Reading “The Dæmons”

by Michael Spence

This paper was delivered to the University of Manchester’s 2013 “Religion and Doctor Who” Day Conference, developed from a chapter of my 2006 undergraduate dissertation. 
Thanks to Chris Kitson, Steven Kitson, Richard Clutterbuck and Andrew Crome.

Abstract

1971’s The Dæmons could be seen as the paragon of anti-religious sentiment in Doctor Who.  Following the plot of Quatermass and the Pit, psychic phenomenon is replaced with ‘black magic’ as the uncanny element, and the insectoid martians with the cloven-hoved Azal as the von Däniken god. The theme of ‘scientific explanations’ is at its very strongest here with the Doctor adopting the maxim:  “Science… not sorcery”.

An anti-religious reading of The Dæmons sees the rationalist materialist Doctor – the forces of good – set against a superstitious cult, held in the thrall of the local vicar, meeting in the church to worship a god-like entity– the forces of evil. The church being symbolically destroyed in the conclusion.

However it is not clear that we are expected to agree with the Doctor’s ‘scientific’ diagnosis. Indeed, the enemy is himself an amoral scientist. In a subversion of the norm, the monster is here used to show the dark side of the Doctor’s insistence on scientific rationalism. Evil is overcome by a substitutionary sacrifice.

This paper presents two readings of  The Dæmons, one critical of religion, the other equally critical of scientism.

INTRODUCTION

Throughout Doctor Who’s fifty years religion is almost exclusively portrayed as primitive and superstitious. From 10,000 AD in 1963 to The Rings of Akhaten in 2013, religious people are generally caricatured as naïve, infantile and easily manipulated.[1] Religious faith is seen as a blinkered, unquestioning belief, as symbolised by the blind vicar in Remembrance of the Daleks.

ALIEN VISITORS

Inherent in this picture of religion is the idea that religious minds create superstitious and fanciful explanations for rational events. Often we see our heroes mistaken for gods or spirits.[2]  More commonly, though, it is some ancient alien force that is deified: The Kroll in The Power of Kroll, Magnus Greel in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Helix in The Masque of Mandragora, The Mara in Kinda and Snakedance, to name a few.

As the Doctor explains in The Dæmons:

“Creatures like those have been seen over and over again throughout the history of man… and man has turned them into myths… Gods… or Devils. But they are neither.  They are, in fact, creatures from another world.[3]

Again, this is a common idea in Science Fiction and inspired Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods[4], which postulated that space-travellers inspired ancient religion and provided advanced technology.  This theory has been used to explain ancient mysteries such as the Antikythera mechanism[5], the Annunaki seal[6] and the vision of Ezekiel[7].[8]

The most openly critical expression of the von Däniken principle is Gene Roddenberry’s unmade episode of Star Trek entitled The God Thing[9] in which Christ is revealed to be one avatar of a ‘Universal Lawgiver’ machine.  The machine was to have visited Earth again, reinterpreting the law, but it malfunctioned, leaving us with a two thousand year-old outdated morality.[10]

THE SCIENTIST SAVIOUR

In these instances, Doctor Who appears to subscribe to the controlling theology of the science fiction genre – an optimistic scientism informed by a conflict thesis. With humankind blinded by superstition and worshipping what it cannot understand, it is our hero’s place to dispel the myth. The Doctor, the scientist saviour, fulfils the Shivaite role of the defeat of ignorance, setting people free from religious control with the light of rational and scientific explanations. This idea takes centre stage during Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor.  The production team sought to mirror the successful formula of the 1950s’ Quatermass serials[11], resulting in greater focus on the Doctor’s role as a scientist and heavy reliance on the ‘rational explanation’ device.  The finest example of this is the 1971 occult epic The Daemons.[12]

Doctor Who appears to subscribe to the controlling theology of the science fiction genre – an optimistic scientism informed by a conflict thesis.

FIRST READING

In fact, The Dæmons could be seen as the paragon of anti-religious sentiment in Doctor Who.  Following the plot of Quatermass and the Pit closely, the influence of Dennis Wheatley on co-writer Barry Letts also sees the action moved from London to the village of Devil’s End, and the psychic phenomenon of Quatermass replaced with ‘Black Magic’.

