Danil Ivanovich Kharms
There is no reason for Doctor Who to exist; but it is impossible for it not to.
In 1989, Doctor Who was an embarrassment to the BBC: the fossilised remains of a Reithean Saturday night edu-drama which an Imperial College student society had successfully turned into a cult. As long as it existed, there was no particular reason to cancel it; but once Michael Grade had pulled the plug, there was no particular reason to bring it back.
Superman and Spider-Man can be endlessly deconstructed and reimagined around a narrow set of tropes. Exploding planet; childless farmers; sick Auntie; radioactive spider; dead uncle; glowing rocks; teenage side-kick; Irene Adler; Sheriff of Nottingham.
Doctor Who can hardly be said to exist at all: its premise is so fluid that all fans can do is hallucinate minutiae about a lore that was never really real. The Doctor is a guy who travels in space and time. Except for the couple of seasons when he didn't.
"Doctor Who can be anything it wants to be" was a unique selling point in 1963: but an anthology series that can go from spoof Homer to camp Dan Dare to serious sixteenth century historical fiction in consecutive stories is a harder sell in the age of Netflix than it was in the days when your choice of viewing was the channel with the adverts or the channel without them
Why is there not a vast, interconnected shared universe of Doctor Who spin-offs, as big as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
If you stare at a blank sheet of paper for long enough you start to see patterns. We have been staring at Doctor Who for a very long time, and no very coherent pattern has yet emerged.
The Mandalorian is a Frankenstein series, fragments of lore stolen from dead movies, stitched together and reanimated: and yet it manages to be fully itself. The show knows that Sand People always ride single file to conceal their numbers, but the viewer doesn't have to. It stands on its own feet. Lone Wolf and Cub meets the Magnificent Seven with aliens.
Why isn't The Adventures of Nyssa a thing? Why can't that in-joke about Ace starting a charity for orphans when she got back from the Time War be spun out into an entire series? Why aren't Martha and Mickey saving the universe on a weekly basis?
Because no-one outside of a very narrow fan-elite has heard of these characters. Your Mum knows that Batman has a Butler called Alfred: she doesn't know that it was kind of implied in The End of Time that the Doctor's Mother was a weeping angel.
The Mandalorian and the Marvel Multiverse Phase 6 are constructed from pre-existing lore. Doctor Who does not, in the required sense, have any lore for us to work with.
(I don't know when the word "lore" was coined to mean "back-story, canon, and continuity". Some people think it comes from the World of Warcraft computer game. It is a very useful word and I propose to carry on using it.)
There have been four spin-offs from Doctor Who, and I am pretty sure you can only remember three of them. The Sarah-Jane Adventures was a vehicle for Elisabeth Sladen. And also some very decent child actors, but mostly Elisabeth Sladen. K-9 and Company, despite the title, was a vehicle for the same actor. Torchwood was a vehicle for John Barrowman, which means that we probably never have to watch it again. The Adventures of K-9, which you haven't seen and really, really don't want to was a vehicle for a piece of hardware. Bob Baker and Dave Martin didn't own the rights to the K-9 prop, but the BBC couldn't prevent John Leeson saying "affirmative" into a ring modulator. It may, for all I know, be canon and it may not have compared unfavourably with other Australian kid-friendly soft-cyberpunk soap operas of its day, but it has very little to do with Doctor Who.
"A strange lady and some schoolkids get into scrapes with space monsters" is an obviously good pitch for CBBC and if Lis Sladen is available you might as well cast her. Some episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures clearly had very strong connections to Doctor Who. Others, not so much. If you want to say "The Death of the Doctor is canon in the Doctor Who universe" then I certainly can't stop you. But I can't help thinking that if you were watching a quite good kids TV show mainly to find out what happened to Jo Grant after she sailed down the Amazon on her blue crystal, you may possibly need to take a long hard look at your life.
