So here we are. New website. I would have launched it right with Rose, but, well, it was easier to throw the switch on the weekend. So yes, this is now properly just “my website,” with TARDIS Eruditorum as its primary but not exclusive feature. These posts will still go up reliably in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with other content filling in as the spirit moves me, so to speak. You can also tour the various pages up above for status updates on various projects, links to buy all sorts of stuff, and the like. Welcome, and thanks to the lovely Anna Wiggins for getting this thing set up. If it falls on your head and causes serious injury, sue her, not me.
And, of course, this is the last post before Rose. Though the way the Kickstarter is going, I expect that any moment now the Rose post will be going up as a backer-exclusive update there. And it’s very much a calm before the storm thing – the low key post before Wednesday’s storm. Last bits of groundwork for the new series. Several points that are tentative and may need refinement. I’m categorizing it as a Pop Between Realities, but we could just as easily call it Notes Towards a Study of the New Series. Or just a discussion of the period of anticipation and lead-up to the new series.
One of the things that jumps out most in Russell T Davies’s early interviews about Doctor Who is his continual focus on the series’ engagement with the tabloid press. It’s easy to pretend this is some sort of landmark moment, but it’s not really at all – John Nathan-Turner was an inveterate tabloid-stoker who carefully and meticulously maintained the series’ public profile by, for instance, letting slip that perhaps the Doctor was going to regenerate into being a woman, or using the hoax title The Doctor’s Wife to try to smoke out someone leaking production information (and, of course, get a wave of publicity to boot). In this regard, Nathan-Turner’s newfound legacy as tabloid-certified paedo (as opposed to actual one) fall somewhere in the grey area between irony and inevitability.
This leaves anyone who wants to, perhaps, criticize Davies for stunt-casting Billie Piper or Catherine Tate on any sort of “purity of the series” grounds in an unfortunate bind. They are hard-pressed to contrast it unfavorably with the Nathan-Turner era, since in that regard Davies’s only sin was actually getting the viewing figures Nathan-Turner dreamed of. One could suggest that the Hinchcliffe and Letts eras were above such stunts, and you’d be more or less correct, but that direction ignores the fact that the nature of British television in that era meant that a merely reasonably popular program like Doctor Who was such a central cultural experience that it didn’t need to go out of its way to connect to other parts of British culture any more than Marmite and the Shipping Forecast did.
But there’s still something jarring about it coming off the wilderness years – the sense that Doctor Who is suddenly catering to The Sun fits bewilderingly poorly with Sometime Never… and Zagreus coming out. They feel as though they are parts of completely different worlds. One might make a slightly snarky bit about how sucking up to Rupert Murdoch cements just how much the new series is a product of New Labour, but really, observing that New Labour is kind of formative in the nature of the new series is about as tricky as suggesting that the Cartmel era had some issues with Margaret Thatcher.
Still, let us remember this basic fact: Doctor Who under Russell T Davies was in constant dialogue with the tabloid press and the larger British culture. This was always a part of what it was doing – from the moment it was announced and the litany of speculation over who the Doctor would be. Which meant that by the time Rose aired the process was well underway. Let’s look at four key aspects.
The most obvious one, of course, is Christopher Eccleston, who is, after all, a Serious Actor. Though even here we need to dive into things just a little bit. Yes, Eccleston is a major and respected Doctor the caliber of which Doctor Who had never come close to seeing before. But he’s not a “great British actor” in, say, the Simon Callow sense. (That we’ll have to deal with in a week.) His roles are generally scruffy, with a dash of working class. He’s a terribly well-respected actor, but crucially, he’s not a stereotypical British actor.
And so the prospect of him playing the Doctor is strange in two different directions at once. On the one hand it’s strange simply because nobody seriously believed that an actor like Christopher Eccleston would play the Doctor, at least not as a serious gig. Yeah, Richard E. Grant was doing the whole Shalka thing, but Grant was always an actor who seemed a little more willing to play a lark of a role, and anyway, he phoned it in and it was a voice job. An actor like Eccleston taking on the role for a full season is a completely different kettle of fish. It was an immediate shot across the bough that earned the series legitimacy that it needed. All the reassurances about how the effects would be better and how this was being designed as a centerpiece of BBC One’s schedule didn’t mean quite as much as the fact that Christopher Eccleston, who largely did not muck around in crap (at least not then – these days he seems to mostly take generic villain roles in mediocre Hollywood blockbusters), was on board.
