Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Bigger On The Outside: An Introduction

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on October 9, 2011

THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY (WHICH MAY NEVER HAPPEN, BUT THEN AGAIN MAY) ABOUT A MAN WHO CAME FROM THE SKY IN A BIG BLUE BOX AND DID ONLY GOOD.

IT TELLS OF HIS TWILIGHT, WHEN THE GREAT BATTLES WERE OVER AND THE GREAT MIRACLES LONG SINCE PERFORMED, OF HIS HIS ENEMIES CONSPIRED AGAINST HIM AND OF THAT FINAL WAR IN THE BLIND WASTES BENEATH THE MEDUSA CASCADE; OF THE WOMEN HE LOVED AND OF THE CHOICES HE MADE FOR THEM; OF HOW HE BROKE HIS MOST SACRED OATH, AND HOW FINALLY ALL THE THINGS HE HAD WERE TAKEN FROM HIM SAVE FOR ONE.

IN THE BIG CITY, PEOPLE STILL SOMETIMES GLANCE UP HOPEFULLY FROM THE SIDEWALKS, HEARING A DISTANT WHEEZING, GROANING SOUND…BUT NO: IT’S ONLY A SAW, ONLY A MACHINE. THE DOCTOR DIED TEN YEARS AGO.

THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY…AREN’T THEY ALL?

[FOOTNOTE: That piece of writing, a parody of Alan Moore's introduction to Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? , is something I found at the now-defunct URL http://blog.cartoonmoney.eu/post/149660318/this-is-an-imaginary-story-which-may-never . I've also quoted this in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, and wish I could properly credit its anonymous author.]

The memory cheats. We know this, because John Nathan-Turner said so, and he produced the most exciting, enthralling piece of television ever made, Attack Of The Cybermen.

As a six-year-old I was utterly enthralled by the return of the Cybermen, the fixing of the chameleon circuit, the return to Totter’s Lane, and all the other continuity references that were thrown in [FOOTNOTE: I really was. I was quite a strange child.]. So all those people, including thirty-three-year-old me, who say it was an appalling mess, and the story that single-handedly killed Doctor Who, must be misremembering. Obviously.

There’s a real point here. Doctor Who may well be the greatest TV show ever made, but that status has less than you might think to do with the actual TV show that was broadcast. Sometimes it does – I’d put, say, An Unearthly Child, The Aztecs, City Of Death, Logopolis, Ghostlight or Vengeance On Varos up against any other piece of television from their respective eras – but I couldn’t defend, on any grounds whatsoever, The Chase, The Dominators, Planet Of The Daleks, Warriors Of The Deep or Time And The Rani. Well, in every case there’s a lead actor who’s trying his best to make something of utterly awful material, but the general point remains.

But a lot of Doctor Who exists in a weird edge-space. When I watch The Five Doctors, for example, I’m watching two programmes simultaneously. On one level, I’m watching a lot of tired old hammy character actors wandering around Wales, stealing each other’s lines, screaming as they fall down a mild incline, and giving line readings that show they’ve not actually bothered to read the script. But on the other, I’m seeing a hero fractured through time, different aspects of his personality embodied and brought together to conquer the greatest, most fearsome enemies in existence, and to do this to stop his old mentor from giving himself the very power of the Gods themselves.

And both those aspects are definitely there in the programme – though only one of them may be easily visible to those who weren’t brought up on the series from before their critical faculties were able to form (I still have vivid sense-memories of watching The Five Doctors on its first broadcast, when I’d just turned five years old). The version of Doctor Who that many of us have in our heads is the real Doctor Who, the actual programme broadcast on BBC1 has only ever been an imperfect echo.

So is there any way of figuring out what that Doctor Who that’s in our heads is? Well, yes. Because between 1989 and 2005, the BBC didn’t make any new Doctor Who for TV [FOOTNOTE: Apart from Dimensions In Time , the TV Movie, Curse Of Fatal Death...] and that left a gap. And suddenly, rather than the BBC having a monopoly on Doctor Who, anyone could re-create the programme in their own image. Because Doctor Who fans wanted more, and were willing to pay.

