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Issue #130 - June 2006

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Doctor in the Dock

By Cheryl Morgan

There have been many books written about Doctor Who. People like Dave Howe and Paul Cornell have done an excellent job documenting the series and providing the sort of in-depth information that fans love to pore over. However, to my knowledge, the new offering from Kim Newman is the first book on Who by someone who is not only a well-respected writer, but also a top-notch film and TV critic. Doctor Who, published in the British Film Institute in their TV Classics series, is a very different animal to the Who books that have come before. It is also an excellent read.

The book is short: a little over 100 pages, but is packed with critical analysis of the series. Newman divides the book into five chapters. The first deals mainly with the origins of the Doctor and the William Hartnell era. I had entirely forgotten that the BBC originally intended the series as an educational tool for children. It was no accident that the Doctor’s first companions were a schoolgirl, a history teacher and a science teacher (though from my vantage point behind the sofa I entirely failed to notice this). Thankfully the BBC’s high-minded ideals and instruction that the show should not feature bug-eyed monsters were ignored by the production crew. The Daleks arrived in the second story-line, and have been the stars of the show ever since.

Part two of the book is devoted to the Troughton era. Newman points out that for most people their favorite Doctor is the one who was current during their early teens when they became fans of the show. Being of a similar age, he and I both love Patrick Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor, and have fond memories of UNIT and the absurdly teddy-bear-like Yeti. How I came to be terrified of those things I do not know. Fans of later periods may be disappointed by Newman’s focus on the early years but, as he points out:

It seems to me that Doctor Who was at its best and most interesting when addressing the widest audience (60s and 70s kids, plus their youngish parents) but lost its grip when it became aimed almost solely at its fans.

I’m not sure if I agree with him in placing much of the blame on K9, but I think he’s right in saying that with later incarnations of the Doctor the show descended to producing parodies of itself. TV scriptwriters can do fanfic too.

Chapter Three is devoted to the Jon Pertwee era, in which UNIT is once again a major element of the program. As Newman points out, by this time the show was competing against ever more elaborate series produced by Gerry Anderson for commercial TV channels who understood merchandizing.

On the BBC’s licence-payers’ money, UNIT couldn’t compete with Anderson’s wonderful toys. There were no die-cast Dinky models of the battered army lorries they trundled around in while Captain Scarlet zoomed off in a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle. The colour-coded captains spent their off-duty hours in the luxury lounge of a floating city (Cloudbase) with the Angels, fighter pilots who could pass for fashion models, whereas the most Sergeant Benton (John Levene) and the UNIT lads could hope for was the odd cup of teabag tea brewed in a retort over a Bunsen burner by Jo Grant (Katy Manning) if she wasn’t too busy getting into trouble.

The Anderson shows had their own comic too (TV21). Surprisingly this included a Doctor Who strip, or rather it didn’t. It included a Daleks strip in which the lovable psychopathic pepperpots were the heroes, busily saving Skaro from the predatory attentions of rival races like the Mechanoids.

For most of the people I know, Tom Baker is the archetypal Doctor. As Newman points out, part of the reason for this is that it marks the first time that the show was seriously marketed in the USA. The amateur Doctor Who movies that Kevin made in college are from that era. But they were also the beginning of the end in that they marked the point where the show stopped taking itself seriously. I am actually quite fond of K9, but as Newman points out he was an even more spectacularly incompetent design for a robot than the Daleks (who are, of course, not really robots). K9 can’t actually do much except get into trouble in much the same way as the endless succession of screaming girl sidekicks do.

The less said about the post-Tom Baker Doctors the better, save to note that if Newman was going to spend quite so much time talking about Peri’s cleavage the BFI really should have provided a photo of her to go with the text. She’s one of the few Companions not to get a picture in the book.

And now, resurrection: Newman devotes much of the final chapter to the New Doctor, which he (probably rightly) regards as a new incarnation of the show rather than a continuation of the old version. Remarkably for a book published in 2005, he even manages to include some discussion of the David Tennant Doctor. Clearly there was some rushed work here just prior to publication. Newman generally approves of the new series. It is very self-referential, but not at the expense of the stories. Aside from the irredeemably awful first episode of the Ecclestone series, it has done very well.

All of this, however, is history. What Newman’s book is really about is analysis. He has done a superb job of getting under the skin of the series and understanding what made it tick, why it was a success, and why it went wrong. For example, here he is on the mysterious star quality of the Daleks.

… the Daleks brag about their superior intellect but act like toddlers in perpetual hissy fits. In this, they are the perfect playground monsters, utterly evil but also utterly childish.

Another interesting insight is that, prior to Star Wars, most SF TV had more in common with horror than fantasy. Doctor Who owes a number of debts to Nigel Kneale’s legendary Quatermass stories, and the pre-Tom Baker Who used classic horror techniques for many of the story structures. In later years, with the BBC hounded by "clean up TV" campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse, Doctor Who stories became a lot less scary, and a lot less effective as a result.

Finally I’m pleased to see Newman give a nod to the debt Doctor Who owes to the excellent Doomwatch series. (Teenage Cheryl had a serious crush on Robert Powell). He comments in a footnote that when Ian McDonald was asked to present ideas for the revival TV movie that eventually became Doomwatch: Winter Angel (1999), he pitched a bunch of cutting edge scientific ideas only to find that the original show (1970-72) had already covered all of them.

I guess Newman’s book will not be for everyone. It is very much a critical appreciation of Doctor Who, not a fan tribute. And that small and dedicated (if deeply, deeply misguided) legion of Colin Baker fans out there will not be happy with Newman. But for me this is just about the best book about Doctor Who that I could ask for.

Doctor Who - Kim Newman - British Film Institute - mass market paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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