Doctor Who: Degeneration of a time lord
Doctor Who has evolved from a threatening anti-establishment figure, laments Eddie Ford, to a patriotic defender of the status quo
Unless you were holidaying on the dark side of the moon, you could not have missed the hype surrounding the 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who, entitled ‘The day of the Doctor’. A national occasion almost as important as a royal wedding. It would be unpatriotic not to watch and enjoy the programme!
The special episode was described as a “love letter to fans” by the show’s producer, Marcus Wilson. As for Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC One, he called it an “event drama”. According to the writer of the show, Steven Moffat, he set out to “change the narrative” of Doctor Who and claimed - or boasted - that it is the “most ambitious episode we’ve ever done”.
Prior to its screening on November 23, we had a couple of warm-up acts. ‘The night of the doctor’, a seven-minute special, was released on November 14, while a second special, lasting just four minutes, was screened on November 20. This episode, entitled ‘The last day’, portrayed the fall of Arcadia, a city on the home planet of the time lords, which gets invaded by a fleet of Daleks and becomes the venue for the Last Great Time War, around which ‘The day of the Doctor’ is centred.
Symbolically, it opened with the show’s original credit sequence from 1963. For the programme, David Tennant reprised his role as the 10th Doctor and Billie Piper starred again as Rose Tyler. Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor, made a brief debut, while Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor) made a cameo appearance. The other thing of interest, at least if you are a fan, is that ‘The day of the Doctor’ saw the return of the Zygons, shape-shifting aliens desperate to colonise Earth who had previously only appeared in the 1975 serial, Terror of the Zygons.
As for the actual programme, apart from featuring the usual frenetic Doctor we have unfortunately come to expect, it was meandering and fairly incomprehensible - probably totally baffling, in fact, to anyone who was not a dedicated Whovian. Still, in the words of the BBC’s official synopsis: “The Doctors embark on their greatest adventure in this 50th anniversary special. In 2013, something terrible is awakening in London’s National Gallery; in 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; and somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor’s own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.”
Naturally, the devout lapped it up. The last few minutes of the show “affected me quite deeply,” wrote near legendary fan Neil Perryman,1 on The Guardian website. He admitted that some of the details “didn’t make a lot of sense on first viewing”, but refused to be deterred: “I don’t care. I’ll be watching it again this evening.” And again and again ...
So it came to pass that more than 10 million people in the UK tuned in to see the show on November 23. At its peak. It comfortably beat the odious X factor on ITV, which was seen by a relatively paltry 7.7 million people. Then again, some things never change and the hideously boring Strictly come dancing was the most popular show that night, peaking at a terrifying 11.7 million viewers. The UK viewing figures for Doctor Who were the highest since the 2010 Christmas special - and they do not take into account people who recorded the show or watched it later on iPlayer, so the numbers are likely to rise once consolidated figures become available. The new opium of the people.
Furthermore, ‘The day of the Doctor’ was broadcast in 94 countries at the same time as it was aired on the BBC - earning it a Guinness World Record as the world’s “largest ever simulcast of a TV drama”. The worldwide broadcast included 3D screenings in more than 1,500 cinemas, from Russia to Ethiopia. Milk it for every penny. Doctor Who, like many BBC shows, is a global product and the corporation is heavily dependent these days on overseas sales. From the stance of naked commerciality, ‘The day of the Doctor’ is a bit of a super-weapon in the never-ending and ruthlessly competitive ratings wars.
As part of this ceaseless struggle, it is the role of BBC Worldwide to promote BBC products. A commercial subsidiary of the corporation, it exists to exploits BBC brands abroad with the aim of supplementing the income received by the BBC through the licence fee. Thus last year it made a £125 million profit on a turnover of £1.116 billion, representing a profit rate of 11.2%.2 Tim Davie, the chief executive officer of BBC Worldwide, stressed the military-like planning ‘The day of the Doctor’, which was “unprecedented” - not just because it was a “live feed event” unlike a World Cup football match or a royal wedding, but because “we had to deliver the episode in advance to the four corners of the world so that it could be dubbed and subtitled into 15 different languages”. Davie was more than happy with results though. “If there was any doubt that Doctor Who is one of the world’s biggest TV shows,” he declared, then November 23 and the accolade from Guinness “put that argument to rest”. Doctor Who is a glittering jewel in the BBC empire.
Predictably, these showings across the world attracted droves of Whovians in fancy dress, including bow ties, fezzes, fake sonic screwdrivers, Dalek outfits, Cybermen costumes, K-9 replicas, rubbery Tardis time machines (another profitable concern, of course), etc. The British Film Institute in London held a gala event to mark the broadcast and was attended by past and present cast members - not to mention scores of others from the show business world, keen to be seen doing their bit for Who and country. Showing the extent of Whomania, professor Brian Cox - insipid science heartthrob - fronted The science of Doctor Who on November 14, where he revealed the “science behind the spectacle” and kindly explained “the physics” behind Doctor Who. How does the Tardis travel through space and time? Cox took us on a stroll through speculative theories about time travel, alien life forms, first contact and so on. The professor concluded that “we may not have the freedom” that Doctor Who has, but “we have more freedom than you think”. Thanks, Brian.
