Wednesday 8 May 2013

Celebrating 50 Years of Doctor Who

Not many programs that began fifty years ago are on the air today, even in rebooted form. Yet Doc Who's stood the test of time, fifty years worth, and is likely to be with us in one form or another for the indefinite future. Popular in Britain, it's just a cult show in North America, a wildly geeky niche program that few watch or pay attention to. A guilty pleasure from childhood, like Twinkies or Ho Hos.

The dietary equivalent of Doctor Who

More subdued than Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but quirkier than Star Trek. As a long time fan of sci-fi, I thought I'd take a time out to celebrate one of the whackiest and longest running franchises out there.


A man in a blue police box travels through time and space. All of time and space. In a box. A police box. Is that brilliant or what? It's the Ultimate Narrative Engine™!

You can tell any story, go anywhere, in any genre: horror, comedy, drama, adventure, action. The real shame is that the program has pushed the boundaries so little. Impossible to live up to the limitless, but it does bode well for the long term future of the program. This baby can be endlessly reinvented. Few shows celebrate imagination the way Doctor Who does.

Originally intended as an educational children's program, it quickly became far too popular and entertaining. An educational show with a compelling premise and fun ideas? Can't have that. The angle was dropped like a hot Quayle potatoe in favour of space aliens armed with whisks and toilet plungers, and was better for it. Couldn't have both; Michael Crichton wasn't available.

The show's veered up and down the audience age range ever since, from toddler appropriate to college student age bong show. All flash and dash, with nary an educational sop.

The franchise became Mysterious Alien Threat meets Ingenious Solution. Every week, brain wins over brawn.

The greatest restriction the program faces is imposed by the executives themselves. Typically The Doctor arrives in the company of a spunky female, runs around, discovers a mystery, solves it while simultaneously helping his latest traveling companion have an emotional epiphany. Occasionally, just to mix it up, The Doctor has the epiphany.

Quality wise it's got a range as great as time and space. One of the best stories, Caves of Androzani, is followed by one of the worst, The Twin Dilemma. This is to be expected when the show's framework is so loose. Too many variables for writers to reliably deliver, too few recurring characters, constantly changing setting, no ongoing soap opera to hang on to.

It really is the British equivalent of America's Star Trek. More intimate than Trek's sleek space cruiser, the TARDIS carries a civilian crew of one (plus hanger on), rather than hundreds. Instead of a dashing paramilitary Captain, it's commanded by an eccentric Doctor.

Captain Kirk carried a gun, banged space babes, kicked ass, and got his shirt ripped off every episode. The Doctor, in contrast, wears a bow tie, carries a (sonic) screwdriver, hates guns, defeats opponents with the power of his intellect, cowers from physical combat, and has never taken his shirt off.

The difference between Superpower America and post-Imperial Great Britain in a nut shell.

The Doc has a screwdriver, but Kirk has a BFG. Image by Summerset

And then there are the Red Shirts. Pretty handy to have supply of disposable people aboard (Helps build up the villain's threat), but The Doctor makes do with fodder he finds along the way quite nicely.

Or he did, for twenty odd years. Spiralling downward, out of quality control, it was put out of its misery in 1989, only to be resurrected in 2005 by Russell T. Davies as a hyper stylized, outer space version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only less mature, with burping waste receptacle monsters, farting aliens, and characters who 'sneak' like they're in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Kids loved it. It was a colossal hit across the pond, and has done well internationally. Slapstick and kids go together like peanut butter and jam.

They also like to be scared, and the show's steadily upped the ante in this area since 2005.

Unique Features:

  1. - Can be set in any time or place.
  2. - Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.
  3. - Casting changes every few years. Companions are replaced, The Doctor regenerates (is recast).
  4. - Conflict ranges from micro (personal) to macro (the universe) in scale, and beyond (time itself, the multiverse, reality, etc). Often both.
  5. - Has numerous iconic monsters and villains.
  6. - Draws on over thirty seaons of programming history over a period of fifty years.