On the other hand, Christopher Eccleston isn’t a serious actor in the Simon Callow sense of fitting seamlessly and straightforwardly into stuffy period pieces for the export market. Which is to say that it was immediately unfathomable that we were going to get the frock coated cliche that was the Eighth Doctor, simply because casting Christopher Eccleston in that part would be as ridiculous as casting Tom Baker in Eccleston’s role in Our Friends in the North. Eccleston simply is not the actor you would hire if you wanted to do the Doctor in the obvious manner – the one that Rowan Atkinson sent up and Richard E Grant phoned in.
And so casting him immediately turns into a point of tension: what’s this going to be? How do you fit Doctor Who, which is obviously about a cliched Edwardian stereotype of Britain, with Christopher Eccleston, the great actor of the working class? Because the answer is non-obvious. These things don’t seem to fit together. This is, of course, what Doctor Who does, but to see it being done with the basic premise of the show and in the national press is still uncanny – doubly so for Doctor Who fans who mistakenly thought they knew what to expect from the show, or, more to the point, thought they should know.
Television junkies might have had some clues, of course, from The Second Coming, a two-episode Russell T Davies miniseries for ITV that featured Christopher Eccleston eponymously. And while it’s easy pickings to identify thematic similarities, most notably Davies’s longstanding “lonely god” fascination, the fact of the matter is that The Second Coming is very, very different to Doctor Who. Yes, there’s a similarity in how Eccleston plays the parts, but that’s always going to happen. But there’s also a huge difference: Eccleston’s character spends most of The Second Coming not knowing what to do and not fully understanding his situation. He’s at least partially overwhelmed, and the entire point of the exercise is that he doesn’t straightforwardly have the answers. The entire point is that he’s the son of God but he’s just a random Manchester video store worker. He’s the divine taken to its most earthly level.
This isn’t the post for discussing how Davies’s take on the Doctor is different, but it still bears mention. Looking at The Second Coming for what to expect in Doctor Who, one gets the wrong answers, assuming one is going to pick up on Davies’s and Eccleston’s take on the character. You don’t. Yeah, angry Doctor is very similar to the “you lot” speech, but even that’s miles from, say, “another stupid ape” in Father’s Day, and Baxter never gets anything like the manic bits of the Doctor. There are similarities – Davies is, in both cases, concerned with connecting the divine and the working class – but they’re wildly different shows.
Point number two: Billie Piper. Unlike Eccleston, this move did have precedent in the classic series. Disturbingly, however, the precedent was Bonnie Langford. Eric Saward, in the Trials and Tribulations documentary, muses over his reaction when he heard about Langford’s casting, namely asking John Nathan-Turner if she could act. But a similar question hung over Billie Piper, who was both already famous and in no way famous for being an actress. In fact, she was famous for being a deeply mediocre pop sensation in the late 90s/early aughts. If you’re not familiar, you probably want to go experience “Honey To The Bee,” which, while it only reached number three, is by far the most irritatingly earwormish of her ouevre.
In short, Billie Piper was one of the many post-Spice Girls bits of generic female pop to surface. She was largely forgettable except as one of those “oh that one” few-hit-wonders that populate any music charts and are thus vaguely known. She managed a decent tabloid stir by marrying the much older Chris Evans, but she was by and large a forgettable pop byproduct. And so when her music career withered in 2001 she took up acting lessons in pursuit of that most banal of pop star moves, a transition to acting.
And then as her first move she lands the Doctor Who companion role. This, to the outside, looked like madness – after all, the pop star/acting transition is a minefield that hardly anyone crosses well, and so the default assumption was that she’d be absolutely terrible. She wasn’t, of course, but in the leadup to 2005 Russell T Davies was the only one who knew it. Sure, her monologue in the trailers about chucking in an ordinary life for monsters looked good, but it was fifteen seconds. To most of the world it looked like a potential disaster.
