But is Doctor Who any good? Obviously not, as any response to liking the programme is met with at best apathy and at worst smirks. We ignore these reactions, because we believe in the ignorance of others, but the theatricality of Doctor Who is off-putting to most. And it’s easier to hate others than it is to hate ourselves. Because the truth is, Doctor Who is… a highly camp programme for children – the mise-en-scene is deliberately exaggerated in the telling of broadly simplistic moral tales. If there’s any doubt about this, just look at what any one of the Doctors chooses to wear. One of the great myths of Who is that it can tell any kind of story – which is a redundant argument when placed against any other hour of television. Compare the thematic narrative of Doctor Who to any of those shows that feature difficult men – Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire etc. – and the stories they tell are impossible in Who. And they’re not better. They’re pathetically desperate in the plumbing of ever more minutely upsetting moments. But Doctor Who has never, never, aspired to realism. Am I supposed to find Season Seven real?
That’s even before we get to the things that are bad in the show. In a bold statement that I may later come to forget, I am going to state that nearly every actor who played a companion in original Doctor Who is awful. We accommodate paper-thin, unmotivated carboard cut-outs in every episode. Let alone the times when the grasp of the show doesn’t align with its reach. We worry about showing people the giant rat in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, as if that one moment ruins something perfect. However, that slight staginess of the show allows us to overcome these moments. They work, because they are often played with absolute seriousness (that’s what separates bad companions from good companions – the good ones aren’t as serious). What is harder to accommodate is the silliness of the show. It is after all a series that for ten episodes featured a squeaky-voiced, tentacle giant green cock and entire episodes predicated on Kate O’Mara pretending to be Bonnie Langford.
And so we have this conflict in us – a show we want to take seriously that is profoundly silly. Another contradiction. But it only matters to us because we deny the root of camp within the show. That everything is meant to be heightened, slightly unreal/unnerving, slightly disrupting to our comfortable lives. That’s why we love it as children – because it was for us, and we can see how silly the world is when we’re young. It’s only as we get older that we impose on it the mundane, grown-up familiarities of salaries and mortgages and individual saving accounts.
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And back to Day of the Daleks. Which despite its evident brilliance, is largely ignored because of this the things that are bad. We imagine as fans that if we call this one of the ‘okay ones’, we’ll get away with it, that we won’t have to confront any weakness within the show. But so much of what is ‘bad’ doesn’t matter when we take it as part of the fantasy of the fiction. The chief complaints of the episode are the measly Dalek voices and the slightly pathetic Dalek invasion of Earth, where a bunch of lumbering Ogrons and three wobbly-Daleks try to take over the world. The gold Dalek seems to attempt it two or three times.
In 2011 fans got the chance to change history. They released a special edition version of the story, with newly-shot footage, replacement CGI and re-recorded Dalek voices by Nicholas Briggs. While it was nice to see a slightly new version of a familiar story, the replacements sought to limit the high camp of Who. Cheap CGI looks as bad as dated miniatures. Briggs is a talented performer, but his presence represents the great difference between old and new Who. Old Who has a variety; tone, performance and ability varied wildly from story to story. In new Who, everything is the same. It results in everything being a bit safer but a lot less interesting. It was nice that the Daleks sounded different from story to story.
The key thing is that special effects really don’t matter, especially in old Who, which was mainly about people standing in rooms having conversations. The greatest special effect in Day of the Daleks episode four is Jon Pertwee, who changes the course of history through the sheer force of his personality. Paul Bernard knows this, and knows that the close-up of Doctor Jon’s face when he delivers lines about ‘quislings’ will be a thousand times more effective than an army of Daleks invading a country house. Nobody really dies – the show is all about heightened performance – so it never really matters whether characters got hit by an invisible or sparkly green ray gun beam. What matters is that we know someone has died.
Jon Pertwee is an extraordinary Doctor. Elegantly dressed, he is the most casually violent of all incarnations. He is the strongest embodiment of the contradiction of the Doctor – that one dedicated to healing so often brings death. The Doctor has never really embraced his true nature, that he is chaos, disrupting the societies he visits. We don’t acknowledge this because the societies he disrupts (as they so often are) are oppressive. So we choose to see him as good, but he is not. He is wild and unpredictable and totally alien. No vintage cheese and wine can cover that up
The desire to shape and mould our personal mythologies, in a sense rewrite our histories, is misguided. The stories we saw on screen were never as powerful as the stories we saw in our heads. Our personal mental VHS players replays half-remembered moments and imaged scenes from inaccurate Target novels. All these moments are as powerful than any DVD viewing.
It’s just a shame, that for many of us, our Doctor Who was somehow less camp…