How the Time Lords Invented TV

50 Years of Doctor Who

by Colin Dray

20 December 2013


In the Midst of Cold War Paranoia

This theatrical grandiosity spilled out into the show’s aesthetics, also. During Davis’ run the colour palate was striking – occasionally even garish – with fierce primary hues and high contrasts; villains like the Slitheen could be played for broad farce (farting and sniggering at their own horrid puns), while actors like John Simm, as the Master, were encouraged to maniacally chew the scenery. Davis’ Doctor Who tapped into a history of tele-visual cheesiness, but stirred it into a bombastic spectacle, allowing its operatic pathos to resonate; the tenth Doctor’s demise, for example, was punctuated by a soaring choral lament—the song of the Ood—which echoed into all space and time to sing him to rest.

Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston

Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston

When Steven Moffat took over the role of principle writer and producer, he shifted away from aligning the Doctor Who mythos with the rich history of theatre, instead drawing upon an even older source of iterative storytelling: fairytales. Unlike any writer before him, Moffat embraces the notion of ‘time’ in ‘Once upon a time…’  In his introduction to the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, the lonely Time Lord is recast as a creature from myth and folklore, and by the end of his first season, the Doctor is a story known across the universe (a legend with ‘spoilers’): the tale of a dangerous, mythical trickster who must be stopped. 

For an alien over a millennia old – who was already a cantankerous grandfather before audiences had even met him – the Doctor is finally growing up. And so, too, the show, which started as a children’s program, but swiftly expanded through the generational inheritance of its legacy to become a mythic institution.

After a young girl called Amelia Pond (‘Like a name in a fairytale…’) sees him fall like a shooting star from the sky, she spends the rest of her adolescence trying to discern whether what she once experienced was real, or just a dream. He becomes, effectively, the invisible friend: the ‘Raggedy Man’, a Peter Pan figure who can perform miraculous feats and who invites you to come away with him on adventures through storybook wonders, who protects you from the creatures that exist only in the imagination: vampires; cowboys; minotaurs; scary dolls; creatures that only move when you close your eyes; that can make you forget them when you look away; things called the Whisper Men, spoken of only in nursery rhymes, that have no form or shape at all. 

When the Doctor falls to Earth he becomes an imaginary friend to Amelia Pond, a source of comfort and inspiration; but he unintentionally abandons her, disappearing for years and only returning when she is grown. In this sense, Moffat has designed this character as perhaps the most multilayered metatextual commentary on the audience’s relation to their text in the show’s history. Amelia (as she is known when she was young) embodies the experience of a child seeing this extraordinary character for the first time, a childhood wish fulfilment fantasy of running off with the Doctor to a life of timeless adventure; but Amy (as she calls herself when she is older) represents a more jaded adult outlook, scrutinising the Doctor, measuring him up against her memory, and trying (at least at first) to contain this nostalgic adoration. 

Amy was not just some girl who got caught in the Doctor’s updraft – she was a fan. She articulated the fan experience that many viewers had shared: she watched and was delighted by the Doctor in her youth, but when he went away (was cancelled) she started to lose faith that she would ever see him again. (Moffat might even be throwing in a sneaky reference to the television movie – he does come back for one brief escapade and then disappears for a few more years.) And at the end of this season, when the universe has been rebooted (long story) with the Doctor, by necessity, erased, it is belief that is revealed to be the most powerful magic in all of space and time. Amy – like the Doctor’s fans – believes in him, wills him to life. She remembers his blue box (so vivid blue it is like something from a dream), and her investment in him, and the story that is his life, brings him back.

A Doctor a Day…

And so to ‘The Day of the Doctor’, in which Doctor Who gloriously revels in a feat that it alone, in the entirety of television fiction, can exploit: having one character meet and organically interact with multiple versions of himself. With 50 years of history behind it, Doctor Who, a show intimately concerned with the weight of history and the promise of the future, takes a moment to reflect upon its past, to validate its present, and to boldly set a new course for the years ahead. 

Centring most specifically upon the events that were said to have occurred during the time in which Doctor Who was off air, the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords, Steven Moffat returns to the Doctor’s greatest moment of regret – the act of genocide that wiped out both races – and in so doing finds an elegant means of interrogating the man that he always was, the man that he now is, and potentially, the man that he will become.

Understandably, along with all of the excitement of the return of Tennant, and the revelation of a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor in John Hurt, the show’s narrative looks back upon its long and storied history, both as a fiction and as a televisual artefact. There were little flourishes, such as revisiting the original title and theme tune, the sight of a policeman walking down Trotters Lane (where a certain TARDIS had been parked decades ago), and the revelation that current Doctor companion, Clara Oswald, has now become a teacher at Cole Hill Secondary School – just as the Doctor’s original human tag-alongs had been. 

There were the subtler, self-aware allusions to ‘Reversing the polarity’, the catchphrase of Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor (I’m reversing it; you’re reversing it back. We’re confusing the polarity’), what was likely a subtle dig at 1996’s failed American relaunch of the series (‘Time travel… Americans with the ability to rewrite history? You’ve seen their movies.’), swipes at Tennant’s fake British accent (‘Brave words, Dick Van Dyke’), and even several grumpy asides from John Hurt’s more traditional Doctor chastising the youthful antics of his latter, more energetic selves (’Timey Whimey. Do you have to talk like children? What is it that makes you ashamed of being a grown up?’; ‘Is there a lot of this [kissing] in the future?’; ‘Oh, again with the pointing – what are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?’)

Notably, there is also the highly metatextual motif of people emerging from paintings and coming to life. It’s the evil scheme of the episode’s villains, who stow away in artworks and erupt fully formed years later, and it’s also how the Doctor cannily wins the day, secreting himself away in a depiction of his worst, most hopeless day. For a show looking back upon its definitive contribution to the medium of television, it’s fitting that it acknowledges the ‘television’ of the past, the visual arts, another art form into which humanity has poured its narratives and sense of self; the paintings even erupt with a scattering of glass, as though puncturing a television screen. 

