An article by William Shaw first published in The Tides of Time number 41, June 2018
THE ADDRESS TO CAMERA, OF COURSE, IS NOT A NEW TECHNIQUE. It’s all over the Hartnell era, and Tom Baker famously does it in The Face of Evil. There are echoes of it in Troughton’s famous monitor-peers (copied by Davison and McCoy, among others). It’s a technique to highlight the programme’s artifice, as well as emphasise the Doctor’s control over the medium — the monitor-peer in Paradise Towers is a classic McCoy wind-up, and the pre-Leela section of The Face of Evil, like much of the post-Sladen Baker years, is focused on its star’s imperiousness.
With all this precedent, it’s no surprise the technique should pop up in the Capaldi era, which got so much mileage out of updating the classics. What is surprising is that it should appear so liberally. Whether in the world-beating Listens, the messy and unsettled Pyramid at the End of the Worlds, or the flaccid and ill-conceived Before the Floods, Capaldi’s Doctor has addressed the camera across all the major tonal settings of Doctor Who, a spread of episodes so varied as to make the technique an era standard, deserving of analysis beyond its use in particular stories.
It’s a technique rooted in theatrical traditions, a version of the Aside in early modern theatre, or the direct addresses of Brechtian theatre, although the technique appears often enough in early film as to constitute its own precedent. (If nothing else, Oliver Hardy looks to camera often enough to encode this kind of media awareness into popular film comedy). In drama television, the address to camera had largely fallen out of favour before the Capaldi era arrived, though it was surprisingly prevalent in TV comedy in the years prior. Miranda addressed the camera constantly, and the explicitly mediated format of The Office and its copycats meant it was ubiquitous in shows such as Parks and Recreation.
This generic uncertainty, where the address to camera was simultaneously the stuff of Shakespeare and of sitcom, was perfect for the Doctor, who, while nominally a dramatic lead, has generally been more successfully cast from a comedic background. Capaldi’s delivery in Listen and Pyramid feels appropriate for Hamlet or King Lear, but both are counterbalanced with the absurd, be it a blowfish obsession or an electric guitar. It’s a generic uncertainty, in other words, that Doctor Who is very well-suited to exploiting. (For where this goes wrong, look no further than the groan-worthy ending to Before the Flood, an obnoxious cliché with nothing to counterbalance).
But Capaldi does more than simply soliloquise; he narrates. Listen has him brainstorming a Doctor Who monster so thoroughly as to terrify himself. Before the Flood gives him reheated Heinlein (the “bootstrap paradox” being named after Robert Heinlein’s 1941 novella By His Bootstraps). Pyramid at the End of the World sees him narrate another person’s story entirely. This coincides with a sharp increase in voiceover during this period, and unlike The Sound of Drums or The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor is not necessarily narrating his own experiences. The fable in Smile, the introduction to Heaven Sent, even the Star Trek parody at the beginning of Oxygen, none of them can be straightforwardly read as the Doctor’s experiences in the moment. They only make sense as embellishment and illustration; as narration. This comes to a head in Hell Bent, which not only has the Doctor diegetically narrating, but even lets him provide the soundtrack.
“Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.” Of course, this is partly a rewrite of “we’re all stories in the end.” But notice the new emphasis on ‘forgotten,’ implying a much more uncertain fate than before. (We also, notably, have a feminised alternative to stories in the form of songs, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Stories can be forgotten too, after all. Remember The Girl in the Fireplace? The Doctor doesn’t.
This, it seems, is a risk of storytelling. Never again will a single Doctor Who story be told as if it’s the only one. Having established, then, that narration carries a duty of care, what are the implications of making the Twelfth Doctor a storyteller?