Across the Tellyverse

Jenny Turner

  • Doctor Who
    BBC1
  • Doctor Who: A Critical Reading of the Series by Kim Newman
    BFI, 138 pp, £12.00, December 2005, ISBN 1 84457 090 8

Halfway through the second series of new-century Doctor Who, and it’s looking dicey. The problem became clear to me in episode five, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as the relaunched 1970s arch-villains stamped in their silver moon-boots across the stately home’s front lawn. Fundamentally, they just aren’t Daleks, are they? The first series, the one that was on last year, had Daleks, hordes of them, and what a delight they were: gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them. I wasn’t aware I had missed them until, suddenly, they were back. And back, too, was that sound made when the Doctor is arriving or departing, the scraping, groaning contractions of the Tardis – so wonderful, warm yet terrifying, the sound of childbirth, I always think, as heard by the baby.

When I was young, though – I dimly remember – the Cybermen did seem quite scary, with their blank, square faces and cruel, insatiable appetites for human whatever-it-was. But actually, most of that mystery came not from their appearance, but from their name. Back then, no one really knew what ‘cyber’ meant, though we sensed a sinister power: it was always clear that it meant something geared at some point to take over. This sense of awful potency lasted pretty much through the 1980s, powering the gorgeous prescience and horror of William Gibson’s Neuromancer novels, only to peter out, pretty much, by the mid-1990s, as the dull commercial reality – the real ‘consensual hallucination’, to repurpose Gibson’s phrase – of internet shopping kicked in. There was also, after 1977, the Star Wars problem, and the visual similarity of the Doctor’s second-best adversaries to C3PO, the trite butler-robot. Which is why Cybermen no longer impress us. The metaphorical connections no longer lead adults, at least, to things we find exciting – unlike priests, Nazis, our shabby 1960s and 1970s childhoods. Or so it might appear.

Like everyone else of my generation, I have memories of the Doctor going back for ever, to shows and monsters it’s quite impossible that I ever saw. ‘All lazy writing about Doctor Who,’ Kim Newman writes in his ‘critical reading’ of what he calls ‘the franchise’, ‘trades on the stereotypes of children watching “from behind the sofa”’ – exactly what I remember doing, though in our house we called it the settee. So do I really remember it, or do I just think I do, because I want to join in? Newman confesses that he can ‘confirm the authenticity’ of the sofa stereotype in his own case; so culturally embedded has the trope become that when the now defunct Museum of the Moving Image curated a Doctor Who exhibition in the 1990s, they called it Behind the Sofa. The image, though, is more dynamic than it looks – you hide behind a sofa, basically, in order to peep out – and more contingent: on what you call it, in the first place; on how furniture is organised in sitting-rooms; on family mealtimes, manners, expectations of entertainment; on childrearing philosophies, even. Are parents as relaxed nowadays about letting their kids get terrified as our parents must have been?

The sofa itself, proud resting place of the couch potato, and the Royle family, and so much else imagined to be precious and/or depressing about British life, is not as secure as it used to be in the days when the three-piece suite was centrepiece of every lounge. A yoga teacher I know considers it responsible for back pain, mood disorders, unnecessary Caesarean sections. Every sofa in the land should be burned, he says. If people must watch television they should do it, alert and singular, braced on one of those rubber exercise balls.

Everyone must feel they’ve seen the very first episode, it has been so often described. It begins with a policeman, walking down a foggy street. He glances at the gates of a scruffy old scrapyard and ‘passes’ by, Newman writes, while ‘we – the camera – glide into the scrap merchant’s yard to discover, tucked away in a corner, a police box.’ Meanwhile, two teachers at the local secondary modern are disturbed by the behaviour of a pupil called Susan, and investigate. Susan turns out to be the granddaughter and travelling companion of a strange old man, known only as the Doctor – she was made a relative, it is said, because the writer was uncomfortable with the implications otherwise. The Doctor and Susan are aliens, and live inside the police box, which is really the Tardis, an ineptly camouflaged space-and-time-travel machine. The teachers, Barbara and Ian, will for a while go travelling with the Doctor, too – representing History and Science, the original show’s big themes. ‘An Unearthly Child’ was broadcast on a date to conjure with – 23 November 1963, the day after Kennedy was shot.

