The politics and Canadian connection behind Doctor Who

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Consider this column a Canadian afterparty for last weekend's 50th anniversary show of Doctor Who. In a charming "present at the creation" film prelude to it, the final acting credit reads, "and Bryan Cox as Sydney Newman." It's too bad Newman, who died in 1997, couldn't see it.

He was a Canadian Jewish kid born in 1917 who got into film early. In the 1940s he worked at the National Film Board under legendary Scot John Grierson. Grierson coined the term "documentary." He came to Canada at the start of the Second World War to produce propaganda (a term he embraced) against Nazism. He initiated a cadre of young Canadians into film who shared the leftwing politics of that era, when the Soviet Union was our ally. But at war's end, an anti-communist campaign was orchestrated across North America. Grierson was driven from film and many at the NFB -- though not Newman -- lost jobs. Like other Canadians with political and artistic impulses, he went to the U.K., which was less repressive than the U.S. There he became head of drama at ITV, creating the series The Avengers; then he took the same post at the BBC, generating Doctor Who and much else. It may seem odd work for a Canadian.

But every empire recruits talent from the colonies. It uses them to renew its own sapped vitality. You saw that in Sunday's pre-film: Newman as the brash irreverent Canuck who stirs things up at the staid, establishment BBC. He in turn recruits "internal" outsiders, like the BBC's first woman producer and first Indian director: "the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird," as they describe themselves. Each side thinks they're using the other and they are. By the 1970s a Canadian could don a lumberjack shirt and Greb Kodiaks to found a London theatre or gallery and the Brits would follow, awestruck. It was a version of good old American can-do, acceptable because it presented as Canadian.

In the 1970s Newman returned to Canada to head the NFB himself. There, he suppressed films by radical Quebec filmmakers like Denys Arcand who were leftwing nationalists -- much as Newman's comrades had been. "These guys think you can use government money to do anti-government stuff," he once told me, as if they couldn't slip that by a former radical like him. I asked about the old days at the Board. He said many there were in the communist party. I asked about him. "I was very close to it," he said, leaning in with a certain bravado, as if he'd taken a walk on the wild side. It probably served him well as the wild colonial -- not to mention Jewish -- boy at the Beeb.

There's also a sci-fi connection to Doctor Who -- about a traveller in time and space. After the war, when the witchhunts and McCarthyism began, many leftist writers turned to science fiction as a way to camouflage their politics. U.S. writer Judith Merrill said she moved to both sci-fi and Canada for that reason. Her book collection is now housed at the Lillian Smith library on College Street. Newman said he loved sci-fi because it's "a marvellous way -- and a safe way, I might add -- of saying nasty things about our own society." Gene Roddenberry apparently felt similarly when creating Star Trek in the mid-60s. Et voila: Doctor Who and Captain Kirk -- also played by a Canadian.

In that same conversation on a mellow New Year's Eve in the 1980s, Newman, then a consultant on Canadian films, said he'd solved the riddle of making a film about Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian doctor -- another one -- and communist who served in Spain's Civil War, then died with China's Red Army during the revolution there, after infecting his finger doing battlefield surgery. Newman called that implausible for so skilled a surgeon. What "really" happened? All his life Bethune was a radical and nonconformist. Then he goes to China and is surrounded by 700 million other revolutionaries. He has an identity crisis and poisons himself deliberately. It was suicide!

A loopy notion, IMHO, but it showed Newman was still churning out wacky producer ideas, on the same grand themes, wondering what might stick.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: byronv2/flickr

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