SCIENCE, NOT SORCERY

 The Quatermass-influenced theme of ‘scientific explanations’ is at its very strongest here, explored mainly in duologues between the rationalist Doctor and either naive companion Jo or eccentric white witch Miss Hawthorne.  “Science… not sorcery”[13] is the Doctor’s maxim.

Doctor Who historian Stephen James Walker writes: “The opposition between science and magic is indeed one of the strongest themes of the story, with the Doctor at pains to stress that everything that happens in life “must have a scientific explanation” and that magic is “balderdash” and “nonsense”…The apparently supernatural forces which the Master, posing as a clergyman, summons up in a cavern below the church in Devil’s End are rationalised as a product of “The secret science of the Dæmons.””[14]

It is interesting that the occultism that would come to dominate the classic Holmes-Hinchcliffe era[15] is here synonymous with religion.  The sinister hocus-pocus[16] of the Black Magic cult is indistinguishable from the life of the local church, which shares its membership with the coven.  The rites take place in a cavern below the church, and are led by the vicar. In his chapter on The Dæmons, Anthony Thacker writes:  “Most religion, including occult religion… is presented as primitive and superstitious… The running implication throughout is that it has no basis in reality, except as alien activity.  It is certainly presented as having no spiritual reality.”[17]

AZAL AS GOD

Another significant critique of religion comes in the form of the creature Azal. He fulfils the von Däniken role played by the Martians in Quatermass, and though he may look like a demon he is, in fact, a god. And godhood is an arch-sin in Doctor Who.

However benevolent a god-figure may be, their power is always viewed negatively as a hegemonic domination.  They rarely are benevolent though.  The first god-like being we encounter is the Toy Maker[18], who captures mortals and makes them his playthings. Before The Deadly Assassin in 1976, the Time Lords were portrayed as mysterious and god-like, pulling the strings.[19] Then there are the Black and White Guardians, acting to maintain the balance of light and dark in the universe. Gods in Doctor Who are like the gods of Greek myth, manipulating lesser beings to their own ends. Even the White Guardian is as manipulative as the Black.

Gods in Doctor Who are like the gods of Greek myth, manipulating lesser beings to their own ends.

Though not actually creators, the Dæmons’ purpose is: “To help Homosapiens take out Neanderthal man… they’ve been coming and going ever since.  The Greek civilisation, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution… they were all inspired by the Dæmons”[20]. The Doctor says to Azal  “I want you to go away and give Man a chance to grow up”[21]– a very Russell T. Davies idea.  Godhood is inseparable from the idea of absolute power and we know what absolute power does.  As the Doctor says of the Time Lords:  “Ten million years of absolute power – that’s what it takes to be really corrupt!”[22]  

On two occassions, the Doctor is tempted with God-like power offered to him first by the Key to Time, and second by the Skasas Paradigm. He refuses. Doctor Who, which prizes freedom, is naturally fearful of the threat to personal autonomy. 

To summarise this anti-religious reading of the plot, we have the rationalist materialist Doctor – the forces of good – set against a superstitious cult, held in the thrall of the local vicar, who meet in the church to worship a god-like entity[23] – the forces of evil. If the anti-religious imagery was not clear, the church is even symbolically destroyed at the end of the story.[24]

SECOND READING

Yet there is an alternative reading of The Dæmons almost diametrically opposed to this. While the first interpretation is in line with the conflict thesis wordlview and anti-supernatural bias of much science fiction, the theology of Doctor Who is at its most clear when it digresses from the controlling theology of its source material[25], in this case, Quatermass and the Pit.

THE DENOUMENT

The first clue to an alternative reading of the Dæmons is the resolution. Azal is annihilated when, as he prepares to destroy the Doctor, Jo makes a substitutionary sacrifice offering her life in place of the Doctors. This has been lambasted as ‘risible’[26] but it is no less dissatisfying than the denouement of Quatermass and the Pit and it may be more significant.  Stephen James Walker writes:  “It is arguably one of the story’s few weak points that in the end he [Azal] is defeated relatively easily…Clearly the writers were drawing a religious parallel here.”[27]  If nothing else, this indicates that The Dæmons may not be as hostile to religion as the first reading suggests.

