Co-Editor, Dene October throws a birthday bash for a Thin White Doctor mash.
January the 8th is a special day for me marking both of my fandoms. Being the birthday of both William Hartnell and David Bowie, I am never really sure whether to celebrate with an all-night-marathon of The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965) or Ziggy Stardust spinning “all night, all night long” (indeed, his latest platter Blackstar – stylistically called ★ – is released today). Hartnell, like you didn’t know it, was the first Doctor (indeed the only one with the absolute right to simply be The Doctor). Like Bowie he hails from a broken family background (but unlike him was also cousin to royal designer Norman). It was his typically shoutie, tetchy sergeant-major performance that caught the eye of first DW producer Verity Lambert. The original Doctor died right in the middle of the Thin White Duke’s creative peak. Bowie grew up listening to the likes of Elvis Presley (also born on January 8th, but not a fandom of mine … so end of) going to art school, learning mime and catching his own eye on the end of a mate’s fist, thus ending up with one permanently dilated pupil. Today, the plastic soul gouster celebrated his 69th year, thus outliving Hartnell by two years (you do the math) while also outlasting his pop contemporaries – and the whole of youth culture, pretty much – in the process.
That’s the unnecessary introductions out of the way, but which box to pick: the Mackenzie Trench-style Type-40 in need of a dust-down, with its peeling St John Ambulance badge, or the K8 red phone booth, so ubiquitous prior to mobile phones there were 70,000 units across the UK, when Ziggy stole his TARDIS, leaving from Heddon Street, Soho, rather than Shoreditch, for the stars? But why bother dematerialising one fandom when a crossover is on the cards? I’m not talking SuperWhoLock, or anything with so well fan-tested it borders on mainstream, but something more speculative … let’s call it BoWho maybe, or Rassilon’s Starman. On the other hand, it’s not unknown for a Time Lord to pick up a guitar.
Which is to say, my personal fandom crossover is not without more compelling precedent. Around the time Capaldi was installed as the Twelfth Doctor there was (okay, some pretty wild and hasty) speculation that his successor would be none other than the reclusive singer whose unannounced retirement was apparently due to a dodgy ticker (the route Hartnell made his final exit). It all seemed unlikely … then again, that’s exactly the way Bowie plays it, a pop chameleon (cliché, true, but a telling one) who made a career changing shirts and sneaking up on his fans. And in the end, Bowie made 2013 – Doctor Who’s fiftieth – his comeback year, shocking even his own PR with a surprise single shrewdly titled Where are we Now? Thus sharing this special year (helped along by the much discussed V&A retrospective) it was fitting that the Capaldi channelled Bowie in his costume and styling … the buttoned-up look was pure Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
But didn’t this just add to the sense of déjà vu… haven’t we always been on the threshold of a Bowie / Who mash up? For Bowie’s near association with the show is so recurring an event as to turn gossip into classic literature. He turned down the role of Sharaz Jek, for example, in fan-favourite ‘The Caves of Androzani’ a Fifth Doctor (Peter Davidson) story, because it clashed with his very serious, ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour. He was tipped to play DJ in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ (1985), a Colin Baker story, initials which by happenstance are those of his original name, David Jones, and a song from his travelogue album Lodger (1979). He was also offered a part as the alien kidnapper of Agatha Christie in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ (2008), apparently put off because of the time he’d have to spend in make-up (yes, that is ironic and no, I didn’t just make it up). Much more enchanting than all of that, he turned down the chance to play the Master (made famous by Roger Delgado in Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s era), which would have been a case of keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe … you will obey me!
No stranger to acting, Bowie’s television roles include hosting of The Hunger (1999) while his film credits, a little more impressively, include an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and a scientist in The Prestige (2006) – which Doctor Who Magazine raved was about as close to a Doctor-type character as you can get. He even complimented Frazer Hines on his acting and particularly his expert pronunciation of Buddhist lore, having watched the actor play Jamie McCrimmon alongside Patrick Troughton in The Abominable Snowmen (1967).
But the association doesn’t end there. There has also been talk of a musical collaboration. Doctor Who composer Murray Gold met up with Bowie in an ice-cream parlour (possibly, drinking milkshakes cold and long) where the singer poured cold scorn on the BBC’s offer of a part in the show. “They want me to do it,” he said adding vaguely “I’m not doing it.” It isn’t clear which role Bowie was declining this time but Gold thinks that the singer would be an exciting choice to score the soundtrack for a Doctor Who story. “I’d like to see that episode,” he said.
