If you are a fan of the BBC Series Doctor Who, you are probably enjoying the eighth season since the reboot, now starring Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. If you aren’t, I’d rather you didn’t read this piece, since you may want to alert the authorities about my mental stability.
This is a work of fandom. I’ve been a fan of the show since 1978 and have passed this affliction, er, passion, on to my kids now.
Why so much passion about a silly kids’ show? For one, it’s a global phenomenon now, with the 50th Anniversary episode “Day of the Doctor” was seen simultaneously by 80M people in 94 countries. For another, it’s a tradition something like being a part of the Royal Shakespeare acting company, with stars vying for guest shots and careers made by a turn in a starring role.
How can a long running serial like this stay fresh after so many years? A combination of constantly re-inventing itself and staying true to its traditions is the secret, a difficult trick to pull off. But that is exactly what they are doing now, giving us longtime fans a treat with references to the now-called “Classic Who” while pulling the old themes out for a new audience. Hey, even Richard III is new to you if you’ve never seen it before.
It’s worth writing about to me not just because I’m a fan, but because so much stuff is re-hashed into sequels and continued stories as production companies love a solid brand name at the top of any entertainment product – be it Scooby Doo, Iron Man, Batman, or any other original series turned into a franchise. This is how it’s done well.
The Doctor’s current companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), is developing into a modern day re-casting of a longtime favorite companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). The latter was the bridge between Doctor #3, Jon Pertwee, and Doctor #4, Tom Baker and helped carry the series into a new era. Her rhyming counterpart today, Clara, bridge Doctor #11, Matt Smith, and Doctor #12, Peter Capaldi.
The two line up remarkably well, starting from the appearance of Clara just over two years after the death of Elisabeth Sladen in 2011. You can almost hear the crew of the show calling for the next companion to be another Sarah Jane at her funeral, given Sladen’s status as a fan favorite and stardom on the spin-off show “The Sarah Jane Adventures” up until her death.
The connection was cemented recently, with the episode “Into the Dalek” mirroring closely “Genesis of the Daleks” from 1974. This was more than a re-use of old material, it was an update of a key theme of what is the nature of good and evil in a living being – and what limits there must be for the struggle of good against evil. Since then Clara has become a Sarah in so many ways, which brings us to the new Doctor.
Peter Capaldi stepped out on stage when he was introduced as the next person to take the role of Hamlet, er, The Doctor clutching his lapels like Doctor #1, William Hartnell did so often. It was a clue for us old timers. There is a good theory that all that archetypes for the character of the Doctor, now played by 12 (13?) people, were set by the first five and that every subsequent performance is naturally bound by tradition to hold to these archetypes.
For example, Doctor #10 David Tennant has the angst and gravity of #5 Peter Davison with the zeal for action of #3 Jon Pertwee. Doctor #11Matt Smith was a zany #2 Patrick Troughton with a good dash of #5 seriousness in turns for continuity. So how does #12 Capaldi play the role? We see a lot of #1 Hartnell, yes, but a strange topping of #4 Tom Baker in his roguish, flippant asides. It’s a big change, and one that required a strong Sarah Jane like character to set up so that the audience wasn’t jarred. That was made explicit in Season 8’s first episode, “Deep Breath”.
But it is still a bit strange to have such a strong call back to Tom Baker as the Doctor a strong 40 years after he first took the role and made it his own for seven years, even without the iconic scarf (“I’m over that!”). Is that really where they are going?
The short answer is that yes, this is what is happening. Note that BBC Radio had a recent special on the Whovian work of Douglas Adams, famous for “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, on Doctor Who during the Baker era. And we cannot forget the cameo provided by Baker in “The Day of the Doctor” that left us old-time fans in tears.
The comparisons between Capaldi and Hartnell are obvious, stretching to Clara’s “day job” as a teacher at Coal Hill School – site of the first episode “An Unearthly Child” over 50 years ago. But the dollop of Baker gives Capaldi room to breath and revise the show as a true classic, pulling energy from the strongest roots.
But there is so much more material to pull from than we’ve seen so far, good as the revision to “Genesis of the Daleks” was. In a web only mini adventure “Night of the Doctor” #8 Paul McGann finally had a chance to regenerate and bring continuity to the rebooted series. But there was more to it than that. Before regenerating he called to his companions from the radio series that kept the dark years going, literally reading them into Doctor Who canon.
It seemed like a warm gesture to stitch the years together, but it may have also read into canon the Big Finish Doctor Who series that includes Romana, Time Lord herself and companion to Tom Baker. And as we heard on Trenzalore last Christmas the new Doctor is going to find his home planet, Galifrey – which may require Romana’s help.
Pulling all of this old material from the classics is not just for those of us who are into it. Pulling material deep from the archive to continue weaving a new story is part of what keeps it fresh. The classics become classics through retelling, and they renew any storyline by being updated.
Doctor Who is important because it is something very much like a living Shakespeare company – full of tradition to pull from and constantly seeking out new audiences. In the case of this little show, those audiences are now from around the planet, all at once.
Can the Doctor save us all? The strange answer is that, yes, by pulling together a new tradition that every culture joins in with the Earth is more at peace, happier, and stronger. It may only be a show, but it becomes something more with each retelling. The recent twists show us how tradition itself can be a great renewal, a lesson that every storyteller should embrace.
And, yes, I do love this show.