So there were series of original Doctor Who novels and audio dramas. But there was more than that. Because if you couldn’t get the license for Doctor Who itself, why not get the license for one of its old monsters and bang out a direct-to- video film about Sontarans? And if you can’t get the license for the Cybermen, just knock the handles off and call them Cyberons. And while you’re at it, why not hire some of the actors who’d played the part of the Doctor, and get them to play characters called The Stranger or The Professor (nudge- nudge, wink-wink)?

Or if you lose your license to publish Doctor Who novels, why not just continue using all the supporting characters you’ve introduced? Or if you’ve created a particularly good villain for a novel you wrote, why not write more novels about them? The true Doctor Who devotee, who wanted everything, would end up following in either audio, video, books or all three, The Stranger, PROBE, Dalek Empire, Cyberman, Faction Paradox, Jago and Litefoot, Iris Wildthyme, Kaldor City, Gallifrey, The Minister Of Chance, and many more mutually-contradictory series of wildly varying levels of legitimacy and competence, and that’s without considering the actual Doctor Who material still being produced.

The return of the TV series in 2005 slowed this down, though it’s not stopped altogether; we now have an official idea of what Doctor Who is again. But the interesting thing about this material, good and bad, is that it’s not so much based on the programme as broadcast as on various people’s ideas of what the programme should have been. It’s a fan-memory of the programme made physical.

n fact there were roughly two schools of thought about how this material should be. One school was intensely conservative, and wanted something that made as many references to the TV show as possible, and generally to stick to a very specific version of the programme as it had been – a conflict-heavy, near-future military space opera, featuring famous monsters. A typical story of this type would be that the Doctor and his companion get stuck on a space freighter whose captain doesn’t trust them and so refuses to believe that the Ice Warriors are about to attack. Some good work was done in this vein, but it’s not, fundamentally, what I’m interested in.

The other school of thought is perhaps best summed up by Lawrence Miles [FOOTNOTE: Miles is a hugely controversial figure within Doctor Who fan circles, for reasons I won't go into here, partly because I'm not entirely sure of the history behind the controversies. Suffice to say, some of the people whose work I'm going to compare to his would not take kindly to the comparison, and he might well dislike it too.] :

Doctor Who‘s my native mythology, that’s all. If you read, say, the work of Salman Rushdie . . . forget about the blasphemy for a moment, it’s not important right now . . . there’s a lot of material in there that comes from traditional Indian culture, there are lots of links to Indian mythology. Which doesn’t mean he has to believe in gods with the heads of elephants, obviously. It’s just part of his background, those are the symbols he grew up with. That’s more or less the way I feel about Doctor Who. I’ve got a pretty low opinion of a lot of the original episodes, but it’s still my home territory. [FOOTNOTE: An interview available in multiple places online. I found it at http://www.authortrek.comlawrence-miles.html, but am unsure what the original location was. ]

The books, audio dramas and films I’m going to deal with in this book have little else in common – some are light comedies, some are hard science fiction, some are attempts at Proper Literature – and the creators of those works likewise have little in common. But one thing they are doing is taking Doctor Who the TV series as a starting point for further exploration, rather than an end point to be emulated as closely as possible. And so by looking at them, we might get a better idea of what it actually is that makes Doctor Who the idea so fascinating.

10 Responses

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  1. bobsy said, on October 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    That lead-in paragraph was written by Moore, surely? It sounds exactly like him…

    • Andrew Hickey said, on October 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      It does, doesn’t it? But they’ve actually only changed a very small number of words, and I can’t see Moore making a Terrance Dicks reference. I do wish I knew who wrote it, because I’ve quoted it a couple of times…

  2. Andrew Rilstone said, on October 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    This is a very interestign idea. I’ve often thought it might be interesting to immerse yourself in the old cartoon strips and annuals: to see how Doctor Who looked to the people who first watched it.

