How the Time Lords Invented TV

50 Years of Doctor Who

by Colin Dray

20 December 2013


The Reciprocal Feedback Loop

Throughout it all, Doctor Who was a show that embraced rather than condemned television’s inevitable limitations. The most visible and ideologically transformative exhibition of this arose when the ailing health of the series’ titular star, William Hartnell, forced him to retire. This was nothing new, television is replete with such production necessities (actors leave, plots get rewritten, things don’t get filmed); but rather than shamelessly trying to emulate Hartnell’s characterisation, as though swapping out one Darren for another in Bewitched, Doctor Who’s producers incorporated it into the DNA of the show. 

Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison

Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison

Embracing his alien nature, they had the Doctor regenerate into a whole new persona, one filled with his predecessor’s experiences and history, but free to be remade anew. Patrick Troughton, taking up the role, presented a unique take on the same man – now a disarmingly playful, Chaplinesque figure, disguising his ageless wisdom with foolery. The result, which has been continued for each subsequent retirement of the principle actor, was a program and character elementally designed to evolve with the circumstances of his fiction, to adapt to each new generation of viewership. Beside a few inviolable personality traits – he remains largely pacifist, moral, and altruistic (even in the intentionally atypical Colin Baker years) – from that point on i>Doctor Who was a show that embraced rather than condemned television’s inevitable limitations.

In the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of Cold War paranoia, invasion stories and monster tales became commonplace (particularly so under the second and third iterations of the Doctor); Daleks became squawking, dispassionate fascists; the Cybermen embodied our fears of an increasingly automated, dehumanised world.

Thus, as television altered over the years, the Doctor adapted along with it, winding the realities of its production into an organic, necessary part of the fiction. Cast members would come and go, evolving the dynamics of his makeshift companion family. When the sets got too drab, suddenly the TARDIS, like its pilot, can get a makeover. When colour television emerged, it was introduced in tandem with the Doctor remaking himself into his most sartorially vibrant version. Why does everyone in the universe speak English? Because of the telepathic circuit in the TARDIS, of course. 

When budget constraints impacted the show’s production (it was expensive to make so many sets and effects for foreign worlds), the third Doctor was suddenly grounded on Earth, serving a form of Time Lord house arrest while employed as an advisor to humanity’s planetary defence force, UNIT. And each time, these adaptations of necessity informed and enriched the fiction. Even the drastic removal of the Doctor’s defining feature – being on the run through space and history – allowed the show to explore new territory. With more of a sense of immediacy and threat (this was, after all, contemporary Earth that he was protecting from harm now), and a fish-out-of-water Doctor who was now manacled to a backwater rock that he begins to regard with some affection, the show had a unique flavour that revealed even further dimension to the character, even if it had to sacrifice some of its scope to do so. 

Even in the more recent series the show has proved to be just as adaptive and resourceful. When the shooting schedule of David Tennant’s second series necessitated producing an episode that barely contained the principle actors, Steven Moffatt devised the masterful ‘Blink’, an episode in which both the Doctor and his companion are trapped back in time and can only communicate with a heroine in the present day through cryptic DVD Easter Eggs and messages left scrawled on the walls of a decrepit old house.

Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker

Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker

The show was not blind to criticisms of the television format, however, and even its own contribution to the medium.Tennant’s run contained the episode ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ in which the influx of television sales in the ‘50s, in preparation for the communal bonding act of watching the Queen’s coronation, is seen as a harbinger for social ruin. An alien is living in the television signal, sucking people’s identities away and thereby literalising the accusation that television rots your mind. (The creature is soon overcome though, leaving the far more psychologically corrosive monster – an abusive father – still to be defended against.) 

Similarly, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ was kidnapped and plunged into a gladiatorial arena where he was watched by bloodthirsty pan dimensional beasts (depicted much like a television viewing family), who were titillated by the senseless violence on display. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor seemed to be a season long exploration of the potential corruption of the media: in ‘The Long Game’ he visits a television broadcasting hub called Satellite Five that is methodically manipulating all news disseminated to the universe, actively impeding the development of humanity; in ‘Bad Wolf’ he travels even further into the future to discover that all television entertainment has been overrun by reality shows – gory, gratuitous spectacles based on programs like Big Brother and The Weakest Link in which ‘five minutes of fame’ has been reduced to a temporary reprieve from death.

