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Time Lord

Posted on 07/12/2016 at 12:16
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There was quite a lot about the late Lord Briggs, historian and former Provost of my college, in the latest Worcester College Record, including this bit:

Another off-duty memory is of one Saturday afternoon, when I was working overtime on a 'rush job' and as instructed took the typescript up to the family sitting-room, to find this particular peer of the realm lying flat on the floor in front of the television, totally immersed in Dr Who.

From Working in the Lodgings: a Personal Memoir of Lord Briggs by Frances Henderson in Worcester College Record 2016:

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Posted on 03/08/2016 at 22:57
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There are two types of Doctor Who fan: those who divide the programme by Doctor and those who divide it by production team.  These sometimes coincide, but that is not the case here.  Steven Moffat seems to think the programme needs a new, raw style for the new Doctor, but also chooses to follow the old tactic of using old friends or foes in the first story of a new Doctor to provide continuity.  This leads to a darker, more dangerous Doctor and a grey/blue colour palate for the new era, but also the return of the Paternoster Street Gang and a plot that is openly acknowledged to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace and the occasional line borrowed from classic Who, as well as a surprise guest appearance from Matt Smith.

Like the Half-Face Man, then, this is a Ship of Theseus story that swaps its parts around while trying to convince the audience that it is the same programme, only regenerated and fresh.  The real problem, which will dog this whole season, is that the new Doctor, like the sixth Doctor, is too unsympathetic.  He is dangerous, which is novel after Matt Smith, but also rude and unpleasant.  It is not always fun to be with him, especially when he seems to be on the point of mugging a tramp for his coat.

Still, as curtain-raisers go, it works, holding the attention reasonably well and setting the stage for future adventures.

In my early teens, Doctor Who original novels formed a staple part of my reading diet (mainly The New  Adventures and The Missing Adventures; I didn’t get very far into the BBC Books before giving up, although I later picked up a few in remaindered bookshops when I was in my twenties).  To be honest, I didn’t like them much: I liked the mystery around the seventh Doctor (was he the mysterious Other from Time Lord myth?), but I hated his ruthlessness and the callousness of Hardened Space Mercenary Ace.  I was also a bit of a prude, in the way that only a shy teenage geek with no girlfriend can be, and objected to the least hint of sex, particularly from the regulars.  I read the books anyway, because I’d read most of the Doctor Who novelizations, couldn’t afford the videos and in the Who desert of the early nineties, with no TV series, Big Finish or DWM graphic novels there was no other game in town.  As I recall, I picked up lots of the books cheap when Virgin lost their licence.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m older and (possibly) wiser.  I’ve watched all my DVDs countless times and, in the midst of a massive Deep Space Nine rewatch, am unlikely to need them in the near future.  I found a copy of the recent reissue of Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters in a charity shop and its loose and literary take on Doctor Who and the Silurians made me nostalgic for original Doctor Who fiction.  I’m also struggling with my mental health and my “to read” list, although enormous, is mostly filled up with serious non-fiction and weighty classics like Homer and Shakespeare; not what I want to read for escapism.  So my eyes were dawn to the pile of books that have been relegated to sitting on top of my bookcase since we moved house last year, ostensibly to make room on the shelves for ‘real’ books.  Did I misjudge the Doctor Who (and Star Wars and The Prisoner) spin-offs?  Are they ‘real’ books after all?  Only a re-read can determine the matter.  Just let me find a step-ladder to bring a few down...

Cut for space and spoilersCollapse )

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.
Part XII can be found here.
Part XIII can be found here.



Stories: The Eleventh HourThe Time of the Doctor
Show runner: Steven Moffat
Representative stories: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Doctor’s Wife, The Wedding of River Song


Behind the Scenes

The transmission of The End of Time saw one of the most radical changes in Doctor Who’s long history, as almost all the key personnel before and behind the cameras were changed, with a new Doctor, new companions and new show runner and producers.  There remained points of continuity in the style of the show, particularly the emphasis on emotional stories and the balance of horror and humour, but as we shall see, much else was to change and this was to be a distinct era of the programme, unlike both what went before and what was to come afterwards.


Story Style

The big innovation in this era is a more complex type of story arc than had been seen previously.  Whereas Russell T. Davies had generally trailed one or two elements from the season finale through the preceding season, Steven Moffat structured the eleventh Doctor’s era so that the events of his final story would reverberate backwards through his earlier adventures so that he was constantly encountering the effects of his final battle.

However, there does not seem to have been a fully worked out plan from the start as some details were lost along the way (I do not think it is ever explained how the Silence managed to blow up the TARDIS or where River was between 1969 and meeting Amy and Rory as children some years later) or at the very least became rushed and confused with The Time of the Doctor having to hurriedly tie up a number of loose ends, not always convincingly.  Some elements ended up a little bathetic through over-hyping, particularly the Doctor’s faked death.  Other elements seemed to suffer a change in emphasis, for example Signora Calvierri speaks of the Silence in a way that does not exactly fit with what we see, claiming to have “run from the Silence” and lost the children of her planet to them, which does not easily fit with a renegade faction determined largely on killing the Doctor; the sudden silence at the end of the episode also suggests Silence as a quasi-supernatural force rather than the name of a religious/military faction.

Perhaps more significantly, the arc peaks too soon.  After The Wedding of River Song, only The Name of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor are really relevant to the Silence arc, with season thirty-three concentrating first on the character arcs for the Ponds and then on Clara’s plot/character arc as the impossible girl, which seems to have been brought forward to fill in time or perhaps to make the ongoing arcs less complex and long-term, possibly in response to online criticism.

Within the context of the arc, there are a wide range of different stories, varying in both genre and tone.  The programme can move from the light-hearted adventure of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship to the serious drama of the Western A Town Called Mercy and then on to the contemporary The Power of Three and the horror story Angels Take Manhattan.  This reflects Doctor Who’s mandate to experiment with style and content, but arguably pushes the envelope further than had been the case for a while.

Early on in his time as show runner, Steven Moffat stated that his stories would have a dark fairy tale feel.  This was arguably not pursued consistently, but can be seen to have been loosely applied with elements of stories like The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (particularly the rebooting of the universe), The Doctor’s Wife and The Snowmen being rooted in fantasy and fairy tale rather than hard science fiction.  Of course, ‘fairy tale’ means different things to different people and the divide between science fiction and fantasy can be hard to find, but these stories seem to prioritize fantasy elements over hard science fiction.

After about two years the dark fairy tale elements fade away with the programme focusing on producing miniature films (complete with ‘posters’ in the advance publicity) with “really slutty titles” as Moffat liked to say.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (referencing Snakes on a Plane) is the most extreme of these, but all aim to grab the viewer’s attention, usually with a high concept big idea summed up in an attention grabbing title.  This does not mean that the stories were simplified, as episodes like The Angels Take Manhattan and The Name of the Doctor have complicated and emotionally resonant plots that are only hinted at by their titles.

Although Moffat’s Doctor Who can be seen to have distinct differences from Russell T. Davies’ approach, there is some continuity of style across the two eras.  Like Davies, Moffat is interested in rooting his companions in reality (or something approaching it) and especially interested in the love lives of his companions, but Moffat tends to express this in a more science fictional way than his predecessor did (at least at this stage in his time as show runner).  For example, Amy’s Choice looks at the way Rory and the Doctor compete for Amy’s attention.  This is similar to the storyline involving Rose and Mickey across the first two years of Davies’ time on the programme, but Amy’s Choice is more science fictional, rooting the character drama in a science fiction scenario about alien incursions, cold stars and false realities.  This compares with the Rose and Mickey relationship largely playing out away from the science fiction elements of the plot in stories like Boom Town.  The death of Rory in Cold Blood is also made very science fictional by being tied in to the cracks in the universe plot.  It is noteworthy that Moffat’s first season concludes with the marriage of Amy and Rory, something that ties up both the emotional arcs of the companions and the season-long narrative arc of the rebooting the universe plot rather than having it as an emotional epilogue tagged on at the end in the manner of Martha’s departure at the end of Last of the Time Lords.

Finally, it is worth noting Moffat’s tidy as you go approach to Doctor Who continuity.  After fifty years, this had become quite cluttered, but was also a source of popular characters and monsters that were fun to reuse.  At times Moffat tries to sweep the decks of unwanted references, as when Amy fails to remember the Daleks or the Daleks forget the Doctor.  At other times, however, Moffat revels in the idea of the Doctor as a great hero known throughout the universe, for example in A Good Man Goes to War.  There is quite deliberately no consistency here, with Moffat apparently wanting to fit the level of continuity to the needs of the story in question.


The Doctor

We first this Doctor crashing his TARDIS after his predecessor trashed it at his leaving do and he continues to be somewhat manic and eccentric, the madman with a box.  The eleventh Doctor will be more manipulative and scheming than his outward persona suggests.  He bends time to speak to Amy in The Big Bang, does not tell Rory that Amy is a ganger in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, fakes his own death in The Wedding of River Song without telling his friends that he is still alive and deliberately seeks out the impossible girl Clara.  Perhaps worst of all, he is ruthless in deceiving everyone over his inability to save both Amys in The Girl Who Waited.  In Hide Emma even describes the Doctor as having “a sliver of ice in his heart.”  Nevertheless, he never loses this madcap, improvisational quality.

As with his predecessor, the eleventh Doctor is often presented as being incredibly powerful and a great hero.  This is most obvious in A Good Man Goes to War, a story built around the Doctor’s power and the hubris that accompanies it.  Similarly, in The Pandorica Opens and The Time of the Doctor we see whole armies in terror of him, as River Song had predicted (or remembered) back in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and it takes a team up of all his foes to build a prison that can hold him.  His death is a fixed point in time and his survival until Trenzalore threatens the universe.  River tells us in A Good Man Goes to War that the Doctor did not intend to become this powerful when he left Gallifrey; the Doctor has changed in ways he perhaps did not want.  This reflects the way that the Doctor has grown more powerful within the fiction over the years (compare the frightened old man of 100,000 B.C. with the figure who can tackle any number of alien armies in The Time of the Doctor), but also indicates the growing influence of Doctor Who in British and global popular culture.  The Doctor simply could not be as “powerless” as he was in the early years when he is expected to defeat alien armies every week.  At the same time and perhaps paradoxically, the Doctor attempts to become anonymous again, although the extent to which he manages to do this varies from story to story.  This is not so much a reboot as an attempt by Steven Moffat to have his cake and eat it, telling whatever type of story he wants.

Interestingly, this Doctor is particularly good with children, which we see quite often, starting with young Amelia.  Making the Doctor Amelia’s imaginary friend was a shrewd move, moving him one step on from the mythic tenth Doctor (“The Time Lord Victorious”), but it is also appropriate, given that the Doctor is an imaginary friend to many children.  If the Doctor is good with children, it is partly because he is childlike himself.  The Doctor retains a schoolboy enthusiasm for everything, although he retains his predecessor’s habit of making pompous and self-aggrandizing speeches.  However, the eleventh Doctor’s attitude to sexuality is more complex than that of his immediate predecessors.  He’s naive enough to go adventuring with a young woman in her nightdress on the night before her wedding and not expect her to see it as a come-on, leading to a comically panicked reaction.  He’s scandalized by Amy being a kissogram, but only once she explains what a kissogram actually is and is bemused by Craig’s offer to leave him alone if he brings someone home in The LodgerA Christmas Carol implies that he invented the sonic screwdriver in lieu of relationships, something which he now sees as a mistake, although as with many of the Doctor’s remarks, this may not be strictly accurate.  Of course, his relationship with River is more complicated, having both childlike and adult elements to it.  He giggles like a child after River kisses him for the first time (from his viewpoint), but also seems to view their marriage as legitimate and meaningful, despite their crossed timelines.  He certainly displays a lot of affection for River and behaves in a more flirtatious way than usual when she is around.

The Doctor’s relationship with Amy and Rory is also worthy of detailed mention before we look at the companions in more detail in the next section.  He seems to be highly invested in making Amy and Rory’s relationship work, as if he blames himself for their relationship difficulties in The Vampires of Venice, Amy’s Choice and Asylum of the Daleks.  If the Dream Lord is a reflection of the Doctor’s self-hatred, it is interesting that he focuses on the perceived love triangle between Amy, Rory and the Doctor.  Of course this is complicated by the fact that the Dream Lord says the dreams they experience come from all their imaginations, so we do not know how much comes from Amy and Rory.  There is no denying that the Doctor goes into a big sulk when the Ponds are gone.  The idea that the Doctor needs a companion to rescue him from himself is commonplace in new Who, but The Snowmen looks back to Doctor Who’s very first season, with an uninterested Doctor hiding out in London until followed home (as Susan was) by someone working in child education who helps him become a hero (again).  The Snowmen is a more fairytale version of this story, as befitting Moffat’s stylistic choices, with the TARDIS parked on a cloud, not a junkyard and featuring living snowmen.

Finally, the War Doctor allows the programme to draw a line under the Time War and the guilt-ridden Doctor we had seen since 2005, although the series had already tacitly moved in that direction with only The Beast Below and (by implication) A Town Called Mercy dealing with the Doctor’s guilt before The Day of the Doctor.  The War Doctor also allows a critique of the new series Doctors with someone a bit like the older Doctors (or the popular image of them) commenting on the tenth and eleventh Doctors, who are presented as behaving childishly as displacement activity to cover their guilt over the fact that they believe that they destroyed Gallifrey.


The Companions

For the first time in the new series, the companions’ biological families do not appear much, although they do appear briefly (less briefly in the case of Brian Williams).  This is a drastic move away from the dramatic set-up of the Davies era.  It is telling that the biggest exception to this is The Power of Three, which is something of a throwback to the Davies era in many respects.  Nevertheless, Amy and Rory turn out to be the biological parents of quasi-companion River Song who was even conceived in the TARDIS, showing that family is still an ongoing concern, even if not in such an overt way.

Unlike the Davies era (and Peter Capaldi’s first season) where the companions’ personal lives and development were important story elements in themselves, here they are linked into ongoing science fictional concerns such as the crack in Amy’s wall, Rory being erased from time, River Song’s parentage and her killing and marrying of the Doctor and Clara’s impossible status.  Linking the companions so closely to the ongoing story arcs makes the whole series seem like one big story.

The companions are still presented as the Doctor’s conscience, particularly in stories like The Beast Below and A Town Called Mercy.  They also demonstrate his alien perspective, for example when the Clara criticizes the Doctor’s callous perspective on human life in Hide, when she realizes that we are all dead from his point of view.

