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The Context of 'Doctor Who' 5

May 7, 2016

 

As we have seen, there had been many changes of direction, mood and purpose in Doctor Who in its first twenty years, usually coinciding with the ‘regeneration’ of its lead actor. This unique premise effectively gave the show the power to regenerate itself, defying the death that shifting tastes and directions of public taste normally brought to TV programmes and in fact enabling the show to shift and change to keep pace with them, if it so chose. That, coupled with the basic premise of the series as the ongoing adventures of someone able to travel anywhere and to any time period in the universe, made it more adaptable than other television programmes, which, by their nature, were fixed in a set of conditions and usually stuck with a more or less static body of actors.

 

At first, as we have explored, the character of the Doctor was ambivalent both in terms of his own personality and position and in terms of his relationship to the story: played as a mysterious outsider by the first two Doctors, his role was normally to enter into an existing set of circumstances and act as a catalyst to the resolution of some ongoing problem before departing to repeat that pattern elsewhere and elsewhen. The role of the character and the shape of the story were thus related. With the change of Doctor from Hartnell to Troughton, we also saw the mood and culture of the time being reflected: the deferential and hierarchical early days of the 1960s were phased out and the freer, more rebellious and fun-loving later 60’s mood was phased in; gone was the didactic, ‘educational’ impulse of the show, to be replaced by a clearly science fiction element conducive to the optimistic and forward-looking remainder of the decade.

 

With the Third Doctor, the ability of the show to metamorphose was rigorously tested. It ditched its central premise of time travel, locking itself into the contemporary time period of the early 70s. This had the effect of making it more overtly political and a little more introverted, something which the stories clearly strained against. Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith signalled a return, conscious or not, to the more adventurous era of Troughton - but by then it was clearly established that the Doctor was the protagonist, not the mysterious outsider. His mystery had been stripped away and was to progressively to be even more transparent as the show went on: instead, what had to be stressed to replace this were the ‘heroic’ qualities of the character, as well as his personal foibles and quirks. Rather than being an enigmatic exile from an unknown world, the Doctor had to be a unique and eccentric individual, different in nature from even his own people, a person unto himself.

 

This was all very well up to a point, especially when captured by an eccentric actor like Baker. But, in the later Tom Baker seasons, that point came. If a protagonist is to be ‘larger than life’ in the way described above, it would be important to have him anchored to the reality of an audience in various ways. Pertwee had done this by having adventures set mainly in the very recognisable Britain of the 70s; this continued in the early Baker stories, in which UNIT still featured from time to time and as part of which Sarah Jane Smith, the feisty journalist, was a key element. With Sladen’s departure from the programme in the middle of Season 14, this was destabilised; by the time Season 15 began, there was a noticeable dip in audiences. The Doctor was ‘unanchored’ and floating a little too freely.

 

The show was old enough now to have built up quite a body of its own mythology, too. Instead of adventuring into new territory, as had often been the case with the first three Doctors, there began to be more and more references to things that had happened in the show’s own past or which were part of its ethos. Baker’s final story, the dismal ‘Logopolis’, was ironically about the attempt by the Doctor to ‘cure’ the Tardis of the flaw which had stuck its outward form as a police box from its very first story in 1963, as though the writers were (probably unconsciously) seeking to reinvent what was obviously, by then, a stale and tired-looking format. That remnant of the early 60s, the now-iconic police box exterior of the Tardis, symbolised what the programme was ‘stuck with’; it didn’t seem to know what to do with it. 

 

Technology had also advanced remarkably over the lifetime of the show so far. In the 60s what looked clean and technically advanced - the white and shiny interior of the Tardis - now looked dated. Films like Star Wars and Superman had also invented new kinds of special effects which challenged the creativity of the budget-restricted BBC.

 

Gradually more two-dimensional, Doctor Who was, in the early 80s, failing to match the zeitgeist of its time, as it had managed to do thus far. John Nathan-Turner’s choice of the next Doctor, with hindsight, can be seen as an attempt to resolve this: Peter Davison had established a fan base as the young veterinarian in the popular All Creatures Great and Small series, and was a complete contrast to Baker. ‘The moment has been prepared for,’ says Baker’s Doctor as he loses consciousness, to be replaced by a mysterious white-clad figure who then morphs into the new Doctor in a sequence that, as far as I know, has never been satisfactorily explained within the parameters of the programme’s mythology. The moment had indeed been prepared for: it was almost as if the Watcher, as the white figure was known, was the embodiment of the dissatisfied production team or frustrated fans, ‘watching’ in exasperation and stepping in to bypass the lead actor and almost forcibly re-invent the character. 

 

It didn’t work. Though Davison’s Season 19 experienced a resurgence of audience figures to a degree, by Season 20 they were struggling again. In a sense, Nathan-Turner had spotted what was wrong with the show - the central character of the Doctor had grown to be too ‘central’, too dominant and domineering - but in attempting to tone this down by having Davison play the Doctor as weaker and more vulnerable, bringing in what he thought were more serious storylines, he was attacking a symptom rather than the cause. What was needed was an anchor - something or someone to re-connect the now wildly eccentric figure of the Doctor with the watching public and thus with the cultural mood of the period. Neither Nathan-Turner nor anyone else spotted that that was what was wrong: the team assigned to accompany Davison was a woeful mixture of orphan aliens, disaffected earthlings, humanoid robots and treacherous schoolboys, none of whom were properly developed into the warm bridge that was needed between the story and the viewer. For a while it seemed that anyone and everyone was being thrown at the Tardis in a blind attempt to get the mix right.

 

When Davison - who confessed to me once that his favourite Doctor had been Troughton - bowed out in Season 21, those loyal fans who were still watching (almost half the number who had watched at Baker’s height) were hopeful that things couldn’t get any worse.

 

They were wrong.

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