Doctor Who by stealth!

Series 8 of Doctor Who bore some of the hallmarks of the Classic Series, with an elder actor playing the Doctor, accompanied by a bubbly and likeable younger companion. Many stories put us truly back behind the sofa and Doctor Who didn’t shy away from challenging or shocking its audience. In the latest series Capaldi channels the grumpiness of the First Doctor and resembles the Third in his temperament. Consider how bolshy Pertwee’s Doctor could be with authoritarian figures. Remember how offhand and rude he was with the Master in the Death Zone on Gallifrey.

Steven Moffat quite deliberately made Capaldi’s Doctor “trickier” and scripted lengthier scenes, packed with strong – but sometimes heavy-going – dialogue. It is quite a contrast to the more cautious and populist approach that RTD adopted when he was trying to win over the viewing public of 2005. Moffat, on the other hand, is confident of Doctor Who’s ongoing success and is not scared of taking risks by experimenting or tinkering with the show. If this puts the audience out a little, so much the better. 

It seems appropriate to republish an article, written before Series 8 aired, and see how the show actually has reached this point, how things are different today and if any predictions proved right. It is titled “Doctor Who by stealth”.

When it was first announced in 2004 that Doctor Who would at long last be returning to our screens, everyone wondered who the new Doctor would be. All sorts of names were put forward in the media and not just those of actors. Even B-list celebrities such as Paul Daniels were suggested. The very idea that a former TV magician, however talented, could play the Doctor goes some way to show how low the Doctor Who had fallen in the esteem of the public. Any old celeb would do to play the Doctor. 

Doctor Who had over the years become weighed down by misconceptions and prejudices held by the viewing public, some of which were deserved. The show had baggage. 

Many thought Doctor Who was just naff. For others it had been a cult show whose glory days were long gone. A show made for geeky social misfits, almost exclusively male. A show with silly costumes and cheap rubbery monsters. Doctor Who was a nerdy sci-fi show with decades of inexplicable backstory and unfathomable continuity. And now the BBC wanted to spend licence payers’ money on breathing life back into this old relic which they had originally, and some say quite wisely, axed? 

Doctor Who made its glorious return in 2005. To the joy of Whovians, the revival was a massive success. So how in the name of Gallifrey did the BBC pull it off? How did they turn what had been perceived as television junk into the jewel in the corporation’s crown, becoming the BBC’s flagship drama? Intentional or not, it was done by stealth.

Our story starts with RTD, Russell T Davies. By hiring a highly respected writer with not inconsiderable professional clout and several TV successes under his belt, the BBC instantly made movers and shakers in the media sit up and take Doctor Who seriously. Davies then cast the antithesis of celebrity as the Doctor. A famed actor with international pedigree and some serious acting ability, Christopher Eccleston was the right man for the job. The names Davies and Eccleston didn’t ring a bell with the public, but unlike fans, your average television viewer doesn’t care a jot about what goes on behind the scenes. And so, unbeknownst to the public, Doctor Who already had two stellar talents on board. 

RTD knew that he needed to change the public’s perception of Doctor Who. By dressing the Doctor in a simple black leather jacket, he banished from the collective mind any embarassing frills, patterns and colours of yesteryear. Eccleston would play the part in his natural dulcet Northern tones. He came across as an everyday bloke from down a Salford pub and not some toffy-nosed twit poncing around the universe. The Ninth Doctor meant business and when he raised his voice you listened. These small but significant things transformed the public’s idea of the Doctor and Doctor Who in a flash. 

RTD implemented another almost imperceivable change – he made the Tardis bigger, on the outside obviously! The police box became bulkier and more imposing. Another addition was the soap-opera elements. Davies surrounded the Doctor with characters straight out of real life – Rose, her boyfriend and her mum. They all lived on a housing estate. Camouflaging Doctor Who as a soap made it “sci-fi lite” and more palatable to the general public as a whole. Only Whovians noticed or cared. The average viewer who binged nightly on Big Brother thought rocky relationships and raised voices on TV were simply par for the course. Last but not least and much to old school fans’ despair, there was some serious snogging too!

