The Regeneration of Doctor Who

In his fantastic new book on the British band The KLF, KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money (available from Amazon US, and Amazon UK), J.M.R. Higgs notes that "synchronicities seem to prefer some stories more than others, and this is one that they flock to." As if to emphasise the point, I asked Higgs earlier this week if I could reprint (on the Friday release date) some of the material from the book about coincidences involving The KLF and the legendary British sci-fi series Doctor Who, as I thought readers would enjoy it. I didn't realise when I asked this that Friday was the 49th anniversary of the first airing of Doctor Who

I should have been aware of this though, because in the book Higgs mentions that November 22-23 is somewhat of a temporal confluence for a number of the historical tributaries that his book explores in mapping the career of the KLF. Not only the Doctor Who anniversary, but also November 23rd is a 'holy day' for Discordians, being the birthday of Harpo Marx, and the 22nd was the day that JFK was assassinated (an event whose coincidental links to Discordianism are worthy of a complete book themselves).

The KLF's main link to Doctor Who is a fairly obvious one: they had their first hit single (selling a million plus copies) under the name 'The Timelords', with the novelty single "Doctorin' The Tardis" (video above). But the story begins much earlier, with the respective encounters the two members of The KLF, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, had with Robert Anton Wilson's Discordian classic, Illuminatus!, in particular a certain stage version. In 1976 the British actor/director Ken Campbell adapted Illuminatus! after coming across the book in an esoteric bookshop in Camden. He cast Bill Nighy in the play after bumping into the well-known actor in a pub, as Nighy was toting a copy of the book himself, as well as other (now) big-name actors such as Jim Broadbent.

Bill Drummond himself was intimately involved in the production, being hired to produce the sets for the show. This was no easy task, because Campbell was asking for something off the chart. But, in the words of Bill Nighy, "f**k me, did he deliver!". Higgs explains:

Drummond's solution was to build the sets in strange scales, utilising tricks such as foreshortening and strange angles, all of which perfectly suited the disorienting style of the play. Tables or beds were stood upwards and stuck to the rear wall, giving the audience the impression that they were looking down on the action from the ceiling. Given the seemingly contradictory scales of the story and the cafe stage, Drummond took Campbell's advice, assumed that the impossible would be possible, and just knuckled down and did it.

The success of Campbell's play led to a sold-out run at the National Theatre in London, though Drummond was no longer a part of the show. After completing the construction of his 'impossible' sets, shortly before the premiere he announced that he was popping out to get some glue, and never returned. But among the audience watching the show in London was a young Jimmy Cauty, the other half of the (future) KLF.

These earlier chance encounters came together a decade later, when actors were being short-listed to replace the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker in a time of crisis for Doctor Who:

It is here that our Discordian threads return to the show. A number of actors were auditioned to replace Baker, but it very quickly came down to a choice between two: our good friend Ken Campbell, and Sylvester McCoy (whose first job in showbiz involved sticking ferrets down his trousers as part of the Ken Campbell Road Show.) Cover image for KLF: Chaos Magic Music MoneyCampbell auditioned by performing a speech about the nature of time modelled on Alan Moore's Dr. Manhattan character, wearing a long coat, sleeveless cartoon t-shirt and wide-brimmed hat. The producer thought that he was too weird, an opinion probably enforced by the strange message that had been left on the answer phone the previous day and which he suspected was from Campbell. The message was actually a quote from Charles Fort's book Lo!, and begins 'A naked man in a city street – the track of a horse in volcanic mud – the mystery of the reindeer's ears – a huge, black form, like a whale, in the sky, and it drips red drops as if attacked by celestial swordfishes – an appalling cherub appears in the sea – Confusions.'

The production team were unaware that this quote was Campbell's personal mantra, which he would recite in the wings before any performance as a centring exercise, and finding it on the answering machine was deeply unsettling.

As McCoy remembers, "the executive producer of the BBC Series and Serials wanted Ken, but the producer of Doctor Who wanted me, and his argument was that he thought Ken would frighten the children, and I think he was right. The producer in fact threatened to resign if Ken got the job. So I got it."

