Paleo-Contact: A History of Pre-History in Doctor Who
Last week, it was reported that scientists had unearthed the bones of a new species of ancient human in the Afar region of Ethiopia. One report asserted that the find means ‘our family tree is more complicated than was thought’. Forty-something years ago, this kind of thing was bread and butter to Who writers. Is it a topic that could influence them today?
In 1968, the author Erich von Daniken wrote Chariot of the Gods, the first of several books in the 1960s and 7’0s in which he posited that ‘ancient astronauts’ visited Earth, and in so doing influenced the development of ancient cultures. The pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Easter Island statues are apparently all examples of this influence.
A throwaway line in Death to the Daleks illustrates the idea perfectly: the Doctor examines the symbols on the outside of the Exxilon city and says he’s seen them before, in a temple in Peru. This theory was known as paleo-contact, a name coined by von Daniken’s contemporary (and rival) Carl Sagan. Paleo-contact would become a staple of many popular Doctor Who stories of the early-to-mid-Seventies. First up is The Dæmons, in which the Master makes contact with Azal, the last of a race who have appeared intermittently throughout history to guide humanity along the path to civilisation. Even Azal’s name has found its way into religion (‘the fallen angel’), inferring that the Dæmons’ influence is global – and not good. The Doctor namechecks the key points of Azal’s achievements, which include the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. In the ‘back-to-the-land’ Seventies, the interpretation is that the Dæmons’ influence is clearly malign, having created the industry so antipathetic to the Age of Aquarius (which was over by 1971) and that their science was the backbone of the black magic opposed by Miss Hawthorne.
The concept was picked up again in 1979 in City of Death and taken a step further: not only does Scaroth influence humanity throughout its development, but the explosion caused when he attempts to take off actually gave rise to life on Earth. Unlike Azal, who ultimately wants to pass on executive power to a worthy successor, Scaroth’s motives are purely selfish – he wants to drive the development of the human race to a point where the technology exists to enable him to go back in time and prevent the accident that gave life to the world in the first place.
Even at the time, the idea of paleo-contact was nothing new. Just as von Daniken was accused of plagiarising the ideas of writers like Sagan and Richard Story, so the ‘ancient astronauts’ Who stories owe a debt in part to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, where the discovery of an alien spacecraft on a bomb site in London leads to the uncovering of a species who may have enslaved our prehistoric ancestors and used them in their experiments, the results of which apparently account for the aggressive side of human nature. This idea is expanded on in Image of the Fendahl, where the Doctor suggests that the Fendahl has actually infiltrated the RNA of certain human beings, most obviously – and perhaps clumsily – Dr Fendelman, ‘man of the Fendahl’, accounting for the ‘dark side of man’s nature’. It’s a theme that writer Chris Boucher had visited before in The Face of Evil, albeit with a slightly different take, where the super-computer Xoanon has spent centuries engaging in eugenics, creating the instinct-driven Sevateem and setting them in conflict with the totally cerebral Tesh. The major change is that the story is set on another planet and the influencing alien is the Doctor, who re-programmed Xoanon, proving that not all his interventions turn out to be for the better.
Could the concept work in today’s Who? Are audiences now too incredulous to accept the premise? If reaction to last series’ Kill the Moon is anything to go by, it might be an idea to leave it for a while. Granted, the story owed its ‘science’ to Marvin Gaye’s The Onion Song, which posits that our planet is in point of fact an enormous allium, than any actual established theory, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t. The modern show’s penchant for epic series codas is crying out for a showdown with something older than recorded history. Failing that, let’s have a great big onion.
Ultimately, paleo-contact’s greatest nemesis was von Daniken himself. His books failed to reference their sources, leading to a number of lawsuits from rivals; several of those sources were discredited and, in one particular own goal, von Daniken allowed the making of items he would try to pass off as ‘ancient stones’ to be filmed for a documentary. Later, he would publicly disown several of his own key theories.
What’s undeniable is that, far-fetched or not, the ideas of Eric von Daniken, Carl Sagan and Richard Story helped provide the food for thought that gave the classic series some of its best-remembered moments.