Tonight is the big night. The Doctor Who 50th anniversary. Various people have been commenting that there is something fundamentally wrong with a world where the Doctor Who anniversary is getting more coverage than the Kennedy assassination. You may draw your own conclusions in either direction.
What is it about Doctor Who that has turned it from a low-budget British semi-obsession into a multi-national, even global phenomenon?
I once lobbied Michael Grade about bringing Doctor Who back. At the time — he was in charge of Channel 4 then — he was dismissive about the series as a low budget waste of time. Six months later he rejoined the BBC and Doctor Who was shortly afterwards reinstated. I’m sure my input had nothing to do with it, but I occasionally bring out the story at parties.
Clearly the new Doctor Who is a much more glitzy, glamorous and high-budget affair than the Doctor Who of my youth. Nonetheless, I think there are characteristics which are true of both original and new Doctor Who — beyond just the characters — which make it stand out. Particularly, Doctor Who stands out as television, and does so in a way which I don’t think will ever properly translate to the big screen.
Fundamentally, Doctor Who is televisual. This was pointed out to me by someone’s review of the Stephen Moffat classic episode Blink. They said that Moffat was using the grammar of television, where the action of the angels was based on jump cuts. This got me thinking.
First of all, the essence of television is that it is a time-travel medium. To be precise, the shots are filmed in any order, and then reassembled into the final broadcast. This is recorded television, of course. Live television doesn’t have that luxury. It was the arrival of video tape recording that made Doctor Who possible, because even the limited special effects of the early series could not have been achieved live, and also made it inevitable. How long can you work on a VTR deck before you start wondering what would happen if you put the events in deliberately the wrong order. From there, time travel as a fictional device becomes inevitable.
This is somewhat different from film, because of the way that television and film evolved separately. Film has always been about shooting and editing, even back to the very early films. The surrealists used film extensively to construct strange visions of the world. Television, by contrast, began as a live studio medium, and, even today, much of television is live broadcast, though all of it is now taped as well. Doctor Who — born three years before I was, by the way — put things that couldn’t possibly be happening on your screen right after the news and before live entertainment.
What happens if you point a TV camera at a screen which is hooked up as the output of the camera? With a digital camera, as almost everything is these days, the result is you get the equivalent of parallel mirrors, with an image inside an image inside an image, and so on, until it drops below the pixel threshold or becomes too dim to see. If you did the same thing with the analog cameras in the 1960s, you would get a scary black and white set of interference patterns. It was by exactly this method that the really quite terrifying original Doctor Who title sequence was created. If you go back and watch some of the early Doctor Who’s, right into the Jon Pertwee era, you see this. The look of it gradually evolved, taking us to the digitally created travel-through-the-vortex that we have today. Somehow, it doesn’t quite deliver the same thrill of some kind of ill-advised tampering with the unknown.
Again, this is a televisual effect. It can’t be accomplished at all with a film camera. The makers of Doctor Who understood their craft, their tools, and how to use and abuse them.
The other stand-out aspect of the original title sequence was the strange, eery music produced by the BBC Radiophonic workshop, using equipment which today cannot be reproduced. Nobody had ever heard anything like it before, and the subsequent theremin-based Star Trek music simply could not touch it for out-and-out science-fiction scariness. I always regretted the later attempts to tamper with it, jazz it up, add drum tracks and so on. Still, the spirit of the original score is still with us. Radiophonics were present throughout the early shows, where the BBC’s radio-based expertise in making things sound like other things gave a high measure of credibility to what were often quite dodgy graphics, certainly by modern standards. For some reason, sound has a much bigger impact on our belief when watching television than the actual picture does.
Television has a problem which film does not: what do you do when the main actor of a popular series dies, or when they don’t want to play the part any more? Aside from Plan Nine from Outer Space, where the director decided to replace Bela Lugosi with an entirely different actor when he died during shooting, film has generally solved this problem by either cancelling the project or reshooting the entire thing. TV can’t do that, as a number of episodes will already have been broadcast, and may even be repeated. In Bewitched, the lead male actor was famously replaced after a few episodes, and the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek was not the same captain as in the pilot episode.
Doctor Who’s solution, like so much else it did, was to make a virtue of the necessity. The regeneration of the Doctor was an entirely new thing not only to television but to science-fiction in general, and it is so distinctive that it has not been adopted as a feature in any other series.
Bigger on the inside
Continuity is an enormous problem for television where budgets are so much smaller than film, and where production timescales are so much shorter. Just like the unintentional time travel problems that the TV editing process can produce, it’s all too easy to have someone walk into a place and end up in an entirely different place. The genius of Doctor Who was to take what is normally a continuity error and make it into the series’s defining special effect.
It’s hard to find any other special effect in science-fiction film or television which is so disorienting, so distinctive, and yet so easy to create.
The BBC exists to inform, educate and entertain. Doctor Who was constructed in order to achieve all these purposes in one go. One of the primary motivations for making it about time travel as well as space travel was so that the Doctor could educate his companions on history as well as science. The presence of the companions, too, was an opportunity for the Doctor to explain how things worked.
This has gone off the boil a bit in the new Doctor Who. Science seems to be a little lacking. In the original series, though, it wasn’t just scientific facts, but the scientific method which was showcased. Tom Baker complains about Professor Kettlewell’s failure to write up his experiments properly in Robot, Jon Pertwee is always conducting experiments in his UNIT laboratory. Doctor Who expected a lot of its audiences in those days: the climax to Full Circle is when Tom Baker’s Doctor understands that the DNA of the swamp monsters is identical to the DNA of the settlers, thereby demonstrating that they are not the original colonists, but the descendants of the monsters who supplanted them. How many American broadcast networks would take the chance that their audiences would understand that level of scientific abstraction, or even be interested by it?
Possibly less strong in today’s Doctor Who, the storytelling and plotting of the early series was absolutely superb. Like Scheherazade always finishing one story in time to start another, which she would break off at a moment of tension, Doctor Who always managed to deliver a climax at the end of every episode, as often as not characterised by a scream which would still be penetrating even on the dodgy audio technology of 1970s television sets. Although it worked within the four or six episode format, Doctor Who never became formulaic in the way that Star Trek did.
As an example, a typical Star Trek episode (original series) involves an attack on the ship while a landing party is simultaneously facing danger on a planet’s surface. This was a convenient way to stop the might of the Enterprise being deployed against an otherwise innocuous population, but it also meant that the shape of almost every episode was the same. Doctor Who, by contrast, managed to deliver intellectually different plot structures. The Face of Evil, for example, has the epiphanic climax when it turns out that the Face of Evil itself is the Doctor’s own face. The series that followed it, the Robots of Death, is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery in a confined space. No attempt to put plots into categories can ever cope with Blink, my second favourite Doctor Who episode of all time. By contrast, my all time favourite, Genesis of the Daleks, begins by telling the viewer exactly what is going to happen, and finishes with the Doctor unable to complete his mission because of conscience, which we knew would happen right from the beginning anyway. It is, nonetheless, a master example of that kind of plot.
The Real World
Traditionally, Doctor Who was on after the news. Unlike almost all the other science fiction which ever made it onto television, the BBC constantly made Doctor Who topical. The Green Death came at a time of pit closures and rising fear of pollution. The Ark in Space appeared at the very height of the Cold War, when many people were convinced that nuclear weapons would make the Earth uninhabitable. To rewatch old Doctor Who series is to be reminded of the times in which they were made.
Like the very greatest science-fiction, Doctor Who was ostensibly about a fantasy world out there, on the limits of our imagination, but really about this world, right here, right now.
Long may it continue.