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The Unsilent Library - Introduction

Introduction

Simon Bradshaw, Antony Keen and Graham Sleight

When the BBC confirmed that Doctor Who would be returning to production in 2005, many fans must have had mixed feelings. The original series – what we refer to throughout this book as ‘Classic Who[1] – had been much loved and retained a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase that supported an ever-growing line of spin-off books and audio dramas. But could this deep yet narrow following be transformed into mass-market success? The most ardent Who fans would concede that, by the standards of modern TV science fiction and fantasy drama such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stargate SG-1,[2] Classic Who had not aged well. Even leaving aside the legendarily thin production values, its pace and style were a generation or more behind the times. Could the producer set to revive and revitalise the programme, Russell T. Davies, transform it into a contemporary success whilst still retaining the distinctive essence and ethos of Doctor Who? Best known for programmes such as Queer as Folk and The Second Coming,[3] Davies might not have been an obvious choice, but he was very well-attuned to what made a successful contemporary drama. Moreover, anyone who had seen his 1991 series, Dark Season, would recognise that he was quite at ease in the conventions of the science fantasy adventure series. Dark Season was indeed, among other things, an homage to Classic Who.

And, with spectacular success, he proceeded to turn Doctor Who into exactly that. From a fondly-remembered but increasingly cult piece of TV history whose heyday was seen as thirty years in the past, Russell T. Davies left Doctor Who as one of the BBC’s leading dramas, spawning two spin-off series and a vast volume of merchandising.

Clearly, Davies’ deep understanding of what makes good modern TV was essential for such an impressive revival. But, crucially, he was also a life-long Doctor Who fan. One of the most notable aspects of the New Who (as, again, we shall refer to it) is the extent to which it is a phenomenon very driven by its own fandom. Whilst other series may have had active fan bases (for instance, the original Star Trek was saved from cancellation after its second year, 1967-1968, by a fan write-in campaign to NBC) the sheer longevity of Who has meant that many of the writers of New Who were not only fans of the Classic series but were also active Who enthusiasts during the long interregnum between the end of Classic Who in 1989 and the series’ revival in 2005.[4] Punctuated only by the 1996 TV movie (and indeed to some extent encouraged by it), this period, as noted, led to a dramatic flowering in original Who material such as novels and audio dramas. Not only did the Who fanbase provide an avid market, but many of its writers were themselves long-time Who fans. Come the new series, some of this material would go on to form the basis of episodes such as Rob Shearman’s “Dalek”,[5] inspired by elements of his audio play Jubilee, and Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature”/“The Family of Blood”,[6] adapted from his novel Human Nature.[7]

Perhaps the most significant effect of this upon the New Who is a very deep-seated self-consciousness in the programme. Not only is Doctor Who an institution with a history, but New Who comes across as knowing that it is an institution and that it has a history. As well as frequent nods to a mythology that stretches back to 1963 the new series acknowledges its fandom through, for instance, references to the Doctor acquiring fans and followers in his own right (“Rose”, “Love and Monsters” and “Time Crash”).[8] But in addition to such in-programme reference to its fame and wide public engagement, New Who also very explicitly engages with its viewers through a wide range of supporting media, such as Doctor Who Confidential documentaries, and web sites to name but a few; Clare Parody discusses this ‘transmedia storytelling’ in more detail in Chapter 10.

One of the most visible ways in which New Who departs from Classic Who is in its far more developed approach to character; not only the characters of the Doctor and his companions, but also the wider cast of secondary characters that Davies deployed to round out the setting of the new series. Whilst this was not an entirely unfamiliar concept (consider the UNIT ‘family’ in the Third Doctor era of 1970-1974), New Who takes it much further, surrounding the Doctor not just with a companion as co-adventurer and confidante, but a wider circle of secondary characters whose lives are affected by the Doctor and who themselves affect him.

