I’ve been busy for a little while, and so I’ve not been doing the Big Finish A Week posts, as they take up vastly more time than any of the other posts, but things are a little more settled again, so I should be starting them again soon. In the meantime, I’d like to talk a little bit more about Doctor Who.
I haven’t watched the new series since series 3 – I watched the first series, thinking it was badly-flawed but with enough ideas of merit to keep going, as it was the first series. The second series I thought was bloody awful, and it became apparent that the things I thought were flaws (the emphasis on effects over plot, the anti-intellectualism, the mockery of nerds, the implicit assumption that early 21st century Western culture is the apogee of civilisation, with everyone before now being the same as us but in different clothes, and with the future being exactly the same) were, to the makers, the actual point of the exercise. I watched the third series, six months after broadcast, in one sitting, because someone I trusted told me it was much better. There were three good episodes (Blink and the Human Nature two-parter), but none of these involved the character of the Doctor more than peripherally.
I haven’t watched any episodes since, and nor will I do so, but the reviews haven’t suggested that I’m missing anything. Lawrence Miles has already taken down his review of the other night’s episode, as is his wont, but my cached version in Google Reader contains the line “Never have I felt more justified in my decision to f*** off and be somewhere else when this series – the series I’ve followed since I was two years old – finally dies. This isn’t Doctor Who. It isn’t even sophisticated enough to qualify as fan-fic.”
That summed up my feelings about the show as it is these days. But I’m not writing this to criticise the new show – like I say, I no longer even watch it – but to talk about what I would do differently, and also why I love the old show.
Essentially, there are three things I like about Doctor Who (1963-89). The first, and in some ways the most important, is just that the programme is so tied up with many of the happiest moments of my childhood, and so things like the TARDIS, Daleks, K9, Cybermen, and so forth are linked to my hindbrain – there is a part of me that would be happy with any old shit so long as it had a police box and a pepperpot saying “exterminate”. This is the only part of my taste for the show that the new show has kept.
Then there’s the ideas. The new show doesn’t really have any interesting ideas in it, while the old one had imaginative writers like Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Christopher Bidmead, Malcolm Hulke and so on. There were plenty of badly-written, predictable Old Who scripts, but there were also some, such as Castrovalva, City Of Death or The Tenth Planet, that did interesting new things (the Tenth Planet looks formulaic now, but it invented the formula, or at least nicked it from The Thing From Another World and filed the serial number off).
But most important is the character of the Doctor, and this is what the new series gets so egregiously wrong, especially in the Tennant episodes (Eccleston had flashes of Doctorishness), I can’t consider it to have any connection to the original series. So, if I were to run the series, other than hire much better writers, I’d totally rewrite the character of the Doctor, getting back to something approximating the character in the original series.
Now, admittedly, the character changed a lot, but there are things that remained more-or-less constant, and other things that I liked about one or other of the versions of the character. But what I wouldn’t do is go the route of the current show, which has him as a normal bloke who just happens to be able to fix everything with magical gadgets and fast talking.
As a first approximation, the Doctor should be Sherlock Holmes, but then should be added in varying amounts of Bugs Bunny, Groucho Marx, and your favourite uncle. The most important thing to remember about him is that he is alien, and this should colour every aspect of his character.
For example, the new show is obsessed with romances of one kind or another between the Doctor and his companions. However, the Doctor is meant to be many centuries older than them, and of a different species. Even if humans are his favourite race, he should think of them as somewhere between children and pets, which suggests that to him sex with Rose Tyler should be somewhere between bestiality and paedophilia. This does not mean that he’s sexless – it’s fairly obvious that Doctor Tom was sleeping with Romana, and I find it far easier to believe that the first Doctor was Susan’s biological grandfather than any fanwanky nonsense about looms – but just that he shouldn’t be chasing after 19-year-old earthwomen. (Although, oddly, I find it entirely easy to believe that the sixth doctor and Evelyn’s relationship was a sexual one, although I’m sorry for putting that image into your heads).
