As you’ll know if you’ve read my review of Night Terrors (which is here if you haven’t), it was at this point that I decided that I didn’t want to do any more reviews of Doctor Who for a while. Fun At One, my book about comedy on BBC Radio 1 (still available from here), was about to come out and I imagined that a good deal of my time would be taken up with promoting and talking and writing about that. As it happened – pun very much intended – events took a very different course for reasons way beyond my control, but you can read more about that in Can’t Help Thinking About Me. If I’m honest, though, I needed a bit of a break; as you may have noticed, I wasn’t really enjoying the episodes or writing about them as much and the reviews started to feel like a bit of a chore. I did still watch and I did still have opinions, however, and sometimes they found their way into the ‘columns’ I wrote for my website. One particular dominant aspect of the series at that point irked me so much that I eventually wrote this reaction to it, which originally opened with the fact that while Google found 1,100,000 results for ‘amy pond crying’ in 0.56 seconds, it found precisely none for ‘primeval dinosaur crying’.
This Saturday – as you might have noticed from the one or two people casually mentioning it in passing on Twitter – Doctor Who is back, back, back, for a new series of adventures ahead of a mega-hyped fiftieth anniversary special. An occasion that is somewhat slightly daunting for those of us who sat through Keff McCulloch’s interminable The Brain on The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album.
While the big whizzbang repeats-ahoy anniversary hoedown won’t really hit until November, and you won’t be seeing any Distinguished Service Order for David J. Howe or street parades with giant inflatable Voord and Ray Cusicks just yet, it’s a fair bet that quite a few people will choose to mark the occasion with a rewatch of that first ever episode, with its celebrated eerie schoolroom and junkyard shenanigans, pioneering use of electronic music and video effects, Kenneth Williams-faced extras, and teenagers handjiving to the most unreasonable non-copyright Shadows facsimile imaginable. If any of them then venture on to the second ever episode, they’ll witness a wonderful moment where William Hartnell – one of the finest actors ever to grace the small screen, and don’t you listen to any of that twaddle about him getting lines wrong all the time (which was probably largely deliberate anyway) – steps outside the Tardis and suddenly looks deeply concerned, muttering to himself “it’s still a Police Box… why hasn’t it changed?”. And that, really, was about as close as old-skool Doctor Who got to an emotional outpouring for, well, pretty much most of its screentime.
Sceptical? Well, take a look at a couple of the other big ‘event’ episodes of the sixties. When William Hartnell regenerates into Patrick Troughton, do his two young companions – whom it’s already been established have some sort of a relationship (they did meet The Doctor while they were on a date, after all) – use this as an opportunity to have an impassioned debate about how this might affect what schools their theoretical children get into? No, they spend the lion’s share of an entire episode spluttering about whether they really just saw that happen and speculating on whether this ‘Chaplinesque’ figure might be an impostor who’s imprisoned the Real Doctor somewhere. When it’s time to say goodbye in turn to the second Doctor, and his slightly newer two young companions have their memories of him erased by the Time Lords, are there any lingering close-ups of tears being fought back or emotionally overwrought speeches that overstay their welcome? No there certainly aren’t, and what really resonates for the viewer is The Doctor spinning away into the centre of the screen, still arguing with his accusers as he goes. It didn’t end with the final black and white episode either; throughout the entire existence of Doctor Who, there have been emotional moments, but they have always been just that – moments. Nobody could argue about the punch-packing impact of, say, the end of The Caves Of Androzani, the end of The Green Death, or even the end of Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday for that matter, but they’ve always been short, concise and heavy on impact; sometimes, in fact, even largely wordless.
Nowadays, however, you’re more likely to see episodes largely given over to the companions blubbing like a contestant on The X Factor relating their ‘journey’, and going ‘O Tempora, O Mores’ about a Judoon falling over or something, while the actual title character seems to be getting smaller and smaller amounts of screen time, and even then usually joins in with the sobbing too. Consult the average review of any recent episode, and chances are you will find the word ‘emotional’ being used before long, which suggests that a lot of people actually enjoy the bawl-friendly bias. Well, if you do like it, good for you, but what about the rest of us who fail to see what’s so wrong exactly about a man chasing some monsters (which, lest we forget, is exactly how the revived series started)? It’s no wonder they brought Primeval back.
So yes, this new run of episodes. By all means let’s still have ‘emotional’ bits, but please can we have a bit of balance back too, before we end up with the sodding Weeping Angels ‘sharing’ their ‘story’ with Heat.
Some things that might need explaining…
I am a huge defender of Keff McCulloch’s musical contributions and am very fond of The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album, but that cut-and-shut collection of tune-deficient orchestra hits that masqueraded as The Brain? You’re on your own there.
David J. Howe is a pioneering Doctor Who fan writer and researcher. Poor old Ray Cusick was a BBC employee who basically got little more than an ex-gratia payment of a packet of Extra Strong Mints for designing the Daleks; The Voord were another of his designs who were supposed to ‘rival’ The Daleks but didn’t. I think this bit of whimsy may have its roots in a spoof news article I did for a fanzine so long ago that I can’t remember which one it was.
Although I was already very publically calling for a female Doctor back then – as you can hear more about in The Zeitgeist Tapes: Dr. Pod here – my entirely innocent reference to ‘a man chasing some monsters’ reads very oddly now…
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Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
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