DOCTOR WHO: AN ADVENTURE IN TIME AND SPACE
I must be honest with you.
For the first time in 34 years, I am not up to date with Doctor Who.
I was breastfed in front of Tom Baker (On screen, obviously. He wasn’t actually in the room, though I was very young so I suppose it’s possible and I just don’t remember) and I’ve basically sat in front Doctor Who ever since, watching a parade of English (occasionally Scottish) actors pretend to be a sort of intergalactic Sherlock Holmes.
The idea of Doctor Who, a space man who looks like a regular man, flying through time and space solving crimes and helping people, is really more a premise than genre. The actual style of the show has altered more frequently than its star, depending on what the BBC needed at the time. The show has been quirky kids’ fare, a quasi-educational period piece, a Gothic horror or an Avengers-style spy show (No, not that Avengers, the kind that wasn’t a movie. Well, it WAS a movie but we don’t want to talk about that.)
The point is that Doctor Who just kind of existed forever, and was never actually really ,really good. Not really. But it sat in a sweet spot between old-school science fiction, children’s television and that thing where the main character is just so damn clever that it’s entertaining to watch him unravel whatever shambles he’s landed in that week. Even if he does spend at least 50 percent of every adventure either being captured or standing around explaining things to his stupid human sidekicks. Possibly after being captured. Ideally while cobbling together some amazing device to facilitate his escape. The reality is that, just five minutes before shooting the scene, some poor BBC props artist was also cobbling together that same amazing device using only duct tape, glitter, tinfoil and some Tupperware in the hopes that the sum of this hard rubbish would rise above its parts and fool the audience long enough that they won’t get the chance to say: “that looks a bit crap.”
But it did look a bit crap. All of it. Much like the old Bond movies always looked a bit cut rate next to the Hollywood equivalent, so too did Doctor Who look a bit cheap and wobbly compared to, well, compared to anything really. Science fiction is expensive and the BBC was cheap. And possibly actually poor. But they sure knew how to do that period stuff. Any time the Doctor landed in ye olde England at any point in history you care to name, you can bet things would look pretty believable. Put him on a space station, though, and it’s silver cardboard and bubble wrap monsters from arsehole to breakfast.
The BBC has done wonderful things with their DVD releases of classic Doctor Who in terms of interviews, features and commentary from staff who worked on the show from the sixties through to the eighties. It’s somewhat crushing to see them time and again excitedly show initial sketches for whatever thrilling monster they’d designed for the episode, only to be followed with: “and then the costume arrived, and our hearts sank…” I must have heard that exact phrase on at least five different DVDs. But then, my heart sank too, in 1989, when the show was finally cancelled. Because, despite the show’s frequent, monumental crappiness, I still loved it. I kept watching the repeats. I borrowed the videos, despite them doing strange things like putting spoilers on the back of the cover of the one you’d just rented. I was reminded of this when I found a stack of the bastards in a box under my desk recently. Only those business savvy geniuses at the BBC would think to include the conclusion in a back cover synopsis. While I had safely assumed that the Doctor would save the day, I could have enjoyed the surprise of discovering that he saved said day by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. Unless it was a Pertwee adventure, in which case I’d safely assumed that too.
All of us, the Doctor Who fans (some of whom would rather face-fuck a Fendahl than refer to ourselves as Whovians) sat about wondering if the show would ever be back. And for over 15 years, there was nothing but talk, rumour, that one baffling telemovie where Eric Roberts tries to destroy the Universe by making everyone watch Best of the Best 2, and the endless, endless repeats of the classic episodes.
Then, suddenly, while I wasn’t paying attention, Doctor Who was back!
What? How? And it’s cool? Wait, Doctor Who is not only back on television, but it’s actually popular? It was actually very popular. Finally, one of the many children who had spent their childhood watching Doctor Who from behind the couch, had grown up and convinced the BBC to let him make the show again. But this wasn’t your classic Doctor Who. For starters, it didn’t look like crap. Well, sometimes, when the CGI was a bit off. But then, CGI in Doctor Who? That in itself seemed astounding when I first sat down to watch this new version of my childhood and got punched in the face by the exciting new theme music. But it was still the classic theme music too. It was all a bit classic. A continuation of the original, rather than yet another ubiquitous reboot. And once again, while still hewing to the core concept of “man in space box helps out others while explaining things to irritating assistants” it was a different show. There were lots of… Feelings…
The old Doctor Who could be pretty dry. Not just the Doctor himself, who was pretty hands off when it came to the women (except on those occasions where Tom Baker would get an inappropriate glint in his eye) but everyone just didn’t FEEL so much. Sure, people got upset when their planets were destroyed by Daleks or if someone suggested a bit of mind probing but in general, people didn’t get all emotional on Doctor Who. Maybe it wouldn’t have seemed particularly BRITISH if they did? But on this new Doctor Who, everyone’s running around falling in love, crying, wringing their hands- even the Doctor himself, who I’d hoped would be above all these cringe-inducing human histrionics. It soon seemed that the new effects and stronger character development had come at a cost. That cost was that at the end of every season, the villain would be dispatched half way through the episode to allow everyone enough time to stand around and cry. Probably about Rose. Always crying about bloody Rose…
But of course I kept watching. Because even though Doctor Who was now tonally less science fiction and more Buffy-in-Space, it was still Doctor Who. The character was still there, through Eccleston, Tennant and Smith. And I could still believe this Eleventh Doctor, with the bow tie and the fez and the alarmingly shaped head was the same crotchety old First Doctor, in black and white, teaching cave men how to make fire.