The Doctor has a unique relationship with Amy Pond, as she has grown up with him and his current persona largely grows up with her until eventually she and Rory are forcibly separated from him, causing him to retreat into solitude.  The fact that Amy is originally a kissogram gives her an unusually strong sexual identity for a companion, pointing the way for her attempt to seduce the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone and for the Amy-Rory relationship to form a backdrop to most of this era (it may not be coincidental that she first appears in the first and thus far only Doctor Who episode to contain a joke about internet pornography).

Rory at first seems a straightforward foil to Amy and the Doctor, but he develops from an unwilling time-space traveller into a more enthusiastic one, albeit one a bit more pessimistic and grounded that Amy and the Doctor.  Rory is straight-laced enough to phone his fiancé while on his stag do and is embarrassed by the stripper even before the Doctor emerges in her place.  Rory’s love for Amy, signposted here, is a key point of his character, with him eventually becoming the Lone Centurion, waiting for Amy for two thousand years and going into battle in that persona in A Good Man Goes to War to rescue Amy and Melody/River.  The episode even plays with our expectations with Amy apparently talking about the Doctor’s heroism, but really talking about Rory’s, showing how far he has come from the tentative traveller of The Vampires of Venice.  He is, of course, killed and resurrected so often that it becomes a standing joke in the fiction.

Amy and Rory are on-off companions, travelling with the Doctor on and off for ten years of their time.  Rory has a surprising number of friends at his stag do, as companions do not normally have a lot of friends; later we will see a number of his and Amy’s friends in The Power of Three and it will be noted that they are losing contact with them as a result of their TARDIS travels.  Indeed, this is part of the way that the series spends a considerable amount of time from The Girl Who Waited onwards setting up the departure of the Ponds as they grow up and move on from the Doctor, developing lives away from him.  Despite this, they are eventually forced to leave him by circumstances outside of their control, like Rose and Donna, but the preparation beforehand leaves a sense that they are prepared to live their own lives without the Doctor, unlike Rose and Donna.  As with the Davies era, the implication is that no one would easily leave the TARDIS; they need to be weaned off or forced away by complicated space-time events.

Clara, the impossible girl, is fully integrated into an ongoing science fiction plot in a way rarely seen before (Turlough in his first few stories is the only real precedent).  To be honest, this is not completely successful, as the mystery, once raised, does not really get developed until it is solved and the character would go in a different direction in the following Doctor’s era with some plot ends left dangling, notably the TARDIS’s dislike of Clara.

River Song is also a radically new companion, both in the science fictional idea of her meetings with the Doctor being out of order and in her being the daughter of the other companions.  As with Clara, some plot ends are not entirely clear, particularly what she was doing between 1969 and growing up with Amy and Rory.  River is also, of course, the Doctor’s wife, another new idea.  She is very much the eleventh Doctor’s wife, for all that she once claimed to have the spotter’s guide to all the Doctors.  She has a recklessness and fast wit that the post-2005 Doctors have in a greater degree than the original series ones.  River also has a ruthlessness and even an amorality as well as a sexiness that it is hard to think of the original series Doctors being comfortable with (although it can be fun trying to imagine River meeting the first Doctor).  Her love for the Doctor allows the programme to explore new elements of his character as well as reinforcing Moffat’s ideas about marriage as a battle of the sexes.

Finally, the semi-regulars of the Paternoster Street Gang are presented as a sort of nineteenth century UNIT, a base of operations and additional help, as well as a source of comedy.  The nineteenth century background makes it seem different and allows the culture shock between nineteenth and twenty-first century mores.  It also allows Moffat and Mark Gatiss to riff on elements of the Sherlock Holmes canon, especially those that can not be used in their updated Sherlock, from the general aesthetic to in-jokes like “The repulsive red leech”.


Monsters and Villains

Perhaps surprisingly, monsters and villains are not a key part of this era, which is often more concerned with the unfolding of complex plots than with the antagonists of said plots.  For example, the complicated story arc involving the apparent death of the Doctor and its consequences lingers in the memory a lot more than Madame Kovarian and the Silence.  There are a number of new monsters that are effective in both design and concept, but that do not actually do very much.  The Silence and the Whispermen both fall into this category and the Weeping Angels, although introduced in the previous era, are arguably similar.  All of these are highly memorable and frightening, but actually do very little except appear menacing.  The Kovarian Faction and the Silence do build on the Doctor’s reputation in and out of the programme, a key concern of this era as noted above, but this is left a bit under-developed.  The Weeping Angels are a partial exception, being made suddenly much more powerful in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone before losing a lot of those new powers for The Angels Take Manhattan.  Even so, the latter is memorable more for the departure of the Ponds and the visual gimmick of the Statue of Liberty being an Angel (something that raises more questions than it answers) than for adding anything new and interesting to what was established in Blink.

Other old monsters and icons are used in a similar manner to the previous era.  Moffat, like Davies, seems to be interested in the iconography of Doctor Who as a short-cut to raise tension and please fans before getting on with the story he really wants to tell.  Episodes like The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song use old monsters to establish a threat or to raise the stakes before telling a very different type of story, one that would not really need those old monsters; even A Good Man Goes to War could be told just as effectively without Strax and Vastra being from established alien species.

Another use of old monsters is to reintroduce them and then take them in a new direction in later stories, with a single member of the species being made into a relatively rounded character rather than being treated just as a representative of a monstrous species.  This is seen most successfully with Madame Vastra and rather less so in the case of Strax, who can hardly be considered a rounded character, fun though he is.

The Daleks are revised as a “New Paradigm”, something that cynics saw as a way of selling toys.  This was quickly reversed after a poor reception (Steven Moffat says that the New Paradigm were only ever intended as an officer class, but that is not how Victory of the Daleks plays out).  Just as Victory of the Daleks plays on The Power of the Daleks, so too The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is based on Doctor Who and the Silurians.  It is interesting that while the earlier story is focused on politics, the later one focuses on family and relationships, with both humans and Silurians having families; unsurprisingly writer Chris Chibnall is the most Davies-like writer of this era.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XIII: The Time Lord Victorious!

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.
Part XII can be found here.



Stories: RoseThe End of Time
Show runner: Russell T Davies
Representative stories: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, The Waters of Mars


Behind the Scenes

In 2005, Doctor Who returned.  As with the TV Movie, it was not a reboot or a re-imagining, although certain elements were updated and even radically rethought (the Time War, the Doctor-companion relationship).  As show runner and executive producer, not to mention chief writer with significant input into the other scripts, Russell T Davies essentially took on much of the old roles of the producer and script editor, becoming the most important person on the programme in the process.

The programme was, of course, a great success, justifying its resurrection as a family drama, a form thought no longer to exist, and its significant budget, not to mention the massive advanced publicity campaign.  Doctor Who could so easily have been brought back – successfully – as a cheap children’s programme (indeed, Davies had pitched a revival along those lines some years previously, in a format revisited for The Sarah Jane Adventures).  In hindsight, it is tempting to see this success as inevitable, but the writers were dealing with the possibility of failure in a way that has rarely troubled production teams since and there is a sense of experimentation and fear of failure about Christopher Eccleston’s season that has not been seen since.

In subsequent years, Doctor Who’s place in the schedules seemed assured.  Indeed, under David Tennant’s Doctorate, the programme occupied a place in the hearts of the public that it had not held since the late seventies.  Doctor Who seemed bulletproof, at least for a time.  Meanwhile companions came and went, old friends and foes returned and the Doctor’s personality subtly evolved, but the basic format remained the same.  But that format was, in certain key respects, highly innovative...


Story Style

Before looking at the style of stories across this whole, fairly long, period, it is worth focusing first on how the programme was brought back to the screens, in narrative terms rather than real-life terms.  As noted above, this was not a ‘reimagining’ or a ‘rebooting’ of the franchise in the manner of the new Battlestar Galactica, the remake of The Prisoner or the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films.  This was a resumption of the narrative that ended with Survival and the TV Movie, although unambiguous proof of this was surprisingly long in coming.

Like An Unearthly Child and Spearhead from Space, Rose introduces the programme to a new audience by rooting it in the everyday before adding the fantastic.  The TV Movie tried something similar, but introduced too much fantasy far too quickly.  Indeed, unlike the TV Movie, season twenty-seven uses the benefits of being a series and not a one-off film to set things up slowly, over time.  The TARDIS’ ability to translate alien languages and the first mention of the Time Lords are held back to episode two, UNIT are glimpsed in episodes four and five but do not really appear until season three and the Daleks do not appear until the middle of the season, held back by Davies against the wishes of the BBC hierarchy in case the season flagged and needed a burst of publicity to pep it up. Rose’s culture shock on first entering the TARDIS, bursting into tears, is necessarily a world away from the later, jokier approach to the “bigger on the inside” reaction.

The rooting of the series in the contemporary world begins from the opening moments of Rose and continues throughout; although the programme would later voyage further in time and space, contemporary stories appeared regularly.  Season twenty-seven itself is notoriously set entirely on Earth or in orbit around Earth in a future that is a recognisable extrapolation of our world; for better or for worse, there is nothing in terms of setting here that might be considered too geeky or challenging for a general audience (this fear of alienation would change over time, but never entirely go away).  Even the past is familiar from memory (Father’s Day) or popular culture (The Unquiet Dead and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) as much as from history books.  The series is not afraid to be strange, opening, as it does, with a story about living dummies and wheelie bins, but Davies has removed any potential for mockery from the show, something most clear in the way that Dalek systematically takes every joke that was ever made about the Daleks and subverts them, turning them into something deadly.  Nevertheless, initially at least there is less of the weirdness associated with the programme.  There is too strong a risk of failure at this stage to try something as bizarre as The Mind Robber, Warriors’ Gate or even Midnight.  However, Tat Wood suggests in About Time 7 that this is as much about establishing the production infrastructure that would later allow more effects-heavy alien worlds over time.  It is also true that a focus on stories in the present and the past differentiates Doctor Who from straightforward space operas such as Star Trek and Star Wars.  It is also noteworthy that despite these constraints, many episodes in the revived programme’s first two seasons widen the series’ palate in someway, introducing new genres or new continuity elements.

The series is initially a little uncertain tonally.  The burping wheelie bin and the Slitheen’s ‘gas exchange’ noises are at odds with the more adult tone of later stories like Dalek and Father’s Day.  This focus on the contemporary world, the careful establishing of the series’ premise and icons and even, perhaps, the occasional toilet humour all stem from a fear of repeating the perceived failures of Doctor Who in the 1980s and in the TV Movie.  Thus, although season twenty-seven remains the only one written entirely by card-carrying fans, and although this is emphatically a continuation of the new series, not a reboot[1] there is little of the continuity that would feature in later episodes, with it really being limited to the series’ icons (the Doctor, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver and the Daleks with even the Time Lords limited to noises off), plus the Autons and Nestene, stealing a place by virtue of the effect they had on the young Russell T Davies, who thought that that effect could be replicated for a new generation.  In retrospect there are a few loose ends that look like an attempt to create a new continuity that was abandoned in favour of plundering the old: the Nestenes and the Gelth are both affected by the fallout of the Time War, which implied that this might be a key feature of the series, but it was never pursued.  Likewise, the Time Agency and Jack’s lost memories were quietly forgotten.  Instead, certain elements from the past were subtly re-imagined, most notably the Daleks, the nature of the Doctor-companion relationship and the role of the companion’s family.

Moving on to look at the era as a whole, perhaps the most obvious aspect of the new series, and one that provoked much debate among fans at the time, is the focus on character-based drama, leading to allegations that the series had become a soap opera.  Of course, all drama is in part based around characters and the original series had also had its moments of emotional drama.  The difference is that the original series rarely foregrounded these relationships and the relationships in question generally affected supporting characters, not the Doctor and the companion (the main exception being for regeneration stories and companion departures).  For example, the burgeoning relationship between Greg Sutton and Petra Williams is a key element in Inferno, but it is one element among many and does not involve the regular cast directly, but plays out as part of the general plot about the Inferno Project.  This contrasts with Boom Town, where the relationship between Rose and Mickey not only focuses on the regular cast, but occurs in a separate plot thread to the science fictional plot, which results in Rose literally having to run away from one plot to the other.  Moreover, the character elements are often not science fictional.  Rose and Mickey’s relationship is under strain because she is travelling with the Doctor, but it would be under strain if she went travelling with another man on Earth.  This is not incidental, but is part of Russell T Davies’ plan to keep the programme rooted in the present day and in contemporary character drama.

The series adopts a mode of dialogue common to much contemporary television, dialogue that is delivered very quickly and which is by turns emotional, ironic, full of knowing cultural references and self-aware commentary on the programme itself and a little supercilious.  (There is certainly a sense that this can be described as postmodern in intent, but that would require an essay in itself to defend!)  In a sense this is at odds with the attempts at realism (e.g. Rose’s speech before saving the day in Rose), but it is noteworthy that the series, although rooted in the contemporary world, is not aiming for realism as such.  Rather alien invasions and the like are increasingly accepted.  Instead, the contemporary world is used as a background of ‘normality’ against which the alien and bizarre can play.  The programme has a distorted sense of reality, essentially having its proverbial cake and eating it by creating a world close enough to ours for the intrusion of alien elements to be shocking and to create a sense of familiarity for the casual viewer, yet also allowing strange and uncanny events to take place within it, something taken to an extreme with the parody TV shows in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and also demonstrated by the frequent faux news broadcasts updating viewers on events.  From this point of view, the heightened dialogue fits with the attempt to create a reality like ours, but exaggerated.  It must be said that this is a difficult thing to do and the result is arguably as much an acquired taste as more straightforwardly science fictional eras of the programme’s history.  It is also worth noting that the use of celebrity cameos and pop cultural references, alongside the use of pop music within the fiction, well-known guest stars and parodies of recent hit films and TV programmes does seem to be an attempt to make Doctor Who part of the zeitgeist, to make it fashionable, even cool.  Beyond this, Rose’s speech in The Parting of the Ways sets out Davies moral vision for the programme: that one can escape from a dull, quotidian life by making a moral stand.

While the present day stories generally toy with realism (with exceptions like the fourth-wall breaking Love & Monsters), the stories in the past are, as Tat Wood has noted “theme park history”, taking memorable bits from the school history syllabus, from well-known films and TV programmes and famous historical personages (usually authors) and portraying them in a bold style that has as much to do with image as historical reality – this is a history where it did not rain on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day, where Martha’s skin colour is generally ignored and where Queen Victoria was far stuffier and more humourless than in our reality.  Perhaps most surprising is that the future stories are often bold, colourful tales that seem to be a visual cross between 2000 A.D. comics, the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and late eighties ‘oddball’ Doctor Who stories like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.  These stories take a single idea (a planet-wide traffic jam; a slave factory; a futuristic hospital) and push it to its limits, without getting bogged down in technobabble or excessive world-building.  What all three styles have in common is a accessibility, a desire to give people what they want and what they can understand, rather than to challenge them with the complexities or real history or of detailed science fictional world-building.  This has angered some fans and it remains to be seen whether it is the only or best approach to the material, but there is no denying that it attract many viewers to a programme and genre that was thought to appeal to only a small minority audience.

