Saturday, November 23, 2013

Looking Back on 50 Years of Doctor Who

The television series Doctor Who, a BBC-produced British cultural institution about a regenerating, time-traveling alien, first appeared on screen November 23, 1963. Today marks a new series, a new Doctor arrives in time for Christmas, and to celebrate, we asked Piers Britton, co-author of Reading between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who and TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who, to examine what's changed and what hasn't in the Doctor Who universe.

Design in “New Who” (and “New New Who”): An Afterword to Reading Between Designs
By Piers D. Britton

Twenty-one years ago, when Simon Barker and I began research for what eventually became Reading between Designs, Doctor Who was just as much a thing of the past as the other two TV series that we featured in chapter-length case studies (The Avengers and The Prisoner). This was still true when our book finally came out in spring 2003 — though within a matter of months Doctor Who had new currency with the announcement of a Russell T. Davies-helmed revival. As it turns out, our analysis of what is now called Classic Who is largely unaffected by the arrival and breathtaking success of the new series. In design terms Classic Who remains—to use a suggestive term invented for New Who narrative—time locked. The visual style of the old series is irretrievably remote, even in this jubilee year. This is not just due to New Who’s shift in production techniques, with single- as opposed to multiple-camera shooting (and thus individual lighting of each set-up) and much more extensive post-production work than was the norm in the classic series. Nor can it simply be attributed to the improvement in production values made possible by a larger budget and by the ever-growing sophistication of the prosthetic and digital technologies on which Who so heavily depends. There is another factor, which is distinct, if not discrete, from these developments: a decisive aesthetic shift away from the kind of stylized design and experiment that justified Classic Who’s inclusion in Reading between Designs.

For at least its first five years on air New Who was strongly anchored in the visual sensibility of recent science fiction and fantasy TV made in the US, and clearly designed to meet the standards for generic verisimilitude established in these programs. The immediate context for New Who was formed by shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, and at slightly greater distance by The X-Files and the later television instantiations of Star Trek (particularly Deep Space Nine and Enterprise). In varying degrees these series are all marked by an espousal of what we might call SF realism, which is to say a tendency to dour, lived-in, gritty design imagery rather than operatic spectacle and flamboyance. While Russell T. Davies was show runner, this understated, borderline grungy style was the norm for the revived Doctor Who. The series aesthetic changed slightly in 2010 under the tutelage of the new writer-producer, Steven Moffat, whose “faery tale” approach to Who storytelling encouraged more whimsical and exuberant design work. Even so, the will-to-brand in New Who precluded the kind of internal variation in visual style, and thus some of the bolder innovations and deviations, which Classic Who had accommodated. For example, it’s almost impossible to imagine the new series supporting the kind of radical shift in narrative and visual tone that occurred in the midst of the eighteenth season of the classic series. Here a high-concept SF serial playing with evolutionary theory (“Full Circle”) was followed in rapid succession by a knowingly hammy vampire pastiche (“State of Decay”), a hauntingly surreal, Cocteau-esque fantasy (“Warrior’s Gate”) and a wordy, quasi-Shakespearean melodrama of court intrigue (“The Keeper of Traken”). They were all informed by radically different design concepts that served to optimize the tonal shift.

With all this in mind, an “afterword” to Reading between Designs addressing the new series might seem misplaced. New Who may share a name, premise and (some) narrative continuity with the classic series, but if the context for design has been so radically reframed, is there really any value in a supplement comparing the visual imagery of the two series? There are two ways of answering this. First, at the level of individual design motifs—many of which have over the years gained extraordinary force as emblems of British television and Britishness at large—New Who necessarily engages its Classic past: the TARDIS continues to be operated from a six-sided control console, the Daleks essentially maintain the form devised by Ray Cusick in 1963, and so on. Even if the idiom of New Who has changed overall, key elements in Classic Who’s design legacy have been carefully redeployed in this new context. As I have argued elsewhere, the continuity or reappearance of these key elements embodies a curious kind of inter-textuality, which entails simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the past. Second, and for present purposes more importantly, while the will-to-brand may have curbed some of the maverick discontinuities that once typified Doctor Who, branding logic also entails periodic renewal. Since Steven Moffat took over as show runner, New Who has been rebranded in part through costumes and sets that are bolder and more spectacular than those produced under Davies. In short, New Who has grown steadily more like its Classic self — and this is to an extent a matter of avowed aesthetic choice. With this renaissance in mind, I’d like to explore three of the visual motifs that have had complex histories within the texts of Doctor Who, whose mutations in the last few years speak very strongly to both ongoing and altered design imperatives: the Cybermen, the TARDIS interior, and the Doctor himself.