Again, note the way this immediately raises the stakes for Doctor Who. Even before its first episode there were cliffhangers and suspense – a continual feeling of “how are they going to pull this one off” that surrounded it. Was it a stunt? Of course it was, but it was a brilliant one. Much like Eccleston, there were two big questions raised. Not only the obvious “is this a disaster waiting to happen,” but the secondary question of what it meant that the series was mashing up a proper, serious actor with a has-been pop princess who (presumably) couldn’t act. Its cheat – that she could act – was a brilliant way of trying to handle that, but it was almost immaterial in the lead-up. These days Billie Piper is more famous for playing Rose Tyler than she is for “Because We Want To,” but at the time it was the strange mystery of how the heck Billie Piper, Christopher Eccleston, and Doctor Who could possibly all fit together.
There is a third strand that we need to trace, however. Technically the bulk of this post-dates Rose by a few days, but it’s not like the rumors didn’t already exist. Eccleston’s departure from the role hung over the entire first season, getting leaked between Rose and The End of the World. This meant that rumors were already in place of the Tenth Doctor’s casting.
Unlike the casting of Eccleston, the casting of Tennant was largely fait accompli – absolutely everybody knew that Tennant was going to be the Tenth Doctor well before it was announced. The reasoning on this was, one imagines, twofold. First, David Tennant was in fact going to be the Tenth Doctor, and every once in a while the truth actually matters to what gets reported in tabloid land. Second, and perhaps more crucially, Tennant was a known Doctor Who fan who had just worked with Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner on Casanova.
This also means that Casanova served as another tea leaf in the “what will Doctor Who be like” game, although in a stranger way that ended up assuming a future for the program that was in no way established yet. As like-for-like comparisons go, Casanova turned out to largely be a better barometer of Doctor Who than The Second Coming. For one thing, the characters were more similar: Casanova, like the Doctor, is a hyper-competent charmer, and David Tennant does in fact play the characters in much the same way. For another, Casanova shared Doctor Who’s love for the visual with its glammed-up, high color period setting.
But more important than the details of how Casanova does or doesn’t inform Doctor Who – after all, the “let’s mine Davies’s earlier work for clues to Doctor Who” game has been very elaborately played by other people, including, possibly excessively, this blog – is the basic fact that Doctor Who’s future rapidly became part of its present. Casanova wrapped its final episode on BBC Three four days before Rose, and began a BBC One re-airing the Monday after The End of the World, making the spectre of Tennant’s Doctor something that hung over the debut of Doctor Who.
And this is crucial context for Rose. Really, it’s crucial context for the entire new series, which is constantly in immediate dialogue with the world around it and balancing narrative and tabloid revelations against each other – consider, for instance, the interplay of The Next Doctor and the reveal of Matt Smith as the next Doctor. This is how the new series works – as an eminently present moment that unfolds within the British culture. To understand Doctor Who without reference to that cultural context is ludicrous.
And that brings us to Wednesday. I’m pretty much going to let Wednesday stand on its own merits. I’m not going to plug the Kickstarter other than the semi-permanent link at the top of the page, or provide any chatty meta-commentary, or, really, anything like that. It’ll just be a nice, austere 13,000-word wall of text.
But I do have one request. Right now my most popular posts are the ones on Buffy and Firefly. Which, I mean, I understand this; they have massive fandoms, and a big site in that fandom linked both articles.
But I’d really like to have my most popular post actually be a Doctor Who post. So on Wednesday, please. Just get the word out. Link the post to your followers on various social media, put it on your own blog, submit it to Reddit or wherever. But I’d really like to see the Rose post become my most-read. So if you can bring yourself to do it, link it. Get the word out. Please. Make this one big for me.
And also, here, in the last bit of quiet before the storm, let me just say this to those of you who have read the blog through the classic series and the wilderness years, before it got to the big, famous, currently popular stuff. Thank you. Thank you for reading, thank you for buying books, thank you for supporting this blog, and thank you for making this the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on. Thank you for making the comments an online community I’m proud to shepherd. Thank you for everything.