Most of the stories are self-contained, forty-five minute episodes, with a few two-part stories.  This contrasts with the original series’ stories generally made of anything from one to fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, but usually four or six episodes long.  This results in stories that are shorter and more linear, with fewer characters and sub-plots and a much faster pace.  There is a new form of character-based drama with Father’s Day being unlike any previous story in its personal nature, although there are still monsters story in there.

However, for arguably the first time there is a definite ‘shape’ to a season, opening with a couple of flight-hearted ‘romps’, reintroducing an old monster partway through, then heading towards a big season finale with old monsters and a sad ending.  The season as a whole is seeded with references pointing towards the season finale, sometimes very simple, such as “Bad Wolf”, but more complex in season thirty, where a number of plot threads are woven together in the final episodes.  There is also a tendency to become darker across the seasons, building up to the bleakness of the year of specials unlike the relatively upbeat nature of seasons twenty-seven and twenty-eight.

This use of story arcs is part of a change towards more complex, inter-connected narratives.  Boom Town and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways introduce the idea that the Doctor’s actions have consequences, something seen in some of the other season finales, where it is implied that the Master comes to power because the Doctor overthrew Harriet Jones and with the Doctor’s influence on his companions examined in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.  This is something the spin-offs had done, but which had not really been seen on television.  The Long Game and Bad Wolf in particular focus on the way the Doctor tends to leave soon after an adventure, leaving others to tidy up, an idea also present, less clearly, in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.  Emotional consequences are also followed through with character arcs for most of the companions and semi-regulars.

It is also worth noting briefly that for the first time, Doctor Who uses its spin-offs as source material and inspiration in a sustained way.  Although odd elements had come in from the spin-offs in the past, with terms like “console room” and “chameleon circuit” first appearing in the Target novelizations, now whole elements are taken from the novels, comics and audios.  The Dalek saucers are clearly based on those from the TV Century 21 Dalek comic strip of the sixties, Dalek is based on the Big Finish audio Jubilee and Human Nature/The Family of Blood is based on the most popular New Adventure novel.  Even the Time War may owe something to the Doctor Who Magazine back-up strips of the early eighties or perhaps to the Time War seen in the Eighth Doctor novels, in which the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey at great personal cost.

One final point worth considering is the large number of children who appear within the programme.  This is sometimes done to indicate that this is a family programme, not a ‘cult’ one aimed only at young men.  This is seen most clearly in the motorway scene in The Runaway Bride, where the Doctor’s efforts to rescue Donna are cheered on by two children in a nearby car.  There are also child characters that may be intended as identification figures, such as Chloe Webber in Fear Her.  At other times children are included apparently just for emotional reasons, as with Jackson Lake’s son Frederick in The Next Doctor, put in jeopardy to raise the stakes.  At other times this is less clear-cut.  The Toclafane turn out to be children, apparently because this is more chilling, but on some level it may appeal to at least some children – the Freudian desire to kill one’s parents and take control of one’s environment.  Given that the Toclafane were originally devised when it looked like BBC Wales would not get the rights to the Daleks there is a sense that the Toclafane are children pretending to be Daleks in the playground, like real children; they even have a slightly Dalek-y look.  At any rate, Davies was keen to encourage children’s participation in the show, with the Absorbaloff designed as part of a competition on children’s programme Blue Peter and the role of Creet in Utopia going to the winner of an acting competition on the same programme.  There was also, of course, the forgotten spin-off programme, Totally Doctor Who, aimed squarely at children.


The Doctor

The two Doctors we see in this era have certain points in common, but also some differences.  The tenth Doctor is in some ways the ninth having worked through his survivor’s guilt across season twenty-seven, but this guilt returns after Rose’s departure.

The ninth Doctor initially fits the pattern of some earlier Doctors (most notably the second and the fourth, but also occasionally the seventh) who hid their loneliness and sadness behind a veil of silliness or manic enthusiasm.  Tellingly, he knows what it is like to be the only child left out in the cold in The Empty Child, although how literal a statement this might be is left unclear.  The Doctor brings Rose to the destruction of the Earth on her first proper TARDIS trip apparently to help her understand him, his loneliness and his new belief that all things have their time, based on the destruction of his own planet.  This is also shown in his willingness to let Cassandra die when he feels she has had her time.

His loneliness also leads him to put up a front of indifference and scorn at times, making out that he does not care what people think of him.  He looks scornful when Casssandra says he was the school swot and never got kissed, as if this insult means nothing to him, but all the same he practically begs Rose to join him in the TARDIS at the end of Rose, even though he has spent the episode telling her to go away.  He becomes jealous of other people who claim her attention (Mickey, Jackie, Adam, Jack) and even bullies them, particularly Mickey, although he is later friendlier to Jack and Mickey.

The ninth Doctor is also embittered and angry and often misanthropic, repeatedly referring to human beings as “stupid apes”, while Rose is apparently beautiful but only “considering you’re human” (The Unquiet Dead) – a line that was possibly written as teasing, but is played more forcibly by Eccleston.  His lack of patience with the failings of humanity is unexplained.  Possibly he sees them as mirroring the failings of the Time Lords or thinks that they can achieve so much that is positive that their failings are less excusable than those of lesser species.  Of course, we see him interact with humans so much that there could be a selection bias in the evidence here.  At any rate, his moral indignation is devastating, as seen following the death of the space pig in Aliens of London.  The Doctor’s anger leads him to be compared to the Daleks in Dalek, especially when we learn that he wiped out the Daleks in the Time War.  He has never liked the Daleks, but now his battle is deeply personal.  Ultimately, though, he refrains from killing the Dalek survivor as well as the invasion force in The Parting of the Ways and this is presented as deliberate character growth – he has changed his attitudes and his moral code.  Despite his battle-scarred nature, he can not place the collective ahead of the individual, trying desperately to find a way to let Pete Tyler live in Father’s Day and ultimately refusing to wipe out the population of Earth with the Daleks.

The Doctor’s ruthlessness is the focus of Boom Town, which provides a neat case study of this Doctor and his morality.  Here, he states that he is indifferent to Blon’s execution, but in the end it is clear that he is relieved by not having to follow through on his threats.  Blon describes him as being like a god (a key theme that will echo through later years), setting up the dilemma not just here, but in the next story, when the Doctor is given the power of life and death over the Daleks and humanity, power that he ultimately refuses to exercise, leading in to his successor’s era, which will play with the same themes, but not in an identical way.

If the ninth Doctor is possibly the angriest Doctor, yet he can also swiftly become funny and charming, with an infectious enthusiasm for things he deems “Fantastic!”  He has a bravado that we have never really seen before, but it becomes a fixture of twenty-first century Doctor Who: he is certain of his abilities and delivers long, slightly pompous speeches declaring his intention to defeat his enemies such as at the end of Bad Wolf.  However, he does not do “domestic”.  He never has done so in the past, but now, with a young companion anxious to keep one foot on the Powell Estate, it becomes a mantra, perhaps as a way of escaping commitments and the risk of losing people who matter to him again after the Time War.

The Doctor has a closeness with Rose that was rarely seen previously.  He holds hands with her, something done occasionally by previous Doctors (e.g. the third and Jo; the fourth and Romana), but not often.  Here, however, there is a definite romantic and flirtatious edge to their relationship, even if it never quite blossoms during his lifetime and also leads to an element of jealousy rarely seen before (tellingly, only when Susan and Jo fell in love).  In Dalek we are told that the Doctor did not survive the Time War by choice and over his episodes, we see Rose save him from near-suicidal despair, letting him revel in the wonders of the universe again, thus explaining her unique relationship with him.

There were complaints at the time of broadcast that the ninth Doctor did not do enough to resolve the stories, but essentially he is a catalyst hero whose presence and actions prompt others to become heroic, starting with Rose and later including people like Cathica, Pete and Jack, among others.  However, by being a catalyst, he also becomes responsible for other people’s negative actions.  In particular, his refusal to stay behind and help Earth after The Long Game leads to the situation of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.  This focus on consequences (also seen in Boom Town) is an unusual take on the Doctor and his behaviour, something rarely seen before or since in televised Doctor Who, although familiar from the spin-offs.

The tenth Doctor begins life laid back and nonchalant, with a sense of fun, some tongue-in-cheek arrogance and a love of danger similar to his predecessor’s, as well an angry streak.  His vocabulary is as demotic as
the ninth’s and he is more tactile, being keener on hugging.  He develops a number of catchphrases and running jokes, notably “I’m so sorry”, which highlights his compassion, but also risks making him seem insincere for continually apologising, fitting with his growing ruthlessness and the sense across his run that he is at least partially responsible for the danger he finds himself in.  He develops his predecessor’s fondness for portentous announcements, for example, “This ends tonight!” and “I’m the Doctor.  I’m a Time Lord... and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion on the planet below.  You got a problem with that?”  This fits with his “Time Lord Victorious” persona (see below) and also with his streak of common-or-garden vanity: he is pleased when he thinks Rose compliments his appearance in Fear Her (she is actually talking to a cat), gets Skye Silvestry to tell him how handsome he is when testing her verbal repetitions in Midnight and forgoes a regeneration, apparently because of his satisfaction with his body in Journey’s End.

Interestingly, the element of exploration important in most Doctors is downplayed with both ninth and tenth Doctors (although not as much as with the seventh Doctors).  The ninth Doctor rarely leaves Earth, while the tenth Doctor is not so much an explorer as a tourist, taking his companions to see the sights and meeting Famous Historical Celebrities.  In The Impossible Planet he states that it is not a good idea to go beyond the TARDIS’ knowledge, which rather flies in the face of the exploration ethos.  Indeed, the fact that this Doctor seems to know everything implies that there is little for him to explore, but we discover in The Satan Pit that he travels to be proved wrong and he explores the unknown rather more enthusiastically in Utopia.

The tenth Doctor continues his predecessor’s intense relationship with Rose and develops it further, although it seems that, for whatever reason, he can never quite bring himself to say he loves her (see Doomsday and Journey’s End).  This relationship and its abrupt ending colours his relationships with all his other companions.  His loneliness returns after Rose’s departure and becomes a key feature of his persona, alongside a growing arrogance; these two possibly feed in to each other, culminating in “the Time Lord Victorious”.  From The Runaway Bride, we are frequently told that the Doctor “needs” someone to balance his loneliness and hold his ruthlessness in check.  There is a sense that his ruthlessness is ultimately self-destructive, something hinted at in The Runaway Bride and made explicit in Turn Left where, without Donna, the Doctor perishes with the Racnoss.

The arrogance that accompanies this loneliness appears in the tenth Doctor’s first adventure, where he tells the Sycorax that he gives “No second chances”, something that applies equally to Harriet Jones.  This attitude could equally apply to the ninth Doctor, who gave no second chances to Adam or Margaret (at least until she was de-aged), but did offer second chances to Rose (in Father’s Day) and arguably to the Nestene, assuming one includes the third Doctor’s encounters with it.  The tenth Doctor is defined as a “lonely god” as early as New Earth, the same story that sees him say there is no “higher authority” above him – the first time he really expresses his sense of self-importance, something that is perhaps inevitable now the Time Lords have gone.  Just as he offers no second chances, so too he is willing to say that Cassandra’s time has come, although he later amends this to say that she should stand trial.  There is a real sense of pride coming before a fall across his era, most notably in The Waters of Mars, but it is a theme that starts as early as Tooth and Claw, where he inadvertently creates Torchwood, which will be instrumental in separating him from Rose.

Despite this, he does generally offer his foes one chance to repent, even if they seem unlikely to use it or to deserve it.  This is arguably also part of his post-Time War psyche: he needs to prove to himself that he had no alternative but to kill.  The chance of repentance is as much for him as anyone else, as it is broadly hinted that he destroyed Gallifrey.  (The statement in School Reunion that he is less merciful in the past seems unlikely, although it may be a retcon or wishful thinking on the Doctor’s part.)  Nevertheless, the Doctor remains ruthless and angry, something shown at its most extreme in The Family of Blood, where the Doctor metes out what seem like cruel and unusual ironic punishments to the Family, perhaps an indication of his anger and sadness over the loss of John Smith, although the following scene sees him fairly sure that Smith is still inside him.  Either way, Joan’s rebuke to him afterwards over all the death being the Doctor’s fault is just one instance of the way the series examines the Doctor’s role in the chaos around him and presents him as culpable to a degree in it; see also Davros’ rebukes in Journey’s End and Adelaide’s in The Waters of Mars.  This has been a trend since the 1980s and is part of a reluctance to portray unambiguous heroes in contemporary popular culture.

Voyage of the Damned marks the point where the programme itself begins to deify the Doctor.  He angrily declares “I can do anything!” when he fails to resurrect Astrid, only for Mr Copper to tell him that someone who could decide who lives and dies would be a monster, a theme developed over the remaining episodes of the tenth Doctor’s run.  Beyond this, the episode has him lifted heavenwards by angels (!), with The Fires of Pompeii going one step further by having the Doctor and Donna literally deified, following the “Sistine Chapel” shot of the Doctor reaching out to Caecillius.  However, running parallel to this is the idea mentioned above that the Doctor needs companions to restrain him.  The humanistic ideas at the heart of Doctor Who can not allow its hero to be deified without protest.

The tenth Doctor’s hubris reaches its height with The Waters of Mars, where he breaks the laws of time to save the Bowie Base crew, showing the way that his power has gone to his head.  He thinks he can rewrite time according to his wishes, but the survivors of the Martian expedition are horrified by him and Adelaide commits suicide to try to restore the timeline.  In many ways, this is the tenth Doctor’s defining moment.  Although it was probably not planned in advance, the whole of his era and perhaps also that of his predecessor seem to be heading here, back to his attempts to restore the damaged timeline while keeping Pete Tyler alive in Father’s Day, through his growing arrogance and power seen in episodes like Tooth and Claw and Voyage of the Damned as well as his inadvertent creation of timeline seen in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.  The Time Lord Victorious is the moment when the Doctor’s loneliness, arrogance and anger threaten to tip him over to the side of evil.  It is a choice the Master may have made at some point (see the spin-offs) and the Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice his “important” self to save the “unimportant” Wilf in the next story is a moment of redemption for him, moving him back towards the moral outlook of the other Doctors, despite his initial hissy fit when he realizes that he has not cheated death.  The moral and heroic core remains beneath the arrogance, despite his assertion that he has lived too long.


