Monday, February 13, 2012

Guest Post: David Bowie and Doctor Who

Among the ways in which the end was prepared for is that I, suspecting that the Logopolis post would maybe take a bit longer to write than most, decided to secure a guest post for today. Not wanting to leave you in the hands of anyone other than the best, of course, I asked Chris O'Leary of the fabulous Pushing Ahead of the Dame, which was quite rightly one of Time Magazine's 25 best blogs of 2011. 

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.

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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.

Postscript

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.

21 comments:

  1. Good thoughts! Certainly, the Watcher looks like he stepped out of the 'Ashes to Ashes' video.

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  2. Just regarding the Fifth Doctor and BBC Books, it's been a while since I've read them but I seem to remember that Zeta Major by Simon Messignham and Deep Blue by Mark Morris were okay.

    Not exactly great, mind you; if memory serves in both cases, the former's a bit too hard sci-fi for both my tastes and for what I think Doctor Who can reasonably get away with if it starts trying hard sci-fi, and the latter kind of turns into a dead fish and peters out a bit towards the end (which, given the overall subject matter of the novel, is a pun definitely intended; I'll say no more) but both are fairly solid and far from being turkeys. Given that the Fifth Doctor doesn't in my memory seem to have been treated very well by BBC Books, those two in my memory are probably the stand-outs.

    Also, something with may interest you about both; they also involve a fair bit of back-and-forthing between the Fifth Doctor and other eras. Without giving too much away, the first is a direct sequel to "Planet of Evil", and the second has the Fifth Doctor meeting the Third Doctor-era UNIT team while the Third Doctor's away doing something else, so it seems to me that either of which might fit in well with both the overall theme of plundering the show's past that occurs throughout the Fifth Doctor era as a whole, and what I'm picking up regarding your own interests and approaches towards analysing the show as a whole. In any case, if you were looking for better quality books to do, my personal suggestions would be one of those two.

    (Although to be honest, if the book you're talking about is the one I think you're talking about, then I'm kind of hoping you'll do it anyway just so I can see your reaction to the trainwreck. :-))

    Hope this helps!

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  3. I've not read any Fifth Doctor novels, but according to Gallifrey Base readers last year Fear of the Dark is your best bet, being the 13th best PDA. After that it's the two Scott suggested, Zeta Major at 26 and Deep Blue at 36.

    Interestingly, the three worst PDAs in those rankings are all for the Fifth Doctor!

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  4. The argument doesn't really work for me at all - one could make exactly the same argument about the Beatles (Who starts just as the Beatles release With The Beatles, their first album as the biggest band in the world. Hartnell regenerates around the time the Beatles decide to 'regenerate' into Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The War Games, the end of Doctor Who as it had been known til then, happens just as they're splitting up. Logopolis is broadcast around the time of Lennon's death. The TV movie is made around the same time as Free As A Bird and Real Love. NuWho starts being recorded just as mixing starts on Love, the last 'new' Beatles album...), yet I don't think anyone thinks Doctor Ringo would have been a possibility (though frankly I'd *love* to see that).

    I think ultimately, this post just boils down to "vital art tends to reflect its times"...

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    1. I did, actually, make an argument along the lines of the Beatles argument, going so far as to suggest that there's something of a passing of the torch from the Beatles to Bowie in terms of the musical act most in line with Doctor Who. Certainly I don't think it is true that you can do this with any piece of vital art - the Rolling Stones are surely vital art, but they don't parallel Doctor Who particularly well.

      But more broadly, this blog has always entertained, albeit at whimsical distance, the notion that there is at least some level of consciousness underlying Doctor Who and reaching deeper into British culture. I think there is a fair case to be made - and, indeed, that the erstwhile Mr. O'Leary has made it - that Bowie is, like Alan Moore, another derive through the same imaginary territory.

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  5. Sadly, all the good Davison books are MAs. Ones that have some level of quality are probably:
    Empire of Death, which attempts to address the Problem of Nyssa. It's not as good as some of the others I'll mention, but certainly one that it's worth you reading.
    Fear of the Dark - a Trevor Baxendale (hence a well-done example of "trad" stories), which is rather atmospheric
    Zeta Major - a sequel to Planet of Evil which addresses the consequences of a throwaway line, but whose main appeal is (IMO) nostalgia value.
    Deep Blue - a well-liked Davison story that takes place in the middle of the Pertwee era from the point of view of the UNIT characters.

    Personally, I also rather enjoyed Imperial Moon - where, basically, the Doctor invades a Jules Verne story. But there's probably less meat to get out of it than some of the others.

    Of course, you could just stick to whichever of Divided Loyalties and Warmonger you originally had planned. It might be more entertaining for us. At the very least said story needs to go into the book edition.

