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The White Heat of Technology (Clever, Clever, Clever)
on 18 October 2010
Parallel lives: The Doctor and The Prime Minister. William Hartnell? Harold Macmillan. Patrick Troughton? Harold Wilson. Jon Pertwee? Edward Heath. Tom Baker? James Callaghan. Peter Davison? Well, there's no convincing analogue for him but Colin Baker? Margaret Thatcher, definitely.
It's predictable that the prevailing zeitgeist (and a great deal of hindsight) throws up similar ideals for authority figures. All of the above have at least some appropriate synchronicity but the closest fit is Troughton-Wilson. It's not just that Harold Wilson was the British Prime Minister throughout all of the Troughton era but that he and The Second Doctor are oddly similar icons of a certain strand of 60s culture. They are both slightly comical but also highly intelligent, extremely canny, wilfully idiosyncratic and loved and respected by many; while fulfilling the same role as his patrician predecessor, The Second Doctor, like Wilson, was much more of the common man.
Before becoming PM, before Dr Who was even broadcast, Harold Wilson made a speech in which he coined the phrase "the white heat of technology". Stories like 'The Moonbase' (and later on, 'Fury From The Deep' and 'The Wheel In Space') are its cultural analogue. Technology (and the future of technology) in the mind of the average citizen was merely a matter of perseverance: the patient unveiling of electronic miracles that would transform everyone's lives, sooner rather than later. Controlling the weather for example, as the denizens of the eponymous Moon Base do. A world of levers and dials and significant beeping.
It's a pity that Dr Who's embracing of this idea of the techno-future spawned one rather unfortunate consequence for The Moonbase's villains. Gone were the uncanny, totally alien vocal characterization of 'The Tenth Planet' Cybermen. Instead, an earthbound machine version (and an occasionally unintelligible one), something that a human scientist of the 1960s was actually capable of, rather than something very odd from way out there in the vastness of space. The visual design is likewise normalized; the Cybermen were born-again boring.
'The Moonbase' can be a tad boring too at times but it is a genuine improvement on previous stories in many ways. The Radiophonic Workshop conjure up some very eerie and hypnotic sounds, the supporting cast is a lot more believable and the plotting is that little bit more joined-up. Polly may still be on coffee duty but she is also instrumental in polishing off the first wave of Cybermen (and the two boys almost coming to blows in their attempts to impress her is an unexpectedly adult twist; in my opinion, not at all a welcome one).
Like it or not, this is the first airing of the Cybermen as we know them today: logical, functional, comprehensible machines. They were to become the Doctor's main foe until the end of the decade and were in that time to leave us some of the most unforgettable images in the show's history.