Who’s to blame
A lifelong Doctor Who fan thinks the Tardis has been knocked off course by 'fanwankery'.
I’m a lifelong fan of the science fiction series Doctor Who. Yes, that kind of fan – the kind who revels in the minutiae and trivia of the Doctor Who mythos, who goes to conventions (although I draw the line at dressing up), and who as a youth once wrote a letter to the BBC demanding that it resurrect the programme. Now us fans have had our wish granted – a new season of Doctor Who is now showing on BBC1, and a follow-up season has already been announced, albeit with a different lead actor. What to make of all of this?
For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who, it concerns an alien being called the Doctor, who travels through time and space righting wrongs, usually accompanied by one or more companions. The Doctor’s origins were kept mysterious in early stories, but it subsequently transpired that he’s an itinerant Time Lord, from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. The Doctor’s vehicle, and the programme’s best-known visual icon, is a TARDIS – an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space – which he stole from Gallifrey. The TARDIS, an obsolete Type 40 TT capsule, usually resembles a 1950s police box. Although it’s supposed to be capable of changing its external appearance, its chameleon circuit broke down after it assumed the form of a police box in the Doctor’s first adventure.
The TV series originally ran for 26 years, from November 1963 to December 1989. Its longevity was helped by the fact that the Doctor periodically ‘regenerates’, acquiring a new body and personality, and his companions come and go. This means that whenever actors are unwilling or unable to continue in their roles – as apparently happened with the latest actor to play the Doctor, Christopher Eccleston – they can be replaced without jeopardising the ongoing story.
Doctor Who was originally intended to be a family programme with an educational component, the education consisting of scientific and historical facts presented in an entertaining way for children. But the series changed considerably over the 26 years of its original run. It encompassed a wealth of different styles and subjects, from the infantile to the austere, from tacky camp to gothic horror to hard science fiction. The programme always struggled with budget limitations, hence its reputation for unconvincing monsters and creaky cardboard sets. But in the best stories, these limitations were either ingeniously circumvented, or were subordinated to scripts, acting and direction that encouraged the audience to suspend its disbelief.
From the beginning, Doctor Who was more than just a TV series. There were films, plays, radio stories, novels, and comic books, and there was a wealth of related merchandise. These offshoots varied considerably, in the extent to which they were consistent with the facts presented in the TV series. And the TV series was itself pretty inconsistent – something not helped by the fact that when time travel is your central plot device, chronology goes out of the window. Consequently, a mass of (often conflicting) arcana were accumulated, that were a gift to anyone with a fetish for poring obsessively over quirky detail.
Key to Doctor Who‘s distinctiveness is the fact that it is simultaneously a popular programme, widely known and fondly (though vaguely) remembered, and an ongoing obsession for a subculture of fans. There’s an inevitable tension between these two, which became increasingly apparent during the last decade of the programme’s original run, and that has afflicted every attempt to resurrect it since – including the latest incarnation.
The concerns of programme makers seeking to entertain a broad family audience are not the same as the concerns of devoted fans seeking to establish an internally consistent fictional universe. There’s actually plenty of geeky fun to be had trying to square this circle – no, really, there is – by thinking up ways of rationalising inconsistencies in the programme’s content, or ‘discontinuities’ in fan parlance. Sensible Doctor Who fans acknowledge, and even write books about the tension between Who as popular entertainment and Who as cult phenomenon, and have coined an (affectionately) disparaging term for stories that put continuity before quality – ‘fanwank’.
Casual and dedicated Doctor Who fans alike disagree over which was the greatest era of the series, and often have a nostalgic attachment to whichever era they experienced during their formative years, hence the oft-heard expression ‘so-and-so was my Doctor’. But generally speaking, fanwankery came to supersede the programme’s popular appeal during the 1980s. For instance, the twentieth anniversary season, broadcast in 1983, made a point of featuring an element of the programme’s past in every single story.
This tendency alienated general viewers, who were neither up to speed with nor especially interested in this level of detail. Ironically, this tendency also alienated the finicky fans, because the well-meaning programme makers would inevitably get this kind of detail wrong. It would probably have been best for all concerned if the programme makers had just set out to make good TV, and had left it up to the fans to construct their own peculiar brand of mental furniture out of the results.
It’s no accident that of the seven actors to play the Doctor on TV during the series’ original run, the first four – William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker – are the most fondly remembered by the public, while the virtues of the last three – Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – are extolled chiefly by dedicated fans. The specific talents of each actor notwithstanding, this is because the former presided over the series during its popular, accessible heyday, whereas the latter presided over the series while it became more cultish and inward-looking.
This cultivation of the dedicated fan didn’t stop when the original series was cancelled in 1989. ‘Canonical’ Doctor Who may have disappeared from our screens, but ‘apocryphal’ Doctor Who – yes, we do use this Biblical terminology, don’t laugh – continued regardless. Not a year has gone by since 1989 without the Doctor’s adventures continuing, whether in print, online, or in audio form. Audio stories in particular have flourished in recent years, with numerous actors who played the Doctor and his companions on TV reprising their roles – the obvious advantages of the audio medium being that it disguises ageing, and that budget limitations are no obstacle to ambitious storytelling.
Then there’s the international convention circuit, which provides anyone who ever had a substantial role in the series – before or behind the cameras – with endless opportunities to share their reminiscences, sign autographs, and sell publicity photos. This is a useful way of tapping into fans’ disposable income, if you’re a TV alumnus with your best years behind you.
Most of this post-1989 Who-related activity has taken place beneath the mainstream radar. There was a one-off attempt to resurrect Doctor Who on TV in 1996, with an ill-received feature-length US/UK coproduction starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. The tension between the fanwank tendency and the populist tendency was so palpable in this effort, it was as though someone had concocted it as an elaborate prank, just to wind everyone up.
As of 2005, we have a bona fide new season of Doctor Who, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. And judging by the evidence so far, the programme makers have cut the Gordian knot of pleasing both the fans and the public, using the sword of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style self-deprecation. Just as that series establishes an intricate horror mythology, while simultaneously demolishing it by tipping a wink to the audience, so the rapid-fire alternation between geeky detail and sassy quips in the new Doctor Who seeks to humour fans’ preoccupations, while reassuring the general audience that it’s all a bit of a silly lark really.
This strategy seems to have been successful. Audience figures for the first episode of the new series were high, while the fan reaction was largely favourable. Personally, I don’t care for this approach at all. I prefer to willingly suspend my disbelief, rather than being corralled into an ironic perspective by some insecure smartarse. And I like it when programme makers have the good grace to take material like Doctor Who seriously in its own terms, regardless of how ridiculous those terms are. But maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, who’s spent too much of his life absorbed in fanwank. Apparently, it can make you blind.
In any case, the series still has potential. It always will. With a premise as flexible as ‘alien travels through time and space righting wrongs’, the possibilities for making either brilliant or dire TV are pretty much unlimited.
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