The Companions

The companions are vital to Doctor Who in this era.  Every season is constructed at least in part as a companion’s journey.  Season twenty-seven sees Rose grow in confidence and awareness before becoming the Bad Wolf, a storyline running alongside the Doctor’s redemption.  Season twenty-eight is the story of Rose’s love for the Doctor and its tragic end.  Season twenty-nine is about Martha’s crush on the Doctor and her growing confidence.  In season thirty Donna’s growth parallels that of Rose, but ends in a memory wipe, something that horrified many viewers, especially when Rose was ‘rewarded’ with the meta-crisis Doctor in the same episode.  Only the year of specials is not focused on the companions, dealing with the Time Lord Victorious and the Doctor’s approaching death.

An idea that is articulated here for the first time, but which has become an accepted part of Doctor Who lore is that the Doctor needs his companions to avoid becoming arrogant, cruel and lonely (as we saw above, these traits are considered to be interlinked).  The companion often represents the voice of compassion against the Doctor’s occasional ruthlessness; when there is no companion, the problem of the Time Lord Victorious arises.  However, the alternative position is also advanced, that the Doctor corrupts his companions.  Season thirty in particular examines the Doctor as a “soldier” who turns his companions into “weapons”, but this idea is not really developed enough to be convincing.  It is another example of the drive to darken the programme towards the end of this era and feeds into the Time Lord Victorious character arc.

This darkening of the Doctor-companion relationship may develop in part from the idea implied here that travelling with the Doctor is so great that no one would voluntarily leave him, especially as the TARDIS, more controllable than in the past, can easily drop the companions home for a quick visit.  The result is that the companions tend of leave the Doctor for tragic reasons, making the Doctor’s influence seem negative.  Rose is trapped in another universe, Martha’s family are traumatized and Donna loses her memory and all the personality growth she has achieved.  It is as if the best a companion can hope for is a tragic separation; the worst is severe psychological trauma for her or her family.

Balancing this is the fact that the companions do tend to grow as people due to the Doctor’s influence.  Rose starts as someone with no ambitions beyond her dead-end job and slightly incompetent boyfriend and becomes someone both confident and competent to tackle Daleks and Cybermen.  Mickey also develops from that incompetent boyfriend to a monster-fighter.  Jack moves from immoral con artist to running a branch of Torchwood and being concerned about the welfare of his team (see Last of the Time Lords – although note that The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances stresses that Jack did not intend to harm anyone physically with his scam, so he was not completely evil). Martha manages to grow past her crush on the Doctor and again become independent, working for UNIT (and Torchwood, but we are not considering the spin-offs here).  Donna arguably grows most of all, from someone completely oblivious of the wonders of the world around her to someone willing to explore the universe, before it is all taken away from her.  Even Jackie comes to terms with Rose’s lifestyle and is briefly seen as a Dalek-hunter herself.  Only the arrogant Adam fails to grow, instead trying to profit financially from his travels, resulting in his swift dismissal.  However, it must be said that in most of these cases emotional development does seem rather to be embodied in carrying big guns and shooting at monsters, something that seems at odds with the ethos of Doctor Who.  This may be because the companion is generally presented as already being empathic and able to communicate with people in a way that the Doctor can not, seen almost from the start of the series, with Rose’s conversation with Raffalo, leaving the action-adventure side of things to be the main avenue for growth.  It is interesting that only Donna does not grow in this way, instead becoming more empathic and open to the universe, but her growth is removed, perhaps another reason why that plotline feels so uncomfortable for so many people.

It is noteworthy that the programme actually begins by being the story of Rose as much as the Doctor, down to being named in the title of the very first episode.  As noted above, her eyes are opened to the wonders of the universe and eventually she becomes willing to sacrifice herself for the Doctor, becoming the Bad Wolf in the process. She adapts to time travel more slowly than later companions (obviously intended to let the new audience adjust), being disorientated by aliens in The End of the World and making the mistake of asking to see her personal history and then trying to change it in Father’s Day.  Gradually, her life becomes a love story, with Mickey, Adam and Jack presented as alternative suitors, favoured for a time but then rejected in favour of the Doctor.  This only becomes fully clear in the closing moments of season twenty-seven, when the Doctor and Bad Wolf-Rose kiss, although they had been flirting for much longer.  By the next season, there is full on sexual tension, with Rose being jealous of any other women the Doctor speaks to and speaking of settling down with the Doctor in The Impossible Planet.  There is hubris here too, with love leading to separation in Doomsday, but a sort of reconciliation in Journey’s End.   This romantic relationship is a new take on the Doctor-companion relationship, but through the presentation of Sarah Jane Smith in School Reunion, the earlier stories are arguably retconned to imply that there was sexual tension between Doctors and companions all the time.

With Rose gone, the focus switches to Martha and there is an uncomfortable sense that both the Doctor and the programme are keeping her on probation to see if she is as good as Rose.  She does so across the season, building to her independence for a year without the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords, before growing beyond anything the Doctor can offer her.  There is, of course, a sexual element here too, with it repeatedly stressed that Martha has a crush on the Doctor, who is oblivious to it.  Such low self-esteem and neediness seem out of character with Martha as a career-focused woman in a high-pressure job.  This would all be uncomfortable even without the racial politics involved in comparing the black companion to the white one; a wiser course might have been to drop the references back to Rose and focus on Martha.  It is rather a relief when she finds her confidence to leave in the last episode and is later seen forging a life for herself in later guest appearances on the programme.

Unlike Rose and Martha, Donna is introduced as a one-off comedy character.  Only when the Doctor’s excitement at going to the creation of the Earth is juxtaposed with Donna’s tears over her betrayal by Lance does she begin to become real.  She gains a certain amount of depth over her year as a proper companion, but remains obsessed by her single status, another uncomfortable character point.  The fact that she deliberately sought the Doctor out second time around to broaden her horizons is a more positive character trait balancing this.  The whole of season thirty is structured to drive home the point that Donna acts from insecurity because she does not think she is anyone important, shouting and ranting to cover this up.  We gradually realize that she is not just important in the sense that Doctor Who portrays everyone as important, but that she is cosmically important – a nexus point in the Doctor’s life.  This is part of Russell T Davies’ view that Doctor Who companions are ultra-competent, moving from workaday jobs to world-saving heroism.  Donna does not fancy the Doctor and this is presented as a great innovation, rather than the norm, showing how much the role and expectation of the companion have changed since the original series.

The doubts raised over the treatment of Donna worsen when one considers the other older women characters in the programme (not that Donna is particularly old, merely older than Rose and Martha): Jackie Tyler, Francine Jones and Sylvia Noble.  These are all forthright, opinionated, even blinkered characters who do not easily grasp the science fictional elements of the stories they are in and who tend to put their daughters down, while simultaneously being over-protective.  Jackie gains some depth, especially from Love & Monsters, but the others remain two-dimensional, unpleasant caricatures of middle aged womanhood.  It is disturbing that, whether intentionally or otherwise, the programme in this era presents two types of women: the lovestruck young woman and the ‘battleaxe’, the bad-tempered, sarcastic, over-protective mother (Donna is a sort of junior battleaxe).


Monsters and Villains

As with many eras of Doctor Who, season twenty-seven sees a number of monsters and villains based on ideas drawn from current affairs, with monsters seeking wealth (Cassandra, Adam and especially the ruthless capitalist Van Statten), beauty (Cassandra), control of the news media (the Jagrafess) and even TV ratings (the ostensible reason for the Gamestation).  The newly-religious Daleks of The Parting of the Ways tap in to fears of religious extremism that have been an almost perpetual feature of the news since the September 2001 attacks.  This is alongside the accidental monsters released in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.  After this season, the series becomes a little less rooted in the real world and is less of a distorted version of the news.  Nevertheless, greed for wealth is an important motivator in a number of stories.  Similarly, The Lazarus Experiment is based on the quest for youth, Gridlock, while not featuring a conscious villain per se, is drawn from contemporary concern about traffic, pollution and drugs.  Sometimes the monsters feel a bit cursory and are clearly not the focus of an episode, being there for children and merchandisers – the large number of monsters based on animals (Cat-nuns, Judoon) may fall into this category.

Season twenty-seven avoids returning monsters except for the iconic Autons and Daleks, avoiding overwhelming the new audience with excess continuity at this stage.  Early on, the idea of a monster-free time travel story (Father’s Day) was mooted.  However, Jane Tranter, Controller of Drama Commissioning at the BBC, insisted on the need for a monster, creating as rigid a template as the programme had had throughout the seventies and eighties (but not the sixties), perhaps removing the possibility of a more intellectual programme in favour of a more populist one.

The Daleks are used in a mature way, to highlight aspects of the Doctor.  They are used as a symbol for totalitarianism as in the original series and also, as noted above, for religious extremism, reflecting the concerns of a twenty-first century audience.  The Daleks are also used to illustrate how violent and hate-filled the Doctor has become after the Time War, until Rose pulls him back from the brink.  Interestingly, Dalek presents the Dalek itself as a rounded character, manipulative, but desperate and almost lonely.  This probably could not be sustained in the long-term without undermining the Daleks’ threat.  Rob Shearman certainly re-imagines the Daleks to remove anything that might be a source of unintentional humour, from the sucker to the perceived inability to climb stairs.

After season twenty-seven, another iconic old monster or villain is brought back each year: first Cybermen, then the Master, then the Sontarans and Davros.  This feels a bit like box-ticking and fan-pleasing by the end.  Davros in particular feels rather superfluous in a story also featuring Dalek Caan and the Dalek Supreme, being kept locked in the Vault by the Daleks with little plot function except to act as a mouthpiece for theories about the Doctor turning his companions into weapons.  More interesting is the use of less well-remembered monsters, particularly the Macra (perhaps also the Autons), suggesting that this was done to recreate a memorable moment (the Autons) or because their presence flowed naturally from the story (the Macra).  There is a sense in all of this of fans playing in the Doctor Who toybox and doing what they always wanted, such as a Dalek-Cybermen fight.

The Master as usual parallels the Doctor, being younger than previously and having a more demotic vocabulary and an accomplice in whom he takes a more sexual interest than previously.   He is more clearly identified as clinically insane than ever before, although it is hard to map this on to any real mental illness.  The Doctor continually hopes to redeem him, more so than previously.  This may say something about the tenth Doctor, who wants to give his foes a chance, or about the Master who sometimes implied to be a good or ‘normal’ person driven insane by the sound of drums in his head.

It is interesting that after idolizing the dead Time Lords for years, when they finally appear, they want to destroy the timelines and become immortal beings of pure consciousness, thus committing the two cardinal sins of Doctor Who: attempting to rule the universe and seeking immortality.  This fits with the pessimism of the final tenth Doctor stories, the sense that people are corrupt and that even the Doctor is limited in his powers and ability to save people.  There is also a sense that if Gallifrey returns, it has to be in opposition to the Doctor, who can not function as a straightforward Time Lord; even as a Time Lord agent in the seventies, he resisted his role and he has been put on trial by the Time Lords on several occasions.

The Slitheen and the Ood are the only new recurring alien races created here (the Weeping Angels do not strictly recur until the next era).  The production team seem to have thought highly of both given their cameos and reappearances (the Slitheen appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures and were heavily merchandised).  The Slitheen are very much on the childish side, but also stereotypical science fiction monsters, a bit like the classic Greys, only taller and green.  The fact that they rarely reappeared in Doctor Who despite all this merchandising suggests again that the programme was deliberately moved in a more mature direction after the first production bloc (Rose, Aliens of London, World War III), with the Slitheen only making one more appearance in the main series before being relegated to the child-orientated spin-off; even Boom Town is more mature in its approach.

The Ood are unusual in that they are not technically monsters – they are always ill or possessed when they kill.  However, they are designed to look monstrous.  Alongside the Weeping Angels, they are probably the most successful monster produced in this era, in terms of memorability and re-use.  Alongside Novice Hame and, perhaps, Margaret Slitheen, they indicate an attempt to question whether monstrous appearance must be connected to monstrous behaviour, always a key concern in Doctor Who.






[1] Actually, it is not until the return of Sarah in School Reunion that this becomes completely clear.


Published!

Posted on 27/08/2015 at 20:41
Tags: , ,
I'm not sure if this is really of interest to anyone around here, but I just discovered that I have a poem up in the latest issue of Altar Journal, an online Jewish literary journal.  I'm not quite sure why I've only just found out about it, but better late than never.

Obeying the Master

Posted on 26/08/2015 at 00:46
Tags: ,
(Am I returning to more regular Doctor Who blogging?  I honestly don’t know.  I do know I have started work on the next Changing Style of Doctor Who post, covering the whole of the Russell T Davies era, a mammoth undertaking that warrants a mammoth rewatch.  I’m currently nearing the end of season twenty-nine/new series three/the year of Martha and the Master.  Anyway, to business.)

Growing up as a child reading the ‘standard’ reference works available in the early nineties (Peter Haining, Jean-Marc Lofficier, DWM when I could get hold of it), I picked up certain ‘facts’ about the programme.  Not real facts, like names of writers and script editors, but opinions passed off as facts.  And one of these was that the Master was one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who, the greatest individual villain, up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen.  John Nathan-Turner, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat all seem to agree, given the number of return gigs for the Master as opposed to, say, the Borad or Professor Zaroff (who has suffered the indignity of being the only villain apparently deemed too embarrassing to be allowed on to DVD for today’s sophisticated audience, but I digress).

Like all myths, it was due for a puncturing sooner or later.  Or rather, two puncturings in fairly rapid succession, from an essay by Philip MacDonald in DWM and another by Daniel O’Mahony in the Licence Denied collection.  Both argued broadly the same thing: that the Master was a bit rubbish, an artificial creation intended to give the Doctor a regular adversary, something the programme’s “limitless format” (another myth for another time) has no need of.  Moreover, he is silly and gimmicky and always loses, driving a series of clichéd plots that have no place in a series as innovative and clever as Doctor Who.  As Graham Williams said in an interview posthumously printed in DWM around this time, as soon as he turns up, the audience is wondering how he will lose this time.  And so my impressionable adolescent mind found a new myth: the myth of the Master being pointless, not a premiership player at all.

And yet the Master is still here.  He’s plastered all over the latest DWM, for instance.  And yes, some of that coverage is mocking.  The over-complicated, hole-ridden plans.  The  insistence on involving the Doctor even though he always wins.  The evil laugh.  The general air of camp silliness.  All come in for a sound mocking.  But there is affection beneath all the mockery.  Why?  If the Master is so rubbish, why do we, and successive production teams (who we can assume are not deliberately trying to alienate the audience) love him so much?