The basic concept had come from Sydney Newman, the recently appointed head of drama at the BBC. He was looking for something that would hold children, teenagers and adults in the then-as-now transitional Saturday teatime slot, between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury (only now, teatime is a couple of hours later, and Doctor Who is sandwiched between the dancing competition of the moment and the lottery show). ‘I was intent upon it containing basic factual information that could be described as educational, or at least mind-opening’: Newman was emphatically not interested in ‘bug-eyed monsters’, known to the trade as BEMs.

According to Kim Newman, the show is always most interesting when addressing a large and general audience; it lost its grip, he considers, in the late 1970s, when it forgot how to engage people and began to depend too much on the loyalty of fans. The actors in the leading role proceeded from William Hartnell (1963-66) to Patrick Troughton (1966-69), to Jon Pertwee (1970-74), to Tom Baker (1974-82). Baker is the one everyone remembers, for demographic reasons and because he did it longest, but also because he did it best, animating a Doctor who, as Newman says, ‘thought and felt too fast for any other life-form in the universe’. (Baker recounts in his 1998 autobiography how he came up with his era’s silliest running joke, rebelling when directed to threaten a baddy with a knife: ‘I felt suddenly impatient and then disgusted with the idea of using such a coarse threat in our lovely programme … So I said: “Take me to your leader or I’ll destroy you with this deadly jelly baby” instead.’)

And yet, the show definitely started declining during Baker’s tenure, ‘jumping the shark’ – i.e., dropping with a lurch – in Newman’s view when K9, the robot dog, came along in 1977. Demographics were a problem, the original 1960s children being by this time too old for the programme. Star Wars was another: I remember seeing the massive cinema queues on the television round at my grandma’s house. Also, I wonder about the impact of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978: written by a former Doctor Who script editor, it had to be motivated, on some level, by Douglas Adams’s longing to kill his progenitor.

After Baker, the Doctor continued through three more incarnations, before its eventual suspension – the BBC never called it a cancellation – in 1989. And there have been many others: the 1960s movies with Peter Cushing; spin-off novels, comics, Doctor Who Magazine; CD-based audio-series featuring former Doctor Who stars, living on in sightless parallel with their more glamorous successors. There is debate, among the fans, as to which of these are and are not ‘canonical’ – the question is discussed at conventions, and a great deal on the net. There is also much fan fiction, new material written by fans themselves, sometimes eroticised in surprising directions, sometimes not. A few fans will progress to writing professionally, but that’s not their primary aim. Intimate knowledge, extra material, customisation: these are the vectors along which the fan maintains that special, personal link.

As Newman suggests in his book, the early Doctor was both creation and creator of an emerging fictional world, 1960s Britain as fantasised by the employees of the BBC. Why did the Tardis disguise itself as a police box, at the very moment the police force no longer needed them – as seen in Z-Cars, first broadcast in 1962? Was there doubling up with Steptoe and Son – another scrapyard, another dirty old man? One season in, the Doctor picked up a new assistant, Peter Purves, shortly to become a Blue Peter presenter – and to go on, with his colleagues, to offer no fewer than three Dalek-cake recipes over the next few years. Through such accidents of production and by writerly design, the show enmeshed itself snugly in the tellyverse of its time, that bizarre account of society that connects Kensington stucco and Salford back-to-backs, likely lads and Liver birds, don’t-I-know-him-from-somewhere character actors, lovely young stars of both sexes with luxuriantly thick and bouncy hair.

Doctor Who was not television’s only Pop experiment, but it was the most enduring. With 40 minutes a week to fill, in runs that were, in the early years, 42 weeks long, it really was a show – pace Seinfeld – about nothing, making it a uniquely exciting and perilous place for a writer to be. It quickly filled up with in-jokes, puns, bendy storylines, sci-fi metaphysics, futuristic design, references to B-movies, naughty nods to all manner of paraphernalia over the children’s heads. As time went on, the metaphysics became more sophisticated and ecological, with timelines not to be messed with and so on, though if you think about such matters with inappropriate rigour, it rapidly becomes apparent that they don’t add up. And the show started to gain a memory, and a history, of its own, with Time Lords, and recurring villains, and the elegantly preposterous contraption of regeneration, whereby at moments of dire depletion, the Doctor may collapse, shimmer a bit and re-emerge shortly afterwards, in the body and person of someone new.

