Giving it a little push – Reviewing Regeneration by D.G. Saunders

Image Credit: Archives New Zealand (CC BY 2.0Flickr)

Image Description: Jon Pertwee

By Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who has been running for so long that dividing it into periods is an essential prerequisite before any serious discussion of it. There are established conventions for doing so – whether by lead actor, production team or some combination of both. D.G. Saunders – Daniel Saunders, sometime contributor to Tides and former president of the Oxford Doctor Who Society – recognises that this is a very general way of proceeding and instead proposes division by ‘style’. By this he means thematic blocs broadly associated with script editors, but which acknowledge that television is a collaborative medium and that such divisions are inevitably ragged.

Early Doctor Who, churning out weekly episodes almost all year round, went through a number of thematic shifts and Daniel charts them well. For example, his first thematic unit is the first production block, 100,000BC [An Unearthly Child] in 1963 to The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964, marked by consciousness of Doctor Who as a voyage of cultural discovery. There, the TARDIS travellers keep facing antagonists who are not necessarily evil for their own sakes, but are the products of cultures very different from those of Ian and Barbara and the viewers, whether cave people, Daleks, Aztecs or Sensorites. Nevertheless during this first year, the success of the Daleks contributes to a clash between public expectation of ‘monsters’ and the series’ liberal rationalist desire for empathy over xenophobia which Daniel recognises is never entirely successfully resolved. The first story editor, David Whitaker, establishes (between drafts of the first episode, Daniel suggests) and then maintains a line in which the Doctor and friends are witnesses to history and can’t change it. Whitaker succeeds in carrying it over into 1965’s The Crusade, commissioned by his successor Dennis Spooner and thus part of Daniel’s second period, even as surrounding stories rewrite many of Whitaker’s rules.

These early chapters establish a structure maintained for the rest of the book, under subheadings Behind the Scenes, Story Type, the Doctor, the Companions, Villains and Monsters, and Time Lords. The latter subheading feels anachronistic when discussing 1960s stories, and perhaps ‘The Doctor’s People and Origins’ might have been better until the Rubicon of The War Games was crossed, but there is also an argument for consistency. Conventional labels are questioned, with Daniel making a strong case against the ‘base under siege’ as the defining characteristic of the stories from late 1966 to mid-1968.

Eras are treated through the same structure, but not all of Daniel’s eras are equally internally consistent. Some feel more authored than others, whether the cumulative but measured evolution of Daniel’s sixth period (‘TV Action’, Terror of the Autons in 1971 to the end of Robot in 1975) or the drive of script editor Christopher H. Bidmead and initially producer John Nathan-Turner towards a Doctor Who that championed the scientific method and empiricism over mysticism and myth in Daniel’s ninth era (‘Hard Science’, 1980’s The Leisure Hive to Castrovalva in 1982). In other cases, periodisation is revealing of improvisation. The fourth period, ‘A Carnival of Monsters’, covers the three years between 1966’s The Savages  and The War Games. It begins with Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis writing out the companions they inherited, Steven and Dodo; replacing them with the more firmly grounded and explicitly (young) ‘adult’ Ben and Polly, and refashioning William Hartnell’s Doctor into a more proactive figure; only for the production to achieve the bigger prize of replacing Hartnell with Patrick Troughton. The development of Troughton’s Doctor had consequences for Ben and Polly, including the rise of the Doctor’s new foil Jamie. Daniel’s insights include observing the displacement in Troughton’s final year of the Doctor’s role as the focus of science and intelligence onto companion Zoe. 

Another era where creative direction became reactive rather than proactive appears to be Daniel’s tenth period, ‘Continuity and Violence’, which is bounded by Four to Doomsday in 1982 and Time and the Rani in 1987, where the success of Earthshock influenced the dominance by 1984 of pessimistic action tales only intensified thereafter by the success of The Caves of Androzani that same year. Daniel notes that the recklessly innocent Fifth Doctor becomes increasingly tetchy and sarcastic, trends which will explode into the moodier, often callous Sixth Doctor. The programme asks questions of its own morality which it is not capable of answering.

