With 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!
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!
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!