Doctor Who: a celebration of silliness

Feature Andrew Blair 24 Jul 2012 - 17:38

Andrew talks us through an essential but divisive element of Doctor Who: silliness...

This article contains Doctor Who spoilers (and one about the result of the Trojan War).

"Doctor, as I remember telling you at the Academy, you will never amount to anything so long as you retain your capacity for vulgar facetiousness." - Cardinal Borusa, The Deadly Assassin (1977).

Borusa is, of course, dead wrong. It is said propensity that makes the Doctor who he is.

Mention silliness in the context of Doctor Who and there is a danger of incurring wrath. Burping wheelie bins, having the loyhargil, Tom Baker yelping "My arms! My legs! My everything!" all leap to mind. Occasionally, the programme can go too far, and the result? Bewildered viewers.

Sometimes you have to explain to a child that the concrete paving slab and the man are just kissing. Sometimes you have to explain that, even if the Doctor has just done it, it is best not to blow into any stray phallic appendages you may find on other lifeforms (reactions in such circumstances vary). In extreme cases, you might have to explain that reading slash fiction - "Turlough eased open the roundel, and watched..." - is not the sort of thing you gave your offspring permission to use your forum account for. 

Mostly, though, Doctor Who delivers its silliness in easy-to-swallow doses. 

An important distinction to make here is that the above are all examples of the ridiculous that some viewers failed to tolerate. Rather than say there's no place for silliness in Doctor Who, it's fairer to say that viewers are more unforgiving of a joke that combines bad taste with absurdity. There are hundreds of silly moments, ideas and actions that fans accept without comment.

William Hartnell's film career prior to being cast as the First Doctor would not prepare you for the sheer amount of giggling he would unleash. From Pinkie's second-in-command Dallow (in 1947's Brighton Rock) to the morose rugby scout from This Sporting Life, no one expected to see Hartnell waving a handkerchief and cooing 'Yoohoo! Auntie!' at a Dalek in The Chase (least of all the Dalek). He was equally adept at playing mischievous man-child and aggressively weird alien, and the ability to move between the two is something an actor needs in his locker to play the Doctor.

While The Chase is a curious use of everybody's time - innumerate Daleks, anyone? - once Dennis Spooner took over as script editor in 1965 the show pursued a subgenre where silliness and slaughter sat side by side more comfortably: the comedy historical.

The Romans and The Myth Makers both end with famous historical events involving much slaughter, as the regular cast escape by the skin of their teeth having all survived different and traumatic experiences. They're also both very, very funny. The Romans is a black comedy with a dramatic subplot, whereas The Myth Makers is a comedy until its final episode where (SPOILER ALERT) Troy falls to the Greeks. Fortunately, after all this death and destruction, the next story is the famously jolly The Dalek Master Plan where absolutely nothing miserable happens whatsoever. 

Dennis Spooner wasn't the first man to put jokes into Doctor Who, but his work enabled a wider variation of tone than was previously possible, making the historical stories less serious and bringing in genre-clashes. The Myth Makers not only mixes comedy with tragedy, but has the Trojan royal family speaking like characters from P.G. Wodehouse novels. This is an excellent example of why silliness doesn't necessarily have to be stupid.

Comedy - even broad, silly comedy - is important as a contrast. Take Tom Baker as an example: his later series are regarded as being either too silly or too serious, but his earlier stories excel at balancing the extremes. Every actor to play the role could do this justice to some extent, but to an on-form Baker it seemed as natural as breathing. The key is the tone of the performance, delivering silly lines as if they were completely sensible, and so we have: 'What a wonderful butler, he's so violent'; 'It'll be the end of everything, even your pension'; and 'Harry is only qualified to work on sailors'.

In the same stories Baker downplays dramatic lines with quiet conviction, leaving you in no doubt how serious the situation is.

The reason every incarnation of the character is popular with some people is that, no matter what the personality, you get a balance of humour, drama and intelligence. You could argue though, counter to this, that the show's most popular episodes are those where the silliness is pared right back. Genesis of the Daleks, for example, or The Caves of Androzani. It's not that there's no humour in them, it's that there are no deliberately silly elements to them.