Graham Sleight, in Chapter 1, notes how, right from the opening scenes of “Rose”, the very first New Who episode, the Doctor’s companion (and by extension the Doctor himself) was presented as part of a wider, ongoing continuity. Rose Tyler does not exist in isolation; she has a social life (and indeed a personal life – one that is very much disrupted by the Doctor), a family and a broader personal context. Perhaps one of the first signs for long-term Who fans as to the way in which New Who was moving beyond the narrow confines of the original series was the opening of “The Aliens of London”,[9] where an error by the Doctor in navigating the TARDIS to take Rose home results in her finding that she has been a missing person for the best part of a year.

At one level this is an obvious plot point arising from being a companion of a time-traveller. It was implicitly the case for several earlier companions in Classic Who, but the consequences were never explored; New Who goes beyond the original series in explicitly depicting the consequences of its premise. But Russell T. Davies goes further than that: as well as pointing out the temporal dislocations inherent in being a companion of the Doctor, he makes it a central plot point. Rose’s mother initially deeply distrusts the Doctor, seeing him as some sort of Svengali who has abducted her daughter for a year. Mickey Smith, Rose’s erstwhile boyfriend, has even more reason to resent the Doctor: he has been questioned as a suspect in her disappearance and presumed murder. In just the introductory part of only the fourth episode of the new series, Davies makes it clear that New Who operates on a whole different level to Classic Who. Not only are the consequences of the Doctor’s actions shown (as they occasionally were in Classic Who)[10] but they establish fundamental, ongoing aspects of his relationships with his wider circle of continuing characters.

Other aspects of interpersonal relationships are also depicted very differently by New Who. As Catherine Coker points out in Chapter 6, New Who has a far more open depiction of non-traditional relationships than the original series, or indeed much US-produced TV science fiction. Not only was Jack Harkness introduced as an openly queer (indeed, ‘omnisexual’) character, but many of the incidental and secondary characters seen throughout New Who are shown as enjoying sexually unconventional lifestyles. Not only is Russell T. Davies’ vision of Who very much about interpersonal relationships, but it encompasses relationships beyond the narrow expectations of a traditional audience.

Another way that New Who extends but subverts the traditions of the original series is in looking at the wider implications of the Doctor’s actions. As Una McCormack notes in Chapter 3 the Doctor remains an enemy of the oppressor, but his intervention is shown to have effects he didn’t anticipate (as in “Bad Wolf” and “The Sound of Drums”).[11] Again, Davies is emphasising that the Doctor’s adventures may centre on him (and his companion) but are part of a wider, ongoing setting and continuity. The concept of an ongoing ‘plot arc’ was not entirely alien to Classic Who, be it in the form of a recurring villain (the Master in the Third Doctor era) or a background plot (the “Key to Time” sequence). But under Davies’ guidance the show took a much more sophisticated approach, with multiple plot threads and recurring characters more typical of US shows such as Babylon 5 and Buffy. In Chapter 7, James Rose examines the structuring of the series, with particular reference to the Time War and the Doctor’s conflict with the Daleks.

As Graham Sleight also notes, pace is an important element of Davies’ show – the Doctor’s first word in “Rose” is “Run”, and Davies commented that the show never stopped running after that point.[12] Nevertheless, there is a greater emphasis on thought and knowledge than in many adventure series, as can be seen in Leslie McMurtry’s study of the importance of knowledge and words to the Doctor, in Chapter 8; it is this emphasis on knowledge that partly lies behind our punning choice of title. The overall depth of the series can also be seen in Richard Burley’s examination (Chapter 9) of how time travel actually works.[13]

This is not to say that Davies’ approach is above criticism. One of the editors, Antony Keen, has elsewhere coined the term ‘Total Bollocks Overdrive’ to describe Davies’ more excessive moments.[14] His tendency to pull rabbits out of hats at the end of stories is addressed both by Graham Sleight, and, in more detail, by Paul Hawkins in Chapter 2. His portrayal of women can also be questioned; two examples are discussed by Antony Keen and Sydney and Andy Duncan, in Chapters 4 and 5.

