Just one more day before my quiet excitement about the eleventh series of Doctor Who is either shot in a ditch or graciously validated.
I’ve always loved the show. Along with The X Files, I reckon it is the defining television show of my childhood. I used to always borrow VHS tapes of the show’s old serials from Hull Central Library as a kid and then the reboot when I was a teenager ended up being the one thing capable of keeping me in the house on a Saturday night with all the family rather than wanting to go out and get up to mischief.
I have vivid memories of watching City of Death and Pyramids of Mars and also that Dalek story based in the school. (Don’t all kids love horror set in their mundane workaday spaces? I can’t imagine having the same disruptive fantasies about my current office environment… Maybe the yearly emails about what to do if there’s a marauding gunmen makes the mundanity more cozy…) There’s lots of episodes from the reboot that also linger in my mind — the Weeping Angels being that classic monster of the new era, a brilliantly paradoxical noumenal subject.
When I lived in Cardiff, I used to often find myself stumbling unexpectedly onto Who sets as well. Even after I’d largely gotten bored of the series’ infuriating story arcs, I was pretty chuffed to see Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman sprinting down Westgate Street filming “Face the Raven” whilst I was on my way home from work once. I also ended up installing a couple of exhibitions in the old Customs House on Bute Street, still littered with the detritus of old set dressings — alien wallpapers and the occasional sigil graffito. The university where I did my undergraduate degree was also directly opposite a mental hospital, largely abandoned, that showed up in a few episodes. Doctor Who still felt cool because it seemed to be built around all the places I’d go urbexing in South Wales…
Anyway… Suffice it to say, as shite as the show has been for a number of years now, with the occasional exception, I can’t bring myself to hate it. It’s too embedded in my cultural DNA. I feel like there’s a deep investment in the show in my bones which I just can’t shake, no matter how much I hate all the Tumblr-pandering, bloated, and constantly unravelling storylines of Matt Smith onwards.
I long for a creepy and gothic Doctor Who, infrequently showing its face over the last 50 years but never staying around for very long. More than anything, I want genuinely new classics, not a Doctor Who that chases its own tail, stuck in the feedback loop of auto-pastiche that Moffat has mired it in.
Back in 2013, Robert Barry wrote a damning indictment of what the series had become for The Quietus that I think has stayed with many old fans, infamously dismissing all the modern regenerations down to “Topman Doctors” — in reference to their being superficial and mundanely fashionable like the high street men’s clothing store (a clarification for the benefit of anyone lucky enough to have never been in one). Barry would write:
For the best part of a decade now we have have endured a series of Doctors who have looked like the Bullingdon Club and acted like Bono. With the departure of the latest foppish do-gooder, it is time to consider a change.
Peter Capaldi was to be that changed, as so many hoped, but it wasn’t to be. In hindsight, Barry’s argument is deeply unconvincing but expressing a general resentment that so many people felt, likewise tied to this sense of auto-pastiche — Tennant, as brilliant as he was, certainly reified the Doctor into a character rather than a shell to be taken up by successive jobbing eccentrics, and when a new Doctor has nonetheless come aboard, they have done so in Tennant’s enormous shadow — all except, perhaps, John Hurt.
Barry’s problem is that he undermines this argument by falling into the postmodernist trap of longing for a typeset Doctor who never really existed — the Doctor as “cosmic clochard” — which Mark would distinctly ascribe to the postmodern TV enthusiast when writing about the show’s reception on K-Punk:
To look at the old Dr Who is not only to fail to recover a lost moment; it is to discover, with a deflating quotidian horror, that this moment never existed in the first place. An experience of awe and wonder dissolves into a pile of dressing up clothes and cheap special effects.
Because we should always remember that the Doctor wasn’t some sort of charming space tramp, he was more like an upper-class twerp on his Tardis yacht, hopping about the universe. I’m reminded of this at the moment because it’s Frieze Week this week in London and, as iconic as the Doctor’s old outfits are, I can’t help but see them echoed in the fashion statements of the elderly art collectors with more money than sense that you currently see jumping in and out of taxis all over the city, who think being arty means getting dressed in the dark and are perhaps interesting only in the context of their painfully constricted boujee bubble. This is something most of the posho demographic have in common, though, to be fair — no matter how old they are… (Haven’t you ever had a wander through Goldsmiths on degree show night?)
But what about his attitude then? Barry would go on to write that
the Doctor has no fucking interest whatsoever in saving the world. He does not give a shit about your shitty planet. Which will come as some surprise to fans of the Doctor-fucking-Jesus who has been occupying the Tardis for the last eight years.
