Carry On Doctor: Early Modernism in Doctor Who

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Marcus Harmes, the new General Editor for Ceræ Volume 3, explores the early modernism of the recent Doctor Who episode, The Woman Who Lived.

In a recent Doctor Who adventure The Woman Who Lived (broadcast on Australian television in October 2015) the Doctor made another trip to early modern England. It was another visit as this fictional time traveller has been visiting the early modern world (in the British Isles or other parts of Europe) since the 1960s in terms of the production timeline of Doctor Who and since the lifetime of Leonard da Vinci (d. 1519) in terms of the internal timeline of the character’s adventures. The Woman Who Lived was a true historical romp. In addition to the main setting of England in 1651, there were also flashbacks to a medieval royal court and the Black Death, to the Battle of Agincourt and to the early modern witch craze.

At the heart of the adventure was an extended consideration of what it means to move through history. For those unfamiliar with the central plot device of Doctor Who, the Doctor has a time machine called the TARDIS, meaning he has the capacity to flit from one time period to another. His antagonist in the story, an immortal girl called Ashildr who by 1651 has been alive since the Viking era, has endured through the centuries, living through every year while the Doctor comes and goes as he pleases. She complains to the Doctor that she has trudged through the centuries.

By 1651 Ashildr’s home base in a splendid Jacobean mansion and her slow journey throughout history suggests some resonances with other characters who have lived outside of time. One is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a long-lived entity (first male then female) who lives for centuries in a magnificent country home, based on the actual Knole House in Kent, home of Vita Sackville-West. Knole House is recalled in the famous comment by the seventeenth-century noblewoman Lady Anne Clifford about the ‘marble pillars of Knowle’.

But the episode wore its early modern setting lightly and reflections on living through history aside, we may look elsewhere to understand the antics brought to the screen. The year 1651 was represented by some interior shots of Jacobean houses, a small crowd of dirty looking peasants at a gallows and some florid dialogue. The actual year 1651 would have been less settled than what we see on screen. There certainly were seventeenth century highway robberies or other types of organised criminal activity including the Smorthwaites gang, as noted in classic studies on early modern crime by J.A. Sharpe and Alan Macfarlane. But they were later and English people in 1651 were living when the first Civil War had ended, King Charles I had been executed and the Battle of Worcester was being fought. The area around London (where the story is set, as Tyburn is only a short ride away from the main scene of the action) was subject to exceptional levels of social disturbance not from highway robbers but from soldiery from both sides who assaulted and looted civilians. Community bonds broke down and agricultural productivity suffered. None of these aspects of the period make it onto screen however and the year 1651 is a generic evocation of the early modern period.

However as an evocation of early modern England in British popular culture the stand out aspect of the story is the cross-dressing highway robbery that is taking place. Ashildr charges about on a horse, dresses up in men’s clothing and can put on a deep manly voice to terrorise travellers as the ‘Knightmare’, a famed highway ‘man’ with a price on ‘his’ head. The somewhat ludicrous sight of Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams miming to a deep voice while dressed in a tricorn hat and face mask is intentionally comedic and the comedy has a creative lineage that is from the 1980s rather than the 1650s. People with a taste for BBC programs set in the early modern period may recall ‘Bob’, a young man in Elizabethan England who worked for Lord Blackadder, but who of course was really a young woman in disguise. ‘When I fell in love I didn’t know she was a woman, I thought she was a boy’ Blackadder explained to Queenie, Melchett and Nursie when seeking permission to marry Bob. More cross-dressing antics ensued in the next season of Blackadder when a woman disguised as a man (complete with hat and ridiculously deep mimed voice) terrorised Regency England as the highway man the ‘Shadow’ with Mr Edmund Blackadder, butler to the Prince Regent, as temporary accomplice. Moving back further to British comedic iterations of pre-Industrial England, more cross dressing tomfoolery involving highway ‘men’ was at the core of Carry on Dick, 1974’s entry in the long-running series of comedies directed by Gerald Thomas and starring Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and other British comedians. In Dick the Reverend Flasher of Upper Dencher (Sid James) is actually ‘Big Dick’ Turpin the highway man, but his accomplice is the ‘boy’ Harry played by the irrepressible Barbara Windsor, in reality is Harriet his housemaid. I am far from being the first to note the way this Doctor Who episode relates to these well-known examples of British comedy as Doctor Who is an eclectic program and stories set in the early modern period are no exception. But the evocation of the seventeenth century in this recent Doctor Who episode is at several removes from any historical actuality, not least as the association with highway robbery is rather early. This early modernism in a science fiction context is assembled from a number of influences and women dressing as men is a comedy staple for the British in particular that returned for a while to the screen in this historical adventure.

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