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A very British series

Dr Who has succeeded because and not in spite of its limitations

Artillery Row

Doctor Who is back. Again. This month, the sci-fi perennial celebrates six decades by making almost every existing episode available on iPlayer — some 800 hours of Daleks, Drashigs and running along countless corridors that all look oddly similar.

Later in November, the series returns to BBC1 with a trilogy of specials starring this century’s favourite Doctor (don’t argue, it’s David Tennant). Bolstered by Disney dollars, the new episodes promise to be bigger than ever. Going by the trailers, the show should now sit comfortably beside the expanded universes of your Marvels and Star Warses.

As a fan, it seems churlish to argue that bigger might not be better when it comes to Doctor Who. There is no room in 2023 for cardboard spaceships and bubble wrap monsters. Still, the move to Disney+ (outside of the UK) and the urge to compete with blockbuster fare seems the inevitable culmination in a slow Americanisation of Who. Can the show maintain the unique — and very British — identity that has been a key part of its appeal?

It seems fitting that Who should return en masse to the Beeb in the same week that The Beatles release their final single. Both arrived in a sudden burst of British cultural confidence. The Fab Four released their second LP the day before Doctor Who premiered and, in the years that followed, Beatlemania and Dalekmania seemed to run cheek by jowl. (Although the Daleks tended to make people scream for very different reasons.)

In the years that followed, Who was at its best when it tapped into what was booming in British pop culture. Second Doctor Patrick Troughton paid tribute to the Beatles with his mop top and swinging sixties companions (Zoe famously borrowing Mrs Peel’s catsuit from The Avengers). Jon Pertwee’s era capitalised on the popularity of James Bond. Tom Baker swung between homages of Hammer Horror and the Oxbridge humour of Monty Python. Peter Davison borrowed his aesthetic from Ivory Merchant and Brideshead Revisited. David Tennant dressed in a suit and trainers borrowed from Jamie Oliver and the Kaiser Chiefs.

Only Paul McGann — still the best casting in the role since Tom Baker — missed the mark. Instead of tapping into the 1996 Britpop boom and dressing him like Noel Gallagher or Jarvis Cocker, the first US–BBC co-production saw McGann stuck with an outdated American view of an Englishman, complete with Oscar Wilde duds and a public school accent.

The character of the Doctor has long been tied to changing ideas of what it means to be British. He — and occasionally she — has moved from Edwardian gentleman, through wild-eyed Bohemian to indie rock star. In his earlier incarnations, the Doctor (and the show more broadly) embodied the British reticence to talk about our feelings. Allowing for a few emotional moments, Doctor Who was traditionally an exercise in restraint that makes Remains of the Day seem bombastic.

These days, we are accustomed to the performative emoting that defines much of American pop culture. Asking an American how they are feeling seems about as necessary as asking a vegan if they’d like a sausage. Since the show’s revival, the Doctor (most notably David Tennant’s incarnation) has been unprecedentedly weepy — and it seems the forthcoming episodes promise plenty more of that. Sometimes less can be more.

Cheapness was not a weakness but the show’s secret weapon

Throughout the show’s initial 26-year run, cheapness was not a weakness but its secret weapon. The big budget film productions from the Beeb’s commercial rivals — The Avengers, The Persuaders etc — couldn’t hope to survive without American money, meaning they were in constant danger of cancellation. Doctor Who, which was produced on a light entertainment budget, proved too cheap to can. Indeed, it was only booted from the schedules in 1989 once an American producer approached the BBC to sound them out about a Transatlantic version.

Cheapness meant more than survival for Who. Cheapness meant having to be more clever than its American counterparts. It also meant keeping the show on a scale that was more intimate and more accessible for its audiences. Watching as a child, I couldn’t imagine ever travelling on the Starship Enterprise, but it seemed possible to be whisked away in a police box parked on the street corner.

Whilst Who often took us to strange places, it was most successful when it made familiar places seem strange. The earliest episodes built not on buccaneering American sci-fi such as Flash Gordon or Star Trek (which began in 1966), but on the more brainy domestic horror of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass — which had attracted record audiences for the BBC in the 1950s.

The most iconic scenes from the classic run include Yetis in the Underground, Cybermen at St Paul’s, and Daleks gliding up the stairs of a Shoreditch comprehensive. On its return in 2005, showrunner Russell T Davies was careful to ground the show in a South London housing estate before travelling off to far-flung times and places.

This focus on the domestic, weaving alien horrors into small scale suburban and rural settings, feels of a piece with the British ghost story tradition, where the unfortunate stars of MR James’s tales meet eldritch creatures in libraries, on desolate beaches, or in bed and breakfast hotels. The unknown is least comfortable when it rubs against the worlds we know best.

Arguably, the show went off the rails when it attempted to compete directly with the big budget American spectacle of Star Wars — hard to achieve when you’re sharing a studio with Top of the Pops. Whilst legendary writer Douglas Adams found a solution in being cleverer and funnier than Star Wars has ever managed, much of what followed was po-faced, sterile and violent — taking its lead not just from George Lucas but The A-Team.

Even in its 80s doldrums, the show still managed to be defiantly British — sprinkled with delightful moments of pantomime and out-and-out camp, be it Beryl Reid as a hard bitten space captain, Ken Dodd as an interspace tollbooth operator or Kate O’Mara pretending to be Bonnie Langford. You didn’t get that on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The challenge for Doctor Who in its Disney era will be to maintain that level of idiosyncratic daftness in a studio environment where every offering increasingly looks more or less identical. Mainstream science fiction in 2023 remains dominated by cookie cutter comic book fare, where the faces and identities of our heroes change, but the product remains the same.

To see Who ape the scale of Marvel is at once heartening and discouraging. Whilst we can applaud such ambition from a British TV show, it also feels like a potential dead end. What happens when the Disney dollars dry up? Could the show ever walk back from an international budget to being something cheap and cheerful for Saturday nights?

Creativity thrives on limits. As iPlayer’s sudden wealth of classic Who proves, the show has long found an inventive path around budgetary restraints. When American shows went for big budget action sequences, it went for high concept plotting. Instead of reaching for spectacle, it dripped with suspense. If it couldn’t be bigger, it had to be better.

Put simply, Doctor Who couldn’t be like every other show, which is the main reason that — 60 years on — there’s still no other show quite like it.

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