Nostalgia and Doctor Who

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For those not in the know:
“Doctor Who follows the adventures of the primary character, a rogue Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who simply goes by the name “Doctor”. He fled from Gallifrey in a stolen Type 40 TARDIS time machine – “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” – which allows him to travel across time and space. Due to a malfunction of the TARDIS’ “chameleon circuit”, which normally allows the TARDIS to take on the appearance of local objects to disguise it from others, the Doctor’s TARDIS remains fixed as a blue British Police box. The Doctor rarely travels alone, and often brings one or more companions to share these adventures with, typically humans as he has found a fascination with the planet Earth. He often finds events that pique his curiosity while trying to prevent evil forces from harming innocent people or changing history, using only his ingenuity and minimal resources, such as his versatile sonic screwdriver.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who

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1. The Doctor Is A Victorian Scientist

By 1963, science fiction had already passed through three distinct eras. The First, beginning in the 19th Century, was dominated by scientist heroes engaged in adventures of discovery and invention; the primary writers were Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The horrors of WWI, inflicted partly through the efficacy of industrial weaponry, largely put an end to this era. The Second Era appeared in the 1920s, and with the genre becoming little more than fantasy in rocket-ships. Important authors include Edgar Rice Burroughs and Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond, but it was most memorable for its media of presentation: comic strips, serials, pulp magazines. By the end of the 1930s, however, the pulps were publishing the early work of the writers who, after the war, would bring in the Third Era of science fiction – such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – an era that would explore the scientific, social and political implications of the concepts embedded in the new technologies developed during WWII. Rockets now really could put humans into space, or deliver nuclear weapons to their targets with precision, while the viewing of images over long distances was becoming a commonplace. The Third Era sci-fi writers no longer needed to limit themselves to exploring a ‘brave new world’; i.e., a future earth – they could now create and explore many new worlds, some brave, some disappointing….

But the 1950s also saw the rise of a vigorous nostalgia for the fiction of the First Era. For more than a decade, from the early ’50s to the early ’60s, international film industries (dominated, of course, by Hollywood) produced a plethora of films based on the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. With one major exception (George Pal’s War of the Worlds), these films were set in the late 19th Century – or the Victorian period, as English speakers would have it – and they were again dominated by scientist discoverers as heroes – despite the fact that the world they were discovering had already been discovered. (By 1954, when Disney produced Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, thousands of men had already fought two major wars in submarines.) Thus the nostalgia: the audiences of these films well knew of contemporary explorations of the oceans and of outer space; they delighted at looking back at a ‘more innocent’ time when such explorations could only be accomplished through the imaginations of great writers. It is notable that the most popular of all these movies was Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a film that contained no elements of science fiction, but instead explored Victorian industrial advances in transportation, most of which had gone the way of the dinosaur by the time of the film’s production. It cannot be overemphasized how popular these movies were; the most expensively made film of its day, Todd’s Eighty Days earned back seven times its cost at the box office.

When, in 1963, Sydney Newman first put together a creative team to develop what would become Doctor Who for the BBC, they couldn’t have avoided the influence of this cultural trend – because something had already been produced partly in response to it, which they couldn’t have ignored. Although the BBC Quatermass serials of the ’50s were set in the near future, the character of Bernard Quartermass is a clear throwback to the the scientist heroes of H. G. Wells, perhaps with a touch of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger thrown in to give him an edge of toughness that Wells’ heroes often lacked. Author Nigel Kneale was certainly a Third Era sci-fi writer, but the Quartermass character is just as clearly engaged in First Era scientist-heroics. (To me, it is not at all surprising that the Quartermass serials would be brought to theaters by Hammer Films, whose stock in trade was nostalgia for Victorian gothic.)

My point is not that the character of the Doctor was mere regurgitation of Bernard Quartermass; that is clearly not the case. My point is that Quatermass and the Doctor share the same literary and dramatic genealogy and that at the core of both is a nostalgia for the Victorian scientist hero of First Era science fiction.

Anyone who can watch the William Hartnell Doctor and not see in his personality the irascibility of Professor Lidenbrock (1), the curiosity of Professor Aronnax (2), the over-the-cliff risk-taking of Wells’ nameless Time Traveler (3), the bullheaded arrogance of Professor Challenger (4) – well, clearly one would have to know nothing of either literature or film to miss this.

I think most fans of the Doctor are aware of it; but they seem to treat the matter lightly, as a kind of amusing subtext. That assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am trying to point out that this nostalgia is at the very core of the Doctor, this is his personality, this is what he is: a Victorian scientist who happens to come from another planet from the far-off future.