Torchwood was a piss-poor sci-fi show that had been cross-promoted -- at best seeded -- in Doctor Who. You can barely even call Army of Ghosts a backdoor pilot: all it actually had in common with Barrowman's sex-and-aliens travesty was that they both had the word Torchwood in them. "What if the Victorian science fascists in Season 2 of Doctor Who had the same name as some sexually incontinent Men in Black scavengers in a completely different series?" doesn't amount to a premise. Mentioning the word Torchwood in Doctor Who is a fair enough way of getting people to tune in to the new show -- and god knows, there was no other reason -- but it doesn't amount to an expansion of Doctor Who lore.
The Captain Jack who appears in the One With the Gas Masks was an interesting and appealing character; but he has very little to do with the immortal camp pantomime turn on BBC 3. This was before we knew about John Barrowman's zip fastener related issues.
But when Russell T Davies talks about spin-offs and a Doctor Who Universe, this is the kind of thing he seems to have in mind. He used Doctor Who to float ideas for unrelated programmes he'd quite like to have made. The one about the Time Travelling lady aviator; the one about the underdeveloped Doctor-clone played by Peter Davison's daughter for another; Billie Piper and, er, Noel Clarke running a parallel Torchwood on a parallel earth for a third. Poor David Tennant actually had to look into camera and pitch the title with a straight face. "Rose Tyler, Defender of the Earth and the Video Rangers".
In 1977, the BBC seem genuinely to have considered rehiring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter to do a series of Victorian sci-fi horror yarns: not because That Corner of the Whoniverse needed development, but because Jago and Litefoot were obviously funny characters who the viewers enjoyed.
That's what spin-off means. It occurs to someone that the snooty landlady from Man About The House, or the pretentious shrink from Cheers, could sustain a series on their own. I seem to remember that the one where Ronnie Barker's burglar from Porridge went straight, imaginatively called Going Straight, was quite funny.
Before the Great Hiatus, Doctor Who could be said to have existed as a kind of Heraclitian tradition.
William Hartnell might have been dead, but Terrence Dicks, Robert Holmes and the Doctor Who office were on hand to provide the illusion of continuity, though not, of course Continuity. Nicholas Courtney was not the only man on earth who could have played a comic English army officer. But he had been doing it for so long that he acted as a kind of golden thread from Survival back to Mission to the Unknown. There was still a torch of some kind that was capable of being passed. But once the axe fell and the dynasty dissolved what was left? A series without a lead actor, without a consistent supporting cast, without a setting or a plot; and increasingly without even a format.
But Doctor Who refused to die. When Virgin ran out of TV stories to turn into novellas it just continued to churn out novellas which had never been TV shows in the first place. The final script editor had had a vaguely interesting idea for a story arc (or as people called it in those pre Straczynski days, a masterplan) and some of that arc worked its way into some of the novellas. It didn't have much to do with the TV show, and it wasn't that original, but it was lore, and some people liked it.
Meanwhile some semi-pro fans started to hire actual ex-actors to read out pastiches of old Who scripts. Some people liked these, as well. (I did, for a while, before they overwhelmed me.) There are currently two hundred and seventy five of them, with twenty or thirty more coming out each week. For maybe six years, the Big Finish CDs and the Virgin Novels existed in more or less contented mutual contradiction. It would be a gross over simplification to say that Virgin was creating fiction and Big Finish was creating fan fiction, but I am going to say it anyway. Peter Darvill-Evans' writer's guidelines specifically prohibited writers from using lore as a jumping off point for stories. Yes, it would be possible to tell a spy story or a war story which just happened to have an old monster in it, but "What if Sgt Benton met a Draconian at Devils's End and the consequence was the Key of Time" was off limits.
This was the view that the production team invariably took at conventions when Doctor Who was still on the telly: no, we are not planning to "bring back" the Daleks, yes, if someone comes up with an excellent story which happens to have the Daleks in it, we might well use them again. The very first Big Finish disc said "What if Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy went on an adventure together" and kept being drawn into the orbit of questions like "What if Romana were President of the Time Lords?" and "What if Davros, or Omega, or some version of the Master did something that interests fans a good deal but not really anyone else?"
