Opinion: Why the Doctor is not the core of Doctor Who

William HartnellWith Doctor Who returning to our screens shortly and the question “Doctor Who?” hanging over current storylines, Swithun Dobson considers Time Lords, TARDISes, and Time Travel to ask: what is the essence of the show?

Contrary to popular conceptions, at its core it’s not even about the Doctor. If we travel back to 1963 we do of course meet the TARDIS and the Doctor but we soon realise that they are the frame in which the story is hanged. Ostensibly most of the first two seasons revolve around the TARDIS team trying to get Ian and Barbara home to 1960s London after being kidnapped by the Doctor for rumbling his affairs, so why take a roundabout route visiting Kublai Khan, Robespierre and the Sensorites?

Interestingly, from the modern Who perspective, none of the early serials focus on the character of the Doctor. The earliest story is The Tenth Planet but that just establishes that he can rejuvenate; the whole mythos of regeneration comes a lot later. Even The Deadly Assassin which establishes the 12 regeneration limit really focuses on the Master trying to cheat death.

“The Doctor wants to learn.” The best way to uncover the essence is to watch the original Dalek serial (which incidentally was never originally given a name- it was just a collection of seven episode titles) where the Doctor sabotages his own TARDIS to force the team to investigate what we subsequently learn is the Dalek city. This alone makes William Hartnell’s Doctor far more interesting than Tennant’s or Smith’s but the real importance lies in the reason why.

The Doctor is the antithesis of modern man: he wants to learn. Not in the pre-defined schooling sense which declares you’ll learn what we want because we say so. But he’s actually interested in the external world for its own sake. He is an explorer. Exploration is the heartbeat of the series.

“Exploration is the heartbeat of the series.”Or rather it ought to be. Since his eighth regeneration the Doctor has become like a travel rep with one or two customers. His harsh and dangerous exploits have been replaced with package tours with minor inconveniences which still provide ITV’s documentary makers with a career; note the egregious Planet of the Ood in which slavery is ended literally by breaking a circuit – contrast this with the almost immutable violent culture in The Aztecs. However unlike your typical Club 18-30 rep the Doctor has somehow become semi-omniscient. The geeky action hero already knows how to defeat his enemy before they show up or he just rolls off his CV and wins; the last time I remember he didn’t was the mostly excellent Midnight. More insufferable than this however is the Doctor’s black hole of a personality- everything is consumed by him, especially the entirety of last season. Infuriatingly, I thought the end of series 6 would herald the end of this but then we realise the oldest question of the universe is “Doctor Who?” Facepalm!

Club 18-30 travel rep So what is to be done apart from inducing amnesia? Well since the question has been asked the fall of silence is to be preferred but that would annoy far too many people. But even before the end of next season we could bash up the TARDIS such that it worked like old Billy’s i.e. not very well. Immediately you ramp up the danger since the Doctor never knows where or when he is going. It would also go some way to confounding the production of a formulaic season – yes, Russell I’m looking at you: story in the present, story in the future, celebrity historical, all leading to the biggest finale EVER!

The Guillotine in Revolutionary France

Next, and more radically, is to revisit the Reign of Terror and for the Doctor to lose his head, literally. For all his undoubted talents Matt Smith is an impediment to returning to the roots of the show. Like David Tennant before him, he symbolises the action hero. The eccentric explorer is best personified by an older Doctor (hear our suggestions in our Fantasy Film Draft): a man with a wealth of experience and a habituated sense of inquiry; he takes companions essentially as quasi-apprentices. In this way Peter Cushing’s Doctor is more apt than Smith’s. Now of course he can’t be the age for a mobility scooter due to the busy production schedule but physical fitness can last a long time, note Ryan Giggs or Karl Marlone.

With the last action hero laid to rest and his time tourism business bankrupt the focus can now shift to the worlds the Doctor explores; in essence these are fantastical ways of exploring our own dangerous and complex planet. Out with the kumbaya singing Planet of the Ood and in with synthesised drums of human sacrifice in Aztecs: 2150.

Do you agree that Doctor Who needs to return to its exploratory roots? Or do you prefer the modern focus on the character of the Doctor? Let us know your comments below, or send us a recording of your opinions for the next Points of Who!

6 thoughts on “Opinion: Why the Doctor is not the core of Doctor Who

  1. I agree totally. For me, the modern focus on the Doctor falls down because I’m not interested in him as a character. He’s just a generic action celebrity with big hair and all the effort by the side characters to talk him up just reminded me of how unwonderful he was. I watched the start of the last series out of a fading residual hope that things would get better but I gave up. If they replaced Matt Smith with someone older and took a crowbar to the Tardis I might start watching again. Let me know if it ever happens.

