26 April 2005
How to ruin Doctor Who

Natalie Solent’s getting all steamed up about Doctor Who over at Biased BBC.  Personally, I’m not all that bothered.  Doctor Who has always been profoundly political.  The Daleks are the Nazis.  Davros is Hitler.  The Sun Makers (a Tom Baker-era story) was all about sky-high taxes.  The Sea Devils is all about the Ulster Troubles.  It is one of the great strengths of science fiction that it is much easier to discuss political issues than it is with straight drama.  That an episode might try to make an (apparently) left-wing point should come as no surprise.  You can’t expect it to go all your own way.

But having said that, Doctor Who is beginning to bother me.  I thought the opening episode (and I said so at the time) was a triumph.  But with each successive episode I have become less and less enthusiastic.  I am becoming ever more convinced that I was right first time: this is going to be a disaster.

I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on why (and still haven’t) but I feel that Joe Newbery’s “How to ruin Doctor Who”, an essay I recently came across, comes very close to it. Newbery’s basic point is that the Doctor is an Enlightenment hero.  His dominant characteristic is his rationality.  Not for nothing did Richard E Grant describe Doctor Who as “Sherlock Holmes in space”.

Just as an aside isn’t it interesting how almost all the great fictional detectives: Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Fletcher, Morse are single?  I don’t think it’s coincidence.

Now, the leap that the author makes is to list all the ways eg. make him more human, give him a love life, make it action-orientated, have him dressed in normal clothes, to make the Doctor less rational and therefore ruin the show.  I think I’m with him here though I am not quite sure why.  Suffice to say the new producers have done most of these things and are ruining the show.

The more I think about it the more I think the destruction of Gallifrey is hugely significant.  It was not just any old plot device but something far more malicious sending out the message that the old Doctor Who is dead and it’s never coming back.

The odd thing is that I can’t work out what possessed them to do this.  I believe it’s a political act but why should the left be so opposed to reason?  I thought they were all in favour of it.

Of course, it might be commercial.  But by destroying Doctor Who’s roots, they will lose the hardcore fans and I don’t see the new programme being distinctive enough to generate the audience they need to justify the enormous budget.

Anyway, I’ll cling on but I’m beginning to lose hope.

Update Natalie has even more thoughts.

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  1. I am not steamed up. I was very restrained, actually

    There is a big difference between using SF to examine the underlying structure of a political situation without the distraction of one’s present alleigances (e.g. the Sea Devils series, as you say) and the kind of over-topical political reference that does the opposite, jolts one into remembering one’s present alleigances - and forgetting about the story. The former can succeed in dramatic terms for me even when I don’t like the politics. The latter would be likely to fail even if I agreed with the politics.

    Will post more about this on my blog.

    Posted by Natalie Solent on 26 April 2005 at 01:20pm

  2. Should be “allegiances” both times, sorry

    Posted by Natalie Solent on 26 April 2005 at 01:24pm

  3. When did Richard E Grant make that comment about Dr Who basically being Sherlock Holmes in Space. I think it’s a pretty astute comment, but not terribly original. (The producers of the show certainly understood this when in “The Talons of Weng Chiang” in 1977 they sent him back to Victorian London, dressed him in a deer-stalker and at one point had him hold a pipe, and had he and Leela stay for a time in a boarding house with a housekeeper named Mrs Hudson. And of course Tom Baker actually played Sherlock Holmes in a BBC production in 1982.

    There was for a long time what we might call an Enlightenment faction at the BBC I think, and Dr Who was something that came out of that faction. The program was always despised by the luddites who were actually in the ascendency at the organisation (and who now completely control it), and I think the long decline of Dr Who (from about 1983 I think) was as much as anything a consequence of the decline of this faction. The program was ultimately starved of money and (much more importantly) writing and other behind the scenes talent and its ratings and quality ultimately faded away. To me the new series looks like it has been commissioned more for nostalgia value by people who may have watched it once but who weren’t passionate about its world view, and this is perhaps now coming through.

    (I was just actually also thinking that the Enlightenment types at the BBC were probably responsible for a great deal of the BBCs greatest comedy in the 1960s and 1970s, too, and the decline of this aspect of the BBC is probably why the BBC hasn’t produced any really great comedy for about 25 years, too. Has any really great comedy really come out of the BBC since “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”. (I while stop to note briefly that this was of course written by someone who was also a Dr Who writer and script editor).

    Posted by Michael Jennings on 26 April 2005 at 06:29pm

  4. Natalie, you’re quite right - there is a big difference between using SF to examine big political ideas and using it to score transient political points.

    I would not be opposed to seeing an episode or two devoted to a politically-correct Utopia.  Would we all be the same height and would we all have the same ability to write great songs?

    Michael, great BBC comedy from the last 25 years.  Oh golly, only Blackadder comes to mind and that was flawed.  Coupling was coarse.  Not the Nine o’clock News?  And that only just creeps in.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 26 April 2005 at 09:52pm

  5. I stumbled across this post in the “what did you watch last night” thread over at the BritMovie forum.

    Sounds familar and once again proves that there’s very little new under the sun.


    Midnight Menace (1937)

    A similar theme to some of the Bulldog Drummond films; fascist armament manufacturers require a new war to create a market for their wares, so plan to scupper a London disarmament conference and launch an anonymous midnight attack on London using drone planes. An investigate journalist has already been murdered and now a newspaper cartoonist is hot in the trail of the underground movement.

    The story has some prophetic interest as a few years later pilot-less planes would attack London in the form of the V1.

    Posted by Mark Holland on 28 April 2005 at 12:25pm

  6. On http://www.britmovie.net/forum they say Dr Who is about to cease? Is this true as it is one of the few good progs on?

    Posted by Jason on 11 July 2007 at 08:32pm

  7. I agree totally. Even without considering the political undertones of the Classic series, they have removed the enigma and mystery surrounding the Doctor and are relying on effects alone to carry some pretty weak stories. David Tennant is too young and quite awful.

    Posted by Robert Melia Watson on 07 July 2008 at 03:32pm

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