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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

26 Comments

  1. John Callaghan
    December 24, 2012 @ 12:25 am

    Another well-written piece. Jonathan Creek was a terrific show and lots of fun, although like Who I felt it sometimes became a little bleak. But it is generally ace.

    My main problem with Alan Davies being the Doctor is that the audience would already have an idea of what he'd be like in the role. For me, a major selling point with a new Doctor is that the audience boggle and think "how's that going to work?" Of course, the show has to deliver, but by that point, the audience is watching with interest.

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  2. Daibhid C
    December 24, 2012 @ 1:01 am

    I've often reflected on how much Jonathan Creek is like Doctor Who, but stumbled on why exactly; usually going down the "eccentric genius" route, which you note doesn't really work, before trailing of lamely with "And the windmill is practically a TARDIS…"

    But you've explained it beautifully. Thanks.

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  3. Dougie
    December 24, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    "…behaving as much like other shows with big fandoms as half-humanly possible." Now, that genuinely made me laugh out loud. Well played and a merry Christmas to all of you at home.

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  4. Adam Riggio
    December 24, 2012 @ 3:22 am

    Trivial point: According to imdb, Paul McGann, is 5'8 (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001524/bio), and Sylvester McCoy is 5'6 (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0566809/bio). So yes, he's too short to be an action hero in the conventional sense. But maybe that could also be an element of what kind of strangeness a McGann Doctor could have had. Someone of precisely average human height acting like a dashing action hero.

    Meaningful point: I remember reading interviews with Alan Davies shortly after Eccleston confirmed he was leaving after one season, where they asked him about the possibility of his being Doctor Who. Jonathan Creek and Alan D's general public image was, I guess, pretty influential in this regard. And he gave such an angry, spitey douche of an answer that Russell had created an absolutely madcap production that was much too hectic for him ever to take part in.

    I'll hazard a guess that the production circumstances, especially in the first season, are going to be a focus of the analyses of the Davies era. For one thing, there's a lot of material out there on the BBC Wales back office (The Writer's Tale alone cover that ground). But there's also the fact that Eccleston's tenure can never be discussed without that key fact: he left after only one year under very acrimonious circumstances. Alan Davies' comments indicate that, despite the PR blanket on Eccleston's actual motives, rumours of them were out in the arts community of Britain. Eccleston's Doctor Who was produced in circumstances of desperation to keep it all from breaking down, and the artistic and popular success of the show was even more miraculous given the disaster behind the scenes.

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  5. Arkadin
    December 24, 2012 @ 5:42 am

    "If Man is Five, then the Devil is Six. If the Devil is Six, then God is Seven."–the Pixies, on Doctor Who. So what does that make Eight? (The answer is "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.")

    Also, if the combination of a mysterious, eccentric protagonist and a sense of the Weird is what makes Doctor Who, does that mean Sherlock is Doctor Who too? (It did give us the new millennium version of Talons of Weng-Chiang.) Are those teenagers on Tumblr squeeing about "Wholock" onto something? It's certainly much closer to what televised "Doctor Who for adults" could be than the dreadful Torchwood (as Andrew Rilstone dubbed it), which from what I've heard makes, for most of its run, the same mistake the TV-movie does in aiming at the signifiers of "cult television" without the underlying Weirdness of its parent show.

    (Incidentally, one of the reasons I think you're unfair to the original Star Trek is that it had plenty of the Weird in it. It just looks bizarre, for one thing, and it could shift disorientingly between genres just as well as Doctor Who could. Unfortunately, its mercurial nature was not passed on to later incarnations of Star Trek, entertaining and well-done as they could be. The dreadful Voyager, for all its missteps, may actually have come the closest to achieving it.)

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  6. Ross
    December 24, 2012 @ 6:28 am

    I'm not sure that you can separate the weirdness of the original Trek from "Just how you did science fiction in the 60s" — in fact, you could well say that Trek was going out of its way to be a good deal less weird than its contemporaries.

    That said, there's certainly a mythical dimension in the original Trek that is often overlooked, I think largely due to what happened later. The thing that Phil talks about happening with the TVM where they tried to crush Doctor Who down into standard cult Sci-Fi TV happened with Trek too, it just happened more successfully, and (possibly because) it had a big gap in the 70s. (Actually, if you look at the first Trek film and what's known about the aborted 70s reboot, there are a lot of indications of it going in a radically different direction. But they just couldn't really nail it, hence STTMP being such a slog.) But there's some great and weird things really baked into Trek's DNA that have been progressively downplayed and excised. Like Roddenbery's original conception of the show as having about 90% of their plots be "The Enterprise goes to a parallel earth where something important to 60s society panned out differently."

