There's been a bit of controversy in the press recently over the 'new' proposition of
using animal organs for transplants into humans. A lot of people seem rather upset by
this, for various reasons. My own initial reaction, before I stopped to think, was, I have
to confess, one of total repulsion.
Now this is not rational. Looking at it in purely objective terms it is little more
than a logical extension of the principle on which all animal and plant survival is based
- the absorbtion of organic matter into the structure of the individual. We breed animals
for food, why not for transplants? So why am I (and, it has to be said, many others)
utterly repulsed by the whole idea? Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm pretty
sure that their reasons aren't the same as mine. It took me a while, but I suddenly
realised exactly why I find the whole idea of replacing human hearts and livers
with those of pigs repugnant.
Ring any bells? Think back eleven years - The Talons of Weng-Chiang to be precise.
What, exactly, was Mr Sin? That's right, the Peking Homunculus - a cyborg, a machine with
but one organic component, the cerebral cortex of a pig. Admittedly, there's a world of
difference between transplanting animal organs into a human and building them into robots,
but the faint similarity there is enough to make me feel uncomfortable. And that's why I
don't like the idea of pig-human transplants. We all remember what Mr Sin was like, don't
we? A homicidal, blood-crazed killing machine, displaying all the blood-lust of an animal
with none of the conscience of a man. It's illogical, I know, but just that vague memory
of a past Doctor Who monster is enough to affect, without real reason, my attitudes to
what, I am sure, will be a major advance in medical science, probably responsible for
saving the life of thousands.
And I find that frightening.
Frightening that the human mind can be so affected by irrational impulses, by emotions
stirred up by what, in the final analysis, is only a television programme.
Oh, I was very young when The Talons of Weng-Chiang was shown, very impressionable. But
it just goes to show the profound effect that Doctor Who can have on children, and the
extent to which it can shape the subsequent thoughts and attitudes of its viewers, even
into adulthood. Robert Holmes was a master crafts- man, there's no doubt about that, but
did he or Philip Hinchcliffe really understand the effect that their work had on their
vulnerable audience? I'm not suggesting that I was ever psychologically disturbed by
Doctor Who, or that I was left emotionally scarred by the terrors of 'Gothic' Who
(although I dare say Mary Whitehouse could wheel out a dozen psychiatrists to support that
view), but I do find it unsettling that a television programme can so powerfully
manipulate feelings, that unconsciously it can have such an effect on its
viewers. You may not feel that the programme ever really had any effect on you, but how
can you be sure? You are the sum total, not only of your memories, but of your feelings,
of your attitudes, of the behavioural patterns laid down in your subconscious at an early
age and which are constantly being added to. Every experience in some way affects
your personality, don't try to deny it, more so when one is young. And Doctor Who, because
of its very nature, because, in those days, it was designed to have a powerful
effect on children, designed to shock, to frighten, to terrify, is bound to have had a
greater effect on my generation than possibly any other programme of that era.
We say that we enjoyed being frightened by Doctor Who, and we mean it. Certainly I
loved the hiding behind the sofa bit (although this tended to be more with the Pertwee
stories for me, rather than the Hinchcliffe era), and a little terror is perhaps healthy,
cf. the long tradition of spine-chilling, not to say grisly, fairy tales from those
purveyors of sweetness and innocence, the Brothers Grimm. But, leaving aside those
unfortunate few who may have been more than slightly upset by the sheer horror of the odd
Doctor Who episode, this is not what I'm talking about. Yes, perhaps Holmes and
Hinchcliffe did go a little too far (typified, perhaps, by the gruesome nightmares
featured in The Deadly Assassin), but more insidiuous, I feel, is the lasting effects on
the attitudes fostered in their young and impressionable audience. Not just towards
violence, although certainly such stories as Talons and Seeds of Doom are way
over the top, and would never be allowed on children's television today (and rightly so),
but in every sphere of thought.
I'm not saying that all of this was necessarily to the bad. Doctor Who was an intensely
moral show - despite the Doctor's occasionally 'alien' attitude, good always triumphed
over evil - and this must have bee a Good Thing. But then it could be argued that all of
today's kiddies shows, from The A-Team to Captain Power, display a similar 'moral'
attitude. And how many of those programmes would we really want our children to watch, to
absorb, to imitate?
I don't know if Holmes and Hinchcliffe realised quite how significant their work was in
shaping the perceptions and attitudes of their audience, but I suspect that they did, at
least to some extent. From the Lively Arts documentary, and the various interviews
published over the years, it seems that they took their responsibilties seriously. Maybe
they overestimated the capactity of the child to cope with strong horror and violence, but
I think that, on the whole, they knew where to draw the line in this respect. But as to
the lasting effect on my generation as concerns impressions of the real world, well, I
think they have a lot to answer for. What else they could have done, I don't know. It's an
occupational hazard of watching television that one has to live with. You can hide away
from tv, but you can't hide away from experience - whatever happens, something will shape
your perceptions and attitudes. But that doesn't stop me from feeling uneasy that
something as apparently insignificant as a tv programme I saw eleven years ago still
affects my thinking today. It scares me, and I don't see what I can do about it. I shall
just have to accept it - whether I like it or not, I am the sum of my experiences, and
I'll just have to live with that.
Issue three contents
Five Hundred Eyes index