We Weren't Promised Jetpacks: Why Doctor Who Matters (even if you don't like spaceships and lasers and shit)
By Paul Kirkley, Aged 40¾
Doctor Who was once described by its former script editor Robert Holmes as being "more like Sherlock Holmes than Dan Dare." It's an insightful comment that explains why someone like me – a sci-fi sceptic who would always take the films of Mike Leigh or Michael Winterbottom over CG-eye candy like Avengers Assemble or even Prometheus – could be hopelessly be in love with this strange, quirky British institution.
Because, let's be honest, Doctor Who isn't really science fiction at all, is it? To me, sci-fi says spaceships and laser guns and the dreary, military fetishism of Star Trek. (I'll make an exception for the brilliantly dark and edgy war on terror parable of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, but you could set something that well-written and beautifully made in Budgens' car park, and it would still be gripping.) And I'm far from alone: as the author Tat Wood says in About Time, his exhaustive critical guide to Doctor Who: "British Who fans love Coronation Street far more than they like Stargate SG-1, and were more prepared to stay in for The House of Elliot than The X-Files."
Of course, Doctor Who sometimes has spaceships and laser guns and exploding planets. But it's just as likely to be set in Churchill's bunker, a south London housing estate or the Palace of Versailles. (More likely, in fact – they're a lot cheaper for one thing.) Or, in the words of Steven Moffat: "Other sci-fi shows take place in outer space; Doctor Who takes place under your bed." With typical Moffat efficiency, this actually plugs in to two essential truths about Doctor Who. The first is that it falls as naturally into the horror genre as it does sci-fi: it's hard-wired into the British public's race memory to talk in terms of being "terrified" by the Daleks and, that old warhorse, "hiding behind the sofa" – not emotions and actions you'd normally associate with space rockets and jet-packs.
The second is the unique – and it is unique - way Doctor Who contrasts the domestic with the fantastic – what the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, called the "Yeti on a loo in Tooting Bec" effect. Who else but the Doctor, for example, would combine exploring a mysterious underground cavern on a far-flung planet orbiting an impossible black hole with chit-chat about the EastEnders Christmas special? Or shuffle about to Soft Cell records in the year 5 Billion?
But, really, it's pointless trying to define which "genre" Doctor Who belongs in because the answer, at the end of the day, is all of them. Well, maybe not dogme, or hardcore torture porn. But what other programme re-builds itself from the ground up virtually every week? New story, new setting, new locations, new cast. And it's not just that the show can physically go anywhere at any time, it's the only show on television that fundamentally changes what it is from story to story. Sometimes it's horror, sometimes it's historical adventure, sometimes it's romance and, yes, sometimes it's sci-fi.
But even then, it distinguishes itself from most sci-fi on account of how funny it is. And not just today when, in the hands of one of Britain's best sitcom writers, Doctor Who has a gag-rate to put most so-called comedies to shame: the show has always been shot through with an anarchic wit that, again, makes Monty Python or Blackadder ("Father Christmas – or, as I've always known him, Jeff") a more relevant touchstone than Star Wars.
In this sense, Doctor Who delivers as the ultimate family show in the same way Pixar has cornered the family film market, flinging adventure and terror and monsters at the kids while pitching jokes about everything from classic literature to gay cunnilingus a safe distance over their heads.
It should be said that Doctor Who's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness: the constant leaping about between tones and genres means the show is maddeningly inconsistent: when all this goes wrong, the results can sometimes be disastrous, with the quality control falling off a cliff to an extent you don't really see with other serial drama . But there's always the knowledge that, next week, it will probably be brilliant again. And whatever happens, you're guaranteed the show is never, ever dull.
Words have always been at the heart of Doctor Who. In its original incarnation, the programme was taped in BBC TV studios using the same techniques – and the same budget – as the likes of The Good Life or The Wednesday Play. Thus it was always closer to "televised theatre" than US shows like Buck Rogers, let alone Star Wars or Close Encounters. (Indeed, a story like 1965's The Crusade – a lyrical tale of intrigue in the court of Richard I - is positively Shakespearean, with some passages in actual iambic pentameter). During the show's original run, the shonky special effects and "wobbly sets" increasingly became a national joke. But the lack of money for lavish FX sequences meant the scripts always had to work harder: while Industrial Light and Magic was creating lavish starscapes for Luke Skywalker and co to fly through, Doctor Who was still painting pictures with words. Which is why, as Harrison Ford was telling George Lucas "you can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can't say it," Robert Holmes - himself a wordsmith to rival your Dennis Potters and Alan Bleasdales – was riffing on everything from Oscar Wilde to Conan Doyle in the witty, literary Talons of Weng Chiang.
These days, of course, advances in technology mean Doctor Who now has the visual props to match its imagination. But it's still the storytelling that's key. And that's what makes it so good for kids: Transformers or the latest dead horse being flogged by Marvel or DC will rot your kids' brains – and don't even get me started on the atrophying effects of video games - but, like Harry Potter or the works of Phillip Pullman, Doctor Who has a heart and a wit and an inventiveness that will inspire children's imaginations, not diminish them. (Significantly, the Doctor himself is a bit of a speccy nerd who outwits his enemies using his big brain, not a gun or a grenade launcher or retractable claws.)
And stories are important to us grown-ups (who still make up the majority of the show's audience), too – or at least they should be. Sure, even slick, shiny new Who can't compete with Hollywood in terms of visuals, but didn't we stop going to the cinema just to be amazed by the pretty pictures about the time Buster Keaton last fell out of a window?
Doctor Who is also, importantly, British. Not to get too Daily Mail about it, but our children's and teenager's culture is swamped by American imports, often selling a very conservative American dream. Doctor Who will save your children from conducting their role play in an American accent – and will ensure they wield a magic screwdriver instead of an automatic rifle into the bargain. For that alone, it earns its share of the licence fee.
Which is all well and good. But I'd be lying if I said my love for Doctor Who wasn't also, in part, as much about me as it is the show. Because how many other programmes – how many other things - are part of a continuing arc reaching right back into our childhoods? "This song is ending," said a friendly Ood when the Tenth Doctor was breathing his last. "But the story never ends." And when I'm plugging into the narrative of my childhood, I'm plugging into a maelstrom of other complex memories and emotions. Like the days when my Dad, who I miss every day, used to take me around different Leeds city libraries to find Target novelisations I hadn't read, or the days when I'd watch Doctor Who at my Grandma and Grandad's, or a hundred other precious moments that might otherwise be forgotten if this character, this hero, this childhood friend, wasn't still here, chucking out Proustian madeleines at every turn, walking beside me into adulthood and fatherhood and middle-age, and beyond.
Why do I love Doctor Who? I love it because anyone who cares about stories or words or jokes or history or romance or Britain or childhood or humanity or imagination would be a fool not to.
Paul Kirkley was born in Leeds approximately two-and-a-half hours before episode three of The Daemons, but they kept you in hospital for ages in those days, so he missed it. Four decades on, he is a journalist and editor in Cambridge (a lovely city, though technically non-canonical thanks to that bloody Play School clock), where he lives with his wife Rachel and their sons George and Thomas. He recently beat off competition from literally some other journalists to win the coveted-ish title of Newspaper Columnist of the Year (East of England) for his column/blog, About A Boy. He also writes regularly for SFX magazine and some other websites that are a bit like this one. He is so very tired.
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