At the time of Trevor Baxter's death, Big Finish had published seventy Jago and Litefoot stories on CD.
Russell T Davies went down neither path. His reboot of Doctor Who was neither fan-friendly pastiche nor a hypothetical Season 27 that followed Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann down unexpected narrative pathways.
It would be tempting to say that he created a new thing that had little or nothing to do with Doctor Who. A cool but safe YA show about an asexual alpha male who had a succession of doomed courtly romances with impossible women. He told us that it was Doctor Who, and we believed him, because we desperately wanted it to be.
But maybe, just maybe, he chewed up forty years of Saturday evenings (and a few Tuesdays) and spat out the core concept.
He travels in time and space.
She's his human friend.
Everything else is up for grabs.
You could have sold the premise (of a time traveller and his platonic girl-friend) to the BBC even if Doctor Who had never existed. Hell, you could have sold the pitch without the premise because Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper made such beautiful sparks together.
It all comes down to the sparks. If not for Tom Baker's personal charisma, we would not be talking about Doctor Who today.
William Hague will never not be the little boy who stood up at Tory party conference and told Mrs Thatcher off for not being right wing enough. Chris Chibnall will never not be the little boy on Points of View telling Pip and Jane Baker precisely what he thought of Terror of the Vervoids.
He wasn't wrong: it was shite. After Tom Baker departed, Doctor Who became a zombie show, continuing because it had to continue, running on the fumes of old memories. The Cybermen are back. The Daleks are back. UNIT is not back, but it has been alluded to. A tolerably decent Roger Delgado impersonator is appearing in practically every story. Earthshock was pretty good and Kinda was very good and Caves of Androzani was very good indeed. But everything after Logopolis -- everything after Talons of Weng Chiang -- was a bonus.
Chris Chibnal grew up in the declining years. Peter Davison was "his Doctor"; it is those zombie years that he now seeks to revive. Doctor Who is like the Ur-Ru, the Muppet Jedi mystics from Dark Crystal, endlessly repeating formulas and rituals which no longer give the slightest comfort.
There is a card game called Flux in which the rules are endlessly redefined: the number of cards you draw, the number of cards you discard, the number of cards you may hold in your hand, the values of the cards and the end-game conditions: all are subject to change each time a card is played. I believe a game exists which takes this a stage further: the rules consist of nothing but a set of conditions under which the players can redefine the rules.
Doctor Who doesn't even have a meta-rules. It is defined by the absence of a definition: the only thing which stays the same is the fact that it is always changing. The Doctor. Her companions. The format. The title sequence. The logo. The TARDIS (interior and exterior). The Sonic screwdriver. Not one thing about the show stays the same for more than three seasons.
Chibnall has admitted this. He has rewritten the lore to make it a feature. We no longer have a periodically regenerating main character, but infinite iterations of the main character spread throughout Time and Space. The Doctor can now be anyone; so the Doctor is now no-one. But perhaps he never was. When everybody's somebody then no-one's anybody.
What does it matter? Why do we care?
People on the nastier fringes of the internet (hereafter "Twitter") have taken to saying that the fault lies not in Jodie Whitaker's genitals, nor in her DNA, nor even in her pronouns. The problem with Jodie Whitaker is that she stands outside the Great Tradition.
If she had been worthy to occupy Saint Peter Davison's throne she would first have familiarised herself with two thousand years of Whovian dogma. She would have watched old episodes of Doctor Who and built her characterisation out of that. The worst people say say, in so many words, that her refusal to study the sacred scriptures is evidence of her feminist entitlement. Peter Capaldi, a man, knew that he had to know about the old Doctors before he could take up their mantle. Jodie Whittaker thought that just being a woman was good enough.