This may be true, but again contrast is important. A reason these shows stand out is because they're largely atypical. Doctor Who would not still be on television today if it was always like Genesis of the Daleks in tone. Think of all the adult sci-fi television shows occupying this territory. How many of them are as successful as Doctor Who? Few, simply because by their very nature they're appealing to a smaller audience. Either because of viewing figures or by design they seem to end after four or five series. Despite being moved to later timeslots and being incredibly popular, the complaints received by the BBC led to the end of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era after three years. Better to dabble with darkness rather than embrace it if you want to create a programme running to thirty-four series and counting.

However, the reason that the script editor/producer team of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe are so adulated isn't just because of the more adult storylines or the increased amount of violence; it's because they balanced this out with lighter moments, naturally funny characters, and really pedantic observations about the locations of priest holes.

Conversely, the reason some people like Russell T Davies' Love & Monsters is because beneath the silly front it's actually got something resonant to say. It has several undercurrents that can be described as 'dark' if you're into that sort of thing. It also has self-consciously wacky shenanigans a-plenty, but they're not just there on a whim.

Think about how Doctor Who is perceived by its detractors as colourful fluff, a nonsense programme for kids. Doesn't the Scooby-Doo-style runaround in Love & Monsters exemplify exactly how those people would describe the show? When a character tries to relate what he's seen of the Doctor's life to other people, he explains it with reference to a colourful and absurd children's cartoon.

If you aren't used to it, Doctor Who can seem silly, but that's missing the bigger picture. That scene in Love & Monsters is simultaneously an insight into the narrator's character, a fun moment of silliness, and a meta-reference aimed straight at the people who dismiss it as idiotic. If you don't like one, there are two more options to choose from.

It's entirely worth having the occasional moment of excess silliness so that we can revel in the rest of the ridiculousness. You're allowed to have fun and take Doctor Who seriously. Indeed, that is rather the whole point, which seems as good a time as any to end with this quote from The Time Warrior.

Sarah-Jane Smith: Are you serious?

The Doctor: About what I do, yes. Not necessarily the way I do it.

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There is a huge difference between smartly written humor and bad writing; which has kept Doctor Who from being a great TV show. I enjoy watching the series but have almost wanted to turn away whenever episodes like The Fires of Pompeii, Love and Monsters, Tooth and Claw and such were on. The X-Files knew how to combine a dark and serious tone with the addition of humor and it combined the two elements well, without pandering to lowest-common denominator tripe.

I'd actually say The Fires of Pomeii and Tooth and Claw are some of the best episodes from David Tennant's era. Love & Monsters on the other hand is terrible IMO, easily DT's worst for me at least.

Also I think it's very, very harsh to say Who isn't a great show. How can any show last 50 years and not be considered great? There's a reason why it's possibly the most successful; show the BBC produce, because it has a good balance of fun, adventure and well written stories. Of course not ever episode is great, but it's like that with every show.
The X Files is a poor comparison, because that has a far more mature adult tone, whereas Who isn't. It's a family show, so it can get away with far more silly aspects than adult sci-fi, and you as a viewer can accept them because of its tone.

The silly side of Who is all in its execution; when its great it's amazing and works beautifully. When it doesn't work it's just cringe-worthy and off-putting.

Don't defend Love and Monsters on the grounds of being a meta-episode. A good writer can have subtext beneath the primary tale, subtext many may even be unaware of (take Holmes for example, don't care for his messages? It doesn't matter because the primary tale is so good).
Love and Monsters was a *terrible* tale, and having a hidden meaning makes it no better, only more worthy of the occasional article.

I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.

I think it's all in the way you tell it. Tom Baker has a way of delivering the silliest lines in the most dire of emergencies that fits so well... and doesn't undermine the drama - it's just part of the character. And it's the same with DT's asides and digressions and Matt Smith's stroppy little outbursts (mainly aimed at Rory and the like). Imagine how po-faced Doctor Who would be without it's silliness.

Personally, I love that cheeky little wink to the audience. It's all part of the fun.

Love and Monsters makes Time Flight look like Genesis of the Daleks

And one of the aspects of our humanity and individuality is that we all have our own opinions and beliefs on things. I may not agree with the episodes that you defend but I will accept your right to do so and applaud your efforts to stand up for what you firmly believe.

When I critique shows, I say something is great when I feel that there are few things to take issue with it, good when it is still very much enjoyable but has enough flaws to keep it from being more, and OK for something that is a good waste of time and has the right ideas but they weren't implemented well.