    The JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot reminds me a lot of the TVM in some ways. Obviously, Star Trek 2009 is done a lot better — they remembered to have an actual plot and suchlike — but, much like the TV movie, my ultimate reaction, once the initial shock of "Zomg! New TOS!" wore off, boils down to "Well, that was okay. But I feel absolutely no desire for any more of this." It's visually good, it has the general shape of Star Trek, but the mythic dimension has been entirely stripped out. I can't imagine a worthwhile franchise growing from it

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  7. peeeeeeet
    December 24, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    The TVM must have fooled someone, cos ISTR Eight is described as "tall" in Vampire Science… 🙂

    Good analysis of Creek. I tend to think of it as one of the long line of attempts to fill the strange UK hinterland between afternoon and evening on a Saturday, when everyone wants to watch television but no one wants to watch the same thing. So the show can be viewed as a procedural, as a cult show, as a funny show with a silly man in it, etc, and everyone's happy. Another connection with Who is its occasionally risky approach to guest stars: Bob Monkhouse is their Nicholas Parsons.

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  8. Ununnilium
    December 24, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    Ooooh! Now here's a good Christmas present: Lots of things to argue about!

    "On the other hand it clearly has a solid place within British cultural memory as a beloved institution. This is distinct from something obsessed with its own past. Its past is respected and part of its importance, but to love it is not to be a fan of it so much as to enjoy a part of your culture. Someone who likes sitting down and watching Doctor Who is no more a part of Doctor Who fandom than someone who likes eating Marmite is a member of Marmite fandom."

    Hmmmmm. There is something that certainly feels like a contradiction here. On the one hand, you're saying that being a Doctor Who watcher doesn't make one a part of Doctor Who fandom (which, as you've said in past comments, is not the same as the set of Doctor Who fans). On the other, you seem to be saying that being a Doctor Who watcher who isn't part of Doctor Who fandom automatically means that you're watching it as part of "British Culture", a terribly vaguely-defined group (and one that the bulk of your entries seem to imply is the "right" way to watch it).

    "Instead the TV Movie assumed two possible audiences: fans, and people who might someday become fans. Judging the former too small a pool for financial success it attempted to maximize the existence of the latter, but it did so by behaving as much like other shows with big fandoms as half-humanly possible. It is the final form of Doctor Who for Doctor Who fans – the point where that approach finally bottoms out and reveals itself as creatively bankrupt and essentially pointless."

    So… in the process of not making it for fans, it made it super ultra for fans? Also, is this "fans" or "fandom"?

    "It would have positioned the Doctor at an interestingly orthogonal relationship to expectations, creating a modern day Troughton who lurks at the edges of the plot and nudges things. Something, in other words, that would be solidly different from everything else on television in the mid-nineties, when even awkward and paranoid FBI agents are played by David Duchovny."

    Ooooooh. You make a very solid point here – I was wondering if you had anything to point to as a viable alternative to the TV movie, and this is a good one.

    "But then, after Jonathan solves it, they’re told that this wasn’t the mystery at all, and that the real mystery was at a completely different part of the plot."

    Indeed. <3 I totally agree on the goodness of this series, BTW, and on its appropriateness for those who enjoy Doctor Who.

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  9. Ununnilium
    December 24, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    Sherlock is Doctor Who at least as much as Jonathan Creek is! That said, IMHO, Torchwood and Sherlock both make the same mistake, leaning too much on the weirdness of their characters as weirdness, stressing the darkness and the kinkiness and whatnot and going "wow isn't this cool though" instead of just getting on with it and being weird. Sherlock is better about this, tho.

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  10. Ununnilium
    December 24, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    The entire culture of the '60s had a weirdness about it. The thing is, most of the people involved in making TV thought that the important part of the weirdness was the strange visuals, rather than the strange concepts. So you get a strange concept that only exists to set up a strange visual and is otherwise ignored.

    I'm feeling more and more like "standard cult sci-fi" is a myth here. I mean, "cult" is just the opposite of "pop" – it denotes the size and the investedness of the audience and pretty much nothing else. It seems like a fallacy to say that something being or becoming "cult" reflects on the approach or the quality. Certainly, having a small, heavily-invested audience can encourage certain approaches, but I think the focus on the "standard cult approach" is a bit of a blind alley.

