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Doctor Who turns 50 – our view

Doctor Who turns 50 – our view

On 23rd November 1963, the day after the assassination of JFK, the very first episode of Doctor Who aired on British television. A brand new TV drama, An Adventure in Space and Time, penned by actor/writer Mark Gatiss, is scheduled to go out next week as part of the anniversary celebrations. It will turn the clock back half a century to the beginnings of a TV phenomenon, when the Beatles were topping the hit parade and Dr No had recently launched James Bond’s big screen career.

An Adventure in Space and Time

An Adventure in Space and Time. The origins of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who, despite inauspicious beginnings (it was low budget and BBC bosses were unsure it would catch on), quickly established itself as a BBC institution, though few would have predicted that it would last for twenty-six near-continuous years in the schedules before the axe eventually fell in 1989. Nor would many have foreseen half a century ago that there would be sufficient interest in the series’ 50th anniversary to see a brand new episode aired and merchandise cramming the shops.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that such a large and sprawling show, which means so many different things to so many different people, wasn’t the brainchild of one single person. Often lauded for its alleged “Britishness”, it was in fact the Canadian Sydney Newman in his capacity as BBC Head of Drama who was one of the fundamental contributors to its genesis. Doctor Who’s original producer was a young woman who hadn’t even turned thirty (the late Verity Lambert, whose amazing career saw her become a TV legend) and its first director was Waris Hussein, a British Asian who was similarly only in his twenties when he worked on the show. Even the signature theme tune, one of the best-known pieces of music in the world, was penned by Ron Grainer – an Australian.

As the original series progressed, the essential idea of an alien in a ship that could travel in time and space expanded to incorporate a whole load of mythology, the weight of which would come to crush the show and stifle its inventiveness in later years. It was always too big to be reliant on any one component: not only did producers come and go but it even found ways of recasting its leading actors. When William Hartnell became too ill to continue, he was replaced not by an actor who would attempt a faithful impersonation, but by one who was the complete opposite. Thus the irascible, white-haired, straight-laced Hartnell gave way to the Beatle-mopped, younger, charming and anarchic Patrick Troughton. By that time (1966) none of the original actors, or the original producer, were still working on the show. It was three years into its half century and had already evolved the power to regenerate.

Doctor Who

William Hartnell gives way to Patrick Troughton. Regeneration is born.

No other series has ever found such radical and creative ways of constantly reinventing itself. That has proved the key to the longevity of Doctor Who. But the flip side is that it’s virtually impossible to say what fundamentally constitutes Doctor Who. Is the Doctor asexual, or did he discover his libido in 1996? Does the Doctor enjoy exploring the universe, or prefer hanging about in contemporary London and Cardiff? Is he a scientist or a magician? Is the show science-fiction, or fantasy, or even soap? Is it about ideas or emotions? The truth is, Doctor Who can be moulded into being whatever anyone wants it to be. That’s why we ask, now that the 50th anniversary is upon us, is it possible to define what fans are celebrating? Or will different admirers of the two versions of the same show celebrate in different ways, if at all?

When the new series was announced in 2003, it was put under the creative control of Russell T Davies, who would act as head writer (effectively also script editor) and executive producer. Davies had a long history of writing for television, but came to prominence in 1999 with Queer as Folk, the Channel Four gay-themed drama that threatened to derail the LGBTI equal rights movement with its reckless depiction of the statutory rape of a fifteen-year old boy by a hedonistic drug-taking thirty-something man in the opening episode. Thus the first major television gay-themed drama played directly into the hands of the religious right with gay stereotyping and a dangerous and inflammatory suggestion of a link between male homosexuality and paedophilia.

The original series had never sought to place creative control in the hands of one person. Whereas the jaded 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner, who remained in the post in preference to redundancy, oversaw two excellent series of Doctor Who in its final years on air, credit for the show’s reversal of fortune can be placed with imaginative young script editor Andrew Cartmel. It was he who reintroduced a sense of mystery and a dark brooding to the show, and enabled Sylvester McCoy to evolve from clown to a first-class Doctor with the best scripted material for a decade. Stories such as Ghost Light were an imaginative take on Darwin’s theory of evolution: the show had returned to its scientific roots.