There is nothing wrong with a show that wants to appeal to adults, families and children, I just have far more appreciation for the shows that can write in such a way that they never have to dumb down the scripts in order to appeal to a vast audience. While you will consider Toy Story 3 to be a poor comparison ( as it is not in the genre of science-fiction) I was pleased with how much they wrote the show with a prison theme to it, still kept the characters as they were originally shown, but could be welcome by adults and kids alike; with hardly any poorly written humor.

Animated films like The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, Titan AE, Coraline, 9, Tim Burton Films which are aimed at a family audience such as Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas; Pixar's WALL-E, then we have flushed away, aspects of How to Train your Dragon, UP, Ferngully The Last Rainforest etc. These were all written so that they could be accepted by a wide audience and while there are times where there is humor it is either sparse, or written well enough to work.

Doctor Who the television series has only had around 700 episodes but there was a 15-20 year gap since it ended before it was able to return to our screens. If it weren't for the books, audio plays, fan-fiction ( which Russel T Davis also did a lot of), stage plays and adaptions it might have eventually been forgotten. I've seen interviews where Russel T Davis and other script writers said that they had been concerned themselves over the fate of Dr Who after the end of Season 26. They said that they felt the need to contribute to the universe by writing their own fan-fiction in order to keep the series in the public consciousness until it could be picked up again.

Neighbors and shows similar have been running for twenty or so years and have accured upwards of 6,000 episodes but that does not mean that a show that has lasted is a show which should be considered great. The writing in these programmes are some of the most basic and unskilled examples of television. Game-shows like Wheel of Fortune have been running for a bullshit amount of time but that does not mean it is a great show just one that appeals to everyone that feels the need to see other people succeed, or fail.

I'm all for the silly side of Dr Who, what with Matt Smith insisting on wearing a fez and saying how cool they are, bluffing to the Daleks with a Jam biscuit ( Jammy Dodger), when he went through all the food in his appearance at Amy's house and said it was rubbish and threw it all out, when Christoper Eccleston was talking to Captain Jack about the bananas in season one etc.

I can't think of too many shows that I could compare Dr Who with, apart from Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Chronicles but they are all far too similar for an accurate comparison.

I very much agree with your last statement.

Silliness in moderation. I do enjoy the silliness in Dr Who when it works well.

One of my favorite lines from the Matt Smith era.

I think you've taken my post a bit too offensively.

All I was doing was disagreeing with you. I wasn't attacking you and saying you're wrong, because, so long as it's valid, I view everyone's opinions. I just thought you were being very harsh when you didn't think Who was a 'great' show when taking everything into consideration and how long it's been around, regardless of whether there's been a 16 year break or not.

PS, it's The Sarah Jane Adventures, not Chronicles.

To be fair to Love And Monsters, the episode was written around a monster that won a Blue Peter competition. The monster was ridiculous, so the story had a mountain to climb.

Agreed 100%. In fact, to say that Love and Monsters was terrible is an insult to "terrible" things. It was the worst piece of crap story of any show I've ever seen! An absolute embarrassment in every sense of the word!!! Aside from that, great article!!

Hahahaha....now that's funny!! Sooo true!

I didn't think the monster was too bad.

If he had been written as a darker character then the Abzorbaloff could have been quite menacing. Sadly though RTD wrote him as a silly character who you couldn't take seriously, which made him appeal to children. Understandable, but even so.

Yeah I might have, only just to further explain my reasoning though.

Perhaps I'm not used to people being this reasonable during discussions.

Haha, I must have had the word Chronicles in my head while writing my response. Thanks for correcting me, shame there is no auto-correct for the proper names of film and TV shows.

What are some of your other favorite moments of silliness in Doctor Who?

The silliness is one of the reasons I like Doctor Who. If the directors tried to make everything dramatic it would seem rediculous to me because some of the ideas ARE a little rediculous. I feel like their laughing and saying..."I know this is crazy...but what IF aliens were involved in WWII"....and so we get the "What if" to make our imaginations wonder. We also get the enjoyment of watching a hero that will never be defeated and seems to enjoy the explorations of these worlds that we probably wouldn't want to exist, but still enjoy creating.

You're Borusa quote is wrong (capacity subbed in for propensity), which wouldn't matter except you reference the word that isn't there in the next line.

