The Incredible Hulke

Michael Herbert (2014) Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications), ISBN: 978-1910170090, 30 pages

I’d heard somewhere about the scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke being left of centre, although I’m not sure where from. I knew him through Doctor Who novelisations from the 1970s. Most were based on serials he’d written – although the titles were often changed from the television versions, none of which I’d seen. Some of them I had caught up with on TV or DVD over the years.

There was something about his aliens that was different. All too often, aliens stand in for difference, and thus a threat – within the Hollywood tradition as invaders, frequently to be read as the foreign threat of the age, typically the Communist. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), say, can be read as McCarthyite parable (or a satire of McCarthyism … or an attack on normalising America). Only rarely – The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), ET, The Extra-terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), say – do they come in peace. Hulke’s aliens tended not to be the villains of the piece, although humans often assumed they were at first. He often used reptilian characters – the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Draconians, the dinosaurs …. (well, duh). There’s an article in that to be written somewhere.

A week or so back an old comrade Mike Sanders drew my attention to a review of a pamphlet, Doctor Who and the Communist, in the Morning Star. This was published by Five Leaves Publications, a Nottingham-based radical small press who had published fascinating collections on Utopias and Map and appear to have opened a shop that is the natural successor to the much-missed Mushroom Bookshop.

The pamphlet, by socialist historian Michael Herbert, is thin. Well, obviously. Thirty pages. And what we seem to know about Hulke is thin. He was illegitimate at a point when it attracted much social stigma, he seemed to have gone to university, he joined and left the Communist Party at some point and worked for the Unity Theatre. I wonder how easy it would be to find out which university? I guess you’d need to go around each university? Has anyone asked Terrance Dicks? I suspect such information wouldn’t exist unless there was some letters or diaries. We don’t know when he joined the Communist Party or when he left – Herbert assumes 1956, with the invasion of Hungary, but that’s just a guess. Would there be a secret services file on him? I didn’t know where the Unity Theatre was and Herbert doesn’t tell us. It turns out it was in the King’s Cross area, now under housing, and home to a significant number of actors, writers and directors over the years.

Hulke doesn’t seem to have written for the Unity Theatre but wrote for radio and TV, including the Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960) Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961) serials, early children’s sf from Sydney Newman. When he was working on an episode of The Avengers, “The Mauritius Penny” (10 November 1962), he called on the aid of an advertising copywriter he was renting a room to, Terrance Dicks, as a cowriter. Hulke wrote scripts for early Doctor Who, which weren’t used, including a historical, so it wasn’t until “The Faceless Ones” (8 April-13 May 1967) that his byline appeared on the series – a story about aliens stealing human identity. (Ok, that doesn’t seem so typical. Co-writer David Ellis had worked on Dixon of Dock Green and was about to work on Z Cars). Less than two years later, Dicks turned to Hulke to help cowrite “The War Games” (19 April-22 June 1969) as the production team had run out of usuable scripts and time. Dicks, continuing as script editor commissioned him both to write “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (31 January-14 March 1970) and help rewrite David Whittaker’s “The Ambassadors of Death” (21 March-2 May 1970). Hulke’s work is clearly some of the most interesting of the era – an era that backed itself into a narrative corner by stranding the Doctor on Earth. Each week an alien had to invade or a scientific discovery had to go wrong; the series’s centring on a Britain defending itself from attack was clearly politically very interesting.in terms of its narrative of English postimperial melancholy. As I write in Solar Flares: “At a point when Britain had a relatively low military profile – and before the resurgence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – the UNIT narratives provide Britain with a role in world affairs without anyone having to go overseas (although occasionally they get to leave the planet).” (p. 117). Hulke seems to have been sceptical of the military, which introduces a tension in the UNIT stories.

Herbert spends about a paragraph on each of the serials, little more than brief summaries, noting significant actors, and so forth, before moving on to discuss those Target novelisations. (Dicks was series editor, unofficially I believe, but was both repaying a debt and giving work to a colleague who could produce the goods.) The political subtexts are noted, but not developed. Much of the Doctor Who materials appeared on a blog as a guest post. How does Hulke’s communism play out in his sympathetic aliens and his dangerous militias?

This pamphlet feels like a precursor to further work. Is there analysis to be written of Hulke’s sf or has it been done? I would imagine there are plenty of documents in the BBC’s archives, and I don’t know what criticism there is out there already, fannish or academic. I can’t see me doing any digging in the near future, so there it is, an idea parked.

I note, however, that coming soon is a biography, by John Williams, Mac: The Life and Work of Malcolm Hulke, which may answer such queries.

Bibliography

  • Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters (London: Target, 1974) [“Doctor Who and the Silurians”]:
  • Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon (London: Target, 1974) [“Colony in Space” 10 April-15 May 1971].
  • Doctor Who and the Sea Devils (London: Target, 1974) [26 February-1 April 1972]
  • Doctor Who and the Green Death (London: Target, 1975) [“The Green Death” (19 May 1973-23 June 1973), by Robert Sloman]
  • Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (12 January to 16 February 1974)]
  • Doctor Who and the Space War (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Frontier in Space” (24 February-31 March 1973)]
  • Doctor Who and the War Games (London: Target, 1979)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Faceless Ones (London: Target, 1986)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Ambassadors of Death (London: Target, 1987)

Doctor Who and the Communist is available from the publisher’s website, I would guess their bookshop and Housman’s Bookshop, Caledonian Road, London near King’s Cross.

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