The Characters

The Doctor: An endlessly curious, impossibly brilliant sci-fi tinkerer, The Doctor overcomes powerful adversaries with his ingenuity. He is a Time Lord, an alien species, and travels through time and space using his vehicle, the TARDIS. Eccentric, irascible, deeply compassionate, and haunted by the things he's done to keep people, and the universe, safe. Doesn't use a gun but not averse to blowing up planets.

Hartnell and his magical blue box

Here's the original proposed character description by script writer Cecil Webber:

DR. WHO: A frail old man lost in space and time. They identify him by title because they don't know his name. He vague and mysterious and seems to not remember where he has come from; he's also suspicious and cranky and capable of sudden maliciousness. Stalked by some undefined enemy, he's searching himself for something unknown. He has a "machine" which enables him to travel through time and space.

Quite a change: from his initial conception as a morally ambiguous anti-hero Luddite (The Doctor is further described as a man who hates scientists and progress and is out to 'nullify the future'), to Christ-like! How the idea has evolved. The show wouldn't have been sustainable if they'd kept him so unlikeable; producer Newman labelled the 'nullify the future' idea 'nuts,' and instead revised The Doctor into a more fatherly figure. The Luddite angle was also cut.

The current iteration is an eccentric, irascible but loveable do-gooder, as he should be. The rebooted show does try to add ambiguity by making 'The Doctor Lies' a catch phrase, and giving him bouts of megalomania (The Waters of Mars). even includes The Doctor as one of the show's ultimate villains. Hey, just what you want for a children's show. Can't wait for Dr. Evil's Neighbourhood! Be better than that sod Jimmy Savile's show, anyway.

His Companion: Frequently a pretty and plucky young lady with a heart of gold and a penchant for getting into trouble. Tough enough to get out of it as well, and even save The Doctor when opportunity presents. Balances The Doctor's lonely male traveler with the female aspect and keeps him grounded in what it means to be 'human'. Every now and then a gooseberry is added to the cast in order to be killed repeatedly. None has yet been called Kenny and worn an orange hoodie.

The TARDIS: A time machine that looks like a police box, it can travel anywhere in time or space. Bigger on the inside.

Technical Limitations

Known for wobbly sets, hallway chases, rock quarries, and no budget effects, Doctor Who was originally shot on a small sound stage (closet) in typically one take. Effects were minimal to non-existent, and the sets barren. Missteps were incorporated into the show to avoid re-shoots.

"Young man, why are you wearing that ridiculous outfit? Oh, wait…"

Wild imagination and convincing performances were all the show had to go on. Kids were transported away entirely by the writer's words and the actor's craft. The Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, a former comedian, always took the alien threat seriously; otherwise, there would be no reason to, as it was obviously made out of cardboard. Children have a great capacity for make believe, to enter a shared illusion, but you have to believe it to sell it. Do that, and presto: cardboard becomes space armour.

Great performances transcend wobbly sets and monsters made of duct tape and toilet plungers. The power of imagination shouldn't be underestimated.

Course, nowadays kids are spoiled by realistic effects. Dinosaur hand puppets won't do.

I can't help but think something ineffable has been lost.


They say limitations are the mother of invention. Something like that. Whatever. You get the idea. The show's writers delivered, and were backed up by prop and costume designers, such as Raymond Cusick, who were truly inspired. The Daleks are a sterling example of this.

Created by Terry Nation and designed by Cusick, the Daleks appeared in the second story and were an instant hit. Visually striking steel pepper pots armed with whisks and toilet plungers, they rolled about the sound stage grating 'Ex-ter-min-ate!' They didn't just look inhuman, they acted inhuman. Alien. Unearthly. One of the few creatures in sci-fi that genuinely seemed alien in both form and action, they captured the imagination of the British public.

Four generations of Daleks
Dalekmania saw these hateful aliens adorn lunch boxes and pajamas. Survivors of a horrific nuclear war, they'd become grotesque, stunted mutants requiring 'travel machines' to function. Perfect villains for the nuclear age.

That Cusick was able to look at a pepper pot, or salt shaker, and extrapolate from that a wildly impressive design for an alien travel machine is the very essence of creativity.

