Police Boxes, Wardrobes, and Potential Cracks in the Pavement (or what I thought of Doctor Who)

Doctor Who, my favourite TV show ever, embarked upon a new era on Saturday. This isn’t anything new; it’s what Doctor Who does, periodically reinventing itself when an actor or producer leaves. Change is in its DNA, but fans always get twitchy about it – it’s one of the biggest shows on TV, but deep down we’re just waiting for it all to fall apart and return to the wilderness years of 1990-2004. It’s fan paranoia (one of the internet’s major food groups). So when the Matt Smith (11th Doctor)/Steven Moffat (producer) era kicked off on Saturday…

I could go in to what Doctor Who’s about, and there’s 47 years of continuity so it would take a long time, so I won’t bother. All you really need to know is that it’s about a bonkers alien and various friends who travel through time and space in a sixties police box fighting monsters.

Oh, and the police box is really a disguised time machine that’s bigger on the inside than the outside.

And it doesn’t work properly.

Also, despite what it sounds like, Doctor Who isn’t science fiction, not really. Star Wars isn’t science fiction either, it’s a fantasy road movie in space, with sci-fi excuses for wizards, Dark Lords and magic. Doctor Who, meanwhile, may be full of spaceships and aliens and futuristic technology, but at its heart, going into that police box is like walking into CS Lewis’s wardrobe, where the mundane gives way to the extraordinary. Or, on a more primal level, it’s about the monsters under your bed.

That’s something that’s already more apparent in the show’s new era. When Doctor Who re-emerged from the wilderness in 2005, under the leadership of producer Russell T Davies, one of the major keys to its success (other than not treating the show as a joke and getting serious talent involved) was the way it balanced the sci-fi lunacy with a domestic/emotional side, hence themes of unrequited love and what happens to those left behind when someone they care about discovers a new life. Okay, there were bigger themes going on, all hubris and ethics, but looking back it’s interesting how many of the key scenes in the Davies/Eccleston/Tennant era were two people talking about feelings. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it did.

(Let’s not write off the science fiction thing too easily though – Doctor Who is still a show that respects and promotes learning and knowledge, set in a world where being curious is better than being willfully ignorant, where knowing stuff is better than not knowing stuff. The science used in the show is pretty much nonsense, but the concept is still important, which is closer to science fiction than fantasy.)

Steven Moffat was one of the writers during the Davies period, and for my money was the guy who came up with some of the most striking images – the Doctor on a horse jumping into pre-revoluntionary France through a mirror, clockwork robots lurking in the shadows beneath your bed, statues that moved when you weren’t looking at them. Scary stuff, but tapping into fairy stories and folk tales more so than Davies’ fears of separation, abandonment and loneliness, and thankfully not going down the crass and obvious slasher flick route (not that you’d get away with that at twenty-past-six on a Saturday teatime, but still).

There’s a quotation from GK Chesterton that Neil Gaiman (who, in a long overdue development, will be writing for Doctor Who next year) paraphrases in Coraline – "Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten." That seems to be a pretty good summary of Doctor Who (and fairy/folk tales in general), especially when you combine it with another Chesterton quote, "moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is found in levity." There have been comments made that suggest Doctor Who is somehow lesser than the Battlestar Galactica remake because BSG is political and dark, a post-911 world in space. And I have no problem with saying that Battlestar Galactica was a fantastic piece of work but it’s not funny. It’s also, quite often, about the monstrous – genocide, war crimes, treachery and the darker angels of human nature. Doctor Who meanwhile is less about the monstrous and more about laughing at the monstrous (at, not with, mind you). Because the monsters can be beaten and sometimes they can even be mocked. Heck, if they couldn’t what would be the point of satire?

(There’s possibly something to say about how the show links in with the folkloric concept of the Otherworld or Fairyland but I can’t shape my thoughts around that one yet, especially as the best episodes of Doctor Who take place either in the present day or a recognisable point in history, albeit one with weird stuff going on. That’s probably another reason for its success – tell me about a spaceship in the future and it’s mundane; tell me about a spaceship in the present and I’ll wonder what people were really seeing; however, tell me about mysterious airships in the past and suddenly you’ve got yourself a story…)

So anyway, to get back to the point, Steven Moffat has taken over as producer and from his first episode you can see a change in direction, with a shift towards a Tim Burton inspired ‘dark fairytale’, where there are more doors in your house than you thought there were (a brilliantly creepy concept) and where the Big Bad for the series seems to be a crack in a wall (and you have no idea how much I hope they do something about avoiding the cracks in the pavement…because that’s a childhood nightmare right there) and where the words "Silence will fall" have a foreboding resonance, especially in a show where words, knowledge, jokes and generally just talking are some of the chief virtues. And that’s a wider issue, because how often do we run into real world problems caused by a lack of talking and/or listening? Okay, the threat there is noise, not silence, but the principle’s still there.

But still, enough philosophising. I’ve written eleven paragraphs and I haven’t actually said what I thought about Saturday’s episode – well, I thought it was great, Matt Smith was fantastic and I’m psyched for the rest of the season.

Might even watch it from behind the sofa. You know, for old times’ sake.

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