Inside the TARDIS: James Chapman speaks about the first edition, 2006
This is an archive piece which I originally wrote for The Tides of Time, issue 32, in 2006. Tides is the magazine of the Oxford (University) Doctor Who Society, with which I have an association longer than I ever anticipated. Contents and the full issue as a pdf are available here.
The article was definitely written with my then view of a student audience in mind, hence the introductions and explanations aimed at new viewers of a revived Doctor Who. Biographical details and other contextual pieces are out of date.
All my life I’ve taken for granted that Doctor Who was an important cultural phenomenon; and there are a growing number of books around which not only take that for granted, but sing it from the rooftops. When the Oxford University History Society thinks it’s a good idea to have a meeting about Doctor Who, you feel the shades of the fans of twenty-five years ago – a time when fanzine letters columns were filled with fans wondering if the programme could ever be ‘intellectually respectable’ – materialising with vindication in the corners of the room.
James Chapman, the speaker, is senior lecturer in film and television history at the Open University, which is the kind of job which tempts this eighteenth-century historian to jump ship. His previous publications include Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s, Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film, and Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. It now seems practically inevitable that Chapman would turn his attention to Doctor Who, but until very recently, this was not the case.
Chapman’s talk concerned both the history of Doctor Who and Doctor Who’s treatment of history. He began by explicitly placing Doctor Who within his personal Anglo-British sense of heritage. In 1989, England lost the Ashes to Australia, and Doctor Who finished; in 2005, Doctor Who came back, and England regained the Ashes. From the part these iconic moments play in his personal mythology, he moved to discussing the history of the series’ production in the context of its fiction, and while for the sake of argument falling back on the usually received account of the programme’s origins, acknowledging the large contribution of Sydney Newman, he noed that the discussions which led to the creation of Doctor Who began many months before Sydney Newman arrived at the BBC.
According to Chapman, traditionally cultural history has regarded Doctor Who as a conservative programme, whether considered politically, socially or aesthetically. John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, published back in 1983, saw the programme’s narrative storytelling as conservative, and more recently work on science fiction television design has tended to dismiss Doctor Who as culturally conservative in that arena too. Chapman will argue in his book that this view is mistaken: he cited cases in the early 1970s where Doctor Who stories were commissioned with political issues in mind, such as ‘The Curse of Peladon’, ‘The Green Death’ and ‘The Monster of Peladon’.
Chapman ran through the different Doctors for the benefit of those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the series’s history, though given the numbers of people in the audience who were DocSoc members or on our mailing list, this was probably a minority. Troughton was described with the ‘cosmic hobo’ tag, though surprisingly Chapman said that he had been unable to find where this description originated: Steve Goddard, sitting next to me, was sure that it had appeared in one or other edition of Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s The Making of Doctor Who, and checking, he was right – page 31 of the 1976 edition.
Chapman, uncontroversially, places Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in the tradition of gentleman television heroes such as John Steed of The Avengers, and Adam Adamant. In passing, he remarked that the exile to Earth was nothing or little to do with the budget, as the budget per episode went up in 1970. Of Tom Baker, I’ve noted that in Chapman’s eyes he ‘bestrode’ the series, while Peter Davison was the ‘most heroic’ Doctor, in part because he lacked the ‘masculine authority’ of his immediate predecessors. After Davison, said Chapman, the turnover of Doctors came to resemble the recent leadership of the Conservative Party, and the BBC Archives for the period are still closed with the result that it’s difficult to gain an insight into what was going on. Colin Baker seemed to carry the can for falling ratings and general instability afflicting the series in the mid-1980s; the series had lost touch with a crucial part of its demographic, the young adult audience identified back in 1963 as Juke Box Jury watchers, instead gaining a preponderance of over-35s. The question of whether John Nathan-Turner was making the series for fans was raised, including Ian Levine’s involvement and the controversy over who exactly wrote ‘Attack of the Cybermen’.
Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, James Chapman thought, was fascinating, changing the Doctor into someone dark and manipulative with a grand design. This was difficult to analyse because of the absence of primary texts, and the inevitable selectivity of Andrew Cartmel’s recent memoirs has contributed to an already heavily mythologised version of the last years of the 1963-1989 series, comparable to the varying accounts of its origins.
Moving to some of the series’ broader themes, Chapman remarked that the most noticeable trends in the programme’s ratings in the 1960s are that audiences fell in summer, not whenever the programme ran an ‘historical’ story without science fiction elements. Chapman cited ‘The Aztecs’ as an example of the programme’s illustrating that the past is alien to the liberal humanist values espoused by Doctor Who and voiced, in this story, mainly by Barbara. The Doctor’s doctrine of non-interference as voiced in ‘The Aztecs’ – “You cannot change history! Not one line!” varies according to the writer, with Dennis Spooner and Donald Cotton both heavily qualifying John Lucarotti’s doctrine in order to allow the Doctor to shape events. In Cotton’s ‘The Myth Makers’, for example the Doctor initially dismisses the Trojan horse as a myth and refuses to suggest it.
Towards the end of William Hartnell’s time on the programme came ‘The Gunfighters’, which supposedly received the lowest audience figures ever. This wasn’t the case, but incoming producer Innes Lloyd preferred to make a Doctor Who that was dominated by monster-led science-fiction stories, leading to a narrowing-down of genres, and the rise of the Cybermen as a new race of enemies more frightening, in Chapman’s view, than the Daleks, whom he thinks children for the most part liked. The Cybermen represented mid-1960s apprehensions about a technocracy that would turn people into items of technology themselves.
Later periods of Doctor Who returned to the past, and in Peter Davison’s first year experimented with a return to the ‘pure historical’. Chapman argues that in ‘Black Orchid’ Doctor Who presented its audience with a proto-Gosford Park, a tale of social hypocrisy in the 1920s exploiting the territory of early 1980s films such as Chariots of Fire. For Chapman, Peter Davison was a heritage cinema Doctor. Showing a clip from ‘Black Orchid’ to illustrate his argument, Chapman commented that filming sporting events without professional sportsmen is difficult – during the cricket scenes in that story Peter Davison actually takes a wicket, and there is visible uncertainty among the cast about whether or not that should be a take. Sadly this attention to contemporary trends disappeared as the programme catered increasingly for a cult viewership later in the decade.
Chapman remarked that the new series seems to have returned Doctor Who, for the moment, to its successful phase of the 1960s and 1970s where it was able to simultaneously negotiate fluctuations in public taste and the prejudices of BBC senior management. As for its treatment of history, ‘The Empty Child’ embraced historical revisionism by undermining the myth of the Blitz. Its heroine is a young woman, Nancy, scavenging with a group of homeless children; the legend of community solidarity is subverted with their tales of abandonment and child abuse. The Doctor invokes the traditional myth of the Blitz in his speech to Nancy, but it is a long way from her experience.
This account is very much my reconstruction of James Chapman’s argument. I think the meeting was much enjoyed and James Chapman seemed to find it difficult to get out of St Peter’s, so many were the questions and observations. I anticipate that I will be nodding furiously a lot of the time when I get to read the book, but I’m looking forward to seeing what I disagree with as well.
Further comment awaits when I get round to reviewing the second edition!