Some of it involves slaying another myth my adolescent self held dear, namely that Doctor Who is somehow “realistic,” a sort of kitchen-sink drama in time and space about a time-traveler and the real and the politically-relevant dilemmas he deals with.  Once we can accept that, while the programme does have deeper meanings, on some level this is a bit of escapist fun, we can be more accepting of the Master, who embodies that fun.  (Arguably it’s precisely the clash between the realistic and escapist elements in the programme that can lead to the kind of kitsch and camp which the Master embodies.)

And he is fun!  For one thing, every single actor who played him, from the legendary Roger Delgado to the wonderful Michelle Gomez is clearly having a ball, letting their ids run loose and do stuff that would not normally be acceptable in society (genocide, assassination, answering authority figures back, laughing inappropriately, that sort of thing).

Even the clichéd, B-movie villain aspects have a place.  After all, cliché becomes a cliché because it is overused and it is only overused because it has a certain power.  The complicated death-traps and manic laughter function almost like a musical leitmotif, reminding us just who this character is and why we like him.

There is a more serious point to be made, which is that the character does function as a mirror to the Doctor.  They are broadly similar and as one changes so does the other.  For example, the Simm Master adopts a more demotic form of speech than previous incarnations, fitting with the twenty-first century Doctors.  Even if the Master’s plans are deeply stupid, the conceptual parallels between the two characters, which the writers continually emphasize, make the Master feel like a serious threat, at least in his better stories, and even some of his worst ones (I think Logopolis is pretentious piffle, and yet it exerts a strong fascination over me, albeit not just because of the Master).  The Delgado Master in particular gets to send up some of the more pompous aspects of the early seventies format, allowing the programme to have its cake and eat it, acknowledging the flaws, but getting its own jokes in before the audience’s.  Whose side are you on in The Time Monster when the Master complains that the third Doctor always has to have the last word and feeds those very words back to him backwards?  The real answer is that you are on the side of the Doctor and the Master – the former is obviously right, but you have to concede that the latter has a point regarding the third Doctor’s need to win an argument.  The Simm Master arguably does something similar for the Davies era format, making fun of the demographic box-ticking TARDIS team and horribly aging the youngest and most conventionally attractive Doctor to date.  This may help explain why the Master only makes three appearances in Tom Baker’s seven year long stint as the Doctor: the fourth Doctor was too good at sending himself up to really need the Master; when the latter did appear it was mostly as a hate-fuelled walking corpse who did not mirror the Doctor in the usual way.

So, although the Master is essentially an artificial and unnecessary character, it is these elements that make him so compelling.  Freed of a clear narrative function, he can send up the programme and its lead, while providing a compelling threat.  And this is without even touching on his unique and complex relationship with the Doctor as his oldest friends, something the likes of Davros can not hope to achieve.  So, perhaps inevitably, the Master is destined to return, sooner or later, as he always does.  Bwa-ha-ha!

Mention Quatermass to most people and, if they have heard of it at all, they will most likely think of the groundbreaking BBC serials of the 1950s or the Hammer films of the fifties and sixties.  Less remembered is Quatermass, the bleak sequel broadcast in 1979 on ITV, with a limited cinema release as The Quatermass Conclusion.

Aside from obvious production changes (e.g. colour, longer episodes, more location filming), Quatermass differs from its predecessors in its presentation of the near future.  While all the earlier Quatermass stories had been set vaguely in the near future, aside from a few surface details, it was primarily the advanced British space programme and the resultant contact with alien life that made the near future different to the audience's present. Quatermass presents a more detailed near future scenario, extrapolated from the dissent of the sixties and seventies.
While it is clear that society has broken down in this near future, the exact details are not always clear and are sometimes contradictory.  Law and order has broken down in the cities, yet the government still has an army at its disposal, which makes one wonder why it does not enforce martial law to try to get the situation under control.   Society has collapsed and the elderly are living in hiding, but there is a sort of pornographic version of Top of the Pops being broadcast by the British Television corporation (which has a logo suspiciously similar to that of the BBC in 1979!) as family entertainment, alongside more serious science programmes.  There are frequent power cuts (not unlike the real Britain in the seventies), but Kapp's radio telescope still gets enough electricity to work (there is a bit of unconvincing 'lantern hanging' here, with Kapp stating that he fears he will lose the power soon).  Above all, Quatermass seems not to know at all what has been happening in the cities, allowing numerous info-dumping conversations, yet this does not seem credible given the almost total collapse of civilization implied at times, even if he is living by a remote Scottish loch.  Similarly, the USA and the USSR are said to have similar problems (perhaps not quite so severe), yet both have the resources for space programmes not unlike their real-life equivalents and the Soviet youth seem to be happy as part of the Youth Pioneers, rather than forming into the feral gangs seen in Britain.

However, this occasional incoherence does not detract from a sense of nightmarish dislocation in which the details of the story matter less than the fact that death could strike at any moment.  Virtually every major character dies and while Quatermass makes a meaningful sacrifice, most characters die quite pointlessly and horribly.  This reinforces the nightmare feelings, but makes it hard to actually enjoy the story.

The story suffers from a style of dialogue that seems to belong to the era of the original serials, not to mention writer Nigel Kneale's inability to write working class characters.  Kneale establishes a series of polarities: old/young, science/cult, reason/superstition.  This is fairly uninspired and familiar, although the emphasis on geriatrics saving the world is unusual.  The story feels like the work of a bitter old man, so it is a surprise to realise that Kneale was in his fifties when he wrote it.

Despite all this, I did enjoy Quatermass.  Kneale was always more of a horror writer than a science fiction one and there is a real sense here of living in an urban nightmare.  The story benefits from a series of mostly strong performances, although John Mills' Quatermass lacks a certain charisma and presence, although he is acceptable enough.  The usual Kneale traits are present here: eerie rhymes, incompetent government, ancient evil hidden in human history, mankind being used by vastly more powerful beings - yet they are as potent as ever, despite their familiarity.  The atmospheric location filming helps greatly, although there is some cheap studio work, notably the American shuttle set.

Quatermass is ultimately a triumph of atmosphere over logic and is best taken in small doses, but it will repay the attention of any Quatermass fan.  It is easy to sound negative, but like reviewing a nightmare it is easier to point out the irrationality of the experience than to convey its nihilistic power.

(This essay on Quatermass II in its historical context may also be of interest.  I'm very proud of it.)

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XII: Who am I?

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.


Stories: The TV Movie
Executive Producer: Philip Segal
Writer: Matthew Jacobs
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Representative stories: The TV Movie (obviously)


Behind the Scenes

In 1996, Doctor Who had been off-air for over six years.  Fandom had heard rumours of a possible American co-production (alongside rumours of a feature film that never materialised), but nothing had been confirmed, largely because, for a long time, there was nothing to confirm, just endless negotiations and drafting and redrafting of series bibles and scripts as eventual executive producer Philip Segal took his idea of a high-budget version of the programme for an American audience from production company to production company.


And then, suddenly, it was really happening.  The TV Movie was not officially a pilot for a new series of Doctor Who; although Segal seemed happy to let people believe it was, it was not in his power to commission such a pilot.  It was a one-off film intended to gauge audience interest in the hope that a full series might follow, a so-called ‘backdoor pilot.’  Because of that, and because of its short running time, it is hard to determine the type of style Segal, writer Matthew Jacobs and director Geoffrey Sax were aiming for in their version of Doctor Who, not to mention how much of what appears here would have survived in a full TV season.  Nevertheless, the TV Movie points the way towards the full revival of Doctor Who in 2005, both in terms of things Russell T Davies consciously avoided and in terms of things he picked up on and used, perhaps more of them than is usually acknowledged.  As such, the TV Movie, while something of an oddity in Doctor Who’s history, is also worthy of our attention.



Story Style


As many commentators have noted, the TV Movie is indebted to a number of popular television programmes from the mid-nineties, including ER, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and The X-Files.  It can be argued that the TV Movie is an attempt to re-imagine Doctor Who in this context, to create a rival to programmes like these and the Star Trek franchise, but using the building blocks and existing fanbase of Doctor Who.  The so-called Leekley Bible, the proposed writers’ guide for the programme, is indicative of this trend, featuring proposed remakes of many original series stories, but often relocated to the Americas.  This may seem odd, but twenty-first century Doctor Who has occasionally attempted similar things, albeit with more subtlety than the suggested remakes of Genesis of the Daleks and The Gunfighters.  For example, The Evil of the Daleks and The Power of the Daleks have been re-imagined as Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and Victory of the Daleks, while a number of stories from the spin-offs have been adapted or used as starting points for ideas.  The idea is not as backwards-looking as it might seem: at this distance only die-hard fans will remember details of original series stories, especially lost ones, just as only they will know the spin-off books, comics and audios.  A remake does not have to be a slavish and creatively-bankrupt one and Doctor Who has been pillaging classic fiction for decades in the search for inspiration and there is no inherent reason why its own past should be off-limits.  Still, Matthew Jacobs’ arrival on the programme saw the TV Movie shift away from the Leekley Bible in certain respects, which was in any case a series of suggestions as much as a mission statement, so we can not be sure that a full series would have seen such remakes.


The TV Movie generally does not go this far in using Doctor Who’s past to build its future.  Nevertheless, it is notable that the TV Movie seems to borrow much of the material at the hospital from Spearhead from Space, while the climactic fight between the Doctor and the Master for control of the Eye of Harmony owes more than a little to The Deadly Assassin.  Beyond this, there is still a general sense of repackaging Doctor Who for a new audience, taking the props of the past and trying to deploy them in a new way, although Doctor Who has been doing this every few years since 1963, as these essays have hopefully shown.  The TV Movie is possibly trying to put a Doctor Who spin on established formats, while also trying to establish the programme for a new audience, leaving it caught between full-on Doctor Who, with the Master, Gallifrey, the Daleks and more and the over-familiar tropes of other television programmes, science fiction and otherwise.  It is worth comparing it with An Unearthly Child, Spearhead from Space and Rose, all of which were launching or relaunching Doctor Who in a new style, but which took a more minimalist approach, focusing on key areas of their Doctor Who, leaving less important things to be introduced later.


A similar problem can be found with the TV Movie’s tone.  The film is tonally uncertain trying to be alternately dark and brooding, sentimental, funny, action-orientated, romantic and frightening.  Doctor Who can do all of these individually and even several at once, but it is not always clear what the production team were aiming for as their primary tone, which is arguably a failing in a pilot, even a backdoor one, as the viewers are likely to be left uncertain as to what they can expect in the future.  It is difficult to find the heart of the TV Movie, to work out what is its core theme or tone, although as we shall see, there were attempts to provide character arcs to give weight and shape to the story.


Rather more promising is the direction, which uses some clever juxtapositioning (e.g. the regeneration intercut with Frankenstein) and a recurring eye/circle motif leading to the Eye of Harmony to bring unity to the production, while the use of cross-fades and similar imagery early in the film helps to give it a free-flowing feel.  We will never know the extent to which this could have become the programme’s permanent house-style, given the pressures of weekly episodic television production, but what we see here is extremely promising, establishing a bold new visual style for the programme.



The Doctor


The opening narration by the (eighth) Doctor establishes this as the Doctor’s story, however much it may at times appear to be Grace’s story (see below for more on the confusion here).  Like most regeneration stories, it is about how the new Doctor finds himself.  It is therefore unclear how much we can generalise from this to predict what a new series would do.


We do not see much of the seventh Doctor here, but he is visually coded as an eccentric intellectual with a tweed jacket and unkempt hair, reading The Time Machine (people on television rarely seem to read unless being marked as intellectual).  He drinks tea, which establishes an Britishness motif also shown by his landing the TARDIS before a sign advertising holidays in London.  Later this will apply to the eighth Doctor too, who will be excused by Grace as British.  Again, it is hard to tell whether this would have led to anything significant in a series: an exploration of Britishness in the postmodern era?  Or just window dressing at best?  It does seem intended primarily to foreground the nature of the franchise as imported to America rather than for any other reason.


The eighth Doctor is quirky, exuberant and excitable, as well as being oblivious to social niceties in a way that would actually appear threatening in real life (getting into Grace’s car without her permission); the audience is apparently supposed to be sufficiently won over by his eccentric charm not to care.  As with later Doctor Who, the TV Movie is about the effects of the Doctor on those around him, particularly Grace, but also Chang Lee and even one or two minor characters like Gareth.  Unlike twenty-first century Doctor Who, the Doctor’s role here is largely positive and redemptive, as we shall see in the companions section.  This fits in with the supposedly “accidental” Christological imagery focusing on the Doctor that permeates the production (waking from the dead in a shroud, wearing a symbolic crown of thorns when (nearly) being killed at the climax etc.).


Controversially, this Doctor is half-human.  It is unclear what the production team attempted to achieve by this. On one level it seems to simply have been a left-over from earlier drafts in which the Doctor’s family was to be the focus of the series: he was to have had a human mother and a missing Time Lord father for whom he was searching, providing a clearer focus for the narrative than had been the case in the past.  It was also to have helped explain the Doctor’s fondness for Earth.  However, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it was intended to make the character more accessible for an American audience, in the way that Mr Spock in Star Trek had a human mother and a Vulcan father.  It is impossible to know how important this would have been in a follow-up series.  It is certainly interesting that the TV Movie suggests the Doctor is half-human while simultaneously drowning the story in Time Lord concepts (regeneration, the Eye of Harmony, the Seal of Rassilon).


That the Doctor is a time-traveller is also painted in broad strokes.  As well as reading The Time Machine in his time machine, the Doctor knows famous figures from the past, as well as having foreknowledge of the future of various people he encounters.  The Doctor Who Magazine comic strip would make intelligent use of this (see The Fallen in the collection The Glorious Dead), but here it is again unclear whether it was meant to build anything important or if it would have acted like the psychic paper in the twenty-first century version of the programme: a useful way of getting the Doctor out of trouble and not much more.


Finally and most controversially, the eighth Doctor is sexualised in a way that had not been seen before.  This may again be a populist move for an audience that expects sexual tension between male and female lead characters.  This is a new area for Doctor Who (excluding The Aztecs), but familiar territory for television in general, including science fiction and fantasy television (see Lois and Clark and The X-Files, both noted above as influences).  This probably would have been maintained in some form over a series, just as it has featured in much of contemporary Doctor Who, albeit less so as time has gone on.