The Doctor should be slightly unaware of human mores and social conventions – not totally oblivious, but he shouldn’t be aware of them unless he’s *thinking* of them. This is part of why he’s so egalitarian – like the line in Robot where he says “Oh yes, I’ll speak to *anybody*!” brightly when asked if he’d speak to a Nobel prize winner. It can also, however, make him seem quite callous – but he would never knowingly hurt someone, and if he’s made aware of how callous he seems, he will be apologetic and very regretful.
This difference explains many of the Doctor’s quirks – I’ve always thought it was a shame that the Fifth Doctor’s celery ended up having a prosaic explanation in The Caves Of Androzani, as it seems much more fun to me to just assume that the Doctor was getting things slightly wrong – or not caring about getting it right. Humans wear pretty vegetation in their buttonhole, here’s a bit of pleasant-looking vegetation, in it goes.
In many ways the Doctor would probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome were he human, and this seems a tack to take when writing him (though personally I think the whole concept of Asperger’s is an appaling one – simultaneously a way to dismiss a whole group of people by medicalising their personalities, while also giving a load of arseholes on the internet a cop-out excuse by letting them claim their bad behaviour is a medical condition. Oddly, all the latter tend to be ‘self-diagnosed’…). My friend Tilt has similarly suggested that the character of Monk (the obsessive-compulsive detective) bears a close resemblance to the Doctor. This isn’t to suggest the Doctor is mentally ill (though he’s eccentric even for his own species), but that his brain works differently from human brains.
[EDIT 8 years later after clicking on this for the first time since then… JESUS but this is complete bollocks. I know what I was trying to say here — something about medicalising people and the social model of disability, though I didn’t have those words yet — but I said it so horribly wrongly that it comes off as almost exactly the opposite of what I meant. For the record, I *am* autistic myself, and am a very strong supporter of autistic self-advocacy. What a terrible writer I was back then.]
The Doctor should always have the best intentions. He may do appaling things, but they are always either accidental or to stop something worse happening, and he should regret every one. He should also know more than everyone else – not in the way of the later Tom Baker years, where he’d met everyone in the universe before and knew everything, but he should be in possession of a few pieces of information that no-one else has, by virtue if nothing else of his great age. He should always seem like he’s in a slightly different show from everyone else, and his very presence should twist the situations around – he should be a random factor that brings everything crashing down not through any great skill or ability, but just through being unexpected. And it should never be shown exactly how much more he knows than everyone else, or how he knows it – as much as possible (given the history of the show) he should be a mystery.
The Doctor should be funny. He should know better than to take anything too seriously, and should be able to turn anything into a joke. He should also be slightly naive, even now – he should expect the best of people by default, and be truly shocked when they fail to live up to his ideals – but people should respect him enough that they *do* live up to those ideals. On the other hand he should have a furious, hair-trigger temper, and be extraordinarily arrogant. He can also be more than a little pompous at times.
He should dress eccentrically, but not in the ‘I’m mad, me!’ fashion of the Nathan-Turner years, nor in the ‘student who thinks he’s quirky’ manner of Tennant. The Doctor seems to me to be a character who’s most at home in the late 19th century, and his dress sense should reflect that – depending on the actor he could wear frock coats and look like a character from The Importance Of Being Earnest or be a great huge bearded man in the Karl Marx mode, but he definitely shouldn’t look like anyone else.
He also shouldn’t be conventionally good-looking. He should probably not be *ugly* – after all, he can choose, to an extent, his appearance – but he should look a little odd. Eccleston was facially very Doctorish. His accent should be close to RP, but it could have a regional tinge to it (Colin Baker still had a bit of Rochdale in some of his vowels, Baker and McGann both had a tinge of Scouse, without sounding non-Doctorish)
More than anything else – even his desire to do the right thing – he should be motivated by curiosity.
My own choice for actor would be Graham Crowden (who apparently turned the part down when Pertwee left), but Don Warrington, David Warner or anyone else who can do both gravitas and humour would be OK. But the Doctor should *not* be a conventional ‘hero’ type, and nor should he be a conventional ‘eccentric Englishman’ of the Stephen Fry type.
If they bring back a series with *that* character – even if it has plots as dreadful as those of the new series – I’d watch it eagerly. But I suspect there’s no place for that kind of thing on TV any more. Sad.