there is no need to think about any relationship between these elements of the text and other parts of culture] - we have the first five minutes rehearsing that, waiting for the monster to come on, waiting for the other big camp guest start to come on and level them all, pull the rug out from under them. It sets the parameters, I suppose, for the adventure: the repressive regime is represented in this story by this, this is the hook, and this is what we can expect, these are the trappings that the Doctor will enter into, and to show the combinations of those, using the most simplistic narrative hooks.
AM: What about The Sunmakers. What do you think of its attempts to do politics?
PM: Well, it's the domestication thing again. I like the end of episode one, at the cash point - before we had cash points. Because you do think that something's going to happen, that somebody's going to trap you there, going to gas you at any moment, because your card doesn't work [at the end of the episode, this is precisely what happens to the Doctor - visiting a cash point on an alien planet, using a forged card, he is gassed by the machine]. That's fantastic. I like the Doctor/Leela combination, I think that's just spot on, just classic. I like the whole kind of liquidisation thing, the villain remains in my memory. It's that very silly kind of Doctor Who thing - oh, it's some little bloke in a wheelchair being horrible.
AM: There's a lot of that about, yes.
PM: But he was a very good one, and it does come across as … just witty, I suppose. That would be a classic moment of TV drama, if that was in an hour long play [at the end of this satire on excessive taxation and monopolistic capital, the Doctor defeats the villian by introducing an index-linked growth-tax into his company's computers. The villain, in the midst of the ensuing recession, collapses back to his natural state - evil seaweed with eyes].
AM: Oxford University Press publishes a series of books about television, the Oxford Television Series, and most of them are about the Golden Age of one-off television plays.
PM: They set a lot of store by it. People I talk to who were writing it - Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge, Nell Dunn - they all say how easy it was, they gave you an hour to do anything you wanted with, and that seems to me to be exactly what should happen. There's no reason why you shouldn't hear an author's voice in that way.
AM: But you're saying that if The Sunmakers was a one-off play, it would have been taken seriously. Like the Cartier adaptation of 1984 is still being written about as seminal because of the form, whereas Sunmakers would never be.
PM: That's adventure, adventure stands in the way. But then, that's what gives that ... it converts, because it's a satire it's a job of conversion, so you use the adventure tropes.
AM: When the Doctor slips into 'economic imperialism is just as bad as military conquest' [in The Sunmakers - he goes on to urge the downtrodden and overtaxed workers to revolution with the line: 'You have nothing to lose but your claims'] - does that bother you?
PM: I would have heard it at the age of eight as "Oh, the Doctor's just having a go at the villain". And he could be saying anything, at that age. When he rants, you just think - yeah, get him. I don't know, looking at it now … it's been a long time since I've seen it. But he's saying "This thing over here is just the same as this, is equivalent to, is just as oppressive as …" and that's always a good thing.
AM: To go back to the political philosophy of Doctor Who - does the society have to be changed, or does the society have to be protected - it seems to me that in Doctor Who, if you get to have dinner in a society, then it deserves protection. Whereas if a society needs to be changed, you never get to have dinner, because you're too busy changing it. The only time you see them sitting down, is in places where you're meant to think that a society's worth protecting. So the importance of having a meal in Doctor Who is really profound. The Earth, Traken.
PM: And London in the sixties, Remembrance [of the Daleks, 1988 story set in 1963] in the café, which was trumpeted at the time as a quality, drama scene, having a soliloquy at last, having a moment to reflect, in London of the sixties - which is the heart of the series, just before London explodes. It's sixty-three, the Larkin thing about sex and the Beatles. Human nature changes.
AM: But you never see anyone going to a café on an alien planet. You never see a nightclub on an alien planet. You never see people who aren't marked out clearly by particular political roles - that's what makes the program most political. It's all kings, queens, presidents, rebels …. That's one of the things I loved about [the New Adventures novel] The Left Handed Hummingbird when I read it - characters are not defined by political roles at all. It's a guy working in a housing shelter, it's a pregnant hippie - who is not "and president of the local rebel group".
PM: Where does that come from? What is that taking for granted about that genre?
AM: It's adventure again.
PM: You have to be with the movers and shakers.
AM: But they can't be stories of the everyday.
PM: The most ridiculous, caricatured version is Genesis of the Daleks, where you shuttle between the two domes [the story features two alien races on the same planet, who are at war. The Doctor goes from one side to the other and back again more easily than most of us can get to the corner shop], and you get straight into … but then again, it's Tom, he can say, "excuse me, can you help me, I'm a spy", that's your route to getting to the seats of power quickly.
AM: And that makes it explicitly political, because although the Doctor's anarchic, the changes he has to make are always wide scale social changes. It's not like he comes down and sorts out one guy's girlfriend problems. He's got to sort out a whole society.
PM: What's our investment in that?
AM: I think I just love the simplicity of it, that's what it is. It's just so obvious what is right and what is wrong. That's so attractive.
PM: The distillation of this is when people write blurbs for the novels, and how often you get the phrase, "the ruler of", or "ruled by"… Who'd want to rule anything?
AM: Do you find that other Doctor Who fans tend to have the same kind of politics as yourself?
AM: Does it bother you if they don't?
PM: I don't talk to fans to the extent that we get on to the politics of it … But when we talk about the books, it's all kinds of aspects of it, and politics is often implicit. The horror of realising just how conservative they are. And we dress it up saying we're talking about narrative, but of course we're not just talking about narrative, we're talking about what the narrative ought to be doing, and what the Doctor ought to be doing, invoking all kinds of political standpoints. And I was always identified as someone who wanted to bring class politics, gender politics, into this adventure series where they just wanted narrative, a villain, and the doctor being nice and good. And they didn't want, what they called, postmodern experimentation. But my first question when I got involved with that, is why is high realism a mode that can work for a series about time travel. Why do you assume that? Why is that the only mode? Surely it's the least obvious mode? Why are you talking about rounded characters in a series as ridiculous as this?
AM: In a series in which character development is, in many stories, a function of your hairstyle.
PM: There are people who write long essays about hating what I do, and hating Iris as this kind of figure who shouldn't even exist … I don't think we've been watching the same TV show. It's different now in that there are fans who have never seen the TV show - which is kind of peculiar, but blissful in its own way, to be a fan of a show that you've never seen. But I can't see how they've watched the same show. When they talk about, this is what a story ought to do, every time, and this is what I want from it - what are you watching? You must be responding to just the crappiest bits of doctor who that I think are there for the sake of it. It's like those episodes of The Avengers where you've got this elegant little paradox going for forty minutes. And then they realise they've got to the fortieth minute - shit, what are we going to do? Let's have a punch up. And Doctor Who does that as well - let's have a punch up, blow it up, and then get to the important bit, which is the funny lines, and you can bicker again and the world isn't at stake. And those to me are the interesting bits, so I've kind of magnified those. But I think some people must get very caught up in 'Oh no, the world's going to blow up'. And I can't bear people who pretend to be these kind of fantastic fans, who say if you're being rad your letting down the side [during the evolution of the Doctor Who 'New Adventures', the designations 'rad' - radical and 'trad' - traditional - were developed to differentiate those authors who wanted to experiment with the format of the program from those who wanted to produce accurate pastiches of the show as it was broadcast], because you don't believe the ethos of pure entertainment. I hate people who say, "I switch off my mind when I read these because I work really hard at work", and this is just entertainment. I presume that people don't read books generally, they read these but they just happen to be books. The idea of reading with your mind switched off is just stupid.