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  6. I don't see Bowie putting up with the production schedule, frankly. I think he'd have walked after a couple of weeks!

    Old Who from about 1971 to the mid 80s was made to the same schedule as any other studio-bound BBC show, such as a sitcom, ie like televised theatre: location filming first, the best part of 2 weeks rehearsal in plain rooms, Friday morning and afternoon camera rehearsal on the set, and all the studio footage for 2 25-minute episodes would be filmed late Friday afternoon and evening until 10pm. They didn't get any extra time for things like studio-based special effects or guys in monster suits (or frequently retakes - see Graham Crowden's OTT death scene in Nimon, which he allegedly didn't know was the real take).

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  7. What a lovely refreshing desert after the tasty blow-out that was the Logopolis post. And again pretty much mirroring my own thoughts. This is getting spooky. If there's a rival to Doctor Who for My Favourite Obsession (copyright - Richard O'Brien)it's David Bowie. I was a lookalike in the seventies, a dead ringer in fact, Bowie got me into performance as a profession, the Doctor was the role I'd have loved. I've often contemplated Bowie as the Doctor and noted the parallels in their respective trajectories. (The other role I'd have loved to see him play would have been Frank Cornelius, the evil brother to a Mick Jagger casting as Jerry Cornelius with Marrianne Faithful as Cathy in a, never made but I can dream, 1970's adaptation of Moorcock's 'English Assassin')

    By the way, continuing my 'Doctor Who as Edwardian stage magician' trope from my posting in the Logopolis replies. If you want to see a possible way Bowie would have played the Doctor check out his performance as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan's intriguing film 'The Prestige'. A kind of dark steampunk Cushing incarnation. I'd have loved to see that.

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  8. Is this the right time to totally derail the thread by descending into ranting about how Nolan's film of The Prestige utterly missed the mark by stripping out the essential 1980s frame narrative from Priest's stunning novel?

    Aside from Bowie as Tesla, of course, which, as you point out, was an inspired piece of casting.

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  9. I would check out Cold Fusion. It does also have the 7th Doctor in it, but it is probably the best MA. Plus the Goth Opera is also rather good.

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    1. I think Phil is already covering "Cold Fusion"-It's BBC Books stuff I think he's looking for, not Virgin.

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    2. Well, as always I decline to announce the Time Can Be Rewrittens beyond vague hints, so I can't confirm or deny the Cold Fusion entry. But I think I've settled on the set of books in general. Four total entries, order will be Virgin, Big Finish, Virgin, BBC.

      With the information that I did decide to go for a golden turkey for BBC, this is probably the easiest to guess set ever.

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    3. Cold Fusion, Spare Parts, Crystal Bucephalus, Warmonger is where I put my money. Although I'm not certain about Crystal Bucephalus.

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    4. The third one is the only one that's in any doubt. I don't think we can completely rule out The Sands of Time, Goth Opera, or The Crystal Bucephalus. Though Goth Opera being the sequel to an NA makes it less likely - especially as Phil's doing Cold Fusion.

      Incidentally, my previous post lied - there is one Davison book that's good but not an MA, the Telos novella Blood and Hope, but I don't expect to see another Telos offering turn up hereabouts until Fallen Gods - and that's far from certain.

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    5. What's special/worth talking about about Sand of Time? I don't know anything about the book, except it's an MA.

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    6. The Sands of Time is most notable for being one of the few Doctor Who stories in any medium to make effective use of time travel, and for being a sequel to Pyramids of Mars (and also, to a lesser extent, another story - but there be spoilers). It's definitely one of Justin Richard's best books, and he's done quite a few good ones.

      Of course, I expect that Phil would find something worth talking about in pretty much any of the full-length novels (even he might struggle to say much about the K9 Picture books, though).

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  10. Regarding Bowie, hasn't he sprinkled references to Who here and there in his career? I seem to remember reading something about a TARDIS reference on the back cover of the "Space Oddity" release, but since I'm not really that knowledgable about Bowie it's possible I've misheard/read something or been misinformed.

    If we're talking MAs, then "The Sands of Time" is also really good IMHO, in a timey-wimey ball sort of way. The Fifth Doctor was better served by Virgin than BBC Books overall, really.

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  12. Think you all might like this; sorry about the quality, but it's the best I could whip up in so short a time:

    http://img846.imageshack.us/img846/7908/bowiey.jpg

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  13. Weird. I read the Bowie blog avidly and check this one out every now and then ... my worlds have collided. Nicely. It's a bit like when Malcom Mclaren did the theme for a Carry On film ... only less upsetting!

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  14. "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."

    Reading this post now, it seems eerily prophetic (at least in the case of whether New Who will collapse.)

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