Of all the returning Classic monsters in New Who, the Cybermen have the most complex design history. Whereas the Daleks’ casings barely changed at all in the twenty-six years of the original series’ run, the appearance of the Cybermen was altered for almost every rematch with the Doctor between their debut in 1966 and the twentieth-anniversary episode in 1983. 

The paratexts surrounding any reimagined Classic monster in the new series have invariably stressed the necessity of maintaining some “essence” of the original while updating the design (and, implicitly or explicitly, making it more credible). In the case of the Cybermen, this was in one sense problematic, since the only real constants were the “handle bars” on their heads. For all practical purposes, however, the lack of an ur-image gave designers and fabricators a free hand, and this was fully exploited not only in costume design but also in other ways. The 2006 design, with overtones of 1930s streamline moderne and more than a hint of steampunk, was exponentially clunkier than almost all the classic series Cybermen, and for the first time in their history the noise of mechanized “stomping” was added to every sequence in which the metal monsters appeared. Just as their 1980s predecessors wore armor that was evidently meant to evoke up-to-the-minute Hollywood SF styling embodied in Darth Vader and the Cylons of the original Battlestar Galactica, so the New Who Cybermen both looked and sounded like the Cylons of the “reimagined” Battlestar — and this was also surely not a coincidence. Russell T. Davies was keen to insist in interviews that the new Cybermen were not “silver” giants, as they had often been described in Classic Who, but steel, and their whole aural and visual design profile heavily underscored this.

Under Steven Moffat’s tutelage the Davies paradigm of steel warriors was gradually undermined, then partially reversed: paratexts surrounding the Cybermen’s most recent appearance expressly oriented the latest “rebrand” towards Classic series precedents. Before this reorientation, Gareth Roberts’s “Closing Time” (2011) and Moffat’s “The Pandorica Opens” (2010) had treated audiences to ghoulishly decayed Cybermen, introducing an element of horror and of black humor into their representation, and tacitly pointing up the mild absurdity of these ungainly brutes. The reinvention of the Cybermen along classic-series lines was the work of Neil Gaiman, who in 2013 revealed that he had been tempted into writing his second Who script only when Steven Moffat invited him to “make the Cybermen scary again.” Moffat’s disavowal of Davies’s “improved” Cybermen could not be much clearer. Retrospectively, it frames the humor of “Closing Time” and the body horror of “The Pandorica Opens” (which featured a Cyber-helmet ejecting the desiccated head of its now-dead occupant) as tacit commentary on the supposed improvement. Gaiman’s solution to making the Cybermen scary again, it turned out, was to present them as capable not just of brute force but of cunning and patience, as they had been in their earliest appearances. In both his script and his paratextual commentaries about it he made allusion to the silent Cybermen who struck lethally from the shadows in “The Moonbase” (1967). The Cybermen are rendered more credible as a lurking menace by the fact that in many scenes the added sound effects of clanking feet and hydraulic limbs are markedly less intrusive. Tellingly, Gaiman also entitled his episode “Nightmare in Silver,” overwriting Davies’s insistence that the Cybermen are steel. And while the articulated bodies of the new Cybermen seen for the first time in “Nightmare” are certainly not remote from their Davies-era predecessors, the restoration of a thoroughly human (as opposed to Cylon/Robocop) silhouette, and the much greater roundness and blankness of the heads, especially the faces, brings the Cybermen very close to their “Moonbase” ancestors.

The “Nightmare” Cybermen are certainly not the only examples of Sixties-directed retrovision in the Moffat era. In 2010 there was a rather less successful attempt to introduce big, brightly colored Daleks like those seen in two mid-sixties theatrical releases starring Peter Cushing as “Dr. Who” — Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (Gordon Flemyng, 1965 and 1966 respectively). Similarly, the new TARDIS exterior created for Matt Smith’s Doctor recalls the Cushing TARDIS, and also that of the earliest television version first seen in “An Unearthly Child” with its white window trim and St. John’s Ambulance badge. There are echoes of the Heath Robinson interior of the Cushing TARDIS in the 2010 set created on Smith’s arrival, with its wacky array of found objects—such as a typewriter, hot and cold taps, and a trim-phone—integrated into the central control station. Like the comic and gothic treatment of the Cybermen in “The Pandorica Opens,” Edward Thomas’s design of this warmly lit, playful new TARDIS interior represents a departure from and a kind of critique of the grungy version he had created for the Ninth Doctor in 2004. It also conforms to branding best practice, which demands that any update to the brand present sameness within difference: the organizing element in the design is the array of “coral” supports and walls that suggest, as with Thomas’s previous interior, that the TARDIS is grown rather than constructed.

