The DNA of Doctor Who

It’s been about 15 months, but yes, I’m still here. I’ve been busy.

I’m posting now because I’m off to Chicago this weekend to participate in A Celebration of Doctor Who, a one-day event at DePaul University’s Loop campus, organized by fellow aca-fan Paul Booth (thanks, Paul!). All day on Saturday there will be one-hour panels featuring many Doctor Who scholar-fans, and screenings of classic and current series episodes. The format of the sessions is geared, correctly, towards conversation rather than presentation; more like Gallifrey and less like SCMS. We won’t have a whole lot of time to present our individual piece of the panel, so I thought I’d present my pieces in more extended form here. This post concerns my thoughts about Doctor Who‘s DNA; the next post will offer my assessment of sound in Doctor Who.

Every long-running media story or setting (what the industry also calls a “franchise”; see Derek Johnson’s excellent new analysis of the concept) carries the DNA of its origins through every iteration. Consider:

  • Sherlock Holmes – rooted in 19th century urbanism, Victorian morality, ascendent forensic science and criminology, pop fiction
  • Star Trek – A product of the Sixties: the Cold War, the space race, changing geopolitics, the civil rights movement, and even the counterculture, all tempered with a strain of militarism and the flying fists of mid-60s action-adventure TV
  • Star Wars – A soup of Seventies neo-mysticism, mythology, Tolkien, movie brat cinephilia, and early Silicon Valley technophilia

No matter what happens down the line, that original formula is still there, passed on, if also modified along the way. Each of these particular franchises currently has major iterations in imminent release and/or production, and all of them still very much bear these original marks (even Sherlock and Elementary, which each somehow manage to successfully transfer Doyle’s Victorian London to the 21st century London and New York, respectively).

In the case of Doctor Who, while its original manifestation is still primary, it has had three more alterations significant enough to affect the current series. Like other strands of DNA introduced and passed on in other living things, these aspects will always be part of whatever Doctor Who will be in the future (more or less, as we’ll see).

1-Ian Barbara Susan (pub)First, and fundamental, is the series’ origins in the BBC of the early 1960s, which launched its function as a national institution. Famously conceived as Saturday family tea-time fare meant to bridge the afternoon into the evening, with the ostensible function of being broadly “educational” as well, Doctor Who in its first 17 seasons (1963-80) represents the cultural assurances of public service broadcasting in its prime. While it still adjusted to changing styles and producers over this time–the differences between, say, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (1965-66) and “Spearhead From Space” (1970), broadcast exactly four years apart, are much starker than the differences between the similarly spaced “Planet of the Dead” (2009) and “The Bells of Saint John” (2013)–the series still functioned primarily as a national broadcast institution, alongside many others from the BBC of the 1960s and 1970s.

3-Jo (Colony In Space)This sensibility is clear throughout this span. The Doctor is an emphatically English (not quite British yet) agent of disorder: he may not do things the “right” way, but he always gets the “right” result. Established history can’t be altered, but humanity (i.e., England) will persist far into the future. Those Troughton-era “bases under siege” survive and face down real monsters. Jon Pertwee transforms the Doctor into an English action hero on English soil, sometimes facing down reactionary and destructive national powers, and ultimate Doctor Tom Baker channels the classic cool of Englishmen from Oscar Wilde to David Bowie as the unflappable eccentric.

Times change, though. Around the time producer John Nathan-Turner (known by fans as JNT) assumes the reins in 1980, Doctor Who gradually shifts from being a national institution to a cult institution. The series, like so many other pre-Thatcher British institutions at the time, finds itself increasingly marginalized and abandoned by the new establishment. It was literally displaced from its institutional home on Saturdays at this time, and aired instead in the middle of the week for most of its last decade.

