This also, of course, marks the first time I have to deal overtly with the new series instead of in passing reference. So time to obliterate all notion that I can stitch together some sort of consensus about the series and just start pissing off large sections of fandom, I suppose. I won’t bother playing about – as I’ve said before, anyone expecting the blog to turn sour on the new series is going to be sorely disappointed. Even when I agree with those who criticize it – and I’ll grant that there are deep flaws in the Davies era and fault lines that could turn into deep flaws in the Moffat era – the fact remains that making redemptive readings of the new series is not even remotely difficult. Disliking it frankly requires more effort than liking it, and I just can’t be bothered. If you can, well, I win, because I get more television to enjoy than you do, so there.
But on top of that basic issue there are a few more substantive issues I have with critics of the new series, and Time Crash serves as a bit of a ground zero for them. There’s an objection to Time Crash that gets voiced with some frequency on forums that serves as a perfect moment to repel a general critique of the new series, namely that there’s something wrong with the sequence at the end in which Tennant’s Doctor proclaims Davison’s Doctor to be “his” Doctor. In fact, I’m going to have my Ian Levine moment here and simply declare this objection to be evil.
To be fair, the problem with it is not quite that it doesn’t make sense on its own terms. If you are invested in the idea that the Doctor has a coherent “life” and that he is always the same character then, indeed, the idea of him picking favorites among his past selves is absurd and jarring. I can and will readily grant that. What I not only won’t grant but will remain openly hostile to is the idea that because there’s a context in which that exchange doesn’t make sense this constitutes a problem. And this encapsulates a great number of complaints about the new series, as a strange alliance of people who adore what they think the classic series was and people who just hate Doctor Who in general insist that there are things that don’t make sense or don’t parse, as though their inability to understand something makes them intellectually superior to the overwhelming majority of the audience who has no problem comprehending things.
Because to an overwhelming majority of the audience what happens at the end of Time Crash is perfectly blatant. The fourth wall is not so much broken as made porous and we get a sequence in which both David Tennant and Steven Moffat address Peter Davison and his version of the Doctor. Nobody who was watching the Children in Need telecast for any reasons that extended beyond catching the Doctor Who bit had any difficulty with this. This sort of fourth wall breaking and winking at the audience is, after all, par for the course for a charity telecast. One might as well begin having trouble with “A Fix With Sontarans” or something at that point.
But more to the point, this is a basic comprehension skill for contemporary television. Frames of reference switch rapidly. The postmodernism that we traced the early days of in the Hinchcliffe era is now the default mode of how television works. If you can’t seamlessly and without having to think about it go “oh, this bit is really the show talking about itself and not an attempt to provide a naturalistic depiction of how a quasi-immortal time traveler lives his life” when the show wants you to, you’re just out to sea on the new series. And being out to sea in this way is not a virtue. “I’m not televisually literate” is not a valid objection to anything but yourself.
No, what we have here is an exquisitely crafted eight minute sketch that works well both for people who remember the Davison era and for people who don’t give a crap about Doctor Who and who are watching Children in Need – a portion of the audience that, during Children in Need, one can safely assume is substantial. Everything in it is profoundly influenced and shaped by the past of the series and Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor (right down to the wonderful happenstance of Graham Harper being the director), and, equally, is perfectly suited to its task.
The first half of the piece, for instance, which consists mostly of an extended comedic misunderstanding as Davison’s Doctor fails to grasp what’s going on while Tennant’s (and the audience) are well aware of what’s happening, is gorgeous. Particularly worth noting is Davison’s acting, which is on the one hand spot on for his portrayal of the Doctor (it helps, of course, that he’d been reprising the role for eight years due to Big Finish), and on the other allows him to show off his comedic skills. These skills are worth highlighting specifically, since one of the enduring puzzles of the Davison era is that they hired an actor known for his sitcom roles and then gave him three years of scripts with virtually no comedic material at all.
This gets at one of the things I’ve been meaning to deal with in one of these posts, which is, roughly, why people who think Davison’s Doctor was rubbish are wrong. The usual criticism of him has shifted over the years. During his era the complaint was that he was “bland,” but over time the complaint has turned to the idea that he’s “weak” and “ineffectual,” or, occasionally, “too fallible.” And to some extent Time Crash would seem to nail that, spending half of its runtime with him failing to get the plot. But, of course, the end point of Time Crash is Tennant’s effusive praise for Davison and his “dashing about” and ability to “save the universe with a kettle and string.”