Doctor Who even metatextually put itself on trial when it was at its greatest threat of cancellation in the mid-‘80s (the show had just come back from a forced 18 month hiatus that was threatening to become permanent). ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ was a season long arc in which a series of (vaguely) interconnected Doctor Who adventures presented the Doctor being called to account for his actions and asked to justify his very existence. In case the analogy to the program itself was too subtle, the courtroom even watches his adventures taking place on a view screen. Unfortunately, the show didn’t give the greatest defence for itself – the stories offered were occasionally incoherent; the twist at the end is naff; and poor Colin Baker, playing a Doctor widely disliked for being atypically erratic and vain, has to stand there wearing a costume that can best be described as ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure’ – but the show was afterward able to eke out for a few more brief, innovative seasons with the new, more inscrutable Doctor played by Sylvester McCoy.

Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy

Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy

Doctor Who remained intimately aware of the privileged position that a television show holds with its audience, and the opportunities for storytelling that this long-form dialogue between viewer and text presented. A television program can live with its viewer, enter their house with a regularity that breeds familiarity, inviting a sense of ownership unique to the medium. This was particularly true in the United Kingdom where, for the majority of its run it was a Saturday evening fixture, shared by generations of families – children cowering in fear at their first sighting of a Cyberman; parents coded with nostalgia watching their childhood adventures live on. 

It’s why fans speak of ‘their’ Doctor distinct from his other personas, why the Doctor’s enemies, revisited and expanded upon, enter the communal conscious; it is all part of a reciprocal feedback loop: the text reminding the viewer of its history; the viewer aware that it is within their own memory that this history has been lived. As Jonathan Bignell has described in his analysis of Doctor Who’s history, ‘Space for “Quality”: Negotiating with the Daleks’ (Popular Television Drama, eds. Jonathan Bignell and Stephen Lacey, 2005), in a real sense the show lives, and is exponentially expanded upon, in the minds of its audience:

Doctor Who’s mysterious fictional world and the lack of conventional closure in individual episodes or in series as a whole leaves room for sustained involvement, repeated viewing and intense attention…. the persistence of memories of the Daleks in these different situations testifies to another kind of quality, measured by the enduring affect of television and its embedding in processes of identity-formation.

In such a multiform, generational text as Doctor Who, the audience grows with the program, reflecting it, giving life to it. And it was this interdependence that would prove so essential, and allow the program to transcend its boundaries even further, when in 1989 the series was cancelled (the euphemism at the time was ‘rested’) ending an already unprecedented two and a half decade run. 

A Postmodern Prometheus

Fittingly, for a fiction about a being that can transform himself to defy death, Doctor Who found a means of surviving its cancellation by expanding wholly into other media. As early as the first years of its original run it had begun releasing new tales of the Doctor and his companions in comic books and short fiction – an an act that would come to be emulated by most every other popular science fiction program that followed. When the series ended, however, the narrative made the revolutionary leap into an ongoing series of novels, called New Adventures, that directly continued the journey of the seventh Doctor and his companions new and old. (It is of note that this series was written by several authors who would go on to pen scripts for the revived series several years later, including Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, and even executive producer Russell T. Davis.) No longer restrained by the budgetary and censorship constraints of television, these tales trended a little darker and more expansive, but it was with the coming of the eighth Doctor that these secondary texts would prove most pioneering.

Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann

Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann

In 1996, with its fandom still clamouring for a continuation of the series, an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who as an international coproduction between the BBC, Universal, and the US FOX network. The resulting television film, intended to operate as a potential pilot for a new series, was, to put it kindly, a mess. A promising, flawed mess. The plot was too bogged down in the history of show to be coherent to the new viewers it was seeking to attract, while many fans of the original were put off by some of the concessions made to an assumed ‘American’ sensibility: motorcycle chases, the Doctor’s (frankly, all very chaste) flirtation with his new companion, the Master’s sudden ability to turn into the T-1000, etc. The makers of the show clearly had their hearts in the right place (‘Beloved seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy is back at the beginning! Yay!’), but the film fumbled its juggling of fan service and innovation (‘Oh look, he’s being arbitrarily gunned down by street toughs…’) 

It tried to inject some intriguing Frankenstein imagery into the mix, and the TARDIS for the first time looked spectacular, but the only element that rightfully received almost universal praise was Paul McGann’s new vision of the Doctor. Unscathed by the melodramatic clutter of the plot (Eric Roberts appeared to have misread the character description for ‘The Master’ as ‘Cackling Pantomime Dracula’) McGann’s Doctor is a debonair Romantic; charming, heroic, and with a dry wit. 