This seems to be a contradiction, but the inference that resolves it is near enough to hand – and is actually subtly implied by Robert Holmes (the scriptwriter most aware of the Doctor’s genealogy) in The Deadly Assassin (where most of the dangers found in Gallifrey’s ‘Matrix’ super-computer are lifted from the period of WWI – the moment when the First Era of sci-fi came to a close). Isn’t it obvious that, although we meet the Gallifreyans when they have developed superior technology and have evolved superior intellects and physiology, that Gallifrey clearly underwent a history quite similar to our own (in their ‘ancient past’)? The Doctor can have the personality of a Victorian scientist because Gallifrey once underwent an age of scientific discover similar to that of our own late 19th Century.

Of course, I admit that’s just a fan’s speculation – an explanation, if one is needed. But, really, it’s not needed. The character of the Doctor is fictional and specific to the many stories in which he appears. If his personality is that of Victorian scientist, and if that appeals to us for any reason, including and especially nostalgia, than so be it.

2. The Use and Abuse of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Once it kicks in, it begins to multiply many layers over time, since its principle concern is time and memory. All serial entertainments rely on some degree of nostalgia; we go to the next episode of the serial partly because we have such warm memories of the previous episode we enjoyed. The longer the serial goes on, the more complicated the complex of nostalgia that envelopes it. One develops a nostalgia, not only for previous episodes, for previous storytelling styles used in older episodes of the serial but for the era in which the older episodes appeared. Nostalgia for the Jon Pertwee and the Tom Baker Doctor Who stories is certainly in part nostalgia for the 1970s. And with good reason; their stories encapsulate many of the cultural changes of that decade.

And as a serial goes on, over succeeding generations, each new generation of fans develops its own layers of nostalgia. There is a whole (quite vocal) sector of the fan base for the current  New Series of Doctor Who (as helmed by Steven Moffatt) that is nostalgic, not for the Classic era, not for the Virgin New Adventures (published after the original series had folded), but for the original reboot by Russell T. Davies, as it came to star David Tennant.

Of course, there other fans nostalgic for the Classic era, many of whom were born well after the original series ended, who first came to Doctor Who through their parents’ old VHS tapes of the series. Fans who follow the Big Finish audios (still in production) are pretty honest about being nostalgic for the original series; or for the Doctor Who TV Movie (1996); or for the Virgin NAs. These audios, concerning older Doctors set in their original time-lines, are nostalgic by definition.

Let’s face it – Whatever it is that first made you feel good, you will always be nostalgic for it.

I’m not saying that nostalgia explains the whole of the Doctor Who phenomenon; that’s silly. Obviously, many of us come to any Doctor story in any medium looking for a good story well told. If we had no interest in the stories, just as stories, we would soon lose interest in the series as a whole. We might nostalgically look at our DVD collection, our Target books collection, our Big Finish CDs, and remember the enjoyment they first provided us, but we would not listen to them or read them or watch them anymore; we would recognize them as artifacts of the past, rather like photographs of loved ones who had passed away.

We all know that nostalgia can be dangerous to our memories and to our perceptions of reality. Nostalgia for an era frequently hides the truth of the era; the 1950s were the era of the young Elvis Presley and his blue suede shoes; it was also the era of McCarthyism and anti-integration violence.

However, denial of nostalgia, of its importance to our enjoyment of any entertainment, can be equally dangerous. It creates monsters of the mind. A friend of mine who insists that he listens to classic music compositions of the 19th Century simply because they are great works of music, needing no nostalgia at all, will sometimes also slip and reveal that he believes 19th Century Germany to represent the height of Western Civilization, when “giants walked the Earth”. Yes, but such giants composed while German workers virtually slaved in mines and factories, and politicians prepared the way for total world war in the century to follow. I really believe that if my friend would simply admit that his enjoyment of the works of Beethoven and Wagner included a big dose of nostalgia, that he could both enjoy those works more freely and come to grips with the fact that his image of 19th Century Germany is really pretty much a fantasy.

There is another denial of nostalgia that can be dangerous, that to be found among younger writers and producers of the very entertainments that largely depend on the sentiment. I’m not referring to a certain blindness to the nostalgic element one frequently finds among contributors to serial entertainments – say, those who write a Doctor Who story and assume that is all they are doing, and not engaging in tweaking the nostalgia nerve of their audience. These writers can create oddities, but no more so than those who intentionally tweak nostalgia for the sake of irony and humor.

No, I’m referring to those who decide that they will assault the nostalgia surrounding their serial heroes and somehow strip the serial of its nostalgic value, under the misguided presumption that they are ‘updating’ these heroes for a new generation and a new era. This is misguided largely because, as I’ve noted, nostalgia is rather built into the gestalt of any serial entertainment. Amusingly, several authors of the Virgin NAs were quite obviously trashing the format of the original series in order to accomplish this, and all they did was develop an audience that became nostalgic for the Virgin NAs. Russell Davies produced a number of episodes rather unkind to our nostalgic reading of the Doctor’s personality; e.g., Tooth and Claw, wherein the Doctor arrogantly insults Queen Victoria. But now, as noted, we have fans nostalgic for the Davies era of the New Series. Nostalgia is an integral part of a serial entertainment phenomenon, and when a writer attacks it, he or she may indeed generate an audience, but that audience will evidence the same level of nostalgia, albeit in different ways. And there are other dangers here; one, obviously is that the writer will alienate large sectors of the serial hero’s fan base, and this in turn will certainly create divisions among fans, thus eroding any sense of community among them.

