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Sunday, 28 January 2018

What's Missing?: Doctor Who

This is the beginning of a new blog series I've decided to dub "What's Missing?". Here, I look at stories from multiple media and look at how, over time, those stories may have lost something that originally made them iconic or helped them stand out from the crowd. This week, it's a classic of the science fiction genre: Doctor Who.

For those not in the know, Doctor Who is a science fiction series following the adventures of the Doctor, an alien being whose TARDIS machine is capable of space-time travel. Together with a changing roster of companions (human, alien and otherwise) and a changing set of actors (and now actresses) taking on the role, the Doctor becomes mixed up in more conflicts than any one world's history could comfortably accommodate. Originally running from 1963 to 1989, then successfully reviving in 2005 to the present day, the series is one of the longest (continuous and extant) drama series in television history.

The series' biggest shift, arguably, was with its 2005 revival. It saw classic monsters revived in new ways, and for its first series experimentation with monster and alien concepts comparable with the era of Philip Hinchcliff during the mid-1970s. But as the series has continued and gone from strength to strength, something's become apparent. While it still has moral messages and complex characters at its core, something else Doctor Who once reveled in is gone; commentary. For these comparisons, I'm taking three stories from the series' original run and comparing them with the revived series; The Daleks, The Green Death, and The Talons of Weng Chiang.

The Daleks (1963-64) is notable for introducing the series' most recognisable alien nemesis, the titular menace which has endured multiple exterminations and a temporal war. But what were they actually about? Their writer Terry Nation created the Daleks out of two prevalent ideas in the 1960s; the threat of nuclear war, and the legacy of the Nazi regime in Europe. The setting of The Daleks, where neutron bombs have turned most of the planet into a petrified wasteland. The Daleks' own attitudes, seeing all other races as either a threat or inferior and thus disposable, reflect the core Nazi ideologies of superiority and racial purity. Even without knowledge of these, The Daleks makes bleak watching for a modern viewer.

The Green Death (1973) reflects a different mood. It covers several different issues of the day; the possibilities of green energy, the dangers of new and untested energy sources, concerns about corporate power and their influence on politics, and labour issues. Global Chemicals acts as the focal point for all of these; through the sci-fi veneer of Global Chemicals's new energy process creating a poisonous mutagen which turns a population of maggots into giant killers, The Green Death tells a cautionary tale about corporate power gone mad. Even as the byproducts of their "clean" energy process literally start to swarm, Global Chemicals use their political muscle to have the problem hushed up. In these days of the suspicious dealings by politicians and questions about the states of private companies, The Green Death remains relevant even after some forty years.

The Talons of Weng Chiang has an interesting twist on its otherwise fairly conventional Gothic tale in the vein of The Phantom of the Opera and multiple Hammer classics. The character of Magnus Greel, posing as the eponymous Chinese deity, acts as a parallel to a phenomenon of the time. During the mid 1970s, several high-profile Nazi members were being located and brought for trial by a dedicated group of "Nazi hunters", many survivors of the regime's concentration camps. Greel's legacy as a war criminal with thousands of deaths on his hands who escaped through time mirrors how many Nazi soldiers and elites escaped to sympathetic countries like South America to hide from the Allied powers' retribution. His horrendous experiments, hinted at and partially seen in the serial, also reflect the terrible crimes of Nazi scientists such as Josef Mengele.

Now I'm not saying that the revived series doesn't do commentary like this. It's just changed its focus, and with the concept of overarching narratives dilutes it considerably. The two-part story The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People is an example of this. Taken on its own with excess drama put to one side, it's an unsettling take on modern labour issues, in addition to the question of personal identity. But that whole concept is somewhat undermined by the plot twist at the end, which yanks the viewer out of an thought-provoking self-contained narrative to throw them into a science fiction premise that - to me at least - seemed rather trite. You could say the revived series is less obvious about it, but to be honest the original series could be quite subtle about its themes. For every Silurians, there's an Inferno. For every Mutants, there's Seeds of Doom.

Now there are a number of factors which contribute to this, but the ones that leap to mind are runtime, themes, tastes, and audience. The runtime has changed drastically, with most single 45-minute episodes from the revived series equating to half or less than half an original story's length in the original series (except in the Colin Baker era, where it was a series of two-to-three part stories with episodes of that length). The series' themes also shifted from current events and issues to people-focused drama and focusing far more on the pseudo-mythical themes previous original series stories had dabbled in. Tastes also want more people stories and seem to move further away from reality, and when it does touch on reality it causes massive controversy where before it would be seen as commentary. And the audience has also shifted; while Doctor Who was always intended for children, it now seems to aim for evoke the child in us where before it reached out to children and adults alike (more towards teens to adults as the series went on).

Let me be perfectly clear. I'm not saying either series is necessarily better than the other. There are several original series stories that are just plain bad, and I very much enjoy some of the stories and monsters the revived series has produced (the Weeping Angels being one of my all-time favourite Doctor Who creations) The "What's Missing" series seeks only to show how something may have changed without many people noticing. On the surface, the two phases of Doctor Who are basically the same. But there is a different. Something missing, for better or worse. Now, let's go and find that old copy of The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, 42, The Doctor's Wife, The Crimson Horror or Thin Ice...or whichever your revival favourites are, and enjoy!

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