Doctor Who

An excellent Doctor: Sylvester McCoy.

Large shows like Doctor Who work best with collaborative and sometimes combative creative decision-makers. Pairings such as Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, Verity Lambert and David Whitaker account for the breadth of imagination of the original series.

The remake fell into exactly the same trap that Doctor Who of the mid-1980s had: it pandered entirely to the fans. This time it wasn’t to appease viewers, but to hand them creative control. The makers of the original series were professionals who came from multifarious backgrounds. Many had lived through WWII. Their fields of reference were everything from Buddhism (Barry Letts and Christopher Bailey) to disillusionment with communism (the writing of Malcolm Hulke). The new series would be created mostly by Doctor Who fans, whose entire field of reference was Doctor Who.

It’s a shallow starting point to remould an institution around, but the ambition was to create disposable television that is best enjoyed with your critical faculties turned off. Davies’ writing can appeal to the emotions, but not to the intellect. Thus the brash incidental music (the busy strings created by Murray Gold) serves the dual purpose of telling viewers how they should feel whilst papering over the unconvincing plots. This is by necessity: Davies does a decent job of crafting soap opera characters but he’s out of his depth writing intellectuals.

The shortcomings of placing overall creative control over the tone and content of the series in the hands of one man readily became apparent. The opening episode of the new series revealed at once its strengths and limitations. Whereas the companion Rose was a fully-rounded character, ably played by Billie Piper, the Doctor was much sparser, and Christopher Eccleston was as lost in the part as he was in the oversized black leather jacket of his costume. His manic gurning and cries of, “Fantastic!” never felt naturalistic, and although his reasons for staying for only one series have been the cause of much speculation, the possibility that a fine actor such as Eccleston found the part unrewarding to play seems not to have occurred to Doctor Who fans.

Doctor  Who

Unsettled: Christopher Eccleston as the short-lived Ninth Doctor.

The episode that reintroduced the show to the public saw the Doctor defeat the evil Nestene Consciousness by popping back into his TARDIS to fetch some anti-plastic which he then lobbed at the monster. This was to represent the first of many ‘deus ex machina’ endings that Davies would employ, as he repeatedly proved that whilst he could write witty dialogue, he couldn’t structure a story. The ‘anti-plastic’ was telling of Davies’ second severe limitation – a complete ignorance of science. What ‘anti-plastic’ is, Davies never bothers to explain, since he likely doesn’t know himself. It’s just a lame plot device, and popping back into the TARDIS and using its magic energy (again, never defined) would form the resolution to many more of Davies’ efforts. To make a stab at a guess, ‘anti-plastic’ must be some sort of solvent that destroys plastic (like, um, nail varnish remover). Such a lame resolution hardly makes the Doctor the scientific thinker or genius of the original series, which had its fair share of idiotic endings, though never enough for them to become habitual.

If there were any doubts that Davies fudged the plot because there was too much else to consider in the opening episode, the same could not be the case for the second. There, Davies depicted the sun completing its supernova over a time frame of seconds; and the race of ‘highly-evolved trees’ that look just like people covered in bark – enough to make any evolutionist wince in embarrassment. The resolution to the episode New Earth remains the single most excruciatingly stupid moment of television drama ever screened, and we include comedian Peter Kay running around Cardiff in a fat-suit in that. Anyone with a basic understanding of science may have a thing or two to say about The Stolen Earth, one of Davies’ biggest insults to viewers’ intelligence.

A scientifically-knowledgeable script editor could have reined in Davies’ worst excesses of ignorance, but that was never the ambition of the remake. It was instead to make the show populist at any cost: specifically at the cost of dumbing it down. The more populist it became, the more spin-offs and merchandise could be produced and put on the market. Turning Doctor Who into a soap opera was a highly successful way of achieving that goal. Davies’ duds became a regular occurrence: The Long Game was, as Davies readily admitted, based on an idea he had when he was eleven. I can think of no other writer living or dead who would admit to such a thing without embarrassment. Whilst Davies tried something a little weightier with Boom Town, it was ultimately a crushingly tedious and smug fifty minutes of television. Although Davies’ capacity for dreaming up high concepts has never been in doubt, his ability to resolve them surely is. Davros and the Daleks defeated by having Catherine Tate press a few random buttons is amongst the worst of his customary cop-out endings.

