Proto-Doctor Who: “Around the Universe” by Ray Cummings

AmazArounduniverseA while back I wrote about an Amazing Stories issue containing “Around the Universe” by Ray Cummings, which was originally published in 1923. It’s a story about a guy named Tubby who goes off on an adventure in space with a scientific genius. Something that struck me about “Around the Universe”, even though I didn’t mention it at the time, is how much it feels like a prototype for Doctor Who.

While later incarnations have drawn upon everyone from H. P. Lovecraft to J. K. Rowling, the original, Hartnell-era Doctor Who had its roots in the work of two writers in particular: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Its storylines can generally be divided into Vernean and Wellsian categories.

The Vernean approach has the characters journey through an exotic but broadly realistic environment, their observations and discoveries serving to educate and enlighten the juvenile audience; we see this in Doctor Who’s historical storylines. The Wellsian storylines have a much stronger element of the fantastic while keeping room to touch upon a few philosophical ideas; we see this when the Doctor meets alien races – such as the Daleks, who are essentially Wells’ Martians, with a bit of Morlock DNA thrown in for good measure. The Doctor himself is the perfect linking factor as he owes something to each author, being a hybrid of Wells’ Time Traveller and Verne’s Captain Nemo.

In “Around the Universe” we meet an all-knowing, spacefaring scientist who serves a similar narrative function to the Doctor. His name is Professor Wells-Verne; but far from being merely named after those authors, he actually is those authors, “Jules Verne” and “Herbert George Wells” being merely two of his pen names. In fact, he is implied to have written every work of speculative fiction from Gulliver’s Travels onwards. The Professor is something ageless and more than human, a nexus point between different worlds of SF – rather like the Doctor.

Doctor Who freely slides between outright fantasy and SF of varying degrees of hardness; “Around the Universe” does the same. The main character Tubby has a magical ability: whenever he makes a wish, it is granted (this is how he first conjures up Professor Wells-Verne). Cummings appears to have got this idea from Wells’ fantasy tale “The Man Who Could Work Miracles”, and alludes to the connection towards the end of the story. But when Tubby boards the Professor’s spacecraft, his power ceases to function; as Professor Wells-Verne explains to him, he is now in the world of science, and magical powers have no place. The Professor then spends much of the story rattling off detailed astronomical calculations.

Like the Doctor’s exploits, Tubby’s voyage with the Professor sometimes seems like a “greatest hits” sampling from past science fiction. The Martians, as described, are clearly based on the towering tripods from The War of the Worlds. The Jovians are giants, and the story explicitly compares them to the denizens of Brobdingnag. The Venusians are the Grecio-Roman beauties used by various authors, Edgar Rice burroughs being one who springs immediately to mind.

A Venusian maiden joins Tubby and the Professor, and the gender dynamics of the resultant group will again be familiar to Whovians. In Doctor Who the Doctor’s male companion is often rather stolid, while his female companion is more ethereal – be she Susan (the literal alien), Vicki (the hip teenager from the future) or Zoe (the computer-brained girl in a sparkly catsuit).

I doubt that anyone involved in the early development of Doctor Who was consciously drawing upon “Around  for inspiration. It’s more likely that they simply started from the same basic premise and, from there, ended up hitting a number of the same beats. But the overlap is still rather amusing: back in the 1920s Ray Cummings decided to write a love-letter to science fiction (before the term “science fiction” had even been coined!) and ended up inadvertently creating Doctor Who.

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