THE DOCTOR’S FLAWS

Secondly, the Doctor never fully succeeds in convincing Miss Hawthorne of his ‘scientific’ explanations. In one argument with her he states:

“Well, the emotions of a group of ordinary human beings generate a tremendous charge of psycho-kinetic energy.  This the Master channels for his own purpose.”

Miss Hawthorne replies:

“But that is magic.  That’s precisely what Black Magic is!”

The Doctor, predating Clarke’s third law[28] by three years, rebuffs her saying:

“All the magical traditions are just remnants of their advanced science.”[29]

If we are to believe that this is the case, then the Doctor’s argument is reduced to a somewhat facile insistence on correct semantics.  In fact, he tacitly agrees with Miss Hawthorne saying:  “It’s a great pity they didn’t listen to you in the first place.”[30] 

The Doctor, predating Clarke’s third law by three years, states:
“All the magical traditions are just remnants of their advanced science.”

Significantly, Barry Letts is one of the few writers who will use the Doctor as something other than the ‘moral voice’.  Since the gradual phasing-out of the First Doctor’s anti-Hero status, the Doctor is always seen to be in the right- at least, morally.  Barry Letts returns Doctor Who to a much keener exploration of the flaws of the central character. In short, it is not entirely clear that we are expected to agree with the Doctor’s positivist diagnosis.

PLANET OF THE SPIDERS

Barry Letts combined his Zen interests with classic pulp elements to deliver the Buddhist allegory Planet of the Spiders. The Doctor’s mentor exhorts him to face his fear and take up the path of self-denial, overcoming his greed for knowledge represented by the Metabilis crystal. At the denoument, the Doctor faces his greatest enemy- his own ego, represented by the great spider, swollen under the influence of the crystal.  Finally, the Doctor dies, achieving the Buddhist ideal of extinguishment.  Could it be that Barry Letts uses Azal, like The Great One in Planet of the Spiders, to represent the Doctor’s fatal flaw?

AZAL AS SCIENTIST

Significantly, and quite different from the almost passive Martians of Quatermass, Azal is a scientist, cast in the mould of the many other amoral scientific villains of Doctor Who and allied with the Master’s “rationalist, existentialist priest”[31]. Of course, The Doctor’s enemies are far more likely to be megalomaniacal scientists than to have any sort of religious motivation. Call to mind the cold empiricism of villains like the Rani or Davros claiming that his creations will set him “Up above the Gods.” Anthony Thacker puts it like this: “The Doctor seems to decry the very science of the scientists”[32] And I contend that that is what is going on in The Dæmons.

In an impressive subversion of the norm, the monster is used to show the dark side of the Doctor’s insistence on scientific rationalism. Jo asks if the Dæmon could destroy the world. The Doctor replies: “What does any scientist do with an experiment that fails? He chucks it in the rubbish bin.” The point is that science that is overconfident, or exists divorced from ethics, is inhuman.

In an impressive subversion of the norm, the monster is used to show the dark side of the Doctor’s insistence on scientific rationalism.

The Dæmons, then, can be seen as a cautionary tale against cold, inhuman rationalism which would destroy the world.  It is Jo’s humanity that destroys the monster – driven insane by the apparent “illogicality of Jo’s willingness to sacrifice her own life to save the Doctor’s.”[33] In this reading, while a conflict thesis is still assumed, the monster of the story is not religion but science – or, more correctly – amoral application of science.  Jo’s irrational and human act of self-sacrifice saves the Doctor from the over-sized demon of his own positivism.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, it is clear that both threads are present in the story – both the anti-superstitious and the anti-positivist. Perhaps the story could best be seen as a warning against any kind of belief that would side-line human affairs and blind us to the importance of the other.


Footnotes

[1]           For example, 1967’s The Underwater Menace features a great farce as heroes and villains go to and from a secret room behind a statue of the living goddess Amdo, all whilst the worshipper’s eyes are closed in prayer. Or  Gwyneth from The Unquiet Dead’, who insists that alien invaders are angels sent from her dead parents.

