Public Call: The Democratisations and Contradictions of a Time-Travelling Icon

By Matt Hills
26th July 2005

Doctor Who 2005-style came and went this summer. The cult-programme-turned-BBC-Wales-production materialised back on Saturday nights – The Guardian’s robust editorial comment from January 4th 1982 belatedly being responded to – and was aimed squarely for a family audience of scared kids and entertained parents. One could almost be forgiven for wondering if the clocks had gone back a few decades. But this wasn’t time-travel en masse. Nor was it cosy nostalgia. Rather more strangely, this development represented Doctor Who fandom invading the hallowed centres of British media power and production.

According to what has already become fan lore, Doctor Who was largely re-commissioned by the BBC on the basis that they wanted Russell T. Davies working for them. And Russell Davies, creator of Queer as F**k, wanted to write Doctor Who, being a massive fan of the original series. As the project gathered pace, other fans were recruited to write for the show: The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, acclaimed playwright Robert Shearman, and Press Gang/Coupling’s Steven Moffatt. And eventually it even transpired that a life-long fan would become the tenth Doctor, as David Tennant took over from arch-thesp Christopher Eccleston at the close of 'series one'. This was TV made by fans, written by fans, and starring a fan who was initially inspired to become an actor thanks to his love of Blake’s Seven and Doctor Who. It would go on to be reviewed by journalist-fans and analysed by academic-fans.

An icon of British TV ever since it appeared on 23rd November 1963 had thus come back from the graveyards of UK Gold repeats and DVD sell-throughs. The first new episode ‘Rose’ was very much a knowing, loving recreation of the series’ seventies iconography, with shop window dummies coming to life, and consumerist modernity turning upon itself. But it was not simply a recreation. The fans who had taken over didn’t just want to recreate their own fond memories of childhood scares. Their mission carried a further charge: they wanted to make their nostalgia flesh, re-animate it and turn it into something recognisably of the moment but also redolent of former glories. In short, this was television designed to connect: to unite children and adults, to bridge usually distinct demographics, to bring together male and female viewers, to connect past and present. This was the cleverest trick of all: a ‘brand’ with an established recognition-factor being carefully made to look like it always did on the surface, and yet at the same time being radically re-tooled behind those infamous 'police ‘public call’ box' doors.

Daleks that look like proper sink-plunger-et-al Daleks, not CGI reimaginings; a police box TARDIS despite the fact that police boxes no longer bespeak ‘the contemporary everyday’; a mysterious Time Lord and his younger female companion. So far, so 1963. But then the industry updatings and zeitgeist reworkings start to show through: the first new episode is named after Billie Piper’s shop assistant character, and it is she who finally saves the day both here and at the series’ end. The series might still be Doctor Who after its shape-shifting male lead, but in this Russell T. Davies’ version the Doctor is not always omnipotently all-conquering. Quite to the contrary, this version of the Time Lord hero is one who inspires ordinary men and women to act and take control of their destinies, whether it is a journalist from the year 200,000, a servant girl from the 1860s, or Rose Tyler (Piper). The ninth Doctor, as played by Eccleston, is less of a magical, liberal-humanist solution for the ills of the universe, and more of an agent-provocateur (who also occasionally benefits from the odd deus ex machine when the moral going gets too tough). By inspiring everyman and everywoman, this hero doesn’t simply bear arms or talk monsters to their doom: he makes a difference by inspiring the hope that a difference can be made. The choice isn’t between action or words, brain or brawn, but between optimism and fatalism. And this Doctor always brings hope, even – or especially – when he has no weapons and no plan.

Traces of other times and places are threaded through this sci-fi action adventure, as the contemporary world and its politics are refracted through the writing of Davies, Shearman and Moffatt. The Daleks, for instance, seem to have caught a bad case of religious fundamentalism, their Emperor being a ‘God’, while they chant against blasphemers (there are also perhaps slight hints of His Dark Materials here). And the Doctor has fought on behalf of many other alien races in a fatal ‘Time War’ which has destroyed his people. Although lurking in the background for much of the series, this is a War-shadowed incarnation: a survivor wracked by guilt. And if religious fundamentalist, war-mongering Daleks aren’t enough to resonate with the current climate, then Russell T Davies also managed to pull off the unusual feat of featuring aliens taking over Downing Street and faking 'massive weapons of destruction' which could be deployed 'in 45 seconds' – and this in a story broadcast during the 2005 election campaign. There was no shortage of audacity on show here – yet it was wrapped in a recognisable brand that was itself enclosed in the trappings of right-now mainstream TV: fast-paced, sharply-edited stories all carrying a human, emotional core to them, as well as an easy-to-sell high-concept tagline: ‘aliens invade Downing Street’; ‘The Doctor is trapped in the Big Brother house’; ‘Daleks!’.

