Doctor Tea, I Presume?

For those of you with sharp memories, there’s a line of dialogue in the six-part 1971 Dr Who story “Colony in Space” where someone asks Jon Pertwee as The Doctor “Are you some kind of scientist?” to which he replies: “I am every kind of scientist.”

I was just reading about the somewhat controversial Nathan Myhrvold, who says he was inspired by that line to become “every kind of scientist”. Here’s an edited version of his profile:

… was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University and worked with Professor Stephen Hawking on research in cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space time and quantum theories of gravitation … earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics and a master’s degree in mathematical economics from Princeton University. In 2005, … Princeton awarded Dr. Myhrvold the James Madison Medal, the university’s top honor for alumni … also has a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, both from UCLA.  … serves on the Advisory Board for the Department of Physics at the University of Washington… also an affiliate research associate of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies … avid nature and wildlife photographer… featured in the books “America 24/7” and “Washington 24/7” … has been published in scientific journals includingScience, Nature, Paleobiology, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and thePhysical Review … Last year he released “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” … won awards for Cookbook of the Year and Cooking from a Professional Point Of View from the James Beard Foundation.

Phew. Every kind of scientist and can no doubt whip you up an exceptional Philly Cheese Steak to boot.

What’s my point here, exactly?   It’s that the small screen can inspire.

So, it got me thinking: which heroes or villains drink tea on the small screen? In particular, inspiring ones.

I think there’s no mystery about the confluence of tea and Star Trek in the US in particular. For fans of The Next Generation, Captain Picard’s predilection for Earl Grey tea seems to have been directly responsible for putting several bergamot farmer’s children through college.

Captain Picard aside, where else to we see it?

Although I’ve never watched it, it seems that Australia Simon Baker’s eponymous role in ‘The Mentalist’ drinks a lot of tea. A quick fact check with Wikipedia confirms it:

{Patrick} Jane has expressed a dislike of coffee, but drinks tea in nearly every episode

So that could be a good thing, although the character is somewhat oddball, and once again we find this idea I have written of  previously  – that a cup of tea is a marker for ‘eccentric’ on screen.

An obvious one that people mention is Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s super sleuth. But Monsieur Poirot is a prolific drinker of blackcurrant tisanes- he is quite specific on this matter. So he is not only eccentric, he’s so eccentric he can’t even drink ‘ordinary tea’.

We could go back to Doctor Who any number of times.  David Tennant’s tenure began with:

Tea! That’s all I needed. A good cup of tea. A superheated infusion of free radicals and tannin. Just the thing for heating the synapses.

But tea got a real workout during the Tom Baker years in the late 70s, early 80s. For example, from “Genesis of The Daleks”, one of the more legendary episodes on the show’s 50 year history:

Well good now he’s gone, any chance of a cup of tea?

And on “The Pirate Planet”, teaware got into the act:

The power to move physical objects by mental power alone. Not much is known about it, but 5347.2 on the Vantalla scale represents the power that will move a single teacup 5347.2 miles. Or 5347.2 teacups one mile. Or an entire Gallifreyan ceremonial dinner service 25.462875 miles…’

But The Doctor is a poor role model. OK, so he’s beloved by millions, but he is after all, an alien with two hearts who tends to blow stuff up.

The episode above was written by the late, great Douglas Adams, and in another contribution by the same author to the small screen we find a more likely hero: Arthur Dent, from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Whilst this is best known as a radio series, a somewhat obese trilogy and a movie, it was also a TV series at one time. Arthur mentions tea quite a bit:

 Is there any tea on this spaceship?


 A cup of tea would restore my normality.

But Arthur is troubling as a role model and hero. He is confused most of the time. He even ties up the entire capacity of a shipboard computer at one time to make a cup of tea. The talking Drink Dispenser describes tea as “The taste of dried-up leaves boiled in water.” and the computer decides Arthur wants tea “because he’s an ignorant monkey who doesn’t know better”.

So I’m still struggling. The Lazy Literatus spoke of a fictional wizard who drank copious quantities of coffee in the books but it was tea on TV, which is interesting but not quite what I am looking for. For one thing, wizards again are often eccentric.

I noticed in the comedy series “Wedding Band” there was a growing shelf of tea in the background, but it was boxes of bags, and again, a ruthless and manipulative event planner is not an overly inspiring character. And Dr Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory” does mention tea a bit, but always in a medicinal sense, and again, it’s an “out there” character.

Tea abounds in Downton Abbey – the range of teaware is also astonishingly. You could argue that the character of Matthew is somewhat inspiring : he went from a middle-class solicitor to Lord of The Manor without losing his humility and went off to war and “did his duty”.

But on Downton Abbey everyone drinks tea, so it’s just as likely that you might be inspired by the various scheming second-under-footmen, mad distant cousins, plodding policemen are Machiavellian countess; not least of which because the last on that list is played by the incredible Maggie Smith.

In desperation, I searched the IMDB database for TV shows with ‘tea’ in the title. Whilst many movies and short films came up, it was slim pickings. There was a 33-part comedy series in Hungary called “Tea” but that’s all the info there is on that. Even if you stretch it to TV movies, you get stuff that doesn’t really fit the “inspiring” tag or even the “tea” tag. For example, a 1973 telemovie “Coffee, Tea or Me” about an airline flight attendant who has two husbands, one other side of the Atlantic. Sounds like a laugh, but does not fit the profile.

Since I was doing actual research, despite poorly, I thought I’d search the IMDB database for quotes about tea, in order of popularity.

The first 18 references are all Dr Who or Big Bang Theory, except for a mild mention from Dexter, and then we see Star Trek TNG, followed by Friends, How I Met your Mother, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The message here is that if a TV series runs long enough, there’ll be tea, but not in any meaningful way. Many of the comments are sarcastic, juvenile, poorly written and intended to convey various negative stereotypes (‘Family Guy’ seems to be able to achieve all of this and worse).

I could go on, but my thinking is returning full circle. I’ll return to the David Tennat version of The Doctor; not as the inspirational character himself, but as one who is inspired by humanity, and all we have accomplished:

…And in those days, everybody had a tea party to go to. Have you ever had those little cakes, with the crunchy ball bearings on top… ever had those… those things? Nobody else in the entire galaxy has ever even bothered to make edible ball bearings! Genius!


8 thoughts on “Doctor Tea, I Presume?

  1. Ok, I’m going to quibble over Poirot… He drinks a blackcurrant *sirop* most often – that’s a kind of sweet liqueur not tea. Chamomile tisane gets the most mentions… Not really helping your point, but I’m a stickler for Christie-an accuracy. Miss Marple drinks tea. And she’s lovely and unobjectionable. Most characters in the BBC Sherlock drink tea too, from Mrs Hudson to Moriarty. It is a British show after all. And I think the take home message from Downton Abbey is that ‘every kind of tea drinker’ is represented. How delightfully inclusive.

      1. This will not stand. How dare TV show producers take such liberties with a canonical text.

    1. I have the clever folk at Tea Trade find me stuff like themes & fonts. They do an exceptional job. The brilliant content is all down to me, though.

  2. In the end, tea on TV is for eccentrics?
    And I am glad you didn’t look at how they were drinking it as I think it is via a tea bag…

  3. And don’t forget that Douglas Adams in H2G2 referred to needing a source of Brownian movement ‘like a really HOT cup of tea’.

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