This article was originally published in the 2011-2012 academic year.
And so, Saturday 1st October was the day that marked the end of the latest series of Britain’s best loved science fiction programme, Doctor Who (and the day I was left wondering what on earth I’m going to watch on telly now!?). While the quality of the most recent episodes is up for debate – something I’ll get into later – it’s impossible to deny the success that the programme has seen throughout its nearly fifty year run. From its rise in 1963 and fall in 1989 to its second coming in 2005 (not forgetting the failed attempt to bring it back in 1996 with a television movie), over the years it’s been a huge part of British culture as well as one of the BBC’s flagship shows. With it now appealing to people all across the globe on a scale that would have been unimaginable when it first started off, the question to ask is – what has kept it going all this time whilst other shows have crashed and burned in a season or two?
After all, on paper, the premise of the show is a bit of an obscure one. A 900 year old alien travelling through time and space in a 1960s police box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – it sounds like something you might expect someone to come up with when they’re a little bit inebriated, and yet it works. While I haven’t really ever indulged in the older series, having only discovered my inner Whovian during the David Tennant years, it’s a format that evidently works in whatever time it is set due to the legion of fans the show has – both old and new, of all ages. So what is it that makes Doctor Who so timeless? One possible explanation is its apparent ability to defy genre every now and again. Though of course it will always be a sci-fi series at heart (and even when genre is defied, the resolutions tend to be filled with what can only be described as ‘technobabble’), it frequently dips into the realms of comedy – be it through witty one-liners or full blown storylines based on farce – and it can also be a very hard hitting drama (I’m sure more than a few tears were shed across the country during Rose Tyler’s exit in the Series 2 finale, or perhaps even more so, during David Tennant’s lap of honour in his final story “The End of Time”). Who said variety was dead, eh?
Doctor Who’s premise also allows it to be an absolutely massive playground for the imagination where basically anything can happen. Having all of time and space at your fingertips means you can delve into famous historical events, blast off to another planet or fictional future, or even mess with the fabrics of the universe itself. And let’s not forget the wealth of possibilities for monsters, which for many are the highlight of the show. Daleks, Cybermen, The Master, and – more recently – the Weeping Angels and the Silence have become series stalwarts, and these are merely the tip of the iceberg of what could be thought up.
The problem with this ‘endless possibilities’ approach though is that things can sometimes get a little too complex or a little too unbelievable, and this is where the series has arguably lost its way slightly as of late. The most current series is the biggest culprit of this, throwing the viewer in at the deep end within the first ten minutes of the opening episode, then hurling plot twists and questions at them until the resolution thirteen episodes later – one which, if I’m honest, I thought was horribly underwhelming. And yet despite feeling let down, I still adore the show. It seems our relationship with Doctor Who is one of love and hate – when it’s good, it’s one of the most entertaining things on TV, but when it’s bad, it’s crushingly disappointing because we know the standards that it is capable of.
Despite this, I think what ultimately keeps Doctor Who going is its ability to reinvent itself, a bit like the Time Lord’s very own regeneration process. With each new Doctor and each new production team comes a new atmosphere, always feeling familiar but constantly feeling fresh (though admittedly it may need a break every so often if the decline in quality leading to its cancellation in 1989 is anything to go by). Not everyone will approve of the choices that are made, but if nothing else it keeps the formula from growing stale – and as long as Doctor Who can be kept relevant, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the end of this particular time travelling adventure any time soon.
Now, has anybody seen my fez…?