Tag Archives: Dr who

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

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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

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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.

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.

Happy Birthday Sylvester McCoy & Sophie Aldred

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They say that ‘your’ Doctor is the one you watched when you were twelve, old enough to be a fan and young enough to not be cynical. I’m not sure if this is exactly my story, as I came to Doctor Who through the books, but it’s true to say that Sylvester McCoy is ‘my’ Doctor.

This is ironic, because Sylvester’s era seemed almost deliberately designed to not be particularly new-viewer-friendly. The show was falling out of favour at the BBC and so the McCoy years weren’t blessed with intensive advertising or Radio Times covers. The show was moved from Saturday nights into a kamikaze head-to-head battle with Coronation Street, and so the era was perhaps the moment that Doctor Who became a genuine niche interest rather than something aiming for the mainstream.

Now, the reason I came to Doctor Who through the books rather than the TV show itself was that I visited my grandmothers on Saturdays and had no control over what was seen on television. Therefore, when Doctor Who shifted to a midweek transmission, I was probably one of the few viewers they actually gained, with me watching Sylvester’s debut on a battered portable television in my bedroom.

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (who played Ace) deserved better than that. Their era was one that started redressing production issues that had been made recently, moving away from continuity porn and sequels to episodes made twenty years ago and towards a darker, more imaginative universe.

This is evident in the persona of the Seventh Doctor. Although the Sixth is often thought of as the ‘difficult’ Doctor, the Seventh is an altogether scarier prospect, one that will burn down your world in a single night if it’ll serve the greater good, one that will help you become the person you could be but not without inflicting a far amount of emotional agony along the way.

This is the strange thing about the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. He’s recast as an almost mythic figure, facing off against ancient gods in a twisted circus, playing chess against cosmic evil and winning through a tricks terms gambit. He’s teamed up with a working class girl from London with mummy issues and a lack of direction.

In a way it’s similar to the template used in 2005’s reboot, but while Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was a broken survivor, Sylvester’s Doctor was at the height of his powers, delivering what could have been seen, at the time, as conclusive victories against the Big Two monsters of Doctor Who’s history. This Doctor wasn’t messing around.

We see this most clearly at the climax of ‘The Curse of Fenric’, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor is preventing the villain’s defeat. The only way to win is for the Doctor to emotionally destroy her… And he does.

It’s a stand-out moment for the era, because we already know that the Doctor can be a ruthless manipulator, and that Ace has a world of her own issues to face. It turns out that the Doctor was lying to her, that his dismissal of his friend was all a lie, but there’s enough suspicion cast to make us ask the difficult question – what if he wasn’t lying?

It’s an elephant in the room, and it almost seems like it’s a character flaw crying out for a resolution it never received, on TV at least. And maybe we don’t want it to happen, because while he can be a nasty piece of work, the Seventh Doctor is also incredibly liveable and oddly human. He hates burnt toast and bus stations – don’t we all?

I also like the fact that the McCoy era includes the first mention of Elvis in Doctor Who. It’s almost an accidental mission statement for the programme, drawing on new influences like graphic novels and jazz, rather than complacently being influenced simply by the grand history of the longest running TV show in the world.

The show was suddenly growing up again, realising that there’s a bigger world out there. In that sense, it’s probably appropriate that Ace’s growth from a frustrated, damaged teenager to a confident young woman is the key character arc of the final seasons of the classic series. There’s a moment in ‘Survival’ when it appears that the Doctor is dead and Ace holds his umbrella and wears his hat. She’s ready to take over from him, or at least try, and in a story that’s all about her growing maturity, sexual and otherwise, it’s an important moment.

And so maybe it’s significant that this era was when I joined the show proper, when I made a transition in my fandom. It’s an era of growth and change, one that ironically saw the TV series cancelled but that also saw it evolve into books, comics and CDs. It was the seeds planted in the Sylvester/Sophie years that enabled the 2005 relaunch to stand a fighting chance, with writers cutting their professional teeth on the New Adventures books and building on themes that would later emerge in the new series.

Back when I was young, it felt like the Seventh Doctor era was an ending. Instead it turned out to be a glorious transformation.

Happy birthday, Sylvester and Sophie.