I'll be back Wednesday with the first of three posts I've got before we get to Castrovalva, two of which will belong to a brand new sub-series to go with Time Can Be Rewritten, Pop Between Realities, and You Were Expecting Someone Else. Then a week from Wednesday we'll kick off the Peter Davison era proper. (Speaking of which... were there any good BBC Books novels set in the Davison era? I've got a golden turkey penciled in for that slot now, but if there's something of actual quality I'd prefer that.)
But before all of those terrible things happen, you get the pleasure of a blog post written by someone who's actually good. Enjoy it while it lasts.
David Bowie, for much of his life, has been considered an ideal candidate for various iconic TV/film parts that he will never play. He’s the great James Bond villain who never was, for instance. And from the ‘70s on, Bowie was regularly rumored to appear on Doctor Who in some manner, from playing a supporting role (allegedly considered as a replacement for Alexei Sayle in “Revelation of the Daleks”) to a villain (an eternal candidate for the Master) to playing the Doctor himself.
Who and Bowie, two modern British institutions whose trademark has been a commitment to continual transformation, are also one long parallel, with each reflecting the other from their timelines to their aesthetics. They were born in the same ward: Bowie’s first-ever recording (an unreleased track for Decca called “I Never Dreamed”) was cut in London in August 1963, within a month of the shooting of the first “An Unearthly Child.” Bowie’s Mod and R&B singles coincide with William Hartnell’s term; Bowie’s sudden turn to Anthony Newley-infused psychedelia begins directly upon the arrival of Patrick Troughton, and “Space Oddity,” the culmination of this era, debuts mere weeks after the end of “The War Games.” Phil has already gone to great lengths to find connections between Ziggy Stardust Bowie and Jon Pertwee’s tenure. And the Tom Baker years are Bowie at his most visionary and influential, from Diamond Dogs through Station to Station, the Berlin trilogy and Scary Monsters.
You can keep it going for as long as you’d like. Bowie’s floundering in the mid-‘80s coincides with Who’s hiatus (during which Bowie recorded “Dancing in the Street”) and the ugly desperation of the Colin Baker years; the 1996 “modernized” TV movie appears just as Bowie’s dyed his hair copper and is attempting drum ‘n’ bass. And Bowie’s public career ends precisely at the start of Who’s successful revival: “Rose” was being filmed in Cardiff in early summer 2004 just as Bowie was playing what would be his final concerts. He hasn’t recorded or toured since, and you have to wonder: should Bowie ever return, to the stage or the studio, will it somehow trigger the collapse of New Who? It’s like an armistice in which one power has agreed to unilaterally disarm; if the treaty is broken, who knows what disasters may come. A new Bowie album could mean Russell Brand cast as the Twelfth Doctor.
Much of this is just silly coincidence, of course. But one point when the Bowie-Who parallel is eerily resonant is “Logopolis” and Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Now any actual influence was strictly one-way. Bowie cut “Ashes to Ashes” in New York and London in early spring 1980 and released it in late summer, well before Tom Baker’s departure was even announced. But as “Logopolis” was filmed in December 1980-January 1981 (just after John Lennon’s death—it was a bleak winter for counterculture icons), it’s conceivable that “Ashes to Ashes,” which had been a UK #1, filtered into its creation in some manner. (The only overt borrowing came years later: Bowie’s video’s use of Paintbox-distorted skies over what looked like a classic Who quarry seems to have directly influenced the opening of “Mindwarp”).
No, the connection between the two seems deeper, if more shadowy. As I dubiously claimed when I wrote about “Ashes” some time ago, “Ashes” seems like David Bowie’s last song, though of course he would write another two decades’ worth of material after it, including some of his biggest hits. And “Logopolis” can seem like the end of Who, though again the show has persisted for decades afterward. As Phil wrote in his wonderful epic Choose Your Own Adventure piece on it, “Logopolis” has become one of the show’s sacred properties. It can’t be written out of continuity, no one’s had the guts to revisit it or revise it. It’s the terminus, the still point, the quiet word-death of the show.
Part of it was timing: “Ashes” and “Logopolis” appeared at the dawn of the Eighties, and each seems like a cryptic funeral for the previous carnival decades, and a scrying of the harder years ahead. Bowie, in Ziggy Stardust, had closed down the Sixties by burlesquing the decade’s myths and excesses, but Bowie had remained, in his gnomic way, a Sixties believer, a Utopian. Recalling the making of “Heroes,” Bowie described it as making the sound of a glorious future that he and his collaborators knew would never come to pass. Now the future was over. “Ashes to Ashes” is Bowie’ public abdication: a man summoning his powers one last time to make a bonfire of his former selves. It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.
