What is Doctor Who?

An Adventure In Space And TimeI can’t let Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary pass without a Whovian post. For me, the highpoint has been Mark Gatiss’s excellent, and wonderfully moving, drama about William Hartnell and the beginning of the whole thing, An Adventure in Space and Time, plus the recovery of The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World. Though I wrote a while ago about Why I Like Doctor Who, I’ve been thinking that that blog entry only answers — or, perhaps, asks — half the question. I might know why I like it, but what is it, exactly, that I like? What is the thing I’m liking when I say I like Doctor Who?

Kim Newman, in his excellent little critical appraisal of the show for BFI TV Classics, offers a few nuggets. It is, he says:

“BBC-TV’s most eccentric saga, at once cosily familiar and cosmically terrifying.”

(Though I wouldn’t say it’s cosmically terrifying in the Lovecraftian sense — something else I wrote about a while back, on Lovecraftian Who. It is, however, most certainly eccentric and cosy.)

It is, he says:

“…a continually rewritten fiction…”

BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who by Kim NewmanWhich answers my own feeling that I don’t really care too much about the continuity, or world-building, aspect of the show. It doesn’t matter to me that, for instance, Atlantis gets its comeuppance in — is it three different ways? They might be alternative Atlantises in alternative time streams. I don’t care. I don’t care either that the Time Lords in The War Games seem to be different to the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin. All I care is that there are good stories, and that each one is in done in, as a lawyer might say, a good and Doctor Who-like fashion.

So, what is a good and Doctor Who-like fashion? What is the essence of this thing called Doctor Who? Newman says:

“Boiled down to its simplest format, Doctor Who is a character actor and a police box.”

The best definition of fantasy, as a genre, comes from, I think, Brian Atterby, who says it is a “fuzzy set”. A fuzzy set is a group of things where we’re more sure of what belongs to the set than why. “Games”, for instance, is a fuzzy set. If you try to define “a game” as, say, “something with rules”, then you realise that some games don’t have rules — childhood make-believe games, for instance — or if you define it as “something done for fun”, then you realise that sports are games done by professionals, and so on. For everything you can say is a defining feature of “a game”, there will always be at least one example of something that is a game, but doesn’t have that feature, yet it shares enough other features with other games to be a game. Doctor Who is a fuzzy set, too. There have been episodes without the Doctor, and stories without the TARDIS, but they were still Doctor Who. Each story simply has to have enough Doctor Who-ish ingredients to overcome any potential non-Doctor Who-ishess, and then it can be classed as Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Weekly 1Of course, Kim Newman was writing about the TV show, and Doctor Who is so much more than that. For me, at the start, although the TV show was the focus of it all, it was such a rare event (only 26 or so episodes per year, a poor-but-perfect 25 minutes each), that other things had to make up the bulk of my Doctor Who focus. And for me, this meant the Target books and the weekly/monthly magazine (as well as an awful lot of making up stories in my head).

Without access to the TV show, you had to be a sort of archeologist, piecing together fragments of the past. Doctor Who and the Web of Fear (cover)The magazine had photos and plot summaries, the books had covers and fleshed-out stories. You married it all together in your own head. I remember, at the Brighton World Horror Convention a couple of years ago, a panel discussing people’s experience of the old black & white classic horror movies, where someone said they first learned of these old horror movies through books and magazines, where all you’d have would be the same small set of stills, and that these stills were full of such promise, it made you long to see the film. But when you got to finally see the film, the result was often a slight disappointment. My experience of much old Doctor Who has been the same. I knew those few oft-recycled stills from the old shows so well, and each new, not-seen-before photo was like a treasure. Seeing the actual shows often came as a shock — mostly, for instance, at how clumsy those fantastic-looking monsters moved (the Ice Warriors, so fearsome, noble and warrior-like in photographs, so clumsy in actual motion). Similarly, though I loved the Third Doctor’s Earth-bound adventures in the novelisations, I found him off-puttingly arrogant and short-tempered in the actual TV shows. But I wonder how much part of my experience of Doctor Who was all about that effort of reconstruction — putting together the stories with the photos, archeologically reconstructing those (as I thought) never-to-be-seen adventures of yesteryear from what remained. Being involved in Doctor Who was as much an effort of imagination as it was of passive appreciation.