This, it goes without saying, is deeply offensive bullshit. There are a lot of deeply offensive bullshitters on Twitter.
But like most offensive bullshit, it contains an interesting grain of truth, if you are prepared to get your hands filthy rummaging through it.
If Doctor Who can no longer be said to exist as a format, a character, or a production office -- and if it never was a body of lore -- then in one sense all it can be is a text. Doctor Who can only be defined as everything which has ever been published under the banner of Doctor Who. The only way to play the role of Doctor Who is to watch other people playing the role of Doctor Who and follow them, round and round in ever decreasing circles until you finally disappear up your own canonicity.
William Hartnell was irascible. Patrick Troughton was eccentric. Jon Pertwee was patrician. Tom Baker was eccentric and patrician. Peter Davison was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a stick of celery. Colin Baker was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a pin on cat. The Fourteenth Doctor will have celery and a cat and an umbrella and rainbow braces and say "Fantastic" and "Fam" and "Jelly Baby". Jodie and Peter and Matt and Dave and Chris and Sly and Colin and Peter and Tom and Jon and Pat and Bill....
I am not at all sure I know what irascible means, but I am jolly sure William Hartnell was it. I suppose it means the same as crotchety. That is another word which no-one ever uses.
Colin Baker said that he watched videos of his predecessors , not with a view to copying them, but with a view to absorbing what he called their Doctor-ness. The Doctor-ness of the Doctor being, presumably "whatever the actors who have played him up to now have in common". The spot on the Venn Diagram where William Hartnell intersects with Tom Baker and Tom Baker intersects with Jon Pertwee. Theatricality, I suppose: a certain predilection for vaudeville and the wireless; a belief that you are a Legitimate Character Actor. Each time you add an actor, that intersection becomes smaller and smaller. The addition of an infinite number of Timeless Children takes us to a homeopathic level of dilution. What the Infinite Doctors have in common is a null-set; a mathematical point.
Jodie Whitaker's job is to say "Do you have any idea where those planets might be?" or "Hey Daleks! Over here!" in a convincing manner. Would she be better at this job if she had watched every single Tom Baker story before filming The Woman Who Fell To Earth? Is it clear that she would even do it differently?
Christopher Eccleston, by his own admission, didn't watch Doctor Who. Tom Baker didn't watch TV at all, even when he was in it. Matt Smith's persona clearly is influenced by that of his predecessors, particularly Hartnell and Troughton, but he is most like the Doctor when he is most like Matt Smith. Jon Pertwee was a radio star and reputedly asked Barry Letts which of his six hundred funny voices he ought to use. Barry Letts told him to play it like himself.
What about the people who write the words for her to say? Knowledge of the text clearly has more potential affect on a writer than it does on an actor. Someone who is "just a writer" asks "What if the Doctor met Van Gogh?" or "What if the Doctor went to India at the time of the petition?". Someone who is a Doctor Who writer says "What if there were a Dalek we could feel some human sympathy with?" or "What if the TARDIS were a person who the Doctor had a relationship with?" I don't think that lore-steeped scripts are necessarily better than those written in a vacuum: but the difference is there. Robert Holmes and even Douglas Adams didn't show much sign of caring what David Whitaker had said about the TARDIS and the Time Lords and the Daleks in the previous decade. They didn't particularly care what they themselves had said the previous week. Fans despaired; and yet the programmes was as good and successful as it has ever, ever, ever, ever been.
Fans, nasty and nice, have said that the Timeless Children amounts to a vandalisation of Doctor Who lore, which, in one sense, it definitely does. But only someone who cared about Doctor Who lore could have damaged it in that particular way. No-one but a fan boy would think it was fun to make the Morbius Doctors canon. No-one but a fanboy would know what "the Morbius Doctors" even meant.