Campbell may have been too weird for Doctor Who, but that didn't mean our Discordian synchronicities would leave the show behind. With the money they made from their Doctor Who record Drummond and Cauty made a film called The White Room, as will be discussed later. There was one major role in the film that required a 'name' actor, and for this role they cast Paul McGann, then well known for his roles in the The Monocled Mutineer and Withnail and I. A few years after this McGann took over from Sylvester McCoy and became the eighth Doctor Who. There was only one person in the entire world who would be cast as the next Doctor Who, and for Drummond and Cauty to select that very same man for their Doctor Who-funded film is…well, the odds are pretty high. Clearly this is a story that the synchronicities can't get enough of.

But beyond exploring the many funny coincidences that occur throughout the story of The KLF (such as Drummond and Robert Anton Wilson both having 'encounters' with a giant invisible rabbit spirit, as well as a link to the movie about a giant rabbit spirit, Donnie Darko), Higgs also has some wonderful discussion of Alan Moore's notion of 'Ideaspace', and the evolution of Doctor Who as the product of many creative minds.

Moore thought that we each had our own little corner of Ideaspace, our own home in the mental land… Many ideas, however, are shared, and while we may have our own personal version of them, they are more usefully said to exist in communal space. The ideas of Madonna, Sherlock Holmes or Hitler, for example, are shared by almost everybody. For Moore, these communal ideas existed beyond our own personal corners of the mental world.

Could we then wander out of our little territories, go further afield and explore the rest of Ideaspace? Here Moore's model is describing something very similar to Jung's collective unconscious. Moore thought that yes, we could open the doors of our individual homes and walk out into this shared landscape beyond. Indeed, he thought that artists had to, for it was their job to wander furthest from their own patch of the imagination and return with truly rare and exotic ideas which they had to use and make something out of. In this way the world we live in becomes increasingly changed by the mental world.

…What Moore had done was to raise the importance of the mental world of imagination and lower that of the physical. Indeed, you could argue that he has reversed them, claiming more importance for the imagination than the physical to the extent where the physical world is the product of the mental… This was the phenomena of why, after millennia of inventions such as the electric light, calculus or steam engines not existing, several people would invent the exact same thing at much the same time (at which point there's a mad race down to the patent office, with the winner being the one who is celebrated by history whilst the others forgotten). As Moore saw it, the idea had been discovered in a shared area of Ideaspace, and several wanderers had stumbled upon it shortly afterwards.

…Moore then took this one stage further, and it is at this stage that the model becomes more controversial. When biological things in the physical world evolve to a certain level of complexity, they become living, conscious, self-determined individuals. Could the same be true for ideas in the non-physical world? Could sufficiently complex ideas evolve into a form of life, and wander Ideaspace as they saw fit? If this was the case, it would explain all those stories of ghost, aliens, fairies, angels, elves, giant invisible rabbit spirits, the Goddess Eris and all the other unreal creatures that appear throughout cultures and history.

Higgs later looks at Doctor Who through the framework of Moore's Ideaspace, and it's a wonderful little insight into the self-regenerating (pardon the pun) nature of the famous Timelord character:

Once it was off the air Doctor Who continued as a series of novels, and many of the people who wrote Doctor Who fiction in this period – Russell T. Davies, Mark Gattis, Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat to name a few – were responsible for resurrecting Doctor Who in 2005. Indeed a number of these people, and many British writers of their generation, have gone on record as saying that they only became writers in the first place because of Doctor Who.

When Russell T. Davies brought the series back to television he reinvigorated the character by using the narrative device of surviving a great 'Time War'. The 'Time War' idea originally came from Alan Moore, who wrote a number of Doctor Who comic scripts in 1981 about a '4D War' which had two time-travelling armies attacking each other at increasingly earlier points in time so that neither side had any idea about what the war was about, or who started it.

