Journey Complete: Doctor Who (1963 – 1989)

William HartnellIn October 2010, I set out to watch the entire classic series of Doctor Who. I finished this goal on March 9, 2014. It took me just over three years. During that time I saw David Tennant hand the role to Matt Smith, who recently handed it to Peter Capaldi. Russell T. Davies handed the show to Steven Moffat. Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary. We lost many people connected to the classic series, among them Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, and Caroline Johns. And the unthinkable happened: Six episodes from Patrick Troughton’s era were found! Of course, now I have to start over since I had left the Troughton era behind in 2012. (This is a joke . . . maybe.)

But not only did things change in the world of Doctor Who. I left my job at the bookstore and returned to college for a long-overdue undergraduate degree, this time in Professional Writing and Religious Studies. I still have a year of school left and no real idea of what I will do with these degrees. But I want to keep writing. Ultimately, that was what this was all about: writing. Yes, I love Doctor Who and have always wanted to watch the complete run (this was my third attempt, although my first to blog it). I relished the excuse to buy DVDs, even though this became an unsustainable method of consuming the show when I left my job to continue my education. Thankfully, my local library had quite a few of the stories on DVD. But my stated purpose from the beginning was to write. I needed to develop the discipline of writing. This is the hardest part of being a writer—sitting and typing. Putting words on the screen. I haven’t always been as consistent as I wanted, but I did eventually finish. I never gave up. Though there were times I wanted to.

I wanted to give up when the Hartnell era went on and on without a clear vision due to production teams rotating in and out.

Second Doctor sitting next to the TARDIS console.
Oh my giddy aunt, not another monster threatening a base!

I wanted to give up when I couldn’t bear one more base-under-siege episode.

I wanted to give up when I had to watch another story set on Peladon.

I wanted to give up when Graham Williams just couldn’t get his visions to stick to the screen (though through no fault of his own at times).

I wanted to give up when Eric Saward kept script editing for the show.

I wanted to give up when I felt I had betrayed my vision to see the show on its own merits, evaluating story after story within its in-show context rather than comparing it to what was currently being produced by BBC Wales.

I wanted to give up when it seemed like no one was reading.

But in the end, I stuck with it. My writing improved. My wife insists the change was apparent when I went back to school. My analysis grew sharper, due in no little part to the intellectual challenges of college sharpening my mind. And my view of Doctor Who changed.

Watching these stories in broadcast order is exhilarating, excruciating, and infuriating. But the contextualization is fascinating. Watching Doctor Who succeed and fail, drag and run, change and change again is an amazing thing. I have learned that Doctor Who is at its best when it eschews formulas, when it is challenged by the potential of what it could be, by the mysteries of the unknown. It has bursts of creativity out of uncertainty and change: Verity Lambert and crew trying to figure out what the show would be, Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis figuring out what the show would be with a new lead actor, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks figuring out an Earth-based series, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes jettisoning the Pertwee era and doing their own thing, Christopher H. Bidmead redefining Doctor Who by distilling the essence of the show and reshaping it, Andrew Cartmel deconstructing and reconstructing the show after the stale influence of Eric Saward (which sounds far more harsh than I want it to, but that is truly what I think).

Watching the show here and there, out of sequence, makes the changes too striking. It removes the nuance and the vision each creative team brought to the show. It has shown me that there is no such thing as “proper” Doctor Who. And having completed the original television run and now looking at the future of this blog and the novels, audio dramas, and the BBC Wales series, it would also seem that Doctor Who has no proper form either. The PBS Idea Channel once did a video asking if Doctor Who was a religion. In form, Doctor Who is a bit Daoist: Everything is canon; it has no definition. The Doctor Who formula that can be defined is not Doctor Who. There is only one constant over time and that constant is change. Change is inevitable. That change is reflected in the so-called Wilderness Years as Doctor Who continued in novels and on Big Finish. Being the only outlet for fans who craved more Who, these tie-in properties did more than just sate an appetite; they kept the idea alive. They became evolutionary steps that were adapted or discarded in 2005 when Russell T. Davies brought the show back. So while new Who does not require knowledge of these novels and audio dramas, the thematic progression of the show, the contextual history of the show, requires familiarity with these properties. Time wars, chameleon arches, the Eighth Doctor adventures, the Doctor falling in love—these all have ties into the Wilderness Properties. Ideas were tried out, evaluated, adapted, or discarded in these stories. They are evolutionary steps in the progression from classic to modern Doctor Who.

Season 8 CastAnyone who has the time, money, and desire should give this journey a try. I won’t lie; it can be hard. Based on my experience, I offer the following advice:

  • Do not try to watch it out of order. If you want to watch every episode, try it in broadcast order. Skipping around causes dissatisfaction as it causes you to compare stories from a successful run to stories from an unsuccessful run. This isn’t fair to either story.
  • Don’t binge watch! Like running a 5K, it is best to take things slow and steady. This is especially true in the early seasons. The vast majority of the classic series was meant to be watched one episode per week, and it is best to replicate that as closely as possible. Give yourself time to digest each episode on its own terms. Watch one a day. Watch one in the morning then one in the evening. Whatever schedule works, but especially in those early seasons, put time between episodes.
  • Be mindful of what was going on behind the scenes. This is especially helpful from the Graham Williams era on. Behind-the-scenes difficulties were reflected on screen either as metaphorical commentary or in restrictions and production chaos. If a story isn’t making itself heard, making itself clear, see if there was something going on with the show’s production.

I am very happy that I have completed this journey. Part of me is sad that there is nothing in the classic series that will be completely new. Even missing episodes I am somewhat familiar with. That doesn’t mean I don’t eagerly await new discoveries. But closing out this (long) chapter of Doctor Who is a bit sad.

But I would be happy to go again, to go once more to that scrap yard at the end of Totters Lane. To go with two curious school teachers to investigate an unearthly child who lives with her grandfather.

To another time. To another world.

To another Doctor, always running, always changing.

Always standing in the shadows between the light and the dark.

Onward

As I mentioned in my previous post, this isn’t quite over yet. The BBC Wales series stretches before me, but before I get there I feel the need to set the groundwork. Again, the Wilderness Properties were the evolutionary experiments that ushered Doctor Who into the modern era. As much as I loved the McCoy era, they were still struggling with the largely unbroken production methods from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The Wilderness Years gave everyone an opportunity to re-approach the show, not necessarily on a conceptual level (although that did happen) but on the level of craft. There was a debate in the New Adventures era: Rad vs. Trad, which basically came down to radical reinvention or traditional Doctor Who storytelling. Since I have largely determined there is no such thing as trad, since it is largely a fan construction out of a late-70s, early 80s approach to Doctor Who, rad seems like the necessary experiment to bring to the show. Again, Doctor Who seems to work best when it struggles and chooses to evolve, not when it tries to recreate successful formulas from the past.

In the next few weeks and months I will be giving one last voice to Andrew Cartmel as script editor. I was intrigued by seasons 24 – 26, and I want to see what he would have done in season 27. So I’m starting with Big Finish’s The Lost Stories from that era. Even though they have 20+ years of developmental history to them, they should give some indication of where the show was going.

After that, I will be reading the novels. I don’t know if I will read all of them; I’m still trying to decide that, but since I believe the development of new Doctor Who came directly from the novels, I want to pay a bit of attention to what they were doing. This may be a bit of a struggle when classes start back up, but I’m going to give it a shot. The first leg of the journey is over. The second leg is just beginning.

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