The Barry Letts Influence

Barry Letts’ input on Doctor Who remains influential and cannot be overestimated. Letts helped create such an ideal Doctor Who for its time that many of his tweaks to the formula remain part of the modern shows formula, largely unchanged. Here are four of the biggies…

Action by HAVOC

ITC – Action by HAVOC – The Doctor

Jon Pertwee was the first action-hero Doctor. Letts’ immediate predecessors, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, had injected a streak of action into their serials, but the Doctor had never gotten directly involved until Letts and Pertwee took over.

In the late 60s, Doctor Who was getting regularly trounced in the ratings war by ITV with a string of action-packed ITC dramas, such as The Saint and Danger Man. Just as Russell T Davies talks of how reality show formats fed into modern day Who, Letts saw no problem having the Doctor become a little bit more of an action man. Since then? Well we’ve seen less than two minutes of footage of the Eleventh Doctor, and we already know he’s going to punch Bill Patterson in the face.

Silent Spring – The Green Death – Gaia Hypothesis

Environmentalism, Letts style, in The Green DeathRachel Carson’s Silent Spring (published 1962) held that uncontrolled pesticide use was not only damaging to wildlife, but also humans. It popularised environmentalist philosophies, prompted JFK’s government to investigate further and led to the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA, recently featured in The Simpsons Movie).

Barry Letts was one of the first producers to grasp Doctor Who’s mythic potential. Myth is constantly refigured to reflect contemporary concerns. This is what the Barry Letts years are most consistently praised for. The Green Death is obviously the most relevant to the environmentalist mood of the time, co-written by Letts himself. Humanity’s disrespect for nature leads to nature lashing out vengefully. The moral is that we should respect the Earth, and seriously consider it in our actions.

This prefigured James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” by five years (although a number of journal articles had been published in the early 70s). Lovelock, a former NASA scientist, posited that a series of complex systems interact to maintain the Earth’s climate conditions. The theory was named after the Greek goddess Gaia (the supreme mother of the Earth), as Lovelock understood we may only come to respect an Earth we personify in mythic terms.

Feminism – Sarah Jane Smith – Almost every companion since 1974

Sarah Jane Smith - icon of feminism?Barry Letts was not a great feminist. Born in 1925 he was very much a part of the pre-sexual revolution generation, the typical values of which are dramatised in ABC’s Mad Men. The ubiquitous companion of his years in charge was Jo Grant, frequently patronised and belittled by Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, never more so than in Letts’ own novelisation of Doctor Who and the Dæmons. But bear in mind this was the early 70s. The libertarian Star Trek featured the supposedly logical Spock joking about a minor character enjoying being raped only a couple of years previously. And values do not change overnight.

As with environmentalism, Letts recognised the importance keeping up with the times. Sarah Jane Smith, the last regular character he created for the show, broke the mould of the companion. Where Jo Grant was the last of the old-style ‘screamers,’ Sarah Jane Smith was the first who frequently challenged the Doctor and won, the first to progress the plot independently and take action into her own hands. She carries most of Robot herself, which is still unusual for a ‘new Doctor’ story.

There was no going back after this. Leela, whilst appearing pre-feminist, perhaps even racist as a ‘noble savage,’ still stands up for herself, both to villains and the Doctor. I would argue this approach to character is one of the keys to Doctor Who’s late decline, and resurgence in 2005. Peri, and especially Mel, were both steps back to the damsels in distress of the 60s. Rose, Martha and Donna, have all been elevated to an equal footing (in narrative terms) with the Doctor.

Buddhist philosophy – Planet of the Spiders – Regeneration

Rebirth, or regeneration?Looking back, the first two regenerations the Doctor experienced seem low-key. They weren’t, of course: nothing of the sort had ever been seen on television. But dramatically, he just changes his face, and pretty much gets on with his adventures. Planet of the Spiders’ regeneration has a quasi-religious undercurrent, most obviously represented by K’Anpo, apparently the Doctor’s mentor.

Quasi-religious twists on SF concepts were very 70s (the Jedi of Star Wars…). After 2001: A Space Odyssey, star-child mysticism was all the rage in the genre. But Planet of the Spiders is very Barry Letts. Rather than just adding a mystical twist to the regeneration, the dying Doctor figures in the story for the first time.

This would remain the theme for the next two regenerations, the funereal Logopolis and the long-drawn high drama of The Caves of Androzani. Again, the demises of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy seem such a pitiful backward step. Come the 21st century, we’d have Time Lords regenerating in a crucified, messianic posture and lots of very literal talk of being reborn.

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  1. castellanspandrell says:

    A very enjoyable article, Jonathan, though it halts a bit suddenly at the end. You’ve come up with some ideas about the Letts era (and later eras)that I hadn’t read anywhere else. The points about the relative failure of Who in the 80s are well made.

    There’s also a case to be made for the Letts era introducing a ‘family unit’ feel with the cosy Earthbound set up of the Brig, Yates, Benton and Jo, different from the previous TARDIS companion set ups.
    This was partially echoed, albeit less militaristically, with the introduction of the Powell Estate, the Tylers and Mickey much later on, and is it coincidence that both set ups appeared during well-received eras of Dr Who?

    The ‘Action by HAVOC’ t-shirt? I want one.

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