And this reimagining was very precisely designed to show what the series format could do, while never straying too far from ‘mainstream’ sensibilities: start in the present day, go to the far future (memo to production team: prove we can do decent special effects), then hop back to BBC period-drama production values (memo: chuck in Charles Dickens on a faux ‘educational’ remit), before quickly leaping back to the present day (memo: phew!). This was Doctor Who seemingly drawn up by a finely-tuned committee of industry-super-savvy folk. It even brought the Daleks back mid-season and end-of-season in order to guarantee second and third waves of publicity once the initial launch hype had died away. Again: Who by industry committee?

Except it wasn’t. It was the masterplan of one Russell T Davies, and he was determined to be all things to all people. He wrote fan-pleasing columns for the long-term faithful in Doctor Who Magazine, then dissed fans who’d watched the Internet-leaked version of ‘Rose’ (which was to all extents and purposes the transmitted version, bar some obtrusive incidental music which online fans complained bitterly about… and which was mysteriously absent from the broadcast version). He told fans that their baby was safe in his hands, and then told ‘mainstream’ audiences that this wasn’t a show just for geeks any more. He built his first 13-part series around the Time War back-story, knowing that it would especially intrigue fans, and then left major parts of this out of his pitch document to the BBC, apparently not wanting to alienate BBC bosses who might otherwise mutter ‘oooh, it all looks a bit fan-boy chic, Russell’. The fans may have taken over, but they have had to be careful when and where to speak their special languages,and just when to embrace their arcane knowledge of all things ‘Whovian’.

Davies’s democratising masterplan was about more than reinventing the family audience in the face of industry ‘wisdom’ that such a thing didn’t exist in the multi-channel, digital marketplace. And it was never reducible to a ‘gay agenda’, despite the wearisome bleating of certain sections of fandom who seemed not to have heard the word ‘homophobic’. This masterplan was about the ultimate cross-over: it was about keeping fans, industry, and the TV ‘mass audience’ on-side, and about giving each a voice in the process. It was about doing what the Doctor has to do constantly in Davies’s scripts: inspiring a sense that the supposedly impossible can be achieved.

Anti-weapons of mass destruction commentary during the election – we can do that for you.

Re-animated corpses on the rampage at 7pm on Saturday telly – we can do that for you, but go easy on the facial make-up.

A bisexual character who flirts with anything that moves – yep, we’ll squeeze that in, but you’ll have to wait until episodes nine and ten.

And it was in these later instalments – ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’ – that some of most astonishing British TV for some years took shape. And I say this not just as a fan, but also as a TV scholar. Because in these episodes, Steven Moffatt took Davies’s basic story outlines and created scripts which didn’t just do ‘subtext’, they took the whole notion of subtext and played with it until it became almost absurdly, exaggeratedly out in the open. Dancing becomes Moffatt’s chosen metaphor for sexual relationships – and we are told that bisexual or omnisexual Captain Jack (John Barrowman) likes to dance with as wide a variety of alien races as possible. The Doctor guardedly admits to having ‘danced’ in the past, and Rose remarks that 'the world doesn’t end because the Doctor dances'.

The original series had been curiously asexual in its outlook – partly due to its target audience – but this time around things were to be very different. Through the figure of Captain Jack, the series said that it was fine to be attracted to all sorts of genders and all sort of alien species, although it never quite came right out and shouted ‘look, here’s a blatantly bisexual character in a prime-time family entertainment show, and he isn’t some cheap, camp figure of fun, he’s just one of the heroes’. Fantastically, there didn’t appear to be any kind of tabloid backlash to this brave character creation and writing, perhaps because the story’s patriot-cheering World War Two setting and Moffatt’s writing skills had quite simply stunned tabloid telly critics into submission. Doctor Who had never before been this alive, this thoroughly life-affirming, and this audacious. It took the chance, steered as close to the wind as possible, and got clean away with it. Just this once.

