(This essay is very, very rough, but I wanted to get it up today. I’ll no doubt have more to say on this over the next few days, especially in the post on Logopolis I’ll be putting up on Mindless Ones).
One thing that a few people have said about some of my Doctor Who posts is that it seems like I don’t even like Doctor Who. Now, from my point of view this is clearly ridiculous — I am currently looking up from my computer at a K1 robot, a Dalek, a TARDIS clock and a postcard of Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, while just behind me are two Doctor Who posters and a K9 toy — but it’s possibly interesting on this, the programme’s forty-ninth birthday, to see what it is that I actually do like about Doctor Who.
Firstly, there’s the visceral stuff — I grew up watching Doctor Who and as such I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to things like the sound of the TARDIS, the words “I am the Master, and you will obey me”, K9 saying “Master”, the Daleks, the Cybermen…just put any of these together and you hardly need to worry about a plot. So long as I don’t engage my higher faculties, these things are a direct line to the happiest moments of my childhood, and I can love them uncritically. It was this that kept me watching through the first series of David Tennant’s Doctor, before I came to the conclusion that this was not really enough on its own.
Secondly, there’s the genre. I don’t here mean science fiction — I like science fiction, but I’ll come to that a bit later — but children’s telefantasy and adventure. I had a conversation with my father after the death of Davy Jones where he was talking about growing up in the 60s and said “Of course, back then there was almost nothing on the TV worth watching if you were a kid. There was Doctor Who, The Monkees and Batman, Top Of The Pops if there was someone good on, and then a few years later there was The Prisoner and Monty Python, but that was really it.”
That pretty much sums up my entire…not my aesthetic, as such, but the central core of my tastes. The more like those things something is, the more likely it is I’ll enjoy it. It’ll have to do more than that in order to persuade me it’s actually good, but if you start out in that rough genre, you’re at a tremendous advantage. Doctor Who has often aspired to be more than that, but so long as it does a decent job of being “a bit like The Prisoner and a bit like The Monkees” then it’s at a tremendous advantage for me.
Then there’s the mode of 60s/70s TV. As Tilt Araiza has put it, “Doctor Who is not great TV, rather it is from the age of great TV”. The most notable difference between Doctor Who and the other shows mentioned above, if you watch them back-to-back, is that Doctor Who is a TV show while they are film shows.
This is a distinction that the Radio Times used to make, because it was a crucial distinction when watching TV. Doctor Who was made in a style that is now only used for sitcoms, game shows and soap operas — shot multi-camera, on video, with very few edits and in a theatrical style where the cameras are, to a large extent, taking the place of the theatre audience. That style was the default mode for British TV in the 1960s and 70s.
The other programmes listed above were shot on film, in the American style (apart from Monty Python and Top Of The Pops) and as such had a different look — more possible camera angles, faster and tighter edits, and a more pseudo-naturalistic acting style (because the cameras could accomodate the actors rather than vice versa).
Now, to my mind, these are two different media, with different stylistic conventions. When British TV was made on film for the American market (like The Prisoner) it was done in a curious style half-way between the two, because it was being made by people whose experience was mostly in the British TV style, but in general you can split the two pretty easily. And these days, only “film series” are made, and TV is essentially a dead medium.
And as someone who appreciates that old, dead medium, Doctor Who is a treasure. Like Hancock or I, Claudius or the Nigel Kneale version of 1984 it shows the possibility of TV as broadcast theatre, rather than as broadcast cinema — it’s a programme that is driven almost entirely by dialogue and performances, rather than by editing and visual style.
