Doctor Who: Behind the Times
David Semple argues that for Doctor Who to succeed, it needs to be out of date…twenty years, to be precise...
When Michael Grade appeared on Room 101 naming Doctor Who as one of his least favourite things, he accused the show of being ‘stuck in a timewarp’. Paul Merton chipped in and said this was the basic premise of the series…
But as on so many occasions, Michael Grade was wrong: 1980s Who was not stuck in a timewarp - the problem is it was too up to date.
If you don’t believe me, pay a visit to YouTube and search for: ‘John Nathan Turner Did You See?’ That will take you to a 1987 edition of the BBC2 viewers’ forum where a group of deranged fans argue that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be, and they should know, because they’ve got the original Key to Time in their cellar. But what is striking, watching it now, is how hopelessly old-fashioned Did You See? appears – the dreary 1980s theme tune droning away on a synth, the clips of Ludovic Kennedy looking comatose in the opening credits – it all seems the product of another, deadlier age, but when the clips of Doctor Who begin – the Sylvester McCoy opening titles with a meteor storm pelting a spinning purple galaxy…well it’s like the bit in The Wizard of Oz where we go from monochrome to Technicolor. That title sequence still looks dazzling, and would work perfectly well as a series opener today.
But oddly, that wasn’t my view at the time. Like a lot of Who fans, I’d been angry at the show’s 1985 suspension, confused by Colin Baker’s ‘Trial’ season, and then shocked to hear that Mr Baker had been sacked. So it was with a lot of trepidation that I sat down to watch Time and the Rani in September 1987. And I have to say, that opening credit sequence rather alarmed me: it didn’t look like something from the world of myth and dreams – like the smoky cloud formation that began William Hartnell’s stories, or the swirling psychedelia that kicked off the Pertwee adventures. It looked like a 1980s video game – when those three asteroids flew across the screen, I wished I had a joystick to steer the Tardis through them. Once I’d got over the shock of the new, I found most of Sylvester McCoy’s stories hugely enjoyable, but I do think the general spangliness of it all got in the way for some viewers. It was so shiny and new it disorientated people, and nothing ages quicker than something which is bang up to date.
And that was the problem with Who in the 1980s: in trying to look new, it ended up looking naff, and stopped connecting with its audience. The BBC Micro computer that formed part of the Tardis console may have thrilled teenage boys in the days when computers were the stuff of dreams, but they weren’t wildly exciting to a more general audience. Similarly laser gun battles probably didn’t do much for the mums. What happened with the series is that when John Nathan-Turner inherited it in 1980, he quite rightly diagnosed that it was tired and old, but then wrongly decided the best way to cure this would be to make it seem fresh and new. He commissioned the new ‘neon tube’ logo, the synth-ed up theme tune, the star field opening sequence…and it did all seem incredibly new and thrilling if, like me, you were ten years old…but that’s rather a small demographic. No, in order to reach a mainstream family audience, Doctor Who needs to incorporate a touch of the old. How old? I would argue twenty years…give or take a year or two.
To prove my point, let’s have a look at the very beginnings of Who – what’s it all about? Well the first story to get ratings that topped ten million was The Daleks – and that’s about the Nazis. Evil dehumanised fascists on a mission to crush the lesser races…it may have spoken to a 60s audience about their fears of mechanisation and the Cold War, but to a large extent, it’s about the events of twenty years earlier. We then have a series of thrilling historicals and space adventures, which pay homage both to wartime Boys Adventure stories, and to the Saturday morning cliff-hangers of 1940s cinema: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe et al. When the Tardis travellers meet the Celestial Toymaker, which fictional character are they pitted against? A thinly-veiled version of Billy Bunter, who had his heyday in the Knockout comic starting in 1940. Doctor Who was always behind the times, and always by about twenty years: as it neared the 1970s, it ditched the historical and concentrated more on monsters and space…in keeping with the tastes of the 1950s, when Dan Dare made his debut.
