Has the Doctor become too human?
Guest contributor Elliot Thorpe examines.
Everybody everywhere towards the end of Series 6 knew of the Doctor, but didn’t know who he was. And that’s the way it should be. Yet his omnipotence had become common place and he had grown beyond the confines of a simple homeless traveller wandering the corridors of time and space.
Look how he approached his adventures before the demise of the Time Lords. He was on the run in a rackety old TARDIS, companions coming and going and rarely, if ever, properly looking back.
These days, we’re reminded of his history, of the legacy he leaves behind, of the impact his actions have on those around him. He hurts them, he loses them, he loves them: but at what cost? And is this all new territory for him?
During the wilderness years of the series, we were treated with the novels of the Virgin Publishing ‘New Adventures’. It is clear to anyone who has had the fortune to read some or all of these printed adventures that they planted the seeds of what the TV series itself eventually became. It expanded the Who universe way beyond that which the classic series had done, and I don’t just mean geographically or universally. Emotions suddenly became part and parcel of the day to day events. Repercussions were felt and mistakes were recognised.
But was this ever touched upon on screen before 2005?
We witnessed the terrible wrench of forcing his own granddaughter to leave, locking her out of her own home and cruelly detaching her from the only person she knew who was family. He met her again some 20 years (in literal terms) later but it was never mentioned, never discussed, swept under the carpet of anniversary jollity.
When he was caught by the SIDRATs (now there’s something to bring tears to your eyes), the Doctor’s defeat by his people became all the more poignant because he had to lose Jamie and Zoe in the process.
Jo Grant. Lovely, wonderful, adorable, kooky Jo Grant. When she left the Doctor literally couldn’t face it and drove off into the sunset. But he sent her a wedding present all the same. Admittedly he got it back eventually because it attracted all manner of creepy-crawlies (well, huge great hairy eight-legged ones to be precise) but he never thought on her again. Not really.
And then there was Sarah-Jane Smith: abandoning her in a way that vaguely echoed the earlier dismissal of Susan (time to go, no arguments -- just time to go). And again, her swift exit didn’t cross his mind as he went on with his life. Why didn’t he leave Gallifrey after the deadly assassin was defeated and go try to collect her again? Why didn’t he just return the moment he left? Was it because he knew the TARDIS couldn’t get him to where he wanted to be, so realised that he had to move forever on? But it was a sudden and unexpected gift to her (like that given to Jo) years later that told us he never truly forgets – it was just not that obvious.
Mood swings were always part and parcel of the fourth Doctor’s way of life, never moreso when he started his long journey to Pharos, via N-Space. It was losing Romana and seeing the ghostly precursor of his future self that rang the changes eventually and this broody, sulky Doctor gave way to something new and unexpected.
All of a sudden, here was a character who appeared to be vulnerable, reliant very much on his friends to help him (that Zero Cabinet wasn’t going to carry itself).
When Adric died, we had a few instances of regret, sadness even, that carried over to multiple stories but it was still ultimately washed away with the adventure of the week.
Yet little by little, in slowly increasing circles, did the expanse of the emotion of the series become more rounded and more obvious.
The whole of The Caves of Androzani is, arguably, one big attempt on the Doctor’s part to save Peri’s life – he owed it to her and he wasn’t about to let anyone stop him. And he didn’t. And the price he paid for his compassion was losing another incarnation, at the same time subjected to hallucinations of his most recent friends (and an enemy). And we ended up with someone brash, alien and rather unfeeling – as if the tender actions back in the Androzani system rocked the Doctor’s outlook. Yet even this version of the Doctor eventually softened, to be finally replaced with a much more conniving and secretive viewpoint. Who would manipulate their best friend or even be aware of their best friend being manipulated but not say a word until they got found out – and get away with it? Only the seventh Doctor (bar a moment of desperation against the evil of the Daleks a number of incarnations back, of course).
With a hammer blow, we then got a Doctor who spoke about his dad, his mum and loved (gasp!) kissing… What was going on?
The series had become more open in its story-telling, leaving behind the coyness of the past. Here was a Doctor who wasn’t afraid to show he cared for his friends, who had some regrets or two but still got on with the job in hand.
And then Rose arrived and from then on, with Martha, Donna, Jack, the Master and everyone else who deserves to get a mention, it was all anguish and unrequited love – goodness, even Jo and Sarah got in on the act! -- and our hero became like us: vulnerable, tearful, playful and human.
Yet how much has this actually altered the series?
The audience is different – the young viewership is more sophisticated than classic fans were because they are growing up on diets of EastEnders and Twilight – types of programming and movies that were less accessible to the kids of the pre-McGann era.
And that’s not a bad thing, not in the slightest.
The fans of the classic series are not far off the age of the series itself and they grew up on the televisual limitations of their age, while the majority of the ‘new’ fans (and yes, of course there is a crossover) are used to their heroes having flaws, falling in love, telling sweeping story arcs and playing in big budget sandpits.
And so the Doctor needed to become one of the new kind of heroes, the modern hero with faults. It makes him more, erm, human. Oh, hang on…that again.
If the character of the Doctor hadn’t been modified slightly, if the story telling hadn’t altered and reflected the contemporary age, then the series wouldn’t have lasted beyond 2003 -- and the 50th anniversary would have come and gone with just a few conventions around the world, perhaps a couple of repeats on some backwater TV channel and the eternal wonder if the series would ever come back again after the two false starts of 1996 and 2005. Perhaps a third time lucky would have never been on the cards.
But lasted it did – and it is a tribute to the adaptability of the series and the passion and vision of all those who have worked on it, from the series itself, to the Big Finish range, to publishers and writers of all the novels, books and comics, the celestial toymakers and the behind the scenes documentaries and fan conventions.
So the 50th anniversary next year should encompass all of that – rejoice in the diversity of the story-telling, of the richness of the canvas some of us have been privileged to work with – and take a moment to reflect and appreciate (it only need take perhaps just 25 minutes -- give or take) how that unassuming foggy London junkyard in 1963 opened up such a universe of emotional wonder that we all still adore nearly half a century later.
“Here’s to the future, love is the answer,” Keff McCulloch wrote for the soundtrack to Delta and the Bannermen in 1987. How prophetic he was.