Brand logic is stretched further in the case of the TARDIS interior introduced at the end of 2012 (in “The Snowmen”), again bringing Who back to its Sixties origins. Here the central plan is emphatically restored, and the coral is entirely gone. Except that the color scheme is dominated by grey steel rather than white, this TARDIS strongly recalls the interior originally created for “An Unearthly Child” (1963), above all in the treatment of the central control station, with its array of dials, levers, buttons and curiously shaped touch screens. Only the profusion of Gallifreyan symbols, the console-mounted monitor and the split-level set recall the prior TARDIS interiors of New Who. Once again, Moffat’s commentary also distanced this latest set from all that had gone before in the revival (including the period of his own incumbency). Noting that recent TARDIS sets had perhaps gone too far in the direction of whimsy, he stressed the importance of remembering that the TARDIS is a machine — and a potentially dangerous space of mystery and the unknown. In short, the sense of the TARDIS as not-of-this-world becomes paramount once more, as it was in “An Unearthly Child.”

Finally, it may be noted that the treatment of the Doctor’s costume has gradually returned to something approaching Classic Who whimsy and flamboyance, after the massive rejection of the Classic Doctors’ alleged “foppery” in Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket and dark, plain street wear. The process of nodding towards the more swashbuckling costume images of the classic series began with David Tennant, whose old-fashioned suit and long polo coat nodded indirectly to Tom Baker’s and Jon Pertwee’s Romantically inflected dress. However, Tennant wore his suit with an air of ironic cool that allied his Doctor clearly with a kind of post-punk revival geek chic, and was 
therefore still intelligible as not partaking of the Classic Doctors’ camp. Matt Smith’s image, on the other hand, was unapologetically oriented to the past, and it's almost impossible to miss the fact that his original costume is close not only in spirit but also in much of the detail to Patrick Troughton’s: the major difference is that Smith wears his bow tie with black trousers and a checkered jacket whereas Troughton wore his with a black jacket and checkered trousers. From Christmas 2012 onward, Smith’s attire started to echo his Classic predecessors’ wardrobes in other ways, notably via the return of the frock coat, an item that had become a Who cliché by the mid 1980s but had made no prior appearance in the revival. 

That Doctor Who should increasingly have harked back to the tone of the classic series’ design imagery as it approached its jubilee year was certainly not a foregone conclusion, but nor, perhaps should it be that surprising. Nor are the twists and turns of changing design sensibility in the new series simply a matter of action and reaction, as my argument here might seem to imply. If Matt Smith’s Doctor, like the environments he occupies and the entities he encounters, could become more whimsical and thus closer to Classic Who paradigms, this was surely as much an effect as a rejection of Davies’s vision for New Who, with its cool visual understatement and emphasis on the “now.” As the failure of the 1996 BBC/Fox pilot starring Paul McGann attests, echoing or pastiching Classic Who was a hazardous strategy for anyone seeking to revive the show in the years after its initial cancellation. By 2010, and still more by 2013, the barnstorming success of the revival and the new generic and brand contexts within which the Smith/Moffat version is intelligible—tellingly, my students most often compare it with the Harry Potter franchise—allow for, and even encourage, a relaxation of the prior embargo on quirkiness and flamboyance. 

None of this is to minimize the risks that have been taken in the Moffat era, or the magnitude of their success. This leads me to my final point. Steven Moffat has taken one further, massive gamble with the look of the show in the anniversary year — a major redesign not merely of the Doctor's costume but of the face it frames. Discounting John Hurt’s “War Doctor,” Peter Capaldi will be the second oldest actor at time of debut to take the starring role in Doctor Who. Whether this somatic restyling of the show will continue to receive widespread audience support, or whether it will prove a bridge too far in the era of the “young Doctors,” remains to be seen.

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