Doctor Who: is it for geeks?

As we brace ourselves for Doctor Who series 6, Andrew questions whether it's a show for the mainstream, rather than the geek...

We all know Doctor Who, the big whooshy behemoth of wonderful nonsense that emanates from the TVs and iPlayers of the great and the good and children? Whether or not we admit it, we also know that Doctor Who is profoundly good. So good that many of us live to spew vitriolic bobbins about bits of it that have the temerity to be less good than others.

Fortunately, everyone who does this is right, in their mind. So, there’s fun. Then again, if you’ve seen Logopolis, you may well feel that you deserve the sudden spare bandwidth freed up by a Middle Eastern dictator in order to vent your spleen.

The show is a topic much beloved of geeks and forever shall remain so, as long as we are given quite corners of the abstract to dwell in, leaving the normal people well alone.

Would you say, though, that Doctor Who in its present incarnation is for geeks?

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Steven Moffat has explicitly stated in Doctor Who Magazine that the show is for everyone, from the casual viewer to the hardcore fan. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that the show largely maintains. However, I would say it is definitely skewed towards the family audience, as it was at its height during the seventies.

In fact, to find any evidence of a Doctor Who skewed intentionally towards geekdom, we have to go back to when it wasn’t even on television. We have to visit the 1990s. It’s alright. It’s not going to hurt you.

Over there we have The New Adventures. Be careful. Don’t poke it with a spoon. Do so and sweary words, self-consciously ‘dark’ stories and gratuitous sex times will explode all over you, and you’ll forget all the good bits in your haste to get cleaned up and forget this ever happened.

The New Adventures did contain some stunningly good stories, incredibly earnest political beliefs, and some utterly terrible drawings of Sylvester McCoy on their covers. They were definitively not for children. Some writers even incorporated the Cthulhu mythos into the Whoniverse. The target market for Who had shifted.

When the show ended in 1989, it was taking a direction heavily influenced by the wave of adult comic book storylines of Alan Moore and 2000 AD, moving away from the fan-baiting, BBC-appeasing child-friendly fare that the McCoy era started with (although didn’t end with). Even so, it’s quite a leap from the tone of the final TV series of Doctor Who to a range of novels that includes the opening line, “**** you, mate! Just **** you, you ****ing ******.”

You don’t want to know what that novel has to say concerning genitalia and the Cyber-conversion process.

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As would later happen with Torchwood, after the awkwardly childish attempts at adult content, the New Adventures did produce some extraordinarily good Doctor Who, notably Human Nature, adapted for the 2007 series by its author, Paul Cornell, and The Dying Days, which is basically The Christmas Invasion with Ice Warriors and the Eighth Doctor.

The poorer stories simply ticked all the boxes of bad fan fiction, but for me, if we’re being honest, so do one or two of the new seriess finales. It’s just that they’re done with such chutzpah and conviction we barely notice until RTD has somehow made us all cry again.

Then we have Big Finish productions, in which the Doctor’s adventures continue on wireless and CD. These are consistently good, but unlikely to appeal to a TV audience that considers them tie-in products. Certainly, when they are not on the radio, the cost of the series is prohibitive to some fans, many of whom chose simply to dip in and out of the range based on reviews and word of mouth.

Again, this range has been mined by the TV series, most notably when Jubilee was adapted into 2005’s Dalek, and also when The Age Of Steel/Rise Of The Cybermen stole all its good bits from Spare Parts, Marc Platt’s Cybermen origin story.

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Big Finish is aimed right at the craniums of Doctor Who fandom, but unlike the book range, you wouldn’t expect to find it in the high street. It mainly features the Doctors from the eighties and Paul McGann, who are, sadly, not generally popular with the public. For example, despite his sterling work, it is still an act of folly to attempt to convince a not-we that Colin Baker is an excellent Doctor, based on his poll-winning and critically acclaimed work for Big Finish.

Another problem for the range is that the phrase ‘audio play’ doesn’t really have much going for it, as a noun. Not compared with, say, ‘comic book’.

Doctor Who has had a regular comic series ever since the magazine began in 1979, with Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Brian Hitch, Steve Dillon and Dave Gibbons all having worked on the strip at some point, but less well known names have made the biggest impact. Hands up who’s heard of Steve Parkhouse? Or Scott Gray?

Steve Parkhouse is part of that oft-neglected Mark Millar bastion of British comic talent, 2000 AD. His Voyager arc is, put simply, not simple. Following fantasy dream logic as the Doctor battles the wizened figure of Astrolabus, the action shifts all over reality, under it, and then out of it again while occasionally making meta-referential jibes at the art of comic book writing itself. It is cheerily demented, breathtakingly inventive, and scratched into monochrome wonder by the pen of John Ridgway.

Scott Gray, on the other hand, assisted by former Judge Dredd Megazine editor, Alan Barnes, used the wilderness years following the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie to take the potential of the Eighth Doctor and then mine it for the following eight years, occasionally presaging the oncoming storm of the new series. Human Dalek story? Check. Return and redesign of classic villains? Check. More developed companions? Increased liberal attitude to sexuality? Treating the word ‘epic’ as a challenge rather than an insult? Check, check, and check. It is also, whisper it, much better.

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Now, I’m not saying the RTD years were bad, but the Eighth Doctor comics are just better. It’s an established empirical fact in my world, like every Doctor being good and that people who argue for intelligent design are an argument against intelligent design. It’s just that the comic strip onlyhad to appeal to Doctor Who fans. It didn’t have to reach a mass audience in order to survive.

The TV series is for geeks. It’s just that it’s also for the many other people who aren’t. And that’s okay. They’re allowed to, provided they do it behind closed doors when nobody else is watching.

Scott Gray and Steve Parkhouse, meanwhile, have helped redefine what Doctor Who can be, influencing everything from the tie-in novelisations, to Big Finish audio plays, to the current television series, simply because all that limited it was the imagination of the artists and writers. You should go yonder and seek them out, because it’s the most successful version of a niche concept. It’s Doctor Who, you see, but it’s for geeks.

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