Friday, 1 November 2013

A Madman in a Box

Doctor Who. It began in November 1963 as a pseudo-educational show starring a crotchety old man and two teachers, and evolved in leaps and bounds into much more of an escapist science fiction/fantasy adventure show starring a madman in a box on a romp through time and space with a string of faithful companions. Though sometimes he still acts a bit like a crotchety old man. It has also, of course, become one of those iconic and quintessential elements of British culture. People used to watch the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day, now probably more of them watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special. It's the darling of the country, and while certainly not everyone will like it, probably everyone will have some opinion about it, because it is that pervasive.

And in just under a month, it celebrates its 50th anniversary, so I figured now was a good time to make this post (Which is one of those ones I've been meaning to make for a long time, it's probably been on the list for as long as I've had a list, which is over two years).

Of course, the show has changed and varied a lot since its inception, the most marked changes of course being between the classic series and the revival, but a few things remain the same and so I suppose they're the best place to start in talking about it. The three most essential, nay quintessential elements of Doctor Who to my mind are the Doctor himself, the TARDIS, and the companions. So.

The Doctor - While of course the Doctor has varied quite a bit in personality through his eleven different incarnations thus far, certain aspects never really go away - he's always an explorer, with a great joy in the wonders of the universe, a bit of a time travelling sightseer, I suppose. As a renegade Time Lord, he's always a little out of place wherever he goes, always a little bit alien (And sometimes a bigger bit than others), regardless of the fact he appears human. He's always one of the cleverest if not the cleverest person wherever he is, and can't resist showing off his intellect. And he's always inclined to be a bit heroic, though his particular brand of heroism is not always typical, and in some cases and particular incarnations it can be very idiosyncratic in a variety of ways. Regardless of the manner or the reasons, he can't resist meddling with things. "We do not walk away."

The TARDIS - Time And Relative Dimension In Space. "Names are funny." The TARDIS is basically the vehicle for the plot. By means of the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions arrive in whatever place and time they're about to have an adventure in, which probably wasn't where they intended to go. While she may not feature quite so much as a character (though more than you might expect), the TARDIS is essential to the whole premise of the show.

The Companions - "The Doctor likes to travel with an entourage. Sometimes they're human. Sometimes they're alien. And sometimes they're metal dogs." The primary roles of the companion have traditionally been to receive exposition and to be rescued, which doesn't particularly impressive, I'll grant you, but there's more to it. The exposition point is a fairly constant one - the Doctor is hugely knowledgable, but we the audience are not, and so in order for us to understand what's going on (even if only in a rudimentary technobabble sort of way), the Doctor needs to have someone onscreen for him to explain everything to. The being rescued aspect is not so great, and was of course particularly prevalent in female companions. I certainly can't absolve Who of sexism, particularly in its earlier years, but it should be noted that it was rare a companion was the absolute one dimensional  'scream, get rescued' character stereotypes might have you believe. They did other things as well. And of course in some ways that is more of a particular symptom of a more general narrative purpose of the companion - to be what the Doctor is not. In some cases where the Doctor is less inclined towards violence, or physical activity in general, that can mean being more of the action hero where required. Where the Doctor is more cerebral, it can mean being more down-to-Earth (or down-to-insert-relevant-planet-here, as applicable). Where the Doctor is more callous, apathetic, unemotional, or calculating, it can mean being more sympathetic and caring. In general, where the Doctor is more alien, the companion is more human, and indeed has something of a humanising influence on the Doctor.

So much for the constants, now for the differences, in particular between Classic Who and Nu Who, as they are typical known on the internet. When the show was originally created, because of the premise of it being educational, they used to switch between serials with aliens, for science, and serials in historical settings, for history. I don't know how long the idea of the show being educational actually lasted, but I think even when it was gone they continued with something like that for a while, however the historical serials may have become rarer. Certainly in the revival, historical episodes are quite rare, and when they do happen, the problem is still aliens, just aliens in the past. I feel having a purely historical episode at some point could be a decent idea, personally. Of course a further issue one can potentially bring up with the revival is that it has far too great a focus on contemporary Earth, and particularly contemporary London (though the London one at least it's shaken somewhat since the RTD-Moffat changeover). Not enough history, not enough spaceships and alien planets, even though now they have the special effects budget to do such things without just going to all the planets that happen to look like endless gravel quarries...
On a related note to the contemporary Earth focus, companions. The revival companions are a) almost all from contemporary Earth, b) almost all female, and more significantly c) almost all single companions. In the classic series it was fairly normal for the Doctor to have two companions, and sometimes more. And he got them from everywhere and everywhen he went on adventures. People from the past and from the future, the odd alien here and there possibly? And a robot dog for a while. The fact most Nu Who companions are female is reasonable in the name of gender balance but that's working under the premise that the Doctor only has one companion, which really shouldn't be as absolute as it has been. As for the contemporariness (Definitely a real word), it's taking a point too far. The companion is the audience's gateway into the Whoniverse, so they have to be relatable. But on several occasions the point has been made, implicitly and explicitly, that humans are still basically humans in any time period, and as such a companion from the past or the future could be just as relatable without implying the Doctor puts more significant emphasis on the specific time period which happens to coincide with the time the show is being made IRL for no apparent good reason.
Oh, also romance with companions. It was kind of interesting as an idea, but they've waaaaay overdone it. And besides, we all know the Doctor's only true love is his TARDIS.

