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What's Going On With 'Doctor Who'?


You’ve probably all heard those news reports in which people express alarm at the rise in some kind of health or crime statistic — you know, ‘Stabbings have risen by 20% over the last three years’, that kind of thing — to which the counter-opinion is often voiced that the reason for the rise in the statistic is because of better reporting of incidents or more accurate testing or some such answer: in other words, it’s not the situation itself which is getting worse, it’s the communication about it which is getting better.

There’s probably something of the same sort occurring around Doctor Who at the moment. Briefly scanning through comments on social media in Who groups and the press generally, one finds that the programme’s viewers are distinctly divided — some voice a total love for the new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, others a complete loathing; some express a strong affinity for the show’s ‘socially relevant’ themes, while for others these turn them off; many say that they are impressed by the writing, while at least an equal number say that it has declined terribly. As a watcher of the show since its debut in 1963, I wonder how much of this has to do with ‘better reporting.’ In other words, had social media existed in the 1960s, would things have been any different? The considerable amount of concern expressed in the ordinary mainstream press at that time when William Hartnell suddenly and unexpectedly regenerated into Patrick Troughton, for example, was probably just the tip of an iceberg of polarised comments one way or the other: thousands would have hated the historic switch of one actor for another in the central role of the Doctor, while thousands would have been excited by it.

I have no doubt that the programme would have equally come under fire for its politics, one way or another, during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as its apparently anti-establishment themes would have triggered off both positive and negative responses in viewers throughout those decades; similarly, the quality of writing would have been either attacked or praised as it varied between the Gothic horror of Tom Baker’s later years and the self-parodying humour of the late ‘80s. Social media, in other words, today permits us to look into the oceans of swirling arguments which must always have been there in the audience throughout the programme’s long history.

Having said that, it is worth pointing out that Doctor Who succeeds or fails in terms of television ratings based on three fundamental pillars, about which I have written elsewhere. I’ll summarise these here so that you can see what I mean:

1. Its reflection of the socio-cultural milieu in which it is broadcast.

Whether we like it or not, any television programme is a construct of its time (even when the premise of this particular show is time travel). The ‘60s show was part of a decade in which cultural norms and social deference were breaking down and an older order was visibly giving way to a new — the transition from the ‘educational’ older and irascible Doctor to the Beatle-haircut of the newer and friendlier second Doctor is the most obvious evidence of how this translated into the show. It’s not as though the producers ever sat down and said ‘OK, we are part of a socio-cultural milieu so how do we get the programme to mirror that?’ — it just happened naturally, as the BBC attempted to capture and then maintain the TV ratings upon which its own existence depended. As the ‘70s dawned, so did a new cultural awareness of environmental and political themes, paralleled in some of the Third Doctor’s adventures; then, with the ‘80s, this particular pillar of the programme faltered — one of the reasons why, by the end of that decade, it was cancelled.

When Doctor Who returns in 2005, we see immediately that it is attempting to capture the zeitgeist of its time, with post-modern political and social references coming at us at a fast pace. While this aspect of the show has faltered again over the intervening 15 years, the latest incarnation, with Jodie Whittaker at the helm, has again tried to mirror its audience’s most evident concerns: social, racial and cultural discrimination, environmental worries, feminism and so on. To glance at social media comments, one would think that Who was attempting something fresh and perhaps even blasphemous by weaving these topics into its narratives, when in fact, as I’m asserting, the show always did this — we’re just now getting a closer look at viewer’s responses than we ever had before.

2. Its treatment of the Doctor’s companion(s) as a bridge to the viewer.

This is another crucial factor in the success or failure of the show: it rates highly throughout its viewing history when there is a popular and relatable companion travelling with the Doctor, but when this connection is hesitant or wavering, ratings suffer.

This has something to do with the first point about cultural milieu: the Doctor’s first companions, Ian and Barbara, were mature teachers, part of the show’s original educational and deferential perspective; then the companions became younger, edgier ‘dropouts’ as the emphasis shifted towards a teenage audience; then, as the ratings reached their heights in the late ‘70s, the companion was a feisty young journalist (Sarah Jane Smith) who was both energetic and brave enough to move the narrative forward when required, but human and warm enough to keep viewers on board.

As the quality or nature of the companions declined — as they became more two-dimensional — so did their vital connection to the programme’s audience. And so, as we were subjected to caricatures in Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, the audience drifted off almost completely. When the show was revived, the choice of Billie Piper, Catherine Tate and to a lesser extent Freema Agyeman tended to ‘glue’ the audience and the programme back together: we could identify with these people, they became ‘us’ aboard the TARDIS. Ratings spiralled upwards.