On one level the Cox show was mere innocent entertainment, maybe even mildly informative about this or that. Who is not fascinated by Fermi’s paradox3 or the Drake equation4? But in some respects it misses the point. Frankly, it is stretching things to call present-day Doctor Who science fiction, let alone impart it with any great profundity, scientifically or philosophically. The show has long degenerated into a mawkish and self-fulfilling fantasy, for all the pretence of sophistication and maturity. The doctor’s sonic screwdriver has developed into a Harry Potter-style magic wand and the Tardis increasingly operates as a get-out-of-jail free device. Given that almost anything can happen at any time, regardless of internal logic or coherence, nothing really seems to matter. Galactic fluff.
This regression is reflected in the way that Doctor Who has been portrayed over the years. Initially, without wanting to push the argument too far, he was a distinctly threatening figure - a morally ambiguous and mysterious anti-establishment outsider, as exemplified by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton (the first and second doctor respectively). You were never entirely sure who or what he was or where his allegiances lay.
Indeed, at times - something not so often talked about these days - he exhorted the citizens and subjects of alien planets to insurrection to achieve their liberation, if not quasi-proletarian revolution. Many episodes, in fact, were written by leftwingers with an overt political agenda - who, of course, had fun borrowing famous aphorisms and phrases - ‘Have no faith in princes on high’. ‘You have nothing to lose but your chains!’ The BBC directors doubtlessly did not have a clue, any more than they cottoned on to the salacious content of Captain Pugwash. Interestingly enough, we can find an example of the Doctor’s revolutionary leanings in the prose story, ‘In case of emergencies’, that can be found in the 2007 anthology, Short trips: snapshot.5 Here, the doctor in 1910 checks into a London hotel and befriends a lift operator who he discovers is actually an alien mechanism designed to precipitate a revolution on Earth - to which the doctor has no objection.
During the dark days of the 1980s, Doctor Who could be even less subtle than that - not that there is any inherent virtue to subtlety, it has to be said. As the Daily Mail headline from February 10 2010 disapprovingly puts it, “BBC scriptwriters tried to use Doctor Who to bring down Margaret Thatcher”.6 We go on to read that “leftwing scriptwriters hired by the BBC during the 1980s tried to inspire a ‘Tardis revolution’ by using Doctor Who as propaganda to undermine the Tory prime minister.” Shockingly, quivers the paper, in one serial they “caricatured” Margaret Thatcher as a “vicious and egotistical alien ruler” who banned outward displays of unhappiness among her downtrodden people and used the secret police to oppress dissidents.
This is a reference to ‘The happiness patrol’, which was broadcast in November 1988.7 Helen A, the vicious ruler in question, is the overlord of a human colony on Terra Alpha and makes happiness compulsory - brutally subjugating the population through a regime of systematic executions carried out by a pathological killer robot, Kandy Man. Eventually, encouraged by the Doctor, the Pipe People - who toiled in the factories and mines - down their tools and revolt. In 2010 Sylvester McCoy (seventh Doctor) told The Sunday Times: “Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered”. Perhaps in a sign of the times we live in, the Kandy Man episode was labelled one of the 50 most shameful TV moments in a 2005 Channel 5 show of the same name.
On the other hand, Doctor Who always had a reactionary side to him - making him a contradictory figure, but arguably all the more interesting for it. He may have stirred up revolution, but the Doctor was clearly an emblem of British imperialism at its most plucky. Made more than clear by the Daleks, obvious Nazi substitutes who go round screaming, “Exterminate, exterminate!” (genocide, genocide!). Classically, in ‘The Dalek invasion of Earth’, shown in November-December 1964, the Daleks invade and conquer London - which generates an ‘anti-fascist’ resistance movement led by war heroes and the Doctor. This archetypal Doctor Who story found another outing through the 1966 movie featuring Peter Cushing as the doctor, Daleks - invasion Earth: 2150 AD8 (which terrified me as a kid).
Indicatively, there were an increasing number of episodes that saw the Doctor - particularly from Jon Pertwee (third doctor) onwards - basing himself in London and strongly identifying with an organisation called Unit (Unified Intelligence Taskforce9). Unit was an explicitly British, militaristic, pro-imperialist organisation personified by the stiff-upper-lip, Scottish-born, brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (who first encounters the doctor in the rather scary Quatermassian 1968 episodes, ‘The web of fear’, when he commands a British army detachment investigating Yeti activity in the London underground). Over time the Doctor has become more and more integrated into the British establishment - though it is certainly an imperialism that is no longer covered in glory. Rather, a declining imperialism looking for a purpose - the Doctor himself still had flashes of progressive conscience, which, alas, became rarer as the series trundled on.
Doctor Who’s conflicted nature provided a stark contrast to the triumphalist tone of US science fiction TV shows, the ultimate, of course, being the original Star trek series. Captain ‘JFK’ Kirk and his nominally multicultural crew aboard the USS Enterprise have absolutely no moral qualms about their historic mission, which is to explore the “final frontier”, just as Captain Kirk’s antecedents had moved west centuries before - spreading US civilisation, conquering the aboriginal population and defeating all colonial/imperialist rivals.
Unlike his previous incarnations, the contemporary Doctor Who - as revealed by the November 23 big-budget extravaganza - is a safe defender of the status quo: all his contradictions have been ironed out. Succumbing to a fate far worse than anything the Daleks had planned for him, Doctor Who is part of the modern establishment’s cultural and ideological identity - an image they want to project domestically and abroad. Tellingly, the Doctor is now a pacifist who associates with prettified monarchs, as opposed to seditious miners .
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Happiness_ Patrol.
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Daleks_%E2%80%93_Invasion_ Earth:_2150_A.D.