Why do I love Who? Because as a series it does all things and does them very well.

I like that Dr Who has a very British eccentricity to it, but you have to keep it in check. Love and Monsters is what happens when someone forgets to keep it in check. I'd never want Dr Who to lose the silliness, but a little goes a long way.

LOL It's funny that pretty much every comment here just simply repeats the points of the article above, but with different phrases. ;) Good article!

I'm not a big fan of the silliness aspect but I willingly accept that it has its place in the Dr. Who universe. I think that removing it would be worse than leaving it in. It is amazing that the recent few years series can entertain an old geezer like me as much as they do especially as they are aiming to include 12 year olds as part of their audience. A major achievement, I think!

The Neil Gaiman episode of last series is an excellent example of balancing silly and dramatic- moving easily from Death-Rory stuff to the Doctor not getting why a married couple wouldn't want bunkbeds. Of course, it's also an excellent example of everything else.

"I'm being extremely clever up here and there's no-one to stand around looking impressed. What's the point in having you all?" - The Doctor (The Impossible Astronaut)

To be fair, a child created the character. It wouldn't really have been right to turn them into something dark and menacing. RTD did the right thing by embracing the silliness.

Although, casting Peter Kay was a mistake. Big time.

I think that some people just take Doctor Who too seriously. The show
works because the humour (silliness) and the drama (seriousness) are
indivisible. Tom Baker's last few seasons didn't disappoint me because
he was too silly (the standard fan trope). They disappointed because
he'd clearly lost any joy in the show. The big danger to the show is the
temptation to Americanise it in the quest for bigger ratings. Not
because there's anything wrong with American TV or American sci-fi but
because the essence of the show's character is British. And that's an
essence which has nothing to do with accents or locations or jokes about
jammy dodgers and everything to do with the lack of a dividing line
between humour (silliness) and seriousness which is peculiarly (though
not necessarily uniquely) British. To really globalise the show, they'd
need to make it a cartoonish kids' show or a show which took itself far
too seriously.

It's not that the dividing line is just blurred but rather that the two
facets can't be separated. The one doesn't work without the other. The
best thing about Tom Baker's Doctor is that the humour arose out of the
darkness and vice versa, It wasn't now we're being serious, now we're
being funny, now we're being serious again like flicking a switch on and
off.

The essence of Doctor Who lies in concept, not scale. That's why I
groaned when I heard the PR line being pushed, and repeated parrot
fashion by everyone at Cardiff, about the Tellytubby Daleks. Now that
they're bigger and taller than the Doctor, it makes them so much
scarier. That was so obviously missing the whole point of Doctor Who
that it seemed clearly a retrospective excuse. The Daleks aren't scary
because they look scary - they actually look silly, like a robot your
kid draws at school and you stick proudly onto the fridge door - they're
scary because they've always been scary and because their iconic
coolness long ago outweighed their silliness. Did you see that Dalek
prop they brought onto the Craig Ferguson show? The audience was just
laughing at it as if it was a joke. No non-fan would ever take the
pepperpots m seriously outside Britain. But in their proper context
within Doctor Who where the bonkers and the serious are indivisible,
they're scary as hell.

In fact the Daleks may be the show's surest safeguard against
Americanisation. Who's going to take them seriously who doesn't "get"
Doctor Who?

I STILL love Love and Monsters. Because of itself.

What IS it with you 'Love and Monsters' haters? I have a theory that you are probably American and under 30 and take yourselves and Who fart oo seriously.

The child met the monster costume (and Peter Kay?) and said, quite sadly, "I imagined it to be the size of two double deckers". Poor kid.

...what does nationality have to do with anything? That's like me saying "What is it with grown men drinking hot tea?! I have a theory that you are probably English and weak-willed women that need other nations to save you in wartime." See how condescending you can sound? ;)

British and it's a family show, I'm barely under 30 but the primary audience is 12!

A good example.

And a testament to how well Neil Gaiman can write when he is away from doing seminal comic book tomes like The Sandman, starting the Books of Magic and altering his own creation like Coraline in order to make it translate better to film.

I was touched by the chemistry of the TARDIS in human guise and the Doctor, which allowed us to further appreciate the connection they share.

For fan's of Neil Gaiman it wasn't hard to work out that this was his story, but it was still good that they gave him the chance to add to the Doctor Who canon.

