The media ecologist

JFK and Doctor Who – some anniversaries matter


Most anniversaries are more or less random: it is nice to mark the passing of time with a wedding anniversary, but the date itself is usually chosen for quite extraneous reasons.

But there are two anniversaries falling this week that seem to have some reason for their proximity. It is, as every science fiction fan in the world knows, 50 years since Dr Who was first broadcast.

It’s also, bar a few days, the anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, author of the Narnia books, whose magic wardrobe bears a more than passing resemblance to the Tardis. Dr Who picks up Lewis’ torch: dreams of children escaping to an other-when in the company of a mysterious, sometimes frightening, occasionally tragic but always wise guide.

Franco Folini

More precarious by way of analogy is the 50-year anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, one day before the first broadcast (it was rebroadcast partly in response, partly because of power cuts during that particularly bitter winter). We have learned more than perhaps we care to know about JFK’s foibles and political errors.

But a generation recalls him as the symbol of a future that never happened: a future especially of racial equality in the USA. Three years later in 1966, Star Trek would act out a race-blind future. Likewise, the first Dr Who began with accepting, rather than chasing down and destroying, the alien in our midst.

For good or ill, that same generation has cause to remember Kennedy with his finger on the button during the long days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As children we were perhaps even more alarmed, at an almost religious level, by the prospect of Armageddon than our parents were.

If it could all be ended by decisions over which we had absolutely no influence, then there was something wrong with the very nature of being: a rip in the fabric of space and time.

Moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse attacked Dr Who in the mid-1970s for frightening children. She was wrong to the extent that children need to have stories that express their fears.

Five and 10-year olds knew about the Bomb, but had none of their parents resources to rationalise or otherwise cope emotionally with its shadow. We needed – and still need – our storytellers to give external shape to what would otherwise fester as internal fears. We needed to know we shared them.

The uncanny monsters faced by 21st-century Doctors testify to newly inarticulate fears of unreality. We still need our fictitiously wise and fearless hero, crazier than Aslan, less fallible than JFK, to let us know we’re not alone.