Here, then, was the true democratising core of the new series: wearing all its badges on its lapels, it proclaimed that people should aspire to be whatever was true to their sense of self. They should aspire to be respected by others, and show that same respect. They should aspire to make a difference and to inspire others to do the same. There was a radical politics of acceptance and agency at work somewhere here, not too far buried under all the monsters and special effects.

The Doctor may have been unsure whether homeless children stealing bourgeois families’ food in the war-torn London of the Blitz resembled 'a West End musical' or 'Marxism in action', but this name check didn’t seem so very accidental. For after dealing with animated shop window dummies, the Doctor has done battle with a plastic-surgery-addled crone wanting to finance her habit, and the Slitheen, who are a family of ruthless sales-people rather than a marauding species. Capital – variously personified – is a repeated enemy of Eccleston’s Doctor, and so too is religion, banned on Platform One in ‘The End of The World’ and hideously figured by the Daleks. In place of religious ‘adherents’, Russell Davies even throws in a punning reference to the work of arch-rationalist and pro-Enlightenment establishment figure Richard Dawkins, calling one lot of card-board cut-out stock villains – you know they are evil because they wear black cloaks and have clawed hands – the ‘Adherents of the Repeated Meme’.

But let’s not get too carried away with sentiments of democratisation and progressive cultural politics. There are still some very real, material limits to all of this, not the least of which is that Doctor Who is still, first and foremost, a brand owned by the BBC and policed by BBC Wales and their subcontracted security staff – an interesting wrinkle this, since it seems to technically absolve the BBC of responsibility for the actions of those hired in their name. And when you are being (quite frankly) bullied and harassed by nameless, lumbering men with walkie-talkies and state-of-the-art crew cuts for the crime of doing nothing other than occupying public space, or indeed your own place of work in Cardiff, it is painful to be struck by the grave disjunction between this crass use of force in the name of the BBC’s cultural power and prestige as an institution, and the ideals of Doctor Who.

The Doctor stands for much that is good, and the production team who have brought this 2005 vision to life deserve every insider industry award they win, and every career advancement they receive. Christopher Eccleston has been a fan’s dream, and is undoubtedly the greatest actor ever to play the role (yet). But rather than writing and performing anti-capitalist fables, those at the BBC and BBC Wales might also like to reflect – just this once – on the way that capital distorts what they do. It is in order to ‘protect a brand’ and ‘maximise publicity’ that fans attempting to watch filming (and in no sense interfering with its proceedings) have been repeatedly harassed and hounded – and I have heard this type of tale many times, as well as experiencing it first-hand. And it was to ‘protect a brand’ that fans were labelled extremists and sad cases in newspaper coverage when ‘Rose’ prematurely found its way onto the Internet, and when even the show’s star seemed to have been misled as to the near-finished status of the leaked edit. Negative fan stereotypes are, it would seem, never far away when they are needed to prop up the power and legitimacy of the BBC as a brand/copyright-owner rather than as a public servant.

For all of its glories and all of its successes, it is hard indeed to see this 2005 version of Doctor Who as truly carrying the original’s spirit of public service TV. Instead, one gets a sense of the BBC excitedly and cynically going all-out to win a 'time war' all of their own – one with ITV over Saturday night audience shares and ratings. The family audience may have been re-composed, almost Lazarus-like, but never mind that: the BBC as a brand has been protected by its last-minute recourse to an old favourite, a programme which stands for old-school quality drama rather than celebrity-led tackiness, and which presumes to satirise and lambast Big Brother even while seeking the same publicity, the same blanket promotion, parlaying the same merchandising spin-off opportunities, and being marked by the same audience-seeking crescendo of desperation. There is a public call here, but it is a highly contradictory one, since it calls up the public simultaneously as a commodity to be fought over and prized, as a series of consumers to be targeted, and as an audience for popular, cutting-edge, even radicalised, democratising TV art. And not even a Time Lord, ever-regeneratable and always new, like capitalism’s finest or most emblematic of products, can escape these contradictions.

Matt Hills is a Senior Lecturer in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. As well as being a life-long DOCTOR WHO fan he is the author of Fan Cultures (Routledge 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum 2005) and How to do things with Cultural Theory (Hodder Arnold 2005).
Most recently, he has contributed to 'Fan Studies' special issues of the journals Spectator and American Behavioral Scientist.