God and the doctor we alike adore,
But only when in danger, not before;
The danger o’er, both are requited,
God is forgotten, and the doctor slighted
(Epigrams JOHN OWEN 1563-1622)
Great culture creates an enduring life long impact. The memory of Elvis in his Las Vegas suit, the lyrics of Let it Be, Clark Gable standing at the foot of a staircase saying ‘Frankly my dear…’ And maybe that’s why we are becoming increasingly critical of television – cookery programmes and reality TV don’t create that lasting impact. It’s a symptom of our move towards an instant gratification society. We might all be talking about it one day, but by the next it’s simply forgotten.
British TV has given us some great moments. Basil Fawlty beating up his car, Yosser Hughes pleading ‘give us a job’, Ena Sharples battling with Elsie Tanner, Del Boy and Rodders as Batman & Robin, Basil Brush laughing ‘boom boom!’… All lasting images that make us look nostalgically at the golden age, when TV was good and it made us feel good. It never bullied you, pointed a laughing finger or accused you of being ‘the weakest link’. TV brought families together, watching together, feeling good together.
Perhaps one of the programmes that gave us those magic images, unforgettable moments and a great feeling that everything was going to be all right was Dr. Who. So, go on, give it a go – if you are over 30 you might be able to recall some great classic Dr. Who moments.
When the BBC stopped making Dr. Who in the late 80′s no one seemed to notice or mind, possibly because no one seemed to be watching. Perhaps the programme had run its course, perhaps there was no room for it in the schedules, and perhaps it was a mere simple embarrassment. The longest running science fiction programme in the world just seemed to peter out of existence. And for the next 16 years the planet (the programme was shown and loved around the world) was denied one of its most enduring and endearing heroes.
For the true fan, he never went away, adventuring in books, magazines and audio dramas, keeping us going through those wilderness years. A Channel 4 viewers vote ranked him the 6th most popular TV character. Furthermore, when the BBC celebrated its 60th year viewers were asked to vote for their favourite popular Drama. Nominations included fondly remembered classics like When The Boat Comes In, Z Cars and Colditz. During the awards ceremony the EastEnders cast smugly looked ready to accept the award; Casualty was also a firm favourite. And the winner..? Dr. Who was effectively voted the most popular programme ever made by the BBC.
Inspired by their love of the programme, some of the Doctors devotees started careers in TV. While the programme was off the air, they were gaining experience, respect and power within the profession. Russell T Davies and Queer as Folk, Mark Gatiss with The League of Gentleman. It was only a matter of time before one of them would be in the position to reboot the programme for the 21st century. But I don’t think that’s why the programme was revived. Doctor Who came back because we needed him to save us from ugly TV. We once felt good about TV because it brought us together and Doctor Who was one of those programmes that hooked the kids and entertained the grown ups at the same time.
It’s easy to sit back and scoff at the wobbly sets, countless quarries and ‘men-in-rubber-suits monsters’. Yet, even post Star Wars, Dr. Who delivered week in, week out because it was deliciously, safely terrifying. How many of us, now adults, have the wonderfully fond memory of Saturday nights behind the sofa petrified for the safety of our hero. It was fantastic.
Dr. Who seemed to get away with scaring kids witless, maybe because everyone knew that, in the end, no matter what the odds, he’d beat the baddie. Part of his appeal was that he wasn’t like most heroes. He didn’t have super powers, wasn’t particularly good looking or physically strong, he hated officialdom and bureaucracy, detested violence, war and fighting and would refuse the offer of a gun, even when approaching a deadly situation. He didn’t want to destroy evil but would rather rehabilitate it, usually offering an alternative way of life to the villain. The Doctor would mourn the death of an enemy who moments before had been bent on killing him.
The Doc fought bigotry wherever it was found, and in doing so showed us that we were part of a much bigger picture, a universe filled with people with different cultures and attitudes. And here was the positive underlying message of the programme. He rejected violence as a way of life yet could not stand back and do nothing and always had regard for any life form.
It’s the youngsters who suffered the most in those Doctor-less years. Can it really be that there was a whole generation out there who don’t know what a TARDIS is? Who hadn’t been terrified by the Daleks? The poor things. No wonder they were excited at TV imports like Pokemon, Power Rangers or whatever’s popular that week. Such programmes were phenomenally successful but instantly forgettable, generating mass appeal through clever marketing, little substance and MacDonald’s Happy Meals. And show me a parent who can bear to sit down and watch this rubbish with their child! Doctor Who provided generations with unforgettable images of Yeti on the London Underground, Sea Devils emerging from the waves, and Cybermen climbing out of the sewers. Then there were the giant maggots, the thingy with one eye, the bloke who was half robot…
Dr. Who gave us a rebel hero who broke the rules. An outcast from his own people, he was prepared to challenge the dictators he met. And as kids we wanted to do just the same imagining our teachers and authority figures as monsters under the control of an evil alien intelligence.
So who are today’s heroes? What role models does TV present now? The designer label worshipping generation that grows up too quickly, to binge in their early teens on brightly coloured alcohol in trendy bottles and can only communicate with each other through text messages. Their rebel is rap-star Eminem who, brilliant as he may be, wouldn’t exactly be welcomed over for tea. They’ll probably grow to worship Baines & Ernst or any other company who can help them escape from the debt trap their instant gratification lifestyle is setting for them.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
The Doctor used his imagination to get out of trouble, in the days when imagination was something to be encouraged in the young. In the playground we acted out his adventures to free ourselves from educational tyranny. A year after the National Curriculum was introduced, the series was scrapped? Coincidence? Take a look at any Minister for education. Are you really SURE that Sir Keith Joseph or David Blunkett weren’t under the control of an evil cyber-race. They even gave us a Minister with the surname ‘BAKER’ – but we weren’t falling for it. As Doctor Who was replaced with Doctor Spin so vanished the hope of being free, individual, creative, imaginative and different.
The concept of Dr. Who is limitless and timeless. And he’s back, where he belongs, on Saturday nights, proving established wisdom, that there’s no such thing as a family audience, wrong. In June 2008 it was the number one rated programme of the week – the first time in its 45 year history. Over 13 million tuned inro his Christmas Day adventure. It’s ratings success isn’t because it’s a well made programme. It’s because it makes us feel good. Broadcasters think we want to see people fail, fall and suffer. But that’s not the reason we tune in. We want our entertainment to make us feel good about ourselves and very few programmes try to achieve that these days.
Dr. Who began in November 1963 with the dual brief to entertain and educate. And it did – superbly - for decades. We may have been scared, but we were always safe. The Doctor never let us down. The BBC created a series with limitless possibilities, and it survived 26 years on miniscule budgets, and yes, sometimes with wobbly scenery, because it was pure, escapist family entertainment.