Temporarily embarrassed proletarians

Skip to content

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.


  1. encyclops
    September 14, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    I think your last sentence especially is spot on. I welcome and love "non-traditional" Doctor Who stories — my top 5 includes 3 of them — but the impression I often got from the NAs was that they were the science fiction novels the authors wanted to write but with the Doctor hovering around acting as a chaperone.

    I also want to stick up for the Pertwee era, which I adored and still do. If nothing else, it's the closest thing this show has to comfort food. One might argue that's exactly what Doctor Who shouldn't be, and one would have a very good point, but I think a show with 32 seasons on TV alone (and counting) can afford a few years of comfortable.


  2. David Anderson
    September 14, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Does the last sentence mean, 'they're a bit ashamed that they're being rad with Doctor Who and so are held back by the urge to throw bones to the trad fans' or does it mean 'they're a bit ashamed that they're writing Doctor Who rather than something more supposedly adult'?


  3. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 14, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    The latter.


  4. Tommy
    September 14, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    I'd say the Williams era was the main 'comfort food' era of Doctor Who. But Pertwee era close behind.


  5. Josh Marsfelder
    September 14, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    I would argue the Williams era is far too experimental and far too rocky to be called "comfort food" television. The Pertwee era is pretty consistently enjoyable, yes, more often than not guiltily so, but I would still argue there's a bit more going on even there. Surely "comfort food" is what Nathan-Turner and Saward were aiming for with the Davison era? "Art is meant to soothe" and all that?


  6. Matthew Celestis
    September 14, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

    Are you going to do a Pop Between Realities on Warhammer 40,000 at some point? That was a surprisingly important corner of British science fiction in the 90s.


  7. encyclops
    September 15, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    I'd say there's more going on in Pertwee too ("if nothing else"). If Saward wanted Davison to be comforting, I'm not sure he succeeded; all the bickering, for example, and the most Sawardy episodes ("Earthshock," "Resurrection," arguably even "Warriors of the Deep") are unpleasant to watch for all sorts of reasons. And if they were still aiming for it in Colin's era they REALLY failed.

    I think the reasons why the Pertwee era hits me that way are threefold: first, there's the whole UNIT family thing going on; second, there's the homey Earth setting for so much of it (and note the effect those elements have on the new series); and third, I watched tons of Pertwee as a kid and still react to it as one most of the time.


  8. Adam Riggio
    September 15, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    I get the feeling this conflict between the conceptions of Doctor Who as for children and having adult fans is going to be a major theme of the analysis during the wilderness years. As I think about it, you seeded the tension in your essays on the McCoy tv stories: they're best understood as children's television dealing with very mature themes, which is how you demonstrated the value of the much-hated Season 24. But because of the size and power of the edifice that the NAs are, that children's tv aspect of McCoy's Doctor was erased.

    I'm reminded of one of the commenters (can't remember precisely who it was) who told one of his teachers that he was starting to read Doctor Who novels, and she was so happy that he was engaging with such a wholesome form of children's entertainment. And the first novel he picked up was Transit.

    It goes back to the worst moments of the Ian Levine image of the show: Doctor Who was a children's show with adult fans, those adult fans basically being immature man-children (and it's demonstrated with some of the worst moments on our message boards). Your introduction to the Colin Baker era, popping between realities to visit Max Headroom and Tripods, concentrated on this problem of being simultaneously for children and adults while trying to make sense. The Saward era was a complete stumble, aiming to be more adult in what would have been the John Peel / Genesys mould, but the writing itself being as sophisticated as condescending kid's tv with Pip n Jane being the paragons.

    The NAs had a more successful approach — it was largely adults who were the audience and the actual readers, but it ends up being the same problem of incompatibility. They just ended up writing good sci-fi novels for adults that had Doctor Who's name and protagonists in them.

    Does the Davies model of family television supply the best answer to this conundrum yet? Looking back at the McCoy era, I felt remarkable similarities in tone to Davies' approach. The difference is the RTD had a budget that could be seen without the aid of a microscope.

    And how important is Joss Whedon and Buffy to developing the family-sci-fi-adventure paradigm?


  9. Josh Marsfelder
    September 15, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    I don't think it was Saward as much as it was Nathan-Turner himself here, but yes, the fact they were aiming for "soothing" television whilst at the same time attempting nonsense like "Earthshock" and the soap opera angle I think shows off how impressively schizoid and unfocused much of that era was. By Colin Baker everyone was just running on autopilot and making choices completely divorced from context or good taste and they wound up paying hard for that.

    As for Pertwee, I definitely see your point. While I have issues with the whole "UNIT Family" interpretation, I did very much enjoy the chemistry between the various leads. For me though the choice of Earth as a setting is less comforting and more an attempt have The Doctor stick around to deal with the consequences of his actions (which is why Davies nicked it for his tenure) while at the same time looking after the ailing budget. That said, I get how it can be seen as homey too.