This pillar fluctuated again with show runner Moffat’s casting of Karen Gillan as Amy or Jenna Coleman as Clara in companion roles — their personas were more difficult to relate to as they became almost superheroes in the context of the stories and less and less like people we might have met in the street. The most modern companions, Graham, Yas and Ryan, are a weak link: there are too many of them for proper character development, and so they become ciphers with whom the writers hope we identify, while in fact the connection is tenuous at best.

3. The role of the Doctor.

The final pillar vital to the success of the show overall is how the Doctor is portrayed.

In this regard, gender should be irrelevant, but, if you will bear with me, I will attempt to show you how it does have something to do with the difficulty the show faces with this facet of its construction.

There are seven character archetypes in fiction, about which I have written elsewhere. If I list these off, you will automatically begin to spot them in every successful work of fiction you have ever read or seen: the Antagonist, the Shadow Protagonist, the Submerged Companion, the Protagonist, the Emerging Warrior, the Comic Companion and the Wise Old Figure. They form a spectrum essential to fiction, as I have outlined in my book Myth & the ‘Now’.

Astute readers (and viewers) will immediately begin to trace how the character of the Doctor, central to the show obviously, has subtly or not-so-subtly shifted between these archetypes from Day One: Hartnell began as an Antagonist, but quickly moved to become the Wise Old Figure, an aspect he usually retains whenever the First Doctor appears in modern stories. Troughton’s Doctor had the capability of embracing both ends of the spectrum, but played mainly around the Comic Companion role, becoming something of a clown when needed. Further incumbents followed suit and succeeded, for the most part, in playing the role according to one or more of these set figures.

Again, the programme declined in the ‘80s partly due to the failure of the producers and writers to make up their minds, unconscious or otherwise, as to who Who was: Davison’s Fifth Doctor was a watery version of Troughton’s usually; Colin Baker was stuck as an aggressive quasi-antagonist for the most part. McCoy tried to recapture a sense of the Wise Old Figure, but lacked gravitas.

In the revived series, show producer Russell T Davies made the most, knowingly or otherwise, of the Emerging Warrior archetype, having Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor play the role as a grim figure trying to leave a dark past behind; David Tennant, taking over to become the Tenth Doctor, possessed the necessary range to sweep through these archetypal roles much like Troughton or Tom Baker before him. Ratings correspondingly rose, and were maintained by Matt Smith, whose acting ability also enabled him to switch between archetypes deftly.

However, again writers and producers lost their way with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, seemingly unable to decide what archetype he should encapsulate — and that brings us to the difficulty posed by Whittaker. The cultural tendency — unfortunate but very real — is to cast females as Submerged Companions in archetypal terms. This means that the character is sinking into darkness, usually doomed unless rescued, overshadowed and normally overwhelmed by a hostile world. Think Lady Macbeth, Miss Havisham, Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings — in fact, just about any female character in literature. That ‘femininity’ and ‘submergence’ seem to equate in cultural terms is a discussion for another day — all we can conclude here is that a pattern exists, rightly or wrongly, and that pattern is a kind of template built into our existing culture.

What that means is that the partly unconscious expectation when seeing a female cast as the Doctor is that the role will drift towards the archetype of Submerged Companion — i.e. the character will be overwhelmed, will sink into darkness, will need rescuing. It’s a little too early to come to any conclusions about this in relation to the new series, but what we can see is ratings falling and a tremendous and often inexcusably unpleasant disaffection amongst the show’s fandom towards the new Doctor.

And the ratings have been very low.

What does all this mean? Does the failure to strengthen these pillars mean that the programme is doomed?

Well, no. Doom-mongers get little traction when discussing a programme whose underlying premise — a time-and-space-travelling alien having limitless adventures around the universe — has empowered it to survive for almost 60 years. As it has fallen in the past — as I argue, due to the failure to recognise and fully employ the pillars above — so it may do in the future; but so may it also rise, if the above are tackled.

The simplest way to restore the show would be this: strip the companions down to one or two highly relatable figures, whose presence on board the TARDIS would adhere viewers to the narrative; and steer the Doctor, male or female, deftly and firmly towards defined character archetypes, notably towards the Wise end of the spectrum. Steven Moffat used to say that the Doctor ‘wasn’t Gandalf in space’, but I would argue that that is precisely what he or she is: the archetype best suited to a time-and-space-travelling alien having limitless adventures around the universe is that of the Wise Old Figure, and the more that that becomes a central datum in the show, the higher the ratings will go.

The formula is ‘Build a stable archetype and then build a bridge to the audience’. The social milieu aspect will probably take care of itself if that is done.

I rest my case.

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