Audience figures were nothing special to begin with. But it turned out that the show’s young producer, Verity Lambert, had ignored her boss’s instructions about BEMs, and commissioned a seven-part serial from Terry Nation, called ‘The Daleks’. From the moment one appeared, sucker first, the show took off. The designer, Raymond Cusick, might have been briefed to construct a toy from left-over parts in a factory, the rubber sucker, the wrench-like pincer, the silver pimples, the flashing lights. But his ideas were also strikingly with it, a little bit Arne Jacobsen, a little bit Paco Rabanne. Nation created the Dalek personality, utterly evil and utterly childish: what is ‘Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!’ but the most notorious command of the 20th century, done as a comic turn? And children adore Daleks, as Newman observes, because they are easy to draw, being ‘an appealing mix of grilles, roundels, domed carapace’, with no fiddly hands or faces; and they are great for acting out in the playground, being essentially tantrumming toddlers themselves.

Over the years, the Daleks have been hauled out, over and over, whenever storylines or ratings flagged. They have been made over, restructured, exterminated and resurrected, their backstory, their myths of origin, updated and revised. Then, last year, the Daleks were made the subject of two big storylines in the relaunched Doctor Who. In the first, Robert Shearman’s ‘Dalek’, the last living representative of the race is tortured by American operatives in orange boilersuits at an underground facility; he falls in love with Rose, the new Doctor’s main assistant, and comes to understand his predicament, squawking ‘I-am-a-lone!’ with a sorry droop of his suckered arm. It was touching and horrible and tremendously funny – a story like a piece of sculpture, to be admired from every side. The only way a writer could do more with a Dalek would be to unite him with Basil Fawlty. Except that the dying Dennis Potter went further, maybe, when he called John Birt, the BBC’s then director-general, ‘a croak-voiced Dalek’ in 1993.

Much expectation surrounded Doctor Who’s return last year, into an industry that has changed vastly since he went away. Mark Thompson, the BBC’s current director-general, sees his organisation’s ‘creative future’ as one of ‘Martini media … available when and where you want it, with content moving freely between different devices and platforms’. As well as the weekly Saturday teatime episode, new Doctor Who currently unfolds ‘officially’ on BBC3 repeats and spin-offs, webcasts and phone downloads, and – almost as soon as the broadcast is over – DVDs; the ‘unofficial’ fan sites, blogs and newsgroups continue, but then, they never stopped. Thompson also spoke about ‘360° commissioning, interactivity, user-generated content to re-engage audiences in primetime TV entertainment’, and clearly, Doctor Who is central to such a strategy.

The chief writer and executive producer on the new Doctor Who is Russell T. Davies, the Welsh writer previously known for Queer as Folk (1999), Channel 4’s energetic, unusually active drama about young gay men in Manchester, and for the view, as expressed to a journalist, that the motor of all narrative is sex. Before that, however, Davies had a lot of experience on children’s television: he started out as a producer on Why Don’t You?, the BBC’s summer holiday activities and crafts programme, then wrote two science-fiction serials for children’s slots, Dark Season (1991) and Century Falls (1993). These apparently and properly divergent interests fuse, brilliantly, at the centre of Davies’s Doctor Who, for sex in narrative is never so exciting as when you have to keep it out. In a way, then, Davies’s Doctor begins more than forty years ago, with the dodgy flaw in the original concept: a lovely young woman, ‘travelling’ – like Holly Golightly – with a dirty old man. Except that instead of resolving the matter – inasmuch as the granddad fudge would resolve anything nowadays – Davies leaves it open, and explosively tense.

Fortyish, leather-jacketed, sombre and Northern (‘Lots of planets have a North,’ he says), Christopher Eccleston played the Doctor as a man both hangdog and arrogant, of an age – had he been human – to have been a child when the show was first broadcast, but with a subsequent life that has shown him disappointment, including (a point somewhat laboured) his own capacity for Dalek-like impulses, painfully restrained. His assistant, Rose, Davies imagined as a hoodie-clad South London teenager, living with her annoying mum in a tower block, watching telly, eating chips, texting her do-nothing boyfriend and working in a Hennes-like store in the West End, until the store is attacked by its own dummies and has to be blown up. Rose continues to be played by Billie Piper, the former teen pop star, with an air of triumph, richly deserved. Part angel, part goblin, blessed with the most wide and wanton smile, Piper delivers what the role asks for: a young woman able to appear both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. There’s a beautiful freeze-frame, at the end of the first episode, as Rose leaps joyously into the Tardis: a girl who always longed for adventure, and has found her chance.