[2]              In 1964’s Marco Polo a local, Tegana, seeks to put the crew to death as evil spirits. Barabara is mistaken for Yetaxa in The Aztecs, the crew are welcomed as Demons in The King’s Demons . The Doctor is hailed as Zeus in The Myth Makers and feared as ‘The Evil One’ in The Face of Evil. It is a recurring sci-fi formula: The protagonists arrive in a primitive world: On witnessing our heroes’ superior technology the people of this world either fear them as evil magicians, or worship them as gods.

[3]              Letts, Barry; Sloman, Robert.  Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Titan Books, London.  1992. Pg. 90

[4]     von Däniken, Erich. Chariots of the Gods. Putnam, 1970.

[5]     An analogue computer believed to originate in ancient Greece.

[6]     A Sumerian seal which depicts lizard-like creatures descending from the sky in a round craft.

[7]     This apparently gives a detailed account of a UFO landing.

[8]     See appendix 1 for a list of examples of the von Däniken principle in Doctor Who.

[9]     Thacker delivers an excellent chapter on The God Thing and the spirituality of Gene Roddenberry in Thacker, Anthony. A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001.

[10]    When asked by a child if he would ever go back in time and meet Jesus, Russell T Davies joked: “Every year I hand that script in. Let me do it! The last Christmas special, they were worried.” Cited in Wylie, Ian.  ‘Doctor Who: New Series Launch’.  The Life of Wylie.  Manchester Evening News. http://blogs.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/ianwylie/2007/03/doctor_who_new_series_launch.html (12/5/2007)

[11]    As noted in Walker, Stephen James. ‘Background’. Letts, Barry; Sloman, Robert Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Titan Books, London.  1992. Pg. 8

[12]    Other strong examples are The Time Monster and The Curse of Peladon.

[13]    Letts, Barry; Sloman, Robert Doctor Who: The Scripts. The Daemons. Titan Books, London, 1992. Pg. 138

[14]    Stephen James Walker ‘Background’.  Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Robert Sloman and Barry Letts.  Titan Books, London.  1992. Pg. 11

[15]    A ‘golden age’ heavily influenced by Hammer Horror, with Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script editor.  This era lasted from 1974 until 1977 and includes seasons 12-14 of the show.  Tom Baker starred as the Doctor.

[16]    Etymologically, a very appropriate term.

[17]      Thacker, Anthony. A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001.Pg. 264

[18]    Hayles, Brian The Celestial Toymaker. (1966)

[19]    The Deadly Assassin revealed them to be pretentious indolents organised into a Church of Rome-style patriarchy.

[20]   Letts, Barry; Sloman, Robert Doctor Who: The Scripts. The Daemons. Titan Books, London, 1992. Pg. 93

[21]    Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Robert Sloman and Barry Letts.  Titan Books, London.  1992. Pg. 154

[22]    Holmes, Robert.  The Trial of a Time Lord (1986) cited in ‘Memorable Quotes from “Doctor Who”: The Trial of a Time Lord’.  IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0562970/quotes (15/5/2007)

[23]    The idea of evil gods is explored in greater depth.

[24]   Indeed, it has become something of a joke amongst fans of the show.  The Church is destroyed in 1984’s The Awakening

[25]    Other examples include ‘computer as god’ plots.

[26]   Cornell, Day and Topping, cited in Thacker, Anthony. A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001. Pg. 262

[27]    Stephen James Walker, cited in Thacker, Anthony. A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001. Pg. 262

[28]   Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C Clarke

[29]   Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Robert Sloman and Barry Letts.  Titan Books, London.  1992. Pg. 93

[30]   Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Robert Sloman and Barry Letts.  Titan Books, London.  1992.  Pg. 73

[31]    Doctor Who: The Scripts.  The Daemons.  Robert Sloman and Barry Letts.  Titan Books, London.  1992.  Pg. 42

[32]    Thacker, Anthony.  A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001.  Pg. 165

[33]    Stephen James Walker, cited in Thacker, Anthony. A Closer Look at Science Fiction.  Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2001. Pg. 262

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