    Your third point is the one I most readily get behind: I think any era of Doctor Who we're exposed to most as kids is going to be the one we can go back to the easiest and look at with the most innate fondness. That's why I'll go back and gleefully watch the knockoff Quatermass/Manchurian Candidate antics of Season 7 anytime despite it admittedly barely qualifying as Doctor Who and one of, but not the only, reasons I'll jump to defend the Graham Williams era more often than not.


  10. Josh Marsfelder
    September 15, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    To pick up Adam's point, I'm interested in the etymology of the "family science fiction show" genre. It seems to me the term is bandied about a lot these days to describe a show the creators think is predominantly for children, but they say it's for "families" so as not to offendXalienateXembarass its large adult following. Doctor Who, would, of course, be the archetypical "family" show: "Well, it's for kids but adults like it too". Last week's "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" embodied this mentality perfectly for me, because it seemed custom-tailored to appeal to children (and a particular conception of children and children's interests at that) with a few token parent service winks and nudges scattered liberally throughout to show it has a boardroom-approved randy side.

    What I don't understand is why we can't have a show that merely works on multiple levels. I can conceive of a show that is written primarily for adults with adult themes and sensibilities but has enough breadth and scope that kids find something to enjoy about it and connect with. The show might be for adults, but kids can like it too for similar yet distinct reasons and they won't feel talked down to. In other words, different audiences like the same show for different reasons and neither feels like a periphery demographic.

    Actually, I can do more the conceive of such a show, I can cite it. It was called Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG was definitely adult, especially later on, but it had an enormous following among kids. Adults liked the undiluted, though concentrated and bite-size, philosophy, the consummate professionalism of the acting and production and the strong character development while kids liked the awesome starships, action sequences, distinct, likable and iconic characters, cool aliens and special effects that were in a league of their own.

    The huge Next Generation toy line from Playmates should be evidence of this fact if nothing else (indeed the Playmates line is a bit of a microcosm: It helped pioneer the idea of a collector's market as kids would buy the toys to play with while adults bought them to fill out their shelves). Deep Space Nine is even more clearly so being a very, very mature series, arguable even more so than latter-day TNG (it's telling the creative team went on to helm Battlestar Galactica) but it still had a audience among children that it inherited from TNG.

    I think there have been times Doctor Who has operated this way as well, though I hesitate to claim this is how the series works right now. I'll readily confess this is my preferred SOP for the show: I'd much rather have a show that appeals to everyone equally for different reasons instead of one that's unabashedly pandering to kids (or a hazily-defined list of what it thinks kids like) that treats adult fandom as a guilty pleasure as I would argue the current stewardship of the New Series is or a hardcore adult sci-fi series that's a bit ashamed to be associated with children's entertainment, as the New Adventures would seem to have been.


  11. Ununnilium
    September 15, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    Honestly, I would call the New Series a perfect example of what you're talking about. I don't think you'd get episodes like Midnight on a show meant as For Kids Specifically.


  12. 5tephe
    September 16, 2012 @ 2:35 am

    I would also cite Pixar films (most notably the Toy Story's, and especially the Incredibles) as pulling off that trick.

    but then, ever notice the main screen writing credit on Toy Story (the first)?

    Joss Whedon.


  13. Spacewarp
    September 16, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

    [fan-gush] Nice to see some long-overdue Pertwee-love![/fan-gush]. I tend to think of Pertwee and Tom's first couple of seasons as examples of Doctor Who being perfect Doctor Who – trying something new while ensuring it still entertains the kids. Both were brave departures from the previous incarnation of the show and yet both sought to ensure they didn't sacrifice the casual viewer on the alter of fandom.

    Which as people have pointed out is also a fair summation of the New Series.


  14. Spacewarp
    September 17, 2012 @ 12:35 am

    "What I don't understand is why we can't have a show that merely works on multiple levels…"

    Quoted just to indicate which post I'm referring to, though I'm addressing the whole.

    Your comparison with ST:TNG is a good one, and I highlights the difficulty in getting Doctor Who "just right". I honestly think that Doctor Who is an incredibly difficult show to produce. Unlike ST, there are fewer consistent elements to write a show round. ST has a space-ship, a consistent galactic background (Federation society, Klingons, Borg etc) and a relatively solid ensemble cast that stories can be constructed around. The Enterprise visits a Federation outpost/explores a new planet/tussles with the Klingons/Borg/Romulans/Q. Doctor Who on the other hand has very little in the way of solid background. It has a ship – the TARDIS – but that is rarely used as the backbone of a story (unlike ST where Enterprise-centric stories are common). It has a small and changeable ensemble cast and a leading man whose character is far less consistent than a Jen Luc Picard or a James T Kirk. Apart from this very small continuity (and the fact that the Doctor arrives somewhere and solves stuff), every week the show is almost entirely different from the week before. Different aliens, different society, different time-period. In fact the one time the show had the largest ensemble cast (UNIT) and the most consistent background (exiled to Earth) it was arguably at it's most successful with the general public (and later at it's most despised within fandom for it's formulaic stories).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.