The Companions


Grace is the familiar fictional figure of the career-focused person (often a woman) who has sacrificed her personal life to her job.  As the Doctor says, she is tired of life, but afraid of dying.  Hers is a narrative of redemption as the Doctor re-opens her eyes to the wonders of the universe, which just about salvages the conclusion of her story arc which sees her return to mundane life when aesthetics would require her to join the Doctor in travelling time and space.  Again, the nature of the backdoor pilot gets in the way: one assumes that Grace could not end the story in the TARDIS in case the programme went to series and either Daphne Ashbrook was unwilling or unable to return or the studio bosses wanted to replace her (compare with the big cast changes between the pilot episodes and first full seasons of the original Star Trek and Babylon 5).  Grace’s arc is further deflected by the TV Movie’s focus on the Doctor, leaving the episode with an uncertain feel as to just whose story this is.  The focus is split between Grace and the Doctor.  We could have seen the Doctor through the eyes of Grace (compare with An Unearthly Child and Rose), but the Doctor is foregrounded, being introduced to us in the opening moments of the episode, at least in part to provide a regeneration sequence.  This was probably a mistake, given the task of selling the programme to a new audience who did not know the Doctor.


As well as being the companion (to all intents and purposes), Grace is also the Doctor’s love interest.  This was new ground for Doctor Who, certainly in such an open way (fans will continue to ship their favourite pairings, but this is the first openly acknowledged as such on screen), unsurprisingly given that this is the first obviously sexual Doctor (again, ignoring early experiment of The Aztecs).  This at least was likely to be maintained in some form in a full series, regardless of whether Grace returned.


Chang Lee is more the Master’s companion than the Doctor’s, but he does seem to be regarded as a companion by a part of fandom, so a few quick words about him may be in order, especially as they reflect on Grace’s arc.  Lee also has a story arc of redemption, this time one of moral redemption, moving from murderous criminality (being involved in a gang war when we meet him) to alliance with Master to repentance and reform, even being rewarded for his change of heart with a bag of gold and a warning to avoid San Francisco this time next year (next year?  What about the gang still after him from the start of the film?).  As such he reinforces the idea that the Doctor is able to influence people for the better.



Monsters and Villains



The TV Movie is quite bold in eschewing a traditional monster for the most part (bar a few scenes of the Master as a shape-shifting CGI snake) in favour of a humanoid villain.  This marks it out from Doctor Who, especially as it appeared in the public’s imagination, which had often featured memorable monsters such as the Daleks and the Cybermen.  Of course, this choice may have been driven partly by budgetary considerations as well as by the desire to move the programme in a new direction, but it does suggest a more character-focused approach to the programme, something also indicated by the character arcs for the Doctor and Grace.


The Master is presented as the equal and opposite to the Doctor, even his superior in some respects.  For example, the Master wins the support of Chang Lee much more easily than the Doctor wins the support of Grace.  However, if the Doctor offers redemption, the Master only offers corruption using appeals to materialism, lies and hypnosis to control Lee and Grace and use them as instruments of destruction.


The Master has a brutal edge rarely seen before, with him appearing to break the necks of both Bruce’s wife and Lee (I believe snapping sound effects were removed late in the day).  This may be a result of the later broadcast time, which I think was the latest a new episode of Doctor Who had been broadcast in the UK until the 2014 season.  Despite this, he remains largely an over-the-top, even somewhat camp villain familiar from many science fiction and action films.  There is no real depth here other than his paralleling the Doctor and even that leaves it unclear as to what these parallels and oppositions actually say about the Doctor, beyond further foregrounding him as the hero of the story.  This may perhaps be another artefact of the endless drafts and rewrites, as in the Leekley Bible, the Master was to have been the Doctor’s half-brother.  Perhaps some element of this survived in the desire to compare and contrast the Doctor and the Master, although the programme has often drawn subtle parallels and oppositions between the two characters.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XI: The Dark Doctor

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.

Stories: Paradise Towers Survival
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script editor: Andrew Cartmel
Representative stories: Remembrance of the Daleks, Survival


Behind the Scenes

As noted in the previous article, Andrew Cartmel had arrived as script editor at a time when Doctor Who was in crisis.  The previous script editor had left acrimoniously and the BBC management had lost confidence and interest in the programme, not giving it the budget it needed for higher production standards and, from Cartmel’s first season, scheduling it in the graveyard slot opposite Coronation Street, the most popular programme on British television.

Cartmel’s response was a radical reinvention of the show, aimed at modernising it and attracting a new audience.  In one sense, he failed, as after three seasons of mostly falling ratings, the programme was indefinitely suspended.  Aside from the 1996 TV movie, there would be no new series of Doctor Who on television until 2005.  Nevertheless, Cartmel’s stylistic innovations would drive many of the Doctor Who spin-offs of the nineties and noughties, as well as feeding in to the returning series in 2005.


Story Style

Doctor Who in this period is famous for its left-wing political outlook.  Andrew Cartmel, on being asked at his job interview what he would like to do with the job if he got it, replied, “Bring down the government” to which Nathan-Turner laconically responded that he might be able to show that green people are equal to purple people.  There is certainly a left-wing political slant to many stories: Paradise Towers tackles urban decay and social atomisation; Remembrance of the Daleks is about racism and neo-Nazism (Silver Nemesis also features Nazis, but it’s difficult to see a political message in that any more than in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is perhaps its inspiration); Battlefield is an anti-war and anti-nuclear tale; Ghost Light and Survival both deal with social Darwinism, while The Curse of Fenric is another anti-war story, with a slightly disturbing positive presentation of the Soviet Union.  Above all, The Happiness Patrol is generally seen as an all-purpose attack on Thatcherism, although it would be more accurate to say that it is a personal attack on Mrs Thatcher with Sheila Hancock delivering a powerful caricature performance.  But there is no point-by-point attack on government policy, no reference to privatisation and only brief mentions of industrial unrest.  Indeed, the political radicalism of this era can be over-stated, perhaps as a result of the need to attract a mainstream audience, or to keep to the BBC’s neutrality policy.

By his own admission Cartmel was a big fan of the adult comics of the eighties and was strongly influenced by them in his vision of Doctor Who.  We shall see below how the character of the Doctor was shaped by the superheroes of the time, but the story styles were also influenced by comic books.  Stories like Silver Nemesis, Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric arguably owe something to the graphic format in the way that they focus on bold visual images and juxtapositions ahead of plot logic, relying on the force of the image and the speed of the narrative to carry the viewer over any plot holes.

A related issue is the influence of postmodern writing styles.  Postmodernism often places theme and imagery centre-stage ahead of plot and character and tries to create an intertextual web of references to other stories and historical events.  This can be seen in a number of stories in this era, most notably The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.  In the former the idea of the chess game as a metaphor for war ends up dominating the story; there is no real reason why a godlike being such as Fenric should care about a chess game nor why the Doctor should be able to make an illegal move to win it, but the power of the imagery (and the acting) lets us accept these conceits.  Similarly, Ghost Light does not tell its story in a straightforward, linear manner, but litters its narrative with in-jokes and references to Victorian culture (as well as later pop culture), creating a picture of Victorian culture that extends beyond the house in which the drama is situated and resonates with issues relevant at time of broadcast, such as religious fundamentalism and social Darwinism.  While it has less thematic depth than these stories, Silver Nemesis’ visual style, bringing together Nazis, a seventeenth century witch and the ‘props’ of Doctor Who (placing the Doctor centre-stage, adding Cybermen and Time Lord mythology), as well as a cameo for the Queen (or her stand-in) has a postmodern playfulness with imagery and a cheerful disregard for rules and conventions of thematic unity or narrative coherence.  Other stories show these elements of postmodern styling to a lesser extent, such as The Happiness Patrol’s copyright-challenging Kandy Man or The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’s joyful slaughtering of an insufferable Doctor Who fanboy, with a postmodern wink (or raspberry) at its audience.

The stories also have more of a fantasy style than other eras of the show.  Although it was later given a science fictional explanation, Lady Peinforte’s mode of time travel is originally presented as pure magic, while a cut scene in Battlefield suggests that advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology (Clarke’s Third Law backwards); the story has Morgaine using magic throughout.  The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and Survival have magical-seeming things happening and while there may be a rational explanation, the programme is in no hurry to give it and certainly not to smother the story in technobabble as might have happened in the past.  This is another sign of the writers setting out to reinvigorate the programme by exploring new territory.

It must be said, however, that the laudable desire to employ new writers and find new creative directions for the programme was not without its problems.  Cartmel’s decision to let his writers (often new to television and sometimes to professional writing) write what they wanted and cut the episodes to the right length later, often in the edit suite, is problematic.  The deleted and extended scenes and special editions available on DVD show that, contrary to what fans previously believed, very little in the way of important exposition was lost from the broadcast episodes.  What did get cut was mood and tension, resulting in some very badly-paced productions with rapid editing that seems very modern, but often undercuts attempts at atmosphere and eeriness; it is notable that The Curse of Fenric: Special Edition DVD generally stitches small scenes back together into longer ones and is much better as a result.

It is also true that season twenty-four, like The Trial of a Time Lord, feels more like a children’s programme than previous eras.  As noted last time, this is partly due to the programme being recorded entirely on video rather than film, with video by this time being associated primarily with cheap children’s television, but the feeling of being aimed at children comes from the scripts too.  All the stories in season twenty-four have serious and even disturbing ideas in them, but this is often lost among broad comedy, most notably the Doctor’s pratfalls and malapropisms.  The direction often favours the comedy over the serious aspects of the programme.  This would all change.  The jump in quality from season twenty-four to Remembrance of the Daleks is enormous, but Silver Nemesis would see the return of unnecessary crude comedy scenes (I see The Happiness Patrol as an essentially serious, experimental story that did not completely work, but I know other people disagree).  Nevertheless, by the time of season twenty-six, this is an accomplished programme, dealing carefully with complex characterisation and adult themes.


The Doctor

The seventh Doctor starts life as a clown, pratfalling and speaking in malapropisms.  This is gradually toned down, with more subtle comedy replacing it.  Nevertheless, even in season twenty-four, a different and more powerful interpretation of the role is forming, seen in situations such as the Doctor using the Caretakers’ rule book to aid his escape in Paradise Towers, his melancholy reflections on love and his “life will defeat you” speech in Delta and the Bannermen and his farewell to Mel in Dragonfire.

By season twenty-five, Cartmel had made it his explicit aim to place the Doctor back at the centre of the series and to increase the mystery surrounding him, which Cartmel felt had been eroded over the years.  We now know that Cartmel had no ‘masterplan’ for the character or the series beyond these broad goals, but to further them, he restructured the series, making the Doctor more manipulative and proactive and hinting at secrets in his past (Remembrance of the Daleks, Silver Nemesis) and his future (Battlefield).

In fact, this portrayal of the Doctor as manipulative of both his friends and enemies was not entirely innovative, with such stories as The Evil of the Daleks, The War Games, The Claws of Axos and The Invasion of Time showing the Doctor apparently cooperating with his enemies, to the consternation of his friends.  Similarly, the first Doctor performs a minor act of sabotage to get his companions let him explore the city in The Daleks and is keen to stress the immutability of history, which sometimes upsets his companions.

The difference with stories in this era is that in those earlier stories, the Doctor was essentially reactive, being trapped in a situation where he is forced to feign cooperation with the villain and to plot his way out.  However, the seventh Doctor deliberately seeks out enemies to trap them, something that was impossible until the TARDIS became fully steerable in the stories of the eighties (exactly how much the Doctor planned in advance in stories like Silver Nemesis and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is not always made clear).  Moreover, the Doctor’s control of events often takes place on a larger scale in the late eighties stories than in earlier ones, so it is here that the idea of the Doctor as a godlike figure begins to appear, even if it is not yet made explicit (he had been a god in The Face of Evil, but the point of that story was that he made a very bad god).

Cartmel saw the Doctor as being like Dr Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore.  This is an odd choice, as Dr Manhattan has little interest in humanity and much of the novel centres on his abandonment of it; the villain of Watchmen is actually closer to the seventh Doctor of The New Adventures, being willing to sacrifice millions of lives for the greater good, but again this is not really the case with the televised seventh Doctor.  While the televised seventh Doctor manipulates villains like Davros and Lady Peinforte, he generally only manipulates Ace to help her work through her anger or because he has no alternative.  This can still be morally problematic, but it is not as inhuman or unfeeling as the behaviour of Dr Manhattan or The New Adventures Doctor.  Note that the television seventh Doctor pleads for Ace’s forgiveness at the end of The Curse of Fenric.

Interestingly, there is still a comedy element to the seventh Doctor even after he becomes a more adult character.  There are moments of broad comedy, such as his dropping a brick on his foot in The Curse of Fenric, while two cliff-hangers (Delta and the Bannermen part two and Remembrance of the Daleks part three) rely on his making a miscalculation, something both exciting and somewhat amusing.  Indeed, the Doctor’s fallibility is a key element in providing tension, as it results in his schemes not going according to plan and hence creating the drama, for example when two factions of Daleks arrive to search for the Hand of Omega in Remembrance of the Daleks or when Ace inadvertently helps Fenric (twice!) by working things out faster than the Doctor anticipated.


The Companions

Initially, Mel comes across as a stereotypical Doctor Who companion, although as I noted last time, she does at least move away from the sexist presentation of her predecessors.  Nevertheless, the character feels like a placeholder, as if neither writers nor actor really know what to do with her.  Mel’s departure at the end of Dragonfire and her replacement with Ace therefore seems like a key moment for the era.

As the Doctor grows in importance, so too does the companion, balancing the Doctor and providing an audience identification figure as the Doctor becomes increasingly alien and aloof.  We see his plans through Ace’s eyes.  It is notable that Ace is a deliberate attempt to create a fashionable young companion, something arguably not seen since Jo Grant in the early seventies.  This may be an attempt to reach out to a younger audience and maybe even to people who had previously seen Doctor Who as unfashionable and out of touch.  Whether this succeeded is another question; I am no expert, but many fans have claimed Ace’s slang was already outdated on broadcast and ratings continued to decline.

Anyone coming to the seventh Doctor’s era after having read The New Adventures will note that Ace is not the stroppy and violent loner of those novels and fan perception.  She is upbeat, friendly and even naive, being betrayed by her trust in her new friends on several occasions (e.g. Mike in Remembrance of the Daleks and the possessed Sorin in The Curse of Fenric), while her forced bonhomie when saying goodbye to Bellboy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is clearly covering inner upset.  Nevertheless, the angst for which she is noted is definitely there and this is explored in a way that had never been done previously on the show.  Ghost Light explores her anger and the way it is rooted in a racially-motivated attack on a friend.  The Curse of Fenric examines her relationship with her mother, while Survival explores her personal development during adolescence in an allegorical way; more overtly, it shows the dull suburban background that she sought to escape.  Her anger does appear frequently, sometimes focussed on the Doctor for not letting her in to his latest plan, but often projected towards the latest villains.  The way she is continually reconciled to the Doctor after his manipulation of her indicates a complex and rounded character.  Her love of explosives perhaps begins as a hobby and plot device, only later becoming a visible demonstration of her anger issues.  Overall, Ace is a more complicated companion than had been seen in Doctor Who previously, with a more overt background, indicating the character-led direction that the show was adopting and that it would continue to adopt after its long hiatus.