And so, despite the series itself not going ahead, McGann’s swashbuckling Doctor lived on. Soon he was the official Doctor of the expanding multimedia pantheon. His adventures played out across the comic series, through another continuing series of novels, in newly produced radio plays that actually starred McGann. Other television shows that had appeared after Doctor Who began its run had followed in Doctor Who’s footsteps and similarly produced supporting media – Star Trek cartoons, Battlestar Galactica novels, etc. – but this was one of the first and most vital examples of how resilient a television fiction could be, evolving its journey onward, even in the absence of the television show itself.

This continuing interest in the Doctor Who property enabled the eventual BBC rebirth to occur, and in recognition, the series acknowledged both the McGann Doctor (he is officially the eight incarnation), and the sprawling narrative hydra over which he presided. In ‘Night of the Doctor’, a prequel to the 50th anniversary special, Paul McGann himself returns to portray the final moments of his Doctor’s life. In a handful of the most extraordinary minutes in Who history, in which his wearied but still feisty Doctor radiates, he references the companions he travelled with, thereby loosely canonising all of those ancillary fictions, and is shown to regenerate into the next version of the Doctor in the narrative’s through line. Unlike innumerable other franchises that play coy with their secondary fiction, Doctor Who embraced it, acknowledging that the borderline between audience and text is in a perpetual state of flux, and that without those fans who had kept the show alive, had poured themselves into its fiction, it could not have returned – certainly it could not have prospered – as it eventually did.

Given the general consensus that the film had failed, it took another decade for Doctor Who to emerge again. When it did, though, it returned as a prestige program, entering a landscape of television niche programming in which shows such as Stargate, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had reconfirmed the viability of the sci-fi format. And rather than rebooting itself (such as Battlestar Galactica had done the year previous), Who – as it always had – continued on, trusting the wealth of its lineage, and once again incorporating the realities of its audience and its medium into the narrative.

Once again using this character to capture the cultural zeitgeist, the 21st century Doctor was a man who, like western civilisation, had been rocked by bloodshed. Thematically evoking the shadow of terrorism and the emotional baggage of participating in an unjust war, this Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, was a profoundly altered man. Still erratic and adventuring, his disarming enthusiasm seemed to be played more as a defence mechanism, a tool to deflect introspection. In reintroducing the character, Russell T. Davis took the drastic but rather ingenious step of killing off the Time Lord race in a conflict called the Time War. As the sole survivor, the Doctor was a traumatised, orphan soldier, mourning the loss of his race and trying to outrun the horrors he had seen, and inflicted, in battle. The man who had inspired so much hope in others over the years had had his own profoundly shaken.

When Eccleston bowed out, replaced by the charismatic Tennant version, the tenth Doctor became more of a heartbroken, wandering god, and the high, operatic tone of the show was pushed to the forefront. Davis seemed intent on celebrating the potential for stateliness and majesty that an extended serialised form such as television (particularly with a history that had endured for generations) was able to evoke. Consequentially, his scripts explored tragic love stories (Rose), heroic, sacrificial calls to action (Donna; Martha), fatalism and arbitrary evil (‘The Waters of Mars’, ‘Midnight’), and he conceived interconnected seasonal story arcs (the ‘Bad Wolf’ mystery; the prophesy of the harbinger who will ‘knock four times’, ‘the stars are going out’, etc) that gestured toward a unity of narrative that had only been attempted before (poorly) in ‘Trail of a Time Lord’. He was also the first writer to seriously explore the potentially ruinous effect that travelling with the Doctor can have upon a companion and their family – that this was a man who, despite his noble intentions, inevitably left carnage in his wake.

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