Doctor Who: a celebration of change

Andrew looks back over the continual evolution of Doctor Who and, in the run-up to its fiftieth birthday, celebrates the show's adaptability over the decades

Q: How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Change?

The original run of Doctor Who was, from beginning to end, a production based on the BBC’s original system of television drama, which was basically to film a play. Live. Increasingly less live, sure, but nearly always with huge lumbering stegosaurus cameras in a three walled studio, a stage in all but name. It took a long time to significantly alter an approach that began in the 1950s, and its legacy can be seen throughout the original run.

Now the show has moved on to being a single-camera mini-feature film, backed by a BBC who are aware of its worth. Visuals do not reflect the budget cuts of recent years. During its original run the broadcaster never really backed it properly, and even now it is given a similar budget to a show such as Waking the Dead (was it just me who wanted Paul McGann’s bad guy to win in the show’s last episode?) which does not feature the underground continuation of Stonehenge, or fleets of millions of Daleks flying through space. It has always had to make the most of a budget designed for less fantastical drama. To think about how well Doctor Who has consistantly done in achieving a finished product, try to imagine Waking the Dead done on the budget of Terror of the Autons.

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Then again, try to imagine Survival made on the budget of Terror of the Autons. Throughout its changes in production staff, Doctor Who has undergone wholesale changes that initially received negativity, although many years after the event it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. The best example of this is The Deadly Assassin, now widely regarded as a classic. At the time it annoyed quite a lot of people. Mary Whitehouse, obviously, was one. The others were the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, who hated the depiction of Time Lords in the story, contradicting as it did what we knew of them up to that point. Today, the majority of Gallifreyan mythology stems from The Deadly Assassin, and its retcons are uncontroversial.

Robert Holmes (script editor and writer of The Deadly Assassin) stated that he would not let any child under the age of ten watch the show, and that it was ‘geared towards the intelligent fourteen year-old’. Doctor Who had started off with the remit of being an educational programme for children, with the edict of ‘no bug eyed monsters’. This changed after a mere six episodes.

Stories with purely historical settings ceased after four years (barring 1982’s Black Orchid). The Patrick Troughton era is famed for its ‘Base Under Siege’ plots, the Pertwee era for being stranded on Earth. After that eras take approaches along the lines of ‘Gothic Horror’, ‘Classically-Influenced-Whimsy’, ‘I Am Serious (And don’t call me Shirley)’, ‘Let’s Do The Sixties But Not As Well’, ‘It’s a Cruel Ol’ Universe’, and finally ‘Let’s Make 2000 AD on the budget of Through the Dragon’s Eye’.

Obviously, this doesn’t quite cover every nuance, but you get an idea of the key fact: Doctor Who always changes, and as a result becomes many things to many people. The basics remain forever the same, but the key drive behind the show is that of the producer and script editor, or show runner today (who occupies aspects of both those jobs). Different people write for different audiences, and every era has its fans. Steven Moffat has said that it’s a children’s show that adults can enjoy. Graham Williams was under specific instructions to make things more child-friendly. John Wiles wanted to make the show darker, but faced opposition from William Hartnell and the BBC. Despite this, his four stories feature two historical massacres and the first two companion deaths. Following this, Innes Lloyd provided us with a carnival of monsters and Patrick Troughton. Without the latter the show would have ended in 1966. John Nathan Turner hired three novice script editors who all took the show in completely different directions, none of which was aimed at the younger viewers. Looking back, the Robert Holmes era is something of an anomaly, being the only time that making the show darker and more adult has resulted in consistently high viewing figures. Presumably this is partly why, since 2005, no one has tried to replicate this approach.

There is also the fact that the show is now made for a wider audience. It aimed for, and succeeded in reaching, a Saturday night audience, usually dominated by talent shows and light entertainment. Irrespective of anyone’s opinion of it is the fact that this approach brought back and established Doctor Who again. If you aren’t watching the television version, then you’ve still benefited from it in terms of an faster release rate of DVDs, Big Finish’s expanding range, and an increased amount of coverage of all aspects of the show’s past and present. Even if you think that modern telly is all dumbed down rubbish and you miss the quiet reflective bits, the fact is that eventually someone else will come along and run Doctor Who, and that you might enjoy their version of it. As long as it is successful, there’ll still be benefits for fans. Either way you’ve got a rich and varied history to pick and choose from.

Of course, we all need something to do to pass the time before we die, and for a lucky few that thing is arguing about the respective merits of two different production styles. Despite over twenty years of constructive debates on the matter, we still don’t know exactly who to blame for the show’s cancellation in 1989, although we have narrowed it down to about ninety possibly candidates. In 2012, if you’re finding Steven Moffat’s version of the show unwatchable, you have the options of writing about how he has destroyed your childhood or of watching the many available DVDs of your childhood that are miraculously still in working order, free from The Moff’s Machiavellian, popular clutches.

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What’s the alternative?  The alternative is to end up like Light from Ghostlight. Having spent your entire life making a detailed analysis of everything within an ecosystem, when you go away and do something else for a bit you come back to find out that everything’s gone and bloody made itself different, plus some weird Scottish bloke is wandering around being all smug and irritating at you.

There’s no point in getting annoyed about it, because the show changes every week, and there’s so much of it to choose from. You’ve been spoiled, really, when you consider than you can pick and choose what you want to watch, read or listen to, knowing that this will long continue to be the case.

Read Andrew’s celebration of Doctor Who cliffhangers, here.

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