H.G. Wells and Doctor Who

A Gentleman, dressed appropriately for his title, walks back to his magnificent machine. A machine which at his very will can take him to any point in our civilisation’s past, present or future.

This aged man, turn of the century coat hanging just above his knees, bears more than a passing resemblance to another gentleman of science and fine attire.

He too has faced both man’s current and future concerns – travelling a great many decades to see just what this species is capable of based on the actions we all take now.

This Time Traveller, the proatagonist of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, written in 1895, was more than just a precursor for every contemporary time travel story- without him there would not be a Doctor to usher his Granddaughter back into the TARDIS.

The Time Traveller proposes that time is simply a ‘fourth’ dimension and that he has built a machine capable of journeying one man through it. He later recounts his first trip in the machine where he finds a world torn asunder to his weekly dinner guests.

The Eloi, a race of naïve waifs wallow lazily upon the earths surface while below, the Morlocks, troll like, laborious and afraid of the light, toil to provide comfort and amenities for the Eloi- only rising to the surface to pick them off and eat them.

Wells used the imbalance of this future world to air his concern for a society crippled by labour disputes, the gentry and the workers living a parody of existence.

One a feckless race who have evolved beyond the need for strength and intellect, the other, no more than grunts forced to literally eat their unfortunate others to survive.

A society trapped in a one-food cycle unwilling to change and ready to subjugate others to keep the status quo.

Its not just The Time Machine that has familiar echoes in Doctor Who.

Terry Nation, writer of the serial known as The Daleks, modernised these Wellsian concerns, dropping two warring races into the fallout of an age living under the mushroom cloud of the A-Bomb.

In the serial, we join the Doctor and his companions as they arrive on the planet Skaro, a desolate land of petrified vegetation. The inhabitants, two races known as the Thals and the Dals, have been fighting a war of attrition.

The pacifist, Aryan Thals live amongst the dead trees while the Daleks toil below the cover of radiation, mutated beyond recognition and locked in their city by a reliance on static electricity. These mutated Dals – now known as Daleks – need the radiation to survive and plan to smother the landscape in it, wiping out the last of the Thals who, afraid to rise up, are merely happy to swallow down anti-radiation pills until the feared day the Daleks leave their city wide prison and destroy them.

Like The Time Machine, it is a case of a society disfiguring itself to maintain the relavtive comfort of the status quo.

Nation used the Cold War to update the genre trait of exposing our collective fears, a trait that combined with the British invasion literary subgenre to create the 1898 romantic and journalistic account of a Martian invasion of Surrey, The War of the Worlds.

In this novel we follow a writer of philosophical articles as he struggles through the war-torn landscape to reunite with his wife as the martians decimate the population.

Wells was using the ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ intellects of the martian invasion force to confront the horrifying underside of British Imperialism (when the unnamed narrator surveys the wreckage and can only recoil at the horrors his own nation must have inflicted upon the Tasmanians).

Now we as a nation are in a state of flux; caught between the abject chaos of our own part of an invasion (it is difficult not to think of Wells ‘It was never a war, any more than there’s a war between men and ants,’ when you compare the militaristic might of our armed forces and the guerrilla forces of the Taliban) and the geopolitical opportunism that justified our means to an end.

The re-launched Doctor Who seems to have little space for the Victorian sensibilities of Wells. Its heart follows a contemporary beat, fixing the Doctor in the here and now. Though there have been broad political swipes under the penmanship of Russell T. Davies at American hegemony (The Sound of Drums), the War on Terror (World War Three) and political prisoners (The Sontaran Stratagem).

But its in the geopolitical opportunism of the Master that we find a parallel with another Wellsian novel, the 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come.

In the novel, the narrator or Wells relates the works of Dr. Philip Raven, a man who dreams of a history text book from 2106 and in the scramble to remember his dreams created five chapters of man’s future.

In The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords the Master offers humanity its Utopia only to butcher the last vestiges of the human race in metallic orbs in order to forge his new Time Lord empire.

Humanity is again crippled by its own need to survive, to short cut the immediate suffering for a quick solution. After all the Master’s alias Harold Saxon rose to power (not unlike New Labour) on just the power of populatity rather than his own strength of convictions.

Humanity castigated itself on the wing and a prayer of geopolitical promises of a new world order.

Wells however couldn’t imagine a Doctor to show humanity the price of its shorted sightedness and could only offer this warning:

“Without the sufferings of these generations men’s minds could never have been sufficiently purged of their obstinate loyalties, jealousies, fears and superstitions; men’s wills never roused to the efforts, dis-ciplines and sacrifices that were demanded for the establishment of the Modern State.”

Where he may see the human race as ‘indomitable’ its hard not to imagine these very words echoing in the Doctors mind as he attacks Harriett Jones for the destruction of the defeated Sycoraxs in The Christmas Invasion and for the madness of Davros’ own utopia in Journeys End.

So where does that leave humanity under the terms of Wells? Do we strive with our instincts to seek the path of least resistance and settle for the status quo or do we strive for something greater? Both cases leave us open, if not to a malevolent creature, then at least to those instincts that make such creatures and characters so appealing.

These are the very same ideals that elect monsters and lead to wars. For two genre staples concerned with science fiction and time travel like H. G. Wells and Doctor Who – it seems the one thing we cannot escape is our history.

Perhaps Wells’ greatest achievement was to keep readers striving for those ideals, to keep the idea alive even if the conviction could never find a practical application in the real world.

The Doctor himself is the perfect embodiment of such statements, the only catch being is that he often has the ability to heal such utopias and right the wrongs in ways that Wells would never see as practical.

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