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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