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  11. Alan
    December 24, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    I have little to say about Jonathan Creek, unfortunately. I find it strangely difficult to buy Davies in the role because I can't see him as an actor so much as "that impish guy who sits next to Stephen Fry on QI." That said, I did adore that one episode where Jonathan solves the mystery — how a valuable painting was stolen from a locked vault — in the first fifteen minutes, but refuses to reveal the solution because he simply doesn't like the guy from which it was stolen.

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  12. Arkadin
    December 24, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Now that I think about it, i was probably wrong about (season 1-2) Torchwood. It's actually a lot like Voyager in that it is determined to do something different with the genre tropes it uses but doesn't understand how they work enough to subvert them meaningfully, creating something that often feels compellingly wrong.

    The Weirdness I was thinking aobut in Sherlock wasn't just in the characters, but the world it portrays. That's why I used capital-W Weird, evoking the tradition of "Weird Fiction," which it is firmly a part of. At its best, it's not just bizarre or outlandish but uncanny. One of the things that's interesting about Sherlock is that it creates a world that's both hyper-modern and based on 19th century tropes, with the intensity and eeriness of the pulp aesthetic. Of course, sometimes it just vomits up 19th century cliches, like the infamous "The Blind Banker."

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  13. jane
    December 24, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    There is something that certainly feels like a contradiction here. On the one hand, you're saying that being a Doctor Who watcher doesn't make one a part of Doctor Who fandom… On the other, you seem to be saying that being a Doctor Who watcher who isn't part of Doctor Who fandom automatically means that you're watching it as part of "British Culture", a terribly vaguely-defined group (and one that the bulk of your entries seem to imply is the "right" way to watch it).

    I never got the sense Phil was saying there's a singular "right" way to watch Who — there are many feasible ways to watch Who. I do, however, think he's been saying that not every way of watching Who is right, especially when it comes to the OCD-W — obsessive cultish Doctor-Whovians. (Which is to say, the sort who frequent GB and lesser sniper-nests like SA and TLH.)

    It's precisely because the cult perspective is a mutually exclusive one. Making and watching Who in this fashion depends on a comprehensive knowledge of Who's history, and in positing a Whoniverse. This approach alienates the large majority of people who watch Who for other reasons. It's certainly possible to appreciate Who on this level, and to keep these things in mind when making the show, but in the long run it's not a viable strategy. The show is so much bigger than this limited perspective.

    Watching it (and making it) as a part of "British Culture" is not so constrained. In this vein, the show is not bound by its own history; instead, it strives to reflect the here and now, and we watch it to better understand the here and now, and who we are in this context. (If you haven't noticed, "Who are you?" is possibly the most-invoked phrase on the show right now.)

    And of course, we can always watch it for spectacle and strangeness, for thrills and for laughs, for catharsis and all kinds of Other reasons that aren't exclusive of one another, and the current production reflects that breadth. This is not, unfortunately, what the TV Movie sought to accomplish.

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  14. Ununnilium
    December 24, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    Excellent point on Voyager and Torchwood. (And I note that Torchwood had "Cyberwoman", which is a classic case of taking an interesting idea and just making it not work through costume design, which Seven of Nine got dinged by as well.)

    Sherlock does indeed try to fit in with the penny dreadful tradition. And I think the focus on human extremity is part of that.

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  15. Ununnilium
    December 24, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    But see, I think that's needlessly reductive; that it collapses many different ways of watching (some of which enjoy continuity for continuity's sake, some of which enjoy continuity because they follow the emotional journeys of characters and concepts, some of which enjoy continuity because they like tracing the years-long multi-author stories that go on in the background; some of which enjoy being part of a group of like-minded fans, some of which want to exclude people and feel elitist, some of which want to find newbies and take them under their wing and show them why this whole thing is cool) into a single, fixed concept of "cultishness".

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  16. sorrywehurtyourfield
    December 24, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    I find it interesting that the British press were so interested in "weird" people like Alan Davies and Bill Nighy as the Doctor in the run-up to the new series, when in the late 1990s you were more likely to hear rumours of Sean Bean. It makes me feel like sometime around the millennium the press started to "get" it again, interestingly before the new series started transmitting. Perhaps it's the same generational shift that led to a whole load of people who grew up with Doctor Who taking over the BBC.