    One caveat. I see the point about the “real” Doctor Who is the one we remember, not the TV series. But I do think that what very many of us originally feel in love with was the TV series — the “text” as one might say — without any concept of fandom or a “whoniverse”. I think that Doctor Who lasted for so long becuase lots of people enjoyed the 25 minutes “space” in which wierd stuff happened — serious actors ran down corridors pretending to be scared of palpably artifiical monsters, villains described plans which didn’t quite make sense etc. This is particularly true of the later Baker period, I think. It was very hard to fit some of the surrealism (Romana’s regeneration, of course, but even some of the daft slapstick between Tom and K9 in the TARDIS) into a believable “Doctor Who Universe” but it was a lot of fun — the most popular the shows ever been, I think — at the level of “that funny guy in the scarf is going to be wierd at us for 25 minutes”. Does that make any sense?

  3. plok said, on October 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I think one thing that’s incredibly obvious (so obvious that even the worst episodes of the new series never quite manage to forget it), yet still interesting, is that childrens’ stories are all about looking at adults. Possibly a cultural universal? Children always see stuff they’re not supposed to, stuff that no one is putting a filter on so they can understand it better or be scared by it less — your typical fantasy story takes this and runs with it to wherever it can get to, externalizing the hell out of it along the way, and so we get the motif of the adult who sees the child too, who lives in the child’s space of imagination, intellection, feeling, etc. Who replicates the child’s way of seeing. My first Who was Pertwee, constantly running around barking at people that he couldn’t believe how stupid they were willing to be. To a child: FASCINATING BEHAVIOUR. And also, perhaps, familiar from the mirror. It’s another reason why the Doctor shouldn’t get all smoochy, because the children who identify with him aren’t interested in sex, so that’s another point-in-common they’ve got with him. So take it away (I surmise), and he’s less interesting than he was: just another grown-up you spy on instead of communicating with.

    Look, I did say it was obvious. I mean, Hartnell starts out being called “Grandfather” for heaven’s sake, and there’s not exactly a shortage of kindly old/gruff old wizards in English literature, and it’s something you’d design in practically by accident if you were born anytime before 1960, you wouldn’t even think not to do it that way. Interestingly (at least to me) the modern “young” Doctor seems designed specifically in contrast to this very functional “old” one, even though let’s face it, Tom Baker wasn’t really all that old…but he played it old, instead of young. So…I kind of forget where I was going with this, but…the makers of the show can identify better with this changed Doctor, this younger Doctor, which is maybe part of the reason they make him this way: so they can still be fans at one and the same time that they’re writers. That’s not all there is, of course, and I think Eccleston’s Doctor probably did appeal to kids quite a bit, but the way he was made he could not be “grandfatherly”, right? But more along the lines of, oh I don’t know, your real Dad back from the War, and you don’t know who he is, but he’s nice to you, and he’s a bit dashing, sometimes totally brilliant, but he’s got a bit of PTSD. To my eyes this is all super-obviously traded on with Eccleston, like something out of RLS, Shakespeare perhaps…even Coronation Street? Not a bad note to strike at all, for an “updated” Dr. Who. Vaguely piratical mystery man who takes you away on his ship to seek adventure, and I hear it’s traditional to have the same actor play both Wendy’s father and Captain Hook, or something. But then we get a younger Doctor still, and he becomes Peter Pan, and it all starts to unravel. So what of Matt Smith, who started out BANG! in his first episode as Peter Pan, the Psammead, or whatever-you-like? I still haven’t seen anything past the first episode, so I don’t know, but it looked like a promising reboot-inside-the-reboot in those specific terms. So I guess I’m responding a bit to what Andrew R. said, about what we read in the text when we first come to it, I think Tom Baker had an Odinic hat and was good at Dad Theatre, and that was an intelligent thing to do with the first de-grandfatherization, and…

    Oh crap, I’ve completely lost my grip on whatever my point was.

    • Mike Taylor said, on October 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Interesting on the ages of the Doctors — I blogged about this at http://reprog.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/ages-of-doctor-who-actors-on-their-debuts/ and found that on average each of the ten successors to William Hartnell has been 1.89 years younger than the one before. It’s apparrent that beyond the these simple numbers, the first three Doctors played their character as old, while the last three have done the opposite.

