A few months ago, I was searching for reviews of some classic Doctor Who story – because what else does one do at 1am – and I stumbled across something called the “TARDIS Eruditorum“. Written by Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum is an attempt to map the “psychochronography” of Doctor Who‘s run – plotting the points of significance in popular culture and history contemporary to ever Doctor Who story ever shown, and more besides. Sandifer’s literary theory approach to Doctor Who is a level of critical analysis more intelligent than much of the program deserves (and often much more than it can stand up to), but I’ve purchased all five of the expanded and revised compendia (though he needs to update that page to list the most recent ones) Sandifer has thus far released, and I’ve been unable to put down each one until I’ve read it cover to cover.
One thing that repeatedly raises its head in TARDIS Eruditorum is the acknowledgement that Doctor Who is not hard science fiction. Indeed, in the fourth volume, Sandifer notes that a real push to make the show more like Star Trek, with more incisive social commentary and human drama, is what eventually caused the ratings to decline and the show itself be cancelled in 1989. What’s intriguing about this is that, when Doctor Who returned in 2005 under the wing of Russell T Davies, it was clear that the direction the production team wanted to take was towards a deeper and more socially relevant program than that of the program’s ratings peaks of the mid-1970s, which, if you think back a couple of sentences, parallels the Who of the 1980s. So, this new 2005 revival would be the show that Doctor Who was trying to be in the 1980s, but with the wary backing of the BBC, and a wider, older, more educated audience.
So much of this new approach is a continuation of where the show was headed towards the end of its original run. The writers at that time wanted to bring back the mystery to who the Doctor was, and contrived to make the Seventh Doctor much darker and, well, more mysterious. Of course, they didn’t get very far with that before the show was canned, so here we jump ahead a little bit and see the Doctor has become a gritty veteran of some unnamed war, in a beaten up, organic looking and simultaneously unergonomic but utilitarian TARDIS that looks like it has literally been through the wars! This new Doctor is more intent than ever before on solving problems alone, before his new companion Rose finally breaks through and he realises he needs someone.
It’s worth taking a moment to have a look at the new leads. Christopher Eccleston is the Ninth Doctor. He sports a leather jacket and crew-neck tee, and boots. He’s also quite young; I suspect largely to foster a believable romantic relationship between the Doctor and Rose. That’s not quite fair. Contemporaneously, the big, popular shows were things like The OC, Supernatural, Prison Break, Lost, and Bones. All shows about sexy young people doing cool things. Unable to even cash in on the chronic Anglophilia it (and Sherlock) would later be largely responsible for, Doctor Who couldn’t even rely on being British to make people watch it. So it need a cast of sexy young people to do cool things. Eccleston bounds from scene to scene with the verve of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor and the action cred of Jon Pertwee’s Third, and seems to be having an enormous amount of fun. I think he’s phenomenally underrated as the Doctor. But he’s not that sexy.
Luckily, then, we have Billie Piper. Pop singer turned actress, Doctor Who ended up making Piper world famous, and now she’s in all sorts of widely syndicated programs. Rose, Piper’s character, is the perfect companion story. It’s often remarked that the Doctor takes people on board and they leave as better people – nowhere is this more evident than Rose. In a character arc which spans two full seasons and cameos throughout further episodes hence, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Rose as a character, and Piper’s role in bringing her to life. Billie Piper is actually a very talented actress – the emotional breadth she brings to her role is unprecedented in the “companion” part. Only, astonishingly, Catherine Tate as Donna has even come close to matching Piper’s effectiveness as a companion. Piper is let down by the writing in season one, but she really comes into her own up against David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor in series two. Newcomers to the series, prepare to be well and truly broken by the series two finale.
