David Agnew (Douglas Adams)
What’s It About
After noticing a series of time jumps while on holiday in Paris, The Doctor and Romana discover a plot to steal the Mona Lisa. But the theft of the famous painting is only one part of a centuries-long plan by Count Scarlioni to make contact with a damaged spaceship 400 million years in Earth’s past.
My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.
If I had to level one criticism at “City of Death,” it would be the establishing shots. Many scenes were shot on location, and I would be surprised if any of them ended up on the cutting room floor. But admittedly, this is nitpicking. “City of Death” is a Doctor Who story in which everything works. The story is clever and complex. The performances are top-notch. The visual effects are good. The dialogue is sharp. Julian Glover has always been a boon to Doctor Who, and watching him trade witticisms with Tom Baker is a joy. The only real flaw is that the characters spend a great deal of time running through the streets of Paris, but if you are going to film characters running through the streets of any city, Paris is probably the best choice. It’s padding, but it is visually interesting padding.
But I want to move to one of the themes of this story. The Doctor and Romana discuss art in part one, Romana believing a computer is just as good at creating art as a living creature, the Doctor disagreeing. Later, a discussion ensues about which Mona Lisa is the real one. Sure, there is the original, but by the end of the story there are six others, each painted by Da Vinci. They are authentic Da Vinci reproductions of the same painting. So, are they real or are they fake? Philip Sandifier goes in to great detail on the real vs. fake discussion on his blog. Here, however, I want to talk about authentic and fake as it relates to Doctor Who as a concept. Specifically, is there such a thing as a proper Doctor Who story?
As I have been making my way through Doctor Who, I have fallen in love with the stories done in the 1960s. Part of this was due to my reading about the historical context of this decade’s stories. I love historical criticism, and it makes sense that I would apply this lens to Doctor Who. What other show has been around long enough? As I watched these stories, I fell in love with the concepts. I love the Doctors, and I love the attitude of the show. Hartnell and Troughton are my favorite Doctors, and it grieves me that their runs on the show are incomplete. The Pertwee era was a jarring experience for me. The show I had fallen in love with redefined itself. While I enjoyed the first Pertwee season, the rest of his era produced far more misses for me than hits. The Tom Baker years have been similar. I feel like an enigma, as far as Doctor Who fans go: I am more tolerant of Hartnell and Troughton stories than Pertwee or Baker stories. If I like stories from these latter two Doctors (and I do, indeed, like many of them), it is because I think the stories are good—but not because I consider them good Doctor Who stories. I like “The Green Death” because it reminds me of Fringe or The X-Files. I like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and quite a few other Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories because they remind me of Weird Fiction. From Pertwee on, I evaluate the show based on how well the stories are told, and how interesting the concepts are. I don’t necessarily think of them as Doctor Who. And let me be clear, this is a personal thing. I don’t for a minute think that my view is the only correct view. I acknowledge that my view is defined by what I love about seasons 1-6, and how Hartnell and Troughton played the part. But I cannot hold other fans to my standard.
The diversity of stories in this show is evidence that Doctor Who regenerates with its lead (or, more accurately, with its producer and script editor). And because of this diversity and constant renewal, it is hard to get at a definition of what a “proper” Doctor Who story is. For every attempt to define “proper” Doctor Who, there is an exception: The Doctor fights against injustice, except when he doesn’t. The Doctor travels with an assistant, except when he doesn’t. The Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, except when he can’t. The Doctor fights monsters, except when there are no monsters. The Doctor loves humans, except when he doesn’t. Doctor Who is about the Doctor, except when it isn’t. Perhaps the only real qualifier for a “proper” Doctor Who story is “a story produced or licensed by the BBC with the name Doctor Who attached.” It isn’t what any one person feels Doctor Who should be, with the possible exception of whoever is running the show at any given time—with the acknowledgement that the next show runner may completely disagree.
There have been a lot of discussions among fans as we approach the 50th Anniversary, as Matt Smith’s departure has been announced, about what is next for the show. And in these discussions, the Doctor as icon is discussed. The Doctor is supposed to represent certain traits or attitudes. But my problem is that I have never viewed the Doctor in this way. Sure, certain versions of the Doctor fit certain traits or attitudes, but for me, the Doctor is more interesting as a character, not as a character-type. If we can so easily define the Doctor as (insert quality here), don’t we essentially take away the central premise of the show, the question in plain sight: Doctor who? In recent weeks I have started to think that the biggest threat to Doctor Who is an over-familiarity with the Doctor as a character. The show is weighed down with 50 years’ worth of fan interpretation (dare I say, fan theology), and all the mystery surrounding the central character has been drained from the show. The Doctor is our puppet, who dances however we want him to, nevermind that he is an alien and is under no obligation to respond how we want. I have always enjoyed a flawed Doctor, one who makes mistakes; one who doesn’t know everything about the universe, a Doctor who has his own agenda, which may not match what the companions want, or what the audience wants. That is what I love so much about the Hartnell era: The Doctor has his own agenda; it drives his actions. It creates conflict between himself, Ian, Barbara, and Susan. This conflict creates growth for all the characters, and they change. For me, at its most uninteresting, the show gives us a Doctor whose motivation is general do-goodery. He no longer has a personality. He is an icon. He is a representation of ideals. He is a trope.
This has been a long digression, but I want to make clear that it is only my interpretation, my understanding of character as it applies to the Doctor and what makes Doctor Who interesting to me. Many fans enjoy the Doctor as an icon for good, as an icon for justice and equality. And I certainly respect that view. The Doctor has been an embodiment for justice, equality, and peace for much of the show’s run, new and old. Unfortunately, it makes Doctor Who less interesting for me; this is why I start finding enjoyment based on plot, concepts, and general storytelling, because the main character just isn’t that interesting to me anymore. And this makes me sad.
But, as in “City of Death,” does this make any other Doctor Who story less authentic, less Doctor Who? Absolutely not! All eras of Doctor Who are truly Doctor Who, whether we like them or not. That goes for my favorite seasons and my least favorite seasons. That goes for what has come before, and what may yet come. Since there is no single creator of Doctor Who, beyond the BBC—which isn’t really a creative force in this instance, but a source of production—there is no truly unifying vision of Doctor Who. It can, and should, change. A show doesn’t reach 50 years without changing, sometimes drastically.
And as much as I wish I could view the show objectively, as a dispassionate viewer, I can’t. I spent a lot of time watching and writing about 1960s Doctor Who. I used to watch this show with my mom when I was very, very young. When it comes to being a fan of the show, I do have criteria for what I love, for “proper” Doctor Who is. But if my criteria doesn’t match yours, that’s perfectly fine. We can disagree; conflict creates growth, so long as it is healthy and respectful. I may not be happy with the current form of the show, but I know a lot of people who are; I am thrilled for them, and just a bit jealous. I’m jealous because I can’t quite enjoy the show in the same way they can (and I live in hope that certain rumors floating around the internet are true so I can enjoy the show in a way that I feared I would never enjoy it again). In the end, all Doctor Who produced and licensed by the BBC is authentic; it is all proper Doctor Who.