With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.
As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.
Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.
This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.
It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.
Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.
The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.
After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.
The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.
Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.
Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.
Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.
An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).
The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.
We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.
Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.
Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”
Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’
The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.
In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.
He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.
The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.
Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.
There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.
This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”
And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.
Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.
The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.
The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.
Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.
The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?
River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!
He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.
So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.
But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.
Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.