Britain in the 1970s conjures up some cheery images. General strikes, NHS glasses and Austin Allegros for a start, and that’s before you get to haircuts. Looking back, there’s a sense of a sombre air taking hold of the country. But also, this was the decade where British television brought us some really innovative, often quite terrifying shows.
I must admit I got the tail end of the decade, and am left with hazy memories of Chorlton And The Wheelies, Jamie and The Magic Torch and Bagpuss, although the repeats of many of those shows that debuted in the 70s were commonplace in the 1980s schedules.
No matter when you caught up with 70s television however, the line between TV and cinema was blurring a little even then. Makers of television at the time were borrowing heavily from films and novels, and in doing so, they created a selection of programmes that would scare any child out of their block-a-boots and make them spill their arctic roll in terror.
Which brings is to Doctor Who, which was showcasing so much of the innovation I’m talking about. Boundaries were being pushed and chances taken with the show, which was in top form for a good deal of the 1970s. The old cliche with Doctor Who was that it had people cowering behind the sofa, but revisiting some of the Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker era stories, there’s clearly something to it.
Take a look at The Green Death, with its eco-horror slant that mirrors Quatermass. Or the more obvious Hammer overtones evident in The Brain Of Morbius or The Talons Of Weng Chiang. 1970s Doctor Who may not have been outright terrifying to some, but it was really effectively creepy at times, finding interesting, clever ways to get under your skin.
In fact, Tom Baker’s last series or two felt like an accumulation of a decade’s worth of death, frights, nightmares and haunting images. From the drooling Zygons (which were far slimier than the version seen in The Day Of The Doctor) and the calculating Robots Of Death through to the cactus creatures of Meglos and the first appearance of Davros, Doctor Who worked hard to inject fear, and to unnerve its audience, with plenty of success.
Whilst the show’s production team deserve credit for realising so much of it given the limitations they were facing, the writers of Doctor Who at the time were the cornerstone of the creativity. The slate of sinister stories from Who writers such as Chris Boucher, Robert Stewart, and, of course, Terry Nation seemed to take influence from prevalent films of the era, such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. That influence followed through on the small screen elsewhere too, with Children Of The Stones, Doomwatch (which itself felt like it had influenced subsequent Who), and the early 80s adaptation of Day Of The Triffids. Each of these, in their own way, gave some of the younger members of their audience a few uncomfortable dreams.
Ben Wheatley, best known for the likes of Kill List and Sightseers, has already directed the first two episodes of the next series of Doctor Who, which will see Peter Capaldi stepping into the TARDIS. And Wheatley, delivering music to the ears of many a Doctor Who fan, has already teased that he feels this next run of Doctor Who will have more of a 1970s flavour to it (Austin Allegros aside). It’s a wise era to look to for television as a whole – heck, I’ve not even touched on Hammer House Of Horror, Sapphire And Steel and Tales Of The Unexpected, each of which had plenty of creepier moments of their own.
Doctor Who‘s tone would alter, inevitably, as it went into the 1980s, not least with the regeneration from Tom Baker into Peter Davison at the end of Logopolis. Logopolis still had quite a tone to it though, with the TARDIS’ cloister bell clanging, the malevolence of The Master and the far more sinister Watcher (who had a tinge of the Thin Man from educational show Look And Read about him – anyone else remember watching that at school?).
If what Wheatley is saying is correct then, and he’s far more likely to know than us, then the move back to a darker, edgier Doctor Who isn’t really that unexpected (acknowledging that the last decade has had a fair bit of darkness and edge to it in Who already). It was interesting seeing the weary take on the Doctor put across by John Hurt in The Day Of The Doctor, and how that contrasted with the more youthful energy of David Tennant and Matt Smith in that particular episode. With few words and plenty of acting skill, Hurt conveyed an awful lot with a large dose of restraint that’s not been required of the Doctor for some time. If Peter Capaldi is going down a different road, as is very likely, then a further tonal shift is inevitable.
Yet it’s the ability to reinvent itself, to draw influence and to take chances that has kept Doctor Who fresh and interesting for so long. And thus particularly the younger watchers of the show, who know it only of the 2005 revival onwards, might be in for a few surprises. The ties to Jon Pertwee’s costume have already been noted in the pictures of Peter Capaldi in character that we’ve seen so far. And I can’t help but wonder if the return to the 70s style that’s being mooted isn’t just about Who itself, but the influences of the era in which it found itself.
Certainly from comments made both by Wheatley and Mark Gatiss, they are taking direct influence from the more adult tones of the 70s Who, intending to make as terrifying television as feasible (within the parameters afforded by a Saturday teatime slot), harking back to the nightmares and sinister overtones of the stories of the time.
While we may not get such horrific scenes of people being gunned down by Autons or the fascist-like dictatorship of Genesis Of The Daleks, we may be in for some more macabre Saturday nights. Even if we’re more likely to sit on the sofa than hide behind it these days…
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