When Jon Pertwee took over, and it grew closer in tone to James Bond, this was again, feeding on something that had been hugely popular two decades previously. Bond battled the baddies in various paperbacks from 1953 onwards – Pertwee was pitted against Roger Delgado roughly twenty years later. And one of the most fascinating forerunners of Doctor Who - though I’ve never heard anyone else refer to this – was the fabulous Kurt Weill / Ira Gershwin time-travelling musical, Where Do We Go From Here? It features a young man, who is taken on a time-travelling adventure to various wars in history and learns that it is sometimes necessary to fight to preserve basic freedoms (a lesson the Thals learned in The Daleks). In this instance, he is taken not by a Time lord in a Tardis, but by a genie in a lamp, but significantly, he meets the mysterious genie in a creepy opening scene set in an abandoned junkyard. Yes, it may be coincidence – a junkyard or an antiques shop would be a fairly logical place to begin time-travelling – but I can’t help wondering if Sydney Newman might have seen Where Do We Go From Here? at the pictures when he was a young film maker in Canada. The musical made it to the screen in 1945, roughly twenty years before Doctor Who began his time travels from a junkyard in London.
Now what is the significance of the number twenty? It’s nothing psychic or spooky, but it’s roughly a generation – and Doctor Who only reaches a huge audience when it can reach across the generations. When I watched The Brain of Morbius in 1976, as a scared seven-year-old, my dad was able to tell me that this story was just like another famous tale called Frankenstein. He, of course, had seen the Hammer horror film The Curse of Frankenstein which reached the cinema in 1957 when he would have been in his late teens.
So many of those Philip Hinchliffe-produced Doctor Who stories pay homage to the Hammer horrors that were popular in the late 1950s, and the pleasure of watching them as a family is that grandparents had possibly read the original books, parents had probably sneaked in to see the Hammer films at the cinema, but the generation of kids who are always Doctor Who’s primary audience still felt these stories were something new and just for them, even if they were made aware they had heritage.
But Doctor Who lost its way a little when it started imitating Star Wars, Buck Rogers and its other near-contemporaries…it was a fight it could never win for reasons of budget, and it was a cultural reference which would be lost on the mums and dads. Significantly, the four Sylvester McCoy stories which got the highest ratings were the ones that paid homage to events of twenty to thirty years previously – Silver Nemesis and Remembrance of the Daleks obviously connect with 1963, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was about disillusioned hippies, and Delta and the Bannermen was a love letter to holiday camps of the 1950s and 60s.
And what of Russell T. Davies’ revival? Yes, it tips its hat to Hammer horror occasionally, but it is predominantly of the 80s in its tone and cultural references. When David Tennant quotes from Ghostbusters (1984) in Army of Ghosts (2006), this is bound to bring a smile to mums and dads who saw the Dan Aykroyd blockbuster first time round. There are references to the Aliens franchise (42, Silence in the Library) and I think, on the whole, Russell’s Doctor Who has the feel of a glorious, big-hearted 1980s fantasy film: an Indiana Jones or a Never-Ending Story. When Russell set a story aboard ‘the Titanic’, it wasn’t the 1997 film he was referencing – that would have been too recent and too naff – but ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ – which, though it’s a product of the 70s, was a staple of the TV schedules every Christmas in the 1980s…before becoming a Christmas treat again in 2006. And the most important influence of all – a lonely child, living an unfulfilled life without a father, who stumbles upon a secret alien, they have laughs together, the alien educates the child and vice-versa, the alien dies, but the child helps to bring him back to life. Yes, it’s the Doctor and Rose, but it’s also Elliott and E.T., the film that brought sci-fi to the mainstream, provoking tears from the parents and excitement in the kids.
And that’s what Russell did with Doctor Who – rebranded it from a niche show for teenagers to a family show for everybody. But interestingly, Doctor Who from 2005 to 2008 had far more in common with 80s Who than it did with the 60s or 70s. Rose is much closer to Ace than to any other companion, and Davies’ Doctors had more in common with Peter Davison than with Pertwee or Hartnell. RTD did a lot of things that JNT did, only now the world was ready for them. JNT wasn’t wrong – he was just twenty years too early.
So what of the future? Well, it seems abundantly clear that as Doctor Who enters 2010 and beyond, it needs to embrace the early 1990s. And what might this mean? It could mean a bit of X-Files spookiness or Twin Peaks kookiness. Fantasy films became much more baroque in the 1990s, particularly in the work of Tim Burton, and it would be nice to see Stephen Moffat’s take on Edward Scissorhands . And though this may be asking a bit much of BBC budgets, is there any chance of a Jurassic Park ? But there’s no doubt in my mind, that for Doctor Who to reach a mainstream audience, its future lies twenty years in the past. So dear Mr Moffat, whatever you do with new Who, please don’t make it ultra-modern.