Davies responded to criticism that his episodes were poorly structured by describing his detractors as ‘ming-mongs’. Here we have the uncomfortable duel suggestion of mental retardation as the explanation for those disliking his work, whilst the writer, by inference, seeks to elevate his own work to a position above criticism. Whereas the credulous see his BAFTA as proof of the quality of his work, they would be better advised to consider the overt politicisation of awards ceremonies and the paucity of drama in the television schedules; then see for themselves if Doctor Who (a populist show, albeit a flagship one) matches the quality of the likes of the Singing Detective or Edge of Darkness; and whether or not Davies belongs in the same pantheon as the likes of Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy Martin, Jack Rosenthal or Maureen Chadwick. For a man with such a high opinion of his own work, it can’t have been easy for Davies to see that the most critically lauded episodes were the ones written by Steven Moffatt, who would eventually usurp him as executive producer.

By that time, the role of the Doctor was being performed by a twenty-something who manically bit through every word and dashed about with faux eccentricity. This was now catchphrase Doctor Who, with “Geronimo” the chosen epithet.

Doctor Who

Faux eccentricity: Matt Smith as the Twelfth Doctor.

Matt Smith was alleged to be inspired by Patrick Troughton’s portrayal, though the end result aligns far closer to a cut-price David Tennant. By his tenure, any perilous situation could be resolved by using his sonic screwdriver which was now indistinguishable from a magic wand. Doctor Who had completed its transition from a science fiction show with a scientist hero to a fantasy show with a wizard hero aiming to cynically tap in to the readymade Harry Potter audience. There is nothing wrong with Harry Potter: the stories are terrific children’s fantasy and the Vatican hates them (what’s not to love?), but Doctor Who’s aspiration to copy its formula, extending to asking JK Rowling to pen an episode (credit to her, she declined) is an indication that the new series and the classic series in essence share very little in common.

Davies wasn’t the only one to take any perceived criticism of the show badly. Fanatics proved that they too would brook no disparagement of their raison d’être, and repeatedly proved that they would take terrible offence at any suggestion that the show wasn’t entirely beyond reproach. The most common outlet for fanaticism is religion, and reverence for Doctor Who, alas, now falls into this category. A negative reaction to the show is considered by the fanatics as a personal attack, and they invariably respond in kind. Fandom has always had an ugly face, and the zealotry seems stronger now than ever before. What matters to many die-hard fans is that the show is on air and that it is popular. They unquestioningly embrace anything that calls itself Doctor Who.

Doctor Who

Genuine eccentric: Tom Baker defined the character.

For the first few years of the new series of Doctor Who, reference to the series’ past was actively avoided. It was to be brash and new and not tied to its history. The success of old adversaries like the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master, and the relative paucity of new ideas meant that such a lofty ideal floundered, leaving the writers with little option but to lean heavily on the show’s past. Eccleston’s Doctor had announced he was the last of the Time Lords. By Tennant’s finale, character actor Timothy Dalton turned in one of the few wretched performances of his career as a comic-book villain, who spends the first half of his screen time reciting expositional dialogue and the second half threatening to huff and puff and blow the Time Lords down all over again. It was a pitiful full circle to witness.

Whilst the prodigal son of the remake continues to do its best to ride on the coattails of the original, the fiftieth anniversary year of the show will please fans of both series, proving that 2013 is an exciting year to be a Doctor Who fan, whichever denomination you fall in to.

Recently unearthed episodes of the Patrick Troughton stories Enemy of the World (all six episodes now back in the archives) and the Web of Fear (five of the six episodes available), unseen since their first transmission save for one episode apiece, is reason to celebrate. The BBC’s cynical attempts to make the fans pay twice for the stories notwithstanding (they’ve released them through iTunes and will again later on DVD, rather than screening them on BBC2) the finds, and rumours of more to come, is the best anniversary present of all.