Most of Doctor Who, though, lies somewhere in-between these extremes, at least in the twentieth century. Guidelines set down by a producer are open to creative interpretation, as happens under Graham Williams, whose period as producer largely corresponds with Daniel’s eighth chapter, imaginatively dubbed ‘Myth Making and Merrymaking’. Under Williams’s predecessor Philip Hinchcliffe, Doctor Who had settled for exploring the psychological need for the mythic through borrowing from Gothic literature and film. Williams and his collaborators took Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who as a starting point, took up the notes that they should avoid the overt horror of the previous era, and in Daniel’s eyes went straight for building up Doctor Who as a mythology in its own right. For Daniel, this period is most successful on its own terms, and not when co-opting other mythologies as in the two Greek homages Underworld and The Horns of Nimon.

Daniel is interested in how the programme’s different creators treat the Doctor’s character traits over time. The Doctor could be interpreted as poised between explorer and scientist, but Daniel finds that under Russell T Davies both are eclipsed by ‘tourist’; in The Impossible Planet, the Doctor even exclaims that there are some points outside the TARDIS’s knowledge where she shouldn’t go, although this echoes a similar line in the much earlier Frontios. This made me wonder how far exploration was connected in Davies’s mind with the ‘pioneers’ of his 2003 pitch document – sufficiently important to merit one of Daniel’s few footnotes – and whether this in turn failed to be developed in the expected celebratory direction because of the explicit association that the pioneer mentality has with colonialism, touched upon in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and further developed in Planet of the Ood. Daniel also recognises that the presentation of the Doctor as a scientist, and the programme as pro-science, can itself have uncomfortable implications, with series and lead character sometimes erring towards support, however qualified, for government by unaccountable technocratic elites, especially when Christopher H. Bidmead was script editor for the 1980/81 season.

There is potential for another edition, and not only because Daniel finished the book before Series Twelve was broadcast, leaving his analysis of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who feeling very provisional. A book about style could say more about design choices; while cross-fertilisation between Doctor Who costumes and those of other BBC series is mentioned, especially in Graham Williams’s producership where costume recycling is often at its most obvious, the book could also discuss attestable signatures such as those of designers Ed Thomas or especially Michael Pickwoad. Costume designer Barbara Kidd was involved in comparable mid-Doctor reinventions for Jon Pertwee, as he shed his uniform red jacket for a series of different coloured jackets to suit the story’s colour palette from Frontier in Space, and Matt Smith, who adopts a more Edwardian look than before from The Bells of Saint John onwards. There are some valuable observations on performance, though, with Tom Baker’s interpretation of the Doctor in the Graham Williams period drawing inspiration, Daniel observes, from Eric Morecambe and both Harpo and Groucho Marx.

Iconography is by no means neglected. The use of recurring monsters and villains as symbols which affirm that the viewer is still watching Doctor Who and which say something about the programme is commented upon several times. Examples include the mid-1980s, when Cybermen gain previously unsuspected powers of time travel. It is both as if they need to keep up with the Daleks and so can bear witness to the Doctor’s apparent universal fame, just as Doctor Who fan activity was spreading worldwide; and the 2010s, when the appearance of Daleks and Cybermen was used to build tension by exploiting both their image and a shared viewing memory of their earlier adventures. Indeed, when discussing the 2010s Daniel argued that the programme was most interested in new monsters which were effective by design alone, with neither the Silents nor the Whispermen having much direct explanation for their appearance nor their motivation in the plot. 

Daniel’s analysis of Series Eleven is useful as an examination of roads travelled upon but then left; the possibility of a romantic relationship between Yaz and Ryan suggested in Rosa and elsewhere is more present than the earlier potential for a love affair between Adric and Nyssa noticed by Daniel in The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, but abandoned thereafter as the series backed away from emotional intelligence. It’s difficult to say how far Daniel’s interpretation of Chris Chibnall’s showrunning as a search for a blank slate for Doctor Who stands after Series Twelve, but I’d venture that the increased reliance on elements from the programme’s history probably wouldn’t be depicted as a U-turn.

There’s much to enjoy and much to question in Regeneration; it’s an unjustly neglected book. Its plain blue cover undersells its potency as a one-volume exploration of how and why fan criticism has periodised Doctor Who, and how successive production teams have launched, maintained or revived the series as an effective storytelling machine while negotiating the competing gravitational pulls of audience expectations, professional requirements, and Doctor Who’s own increasingly complicated mythology.

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who by D.G. Saunders (March 2020) is currently available at www.lulu.com, priced £15.00

Tides 47 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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