Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spearhead into the 70's


Autons attack!; their featureless facades a metaphor for characterless, mass-production. Fragments of the plastic-hungry Nestene Intelligence, the Autons brake out of a shop window and fire their wrist guns down a mundane British high street.

AFTER the optimism of the 1960's, Britain in the 1970's is most remembered for its economic disorder, power cuts, IRA bombings and riots. Post-war affluence was indeed fading, though David Bowie's dictum "one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is" also illustrates a period of individualism and complexity. As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own after midnight on the grounds that the only females out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes; yet only eight years after that rule was lifted, Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street. Despite all this eclectic nonsense, it was great decade to be a kid: hours pouring over Figurini Panini football stickers and STAR WARS bubble-gum cards, space hoppers, BAGPUSS, View-Masters and Cadbury Curly Wurly.

One of the highlights about growing up in the 70's was experiencing DOCTOR WHO's most vibrant era. Jon Pertwee's initial adventure - SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE - burst onto the screen in colour, arguably the first serial to go for the viewer's jugular. Even though Pertwee was known as a comedy actor, he portrayed the Time Lord as a technology-orientated man of action, who was also keen on "moments of charm." The serial would also signify the plagiarism to come (here, more than shades of Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS II), but this four-parter did introduce the Autons and a new gritty feel; even UNIT, at the start of their long integration, had blood on one of their cracked windscreens. SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE begins with the TARDIS arriving on Earth in the middle of a meteorite shower, actually hollow globes containing the Nestene Consciousness. This disembodied alien has an affinity for synthetics, and agent Channing (Hugh Burden) has infiltrated the plastics factory to form mannequin-like replicas of establishment figures with the aim of colonisation.

Scientists-in-arms: Jon Pertwee and Caroline John.

The dawn of the 70's not only stifled a hopeful future, equality of the sexes was still a brooding issue. The self-titled Second Wave Feminists fought their corner in a Britain that was renowned for its CARRY ON view of women, and this anger spilled over at the 1970 Miss World contest at the Albert Hall. After compare Bob Hope fuelled the flames by making a number of crass comments ("I'm very happy to be here at this cattle market tonight"), he was bombarded with flour and stink bombs. Newsletters and publications such as Shrew, Spare Rib and Women's Report gathered a momentum of ideas, which developed the theoretical differences between socialistic feminism and the more radical format; as the decade developed, the liberation movement was addressing sexual stereotyping in education. 

With the Time Lord exiled on a near-contemporary Earth, DOCTOR WHO introduced a new female companion; but rather than the screaming, threatened norm, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was a disciplined scientist and meteor specialist. Shaw could understand the Doctor more on a level footing, but producer Barry Letts decided that she was too intellectual to provide a dramatic balance. Lasting only a handful of serials, Shaw was either too far ahead of the time, or a character who writers struggled to fully relate to. Consequent feministic traits were very haphazard in 70's DOCTOR WHO: sassy, independent reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) regressed to rescue fodder; leather-clad Leela (Louise Jameson)'s usual reflexes were to kill; and we had to wait for the first incarnation of Time Lady Romana (Mary Tamm) for the Doctor to have any scientific sparring partner again.