Doctor Who

Patrick Troughton: previously lost episodes restored to the archives in 2013.

On the horizon is An Adventure in Space and Time, a one-off television drama about the making of the very first episode of Doctor Who, which will feature David Bradley as William Hartnell. Behind-the-scenes photographs show that the BBC has gone to commendable lengths to recreate the look of the 1963 television studio.

Fans of the new series will see Matt Smith team up with previous new Doctor David Tennant on the 23rd November. The 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, has not been without controversy.

Doctor Who

Eclipsed by his predecessor: Matt Smith with David Tennant.

In 1983 when the show celebrated its 20th anniversary, a special 90-minute story The Five Doctors was broadcast. Tom Baker, having left the part only two years earlier, felt it was too soon to return, and was featured only through clips from the never-broadcast story Shada, which had been filmed in 1979. William Hartnell had been dead for eight years, and the part of the First Doctor was awkwardly recast, with Richard Hurndall stepping in (Hurndall would famously die before receiving payment from the BBC for his role).

Doctor Who

Three and a half Doctors celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show in 1983.

The first three Doctors may no longer be with us, but there are five surviving Doctors from the original run. Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, aired his grievance over not being asked back for the 50th anniversary saying of himself and the other surviving Doctors, “None of us have been deemed worthy of inclusion in a programme that celebrates 50 years of a British television programme, of which I was in it for three. We are surplus baggage.”

Doctor Who

“We are surplus baggage.” Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor.

However, recent days have seen Doctor Who fans in a veritable tizzy over a minisode that has appeared entitled The Night of the Doctor, which features the short-lived Eighth Doctor Paul McGann appearing for the first time since 1996 on screen in the role. The cheap production values lend the six and a half-minute story a flavour of the original series, and Paul McGann, a terrific actor, gives a painful reminder of what might have been. Check it out below.

Doctor Who

Paul McGann has reprised his role as the Eight Doctor in a special minisode.

The Doctors are only actors, and they move on to other parts. Matt Smith’s final episode before he pirouettes off for good will screen on Christmas Day. Character actor Peter Capaldi will take over in the lead role, a cause for even the cynical to salivate in anticipation. Perhaps it is this casting that offers some hope that the new series can finally become worthy of carrying the same name as its illustrious predecessor? Perhaps Professor Brian Cox’s recent lecture on the Science of Doctor Who (actually the science of time-travel, but the BBC never miss an opportunity to grasp the udder of its golden cow and milk its teats raw) will reinvigorate a scientific component to the story-telling?

Doctor Who

New horizons? Peter Capaldi offers hope that Doctor Who can regenerate into better shape.

It’s hard to imagine an actor of Peter Capaldi’s stature being forced to ‘act eccentric’ or render up absurd catchphrases such as “Fantastic” and “Geronimo”. Perhaps, with a leading man of depth and gravitas, Steven Moffatt’s considerable writing skills will once more be stretched to the limits of his capabilities, and he will finally deliver a series of artistic merit that appeals to both the intellect and to the emotions? Viewers have yet to see a Doctor Who series from the remake that ticks all these boxes. The low-brow Russell T Davies years had populist appeal but needed to be watched with the brain in neutral, and so far Steven Moffatt has been hampered by a light and irritating leading man. Finally, the stars seem to be aligned in such a way that, in its fifty-first year, a new series of Doctor Who worthy of the name will be made. Time will tell: it always does.

By Greg Jameson

I'm the theatre editor and book critic, with an interest in cult TV, for Entertainment Focus.

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  • Peter M. Quinn

    excellent article

    • Greg Jameson

      Many thanks for saying so, Peter. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      • Peter M. Quinn

        not often i read something that long online!!

  • gwylock1

    The accuracy of this is scary

    • Greg Jameson

      I am delighted you think so. Many thanks for saying so.

    • Tomer Feiner

      “Matt Smith as the Twelfth Doctor.”