Doctor Who: The Time War

…The Doctor is the first British folk hero of the TV age, and the nature of his TV origins make him unusual. There is no definitive creator standing behind him, no Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ian Fleming or J.K. Rowling. Instead, he popped out from the space between many minds. There was a succession of different actors, writers and producers who all invigorated the character for a short while before moving on or burning out. The character is defined by his ability to regenerate and change his personality. He can change all his friends and companions. He can go anywhere, at any time. He is, essentially, the perfect never-ending story. He will survive long after you, me or anyone currently involved in making the series has died. He adapts, grows, mutates and endures. In this he fulfils much of the standard definitions for a living thing. This is not bad going, for a fiction.

Already, there are many thousands of Doctor Who stories which, for a character of fiction, is almost unheard of. There have been hundreds of stories on TV, and there are countless more available as novels, audio CDs, comic books, films, stage plays, webcasts, fanfics and radio programmes. The growth of the story, compared to any other fiction from the same period, is deeply unusual. Indeed, it has become arguably the most expansive and complex non-religious fiction ever created.

According to Moore's model of Ideaspace, this fiction may be complicated enough to act like a living thing. Note that this is not to say that Doctor Who is a living thing, for that would sound crazy It is to say that it behaves as if it were a living thing, which is a much more reasonable observation. Of course, if you then go on to try and define the difference between something that is living and something that behaves like it is living, you will be a brave soul indeed.

When the current Doctor Who writers claim that they only became writers because of Doctor Who, they usually credit the series of novels which [David] Whitaker started and which young boys devoured during the 1970s. There is another explanation, however, which comes from the very format of the programme. In the original series, episodes built towards a climax and ended on a cliff hanger in which the Doctor or his friends appeared to be in inescapable danger. Of course, the children watching knew that the Doctor would somehow survive. He always did. The question, then was not would he escape, but how? What could possibly happen to get the Doctor out of that situation? There would be much debate about this in school playgrounds after each episode. And as the kids thought about the problem, their imaginations were being stoked. They were thinking like writers. Indeed, they were trying to write the next episode themselves.

What we have here, then, is a character of fiction, neither created or 'owned' by any one imagination, who is actively creating the very environment – writer's minds – that it needs to survive into the future. Not only is Doctor Who a fictitious character that acts like a living thing by constantly evolving and surviving, it is also a self-sustaining living thing that creates the one thing that it needs to survive. From an evolutionary point of view, that's impressive.

I've skipped over a number of other fascinating elements of Higgs' discussion of Doctor Who, such as the influence of alchemical thinking on David Whitaker's creative output. And the Doctor Who segment is just one small part of what is a brilliant book that touches on everything from JFK assassination conspiracy theories through to the fascinating philosophical theories of Alan Moore and Robert Anton Wilson. All of this is framed in terms of the careers of Drummond and Cauty, the two halves that make up The KLF, and the strange scenarios and synchronicities that seem to have charged the duo with some sort of magical power. And ultimately, it's about exploring the motivations, or influences, that led to their most infamous and debated act – taking the profits of their music career, a million British pounds, and burning it in the fireplace of a deserted boathouse on the Island of Jura in the middle of the night (see the video below for an interview with Cauty and Drummond discussing it). Higgs hits the nail on the head when he explains why most people find the burning of the million quid so disturbing – unlike someone spending millions on goods or services, "this wasn't money being wasted; it was money being negated."

J.M.R. Higgs has done a remarkable job with KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At just $7.00 at Amazon.com, and £4.54 at Amazon UK, you won't be burning anything by picking it up. A contender for book of the year.

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Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
1 year 11 weeks

What a cool glimpse into another spirituality -- tanks :3

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All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

Paolo's picture
Member since:
1 May 2004
Last activity:
6 weeks 5 days

Thank you for this Greg, this is now sitting on my iPad silently waiting its turn to be read.

It would be interesting if people start encountering the Doctor in a similar way to Alan Moores accounts of meeting John Constantine.

cheers Paolo