Among the many ways digital is changing television, the most interesting is the ‘new complexity’, noted in American shows such as The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, and discussed, with much enthusiasm, in Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You: Why Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter.[*] As Johnson explains, the key to these new markets is syndication, selling the same thing over and over on different platforms; and the key to syndication is making stuff that is clever and dense enough to stand up to repetition, promising enough that people will spend £61.99 (list price) on a Sopranos box set, or £199.99 for a matt-grey shoebox containing The West Wing: The Bartlet Years. Syndication markets encourage new forms and textures in screenwriting: dense nets of plot and sub-plot, clever-clever intertextual jokes, characters and stories that arc with the elegance and complexity of drawings done with a Spirograph set. Crass, regressive Disneyish escapism is upgraded to a more sophisticated, liberal boomer escapism – guilt-ridden Mafiosi, noble presidents, hunky funeral directors straight and gay. Crass, regressive Disneyfied sentimentality is replaced with a more mature and realistic liberal boomer sentimentality – disabled fish, forgetful fish, single-dad fish etc.

In particular, Davies’s writing for Doctor Who is obviously influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Joss Whedon’s wonderful show about a Californian high-school student who finds herself chosen, against her will, to patrol graveyards, kick-boxing demons and generally saving the world. Though Doctor Who is pitched at a younger, less introspective audience than Buffy was – the harsh, sad sophistication with which Whedon investigated the emotional consequences of bad sex, the corporeal horror of a death in the family, small-town blood-sucking junkies and so on, are all a bit post-watershed BBC2 – Davies appears to have learned from Buffy’s post-Freudian way with a metaphor, finding the darkness and grandeur in everyday situations, animating and so releasing the huge, scary energies that make and threaten life. One beauty of the method is that it allows a writer to engage children and adults at the same time, with the same material, but from different angles. And so, you might want to give a certain reading to the orgiastic leaping and tussling one has to engage in these days to drive the Tardis, the flushes and giggling which tend to accompany tumbling out thereafter; or you might ignore them. Another is that it allows characters to be more shadowedly, sculptedly heroic than is possible in a shallower moral landscape. Davies’s Rose, like Whedon’s Buffy, is powered by huge, staunch, beautiful emotions: love and loyalty and courage and kindness. Over last year’s series we watched her arc towards a startling apotheosis, only to step down from her goddess moment immediately and return, broken-hearted, to her mum.

The new Doctor Who’s emotional life is so rich, and done so deftly, you hardly notice that Davies’s tellyverse is otherwise pretty much a Cool Britannia picture postcard: shopping centres, the London Eye, Routemaster buses (never mind that they have been withdrawn). The Victorian episode has to have Dickens; the 1940s episode has to have the Blitz. There were aliens in Number 10, looking like they came from Royston Vasey; there was a woman who’d had so much cosmetic surgery she had turned into an evil trampoline. A flying saucer crashed into Big Ben – an outrageously post-9/11 image – followed by much business to do with ‘45 minutes’ and ‘mass destruction’. The Big Brother house of the future kills its evictees; the Trinny and Susannah of the future update your body-image with chainsaws. It was all rather cosy, with a smug we’re-all-postmodernists-now note of self-congratulation to it. But then again, it’s true, we all are.

It isn’t known why Eccleston decided to leave after only one series – bluffer, carpet-bagger, victim of the (aren’t they always) ‘gruelling’ production schedule? But the BBC was quick to announce the younger, extraordinarily attractive David Tennant as his successor, with a glow, almost, of parental pride. Fine-boned and wriggly, somehow, like a silky dog, Tennant has a helpless quality, which lends him great adorability. ‘My girlfriend is besotted,’ leicesterbloke writes on the digitalspy forum. ‘When she saw Chris Eccleston turn into him at the end of the last series, she asked me if I could do that.’ But it can also get an actor into trouble – as Tennant showed, wearily, in last year’s ghastly Secret Smile (ITV), in which his lovely-doggie persona was given an obvious 180º wrench, to psychopathic stalker. Children’s television has its limitations, but at least you can get a decent wage without having to play underwritten sex criminals in nasty plots involving Rohypnol.

