(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 399, dated November 2020)
Bob Fischer ponders when – and why – the establishment became the enemy of the otherworldly on British TV?
I’m beginning to wonder whether a crucial cultural shift is epitomised most tellingly in 1960s Doctor Who. In the 1967 story ‘The Abominable Snowmen‘, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor lands the TARDIS in 1930s Tibet and befriends Professor Edward Travers, an anthropologist searching for evidence of the Yeti. Admittedly most of the story is spent defeating fake, robotic Yeti under the guidance of an alien “Great Intelligence”, but – crucially – Travers is presented as an establishment figure, a reputable scientist on a mission.
But in the 1968 sequel story ‘The Web of Fear’ – in which said robotic Yeti have taken over the London Underground – an older Travers is featured, and his character is very different. In 1960s Britain, Travers has become an eccentric outsider, completely at odds with the establishment. He’s recruited to work with the British army, but he doesn’t trust them and they don’t trust him. He’s a maverick… and he gets results.
When did the depiction of those with an interest in the “unexplained” shift in popular culture? It’s possible to argue that the transformation of Travers’ character simply depicts changes in attitude between the 1930s and the 1960s, but I’m not sure if it also reflects a fast-moving cultural shift between 1967 and 1968.
Representation of the Yeti makes for a decent case study, actually. 1955 BBC play The Creature, written by Nigel Kneale, sees Peter Cushing leading an expedition into the Himalayan mountains to investigate stories of this mysterious beastie. Sadly the show no longer exists, but we can get a taste of it by watching the cinema adaptation that Kneale wrote for Hammer in 1957, retitled as The Abominable Snowman.
ITV swiftly reciprocated. In the second episode of their 1956 drama Colonel March of Scotland Yard, puzzle-solver March (Boris Karloff) seemingly finds a Yeti footprint in the snow outside his Whitehall Place office! And, as with Kneale’s script, the original Himalayan folk tales are treated respectfully, with the existence of the Yeti accepted as fact by these establishment figures. Peter Cushing’s character is a respected scientist, Colonel March works for Scotland Yard, and neither of them ever dismiss the stories as bunkum: they embrace them open-mindedly, and look to find the truth behind them. Attitudes echoed by other establishment heroes of the era, when confronted with the otherworldly: Kneale’s own Bernard Quatermass, introduced in 1953, and intrepid cosmologist John Fleming, from A For Andromeda (1961).
But did the emergence of the hippie counter-culture, reaching its apotheosis in 1967, change these attitudes? Did this new generation of “turned-on” young people and outsiders reject the establishment and claim the “unexplained” as their own, to the exclusion of the old order? The marginalisation of Professor Travers and his beliefs in ‘The Web of Fear’ suggests that the transition might already have been underway by 1968.
By the 1970s, and the explosion of supernaturally-themed television for children, the shift seems complete. It’s difficult to watch huge swathes of 1970s TV without concluding that it’s been infiltrated by a counter-culture mentality that absolutely believes in the otherness of the supernatural, and is no longer presenting such matters as merely unidentified elements of a rational scientific universe. If anything, they are the antithesis of this. The otherworldly is often depicted as a rejection of the establishment, the refuge of kids who believe, or have themselves been infused with distilled essence of supernatural: see The Owl Service (1969), The Tomorrow People (1973-79) or Raven (1977).
Elsewhere, otherworldly figures are befriended by childen who must hide them from the adult world: see Catweazle (1970-71), Sky (1975) and Nobody’s House (1976). And in other shows (1977’s Children of the Stones, for example) the uncanny becomes the raison d’être of entire communities who have divorced themselves from mainstream society. Everywhere, flared-trousered kids are surrounded by folk myth, strange powers and assorted ghosts and beasties… and such things are presented as an exciting alternative to mainstream rationalism. Authority figures (parents, teachers, policemen, and yes, establishment scientists) are frequently stupid, cynical or naive. Even Doctor Who‘s crack alien-fighting taskforce UNIT (founded after the events of ‘The Web of Fear’) is increasingly depicted as a collection of loveable bumblers as the decade wears on.
I’m unsure as to the specifics of this cultural shift, but I’d be intrigued to hear any thoughts. Was the establishment already backing away from the otherworldly by the late 1960s, at which point the counter-culture swooped to claim it as their own? Or did the counter-culture annexe the otherworldly as part of the psychedelic revolution… at which point the establishment backed off and decided it really couldn’t be associated with this stuff any more?
Carve any thoughts on your nearest stone circle, and telepathically transmit the location to me…