by Colin Ravey
What Doctor Who will never offer is consistency. It's tempting
to look at its whirlwind depiction of culture and places and wish that
somebody had tied it all together into one congruous whole. However,
unlike Star Trek, this was never the show's intent -- it
would have been impossible both in front and behind the cameras. Every
Doctor Who fan dreams of taking on sole responsibility
for the series, acting as its Michael J Starskyandhutchsky.
I'm not excluding myself -- I too would subject the show to an intense
light of scrutiny and consistency, under which the show would shrivel up and die.
Beware, dear US shows -- too much love will kill you in the end. I think
it's a positive boon that the show is, and is about, an aimless
wanderer -- but why is it so, when most shows run on the spot as the backdrop shifts?
Let's consider one of the most sacred cows of US SF -- Star Trek. The most important difference between Doctor Who and Trek may be the paternal creator figure. Whilst modern day Trek writers continue to tread carefully in the footsteps of the dear departed Good King Rodenberry, which are now frozen over but still omnipresent, the Who creative team were running free more or less from the word go. Fortunately they had their own visions to follow.
Doctor Who's creator is Sidney Newman, as any Who reference tome will tell you -- but perhaps "instigator" is a better description of Newman's task. By the time the show was due to air, Newman famously blasted the inclusion of the Bug Eyed Monsters, the Daleks. He was already visibly detached and unsuited to every day involvement -- something which he openly admitted. The show changed beyond recognition from first draft idea to first season, and continued to do so.
Many stories end with the Doctor disappearing before the post-mortem can begin. You wouldn't see the Doctor grinning alongside Chewbacca as he gets a medal and a kiss from Leia -- by this point he's quietly slipped away to begin a new adventure. The Doctor is a positive catalyst, and once events are pointed in the right direction, and the good King is on the throne, it's time to leave. How apt that his creator did the same.
The Doctor is a wanderer, incapable of stopping to lay roots in a way that the more talented writers have highlighted as tragic. Some casual fans may disagree, having fond memories of the "UNIT family", the description given to the regular cast of the BBC's own X-Files army, on which an exiled Doctor was thrust for some time. But if the Doctor was a part of this family, it was the kindly, eccentric and lonely old uncle who would have left the party by the time people are disappearing off to find a carnal cupboard.
Beginners to the Doctor's angst may begin with the UNIT family party to celebrate the impending marriage of young female companion Jo, and her beloved Professor Jones. Any other show would have a photo of the wedding in the TV listings and a beautiful frock. Not Doctor Who. The Doctor drives alone into the night, as his every day friends and colleagues slip the confines of work and become, well, more human. Which of course the Doctor isn't. (Probably not even half human -- sorry Universal). We don't even see the wedding, and you can't imagine the Doctor attending.
And so he wanders, aimlessly. No force may shackle the Doctor for long, only direct his actions for a while, our hero grumbling all the way. The series is the same. A desperate production team in the show's latter days turned to Sidney Newman for suggestions. Like the Doctor's own returns home, it was not successful. Newman responded with a memo full of recognizably tired "back to basics" retread of the series' grounding principals as he saw it. The team chose to remain eclectic. No offense, but Trek creatives would have framed every word in gilted gold, should it have come from Rodenberry. Who production teams often even ignored precepts laid down just a few seasons ago, with an oft-alarming irreverence shown to their forbears. It's understandable if you view this as sloppiness but quite often the past was ignored to create a more interesting future for the series. As a shared universe grows, it gets laden down with baggage, which will inevitably and eventually cripple the show.
You can imagine the makers of The Phantom Menace clustering 'round the tiniest of props, asking: "Yes, but is it STAR WARS?". Is it Doctor Who? "Buggered if I know," our Who-team heroes reply, asking instead: "Is it entertaining?" Or possibly: "Didn't we use that as something else last week?" Attention to detail and history is all well and good, but leave the obsession for the fans. The odd lapse will give some fanzine editor a whole issue of desperate justification.
It's part of the "British way of doing things" -- which I'll touch on a lot in this column. Stuffiness and conformity aside, once a Brit is in charge of something, they'll go their own way. Overall regulations are respected, but caps will be doffed in respect to previous incumbents as their rules are ripped up and burned. "If it ain't broken, don't try to fix it," Will Smith once observed. "Break it anyway and build a better one," a polite British rapper (I'm thinking Pet Shop Boys) might reply. So every actor to play the Doctor, and every production team took the show in a different direction. It was born to wander, and couldn't walk in a straight line if it tried, whilst the slightest bend gives Christ Carter nightmares.
But what's the driving force of this itinerant nature? Is it that the show feels its audience isn't intelligent enough to want to explore one time and place in depth, or an avoidance of the formulaic? We could ask the same question of the Doctor himself... Unable to take the time to invest in one place or person -- or unwilling? Why wander?
I choose to believe that it's the age old idea of less is more -- the cliché of a glimpse of an alien is more frightening than a full on shot.
Keep wandering Doctor. Keep changing, Doctor Who -- I'd rather get a glimpse of a fascinating future, than spend hours watching ever-expanding franchises explore every bolt and rivet. Leave the carefully plotted science and history to keen retro-conning fans... And Star Trek.
Colin Ravey is a twenty two year old Internet journalist, born and bred in Glossop, Derbyshire. Nope, people in the UK haven't heard of it either -- head for Coronation Street, and take a left into the countryside. He isn't half as jingoistic as he sounds, and welcomes your comments.
Interested in reading more of Colin's commentary? You can find it in his other SF Site columns, Rant and Ravey.
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