And then in tone. Classic Who, with its more limited resources, but greater time in the form of multi-episode serials, was more cerebral and took more time over the pacing in general and developing characters in particular. Whereas Nu Who, with its fancy-pants special effects budget, focuses somewhat more on grand spectacle. There's merit in both, and flaws in both.
Classic was sometimes a bit slow, with a lot of time devoted to sequences with no real significance, the fact they'd always end each episode of the multi-episode serials on a cliffhanger meant some of said cliffhangers were rather lacklustre ("Oh no, I'm trapped!" *next episode* "Or I could just run over here."), and of course the special effects required a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. But on the other hand, more time in general, and more of a focus on the cerebral and social elements of the story made for some interesting plot points which don't fit so well into Nu Who episodes, and allowed for some better developed background characters giving more of a sense of verisimilitude to whatever world the TARDIS crew found themselves in each week.
Whereas Nu sometimes goes too fast, with important emotions or interesting plot points not having time to properly sink in because you're always dashing forwards to the next scene which is completely different in tone/subject, taking more of the already more limited time for the action sequences means the background world and characters are often not fully realised; and the big one, the focus on grand spectacle leads at times to a trend of "Everything must be bigger and better and MORE AMAZING!!!" Sometimes this is even somewhat expressed in-episode, or in supplemental materials (trailers and such) in a manner which makes me grimace, because it's obviously done for the audience rather than actually making proper sense in-universe and it just comes across as kind of a "Look at this! Isn't this amazing! Isn't this a really clever bit of writing that I did! Aren't you loving watching this!" Which, well. Amazingness, awesomeness, whateverness, quality of storytelling, they should speak for themselves, without having attention drawn to them. Because if we disagree, then drawing attention to how awesome you think it is just seems pathetic, in an "I did this! Am I cool yet?" Sort of way. And if we do agree that it was a good bit of story, that kind of attention-drawing reeks of smugness which lessens the enjoyment of the thing itself, in my eyes, because it's a poor presentation of it.
Wow, that was a long paragraph. I do still really like Nu Who in general, honest! The other hand here is that the better technology allows for more impressive spectacle and so on and the action sequences can be rather good, along with the fact the faster pacing means the episodes tend to be action-packed, without lengthy and pointless sequences of watching characters running along hallways for ten minutes (I think I'm exaggerating, though I'm not 100% certain). And while I have complained about the over-focus on contemporary Earth, particularly in regard to companions, I'll nevertheless allow that it is rather interesting to see that a companion's former life doesn't just vanish because they got in the TARDIS. And I'm sure there have been other interesting perspectives brought up in the revival which wouldn't have arisen in the classic series because of the values of the time, in terms of society and in terms of storytelling and TV as a medium for so doing.

Regardless of the flaws, I feel Doctor Who is at least potentially one of the best TV shows you could have. It appeals to all age groups (and that's not just a matter of adults being nostalgic for it because they watched it as children, because the period it was off the air coincided very neatly with my childhood and I love it anyway), and you can do pretty much literally anything with it. The Doctor as a Time Lord and any alien race that could even hold a candle to them basically have the level of technological advancement which is indistinguishable from magic, and the premise of the show involves time travel and alien races. So, any setting and pretty much any occurrence you want in a story can probably be fitted into Doctor Who. Not literally any, I'll grant you, at some points credulity will be strained too far (e.g. one probably couldn't incorporate the Discworld into the Whoniverse, that's going a bit too far into the magic end of things), and of course you still need explanations which can be accepted as credible (A point on which Nu Who has failed somewhat in my personal opinion in certain episodes where technological safeguards and consistency as regards the established capabilities of things don't matter because character x is clever), but in general there's massive scope for pretty much any sort of story you want to tell to fit under the Doctor Who umbrella, and so as a result, a great many very good such stories have been produced.

As I'm finding increasingly writing this blog post, it's very difficult to just sum up all my thoughts on Doctor Who like this, and so I think I'll stop trying, and simply allow for future posts about Doctor Who where I'll talk about specific episodes/serials or series or different Doctors and companions in more detail, because things like this always make much more sense in context with examples. I'll make it an on-going project. Consider this a grounding in my views on Who, the context in which to consider my views on specific bits of it.

Oh, also, there are Doctor Who threads on the Giant in the Playground forums in which I post fairly regularly - a significant amount of this post was just rephrasing and condensing things I've already said there. Also some people do reviews and stuff (I guess I should update the opening post which links to said reviews also... I'll do that shortly).
Doctor Who thread IV: "Would you like a jelly baby?" [SPOILERS]

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