Davies got rid of the Time Lords and all the complex baggage and backstory they stood for by wiping them out in the mythical Time War. The first foes the new Doctor would encounter were the Autons, but to the casual viewer they were just shop window dummies. What about Billie Piper? Former pop star and Chris Evans’ celebrity wife, she was the big name that brought in the crowds, but then went on to wow us with her acting ability. More importantly, she made Doctor Who female friendly. Piper became a role model for the Nu-Who generation of girls. Aging male geeks had to budge up on the sofa. Doctor Who now had broad appeal and a brand-new trendy audience.

Along came Tennant in his long brown coat. The costume had become more Doctorish overnight. One small step for a man, but a massive one for a Whovian. It was a step back towards Classic Who. In his striped suit and Converse trainers, the Tenth Doctor introduced us to geek chic and his new attire deceptively came across as a modern step forward and not a return to familiar ground. 

Now that the show was taken seriously in the public eye, the character of the Doctor could become quirky again as he used to be. Tennant’s Doctor was hardly ever embarassing though. Quite the contrary, he became a heart throb. The Doctor, Rose and others continued to win over the audience with their sex appeal and the snog-fest went inexorably on. 

Whovians cheered when after two series, the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey, was mentioned for the first time in Nu-Who. There were new, original and innovative adventures, but among them old foes such as Daleks, Cybermen and the Master were being drip fed to the public. In the Tenth’s last adventure, viewers were even introduced to the Time Lords and Rassilon himself. 

Then came Matt Smith. The show had now been a massive hit for years and the production team could afford to move things up a gear. Yes, we had another handsome young actor on board, but this time the Doctor was zany, quirky and child-friendly again. It was effectively Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor’s second coming. With a bow-tie, fez and mop, we had a new Doctor who delighted in his own geekiness. He made uncool cool and the Doctor and Doctor Who was able to be silly again, without losing any of its credibility in the eyes of the public. Under new head writer Steven Moffat the show became less soapy, with companions’ family members, although present, firmly in the background. 

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary with the special “The Day of the Doctor”. Doctor Who was at last able to unabashedly celebrate its history and heritage (n.b. baggage) without alienating any viewers. After all Doctor Who now belonged to us all, fans and casual viewers alike. It was everybody’s party. Casual viewers were happy to see Tennant again. Fans old and new jumped for joy at the return of the Time Lords, Daleks, Zygons and previous Doctors. This would never have been possible in 2005.

So has Classic Who come back to us without anyone realising? We are but a few steps away. Steven Moffat has said that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor will be different from Tennant and Smith’s “boyfriend” Doctors. So will there be canoodling with Capaldi? It is unlikely. The new Doctor’s apparent age might mean that his snogging days are well and truly over. Another step back towards Classic Who. Tonsil-tickling duties will probably be reassigned to Clara.  

Nu-Who is again made for geeks. But only in the sense that the production crew have transformed the unwitting general public into geeks themselves. Doctorish costumes are back with a vengeance. Dressed flamboyantly like the Third Doctor, Capaldi is the Doctor as we once knew him. Gallifrey and all the big monsters have made their return. Maybe they are rubbery, but on today’s enormous budget they sure don’t look it. We have the old continuity back but it is embraced by the viewing public as their own. We will have an older actor at the helm, a seemingly traditional old-style patrician Doctor. But he will be introduced gently, again by stealth. The new Doctor will be surrounded by familiar characters such as Clara, Strax and Vastra. Young and attractive actors and popstars like Keeley Hawes, Samuel Anderson and Foxes will be on display, to ease the transition. Viewers will learn to accept the Doctor as an older figure, as the talent and charm of a highly respected and much loved Capaldi shines through.

We can conclude that Doctor Who is not so different from the show it was in the glory days of the 1970s, just that now it enjoys lavish and modern production values. We always knew it was a fabulous idea – an alien in a police box who could travel anywhere in time and space, but the viewing public at large just needed a little “coaxing, persuading, encouraging”. In other words, Doctor Who was brought back by stealth. 

And what of Paul Daniels? Will his name ever again be uttered in the same breath as Doctor Who? Probably not, though Series 8 may be unwittingly paying homage to the conjuror. Peter Capaldi certainly looks like a magician in that swanky coat with the red lining. Whatever the case may be, Doctor Who is now back as it once was, baggage and all – and that certainly feels like magic!


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