Since the late 1990s, the Steampunk movement has represented more than merely a “gonzo-historical” subgenera of popular fiction. For many, it is a fashion statement, a lifestyle, and yes, even a cultural movement that, at times, has broader political implications, with origins dating back much further back than the actual appearance of “Steampunk” as it is recognized today.
Margaret Killjoy, former editor of the online publication Steampunk Magazine, noted the political influence the genre and its related cultural movement has helped foment. “To paraphrase contributor David Z. Morris,” she wrote, “it’s not that we believe steampunk has or should have a particular political platform so much as that steampunk does in fact have political significance. We have no interest in politics in the sense of ‘democrats versus republicans’ or the like, but instead we believe that steampunk, and subculture more broadly, can have a profound impact on how we interact with one another and how we organize our society.”
With its broad-reaching influences, it is of little surprise that other popular fiction has been influenced by the Steampunk genre. One area where this has been apparent has been with the BBC’s popular and long-running science fiction series, Doctor Who.
One of the earliest appearances of what could truly be called “Steampunk” elements in the Whovian universe appeared in the 1999 film Doctor Who, in which the 8th incarnation of the BBC’s famous time traveler was portrayed by actor Paul McGann (see image at the top of this post). However, since the series relaunch in 2005, the influence of Steampunk fiction can be seen most prevalently during the program’s fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons, which showcase the Eleventh Doctor, portrayed by actor Matt Smith.
The Eleventh Doctor’s manner of dress, appearing more antiquated than his predecessors (at least since the program’s relaunch in 2005), often employs a style of dress that is reminiscent of the Victorian era, though later periods are also showcased. Smith’s Doctor often wears a bow tie, paired with either waist coats or suspenders, and a trademark tweed jacket that, in later seasons, was replaced by a long, purplish frock coat.
Though the Eleventh Doctor’s anachronistic style of dress is notable, during Smith’s tenure on the program, the interior of The Doctor’s TARDIS (that’s his time machine, for any uninitiated members lurking amidst of the readership) possess a very “Steampunk” appearance. A variety of different kinds of repurposed machinery and antiquated devices are integrated into the otherwise very advanced and exotic TARDIS control console; at times, this is somewhat reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine. Upon the master console, an early-twentieth century typewriter appears, rather than a standard computer keyboard, as seen in other TARDIS set designs.
A final Steampunk parallel is afford us during sequences where Smith’s Doctor is repairing or modifying elements onboard the craft, during which he is often seen wearing dark goggles. This is an accessory that is easily recognized by Steampunks, as it has become a hallmark of the costumes worn by modern cosplayers of the genre.
The Steampunk tropes present within the Whovian universe, although most prevalent during Smith’s tenure in the role of the Doctor, appear elsewhere in the series. Looking further back, various adventures have also seen The Doctor and his companions in Victorian England; notable instances include The Horror of Fang Rock and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the latter of these seeing the time-traveling Doctor actually donning the garb of Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Such juxtapositions of future against past eras are, once again, themes that would later appear in Steampunk; enough so that, in equal measure to the influence of the Steampunk genre on Doctor Who in more recent years, it might also be argued that early Steampunk had, in fact, actually been influenced by themes appearing in Doctor Who, just as well.
A final very interesting crossover between the Steampunk and Whovian universes appears once the latter is compared with the seminal pre-Steampunk comic character Luther Arkwright, a creation of artist Bryan Talbot. In 2005, Big Finish Productions, producers of a host of fine Doctor Who audio adventures, issued an audiobook version of Talbot’s graphic novel, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. In this Big Finish rendition of the story, the story’s trans-dimensional protagonist was voiced by none other than Scottish actor David Tennant, who of course, would later portray the Tenth Doctor, a perennial favorite among fans.
It is worth further noting that, during the period Tennant appeared in the role, his first companion had been Rose Tyler, portrayed by actress Billie Piper. Rose is remembered among fans for maintaining a very special relationship with the Doctor, which uncharacteristically broke from the purely platonic nature of his friendships with previous companions. Interestingly, in Tennant’s 2005 audio version of the Arkwright story, our hero was similarly accompanied by a female companion, who was also named Rose (in this case, the character was Rose Wylde, portrayed by Siri O’Neil).
Thus, one might argue here, since Tennant was cast in the role of The Doctor around the same time, that there had been distinct influences drawn from early Steampunk comics and literature, which later made their way into the adventures of the BBC’s famous time traveling Doctor even prior to Eleven’s appearance in the series… that, or perhaps there was some high synchronicity at work. Regardless, it is apparent that the Whovian universe, and the memes present within the Steampunk genre, have had a lasting effect on one another, and shall likely continue to do so.