Other high-concept aliens followed: Cybermen, Zygons, Ice Warriors, and Sontarans all have achieved iconic status. What's particularly impressive is how striking the costumes are considering the incredible limitations the show was under both financially and technically. The power of the crew's imagination triumphed over every obstacle. On the other hand, Season 17 featured a giant glowing green penis in a pit.

There are off days.

Rise and Fall

They say the Golden Age of the NHL is between ages 10 and 12, and the same holds true for Doctor Who. Each generation has not only a different Doctor, but a different show. Tom Baker's early years, in PBS and TV Ontario reruns, were my Golden Age of Who.

This era (late Pertwee, early Baker) is hailed by many in North America as the show's zenith, in part because earlier Doctors like Hartnell and Troughton were never broadcast here, making it harder for them to compete.

I have a vague memory of being at a friend's house watching Pertwee's Doctor. I think it was my first exposure to the program: big orange bubble creatures with one claw and no legs popped up around a mansion and attacked British soldiers. Had no real idea what was going on, but it was riveting.

They look a lot better when you're five.
Baker's early run was overseen by the tag team of Philip Hinchecliffe and Robert Holmes, two brilliant gentlemen who emphasized gothic horror and aimed the show at an older audience (14 year old boys instead of 8 year old boys). They combined horror with hard sci-fi in stories such as The Ark in Space and The Robots of Death. Classics from other genres were reinterpreted for Who. Frankenstein was grist for the mill. Robert Holmes was an educated man who wove in political subtext, just as Barry Letts had introduced Buddhist themes. The era was great but didn't last. Like a flu virus, it mutated into something new after a few seasons. Mary Whitehouse clutched her pearls. Hinchcliffe moved on. The show lightened the tone. Ratings fell and never reached those same heights again.

And I grew up.

Sort of.

Pertwee's era was adventure and action oriented. Baker's later years emphasized humour, satire, even farce. Hell, Douglas Adams was the script editor. Every era of the show has pushed in a different direction, which keeps it fresh while simultaneously annoying people of different ages.

Of course, my Golden Age was better than your Golden Age, whichever that was.

The show experienced another decline after Baker left. Peter Davidson buoyed it as best he could, but it went into free fall with his departure. Collin Baker took over, and a combination of poor choices by the show runners sank his tenure. Sylvester McCoy snapped up the falling mantle and led Who in the Twilight years, when the show became convinced it was alternative theatre. Only alternative theatre had a bigger audience and after several sub-par seasons the show was shut down in 1989.

The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era is so celebrated it has spawned an entire horde of contrarians who endlessly lambast it as overrated. Instead, they laud the genius of Collin Baker and Sylvester. The poor bastards. It's rather sad.


The show had to change to return.

Old Who was as prim and proper as the new is flashy and glib. Where BBC english once dominated, slang and regional dialects now run gleefully rampant.

Wobbly sets have given way to spiffy CGI, and the paternal Doctor himself has morphed into a geeky sex symbol, getting younger every regeneration, Benjamin Button style. Justin Bieber will be next, and the last will be The Gerber's Baby. Teletubbies will replace the Daleks as the main adversary.

The Doc is now buried under a universe worth of ghosts: the entirety of the Time Lord people have been wiped in a conflagration that consumed the Daleks as well. The Doc himself sealed their fate. Kirk lost red shirts every time he left the ship, but it never seemed to bother him unless they had a speaking part. The Doctor, however, is haunted by the cost of this dreadful war, giving him some added depth.

Yet everything is arch, said in an ADD rush. Fast paced, breathless, manic to the point of incoherence. Melodramatic. Character is front and centre, but the nature of the show makes it hard to develop any but a few recurring ones. Companions now come with living footnotes: families and lovers, but seem flatter than ever (Donna being a wonderfully loud exception).

Shorter episodes give less time to develop new settings and relationships, so they wind up being even more archetypal. Stereotype shorthand is essential.