As the papers in this volume discuss, the story of Russell T. Davies’ five years at the helm of New Who is a profound and very fundamental re-invention of the series, whilst at the same time encompassing its lengthy, deep (and frequently contradictory) history and traditions. That there is so much to discuss is as much a tribute to the influence that Davies has had upon Who as is the impressive success of the revived series. We that you find the insights of our contributors thought-provoking, informative and interesting, but above all we will have succeeded in our aim if you come away from The Unsilent Library with not just a deeper understanding of New Who, but also an enhanced enjoyment of it.

References to Episodes

The naming of Doctor Who episodes and stories has had a rather complicated history. As fans of the series know, Classic Who initially gave primacy to the name of individual episodes of multi-part stories, with the overall name by which we now know some of those stories not being settled on until much later (e.g. The Daleks). By the end of the First Doctor’s tenure, the practice arose of naming stories by overall title, with episodes just having numbers. When Doctor Who was revived, it adopted a style of mostly stand-alone episodes, each with its own title. Two-part stories typically had separate titles for each episode, with the exception of the very final story in the period covered by this book, “The End of Time” which was split into Part 1 and Part 2. We have adopted a convention of giving the names of episodes (both New Who and named episodes in early Classic Who) in double quotes, and of referring to the names of Classic Who stories in italics.

For the convenience of readers we have included an appendix listing details of all episodes of New Doctor Who covered by the scope of this book (i.e. those produced by Russell T. Davies). Where one of these episodes is first referred to within each chapter, we include a footnote giving a short-form reference allowing the reader to quickly find details of it in the appendix. For the bulk of episodes this is a note of the series and episode number, e.g. “Rose” is S1E1. (Particularly attentive readers will see that we have followed the broadcast order of Series 4, not the production order.) Christmas specials and the 2009 special episodes are referred to with a note of the year. Details of episodes not listed in the appendix (e.g. Classic Who stories or episodes of related series such as The Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood) are summarised in a footnote.

 




[1]               As most readers will know, Classic Who ran from 1963 to 1989.

[2]               Buffy the Vampire Slayer,1997-2003; Stargate SG-1, 1997-2007.

[3]               Queer as Folk,1999-2000; The Second Coming, 2003.

[4]               This is discussed in Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who for the Twenty-First Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 54-84.

[5]               Series 1, Episode 6, or ‘S1E6’ in the shorthand we adopt for referring to episodes of New Who. See the note at the end of this introduction for further details, and the appendix to this book for full information on each episode.

[6]               S3E8/S3E9.

[7]               Paul Cornell, Human Nature (London: Virgin Books, 1995).

[8]               S1E1, S2E10 and 2007 Children in Need Special.

[9]               S1E4.

[10]            Ongoing consequences of the Doctor’s actions formed part of the plot in Classic Who stories such as The Ark (5 – 26 March 1966) – see Chapter 3, note 51 – and The Face of Evil (1 – 22 January 1977). However, it is an innovation of New Who that such consequences have a wider effect than driving the immediate plot.

[11]            S1E12, S3E12.

[12]            Russell T. Davies, “‘Doctor Who’s given me the time of my life’ – Russell T Davies on leaving Doctor Who”, The Daily Telegraph, 18 December 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/seasonal-culture/6840859/Doctor-Whos-given-me-the-time-of-my-life-Russell-T-Davies-on-leaving-Doctor-Who.html (retrieved on 10 November 2010).

[13]            For another view of the same subject, see Antony Keen, ‘Sideways Pompeii! The Use of a Historical Period to Question The Doctor’s Role in History’, in Ross P. Garner, Melissa Beattie and Una McCormack, eds., Impossible Worlds, Impossible Things: Cultural Perspectives on Doctor Who, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), pp. 94-117.

[14]            E.g. Nicholas Whyte and Antony Keen, “Two Views: Doctor Who, ‘The Runaway Bride’”, Strange Horizons Reviews, 15 January 2007, http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2007/01/two_views_docto.shtml (retrieved on 10 November 2010).