So “Ashes” is the sequel to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” but where the latter was a staggered opening, a grand movement outward, an expansive bequest from a time of seemingly endless gifts, “Ashes” is a collapse, an implosion, whether in its structure (a reggae song buried underneath layers of synthetics—guitars that sound like keyboards, a fake Wurlitzer organ), its inspirations and intentions (a secret remake of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Ashes” is in part a sequel about being a sequel) or in its video, where a set of scenarios bleed into each other—Bowie as a sad mime at his own funeral; Bowie as one of the madmen, an “organic mind locked in a cellar,” as he once had sung; Bowie as Major Tom on the morning of his launch, having breakfast in his spacesuit while the world catches fire.
“Logopolis” catches some of this feeling, like its central image of TARDISes-within-TARDISes, an apparently infinite loop in which the show’s iconic image is replicated and darkened—the TARDIS has become its own intruder, a sign of Who collapsing within itself. Or its revelation of a final mystery—that the cosmos is held together by rows of monks quietly murmuring numbers (“drink to the men who protect you and I,” as Bowie had sung in “Station to Station”)—that ends first in utter galactic apocalypse and then, weirdly, a diminished final battle in which Tom Baker dies, not in some cosmic Ragnarok (as he had wanted) but by essentially falling off a ladder.
One of Phil’s finest points in his series was his argument of how shocking William Hartnell’s demise in the “The Tenth Planet” is—how horrifying it must have been for kids at the time, how it’s really the death of the show, from which Who has never quite recovered. “Logopolis” is the second death: if, since Hartnell, the show has been a ghost of itself, “Logopolis” is the long, silent funeral procession for the ghost, the show coming to terms with how much has been lost.
This has been a long way of saying that both “Ashes” and “Logopolis” retain an uncanny power; they remain moving, in their odd ways, so many years after their first appearance. There’s sadness, a somber loss, in both of them, as well a sense of bucking up, of settling the bill. If the world ends, if the time of legends is over, if the moment has come, we now live in the afterward, and we still have to keep on going. The world will never be what it once was, but it will be enough.
Let’s go out with a brief indulgence in alternate history. In late 1980, Bowie, irritated by his record label RCA, had begun to wait them out until his contract expired: he would only cut a handful of recordings until the end of 1982. And the killing of John Lennon had led a shaken Bowie to scrap a proposed 1981 tour. So for two years, he mainly skied and acted: The Elephant Man on stage, The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence on film, The Snowman on TV.
What if John Nathan-Turner had approached Bowie to replace Tom Baker, and Bowie, for some perverse reason, had accepted? And so when Baker lies expiring on a studio floor that January evening in 1981, his young companions quickly settling in a semi-circle around his sprawled body (still a touching, odd moment: it reminds you that Who remains at heart children’s theatre), he murmurs that the end’s been prepared for, his face blurs and suddenly David Bowie sits up in his place.
So we have the reign of the alternate Fifth Doctor, the first one to be world-famous before his casting: Bowie, the once-Buddhist, as the still moral heart of “Kinda”; Bowie wearing the expression of resigned embarrassment that Roger Moore had in his last Bond films, wanly going through the motions in “Timeflight” or “King’s Demons”; Bowie expiring in mud and putrefaction at the end of “Caves of Androzani.” Or what stories could have come into being instead? A new golden age: who wouldn’t have wanted to write for Bowie? Scripts by Tom Stoppard, Douglas Adams, David Hare, even a stillborn disastrous attempt by Philip K. Dick, the latter prompted by Bowie’s letters. Or, conversely, it would have been the quick collapse of Who into an awful cult of celebrity, with a disgusted Bowie walking away after a season.
In any case, Bowie would have wholly altered the tenor of the show to come. The Davison era is, in one way, the story of a household left shattered by the sudden, violent death of its beloved patriarch, which has left the eldest brother in charge of a house full of orphans: the combative, resentful daughter who never forgives him; the quiet, competent daughter (his favorite) who eventually leaves him; the desperate, pathetic younger brother who dies on his watch. It’s one long family tragedy, with the Jacobean violence of “Androzani” a fitting conclusion. But with Bowie standing in Davison’s place, the Doctor would have been reborn instead as a greater alien, an abstracted force with the humanity bled out of him, leaving only the charisma. It would have been a far stranger show, one perhaps best suited for the imagination. So onward we go, our lost futures bred within our lost pasts, with the imagination, as always, left to beggar itself.