“Excuse me, would it prove impossible for you to refrain from voiding your bowels, while I endeavour to save the planet?”
The Sixth Doctor, in all his flamboyant glory, stands brow furrowed and hands imperiously on hips as he lectures the flatulent MP, beneath whose skin lurks the very creature responsible for the crisis.
No? Well how about this one; the Kandy Man, busy concocting a new batch of Fondant Surprise in his Kandy Kitchen, only to be confronted by a cocky, Northerner with a battered leather jacket and Doc Martins, calling him ‘Bertie’ before lemonade-ing his feet to the floor.
Ok, so I’m mixing up my New Who with my Classic, but is that such a wild idea? And more to the point, how would stories like Aliens of London or the Happiness Patrol go down if produced in each other’s eras?
In some cases the answer seems obvious; if the Slitheen had graced our screens in 1985, you’d likely still hear the cries of indignant rage to this day. An abundance of Raxacoricofallapatorian flatulence would have served only to mask (in the eyes of the BBC and a sizeable chunk of fandom) the ear splitting sound of a barrel being scraped. Colin Baker, while no doubt giving his usual wonderful performance, would have found his efforts glossed over with condemnations of the casual horror of the Monsters of the Week actually skinning their victims and wearing their flesh as suits, and still more remarks about that sodding coat. A story that found praise in 2005 would have been dismissed as simultaneously trading on cheap laughs and morbid violence twenty years earlier.
Likewise The Happiness Patrol, a story criticised in its day for its, perhaps, less than subtle satire and confectionary based villainy, would have likely been trumpeted as a victorious testament to the Good Doctor’s rebirth in 2005. True, the production values would have been better and it’s easy to imagine that Chris Eccleston’s Time War tarnished, guilt ridden Ninth Doctor would have added an extra layer to the lesson on sadness he imparts to (maybe just a little less obvious?) Helen A. But that said, is drowning people in fondant and a baddie made from sweets any more or less clownish than a robot Trinny and Susannah and lethal versions of the Weakest Link?
You see, as much as I understand there will be huge differences in what audiences are looking for and will accept over two decades, and putting aside the obvious difference in budgeting and production quality, I just can’t help thinking that Doctor Who in the late eighties just couldn’t do right for doing wrong, and that the fans of the era were as much to blame as the short sighted executives at the Beeb in that proving to be the case. Ok, I know things are done much more smoothly these days; the writing is sharper, there is linking narrative, character development and a thousand other pointers that suggest the programme makers have actually paid attention to what they established the preceding week. Too often in the past, good stories were hampered by mis-direction, sloppy writing and the like, but even when it did things well it found itself castigated, and only a very few things escaped the sweeping brush of critical damnation.
Vengeance on Varos? Too violent. Paradise Towers? It has cannibalistic grannies (won’t someone please think of the children?), and don’t let’s even get started on the Twin Dilemma. I mean, who on earth would accept the arrival of a manically unstable, aggressive Doctor who goes around insulting all and sundry, terrifies his companion and appears genuinely capable of murder in an otherwise forgettable story? Erm, well, we did actually, a few months back in Deep Breath, along with several million other people. Put Peter Capaldi in a nauseating coat and yellow strides and his introduction in series 8 was everything the Sixth Doctor’s was meant to be. In both cases, we have a bold decision by a Production team to radically change the character the audience has come to love. No longer the affable, approachable if slightly odd young man, now the Doctor is older, mean as you like, sure of his intellectual superiority over everyone around him and unafraid to show it and yes, for the first time in years, we are unsure as to exactly what lengths this man will go to and we get the distinct impression that so is he and that he is scared of the uncertainty. Brave stuff, by both teams, but the bravery only seemed to pay off in 2014, benefitting no doubt from the altogether more complete writing and the singular lack of sequins. While both Baker and Capaldi deserve praise for the way they approached their debuts, the left field characterisation of the 12th Doctor had 2014 audiences licking their lips in anticipation of further adventures, relishing the new layer this tweak added to the drama. The prevalent attitude of 1985 though seemed to be a yearning for more of the same and semi despair that the new Doctor wasn’t exactly the same as the last one, leading fans to loudly condemn the changes and BBC elitists to stroke their chins in ponderous disdain and start drawing up plans for Eldorado.
And I think that is my main point; it all comes down to timing. In my own humble view, series 1 of the re-launch is still the best that New Who has brought us; the stories were compact, tight, solid and damn entertaining. But even if we could transfer each of those stories into Season 22, I doubt it would have made any difference; Doctor Who was by that time such a neglected jewel in the BBC’s crown that it could have been written by Orwell and starred Lawrence Olivier and the execs still wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But if we went the other way and gave, for example, Timelash, the 2005 treatment – drop the campy acting, give the companion something to do other than being tied to a pole and threatened with a prosthetic phallus – just basically tightened things up, then the only sound louder than the cheer of the audience would be those same execs hammering their calculators.
The last years of Classic Who are tragically overlooked, with Colin and Sylvester’s contributions too often dismissed, or viewed as the also rans by people who think anything that came after Tom was sacrilege. Yes, it brought us some great stories, fondly remembered by fans, but after ten years of New Who, one can’t help but wonder what Remembrance of the Daleks or The Curse of Fenric might look like today; good stories done brilliantly. But equally, the comparison works the other way; stories that struggle to make the grade, like New Earth for example or quite a lot of Series 6 (just throwing an idea around, please be gentle with me), are saved by a moment of inspired writing, a minute of majestic direction or a breath taking special effect. Plant those stories instead in the Baker/McCoy eras and all of a sudden you have howls of fan anguish and evidence of Doctor Who’s terminal decline. So maybe there’s a lesson there, for fans of both eras, to just sit back, enjoy and judge the story we watch at its purest level; not get hung up judging them as the reason for the hiatus or reasons for the Beeb’s dip in confidence between Series’ 4 and 5. After all, every episode gives us this character we adore, it’s just that some were done better than others – whether we like it, or not.