Throughout the many fan debates, one topic causes such dissension that it has come to be avoided: what constitutes ‘proper’ Doctor Who? And it has been my feeling that, really, the Doctor’s history and previous adventures are such that so much leeway can be given to the many imaginations that produce Doctor Who stories in various media that the question became irrelevant long ago.

Currently, under Moffatt, Doctor Who seems treating much of its nostalgia in borderline parody.  But if the nostalgic element of the Doctor’s character is completely lost, then he is of no further use to many of us. If he can no longer enjoy some element, however slight, of being a Victorian scientist from another age, another planet, and having lived through all the stories and experiences we already know him from, then the series will no longer be Doctor Who.

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1. Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

2. Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

3. Wells, The Time Machine.

4. Conan Doyle, The Lost World.

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Re-edited from my article first posted at: The Doctor Who Ratings Guide, http://www.pagefillers.com/dwrg/

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7 thoughts on “Nostalgia and Doctor Who

  1. Lovely essay.
    I really believe that if my friend would simply admit that his enjoyment of the works of Beethoven and Wagner included a big dose of nostalgia, that he could both enjoy those works more freely and come to grips with the fact that his image of 19th Century Germany is really pretty much a fantasy.

    Ah, the importance of nostalgia. Nostalgia sanitizes the past. We need a sanitized past because the past is the foundation of our hopes of the future and the basis of our present sense of worth. This helps to explain why Japan will only make tepid half-apologies for its behaviour.

    But there is also more to science fiction. For 60,000 years we have been a frontiers people. As we began expanding around the world we were faced with frontiers that marked the beginning of the unknown. The unknown was the source of fascination, fears, apprehension and anticipated opportunity. The frontier was deeply embedded in our psyche. And then finally we circled the globe and explored its farthest corners. Our frontier psyche needed more, indeed demanded more. Science offered us new frontiers but we could only explore these frontiers in our imagination. We called this science fiction.

    When we push back the frontiers there is also an inchoate sense of dread of what it might reveal. Our greatest, unspoken dread is that we might meet something greater, more powerful than ourselves. Or even more fearfully, that it might come to meet us. HG Wells’ War of the Worlds is a fictional example of this fear. This is why our science fiction peoples the Universe with intelligent peoples. It is a projection of our fear of what we might meet beyond the ‘final frontier’ and also the hope that it might be benign.

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  2. Another thing I seem to have missed in life 😉 It simply did not exist in Germany at the time I would have been receptive to it. I actually only learnt about its existence last year. It is strange that there are still mayor parts of popular culture that are restrictied in this way (a series like this in the English speaking world, certain manga and anime in Japan, the Perry Rhodan series in Germany, and so on).

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    • Thanks for reminding me of Perry Rhodan. Around 1970, a series of these novels were translated in America, and nearly developed a cult following. I remember reading 3 or 5 of these. I also remember that the series had weird, complicated story arcs, which might be why it couldn’t sustain its audience here for more than a few years, since it was promoted as an action sci-fi series, like an updated Flash Gordon; but its design was on a different scale.

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      • In Germany, they published it in several editions. After a few hundred issues, they restarted it from the beginning, so that there where 3 or even 4 parallel editions. I remember that when I was 12 or 13 or so, I read 3 editions in parallel, so I had 3 issues per week (each about 60 pages). I think I read several hundred issues and for some time, I was addicted. At some point, I stopped in mid-sentence and it was over for me. But there are some people who have continued reading this stuff all of their lives (there are now more than 2700 issues) plus some spin-off series. Its a phenomenon.
        Kind of a late childhood memory. One of the things that give the 1970s their distinctive, strange/nice flavour in memory.

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      • Thinking of it, I think that in that age you have an ability to enjoy such stuff that is lost later, maybe due to the ripening of the frontal lobe or whatever, due to the development of reflective abilities. You gain something, but you are driven from a kind of paradise and what is left is nostalgia (so the nostalgia is not only a nostalgia for victorian steam punk). If you look at the stuff you are nostalgic for, you see it is terrible kitsch and nonsense, but that feeling is there. To an extent, certain kinds of comic strips, science fiction and some similar phenomena are an attempt to go back to that lost state of mind (maybe even religion, maybe even ideologies).

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      • Peter Pan as the archetype or symbol for a basic drive of human culture: regaining that 12-year-old state of mind. As a result: literature (ncluding sci-fi), films (james bond, …), comic strips, computer games, rituals, ideologies, religions…

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