  2. While I agree that the best bit in new might not always be the Doctor, I heartily disagree that he has become an irrelevant action hero in his own show. For myself Matt Smith has nailed the 11th Doctor and his performance really is worthy the price of admission. It is true that many of the highly regarded episodes don’t focus on him: “Vincent and the Doctor” Van Gogh is the heart of the story, “The Girl Who Waited” Amy and Rory framed the episode, “The Doctor’s Wife” Idris rules. In fact one of the best stories in recent years barely featured him: “Blink”. The companion lite “Midnight” was more about the breakdown of civilisation rather than the Doctor saving the day. In fact he doesn’t save the day, the unnamed hostess does. Could the 11th Doctor stop being the action hero and have a story without a monster? Perhaps. The last purely historic romp was “the Black Orchid”, before that probably Hartnell. In my book the Doctor is the catalyst not the hero, sometimes he can save the day but more likely Amy or even Rory. Does this weaken the Doctor as a character? I think not, he’s in his 11th incarnation. He may have elements of his previous selves but he’ll never be a Troughton, Pertwee or Baker. But why should he? Should the show return to its roots? Probably not, would we have had a “Blink” or a “Vincent and the Doctor”?

  3. Kevin,

    I actually think Matt Smith is a good actor and does well given the material but he’s clearly in the action mould of Tennant in which the show revolves around him. In fact Moffat set up last season explicitly about the death of the Doctor and next season will be about Doctor Who!

    All I’m saying is that the show should focused on exploration not the Doctor and he should learn about his environment as we do; this does not preclude a great base of knowledge. Even with these changes we could still have a monster every week and him saving the day.

    I am not saying we should be aping Classic Who, far from it. If have read my article on story arcs you might get a broader context. http://www.impossiblepodcasts.com/2011/06/article-doctor-whos-story-arc-of.html
    All I want is a reorientation of the show away from the character of the Doctor to exploration and there’s loads of latitude for originality within those constraints. I used Hartnell to just illustrate this point not to say we should remake the Web Planet.

  4. I don’t disagree with the vast thrust of your argument Swithun (that the Doctor should be an unfocused explorer, archeologist Indiana Jones rather than action hero Indiana Jones). I do absolutely disagree that Matt Smith is the wrong man for the job. The problem with the current portrayal of The Doctor is the writers would rather he be an action hero than an explorer. If you changed that focus Matt Smith could play it – even David Tennant could have.

    The example that seems to fit is that of Giles in Buffy. Always portrayed as smart, but never omniscient. Knowledge in Buffy had to be earned, it didn’t just appear in a flash because it was convenient. That meant frequent researching scenes – the quest for knowledge presented literally (albeit on a small scale).

    The writing team on Doctor Who don’t want the Doctor bogged down in this – exploring and learning get in the way of the plot and slow things down. Much easier for the Doctor to know everything already and just need reminding, or for an expositional guest-star to deliver the information before they die. Once you remove that there’s no need for the Doctor to explore, he’s just there to change history/right wrongs instead.

    I don’t think an older Doctor would make much difference to that. If anything you would be more likely to get an older, ‘wiser’, MORE all-seeing Doctor who just uses his companions as muscle whilst he solves the death traps from the TARDIS in time for the end credits.

  5. Interesting that you think we need to take a crowbar to the TARDIS. Wouldn’t it be a safe assumption that the Doctor will gradually learn more and more about “driving” the TARDIS and therefore will be able to have it operate more efficiently and in better ways?

    Although I do appreciate the sentiment about the explorer version of the Doctor, I don’t agree that he has necessarily turned into an action hero. Eccleston seemed awfully excited to take Rose to the last day of the earth, Tennant took her to New^14 York and was fascinated with the puzzle of “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit.” And hell, Matt Smith just thinks everything is cool. “A boy and his box, off to explore the universe.” The second episode of season 5- the one where Britain is on a Space Whale- is entirely exploratory, and though “The Lodger” was a bit silly I think you can count it in this episode.

    I don’t blame you for hating the formulaic nature of the series. (Damn your eyes RTD!) I sympathize with your irritation toward the superman traits that the doctor sometimes has. But I don’t necessarily agree with your point that the character isn’t what makes the show. New Who has been about the man, and I love it. It’s the story of a man coming to terms with death (or his lack thereof), loneliness, friendship, and morality. Stories like “The Girl in the Fireplace” or when the Doctor hides his identity in a pocketwatch are heart-wrenching and provoking. We could go back to exploration as the focus, but I think that when done well the character of the Doctor embodies exploration.

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