Pleased to see that both cnwb and troubled diva are celebrating the just-announced return of Dr Who. And I know that Angus will be cheering, too.
Can it be done successfully? The signs are not encouraging. As everyone knows, the series was in decline long before the plug was pulled. It couldn’t survive the unforgiving light of the eighties, and sloped off to die in embarrassed solitude. Tempting but misleading to date the effective end as Baker’s departure. Baker’s last season – culminating in the peerless Logopolis (‘there will be no future’) – was full of presentiments of doom, deep melancholy and Jerry Cornelius-style riffs on entropy. If you watch the stories from the Davidson era now, though, (and they are currently being rerun on UK Gold) you’ll see that they were shadowed by a similarly bleak mood. There was still enough imagination at work to generate stories that were off-kilter quirky and fascinatingly paradoxical. (Davidson’s first story ‘Castrovalva’ was named after an Escher painting, and was a 1982 BBC’s attempt to generate a world collapsing [in on itself {in Eschereque} recursion.]) Perhaps recursion and entropy are where all mythos ends up, eventually. The Davidson period was the last time when the series could thematize rather than fall victim to these self-referential vortices. By the time of the arrival of Colin Baker, Dr Who was nothing but a palimpsest of empty signifiers, circling around its own entrails with diminishing returns.
Take the clothes. The brilliance of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Baker’s wardbrobes was that – in their different versions of estanged Edwardiana, out-of-place in any place, out-of-time in any time – their eccentricity was plausible. The thing is, you could imagine someone looking like that. In that respect, the rot had already set in with Davidson, whose cricketer’s whites too obviously looked like a uniform that only someone dressed by the BBC’s wardrobe Dept would wear. Colin Baker’s question-mark lapels and two-coloured coat, well, kinder to say nothing….
There was also a problem with looks . The first four doctors had a naturally alien quality. Davidson’s problem was his winning, fresh-faced toothsomeness; something intelligently offset by his reading of the character as beset by an ancient melancholia. Colin Baker, on the other hand, looked like a smug office manager in pantomime costume. He had a solid, doughy ordinariness, more deadly to Dr Who than any Cyberman or Dalek.
The point is, Dr Who was, at its best, uncanny, in both Todorov’s and Freud’s terms. Todorov’s typology of the Fantastic famously distinguishes between the Marvellous – the full-on supernatural – and the Uncanny – in which the apparently supernatural is explained away in terms of ‘the laws of reason.’ (The Fantastic proper has no postive presence, and is defined as the hesitation between these two other modes). The Pertwee period was particularly given to discoursing on the supreme value of scientific enquiry (witness the Doctor’s attempts to tutor Jo Grant). Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit – which attempted to wholesale swallow Horror into SF by tracing a whole slew of ostensibly supernatural phenomena back to scientifically-plausible phenomena – provided the template. The signature Pertwee serial ‘The Daemons’ – a more-or-less straighforward rewrite of Kneale’s story – was only the most blatant Quatermass remix of the Pertwee era. The absorbtion of Horror tropes into SF naturally had an effect on Dr Who‘s science-fiction – most notably in the period when Philip Hinchcliffe was producer, when Dr Who went through a foggy, gorily Gothic phase, in which Victorian Horror was Burk-and-Hare graverobbed and reanimated.
The series was also uncanny in Freud’s sense. The uncanny, that species of dread evoked by the strangely familiar, what is here but which should not be… Pertwee’s famous insistence that a ‘yeti on a toilet seat in Tooting bec’ was more terrifying than an alien on the planet Zarg was borne out by the furore caused by the episodes featuring the Autons. The Autons – very Kraftwerk – possessed showroom dummies and plastic chairs. Children were mortified when these everyday objects – objects which any way evoked a frission of uneasiness – came to life. But more even than any of the monsters, it was the Doctor himself, the familiar stranger, who was unanny.
The 96 revamp with Paul McGann – and oodles of $ – failed because it couldn’t muster this sense of the uncanny. Nor, more damagingly, did it appear to realise that this was what the series’ strength was. The whole enterprise couldn’t escape what it was: an American TV-funded attempt to graft some of the signatures elements of the original series onto the standard format of an MOR American serial. McGann’s manic enthusiasm seemed formulaic rather than charismatically alien, the chase scenes and the (eugghhhhh) love interest were perfunctory and unnecessary but worst of all, really, were the sets. Money badly spent. The TARDIS had become anonymously vast, all smoke, sulphur and moody lighting, a blandly portentous sanctum-cum-spaceship straight out of the mediocre dreams of Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy and mainstream SF.
Rusell T. Davies is to produce the new one, eh? Well, last year’s ‘The Second Coming’ was rather brilliant – in addition to the audacity of its ‘assisted suicide of God’ denoument, it was genuinely, shiveringly disturbing in parts. But what gives most hope is that ‘The Second Coming’ rendered a sense of the otherworldly numinous in the context of the drably contemporary. The uncanny, exactly. And Christopher Eccleston as a Mancunian Christ was, all at once, intense, self-deprecating, charismatic — and weird. What price Eccleston for the role of the Doctor?