At first, Tennant’s Doctor seemed terribly middle-class and chirpy after Eccleston – part of a new strategy, presumably, to draw in younger girls. His wardrobe – those brown suits and frockish overcoats – is intended to make him look like ‘the type of man Kate Moss might date’, according to a BBC website (Jarvis Cocker is mentioned, and the narrowness of Pete Doherty’s trousers). Then there is the BBC stylist’s choice of footwear: Converse Chucks, subsequently chosen to signify nubility by David Cameron’s stylist, too. For some reason, Tennant is not allowed to use his own accent – off-set, he comes from Bathgate, but on it he sounds about as West Lothian as Eccleston was allowed to sound Salford. Tennant’s Doctor does, however, carry personal tragedy with him. Like a compliant member of a boy band, he is lonely and lovelorn, and longs only to find a nice young lady and settle down. He’s also politically aware, frequently delivering loud, save-the-planet platitudes and shouting about human rights.

But there is something else in Tennant’s Doctor, flickering beneath the charm: a deeper melancholy, an imprisonment, the time-traveller’s doomed awareness that all this has happened before, and will go on happening, and then will happen again. A similar thought occurs to Steven Johnson, who extends his Most Repeatable Programming idea into what he terms ‘moral philosophy’ by comparing it to Nietzschean eternal recurrence: ‘If we made a mistake in this life, we’d keep making it for ever, which presumably would end up encouraging us not to make mistakes in the first place … As a principle for creating quality pop culture, eternal recurrence makes a lot of sense.’ I’m not sure this follows, but it is evocative of an endlessly expanding television heaven that is also hell.

Here is the Doctor, and here is Rose again, in Victorian Britain in episode two of the current series, just as they were in Victorian Britain in episode three of the series before. Dickens was last season, so let’s do Queen Victoria this time; we’ve had ghosts already, so let’s have a werewolf for a change. In the event, what appeared to be spirits of the restless dead turn out to be rapacious aliens; the werewolf turns out to be a rapacious alien too. The marching dummies are under the control of rapacious aliens, as are the Yeti, the exploding Santas and the evil lady played by Maureen Lipman. The aliens invade, and infect, and colonise, and zombify; their aim is to exploit our resources and herd us like cattle, i.e. exactly what we would do, if we had the resources, to them. Rapacious aliens, it seems, are at the bottom of everything mysterious in our universe; it is a curiously un-magical, unforgiving prospect. The only thing worse is the traditional consideration that the rapacious aliens are really us.

A few weeks back, in episode three of the current series, the Doctor was briefly reunited with K9, harbinger of disappointment, and with Sarah-Jane Smith, his former assistant from Tom Baker days. Rose was jealous, Sarah-Jane was jealous, and the Doctor was wistful about how terrible it is to have to leave mortals you … (touching pause) behind. That same week, BBC DVD announced the forthcoming release of ‘The Hand of Fear’ (1976), Sarah-Jane’s last Doctor Who adventure, with extras including ‘Changing Times’, ‘a 50-minute documentary charting the special relationship’ between the Doctor and SJS. A couple of weeks later, in ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, we learned about an evil corporation that controls a parallel-universe British population by means of downloads in their ‘EarPods’, spying on them then sending them off to be ‘upgraded’ into you-know-whats. For ‘extra backstory’ you can text a premium-rate number and download a 60-second ‘Tardisode’ on your phone. ‘These trials will continue to help us understand more about the different ways in which viewers want to enjoy Doctor Who,’ said a BBC executive. Can the summons to an upgrade be far behind?

Already, it makes little sense to talk about viewers, really, or viewing, that odd, sprawling compromise between electronic entertainment and family life. It’s obvious that the future is not with families, or sofas, or even tellies as we imagine them: though they sit in bedrooms and in the backs of cars, and hang on walls, made of plasma, opposite massive empty fridges, in apartments in which the only seating is on one of those healthful rubber balls. The BBC claims to be looking forward to a newly interactive and demanding audience of ‘participants and partners’ and ‘communities’ and so on; but there is an opposing possibility, a movement to lonely super-consumerism, fan and fantasy fused together in wi-fi symbiosis. Sometimes, I think Russell T. Davies and his team have built a commentary on this process into Doctor Who’s current storylines. Sometimes, I think I am hallucinating this notion, from watching too much Doctor Who too close together, causing plots to ripple and shimmer with interference, story-arcs to swim across my eyes.

In the classic British tellyverse, the Daleks will always win out over those stolid, bipedal Cybermen – it’s purely a question of style. Out here, though, in a parallel dimension, Apple has already lost to Microsoft and Betamax to VHS; and in the coming age of digital convergence, Cybermen will be the future, nonetheless.

[*] Penguin, 256pp., £7.99, April 2006, 0 14 101868 2.