And speaking of dialogue and performances, there’s the character of the Doctor. This is the first unique aspect of the show — something that no other TV programme had. The Doctor is a strange mixture of different, apparently incompatible, genre archetypes — the wise old wizard and the trickster and the ultra-rational detective and the man of action — which end up meaning that he comes out as an actual character something like a real person, a real rarity in genre TV. I used to describe the character as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Groucho Marx”, but of course there’s at least as much of Harpo in there as Groucho. But the Holmes comparison is a valid one — the Doctor’s character changed over the years, emphasising different elements, but there’s a continuity of character there too. Paul McGann, Colin Baker, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell, say, are all playing something that is recognisably the same character in the way that Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett are. Pat Troughton, even given a horrible racist script like Tomb Of The Cybermen, or a piece of sexist, warmongering filth like The Dominators, could make it work because he played against the script, playing the character the writers didn’t bother to write.
(You can tell a lot more about my own character than I’m strictly happy about just by knowing that the Doctor when I was in my most formative years was Colin Baker).
In the post-2005 series, Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith have both clearly been trying to play this character, but have been hamstrung by scripts that bear no relation whatsoever to it. David Tennant just played a totally different, and far more annoying, one.
If you get the character of the Doctor right, you don’t really need to do anything else for the programme to work. That said, sometimes they did anyway, because the final reason is that sometimes…just sometimes…it had actual ideas. The default state for Doctor Who was always to be just an exciting adventure series for children of all ages, and that’s absolutely fine — plenty of enjoyable TV was made by people like Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Terry Nation and so on, people who were essentially hacks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hack. Someone has to make that stuff).
But there were also those who, while still wanting to make adventure TV, wanted to explore actual ideas. There’s a whole line of these — mostly writers, but some script editors, producers and directors too. David Whitaker, David Maloney, Bob Holmes, Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Douglas Adams, Christopher Bidmead, Christopher Bailey, Philip Martin are the most important names in this tradition (and when we get to the books and audios, we can add in Lance Parkin, Lawrence Miles, Robert Shearman and others).
The odd thing is that despite these men’s (for, unfortunately, Doctor Who was made in very sexist times, and other than Verity Lambert all its primary creative forces were male) differences, they all pointed in something like the same direction philosophically.
And this is the really big difference between the show today and the programme they were making, and the reason why the latter is superior. Because Doctor Who used to be a programme that had a distinct viewpoint, one that is now more or less absent from any of our media.
What we have to remember is that Doctor Who in its original incarnation was made during the Cold War, and that among other things the Cold War was a battle of ideologies — on the one side was America, standing for Freedom, Democracy, Militarism and Rich People Having Everything, while on the other was the Soviet Union, standing for Socialism, Progress, Dictatorship and Killing All The Dissidents. While Britain was definitely on the US’ side, neither side looked hugely appetising to British sensibilities.
And science fiction TV shows that. There’s a phrase I got somewhere that’s very true — while both countries were against totalitarianism, in the US the totalitarianism they were most against was Communism while in Britain it was Fascism. In the US there was Star Trek — a future where every problem has been sorted out and the US way of life has conclusively won. This is progress in the way it’s thought of by US SF fans — everyone realising that a sort of militaristic libertarianism is clearly right, and losing all other cultural differences apart from cute accents.
Doctor Who, on the other hand, takes its cues from the Enlightenment — but in a rather strange way, filtered through Platonism, Buddhism, and the kind of computer-programmer aesthetic that brought us things like Godel, Escher, Bach. While progress in Star Trek terms means “the final frontier”, and everything progressing to a predetermined end point which is just like America now but a bit nicer, in Doctor Who progress still happens, and is still A Good Thing, but it’s the process of progress that is important, not the end result. In fact there can’t be an end result — if you have one, you’ve stopped progressing, and that’s the same as death. The ultimate Doctor Who horror is mind control, because thinking and changing are the most important things.
But that’s a viewpoint that’s no longer really acceptable within our media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a generation has grown up weaned on the stupidities of Fukuyama and his End Of History. We’re now living in a world in which the last sentence of 1066 And All That is considered actual truth — the future will not be different, it’ll just be an endless liberal democracy (small l, even smaller d) run on capitalist lines pretty much identical to today. While Star Trek looked to a better future, and Doctor Who looked to a different future, current culture only has a place for a future that is now. We live in the best of all possible worlds, and so why would we want to go off travelling through time and space?