And whilst it rings half-true, relative to the modern Doctor’s quasi-messiah complex, I never found this to be a reckless and inhumanist abandon, or a punkish nihilism. It’s the detachment of the bourgeoisie from the plebs. The Doctor is all powerful, yes, but what he has ultimately displayed on occasion is the arrogant indifference of a tourist. To him the natives are the aliens, and the grumpiest Doctor’s relationships to his companions always contained a distinct echo of the affects of Marx’s theory of alienation.
Doctor Who has always been entangled — interestingly so — in the class politics of the country from which it has come. It is the globalisation of Who, as the BBC’s biggest international export, that is probably most responsible for killing it. It’s not just the doctor’s who are foppish do-gooders, it’s that both Doctor and companions have, gradually, over the course of the rebooted seasons, moved towards the political Middle — a glob of middle-class relations playing out on an interplanetary scale, buried under overcomplicated stories with low stakes, in ever more meta-bourgeois fashion.
In light of this, what was most interesting about Eccleston and Tennant’s Doctors was that this sense of alienation was often reciprocated. The “Received Pronunciation” of previous incarnations was gone almost entirely, with most companions — until Matt Smith’s — being perceptively working-class. Tennant embodied the abandon of the Classic Doctors but the tension of his relationship with Rose Tyler was precisely like this kind of affinity. From Eccleston to Tennant, the Doctor transformed within the social strata, but Rose, even as she began hopping dimensions, never really did so. Whilst she ended up in a dimension where her father was still alive and also insanely rich, none of them escaped a working-class embodiment. It was all superficial. The Doctor, however, moved with the times.
The last few series I haven’t bothered watching at all, partly because of this but there’s also a million other reasons — all except for Capaldi’s farewell. But despite going through the motions of watching it out of loyalty and habit, I still haven’t managed to muster much faith in this new series. Chris Chibnall taking over could be good. I’d like it to be. I never watched Torchwood but the first season of Broadchurch was compelling (although the second series was atrocious shite and I never finished watching it). But considering how Moffat was certainly the best candidate for the job when he took over as head writer and considering how that turned out, maybe there’s no real way of knowing how it’s going to go… I’m happy to have an open mind.
The main thing I’m excited about is that its now Yorkshire-based — even with my own regional bias aside, because don’t get me started on the fact the first episode is all based in Sheffield (piss off hogging everything Sheff, who made you capital of Yorkshire). What I find interesting is that, rather than using this in the way Russell T Davies used Eccleston’s generic Northernness — I’ll never forget that famous exchange (paraphrased): “If you’re an alien, why do you have a Northern accent?” “Everywhere’s got a north…” — I suppose a Yorkshire accent isn’t associated with the North of England quite so generically.
Jodie Whittaker’s Huddersfield twang seems to be defining her Doctor in a big way, more than her gender, and this West Yorkshire grounding will certainly lend itself to a new tone within the show. The Cardiff-filmed but London-based previous ten series have been generically English and that has been their export. What might a new geographic specificity bring to a show that is now known around the world? The new season’s lead press image shows her with the Tardis on the moor specifically, rather than the nondescript spacey background or mundane urbanity. Will this environmental shift emphasise the culturally alien vibe long since lost? Falling into the New Hammer aesthetics of many a recent British Horror film? Emphasising the alien interiority of regional class structures and the smaller corners of the English landscape rather than those of the familiar American blockbuster which featured so often once the series tried to solidify its new global audience?…
Time will tell. And not much time at all.
Being still preoccupied by the Yorkshire Gothic written about here previously, I won’t be too disappointed if I’ve got it all wrong, because I’m certainly projecting my own tastes but the potentials are very promising.
The feeling I have right now reminds me of reading Mark’s excitement and reservations about the first season of the reboot. He was hoping that it would stagger into a newly modern uncanny, that Christopher Ecclestone would retain his native Salford accent rather than the “Received Pronunciation” of its previous and that the series would reground itself in its horrific strengths. However, it seems that, for Mark, the Drab Northern Doctor wasn’t up to scratch and he anticipated David Tennent’s natural slip into the role that was to follow. He wrote:
The current repressing of the Doctor’s dandyism is just way too Glum (as in anti-Glam). The fact that, as I’ve said before, they haven’t got the wardrobe right since Baker doesn’t mean that they should give up and concede everything to blokish functionality. In many ways, I see Eccleston’s role as a kind of clearing of the palate. His neutrality, his lack of much definable ‘taste’, is a way of re-sharpening our appreciation of the integral qualities of the Doctor that palled through PoMofication during the Eighties.
