In this series of articles we look at thematic links between Doctor Who and other television series, and influences that often run both ways. As always, let’s start by looking at the most superficial of links: actors who crossed over:
The obvious one everyone knows about is Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor), playing Cole Hawlings. It’s pretty clear why they wanted an ex-Doctor actor for the role: it’s a very Doctorish character, minus the pseudo-scientific trappings. Patricia Quinn (Belazs in Dragonfire) played Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Philip Locke (Bigon in Four to Doomsday) played Arnold of Todi, Nicholas Chagrin (Quillam in Vengeance on Varos) played the utterly fabulous bronze head, Charles Pemberton (a Cybermen in Tomb of the Cybermen and also a minor role in The War Games) played the Chief Constable, and apart from a couple of supporting artists that’s it. There are also plenty of behind-the-scenes connections, including composer Roger Limb and visual effects designer Tony Harding.
In 1927 John Masefield published The Midnight Folk, and then the sequel The Box of Delights followed in 1935. Like most children (I would guess) who have read Masefield’s books since the television adaptation of The Box of Delights in 1984, I read the two books back to front! The Midnight Folk is actually well worth reading, and shares a lot of the same themes and characters, including Kay Harker and villain Abner Brown, but The Box of Delights is clearly the superior of the two and is absolutely enchanting. Both books were an influence on C.S. Lewis to such an extent that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and later Narnia books) could be accused of “borrowing” too much. The Box of Delights certainly does not deserve to be the least recognisable of the two titles.
The BBC’s adaptation in 1984 is probably the television series that made the greatest impression on me as a child of anything I ever watched, and I include Doctor Who in that (which I watched but never really became a fan of until my teens). It is difficult to describe how utterly amazing it was to watch this at the age of six. Looking at it nowadays the visuals still stand up quite well and are still incredibly charming and magical, but at the time it was just an astonishing thing for a child to watch, like seeing real magic on the television. That moment where a painting comes to life, and Kay and Cole Hawlings enter into the world of the painting, gosh that was mind-blowing. Every year after that I scoured the Radio Times at Christmas looking for a repeat, but it bizarrely never happened.
At the time this was made, it was the most ambitious children’s television programme ever made by the BBC. That may still be the case – I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that has come close to this since. Not only was it ambitious in terms of children’s television, but it was the most expensive thing the BBC had ever made, full stop.
The production also benefitted from an extraordinary bit of luck: the one time the British weather ever co-operated with the BBC’s wishes. They wanted snow, hired a snow machine for the five days of filming (imagine how much less convincing it would have been with that) and then a blizzard hit Britain. There were five feet of snow covering the ground for the filming days. I still remember that winter, although I was only five when they were filming, but a winter with deep snow in a country that rarely gets much is something to stick in the mind, however young you are.
If only Doctor Who ever got that lucky with the weather, instead of having to write “freak weather conditions” into scripts because it was raining one minute and sunny the next!
The Box of Delights is from a grand tradition of children’s fantasy fiction that depicts a child finding a way into a different, magical world. Doctor Who has always felt like it was on the fringes of the same tradition, with the TARDIS acting in the same way as the Box of Delights here (a portal to another world), and the Doctor being the magical figure (let’s face it, the sonic screwdriver is pretty much a magic wand) who acts as a guide to other worlds, in much the same way as Cole Hawlings. Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who, particularly with Matt Smith as the Doctor, made a conscious effort to move in this direction, and it is something that should be attempted again in future because there is endless untapped potential in the genre.
As with Doctor Who, authority figures are shown to be either corrupt or too stubborn to listen to reason. Kay has a hard time trying to convince the police that anything is amiss. There is also time travel, with Kay travelling back to a time when wolves roamed the countryside.
I think the one thing that makes this all so compelling is the combination of Christmas with the kind of unsettling scariness that children find so compelling within a safe atmosphere of their living room. Because there is a lot of that about Christmas isn’t there. It’s an exciting, wonderful, spiritual time of the year, but it is also tinged with a frisson of fear, with the darkest, longest, coldest nights of the year. Doctor Who is yet to tap into that combination with complete success, after over a decade of Christmas episodes.
Lots of dedicated Box of Delights fans still watch the series every Christmas, one episode per week in the six weeks leading up to the Christmas Eve, just like that first broadcast in 1984. I’m not surprised it has stuck in the mind of so many children of the 80s. That magical, most Christmassy of Christmases in 1984, with The Box of Delights on the television, will be forever engrained in my soul… RP