In Praise of the Classic, Scrappy, and Thoughtful ‘Doctor Who’

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Doctor Who turns 50 this year. For anyone who’s still in their 20s, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, the show is largely identified with its rebooted incarnation — the classic series is a historical curiosity, at best, the home to ropey special effects and curious English accents. All this is true, to an extent — but nevertheless, the early years of Doctor Who really should be compulsory viewing for anyone with even the most cursory interest in sci-fi or good TV in general. Here’s why.

It’s difficult to explain the appeal of less naturalistic television to a generation that’s grown up on hyperrealism. The expectation these days is that what you see on screen will be a literal representation of what is, or at least what you’re meant to believe. It’s an expectation that’s borne largely out of technological advances, because the possibilities these days for filmmaking now are literally endless.

I interviewed Peter Jackson circa The Hobbit, and he had some interesting things to say about what technological advances have done for the ability to put whatever he likes on screen: “For me as a filmmaker,” he said, “the technology gets you closer to the point where anything you can imagine, you can do. And we are at that point now, really. If you can shut your eyes and imagine any visual image at all, it’s now possible to put that on film.”

This is obviously only a very recent development. In the past, the lack of such technology required a different kind of storytelling, one that was as effective in its own way as the ultra-realistic depictions we see today. Audiences didn’t expect realism — walking into a cinema or sitting down in front of a TV always requires some sort of suspension of disbelief, and some of the best cinematic storytelling have always been about leaving things to the imagination. The predator in Predator is all the more terrifying because you can’t see it. The shark in Jaws is more menacing when you only see its fin. And so on.

It’s the same as, say, video games. The advent of ever-faster processors and GPUs has led us ever closer to photorealism on screen, but in the past, such realism was impossible, so designers had to rely on other tools to retain gamers’ attention — gameplay, storyline, etc. Whether better graphics and sound have made for better gaming is a debate for another forum, and one that involves issues that go well beyond the technical, but the point is that technical restrictions on realism didn’t preclude effective gaming in the past. Indeed, some of my favorite ever games have no graphics at all — both early text adventures like Zork and Trinity and latter-day interactive fiction projects like Anchorhead and Curses!. Others, like the remarkable Starflight, managed to cram entire universes onto a couple of floppy disks, with minimal graphics and only your imagination to guide you through the cosmos.

In all these cases, what you’re seeing on your screen acts as a notional representation of reality, not an attempt to recreate it. It’s a stimulus to the imagination, working in a manner similar to a good book, whereby you read about another world and find yourself recreating what’s happening in your head. No-one could possibly have ever believed that the giant stop-motion gorilla in the original King Kong was real, for instance, but that didn’t make it any less effective — indeed, it’s arguably a whole lot more effective than the super-realistic CGI remake from 2005.

Which brings us back to Doctor Who. There’s no denying that the show’s classic episodes look dated today — shit, most of them looked dated at the time, given the lack of money available to the show’s set and costume designers. But some of the show’s best moments came from working within these constraints. Take early Pertwee-era serial “The Ambassadors of Death,” for instance, which is based around the idea of three astronauts going into space and not coming back. Instead, their suits are inhabited by aliens — but we never see these aliens. The lumbering, inscrutable spacesuits are terrifying, because for seven episodes, you’re wondering just what the hell is in there.

Similarly, there were plenty of moments where the quality of the storytelling allowed the show to transcend its limitations. Tom Baker-era episode “The Ark in Space,” which involves the Doctor and his companions in the far future, stumbling on a colony spaceship that was launched from Earth untold millennia ago. While the colonists are in suspended animation, the ship is invaded by giant parasitic alien insects, the Wirrn, who use the sleeping humans as hosts for their eggs, with the larvae devouring their hosts as they grow, turning into fully grown aliens. The conceit is not unlike Alien — indeed, it’s often been cited as an influence on Ridley Scott’s classic — and its most dramatic scene comes when the ship’s captain undergoes a slow, irreversible change into a Wirrn.

Look closely, and you see that the hybrid creature’s skin is good old-fashioned bubble wrap. But let your imagination run away, and it’s not bubble wrap at all — it’s some hideous, suppurating alien flesh, a harbinger of a ghastly metamorphosis. The episode scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid, and lost very little of its impact when I rewatched it recently. Good storytelling overcomes its practical limitations.

It was only when Doctor Who started trying to be what it wasn’t that its quality really started to decline. This was most apparent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when internal divisions at the BBC meant that the show was constantly under threat, but also that its designers started trying to emulate Hollywood storytelling with a squillionth of the budget. This led to otherwise decent serials being undermined by silly special effects — there’s only so much suspension of disbelief you can get away with when confronted with a giant inflatable snake (although, again, it must be said that particular episode gave me nightmares for weeks as a seven-year-old.)

But all in all, vintage Doctor Who — particular the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker era — remains a rare pleasure, especially if you’re willing to suspend your urge to giggle at the special effects and focus on the storytelling, because its scripts were continually good for the best part of two decades, and its best moments are as good as anything in its genre. Truly, they don’t make TV like this any more. (And if you’re looking for a place to start, we’ve got you covered. Twice.)