When it comes to classic science fiction, nobody writes it better than Ballard. His writing is so infectious, targets such a deep part of what it means to be human, that even shows like Doctor Who take influence. Although the themes of Ballard’s novels are heavy on the science fiction, taking place in alternate worlds where climate or nature is out of control, the stories always end up taking a trip through time and space to reveal something close and personal about the human condition. It’s not hard to see why this appeals to the writers of Doctor Who, a show which uses time and space and the mysteries of the universe to wax lyrical about the redeeming and not-so-redeeming qualities of the human race.

‘The Drowned World’ is the piece I want to focus on today as it has considerable similarities to Doctor Who’s portrayal of recurring supervillain The Master.

Book cover for The Drowned World

Book cover for The Drowned World, © Fourth Estate Books

In The Drowned World (written in 1962), we are welcomed to a sunken, apocalyptic London, where global warming has caused rising sea levels to engulf almost everything in the city centre, leaving only the highest buildings untouched. A team of military men and scientists have stayed behind as the temperature steadily rises, trying to find a way to return the city to normal. But the world is returning to the dense, humid forests of the Cretaceous age, and things don’t go as planned.

“[He could] still see the vast inflamed disc of the spectral sun, still hear the tremendous drumming of its beat. Timing them, he realised that the frequency was that of his own heartbeats.” – The Drowned World, (p.86).

It isn’t long before humans themselves are travelling time and space in their dreams, led backwards through the eons by a mysterious thudding drumbeat, one that seems to echo from the blazing primeval sun of the past, but in actuality mirrors the beats of their own hearts.

Doctor Kerans, the main character, is soon gripped by this insanity, and begins a personal exodus into the time jungles, leaving behind everything that once mattered to him.

“It hurts, Doctor. The noise. The noise in my head – stronger than ever before […] Every minute, every second, every beat of my hearts. There it is, calling to me.” – The Master, The End of Time Part 1

The Master (John Simm's incarnation) ... not crazy in the slightest?

The Master (John Simm’s incarnation) … not crazy in the slightest?

Doctor Who’s The Master is no stranger to the time jungles, either. In Whovian lore, he was exposed to the Time Vortex as a child, and the sound of those neverending drums have followed him throughout his life. It sends him insane, but in a less introspective way than Kerans. Whatever The Master experiences on a personal level, we don’t see it. All we see are tiny hints at the chaos inside; the rest of the time he’s hell bent on destroying, or controlling, the universe.

With Kerans we experience the internal descent into madness, so humanly that upon reading it’s hard to notice it happening until it’s too late. By the time Kerans is on his way to some of the more flamboyant representations of insanity, as per The Master’s style – for example when he sabotages the salvage team’s operation with explosives – we realise he is too far gone.

This all leads to the speculation: is there something about deep time that we prefer to associate with drums? Or is it just the pre-existing connotations of drumbeats as being primal and powerful, and thus fitting to describe something as immense and ancient as deep time?

“More and more he felt like a man marooned in a time-sea…” – The Drowned World (p.148).

What does it all mean, though? Time seas, time jungles, vortexes and untempered schisms in the fabric of reality all sound fascinating, but we are creatures with a horribly limited life span when it comes to this sort of scale. Perhaps it figures that we can only visualise it by using insanity as a proxy. Perhaps both Ballard and Doctor Who’s creators are using their tales to serve as a warning for all who would wish to live life on a geological, indeed, universal scale.

There is also the thought that both forms of media use the idea of something so immense in order to make a point about humanity, about how we are all connected, about how the entire universe can be encoded in something as simple as a heartbeat. As Doctor Kerans’ friend explains;

“Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.” The Drowned World, (p.56).

They can both also be seen as a metaphor for being stuck in the past as a self-destructive obsession. When The Doctor stood in front of the Time Vortex, unlike the Master he ran and never looked back. Kept pushing forward. The military commander in The Drowned World pushed on to escape the jungles of London without getting sidetracked by the internal drumbeat like Kerans did. Both these characters survived.

One thing remains clear. The Master and Doctor Kerans desperately need to form a support group. Or perhaps write a self-help guide; ‘The Time Vortex Made Me Insane’, or something similar.

In the meantime I suggest that Ballardians and Whovians alike immerse themselves in the time-seas of these two tales, but take caution, don’t travel too far from the shore!


Main image and image of The Master © BBC



The Drowned World (1962), J.G. Ballard, Fourth Estate Books

2 thoughts on “Drums in the deep: Where Doctor Who meets J.G. Ballard

  1. Just a thought, but perhaps the origin of the primal association is the maternal heartbeat whilst we are pre-consciously floating in amniotic fluid. And whilst I would put Jim in the pantheon of “Classic SF” greats, there are many others – both contemporary and subsequent – who stand alongside; Aldiss for one.

    • A very interesting notion, Clive, and one that I completely missed. That would make a lot of sense as numerous times throughout both media there are references made towards regression into an almost childlike state.
      Ballard’s always going to do it for me – it’s the appeal of his experience as a science journal editor and his creative prowess combined, I think. Having said that however, Aldiss’s ‘Hothouse’ is one of the next on my list, sounds right up my street!

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