Category Archives: Doctor Who

Getting Our History and Future Back: Some Thoughts on THAT Doctor Who news

20131011-035111.jpg

It was TV’s razing of Alexandria – the BBC, in order to save money, decided that it would be a smart idea to wipe the masters of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army and Z-Cars. Logistically it makes a sort of sense – this was an age before VCRs and DVDs and MP4s, and TV was ephemeral, made to be viewed once and once only. Culturally, however, it was a crime.

It’sDoctor Who – analysed, examined, collated Doctor Who – where this loss is most keenly felt. We don’t have landmarks like William Hartnell’s last story, or the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, or most of Patrick Troughton’s run. There’s a 106 episode hole where the sixties should be.

That changed at midnight, officially at least: nine of those missing episodes have been found in Nigeria. It’s the great birthday surprise of the 50th anniversary, and it will be celebrated as a restoration of the show’s history, but it’s not that simple.

Among fandom the show’s core texts are known as the canon, but it’s a pre-Council of Trent canon where no-one’s entirely sure what counts. And, because so much is missing, received wisdom takes hold. Stories that haven’t been seen since older fans were watching grainy black and white broadcasts at the age of seven are known as classics because of a single memorable image, or because the novelisation made it into a lot of libraries, or because an actor cites it as a favourite.

This means that fan wisdom is mutable – stories are downgraded from classic status as various fans mature or lose their influence, or, in rare instances, when a lost story is found again. Everyone held up ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ as the awesomest thing ever until it showed up in Hong Kong and everyone got to watch it. Now the perception is very different.

So the discovery of ‘Web of Fear’ and ‘The Enemy of the World’ doesn’t just restore the show’s past, it helps secure its future. Doctor Who has a fantastic tradition of fan involvement and so the community, both the people making the show and those watching it, are going to be all over this; I already suspect the production team knew what was happening, based on a least one recent story decision. This discovery doesn’t lock history down or preserve it in amber; instead it’s going to inspire debate and discussion and arguments, blog posts and cosplay. We’re going to see nine new episodes, effectively; we thought we had them pegged but now we get to see them with new eyes.

It also gives hope that there are more discoveries still to be made. After all, yesterday there were 106 missing episodes; now we’re down to double digits. It may be overly optimistic to expect more, but Doctor Who has a weird habit of defying the odds.

So happy anniversary, everyone; now let’s get ready to enjoy Yeti in the Underground again.

(Shameless plug: I’ve got more posts on Doctor Who here

Thank You, Matt Smith

20130602-215247.jpg

So. The Matt Smith news.

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for years, and so I’ve been forced to become used to the idea of change; ever since William Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who has changed and adapted and, well, regenerated, so that when news of Smith’s departure broke yesterday evening, it was less a crisis and more another turn of the wheel. A song ends, but the story goes on forever.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a little sad; Smith’s been great and it feels like maybe he had another year in him that we missed out on, what with production schedules and split-seasons and all that behind-the-scenes stuff that Andrew Pixley will meticulously document in years to come. Smith has brought a lot to the table and it would have been nice to see more of it.

It’s funny; for all his Doctor has been at the centre of big, complex story arcs, it’s the quieter stuff I’ll miss; his fairytale-wizard-like empathy with children, his physical and social klutziness, his nerdy enthusiasm underlying his declarations that something else is now cool. I’ll remember his Doctor for telling the young Amy a bedtime story, for showing Van Gogh his legacy, for every conversation he had with the TARDIS in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, for dropping the mic before delivering an epic call to arms.

And yet there are two moments when I saw we had a great Doctor that weren’t even part of the show; Matt Smith’s one of my favourite Doctors because he can explain non-Newtonian fluids on The One Show and because he can admit to a little girl that he finds the Weeping Angels scary. There’s a sense behind both of those clips that Smith understands the part and its role in the UK’s pop culture.

Speculation as to who will play is rife, but last time this happened I was convinced it was going to be Patterson Joseph; we got someone I’d never heard of and he was great. I’m going to trust the producers and just say “thank you Matt.”

And fezes are cool.

Geek Urban Myths: Better than real

And so comedian and Doctor Who fan Toby Hadoke today tweeted some news that broke my heart:

“As there are some who still don’t believe it: I’ve just received written confirmation that Harold Pinter was not in The Abominable Snowmen!”

Okay, some context: for years a story has done the rounds of fandom, that Harold Pinter was hired by the producers of Doctor Who, not as a lauded playwright but in his other role as a jobbing actor. Yes, the man who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was employed to play a yeti-fighting monk. That is, frankly, an awesome story.

Only it’s not true. And I’m gutted.

It’s not that I want all geek myths to be true – I’m glad there’s not really a Munchkin suicide in The Wizard of Oz – but some make the world more interesting. I want Bob Holness to have played the sax solo on ‘Baker Street’; I’m kind of freaked out but intrigued by the idea that the CIA invented a nefarious arcade game. I wish Kate Bush had written a Doctor Who story under a pseudonym, and frankly it now doesn’t matter that Uncle Ben never said “With great power comes great responsibility” in the original comics, the phrase is now deep in Spider-Man’s bones.

Like any other culture, the geek community has evolved a mythology over time. Often that’s based on flat-out misinformation, but it catches on because a need is fulfilled – attaching names like Bush and Pinter to a show traditionally made on a shoe-string grants it a certain legitimacy and credibility; that’s why these stories find themselves embedded in fan culture. It’s probably worth noting that, when Neil Gaiman wrote for Who, his episode got its name from one of the show’s most notorious hoaxes. After all, reinventing mythologies is one of Gaiman’s great strengths.

