Icon of the Month: Doctor Who

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s an entry for their regular “Icon Of The Month” column, which didn’t get used in the end (someone had already done Doctor Who). It includes a joke about the Cartmel Masterplan, which you can read up on here if you want to be a NERD.

In the history of the long-running BBC TV programme Doctor Who, 5th October 1991 is not a particularly impressive date. The programme was in a period of indefinite hiatus, cancelled by the BBC after poor ratings, erratic scheduling, and an increasing reliance on impenetrable storylines and effects on a shoestring. But on 5th October 1991, I met the Doctor and asked if he was ever going to go on an adventure with Robin Hood, and he said that was a good idea. And it happened in a conference suite in Coventry…

Alright, it wasn’t actually the Doctor, it was Sylvester McCoy, and it was at a convention that lived up to all the cliches you’d care to throw at it – sweaty men-children in Vervoid costumes – but at that moment, a TV show, of all things, reached out and sparked the imagination of a small, thoughtful, bespectacled lad.

That’s what it’s been doing to children of all ages since it was first broadcast in 1963; its early years inspired not only by a need to fill the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury, but also a desire by the Head of Drama Sydney Newman to create a science-fiction show that educated – where the time-travel was an excuse to inform kids about Paleolithic tribes, Marco Polo, and the Aztecs. Of course, most of that went out the window with the second story, which introduced The Daleks – faceless fascistic robots who terrorised both the travellers in time and space, and generations of children.

The creative inspiration of Doctor Who comes from the penny-pinching improvisation of those early producers and writers, who accidentally stumbled across the reasons behind the programme’s uniqueness and longevity as they struggled to get it made. The TARDIS was initially due to change shape every week to fit in with its surroundings, but it was the creative response to a lack of budget – or indeed “a broken chameleon circuit” – that made the Doctor’s ship a police telephone box, whether it landed in the distant past (a quarry) or the furthest reaches of outer space (a quarry). And rather than just replacing the actor when first Doctor William Hartnell’s deteriorating health got the better of him, the production team decided that the character’s alien nature could encompass “regeneration” into Patrick Troughton – the Doctor cheating death not for the first time, and certainly not the last.

And so the programme became a mainstay of BBC Saturday nights, with a host of monsters, and an evergreen central character who encompassed flamboyant authority (Jon Pertwee), toothy madness (Tom Baker), and doe-eyed cricket obsessive (Peter Davison). But by the time of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor – a barbed cynic unpopular with audiences – it was clear that the programme wasn’t connecting with the kids it had been created for. It needed a break.

And a break it got – sixteen long years from 1989 to 2005, with only a brief, Americanised, TV movie for comfort. By the time it was announced that it was returning to BBC Saturday nights, it was difficult to ignore that little voice that said “It’s not going to be any good, and – what’s more – Billie Piper’s in it…”

When it returned, it was at full strength. Showrunner Russell T Davies once again “regenerated” the show, making it vital to a new generation of kids – particularly focusing on making it fresh and fun for girls, who traditionally didn’t care what the Cartmel Masterplan was. I once met a writer of Doctor Who who grabbed me, a relative stranger, by the shoulders and said with obvious joy in his eyes “It’s back! It’s really back!” When I heard my six-year-old cousin yelling “Exterminate!”, I knew it was true.

Episodes may respond to the time they were created – robot versions of Trinny and Susannah from 2005 already seem as hopelessly dated as a 1963 episode’s in-jokes about impending UK decimalisation – but the idea of an eccentric wandering hero, engaged in adventures both exhilarating and terrifying, remains indestructably appealing. And it’s that central character that I think attracts Christians to Doctor Who – he’s rather familiar.

Kindly, a little bit mysterious, good with children, surrounded by doting friends… both completely alien (literally or figuratively) and wonderfully human.

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