Monsters and Villains

Looking at the villains and monsters present in these stories, it is easy to see them as based on the political subtexts present in this era, inasmuch as they are projections of things the British left hated in the 1980s: neo-Nazism, war, nuclear weapons, big business, social Darwinism, religious extremism, pollution and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.  This would be true up to a point, but it ignores the fact that it was not just people on the left who were concerned with these things.  As noted above, the need to maintain (or even to find) a mainstream audience meant that the programme had to move closer to the centre than some of the people working on it may have liked.

Moreover, any good work of art that rises above the level of propaganda will contain complexity.  On one level The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a left-wing satire against the commercialisation of entertainment, but it complicates that by also being a story about the hippie generation of the sixties selling out and becoming that which they most hated.  The point is left-wing, but more complex than  a simple diatribe against The Man.  Similarly, Remembrance of the Daleks rightly loathes the neo-Nazism that Mike Smith and Ratcliffe stand for, yet Mike is a likeable person.  On one level this is necessary to hide his true allegiances until late in the story, but even after it is revealed that he cooperated with the Daleks, the story’s final scene shows the grief after his death and leaves the Doctor and Ace pondering the human cost of events.  It is this complexity that prevents the programme lapsing into crude propaganda.  Even the most overtly party-political story, The Happiness Patrol, can be seen as a parable about emotional repression without a political focus.

Alongside the political elements, there is again an influence from the comics of the era.  Someone better versed in the comics of the eighties may be able to find precise parallels[1], but I will just note that there is a preference for bold images in the villains of this era, perhaps reaching a culmination in The Destroyer, arguably the best-made monster in Doctor Who’s original run.  Note that some of the mocked elements of the era might have worked better in graphic format, with a deliberately less realistic artistic style and the chance to create striking images from unusual elements.  I am thinking of the Bannermen, the Husks of Ghost Light and especially the Kandy Man; one might add the clowns of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but I feel they work well on screen as it is.  Overall, there is a tendency to create monsters that have a strong and memorable visual presence, and this works to the benefit of the programme most of the time, even if there are occasional failed experiments.  Even other visual elements, like the uniforms in Dragonfire (influenced by World War I German uniforms) or the deliberately fake-looking sets in The Happiness Patrol, can be seen as fitting this pattern.




[1] It is probably coincidence, given that they appeared relatively close together, but Alan Moore’s Batman story The Killing Joke, which saw the Joker at his most brutal, appeared in 1988, the same year as the murderous clowns of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.


The Changing Style of Doctor Who X: Continuity and Violence

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.

Stories: The Visitation Time and the Rani
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script editor: Eric Saward, Andrew Cartmel (Time and the Rani only)
Representative stories: Earthshock, Enlightenment, Revelation of the Daleks


Behind the Scenes

In the previous part, we saw Doctor Who take a radical new direction under John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead.  Now, following Bidmead’s departure and eventual replacement by Eric Saward (after Anthony Root’s brief caretaker stint), there follows a lengthy period of creative stability, or so it might seem merely from looking at the end credits.  The reality is more complex.  While Saward and Nathan-Turner initially got on well, gradually they became more antagonistic.  Obviously it is impossible for us as outsiders after the event to know exactly what happened, but tensions grew over time, especially with the casting of Colin Baker to replace Peter Davision at the end of season twenty-one, with Saward thinking Baker miscast in the role.

The situation worsened the following year, when the BBC suspended Doctor Who for eighteen months.  While such gaps between seasons are not unknown now, in 1985 this was the longest the programme had been off air and many fans feared an attempt to cancel the programme by degrees.  Although the reality seems to have been a practical decision to push season twenty-three into the next financial year there was a vocal fan backlash, orchestrated in part by Nathan-Turner with the help of superfan and occasional continuity advisor Ian Levine.  This forced the BBC to justify their actions by citing artistic reasons for the delay and demanding a creative renaissance on the programme, particularly regarding the level of violence in the programme (as we shall see below, these criticisms were not entirely unjustified).

Saward was uncomfortable with the mixed messages the production team subsequently received from the upper echelons of the BBC management, being told to replace violence with humour before receiving complaints of the lack of tension and threat in the new scripts.  This combined with Baker’s continued presence and Saward’s growing anger at Nathan-Turner’s production style, culminating in the casting of Bonnie Langford (known primarily at the time for light entertainment, not serious drama) as the new companion, Mel, to prompt Saward to resign angrily.  Nathan-Turner was left to act as uncredited script editor for parts of The Trial of a Time Lord, as well as commissioning Time and the Rani for the start of the next season, to the annoyance of incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel, who disliked the story.

By this stage the BBC management had the programme in its sights, sacking Colin Baker and forcing Nathan-Turner to continue as producer despite his desire to leave (he had, in fact, wanted to leave after The Five Doctors, several years previously, but the BBC would keep him there until the end of the programme’s initial run in 1989 and, indeed, beyond).  With Baker replaced by Sylvester McCoy, from Time and the Rani the BBC would begin to schedule the show in the graveyard slot opposite Coronation Street, the most popular drama on British television and support for the programme within the BBC would be lacking.  But that is a story for next time.

Given this history and given the changes in style and characterization noted below, it might be thought that this era does not see stylistic uniformity and, to some extent, this is true.  In fact, I thought hard about whether to make this one essay or to sub-divide it into different eras and essays.  In a sense, the problem is too many possible dividing lines: the increase in continuity references and returning characters in seasons nineteen and twenty; the increased violence and gore in season twenty-one and twenty-two; the increased comedy in season twenty-three; the three very different Doctors seen here.  But, as I hope to show below, I think there are certain stylistic continuities across this whole era with regard to the use of continuity and violence that unite this period and separate it from the eras around it.


Story Style

One of the more positive aspects of this era, especially during the first few years, is the different story styles within individual seasons.  Season nineteen sees the first purely historical story since 1966 in Black Orchid, as well as Earthshock, which not only brought back the Cybermen after a long absence, but told a futuristic action story of a kind that was new to the programme as well as killing a companion for the first time since the Hartnell era (indeed, Katarina and Sara Kingdom were around for such a short period that Adric feels like the first ‘real’ companion to die).  It is true that this style of continuity-heavy action story would come to dominate the programme in seasons twenty-one and twenty-two, but early on it remains one ingredient among many.

The responses to Earthshock were manifold.  The tone of the stories slowly became bleaker, with Adric’s death followed by that of short-lived companion Kamelion and stories like Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks ending with the Doctor pondering the morality of his actions.  This emphasis was intensified thanks to the influence of The Caves of Androzani which, thanks to Jek’s disfigurement, may have introduced an element of body horror that dominated season twenty-two.  Now regarded as one of the very greatest Doctor Who stories, the story was a key influence on Saward, partly as a result of his personal friendship with writer Robert Holmes, and it has often been noted that season twenty-two feels like an attempt to replicate its success, with dark stories about soldiers and mercenaries often ending with the death of most of the guest characters.

As well as producing a focus on war stories, Earthshock also led to an increase in the use of continuity and returning characters and monsters in the programme.  Sometimes this is constructive, with the introduction of the Valeyard as an evil future incarnation of the Doctor being a shocking development, as is the revelation that he is being employed by a corrupt Time Lord High Council, intent on hiding its devastation of the Earth.  These ideas had the potential to advance the programme’s narrative, pushing it in new directions similar to the introduction of the Time Lords back in The War Games or evil Time Lords (not always named as such) in The Time Meddler and Terror of the Autons.  The development of the Brigadier’s character in Mawdryn Undead can also be seen as an attempt to push the boundaries of the programme and to use its history to tell stories that had never been attempted before and which required revisiting elements of the programme’s past.

Nevertheless, much of the continuity here is restricted to rematches with old villains and monsters or simply references to past adventures without developing the ongoing narrative in any way.  The narrative continuity references are often not matched by continuity of character.  For example, after Logopolis there is only a token mention of the fact that the Master has killed Nyssa’s father, Tremas, stolen his body and been responsible for the Doctor’s regeneration, along with the destruction of much of the universe, including Nyssa’s planet.  Likewise, in The Five Doctors and Attack of the Cybermen there is no ‘grudge match’ between the Cybermen and the TARDIS crew over the death of Adric.  Worst of all, after a scene tying up loose plot-ends from Earthshock, Time-Flight continues as if the death of Adric had never happened, undermining perhaps the bravest move of the era.  This movement towards more gratuitous continuity is perhaps a response to the success of The Five Doctors, which had thrown together numerous past elements for an anniversary special with little regard for internal logic beyond the need to please fans.  It is noteworthy that while The Three Doctors and later The Two Doctors kept the incumbent Doctor centre stage, the problem in The Five Doctors is resolved by the first Doctor, who is not even played by the original actor!  The attempt to appease fans who wanted to see past Doctors seems to have overtaken the need to please the regular audience.

The other important innovation of Earthshock was the death of Adric.  As noted above, this was virtually unprecedented and indicated a willingness to shake up the programme’s format by adding greater threat to the regular characters.  However, as also noted, there is little follow-through from the events of Earthshock; the regular characters seemed to recover too quickly and Adric was rarely mentioned again (a few moments stand out, such as Turlough being given Adric’s old room and the fifth Doctor’s last words being “Adric?”).  Similarly, the apparent death of Peri in The Trial of a Time Lord is undercut by news of her survival later on.  This may indicate uncertainty on behalf of the production team as to how far the boundaries of a family programme could be pushed.  It contrasts unfavourably with Blake’s 7, Doctor Who’s quasi-sister show, which spent a whole episode dealing with the emotional fallout from the death of Gan.

A further point of interest emerging in the latter period of this era is a postmodern focus on the nature of the televisual narrative, as noted by Philip MacDonald in a Doctor Who Magazine Sixth Doctor Special many years ago (MacDonald, P. (2003) Loving the Alien.  Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, 3, p. 4-8).  Numerous stories in seasons twenty-two and twenty-three revolve around characters watching action unfold on screens and commenting on it.  It is most obvious in Vengeance on Varos and, inevitably, The Trial of a Time Lord, but features prominently in Revelation of the Daleks too as well as being a less important feature in several other stories.  In a number of cases the images shown on screen are actually faked or suspected of being faked; again, The Trial of a Time Lord is the most memorable instance, but there is also the Borad’s screen persona in Timelash, the false death of the second Doctor in The Two Doctors while even The Mark of the Rani has the Doctor convince the Master that the image of the TARDIS being thrown down a mineshaft was a clever special effect.  There is a postmodern understanding here of narrative as something constructed by an author and open to multiple interpretations, with The Trial of a Time Lord again being notable for the fact that we never find out just how much of parts eight to twelve were created by the Valeyard and how much really happened.  Meanwhile, Vengeance on Varos spoofs the experience of watching Doctor Who, as Arak and Etta pass judgment on the Doctor and his adventures.  There is a playfulness and inventiveness here that undercuts the brutal violence with which the period is more often associated.  Perhaps as a result of Eric Saward’s growing disillusion with Doctor Who or the criticism of it by the BBC bosses, we are frequently asked to decide how much of the programme is meaningful and whether it is open to multiple interpretations.

After the eighteen month gap between seasons twenty-two and twenty-three, there is a definite change of tone.  The emphasis on the programme’s continuity is still present: the whole of season twenty-three is about the Time Lords putting the Doctor on trial and there are guest appearances from Sil and the Master while the twist regarding the Valeyard’s identity is based on the concept of regeneration; the Rani then returns at the start of the next season.

Nevertheless, season twenty-three has more of a children’s television feel, something that will continue into season twenty-four.  The scripts are in fact often as brutal as seasons twenty-one and twenty-two, particularly episodes five to eight of The Trial of a Time Lord (the Mindwarp section), but also in the bloody deaths of Katryca and Broken Tooth in episode four, but the realisation feels much cosier and less threatening.  For example, Glitz is initially written as a brutal, psychopathic murderer, but he is portrayed as a sort of intergalactic Del Boy, a loveable rogue.  There are a lot of corny, child-friendly jokes with the slapstick gunge scene in episode four of the Trial coming to mind in particular.  It does not help that by this stage the production values were beginning to seem very cheap.  The opening shot of the trail space-station is highly impressive, but the replacing of film with video on location, giving an all-video feel was problematic at a time when most serious dramas were made on film.  While many viewers were not aware of the difference between film and video, there may have been an unconscious effect in making Doctor Who seem cheap and childish.

One last point is worth making about Doctor Who in this era.  Seasons nineteen to twenty-one saw the programme broadcast twice weekly and on weekdays, the first time that either of these things had happened. The result, as David Darlington and Alistair McGown pointed out (Darlington, D. and McGown, A. (2000) Can You Tell What it is Yet?  Doctor Who Magazine 298, p. 26-31) is a series of stories structured in two very different halves.  The first two episodes of Earthshock, for example, largely take place in the caves on Earth and focus on the Cybermen’s bomb and androids; partway through episode two, the action shifts to the freighter, where it remains for the rest of the story, dealing with the hijack of the freighter and the Cybermen’s plan to crash it into the Earth, a plot thread only loosely related to that of the first half.  There are a number other examples, often more subtle.  Enlightenment clearly tells a single story throughout, for example, but is set largely on Striker’s ship in the first half, then largely on Wrack’s in the second half.


The Doctor

The fifth Doctor is something of a contradiction.  He is thoughtful and quiet and does not dominate scenes the way most of his predecessors do.  Yet he is also an action hero who uses a gun several times (Earthshock being perhaps the most blatant example, but not the only one) and always seems to be running breathlessly to or from something, even more so than other Doctors.  He has a trusting nature, suspecting that Turlough is up to no good from Mawdryn Undead, but risking his own life over the following stories by letting Turlough remain on the TARDIS, trusting him to make the right decision.  He is, however, more suspicious of the boy in Planet of Fire.