All of which goes to show, sometimes it’s more fun to print the myth…

Delia Derbyshire Day

Deliaderbyshire

In 2007, the taped archives of one of the most influential figures in British electronic music were delivered to Manchester University in cereal boxes. It was an inauspicious arrival for the legacy of a relatively unsung hero of British culture, although not unprecedented; even an attempt to get her a co-creator credit on her most famous work was foiled by bureaucracy. That’s why today’s Delia Derbyshire Day events are necessary; her work with electronica was incredibly influential and it deserves to be celebrated.

However, while Derbyshire may not be a household name, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with her work, particularly if you’re from the UK.

Because she’s responsible for the Doctor Who theme tune.

She didn’t compose it (that was Ron Grainer), but Derbyshire’s work is key to the theme’s success. Frankly it sounds like nothing else today, let alone on a cold winter in November 1963. The more bombastic arrangements of the relaunch obscure some of the tune’s weirdness – perhaps that’s in line with depicting the Doctor as a more obviously heroic character, rather than William Hartnell’s unpredictable, unnerving portrayal. The Derbyshire arrangement is scary; not too scary, of course, but disconcerting, promising something alien emerging from the dark. And yet it’s also futuristic, in the sixties sci-fi sense of the world. It’s a soundscape as much as a tune, and you can’t quite identify what instruments or gadgets are being used.

I remember worried internet discussions in 2005 – would Russell T. Davies use the police box? The Daleks? The theme tune? In retrospect it’s unthinkable; the theme tune is a fundamental part of the show’s DNA. When the writers wanted to illustrate the madness of the Master, they had John Simm tap a four-beat rhythm on a table. It was meant to represent the double heartbeat of a Time Lord, but let’s not kid ourselves, it was the bass line for the best theme tune on TV. And much of that is thanks to Delia Derbyshire, who created something that so inhabits a show that it leaks into the fiction.

With 50 years of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine Doctor Who as a newborn programme, with no history or legacy or reputation, no rabid fanbase to fight its corner. It was the new kid on the block, and in an era of casual, institutional racism and sexism, it’s a story in itself how Doctor Who was put together by ‘outsiders’ – a female producer, for instance, and a gay, Indian director. It’s a weird mix of the reactionary and the progressive, which mirrors some of the early themes of the show – Derbyshire falls firmly into the progressive camp. Sure, she’s best known for Doctor Who, but she worked with Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono. A fantastic theme tune would be achievement enough, but Derbyshire’s legacy is more expansive than that. It’s good to see Band on the Wall bringing that to a wider audience. Let’s hope it gets Delia the recognition she deserves.

Happy 49th Anniversary, Doctor Who

“To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence... When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing For Children

48 years ago, when the world was black and white and mist-shrouded, a new TV show, one that would go on to become my favourite, emerged into the public consciousness with the image of a sixties police box sitting incongruously in a junkyard. Doctor Who, for much of its history, has been a show aimed at children – for a while, adults claimed it, and expanded its horizons, but upon its relaunch in 2005, it was placed back in the hands of 12 year olds. Rightly so; this is where it belongs.

Meanwhile, I have a small army of Daleks on my coffee table and a Sonic Screwdriver sitting on one of my bookcases. I’m 36 now, by most standards I’m too old for toys, and yet it’s more complicated than that – Doctor Who exists, for many of its fans, in the memory of their childhood and as part of the mythology of childhood. Nowadays this is front and centre – the 11th Doctor is as much a big kid as he is a scarily intelligent 900 year old alien – with plots revolving around children or their absence. It’s not so much that the adult world is impotent, but that the world of children is important and mythic on a level that the adults in the show can’t always understand. This is a show where the main character claims to speak Baby. Should I grow out of the show? Maybe it’ll happen, but I don’t feel the need to throw away my Gallifrey University t-shirt and start watching The Only Way Is Essex.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Maybe there’s something else attractive about the show’s connection to childhood – the ability to look at the world in a different way for a while. The TARDIS Eruditorum makes the claim that Doctor Who is a show about running and escape, and while it’s not just about those, they’re sitting there at the very beginning: “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” the Doctor asks in the very first episode, “Susan and I are cut off from our own planet – without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day….”

This makes sense – despite its original remit to educate children in such down to earth things as science and history, Doctor Who is fundamentally escapist, either making something magical or scary out of the ordinary – police boxes, shop dummies, DVD extras – or catapulting the ordinary into the depths of space and history. The first episode was delayed slightly because of the Kennedy assassination; Doctor Who was born into a world that could use a little escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because escaping from things that are constricting, imprisoning, stifling, is a positive thing – escape, make it to the brow of the nearest hill and see a whole new world laid out before you, one that you could previously only dream of because everyone told you your imagination was too silly.

“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman, riffing on a line from GK Chesterton

Yet imagination has dark corners – the monster under your bed, the bogeyman in your closet. Those are childhood fears, of course, but they eventually give way to other concerns – illness, redundancy, the breakdown of relationships. These are the monsters we fight, metaphorically, and a show like Doctor Who, that was slammed for its portrayal of monsters but that came out the other side, helps give us the metaphorical tools to fight back. We know there are bad things out there, the problem is not giving in to pessimism and despair and the belief that the monsters are all-powerful. Sometimes it’s important to see them beaten, to watch them fall and know that victory is possible.

But wait, it’s about more than just proving that monsters can be beaten – Doctor Who suggests that monsters can be beaten, not by bullets and bombs, but imagination, intelligence and laughter. It’s not enough to prove that your enemies can be defeated; you have to be able to live with that victory without becoming a monster yourself. If Doctor Who can promote the idea that picking up a book is better than picking up a gun – or, say, an abusive text message – then it’s served a noble purpose.

And so I’ll figure out a way to celebrate the birthday of my favourite show, and I’ll look forward to new episodes, because there’s nothing else like it on TV. It’s the glorious story of a madman in a box, and I love it: Happy Birthday, Doctor Who.