Doctor Who, junkyard

I recently re-watched the first ever episode of Doctor Who — still one of its best — and realised how appropriate it is that it all starts in a junkyard. Because, if it’s anything, Doctor Who is a junkyard, a junkyard of the imagination, as much full of wonders as rubbish — and often of things that are both at the same time. Like a junkyard, one of the great charms of Doctor Who is unusual juxtaposition, the fantastic beside the familiar — Daleks trundling over Westminster Bridge, Cybermen emerging from the sewers, a hulking Krynoid charging round the grounds of some old country house, Egyptian mummies in a Victorian Gothic folly.

And, of course, junkyards are full of old things. Doctor Who is full of old things, too. And old things means nostalgia. There are, I’d say, three types of Doctor Who nostalgia. The Making of Doctor WhoThere’s the most obvious one, of revisiting the episodes I watched as a kid — and not just that, but re-experiencing the whole texture of TV back then, something that, for me, is particularly evident in something like The Brain of Morbius, with its gloomy studio feel, its flash-bang effects, and the peculiar look of the period’s video technology, that conjures up a whole aesthetic of that time. Another sort of Doctor Who nostalgia is a borrowed nostalgia that comes from learning about shows from the past that I never saw, and vicariously experiencing other people’s fondness for them — the whole quaintness of Dalekmania, for instance, or realising just how 60s the 60s shows were. But there’s a third sort of nostalgia, which is about how Doctor Who plugs you into a much larger stream of the culture as a whole. Mostly, it has to be said, this comes from the show’s own junkyard mentality, of grabbing ideas from elsewhere and trying them out — Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who does Hammer Horror, or Doctor Who does dinosaurs — but also from the way it makes use, as any long-lived, pulpy kind of story-anthology of its type can’t help but do, of all those stock characters and situations of adventure fiction, or science fiction, or British fiction — the retired colonels, the stuffy bureaucrats, the stodgily unimaginative politicians, the mad scientists, the embittered ex-soliders-turned-mercenaries, the fanatic idealists intent on reshaping the world, the dangerously eccentric millionaires, the disfigured geniuses lurking in catacombs — from the way, then, that it plugs you into a cultural nostalgia for archetypal adventure stories.

Wheetabix QuarkPresiding over this junkyard is, of course, the Doctor — I. M. Foreman from 76 Totters Lane — who lives, and travels, in a box. It may take the outward form of a Police Box, but this is, really “the box” — the telly itself — and it is through this, the medium of telefantasy, that the Doctor travels, changing time zones and planets as you might change channel, then pausing to observe them through his own TV screen. I’ve never really cared that Doctor Who’s effects haven’t been that great; I like, in fact, its very televisualness, its staginess, its sets-and-rubber-monsters-ishness, its wobbly spaceships on strings. Perhaps this is because my initial experience of what Doctor Who was came as much from those still photos and book covers, which allowed my imagination to bring the stories to life way before I got the chance to see them (again, or for the first time) on DVD. And so I know that the TV show itself can only ever be an approximation to the real thing that is Doctor Who, which is formed within my head.

So to me, Doctor Who isn’t just a TV program. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. Particularly, it’s a whole bunch of random, weird stuff shoved haphazardly together, presided over by a cantankerous and oddly changeable proprietor, who occasionally fits these cultural cast-offs and odd bits of the past together into futuristic or fantastic shapes, and puts them to strange but ingenious uses.

When I say Doctor Who is a junkyard, I really do mean it as a compliment.

Sign off with a Zygon...

Sign off with a Zygon…