In this series of articles we look at thematic links between Doctor Who and other television series, and influences that often run both ways. In 1966 the BBC screened a television play of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Jonathan Miller. It is a masterpiece of surrealism, weird and wonderful, going further with the unsettling aspects of the book than any other television or film adaptation. It is also a Who’s Who of British television at the time, with perhaps the greatest cast ever assembled for an hour of television: Peter Cook (the Mad Hatter), Wilfred Brambell (the White Rabbit), Peter Sellers (the King of Hearts), John Gielgud (the Mock Turtle), Michael Redgrave (the Caterpillar), Allan Bennett (the Mouse), Leo McKern (the Ugly Duchess), Malcolm Muggeridge (the Gryphon), John Bird (the Fish Footman) and an inebriated Wilfrid Lawson who portrays the sleepiness of the Doormouse by slurring his words because he is actually, genuinely, drunk.
Anne-Marie Mallik plays Alice. She was not really an actress, but was chosen because she had the right kind of look for the part. Finding a child actress that can act realistically in the UK is very difficult nowadays and was virtually impossible in the 60s, so chosing a non-actor who had the right kind of other-worldly quality to her was a very clever approach, and she does better than any experienced child actress would probably have done at the time. And she is brilliant, seemingly by just being herself (judging by Miller’s recollections of how she was chosen). There is a scene where John Bird improvises something perfectly Carrollean and fabulous, off-script, and Mallik simply deadpans her line, completely unfazed. In the commentary Miller describes her as having a “joke-proof solemnity”.
As always, let’s take a look at the most superficial of links with Doctor Who: actors who crossed over:
Most notably, Michael Gough (The Celestial Toymaker and Hedin in Arc of Infinity) plays the March Hare. Gordon Gostelow (Milo Clancey in The Space Pirates) plays a gardener. Other than that we’re scraping the barrel of connections with one of the chumbley actors as an uncredited servant and an extra in The Ark and The Gunfighters giving us his Duck.
The degree to which the following statement will surprise you depends on how much of this blog you have read, but Doctor Who is very closely thematically linked to Alice in Wonderland, particularly in Steven Moffat’s children’s family fiction version of the show. The companion is our Alice figure with the TARDIS taking her down the rabbit hole (vortex) into other worlds. The rabbit hole is just as non-literal here as it is in Doctor Who. As for what the companion in Doctor Who finds at the other end of the rabbit hole, Doctor Who rarely goes in for a strongly surrealist approach, although concepts like shop dummies coming to life and killer robots made of sweets are weird enough when you think about them. When Doctor Who does surreal overtly it does it brilliantly, most notably in The Mind Robber.
Miller goes for a resolutely non-immersive approach to Alice, which is often the approach that works best for Doctor Who: the times when it knows it is incredibly strange and like nothing else on television, and plays on that. He avoids putting his actors into animal costumes, instead letting their performances convey the animal characters: this is unapologetically theatrical and the whole point is to make use of well-known actors in a way that allows them to be seen (Doctor Who often falls foul of the opposite approach, e.g employing Bernard Bresslaw and putting him in an Ice Warrior costume).
The point of Ravi Shankar’s music is to evoke the British Raj, and this is a version of Alice that is intentionally steeped in the British Empire, a time the original work sprung out of. Doctor Who returns regularly to themes of Empire with generally critical parallels, and there is also the narrower context of Victorian Britain, a favourite era for the TARDIS. Here Miller capitalizes on the fusty formality and social structures of Victorian academia, an adult world which contrasts with the imagination of childhood. The two worlds are clashed together and made bizarre by their combination. There is a sense of childhood as a strange, amazing place that is torn away in adulthood, and of course Doctor Who regularly has the Doctor being childish and setting an example of daring to be different and an independent thinker. As the Fourth Doctor says:
There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.
So just like the world of childhood is thrown up against the world of Victorian academia, Doctor Who is frequently thrown up against different genres with which it is an odd fit, with compelling results.
But there is more to it than that, because Miller was channeling the theme of childhood as a blessing and growing up as “a catastrophe”, as he puts it in his commentary. This is why Susan has to leave Doctor Who. This is why a companion in the Classic series must depart when she falls in love. Doctor Who is a childhood fantasy world, and when a visitor to that world truly becomes an adult she does not fit into it any more. Steven Moffat made it his approach to subvert that, with Doctor Who more overtly childhood fantasy fiction than ever before, but showing how a child can become an adult and still return to Wonderland. Amy is our Alice parallel. Clara is a twisted version of her.
Like Doctor Who, Miller’s version of Alice is technically pioneering, punching above its weight for the technology it had to work with. In one amazing scene which might be overlooked nowadays in terms of how stunningly different it would have looked at the time, Alice and the Duchess walk through a line of trees, and it is shot entirely hand-held, with the camera operator weaving around them between the trees. This was phenomenally difficult to achieve in 1966, and involved a group of five people including the director trying to co-ordinate themselves and their bulky camera equipment and keep each other from collapsing into a heap.
For me this is the version of Alice that achieves the closest match with the intentions and motivations of the original work, and as such still stands as the greatest version ever made. Both Disney film versions are pretty horrendous mis-steps that misunderstand or reject the source material. Tomorrow we will look at a different interpretation of Alice, one that twists things into an even more disturbing place. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… American McGee’s Alice