      Except … Except that Matt Smith is quite brilliant, and has established himself as my favourite Doctor by some distance, largely on the strength of his extraordinary ability to come across as a very, very old man in a young body — in a way that David Tennant, bless him, never pulled off. His performances are shot through with moments, often fleeting, when the centuries are suddenly apparent in his face; and because of those moment, the zaniness has a very different quality — it’s still funny, but also has an underlying desperation to it. So, yeah, Eleventh Doctor. Highly recommended.

  4. lucidfrenzyGavin Burrows said, on October 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    ”The books, audio dramas and films I’m going to deal with in this book have little else in common – some are light comedies, some are hard science fiction, some are attempts at Proper Literature – and the creators of those works likewise have little in common.”

    Actually this school sounds more like the original show than the one that’s trying to emulate it!

    I don’t know if you’ve been to see the Doctor Who and Comics exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, but it makes a similar argument – that the disappearance of the central show liberated rather than delegitimised the secondary media.

    It’s an interesting question why some media have fan outgrowths and some don’t. Speculation follows…

    The Whoniverse is infinite in a way most other fictional universes aren’t. ’Battlestar Galactica’ is great, but it’s all about the Capricans versus the Cylons, so any story you tell has to slot into that. It makes it feel more of a closed system.

    More importantly, the show was often as much about pop surrealist images as plotlines. For example, the Daleks don’t have any good reason to invade Earth, in fact their plans make no sense whatsoever. But they look so iconic gliding up and down London Bridge. Those images don’t ‘resolve’ in the mind the way a plotline would, they kind of hang around in the brain and haunt you.

    More importantly still, the central character is an alien. The human companions just remind us that he’s not human. And unlike most genre aliens, whose supposed ‘alien-ness’ reduces them to one human trait (such as a fixation with logic), his alien-ness makes him inscrutable. We sense we’ll never really get to the bottom of him. Those question-mark lapels were a god-awful literalisation, but they were there for a reason. His enemies tend to embody a very restrictive kind of order, which again and again he enthusiastically disrupts. In short, the core of the show is kind of irresolvable.

    So we have an unanswerable question populating an infinite space which speaks in a language of bizarre imagery. It’s more than giving the brain elbow room, it’s like setting it a Zen exercise. Rather than the ones who try to just photocopy the show, to me the ones who miss the point the most try to close everything off. Fortunately this is a fool’s errand, something which they will never succeed at. It’s not a question of creating further storylines, like building extensions to a central structure. It’s more like one big storyline which will carry on forever.

  5. Mike Taylor said, on October 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Another aspect of the Doctor Who of my youth, which sits in my mind as strongly as any of the actual episodes around the Jon-to-Tom transition, is the various appearances on Blue Peter. Especially when they made the Doctor Who puppet theatre, for use with these cut-out figures that were given away in packets of Weetabix. Wow, those things are resonant. Just looking at the cut-outs makes me feel all weak.

  6. [...] Andrew Hickey has just started blogging his new book about Doctor Who, and has nearly finished another one about The [...]

  7. prankster36 said, on October 19, 2011 at 12:20 am

    This whole “expanded universe” thing has happened a few times with North American genre entertainment too–Star Trek in particular developed a whole somewhat fan-based underground of spinoffs in the decade when there was no new Trek material, like the comics, animated series and novels (there’s a good Star Trek novel from the late 70s or early 80s whose name and author I can’t remember, but it was basically all about the Klingon Empire with Kirk only making a brief bookending appearance). I know I read a Star Trek book when I was a kid featuring all-new short stories set in the Trek universe, many of which had no interest whatsoever in maintaining the tone of the series.

    There’s also the many comic book spinoffs of various properties that went in fascinatingly unhinged directions and often ended up somewhere very different than their film and TV antecedents, with the gold standard being Carl Barks’ Duck comics and the 30s Tarzan strip as far as I’m concerned, though there are probably other great ones out there. I guess the Hammer horror movies and the various comic incarnations of the Universal monsters, particularly the 70s Marvel versions, also qualify for this.

    it’s a shame that fans usually insist that their favourite properties remain “on-model” these days, though there’s always fanfic I suppose…

  8. [...] (Part one) [...]


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