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Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer

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2006-05-26 Blackpool Tribune.jpg


SINCE its resurrection, I'm not alone among men of a certain age in weeping tears of pure joy every time I hear the Dr Who theme tune on the telly on a Saturday evening. This isn't just misty-eyed nostalgia for my childhood. Dr Who is unquestionably the best thing on television at the moment, and that in itself should be enough to make you cry with gratitude. Russell T. Davies, in making it a condition of his defection from Channel 4 to the BBC that they revive the programme, has smashed the orthodoxy of the smirking Oxbridge graduates who run British TV that all we deserve to watch is an endless diet of dumbed down dross. Instead of witless "celebrity" centred reality shows, Davies proved that intelligent, well-written, funny and exciting family entertainment could still work, and wasn't just a beautiful yet now unattainable memory of the so-called golden age of television. They should give him an earldom on top of his BAFTA.

There are many other reasons why Dr Who is so good. The character of The Doctor has established itself firmly in our national psyche throughout his various regenerations. Despite being a Time Lord from Gallifrey, he's a specifically and peculiarly English kind of super-hero (even if he's been played twice by Scotsmen). Unlike his American counterparts, he's not equipped with any specific super-powers; he's neither omniscient nor omnipotent and he's not particularly physical; instead, The Doctor is an eccentric, anti-authoritarian loner, but more significantly he's a scientist (of sorts) who is constantly battling against perverted science.

Science fiction has always been used to provide us with alternative realities which act as metaphors for our own reality, and the best monsters in Dr Who have only been frightening because of their believable possibility. But part of the genius of the revived Dr Who is the way all those monsters who wandered into our collective id 40 years ago have been updated to make a new satirical point. In the last series, for instance, the Daleks (originally meant to be Nazis) had become mad theocrats after the Emperor Dalek had assumed his/its own divinity. Likewise, in one of the most recent episodes, the Cybermen were used to satirise Microsoft, offering constant upgrades to deprive human beings of their humanity. Other recent episodes have had flesh-eating monsters running what are obviously meant to be foundation schools, vast slug things running a (literal) satellite TV station, aliens trying to build nuclear power stations in central Cardiff, the government taken over by asset-stripping aliens, and the same TV station, 1,000 years later, broadcasting endless murderous game shows and ultimately controlled by the daleks themselves, an obvious invitation to make us remember how Lord Birt was described by Dennis Potter, someone else from television's golden age.

In the recent Cybermen episode, the Doctor explained how the Time Lords used to regulate the universe, fixing things when they got broken, acting as the ultimate benevolent interventionist technocrats. But in the new Dr Who all the Time Lords are now dead, and he's the very last of them. For something which was originally scheduled as a teatime children's programme, Dr Who has always been about death, loss and abandonment. The Doctor's assistant, Rose, keeps encountering her long dead father; in the same Cybermen episode, Rose's former boyfriend Micky, having saved the Alternative England he, Rose and the Doctor find themselves in, elects to stay there with his grandmother, long since dead in the "real" world. In another recent episode, the Doctor's former assistant Sarah Jane Smith reappears along with the robotic dog K9, and a lot of the programme was about the sense of betrayal and abandonment she felt after she left the Tardis back when it was piloted by Tom Baker. Apart from all the excitement, the sense of elegy is almost palpable, and therein lies a great deal of Dr Who's appeal.

A major part of the show's power depends, along with the pleasure we get from it, on its capacity to refer back not just on itself but on the kind of England that originally spawned the programme. In recreating and thus reminding us of those golden days of TV, Dr Who also reminds us, through the fact of its revival as much as through its plots, of the kind of England we once had and have now lost. It was that optimistic, post-war England forged by the Labour Governments of the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s, governed by other mostly benevolent interventionist technocrats, who were then swept away by the marketist dogma of Thatcherism, which ended up giving us endless choice, and a culture of television with 1,000 channels broadcasting constant garbage. That's the world the new Doctor finds himself in, along with the rest of us, but nonetheless, at the end of every episode he still always wins, and the elegiac is redeemed from mawkishness by the vague possibility of hope. And that's why, for reasons far beyond personal nostalgia or simple entertainment, I cry with joy whenever I hear the Dr Who theme tune. And if you think that's all a bit too much, just remember that the best Doctors — Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant — have all coincided with Labour Governments.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Rowson, Martin (2006-05-26). Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer. Tribune (London) p. 19.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Rowson, Martin. "Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer." Tribune (London) [add city] 2006-05-26, 19. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Rowson, Martin. "Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer." Tribune (London), edition, sec., 2006-05-26
  • Turabian: Rowson, Martin. "Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer." Tribune (London), 2006-05-26, section, 19 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer | url= | work=Tribune (London) | pages=19 | date=2006-05-26 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who is The Doctor? He is TV's joybringer | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 May 2024}}</ref>