The Doctor:
I'm going to need a SWAT team ready to mobilize, street-level maps
covering all of Florida, a pot of coffee, twelve jammie dodgers and a
fez
Delaware: Get him his maps.

What are some of everyone's favorite moments of Dr Who silliness?

Hey Love & Monsters is no Citizen Cane, but it is a Dr Who master-class compared to the inane mind torture that was "Fear Her". I despise that episode, so boring, so stupid. God I wish I could have that wiped from my memory. RTD proved that faced with budgetry issues you can create an awesome Who episode on the cheap. "Midnight". Don't get me wrong, I ain't going into battle for Love & Monsters, but serioisuly people, the worst ep ever. I FEAR not.

There are times when I want to hug RTD for his writing (Midnight). But in the case of 'Love and Monsters' I just want to slap him and yell "What the f*** is wrong with you?!" I'm usually very forgiving of some bad episodes of DW, but 'Love and Monsters' really pushed my buttons. I've only watched the episode twice. The second time was to show/prove to my friends how horrible the episode was. They were not DW fans and they walked away from seeing 'Love and Monsters' a little disturbed.

The Doctor: "Ahh, yes blimey. Christmas Eve on a rooftop. Saw a chimney. My whole brain just went "What the hell!" (A Christmas Carol).

Not to be a bore, but "weak-willed" wasn't sufficent? Was it really necessary, while poiting out the stupididty of nationality clichés, to add gender bias into the equation, to be read as an insult?

Not. A family show is supposed to be able to entertain everybody, kids and adults alike, and therefore to not bore anyone, and be readable on various levels (including, pleasing kids without offending the adults) - things that Pixar movies or animation shows like the Avatar series do with brilliance (and imo RTD's run too) - : the "kid show" excuse is only a way to refuse any form of serious critic or deep analysis, as if it made it "worthless by essence". And it's the kind of thinking that will sink the show, that has to have that balance between child and adult material.

Love and Monsters had all that : absolute siliness aimed at kids (with a Benny Hill parody imbedded for adults), heart, and some serious thinking. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, so of course one can not like it, but hating it refusing it any merit seems very extreme and a little bit childish indeed (I'm still waiting for a real analysis of the actual reasons why it would be a "terrible episode", as lots of teenagers seem to think. it seems it comes from fans that indeed take themselves and the show a little bit too seriously). There are of course episodes I don't like, but I'm usually capable of finding qualities in any of them (except maybe episodes like the pirates one this season, that has absolutly nothing going for it imo).

The highly cliche moment in "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe" when, as Reg "dies" in the storm, Madge wakes up as if from a nightmare. Great article, love that quote at the end. That's amazing

On the subject of being condescending, isn't it doubly so to throw a sexist comment in there for no apparent reason? That's my point. ;)

I never found it completely reprehensible. I enjoyed some aspects of it and laughed at the reveal when the woman is resurrected as a slab of concrete but overall I enjoyed past and future episodes far more.

Yea yeah, but wasn't calling him "english" harsh enough? ^^

LOL! Point to you ;)

If you want a show that takes itself too seriously, watch the X-Files.
If you want a bow-tie-wearing alien travelling through space and time in a wooden box, watch Doctor Who.

Very funny, but my fave is:
Rory: I let her drive my car once.
Amy: Yeah, to the end of the road.
Rory: Where, according to Amy, there was an unexpected house.
Classic.

I think the balance between serious and silly is right under the present management. It's the frenetic pace that's unbalanced, making Doctor Who seem more madcap than it actually is, and creating a false illusion that there is no depth or gravitas. Don't get me wrong, there certainly is, but it whizzes by (the superb Vincent and the Doctor excluded by being beautifully paced). One total comedy episode per season (Closing Time) is fine too.

Interesting how all of these moments are Smith moments...

I love L&M, it has a wonderful "feel", the characters are nice, the music just fits perfectly, it is very very funny, the "Scooby Who" section is pretty much the only weak part of the episode IMHO but that is only a few seconds long.

Actually, the Scooby Who bit was the only part I liked of Love & Monsters. If you'd had that as the only big, in-your-face silly part of that episode, and the rest of it had been a bit darker with some one-liners thrown in, it would have been a much better episode. But that's just my opinion.

I was just about to put that!

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