Kim Newman, Doctor Who. London: BFI publishing, 2005.
My rating: ***
Kim Newman is a well-known and prolific author of genre novels, overviews on cult and horror film and TV and a reviewer for the film magazine Empire.
This book, an entry in the excellent BFI TV classics series, is an enjoyable if sometimes hastily written, short handbook. It manages to provide a nicely opinionated overview of ‘classic’ Doctor Who with a few references to the new post 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.
There’s no strong argument unifying the book but there are a number of thought provoking tidbits, a few of which I will dip into below.
It is good to see Newman confirm my own long held prejudice that from ‘1963 to K9, Doctor Who was important and from 1977 to 1989 it wasn’t.’ (p. 7) Like Newman, I stopped watching not long after the introduction of K9, the metal robot dog, which Tom Baker would kick in frustration behind the scenes. I didn’t mind K9 so much as Baker’s increasing tendency to treat proceedings as all a bit of a joke. I was more interested in the serious science fiction offerings of the Troughton and Jon Pertwee eras. After around 1977, as Newman says, the series degenerated into failed comedy, pantomime and self-referential fan-fiction.
Newman also provides a number of other insightful observations. For example, in relation to the fixed (and ghastly) costumes of the later Doctor Who. These costumes he describes as a ‘comic-book invention … unsustainable in live-action where audiences wonder if the hero is wearing the same, never cleaned, never-worn-out clothes for years on end’ (p. 97) The earlier Doctors if they had a certain style (ie Jon Pertwee’s Carnaby St Edwardian style) they still had different sets of clothes to their wardrobe.
I also enjoyed Newman’s remark in relation to Who merchandising that it became difficult to be scared of monsters like the daleks that had been turned into soft toys. (Speaking of soft toys, there is an excellent blog at Live Journal titled Who_knits: Time and Double Pointed Needles in Space which details a variety of Dr. Who knitting projects. And this is by no means the only Dr. Who knitting site on the net.)
Newman also notes with a surprising ambivalence for someone who has been involved in cult genre and fandom for so long, ‘in the 1960s, fictional events were not obsessively covered by the national press. Now no popular television drama can surprise audiences by writing out a character through murder, marriage or act of God (or have them outed as gay or a serial killer) without a leak making the front page of the tabloids’ (p. 40) He is discussing here the lack of fanfare that heralded the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.
It would have been interesting to see some further elaboration on why these changes have occurred. My own view is that this shift marks a welcome move away from the hide-bound stranglehold of the scientific and Hegelian world view where only the rational and the empirically visible had any value, returning to a much earlier view that there is more to existence than what we can see immediately before our eyes. This earlier view is described by French historian Jacques Le Goff in his book The Medieval Imagination. It is a view which didn’t draw a rigid division between the fictional and the non-fictional.
Another observation I thoroughly approved of was Newman’s comment about the propensity of American series not to understand that ‘viewers who enjoyed the adventures, didn’t want to listen to whining characters who only wanted to get home and lead boring lives’ (p. 20). The Wizard of Oz has long been an exemplary fan disappointment on this front – as was its ending – ‘it was all just a dream’, a generic resolution universally loathed by fan viewers whenever it appears in a series or film.
Unfortunately, Doctor Who was not entirely exempt from this irritating hankering after home theme. One of the later companions, Tegan, was particularly tedious in this respect. This is something that Russell T. Davies (a hater of The Wizard of Oz ending) has deliberately gone out of his way to counter in the new series of Doctor Who – even if I do find these new outings problematic on a large number of other fronts. The Outland Institute blog very aptly describes the new series as ‘Neighbours in Space’.
Also of interest in this book, is Newman’s broad knowledge of other cult and genre television which he is able to reference in his discussions which goes a long way to contextualising Doctor Who in the context of other contemporaneous cult TV and film.