And of course there were the larger narrative beats and call-backs, only possible in the long form medium of television. From the return of the Zygons (a classic Who enemy not glimpsed in decades), to the return of UNIT (with whom the Doctor apparently has a now hefty pension owing); from the revelation of the end of the Time War (central to the relaunch of Doctor Who in the 21st century), to the show-stopping reveal of every single one of the Doctor’s incarnations spinning around his homeland of Gallifrey, trying to rewrite the most horrific, lamented mistake in the Doctor’s protracted life. It is a thunderous adventure, one that offers the Doctor a moment of introspection that he is frequently denied; here he is literally locked (or as it turns out, unlocked) in a prison where he is finally compelled to confront his regret.

Moffat loads this self-assessment into the narrative at every level, inviting the viewer to explore their own relationship to a hero that they have watched for generations, one who was captured within, but managed to transcend their television screens. Some might question the inclusion of the Zygons as the Doctor’s enemies in this special (despite being a returning creature from the original series, they are hardly as iconic as Daleks, or Cybermen), but thematically, they prove to be profoundly resonant: these are shape-shifting alien frauds in a fiction in which the hero himself changes his face and is no longer sure who he is anymore. They are symbols of the perpetually fluctuating nature of the show itself, compelling us to question exactly what it is that unites all of these disparate versions of the same man who chooses to call himself ‘The Doctor’.

And the answer, it seems, is hope.

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant

Because the most revolutionary and yet utterly conventional thing that Moffat does in this special is restore the Doctor’s fundamental optimism.  Despite the narrative potential that Russell T. Davis’ decision to make the Doctor a war criminal was, it had irreparably damaged him. He became the man who regrets; the man who sorrows for so long that even he forgets why. By returning to this point in his history, allowing him – with his broader outlook on life and loss – to remake his choice, Moffat legitimises the sacrifices of the Doctor’s former selves, but rescues the character himself from this desolation. The man who has brought so much hope to others, is allowed, at last, to feel it again himself.

And with this reaffirmation of the Doctor’s sense of self, the episode also projected forward into the show’s future: there were glimpses of the upcoming 12fth manifestation of the Doctor, who was likewise lending a hand to the proceedings; there was talk of the Doctor’s impending ‘death’ at Trenzalore; but most significantly, there was an acknowledged redirection of the show’s driving conceit. After jumping into a stolen time machine and fleeing his own people, the Doctor’s journeys have restored his faith in his homeland and in himself; so much so that he is now, after all these years, committed to heading back home. His quest is no longer one of escape, but of restoration. After all these years of running, there’s now somewhere to run to.

For an alien over a millennia old – who was already a cantankerous grandfather before audiences had even met him – the Doctor is finally growing up. And so, too, the show, which started as a children’s program, but swiftly expanded through the generational inheritance of its legacy to become a mythic institution.

As the culmination of Doctor Who’s storied history, it rightfully celebrated what makes this character grand, what has made him endure for generations – all of which, it is acknowledged, is inextricably tied to what has makes television itself such an appealing box to peer into, to travel away within, and to go in search of new adventures. A remembrance, a rebirth, a restatement of purpose; in an hour and a half, simulcast around the world to 94 countries, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ returned us to that same impossible, fantastical character emerging from that very same extraordinary box, in order to show, together, just how far they, their medium, and we their audience, have all evolved. 

The Revolutions Will Be Time-Lord-ised

Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith

Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith

Television has always been illogical, has always embraced the irrational. It asks us to believe in artificial serialised dramas; weekly, resolvable conflicts; families communicating in snappy witticisms while all instinctively facing toward an invisible fourth wall; shoddy special effects that try to emulate cinematic spectacle on a limited budget and; inconsistencies in actors, writers and producers. But years ago, stepping out of a pile of trash and refuse, Doctor Who did something remarkable: rather than fight against those limitations, or pretend them away, it embraced them, subverted them.

In contrast, film and fiction are elegant mediums, but they remain static. As an audience you can return to them again and glean new meaning, but it is only you that has changed, not the text itself. A television show is not constrained in such a manner – again fittingly for Doctor Who, it is not beholden to the strictures of time. It can engage with its audience, and return again next week; can respond to audience feedback; can follow down new avenues of narrative. It’s characters can grow, its genres can merge and splinter, its plots can literally be rewritten. It is a text and an adventure that grows alongside its audience, that is given purpose through their investment.

In the first episode, on his first trip to Earth, the TARDIS breaks. No longer able to seamlessly disguise itself in any form it decides to remain a big, blue anachronistic box. It turns itself into a magic portal, bigger on the inside. It becomes television itself. And for a show that revels in contradiction, this has proved to be a powerfully symbolic and fortuitous act. It became a text that has consistently confronted limitation with ingenuity, cancelation with rebirth, constraint with transcendence. It is a show that reveals itself to be only as restricted as imagination itself; and for a program so entwined in the history of television, that says something rather extraordinary about a medium once dismissed as a ‘wasteland’, offending and dull.

Consequentially, the Doctor, his spacecraft, and the show itself, have celebrated and reflected everything that has made the television medium such an adaptable, enduring canvas through which it engages with audiences of every age. The entire program’s title is a question – Doctor Who? – and its genius is that it has never contented itself to provide a definitive answer, to ever stop exploring the potentialities that arise when the storytelling form remains malleable, and when the imagination is allowed to wander. Until then it will just keep inviting us off on new adventures, iterating, expanding, and exploring, showing us how the old can still be remade anew.

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