I’ll end here with Mark talking about his sense of the “uncanny” via the televisual language of Doctor Who’s original run. Is it possible — more possible now than it was then, even — that we might finally see this from Jodie Whittaker? (Her various TV interviews over the past two weeks have gotten me really excited, I must admit. I think she could be the best Doctor since Tennant.) Mark writes in his magnificent post, “This Movie Doesn’t Move Me“:
Freud’s analysis of the ‘unheimlich’, the ‘unhomely’, is very well known, but it is worth linking his account of the uncanniness of the domestic to television. Television was itself both familiar and alien, and a series which was about the alien in the familiar was bound to have particularly easy route to the child’s unconscious. In a time of cultural rationing, of modernist broadcasting, a time, that is, in which there were no endless reruns, no VCRs, the programmes had a precious evanescence. They were translated into memory and dream at the very moment they were being seen for the first time. This is quite different from the instant — and increasingly pre-emptive — monumentalization of postmodern media productions through “makings of” documentaries and interviews. So many of these productions enjoy the odd fate of being stillborn into perfect archivization, forgotten by the culture while immaculately memorialised by the technology.
But were the conditions for Dr Who’s colonizing presence in the unconscious of a generation merely scarcity and the “innocence” of a “less sophisticated” time? Does its magic, as Cooke implies, crumble like a vampire seducer in bright sunlight when exposed to the unbeguiled, unforgiving eyes of the adult?
According to Freud’s famous arguments in “Totem and Taboo” and “The Uncanny”, we moderns recapitulate in our individual psychological development the “progress” from narcissistic animism to the reality principle undergone by the species as a whole. Children, like ‘savages’, remain at the level of narcissistic auto-eroticism, subject to the animistic delusion that their thoughts are “omnipotent”; that what they think can directly affect the world.
But is it the case that children ever “really believed” in Doctor Who? Zizek has pointed out that when people from ‘primitive’ societies are asked about their myths, their response is actually indirect. They say “some people believe…” Belief is always the belief of the other. In any case, what adults and moderns have lost is not the capacity to uncritically believe, but the art of using the series as triggers for producing inhabitable fictional playzones.
The model for such practices is the Perky Pat layouts in Philip K Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Homesick offworld colonists are able to project themselves into Ken and Barbie-like dolls who inhabit a mock-up of the earthly environment. But in order to occupy this set they need a drug. In effect, all the drug does is restore in the adult what comes easily to a child: the ability not to believe, but to act in spite of the lack of belief.
In a sense, though, to say this is already going too far. It implies that adults really have given up a narcissistic fantasy and adjusted to the harsh banality of the disenchanted-empirical. In fact, all they have done is substituted one fantasy for another. The point is that to be an adult in consumer capitalism IS to occupy the Perky Pat world of drably bright soap opera domesticity. What is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny — the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls. As Scanshifts and I hope to demonstrate in our upcoming audiomentary london under london on Resonance FM, the Real of the London Underground is better described by pulp and modernism (which in any case have a suitably uncanny complicity) than by postmodern drearealism. Everyone knows that, once the wafer-thin veneer of ‘persons’ is stripped away, the population on the Tube are zombies under the control of sinister extra-terrestrial corporations.
The rise of Fantasy as a genre over the last twenty-five years can be directly correlative with the collapse of any effective alternative reality structure outside capitalism in the same period. Watching something like Star Wars, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is BOTH impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, AND too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about an irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all the gaps have been monofilled. It is no accident that the rise of Fantasy has gone alongside the development of digital FX. The curious hollowness and depthlessness of CGI arises not from any failure of fidelity, but, quite the opposite, from its photoshopping out of the Discrepant as such.
The Fantasy structure of Family, Nation and Heroism thus functions, not in any sense as a representation, false or otherwise, but as a model to live up to. The inevitable failure of our own lives to match up to the digital Ideal is one of the motors of capitalism’s worker-consumer passivity, the docile pursuit of what will always be elusive, a world free of fissures and discontinuities. And you only have to read one of Mark Steyn’s preppy phallic fables (which need to be ranked alongside the mummy’s boystories of someone like Robert E Howard) to see how Fantasy’s pathetically imbelic manichean oppositions between Good and Evil, Us and (a foreign, contagious) Them are effective on the largest possible geopolitical stage.
The-Doctor-as-Jesus is an unfortunate side-effect of having fans as showrunners. It’s cringeworthy. And making the Doctor a genocidal war criminal was a really stupid misunderstanding of the idea of them being a refugee.
My favourite description of the Doctor was an old American one: “that crazy space bum”. Fisher was spot on about the new Doctors. I’d add that their collapses into despair and misery were not a substitute for character or plot, although Nu Who hasn’t been the only show to make that mistake.
I just watched the Fourth Doctor’s first series on Blu Ray. Obvious weaknesses aside it really drove home to me how much better the sadly cancelled US version of “Dirk Gently” was as a modern take on Doctor Who than the Beeb’s has been so far, occasional highpoints aside.
How was Whittaker?