Bowie songs have already featured on the show. ‘Life on Mars’ was the clear influence behind the name of ‘Bowie Base One’ in The Waters of Mars (2009). The song ‘Starman’ played by one of Rose’s neighbours in Aliens of London (2005) and also on Random Shoes (2006) when Eugene Jones recalls his acquisition of the Dogon Sixth Eye.
Bowie’s previous soundtracks include Buddha of Suburbia (1993), the BBC teleplay of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982) and, cult favourite Labyrinth (1986) in which he plays Jareth, the Goblin King. He also dabbled with a soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth which fell into contractual problems rematerializing, in part, as the seminal album Low (1977).
The Bowie / Doctor connection is historical and cultural. Each was given creative birth in the 1960s where they reflected the Mod and psychedelic themes of the time, went glam in the 1970s, where they arguably reached a creative peak, got a bit old hat in the 1980s before briefly reigniting in the 1990s and then totally reborn, after a long period of retirement, in the new century. They are both British icons and successful worldwide British exports. So much so, the 2012 London Olympics wanted a bit of the crossover so we got a bit of TARDIS and a bit of ‘Heroes’ (1977), originally a celebration of the everyday heroism of a couple stealing a kiss in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Heroism isn’t forever… but just for one day. Now, and very much despite himself – he turned down a knighthood remember – Bowie has become something of a national treasure.
Just like the Doctor, being celebrated is something he struggles with and which cannot quite eclipse his inner darkness. Both of them reflect on the idea of Fa..Fa..Fa…Fa..Fame (basso profundo). In the video for Blackstar, returning characters Major Tom and Thomas Jerome Newton pop in the blend and re-emerge as a space messiah, inspiring the blind God-like devotion of an alien world. ‘Everybody knows me now’ Bowie sings in his follow up single, Lazarus, one of the songs in the stage play of the same name. The reboot Doctor suffers a similar unwanted fame, receiving the plaudits from every bugger in the universe. Do you know who I am he asks. Oh wait, that was Elvis Presley, but anyway, my point is every bugger does. But when Hartnell was at the helm, he was just a space-tourist, and often a pretty uninspiring one.
In 1969, Bowie was floating round his tin can, responding to the international space race by speculating on the loneliness of the long distance space junkie. Sung live, ‘Space Oddity’ was a low budget affair, Bowie sat down singing into a telephone as a crane lifted him over the audience. Similarly, classic Doctor Who could never boast big blockbuster effects. Instead, the audience is urged to swap images of outer space, for relationships with inner space.
Each uses allegory as a way of telling fantastic stories that are also commentaries on the real world. Although neither is strictly science fiction – indeed the early Doctor Who paid as much attention to histories (yay!!) as to possible futures – each is eternally drawn back to the themes of alienation (1969’s ‘Space Oddity’) the apocalyptic (1972’s ‘Five Years’), the dystopian (1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’), the alien as ‘the other’ (1985’s ‘Loving the Alien’ is as good a post-colonial statement as any Doctor Who managed). In a way, Bowie is already a Timelord.
In fact, like the Doctor, David Bowie is … anything you want him to be. So said the V&A Museum whose Bowie exhibition is still touring the planet. Likewise, in The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011), Matt Smith tells black teenager Clyde Langer (Daniel Anthony), “I can be anything”. And that has obvious connotations for race and gender as the programme moves forward, both of which are recurrent themes in Bowie’s work.
Bowie reckons he only got into playing characters due to the anxiety of being himself on stage. Some think he stopped regenerating midway through the 1970s but even Bowie doubts that. For both the singer and the Doctor, character changes have meant longevity. Not only does it keep things fresh, ironically it keeps us guessing just who David Bowie and the Doctor truly are. Is there a core identity we can access if we just keep peeling away the layers?
But I worry that Bowie and the Doctor are in fact star-crossed characters, sharing much in common, but doomed never to get it on. Spanning a fifty-year history, it is perhaps more surprising that their paths have not already crossed.
So that’s it then, that’s my one-man fan-show. And you don’t mind if I have my cake and eat it. As I write this, Bowie’s new album is about to stream through my headphones and I am watching a bit of Galaxy 4 (1965) with the sound muted. Rest easy. Bowie was never rumoured for this one. But that warrior Maaga, she sure looks like Angie Bowie, the one off Big Brother.