This captures an important divide about Davison – one we’ve already seen in the dismaying failure to give him any decent comedic scripts in his tenure (with Black Orchid being about the nearest attempt). Davison’s Doctor and the writing he got were two different matters. Yes, the writing in the Davison era is too often disappointing, and often strays into grotesquely cynical pieces like Earthshock or Warriors of the Deep. But Davison’s conception of the character isn’t responsible for that. Davison manages a character who is mercurial, tempestuous, and breathtakingly quick-witted. As his ability to squarely hit the characterization of an over twenty-year-old role when put in a comedic context that the original role was never put in demonstrates. He’s the only actor other than Troughton in the classic series who has a version of the Doctor that is this flexible. And like Troughton, he had writers who had little to no interest in using that flexibility. The difference is merely that Davison’s era post-dates organized fandom and all of his episodes are not only surviving but were widely disseminated on videocassette not long after they aired (even if not in official versions). Were Season Five as widely dissected by fandom as Season Twenty, the truth is that their reputations would be similar.
The big advantage of Davison’s approach to the role is that it marked the first time since the 1960s that Doctor Who has actually been a show that, conceptually, could do anything. Given that Doctor Who has long been about injecting the TARDIS into an existing narrative structure, this is important. Davison has enough presence to deform and transform whatever narrative he’s injected into, but he’s capable of doing it in a way that amounts to more than just running around mocking it. (In this regard he largely exceeds the ability of his costar here)
And Time Crash gives him the opportunity to do this to the future version of his own show. It’s worth noting that through the comedic first half, as Tennant goes around making all of the obvious jokes at Davison’s expense (“decorative vegetable”), Davison takes only one real shot at Tennant, but it’s an absolutely scathing one – pointing out that Tennant’s patter really just amounts to describing everything in front of him. Obviously the story isn’t anti-Tennant by any measure, but it’s telling, I think, that it does give an actual critique of Tennant’s portrayal. Even when playing the comedic fool – at his most seemingly ineffectual and fallible – Davison quietly centers the narrative on himself.
Which, of course, sets up the finale, in which Tennant effusively praises Davison’s portrayal. Obviously this moment is meant to work primarily on registers other than as an account of the Doctor’s own psyche. It is an instance in which the Doctor becomes an authorial/actor mouthpiece. But this is still remarkable in that they are serving as mouthpieces for commentary on the classic series – something the new series has done very, very rarely. And what we get is historically interesting, in that it cuts against the received wisdom of fandom without being a flagrant erasure of history. Tennant and Moffat are real and documented fans of the series, but the opinion they give is miles from the documented consensus of fandom.
Of course, the documented consensus of fandom is, for most of fandom’s history, the consensus of a fandom that played a significant if inadvertent role in the series’ cancellation. The fact is that much of what can and should be concluded about the John Nathan-Turner era changes dramatically when it is the lead-in to a lengthy break in the series instead of to the death of the series. Its teleology shifts from the well-worn “death of the program” to the much more interesting “survival of the program” we talked about in the Frontios entry.
And in this regard, Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor is, in fact, absolutely crucial. Because Davison, as Tennant observes, inaugurated the idea of a young Doctor. Previously the role had derived a non-trivial portion of its otherness from the fact that he’s been played as an older male who is iconographically off for the leading man and who derives most of his immediate connotative effect from being “the wise old man.” But Davison throws away all of that and gets by on actually being mercurial clever instead of on the fact that he’s self-evidently the elder statesman in almost any circumstance he can find himself in.
The result is, in some criticisms, a more human Doctor who is too relatable, but I think this misses the point somewhat. First of all, making the Doctor more relatable introduces an interesting alternate mode of engagement with the series. The idea of the companion as “audience identification figure” is deeply entrenched in the series’ logic. It’s been flawed for some time, though it remains the case that the companion is largely there to ask the questions the viewer wants answered. But the relative relatability of the Doctor (and it’s telling, I think, that Davison still excels at moments of being alien and eccentric – he’s majestic at the start of Frontios when Bidmead is writing him eccentrically again) opens the possibility of the audience relating primarily to the Doctor. This seems to me wonderful. The show is, to my mind, wildly more interesting when it suggests being an anarchist alchemist instead of admiring one.
But secondly, I have trouble with the notion that the existence of relatable moments for the Doctor invalidates his alien moments. Indeed, I think the fact that the Doctor can seem relatable one moment and utterly alien the next makes him, on aggregate, more unfamiliar than a character who is predictably alien. The Doctor’s otherness comes not from the fact that he’s consistently inscrutable but from the fact that he flits between a known type of character and a cipher. And swapping the known type of character from a straightforward archetype (grumpy old man, dashing action hero, witty bohemian) to a complex character with relatable traits makes the moments when the Doctor is starkly inhuman far more offputting.
?But much of that is an argument for the future. For our purposes at the moment the fact remains that Davison’s Doctor, in hindsight, proved to be as much of a template for the future as Troughton’s did, and that, like Troughton, this is due to his capacity as an actor. The Nathan-Turner years are among the most critically well worn section of the program. Time Crash is a compelling argument that this consensus has become secondary in importance to a new reading. Regardless of what one thinks of the future, the Davison era ought be understood more in relation to the future we have now than the one we had in the 1990s.