Doctor Who, the story so far

(Originally written 1999; updated for 2013).

I’ve been told I need to “lighten up”, so this blog post is a departure from my usual stodgy subject matter of the law-technology-politics interface, instead covering another thing which has fascinated me since I was a child: Doctor Who; I’m posting now, having almost finished work for the day, as in about an hour, they could well Spoil the show by revealing the Doctor’s name.

The last time this was about to happen was in the late 80s, when the Doctor was taunted about his identity by his enemies, and then asked by Ace who he was, and began “I am …”. But then the credits rolled. This episode, “Silver Nemesis”, was apparently supposed to end with the Doctor saying “I am Rassilon”, namely the co-founder of his planet’s society, and the writer for that episode didn’t know much about Doctor Who and thought the Doctor was God. Interestingly just before “Silver Nemesis” ends, the Doctor is playing chess, and lays down his king in resignation. This scene was paralleled last year in “The Wedding of River Song”, when again the Doctor is playing chess and strategically lays down his king. In the first story it was supposed to be an allegory for the crucifixion.

Who is the Doctor, and what is the Doctor?

Doctor Who as a story has lasted as long as it has because of its peculiar economics: the main actor playing the character can be killed off and replaced with someone else. The stories can be set anywhere and any time. This means stories in particular settings don’t need to introduce fresh characters each time, as we have the Doctor and his companions. There are a couple of other shows which work this way: the Goons and Blackadder spring to mind.

The other relevant economic aspect of the old series of the show is that it didn’t have a very large budget; this was part of its charm, but it also meant it couldn’t afford top flight producers, directors, writers, actors etc. Practically no-one involved in the old series is remembered for anything other than their connection with that series, except for the first producer, Verity Lambert, and Douglas Adams, who was script editor in the 1970s.

Inventing new characters and monsters and so on is expensive, and so the show gradually re-used monsters from its past (culminating in its 25th anniversay season where it did this every episode). You’d often notice a newly introduced monster, character or location would be back next season, and returning writers would bring their favourite monsters back with them. Eventually a couple of grand narratives emerged from the stories, and the show went on so long that three separate continuities can be identified:

  • the initial setup: we discover that the Doctor is not human, that he is instead a Time Lord living in exile and battling the Daleks and so on
  • in “Genesis of the Daleks” the history of the Daleks is rewritten, and the more interventionist part of the Time Lords’ government uses him as a somewhat willing agent advancing their agenda against the Daleks and other enemies; the Time Lords turn out to be rotten
  • from “Silver Nemesis” and “Remembrance of the Daleks”, it transpires that there is something special about the Doctor himself and not as he seems, but the show went on hiatus at this point

Beyond all this space opera tracery, what was fairly constant about the Doctor was that he would do what was right. He is supposed to be the good guy, and even when he is contemplating effective genocide (in “Genesis of the Daleks”) or murder (of the Daleks’ creator in a subsequent Dalek-related story), he was always clearly and thoughtfully doing what was morally right; the Third and Sixth Doctors were truest to this, often lecturing and hectoring people on moral grounds. In the original series, he always shown as fearless, though this is not true of the renewed series, which also gives him some sort of romantic life.

Politically, the Doctor seemed to have be a bit of a neocon, not the lefty that the media seems to have thought he was in “The Happiness Patrol”.

The new series has changed a lot of things: the production values are much better, particularly the writing, and the Doctor has fear and romance. What also seems to have changed is that there is supposed to be something special about the Doctor himself, as distinct from the Time Lords. He now seems to be of cosmic significance, which loses some of the original charm of the show, “but Doctor, the landslide will destroy the whole village!”. The new producer, who made the 1990s Comic Relief spoof of Doctor Who (in which the Doctor is played by Richard E Grant, and a woman …) loves getting characters to give long speeches saying why the Doctor is so great; these speeches are in “The Curse of Fatal Death” just as much as “Last of the Time Lords”, where they seem to have some sort of magical effect. Sydney Newman, one of the show’s co-creators, who’d never read Hamlet despite running BBC Drama, always said an serial should have only one unbelievable thing in it, and the new series depart from that seriously. The show needs to keep one foot on the ground.

There’s a much better environment now, too: the show was derailed in the 1970s by Mary Whitehouse. This censorious woman was engaged in a culturally destructive crusade, and stooped to bringing a criminal prosecution for sexual assault against a theatre director on the basis of eyewitness evidence obtained from someone sat in the back row. The BBC feared her, and she used her clout to get Doctor Who’s producer moved onto other projects. The show had been on a high, and never really recovered.

I hope the question marks remain about the man, and we don’t find out his name, or that Clara is the Doctor or is River Song or something, but we’ll see in a few minutes ..

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