Looking back at that first 2005 episode, “Rose”, the clues to the new take on Doctor Who are so obvious, they’re like being hit in the face with a wet fish. The Nestene Consciousness is BACK (more on this later) and it’s controlling more plastic than ever before! Even neighbourhood wheelie bins get a look in. The Nestenes can take control of plastic, and so this means, as the Doctor points out, that “every artificial thing [is] waiting to come alive. The shop window dummies, the phones, the wires, the cables…” So, fairly standard. But how do they remind us that this is not in fact Spearhead from Space and that we’re not watching reruns from 1970? Rose, the Doctor’s new companion, adds, “Breast implants…” Yep, this is new Doctor Who. Not only are we talking about boobs, we’re talking about how everyone wants to make them bigger now. Later in the series, Rose reacts to the Doctor’s teasing with, “Don’t be so gay!” Which is most uncomfortable now and it’s barely ten years on. But that’s social relevance for you – gotta get down with the kids and use their lingo! In “The End of the World”, the Doctor takes Rose to the year 5 billion to witness the vaporisation of the Earth due to the sun’s expansion. She calls her mother from there (deus answering machina), and after hanging up, realises that her mother is, well, technically dead. As is everyone else on the planet considering it’s about to fry. Heady stuff. Everything just seems to have consequences, which is a concept largely alien (no pun intended) to the classic series.
One of Sandifer’s favourite stories to use as a demonstration for inconsequence of consequences is 1970’s Third Doctor story, The Silurians. At the end, the Brigadier blows up a Silurian base below the Earth’s surface in Derbyshire. The Doctor, outraged over this act of apparent genocide (though later spinoff media tells us this was an isolated tribe of Silurians and that there were plenty more), ends the story furious and it’s strongly implied that he and the Brigadier won’t have a lasting relationship. But then, at the beginning of the next story, the Doctor and the Brig are chummy-wummy and all is well. This inconsistency sticks out like a very uncomfortable sore thumb when you consider the stories as an ongoing narrative. This kind of issue is addressed and repaired by Russell T Davies and Co in 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion”, wherein the new Tenth Doctor, who formerly allied with the British Prime Minister Harriet Jones during his Ninth incarnation, destroys her government when she blows up an alien ship which was retreating. Which I’ve just realised is probably an allusion to an incident during the Falklands War in the ’80s. But my goodness, that is waaaaaay beyond the scope of this post.
The series, especially series one, is peppered with these oblique references to old stories, and it’s clear that with many of the episodes, the production team are showing how they will approach classic tropes of Doctor Who, and of sci-fi in general. The first episode, “Rose”, is in many ways a retread of the Third Doctor’s first story, Spearhead from Space (hence the reference earlier), and there are plenty of references to UNIT, with whom the Doctor spent most of his third incarnation. They take on the alien-invaded boring historical era with a boring episode about a tedious writer named Charles Dickens. The Daleks appear, but they too have taken a hit in the mysterious Time War. There’s a tonne of really rather campy supporting characters straight out of any of the less well received 1980s stories. During “Aliens of London”, the basic plot is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type story – and there’s a scene during the unmasking of the aliens which took me back to another 1960s sci-fi drama in the same vein, The Invaders. To mostly decent levels of success, the show starts small but it’s clear it has the potential to live up to the legend of the original. Indeed, here we are ten years later in 2015, and the show has transcended even the very best of the 1970s Tom Baker stories to become a thing of public-pleasing beauty. It’s not actually that embarrassing to admit you like Doctor Who now, and so to the haters from year seven, I say, “I liked Doctor Who before it was cool.”
Having said all this, I’m glad the show has matured since those early days of 2005. Hard to believe it’s been that long. But time has shown us a few things: wind-breaking aliens and belching wheelie bins definitely belong in the septic tank of bad Doctor Who ideas. Certainly at that point, it’s easy to see that the production team were hedging; trying to capture adults and kids and all. These days, the target audience is most certainly over 12, which makes perfect sense – I was 12 when the revived series began, and I’m now well on the way to 23. As a viewer, I’ve matured (I certainly wouldn’t have discussed the moral dimension of anything in 2005), and so has the rest of the show’s audience. The quality of production and writing has improved dramatically, in line with audience expectations. You certainly won’t catch the word “gay” being used as an insult in the Who of 2015, and a good thing too. And a flatulent and obese alien is certainly not going to cut the mustard in a 2015 where we are having many discussions about body positivity and negative stereotypes. More than ever, Doctor Who is working hard to keep up to date in a world where people will abandon programs after one small mis-step – though it’s clear that the “psychochronography” of Philip Sandifer will be useful to us when looking back at this era at the hundredth anniversary in 2063. And I’m sure we will be – there is no reason that new Doctor Who can’t survive at least to match the 26 year run of classic Doctor Who. I, for one, am most excited.
You can find other things I’ve written about Doctor Who by clicking here.