But I hit the wall. Somewhere in the last season, it just stopped being fun. I don’t blame the show, I blame me. I’ve always viewed the program through a very forgiving eye. Far more forgiving than the one I use to look at any other show I watch. And I think it was that forgiveness that finally ran out. I could stand the Doctor being shifted from mysterious figures to Magical Space Jesus, or the latest painfully plucky assistant putting the Doctor (arguably the most powerful being in the Universe) in his place repeatedly, or the heavy-handed musical cues crashing and thundering away on every comic note to make sure that I got the joke. I could even stand the endless sodding bloody arse-raping whimsy.
But not all at once.
And so it happened, on that recent episode where the TARDIS crash landed on that junk ship and three guys in space suits sounding like they’re from Eastenders stood around going: “wot’s wiv dis blue box, den?” I sat down to watch and then, after new assistant Clara totally burned the Doctor with some sassy witticism, and the Doctor crinkled up his 17 inches of forehead in frustration and the music shouted in my face that an amusing thing had just occurred, something snapped.
I got up, walked over to the screen, and turned it off.
As someone who willingly sat through the horrors a man in a green sleeping bag masquerading as an alien larvae, the tedium of Time-Flight, the shame of seeing an army of cybernetic warriors destroyed by man in a leotard throwing very slow arrows and the entire run of Colin Baker, how had this happened?
The truth is, I just got sick of it. Or maybe bored? Maybe I’m completely wrong and the show is better than ever. It could be, I didn’t see the end of the series. Although, if previous seasons are anything to go on, I suspect it involved an awesome set up followed by a disappointing resolution. For me, I’d just gotten sick of defending it. I’d always defended it against my friends, against cynics, against people who couldn’t see past the sub-par effects to the greater story that was being told. But I could no longer defend it from myself. I simply couldn’t convince myself that I didn’t find the program irritating.
But now, with the announcement of a new Doctor, my interest is piqued again. An older Doctor too. Peter Capaldi who I first saw in Peep Show but whom everyone remembers as the abusive psychopath from In The Loop and The Thick Of It. Despite having appeared on the show before, Capaldi is not the first actor to be recast in Doctor Who in the titular role. Back during the Fifth Doctor’s run, Colin Baker had appeared as some sort of Time Lord security guard or something and apparently Producer John Nathan Turner took a break from drawing question marks on everything in a desperate attempt at branding and said: “That guy- I want that guy to be the least popular Doctor ever.” I’m not sure if they’ll even mention the fact that the new Doctor looks exactly like a guy in Pompeii he’d rescued a couple of regenerations ago. And I’m not sure it matters anyway.
Personally, I welcome the news. I had nothing against Matt Smith. Except that he was playing the Doctor instead of me, and that stuff I said earlier about his weird head shape, but something had to change for me to come back to the show and it certainly wasn’t going to be me. And I think an older Doctor brings with it some new ideas to be explored, and a very different dynamic to the show. I’m sure the whimsy will still be there. I doubt Capaldi’s first move as Doctor will be to call Davros a crippled cunt and tip him out of his wheelchair and I’m sure he’ll have all the warmth and kindness that a character so tremendously intelligent and powerful needs in order to not seem intimidating to the audience. But I also hope for some prickliness. And maybe for a touch of weary wisdom that a great younger actor can convey but that only an older actor can truly embody. The Doctor is over 900 years old and it’ll be nice to see him pull age rank on another character without them having to hit the joke about looking so young. Not that Capaldi looks ancient. But at 55, he’s at the same age that the original Doctor, William Hartnell, took the role. Capaldi’s probably in better shape than Hartnell was but I still don’t know if he’ll be racing down corridors every episode.
A new Doctor also changes the dynamic of the companions and it remains to be seen how that will balance out over time. Personally, I’m still hoping for a friendly Dalek to join the team, rolling along behind the Doctor, operating computers and murdering people like some cross between R2-D2 and Leela, only with lasers. More likely, we’ll get a pretty boy joining the cast to make sure the show still corners the teen girl market, since marketing the gaunt Capaldi as a pin up boy is a bit creepy really.
The important thing is that I once again care enough about Doctor Who to go back and finish watching the last season to see what I missed. Then we can all sit around together and anxiously wait to see how they’ll handle the changeover in the Christmas special.
Why will the Doctor have to regenerate? Will he suffer radiation poisoning while visiting a planet he’s forgotten how to pronounce? Will he receive a deadly dose of radiation while operating a complex glass door mechanism? Will he be overwhelmed by absorbing energy (possibly radioactive) from the heart of the TARDIS or will the Twelfth Doctor finally realise that radiation is, in fact, really bad for him and instead, simply collapse under the weight of his enormous head?
Or maybe Rose Tyler will come back and everyone will stand around and cry for twenty minutes. Who knows? The important thing, is that I care enough to watch.