Yet Sarah Jane Smith, for example, strikes me as more real than Rose Tyler. There's no there there, as it were. She's a Mary Sue, a shell, a caricature, not a person. Harry Sullivan was also more believable, yet I have no idea if he was married, if his parents were alive or dead, or what he did in his spare time. Same with Sarah Jane. I know Rose Tyler's parents are divorced, she dated Mickey, worked in a chip shop and was a gymnast, but she's still flat as a board (metaphorically speaking).

Tacking on a list of traits ('Likes jam') doesn't make a character.

Golden Age still trumps.

But there is an undeniable energy and zeal to the new show that can be infectious. A sense of fun and wonder when it's on game. Steven Moffat, who succeeded RTD as show runner, is a man willing to experiment and push boundaries. He has woven complicated plot threads across multiple seasons, introduced River Song, who meets The Doctor in reverse order (her first meeting with him is his last with her, and vice versa) and toyed with time travel like taffy. A very, very clever chap. Perhaps too clever for the show's own good. He's taken it in a new if convoluted direction that may alienate younger viewers. He's also not above taking a cheap, paradox laden route out of a plotting dilemma, depending on the frenetic pacing for cover.

The show's now seems to be a well constructed (or splashy) scene that has an episode, rather than well constructed episodes with scenes. If that makes sense. Everything seems geared to set up one moment. But that's it. The lead up engineers it, and what follows is just filler. 42 felt like that; the pod rescue was the only interesting thing about it.

Episode concepts like Asylum of the Daleks make great trailers, and sound super fun (same goes for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship!) but otherwise don't deliver on the promise of the premise. How do we engineer an excuse to put dinosaurs on a spaceship? Okay. Actually, I rather liked the Dinosaur one. Matt Smith's delivery of the eponymous line was magnificent and full of blatant glee. Right up there with, 'His brain's gone, Jim!' But the cinematic, high-concept direction has left a trail of duds behind it. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in particular was senseless bollocks. The Bells of Saint John was an excuse to run a motorcyle up a building. Akhaten had The Doctor show down a sun. The Crimson Horror was just, well, horrible. Fun moments, great ideas, but empty calories. The whole doesn't exceed the sum of the parts, which is what you really want. Blink did that with aplomb. So did Girl in the Fireplace. Of course, everyone knows those two episodes are great. Who wants to hear accepted wisdom regurgitated?

The show may be feeling the pressure of trying to deliver a motion picture every week (the latest gimmick being to frame each episode as if it were a feature film), an almost absurdly ambitious goal. It's commendable in many, many ways. Aim high. But most aren't fully baked. Endings have been especially lacklustre: often a speech, a song, or an emotional moment causes the villain' heads to explode. You don't need guns when your villain can be killed by tears and a good cry.

Other programs have greater structural integrity thanks to recurring characters, locations, and ongoing plots. Emotional moments in Who often leave me flat, even as the music swells and I realize I'm supposed to be feeling something. Under the weight of all they must deliver in 45 odd minutes, it collapses. A difficult show to write for, to be sure.

Moffat's very ambitious multi-episode story line arcs may pan out, or may not (supposedly the 50th anniversary episode will wrap up his dangling threads). Either way, Who's better for the attempt.

Every show runner has put their own stamp on it. There's little reason to worry if you don't like the current iteration (whatever and whenever it may be). The premise is so strong that it will inevitably be rebooted with a new vision. As show producer and Buddhist Barry Letts might say, the only constant is change.

The feature film every week approach, complete with poster!

So while the superb, understated acting seen in Downtown Abbey never seems to seep into Doctor Who (perhaps if they increased episode length), my criticisms are hardly relevant: the show is more successful than ever. Must be doing something right. The target audience is considerably younger, too, so short attention spans must be constantly kept in mind. A large audience is necessary to justify a big FX budget.

I can see some form of the prorgram still going a hundred years from now. The idea, appropriately enough, is timeless. I included numerous references to the show in my graphic novel Warlord of Io, a sci-fi celebration.

My review of the 50th anniversary episode, Day of the Doctor, can be found here.