Is the Archers written by an Archerphile who knows and cares who was staying at the Bull in October 1957? Or is it written by someone with a knack for coming up with soap opera storylines and then checked for consistency by someone who has listened to all 20,000 episodes? That approach makes sense to me: a writer writing stories and a consultant worrying about canon. But if Ian Levine had been breathing down Terry Nation's neck would we ever have had a Davros?
Who, in your opinion, should become show-runner when Chris Chibnall relinquishes his death grip?
Should it be the man who wrote Good Omens; who likes Doctor Who; who knows about rebooting moribund properties, has show runner experience and a track record for Making Good Art?
Should it be the man who created Babylon 5, who positively wants the job, and has a track record for making, er, Babylon 5?
Should it be the lady who created Gentleman Jack, who knows about smart historical fiction, the current UK TV scene, gender-fluid characters and who would presumably commission a stonking theme song?
No. Let's give the job to the guy who has already produced four and a half seasons and who was generally felt to have run out of steam by the midway through the third.
We agreed. We agreed that I would save Doctor Who, but that when I returned I could reclaim your first born. We agreed that I would be show-runner and you would be Chancellor of the Exchequer but after two years I would step down. Doctor Who is mine. My birthday present. My precious.
And so, Doctor Who is over. Again.
The endless, ever-regenerating chain of producers and show runners goes running back to one man: the one man who admittedly brought the show back from oblivion and defined what it is, but who it can now never grow beyond. New Who belongs to Russell T Davies. Its power is bound up in him and it will last only as long as he will last.
New Who has always, to some extent, been a metashow: always primarily interested, not in being itself but in being a commentary and a celebration of the old show.
From 1963 to 1987, the BBC's Doctor Who was multiple and polyvocal. It had been many different things and might have been many more things. From 2005 to 2010, we saw what that multifaceted show looked like from the point of view of one particular fan who happened to end up in the TV trade. From 2010 to 2017 we saw what it looked like from another point of view. 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 have given us what for want of a better word we must call Chris Chibnal's vision. And if by common consent that era has failed, then there is nothing to do but accept that RTD's vision is the only vision which matters. He will, I don't doubt, produce something entertaining and compelling and incredibly irritating. (Did I mention that It's a Sin was very good indeed?) But it will be very hard to move on. Not in this life time. John Nathan Turner saved Doctor Who in Season 18 and killed it in Season 24. It became John Nathan Turner's show; incapable of mutation or evolution, content to lurk in it bunker and define itself as the supreme being in the universe.
So why not let it die?
Why not, at any rate give it a rest? Why not let Doctor Who go out with a bang on November 23rd 2023, and leave open the possibility of a revival, a reboot, a reimagining, a regeneration ten years down the line. Why not stop making Doctor Who until there is a good reason to start making it. Why not wait until some hot twenty something producer who watched Jodie Whitaker at the age of twelve wants to show us what Doctor Who looks like to him.
We live in an age of franchises; of cinematic universes; and reboots. Star Trek: The Next Generation followed Star Trek at a discrete interval of two decades; Deep Space Nine overlapped with it for a couple of seasons and gave way to Voyager which begat Enterprise. A simple exercise in torch passing. But since then we have had three big-screen movies, part pastiche, part parody; taking place in their own universe connected to the old one by the ghost of Leonard Nimoy. We have three season of Discovery and threats of a fourth one, spinning off into a prequel about that guy who lost out to William Shatner in the original auditions. We have a second series of a sequel predicated on the continuing youthfulness of 81 year old Patrick Stewart and a cartoon which is definitely a parody but respects the material more than the cinematic abomination. And it is all canon, unless it isn't.
Cancel Doctor Who at sixty and there wouldn't be an absence of Doctor Who; there would be competing visions. There would be novels and comics and computer games and action figures and CDs and a Netflix series. Sit down for a moment and contemplate a world where there are two films about a Spider-Man villain, Venom, without Spider-Man. The universe itself could never bear to be without the Doctor.
So what would you have done if they had made you show-runner?