Eric Saward has described the fifth Doctor (I think on the 30 Years in the TARDIS documentary) as being “James Bond”, which is a fascinating, if troubling, insight into the script editor’s perception of the title character (it certainly puts the gun use into perspective, and see also the comments about the objectification of the female companions below).  Davison’s own perception, I think early on in his run, was that his Doctor had a “reckless innocence”, but this is counterpointed by the character’s increasingly violent tendencies in season twenty-one.  This seems to have been deliberate, as it reaches a head in Resurrection of the Daleks, with the Doctor intending to murder Davros in cold blood and Tegan walking out of the TARDIS in disgust at all the death at the end of the story.  While often taken as a sign of Saward’s faulty moral compass, at least with regards to the programme’s traditional morality, the sequence of the Doctor intending to kill Davros is arguably more complex than many fan commentators have realised.  The Doctor intends to kill Davros, but while the genuine James Bond would have paused only to make a wisecrack before pulling the trigger, the Doctor allows himself to get drawn into a moral debate, before going out of the room to investigate gunfire outside, allowing Davros to lock him out.  While it is ambiguous, there is room here to suggest confusion in the Doctor’s mind, with him procrastinating deliberately, hoping for signs of moral revival in Davros and perhaps even, at least unconsciously, letting Davros lock him out to spare himself an impossible decision.  The next story, Planet of Fire, sees the Doctor kill unstable robot companion Kamelion and watching as the Master apparently burns to death, unable either to save or despatch the villain himself. Certainly the Doctor’s morality is increasingly in question, without any easy answers being provided.  This is not problematic in itself and could be seen as a sign of moral maturity, but there is a feeling that the programme is posing questions it wants to answer, but can not.  This problem will worsen when the sixth Doctor arrives.

It is not only regarding violence that the fifth Doctor exhibits conflicting characteristics.  He is polite, but also capable of biting sarcasm, anger and even dark humour.  See his agggresive “you did ask what I think” rant in Frontios, his sarcastic banter to Chellak and Jek in The Caves of Androzani and his rather disturbing dark joke about “The Toast of Little Hodcombe” in The Awakening (he is talking about an innocent young woman who was deliberately burned alive and Will Chandler quite rightly rebukes him for it - this is very much James Bond territory, not Doctor Who).  It is not certain whether this is a sign of character growth or a lack of consistency on behalf of the writers.  Certainly the fact that the sarcasm and dark humour grows over time indicates a deliberate trend, perhaps in line with the general darkening of the programme in season twenty-one.

The sixth Doctor seems to have been created as a deliberate contrast with his predecessor, while continuing to develop the violence and sarcasm that had emerged in season twenty-one.  The quiet, polite fifth Doctor becomes the loud and often rude sixth.  If the fifth increasingly pondered the morality of his actions, the sixth is often ruthless, killing a number of people.  While this has been a source of criticism since the original broadcast of season twenty-two, most of the sixth Doctor’s actions are morally defensible within the programme’s normal terms, inasmuch as his victims are usually attempting to kill him or someone else, placing the Doctor in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation.  There are a few exceptions, such as his rigging up a lethal trap within minutes of arriving on Varos and without really knowing what is happening there (although the guard is very stupid to wander into the highly visible laser beam), but, as Gary Gillatt pointed out (Gillatt, G. (1998) Doctor Who from A to Z. 1st ed.  London: BBC Worldwide.) it is the Doctor’s mocking humour in these situations that marks him out from his predecessors, more so than the actions themselves.  He seems to get a sadistic kick out of bullying his victims in a way that is again reminiscent of James Bond.  For example, when he kills Shockeye in The Two Doctors, he has no real alternative, but his “just deserts” quip about the chef’s death seems to take unnecessary pleasure in the deed.  In Revelation of the Daleks, he makes two cruel jokes about Davros’ dismemberment (in itself something unnecessarily violent), saying that there is “No ‘arm in trying” and going to shake hands with Davros only for the latter to realise he no longer has a hand to shake.  This all seems cruel and sadistic, not to mention out of character.

This bullying manner is not restricted to villains.  There are times when the Doctor’s and Peri’s relationship seems to consist of mutual bullying and insults and in mitigation one can only really say that both give as good as they get.  The Doctor’s comment in Vengeance on Varos that Peri is lucky because she can only die once, whereas he will regenerate and die numerous times seems spiteful and uncaring, not to mention out of character again.

In recent years, the idea has taken root that over time the sixth Doctor would be revealed to have a secret that explained his ruthless and cruel behaviour.  However, there seems to be little evidence for this aside from some comments Colin Baker has made in interviews.  As far as I am aware, neither John Nathan-Turner nor Eric Saward has said anything in support of this idea, nor has anyone elaborated on what this great secret would have been.  Certainly the idea of a modern-style pre-planned character arc seems misplaced.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the sixth Doctor is not totally different from his predecessors.  There are moments when traditional Doctorish compassion shines through, as when he takes the dying mutant’s hand in Revelation of the Daleks (perhaps Baker playing against the script).  Indeed, The Trial of a Time Lord sees a more likeable sixth Doctor, one who makes more jokes and seems less of a bully, who is friendly to his companions, often putting a paternal arm around the shoulder of Peri or Mel.  Even here, though, there is the Mindwarp section, which sees the return of the ruthless Doctor without ever quite reassuring us in the end that it was all an illusion created by the Valeyard, a bluff or the result of Crozier’s machine.  It is Yrcanos, not the Doctor who rescues Peri and it is difficult to look at the Doctor’s involvement on Thoros Beta in a positive light.

Finally, it is worth looking briefly at the Valeyard. As a future incarnation of the Doctor, albeit an evil one who may or may not ever come into being, he indicates an attempt to look at the Doctor’s dark side. Sadly, the real-life confusion surrounding the end of the season, with writer Robert Holmes dying, Eric Saward leaving and withdrawing his replacement script and Pip and Jane Baker writing a replacement that legally could not be influenced by Saward’s draft has left the nature of this future Doctor unclear.  Holmes’ scripts would apparently have seen the Valeyard as an old man terrified of death, but on screen he seems too much like the Doctor’s other evil alter ego, the Master (who also features in the story, confusingly): a megalomaniac who revels in death and chaos for its own sake and loves complex death-traps and Victorian melodrama.  What does remain is Holmes’ idea of bureaucracy as the Doctor’s real antithesis, with the constant paperwork of The Fantasy Factory an appropriate target for the sixth Doctor’s final rages.


The Companions

Adric and Nyssa continue to be written as children or at least as teenagers.  As noted in the previous essay, the Doctor does not allow them to drink alcohol in Black Orchid, but does allow Tegan to do so, indicating that this was due to their youth rather than a general disapproval of drinking.  Adric becomes something of a moody teenager, especially in Earthshock, wanting to be appreciated and not liking being teased by the others.  Naturally this tension with the other members of the TARDIS crew is increased in Earthshock to add pathos to Adric’s death at the end of the story.

Nyssa arguably matures a little over time; she wants the Doctor to notice her new dress in Snakedance, something which can be read as unusually sexual for an era that famously had the producer decreeing “No hanky-panky in the TARDIS”, although one could read the situation as a more innocent desire for approval from a friend/father figure.  Two stories later, Nyssa is treated as mature enough to decide to leave the TARDIS and stay on Terminus, essentially to work as a research biochemist.  This is one of the more satisfying companion departures of the eighties, as it flows naturally from her previous interests and values, as well as producing a feeling of character development.  When we met Nyssa in The Keeper of Traken she was still in many ways a child and when her father went missing at the end of the story, she sent the Doctor a message asking for help, turning to a surrogate father figure.  Now she is able to take on an adult role for herself, helping the Vanir and the victims of Lazar’s Disease on Terminus.

More troubling is the presentation of Tegan and Peri, two characters who have a lot in common.  Both are presented as ‘ordinary’ women who get caught up in the Doctor’s adventures, but who eventually remain as a TARDIS traveller from choice, something that Tegan takes some considerable time to decide to do.  However, both spend much of their time with the Doctor complaining, often unfairly, and it does seem worryingly as if the writers could only conceive of a strong female character as being rude and argumentative.  This worsens when the sixth Doctor arrives and, as noted above, tends to argue with Peri, perhaps even to bully her.  Note that when Tegan is written by the female Barbara Clegg in Enlightenment, she gets a more emotional subplot involving her relationship with Marriner; we also learn that the image of the Doctor in her mind is “intriguing” although we never find out why (perhaps the “No hanky-panky” rule again).

Even more disturbing is the way Peri is continually objectified by characters who want her body in some way, whether for her beauty (Jek, Mestor, Jobel), for cyber-conversion (the Cybermen), to mutate it (Quillam and, arguably, the Rani with her tree-mines), to breed with her (the Borad), to transfer his mind into it (Kiv) or simply to eat her (Shockeye).  When you add the threat of forced marriage in The Mysterious Planet section of The Trial of a Time Lord, it seems that barely a story goes by without someone wanting to use Peri in some way or another, usually a way that reduces her to a physical body without her personality being considered important; indeed, her personality is often to be destroyed.  This continual objectification of a young woman, even by characters portrayed as villainous, sends out worrying signals to both the boys and girls in the audience of what was still seen as a family programme.  Indeed, season twenty-two saw Doctor Who return to its traditional Saturday teatime slot for the first time in four years.  Given the sexual politics and the violence noted above, this would seem to have been a strategic error.  It is only fair to say that with the arrival of Mel, this misogynistic subtext largely vanishes, with Mel being portrayed as a competent and independent young woman (even if she screams a lot) who has a friendly relationship with the Doctor and does not exhibit the symptoms of low self-esteem occasionally shown by Peri and Tegan.

There is some innovation with the other companions.  Turlough is a bravely original companion, one who is planted on the TARDIS by a recurring villain in order to assassinate the Doctor.  Initially, Turlough is willing to do this, albeit being slightly hesitant and squeamish about it (he feels more comfortable sabotaging the TARDIS in Terminus than in hitting the Doctor on the head with a rock in Mawdryn Undead!), but over his first three stories we see him develop and finally refuse his mission.  It is a pity that the series largely loses interest in him after this, portraying him simply as a cynical coward, and he has little else to do until his final story, Planet of Fire, sees him return to moral ambiguity.  Only Frontios gives him a strong role, hinting at his personal and cultural background and giving him more to do than being locked up or trying to run away from the monsters as usual.

Kamelion is also an unusual companion, a psychically-controlled robot stolen from the Master, one that was a working robot in real-life too.  However, Kamelion, was even more of a failure than Turlough, not least for practical reasons: the robot’s software designer died tragically before filming on his first story, The King’s Demons.  The robot never worked satisfactorily and was quickly written out of future stories, bar an untransmitted cameo in The Awakening and a farewell appearance in Planet of Fire.  No in-story explanation for Kamelion’s non-appearance was ever given, making the whole situation slightly surreal.  Nathan-Turner’s decision to use Kamelion seems odd on two grounds.  Firstly, he was well-aware of the problems that K9, a far less sophisticated machine, had given the production team over the years, so his assumption that the Kamelion robot would work easily seems overly optimistic.  Furthermore, Nathan-Turner had removed K9 and the sonic screwdriver on the grounds that they made the Doctor’s life too easy, so giving him another robot companion and a shape-shifting one at that seems a retrograde step, perhaps a further indication that Nathan-Turner’s production ideas were constantly changing.


Monsters and Villains

As has been noted above, this era sees the frequent return of old monsters and villains, alongside old friends like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (and, in the case of Borusa, an old friend and villain).  Much that was written in the ‘story style’ section applies here, in terms of the return of old characters in without any development, the mere return of, say, the Daleks or the Master being deemed good enough to satisfy the fans and, apparently, the general public, at least according to Nathan-Turner and Saward.  I have mentioned the role of Earthshock in adjusting the production team’s priorities, but the twentieth anniversary year was also important.  Fans seemed to respond well to a year of stories that all featured some element from the past, followed by an anniversary special featuring a host of old friends and foes.  It is perhaps not surprising that this recipe stayed in use for many years.  Season twenty-two had no anniversary theme, but four of the six stories feature recurring monsters (including one that also includes an old Doctor and companion), while a fifth has a key plot moment when a plastered-over mural of the third Doctor is uncovered.

One might suggest that Nathan-Turner was a bit ahead of his time here.  The cult television of the nineties, which in some respects is arguably the mainstream television of today, relies on a small, but animated fanbase that avidly watches the programme and rarely, if ever, misses an episode, allowing for complex ongoing plot threads and character development.  If an episode is missed or forgotten (and assuming the viewer does not have the DVD box set), a quick search on Wikipedia or Google will reveal the forgotten plot point necessary to understand tonight’s episode.  A small, but dedicated fanbase can be as attractive to advertisers and merchandisers as a large, casual audience.

I sometimes half-suspect that Nathan-Turner was on the point of discovering this formula, but failed to implement it successfully by being ten or twenty years too early.  Neither adverts or merchandise are strictly a concern of the BBC, but ratings are important, and Nathan-Turner had to keep his plot developments and character arcs low-key to avoid deterring casual viewers or even fans at a time when video recorders were still not widespread, archive VHS videos were rarely released and were prohibitively expensive and the idea of looking up plot details from a television programme on a computer network was bizarre science fiction.  As Miles Booy (Booy, M. (2012) Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present. 1st ed. London: I. B. Tauris.) has noted, the recurring monsters seen in this era are quietly reimagined in line with audience expectations, rather than adhering slavishly to a past continuity which was in a sense inaccessible.  The Cybermen, who in the sixties were constantly on the verge of extinction and had no empire to speak of are now on the verge of conquering the galaxy and have limited time-travel capacities, simply because this is how the fans remember them.  Lots of races now know of the Time Lords and of regeneration, which was rarely the case in the seventies.  This happens not due to laziness on behalf of the production team, but in order to tell stories that fans and casual viewers alike want to see, that they think they always had seen without Wikipedia or DVD box sets to tell them otherwise.

It is easy to berate Nathan-Turner and Saward for reusing old monsters without developing them or for putting the Doctor and his companions through traumatic experiences without any apparent lasting effects, but there is simply no way they could have created the arcs of modern Doctor Who, let alone groundbreaking series like Babylon 5 or ‘water-cooler’ mysteries like Lost.  In a sense, this period falls between two stools, aware that fans want something meatier than the isolated adventures of the sixties and seventies, but unable to provide it given the television environment of the time and the lack of interest in the programme from BBC bosses.  As we shall see next time, Andrew Cartmel would later harness the logic of the comics of the late eighties to nudge to the programme in a more successful direction (in terms of fan appreciation, but not ratings), but his approach arguably has more in common with what preceded it than is commonly recognised.  At the very least, arcs like Turlough’s attempts to kill the Doctor and the corruption of the Time Lords and the Doctor himself revealed in The Trial of a Time Lord do reveal an attempt to shape an eighties version of the water-cooler-discussion plot arc, one probably informed as much by the soap operas of the era (of which Nathan-Turner was a great fan) as anything in the science fiction genre at that time.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who

Posted on 22/01/2015 at 23:10
I don't think anyone is still reading this, but just in case anyone is, I posted this post on season eighteen of Doctor Who earlier in the week, but accidentally posted it private.  Enjoy!  And please comment to let me know you're reading!

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