6 (Vengeance On Varos)7-Ace (Greatest Show)

At the same time, however, it began to be fervently embraced by a newly organized and rapidly expanding (thanks to international distribution) fandom. With the mainstream turning away, Doctor Who, led by JNT, embraced its cult status. The producer and his cast made regular appearances at conventions around the world. The series both ran from its past (in storytelling style) and towards it (in increasing use of old monsters and continuity). The Eighties Doctors symbolized this turn away from comfortable hegemony and towards brash marginality: Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor may have the most obviously “English” wardrobe of all, but  is nonetheless seen as a crazed outsider in many of his stories. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor brandishes his contrarian aesthetic and demeanor like a knife. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor clowns like Chaplin to mask a brooding, deceptive heart. By the time McCoy’s Doctor had picked up his trademark question-mark umbrella in 1987, the series made its last turn down Cult Alley, because that seemed all that was left to go. Accordingly, Doctor Who closed out with some of the most unusual, bracing, and divisive stories in its history, including “The Happiness Patrol” (1988), “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” (1988), and “Ghost Light” (1989).

04revelationWith no more TV series in production, and almost no interest from the BBC (aside from the aborted attempt to relaunch the series in 1996), the “cult” essentially assumes ownership of Doctor Who in the 1990s. While known as the “wilderness years,” these are more precisely its “indie rock” years, when fan writers, greatly inspired by the tone and style of the McCoy era (but drawing concepts and characters from the series’ entire history, as well as tropes in Eighties and Nineties SF and politics) wrote and edited licensed novels “too broad and deep for the small screen” (as the original Virgin tagline put it).

The Virgin and BBC novels were Doctor Who at its most experimental: with darker themes, complex plots and characters, and long-running narrative arcs. This was also Doctor Who at its most “adult,” although in retrospect (from the viewpoint of one of those “adult” fans of the books at that time), and despite some stunning additions to the saga (such as Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation  [1991], Kate Orman’s The Left-Handed Hummingbird [1993],  Gareth Roberts’ The English Way of Death [1996], Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman’s So Vile A Sin [1997], Lawrence Miles’ Alien Bodies [1997], and Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors [1998]), it was, on the whole, more the sort of earnest, slightly callow “adult” material that only those in their smitten twenties could produce. Holy TerrorIn 1999, inspired in part by the success of the novels at keeping Doctor Who alive and kicking, fan-led Big Finish Productions began releasing full-cast audio dramas (with stories featuring, by 2012, regular appearances by all five of the living classic series Doctors, and almost all of their companions) which faithfully recreated the sensibility of the TV series while retaining some of the more experimental innovations inspired by the novels. Big Finish has released some of Doctor Who‘s most original and compelling adventures, with Colin Baker’s unfairly-maligned portrayal of the Sixth Doctor particularly rehabilitated in stories like Rob Shearman’s The Holy Terror (2000) and Jubilee (2003), Jac Rayner’s Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003), and Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman’s The One Doctor (2001).

And then, seemingly out of the blue in 2003, the BBC takes Doctor Who back to television, reclaiming it as a national institution in the classic mold. However, now the model national institution isn’t reassuringly English, but rather pitched as a global media franchise, the flagship of a solidly entrepreneurial BBC. While the “wilderness years” DNA clearly influenced the new iteration’s respective showrunners (Russell T Davies, who actually wrote one of the Virgin novels, and Steven Moffat) and many of its writers, and has been tacitly acknowledged by long-term fans, publicly it’s been elided, as if the show disappeared “sometime in the 1980s” and miraculously reappeared in 2005. Thus, the DNA of the 1990s is effectively hidden in the 2000s-10s, though its influence persists.


Doctor Who is now both populist and cult, a combination that couldn’t have existed back in the 20th century. It’s unabashedly promotional, clamoring for attention across multiple media and product platforms in a very crowded media marketplace. Davies and Moffat have been incessant MCs, propelling a global hype machine, because they have to be. On-screen, the staid pacing of the classic series and meditations of the novels and audios have been replaced with a slick, thrill-ride ethos. The new series Doctors are younger, extroverted, and more than a bit narcissistic, “clever boys” needing and seeking attention in a way that never mattered as much before. Plots–in particular, under Moffat–have emphasized time travel, alternate realities, and long-running narrative arcs, as well as a much broader emotional spectrum than was ever seen previously on screen.

All that said, the flexibility of the concept–a strange, seemingly immortal being has adventures in time and space in a small blue box–has certainly been proven time and again.  Unlike Holmes, Star Trek, or Star Wars, who remain tied to stricter confines of character, tone, and setting (countless parodies notwithstanding), Doctor Who can continue to regenerate. Every time it does, however, it will continue to carry the DNA of its previous incarnations.

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