Loving the Aliens: David Bowie and 'Doctor Who'

If two of a nation's biggest cultural icons are face-changing aliens it should be considered more than a coincidence. Born in the public imagination within six years of each other David Bowie andhave taken strangely similar journeys.
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If two of a nation's biggest cultural icons are face-changing aliens it should be considered more than a coincidence. Born in the public imagination within six years of each other David Bowie and Doctor Who have taken strangely similar journeys.

From black and white into campy Technicolor, these most British of extra terrestrial beings both blossomed in the Seventies, had a creative crisis in the 80s, revaluated themselves in the 90s and had a celebrated return in the new century.

Constantly changing and yet comfortingly familiar they appear in your life like your crazed Uncle Pete with new outfits, eccentricities and companions. These men who fell to earth seem to tap into something in the national psyche that has taken them beyond simple entertainment and into our cultural lexicon.

The birth of both icons was during a time that saw Britain a spectator on the sidelines of the space-race; unable to go to the moon we instead set off into the sky in budget blue box.

In the year of the moon landing David Bowie's first hit single, Space Oddity, did not seek to lionise space adventurers but to question their sanity. No Dan Dare here but a Victorian gentlemen and the spaced out namesake of a vaudeville clown.

In post-war Britain, forever a four minute warning away from nuclear annihilation, it feels natural that they should exude the cynicism of men who have seen too much.

A theme of humanism counters this cynicism, in Heroes Bowie tackles the Cold War through the eyes of two lovers and a stolen kiss. This idea of everyday heroism runs through the ethos of Doctor Who with each adventure finding ordinary people in dangerous situations doing extraordinary things.

One was an Englishman playing an alien, the other an alien who appeared as an Englishman, both travelling through other cultures and worlds as gentlemen explorers. This restlessness creates a sense of detachment; they are outsiders, observers of human behaviour.

Their extra terrestrial statue is used to explore the messiah complex. Ziggy, a prophet of apocalypse, who feared he'd blow our minds, was essentially a composite of other rock stars.

Self-described as the 'Leper Messaah' and 'The Nazz' (as in Nazareth) Bowie understood that performers like Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop and Vince Taylor were transcending their role as entertainers. These glittering icons were becoming quasi-religious figures both in audience's eyes and their own.

Bowie understood the messianic power of this new breed of social leader and as the Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke he would explore and even flirt dangerously with the iconography fascism.

With superior technology and knowledge the Doctor is a living god trapped in a moral maze when visiting alien cultures and predestined events. In 1963's The Aztecs he states that they shouldn't meddle with history, only to spend the next 50 years doing just that.

Yet there is a boundary that he oversteps in The Waters Of Mars where, by meddling with a fixed point in time, David Tennant's 10th Doctor sets in course his own downfall. Whenever anyone plays god in Doctor Who they face consequences, a rise and fall.

These are men in masks and in part our fascination lies in trying to peak behind that disguise. The brilliance of their personas shines brightly, but behind the charisma they both can be manipulative, calculating, even cold at times. Yet when the mask slips we see not just these unflattering features but men with a heavy weight upon their shoulders.

Ultimately though both characters have inspired a dedicated and creative fan base, a new generation inspired not just to ape them but also to contribute to their own creative and critical revivals.

Survivors from a once powerful empire, exploring past, present and future worlds, embracing diversity, blending tradition and technology, post-religious morality and sexual ambiguity, this isn't just their story but ours.


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