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  17. Adam Riggio
    December 24, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    The reduction in this case is, I think, in service to a narrative arc of Phil's interpretations: working out what went wrong with the TV-movie, and how elements of his diagnosis will fit with his account of what went wrong with John Nathan-Turner's approach to the show. (I refer to JNT because of the focus on imagery without substance, historical reference without historical meaning, and a conception of Doctor Who as an instantiation of a generic sci-fi form. Saward's problem was a general misanthropy, a reliance on sci-fi epic/mythmaking tropes, and a failure to understand the importance of kindness to the Doctor's character.)

    But here's how I think the watcher/fan/fandom distinction plays out in Phil's context. A person who watches Doctor Who is its general popular audience, which in marketer-speak would be the Saturday evening family viewing demographics. They like the show, prefer not to miss an episode, but it's basically a piece of TV they enjoy. A fan is basically a watcher who has a more intense love of Doctor Who. They might own a few dvds and some merch, have their favourites and dislikes, and have fairly well-considered reasons for those. Fandom is the self-constituted community of people who identify with Doctor Who in a deeply ethical sense: this show is an integral part of how they define themselves.

    How a particular member of fandom lives out that self-definition is idiosyncratic to them. Look at the diversity of each of us who regularly comments on the blog. Some are what Jane delightfully calls OCD-W, and I think we all have some version of this, just from knowing as much as we do about it. But there are more malevolent ways to express this identity, Ian Levine probably being the primary example: the idea that there is only one real Doctor Who, mine, and all others are inferior and incorrect.

    Thankfully, the Eruditorum is a space where we can all have our different versions of Doctor Who, learning, considering, critiquing, and in some cases staring puzzled at them.

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  18. jane
    December 24, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    I'm certainly OCD-W, just to be clear, with a deep abiding interest in Doctor Who as a vehicle for ascension stories; this focus is primarily religious in nature. (Which is ironic, yes, I know. Shut up.) But I'd never expect the show to cater to my tastes in a blatant, obvious way, which would only alienate the larger audience. I'm really quite pleased I'm pandered to as much as I am. 🙂

    The thing is, I think it's possible for the show to broadly reach a general audience, and still bring something to the table for its long-standing cults. Not every cult, of course — some can't stand anything with broad appeal, just as a matter of principal. But the exclusionary factions aside, sure, it's possible. (There was a great opportunity with Asylum, had they actually incorporated historical Dalek models into the story beyond window-dressing. I wonder if there were production issues that got in the way.)

    The big mistake of the TV movie, and large swaths of JNT's era, was thinking that the cultic aspects of the show were a source of broad appeal.

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  19. 5tephe
    December 24, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    "…"standard cult sci-fi" is a myth…"

    YES! Yes to your whole observation there. Cult is a description of the audience, not the production. Thus Irwin Allen series are cult items, as well as Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. But try making a connection between their approaches!

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  20. David Anderson
    December 25, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    Even if nobody went on to watch Scream of the Shalka, the news that Richard E Grant was doing the Doctor after McGann would have got people thinking of Who in the context of Withnail & I. That must have had some effect on how people thought of the part – pulling it back into the English eccentricity area of people's cultural radar.

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  21. Chadwick
    December 25, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    If there is anyone writing for British TV who is as clever and inventive as Steven Moffatt it's David Renwick, Jonathan Creek's creator and writer. One can only speculate what would have happened if the keys to Dr. Who were given to him in the mid-1990s.

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  22. Ross
    December 25, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

    I'm not sure that it was even that they thought the cult aspects were a source of broad appeal so much as that they thought that cultic aspects were "Just how you do Doctor Who". It's very easy for certain kinds of misconceptions to just stumble their way into being ingrained in the collective consciousness as Just How It Works. Not so much "We should focus on these cult-sci-fi things because that's what the people want" as that it simply wouldn't occur to them that a TV show about a person who travels in time and space and saved planets should or even could be done some other way than as a cult-sci-fi show.

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  23. Ununnilium
    December 25, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    That is an excellent point., and these comments have given me much to think about.

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  24. Ununnilium
    December 25, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    Indeed. I mean, there are many things you can do to appeal to a small devoted audience; that doesn't mean all things with a small devoted audience appeal to their audience the same way.

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  25. Jaimie Tarquin Denholm
    January 9, 2014 @ 2:24 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. Jaimie Tarquin Denholm
    January 9, 2014 @ 2:49 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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