Viewpoint: 50 years of Doctor Who

From l to r: Nicholas Lockwood, Prof Simon Maskell, Dr Alex Phillips and Andre Finn.

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Andy Sawyer is the Science Fiction librarian in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives

“Despite the hype, it is not an exaggeration to call 23 November 2013 one of the great moments in British television history.

“I was there, of course, with my school-friends on 23 November 1963 to watch the first episode of a new television series Doctor Who. And I was there again the week after to watch the repeat, shown before episode two because, apparently, BBC executives felt that coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination had reduced the potential audience. And I was there when my daughters were children, watching Tom Baker as the Doctor. And I will be there when Matt Smith hands over the keys of the TARDIS to Peter Capaldi, fifty years after William Hartnell created the role.

Vivid portrayal

“Looking back at that first series, “An Unearthly Child”, the wobbly sets and occasionally melodramatic scripts come to mind, but overshadowing them is Hartnell’s vivid portrayal of “The Doctor” as a mysterious, irascible wanderer through time. Why, though, is this family-oriented programme still drawing in enthusiastic audiences fifty years after the first broadcast and eight years after the show’s revival following the inglorious cancellation in 1989?

”The answer is surely the way generations of actors, producers, script-writers and fans have collaborated in creating the Doctor as one of the greatest (perhaps the greatest) characters in British fiction”
The answer is surely the way generations of actors, producers, script-writers and fans have collaborated in creating the Doctor as one of the greatest (perhaps the greatest) characters in British fiction. As developed through various interpretations by succeeding actors, he became part bumbling eccentric, part rebel with a profound moral conscience.

“The TARDIS (the blue police box which became more wonderfully anachronistic with every decade) took the Doctor and his companions through time and space, ensuring a vast range of possible stories and situations.  Even so, combatting monsters and villains every week could have taken the show down the path of outworn formula fiction, except that it already possessed the seeds of its own renewal.  The brilliant solution to William Hartnell’s departure in 1966 was to ensure the show continued by imagining that the Doctor possessed the ability to regenerate his body into a new incarnation at the point of death. This opened up even more possibilities.

“From then on each actor brought a new interpretation to the character, while succeeding script-writers and producers developed a loose but increasingly complex back-story in which the Doctor became a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, defending the human race from the perils of the wider universe (especially the Daleks) and battling his own personal demons. Meanwhile audiences grew up with the series and began to play with its mythology, demanding explanations for the scripts’ throwaway hints and taking positions about the merits of successive Doctors. During the 1989-2005 interregnum, a series of novels kept the series alive. Many of their readers and authors, such as writer Paul Cornell and producer/writers  Russell T. Davis and Steven Moffat, became instrumental in reviving the programme for the 21st century.

”A Doctor Who programme can be a one-off romance or comedy, or an arc spread over several episodes designed to give a clue to the essential enigma of the Doctor”
The “new” Who kept the TARDIS and enough fan-friendly monsters and camp performances for the nostalgia market but added new depth to the scripts. It ensured action aplenty for young viewers and tantalized older ones with stories playing with the dark dilemma of the Doctor: renegade time lord with an ambiguous part-protector, part-obsessive observer relationship with humanity. A Doctor Who programme can be a one-off romance or comedy, or an arc spread over several episodes designed to give a clue to the essential enigma of the Doctor.  The audience “owns” the show enough to care, for instance, whether the Doctor should continue to regenerate into a white male body –there seems no reason within the world of the story why the Doctor, an alien, should reflect only one section of humanity –and argue so passionately about it that hints and disinformation on an international espionage scale appear each time a regeneration is planned.

Ruled by reason and compassion

“While many fictional heroes, such as James Bond, have been re-invented for new audiences, reinvention only goes so far. Bond is still a secret agent with a license to kill. Like Bond, the Doctor is a hero who saves the world, but he is ruled by reason and compassion – rare qualities on prime-time television.  Crucially, his inner essence has never been captured. He appeals to the desire for mystery in us all. We love the back-story “explanations” invented by writers escaping from traps laid by their predecessors – but we know deep inside that this really is the last thing we want. We know that admiring the skill of the writers and actors in deceiving us is our real motive. We know that solutions only lead to more puzzles.

“The question – Doctor WHO? – at the heart of the programme will never go away.”

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