Doctor Who is a series about the future and the past, about adventures and villains and monsters. What it isn’t about, really – at least for a fair chunk of its first 20 years – is the Doctor and his companions. Oh, they’re an essential part of it, of course. We care about them and we want to spend time with them. But they’re not the story, they’re a catalyst for the story. They might play a role, they might be the eyes and ears through which we experience what’s happening. But we’re watching a Dalek story or a Cyberman story or a historical, not a Dodo Chaplet story or a Liz Shaw story.
It didn’t start off quite like that. To begin with, Doctor Who was the story of Mr Chesterton and Miss Wright, two schoolteachers who had been kidnapped by a strange old man and whirled away to who knew where – or when. We didn’t know if they would ever get home, but we stayed tuned to find out.
The stories regularly flowed from one to another, because Ian and Barbara were our focus and so we stayed with them. At the end of one story they would find a giant footprint, all ready for next week’s tale. Or the Doctor would threaten to put them off the ship when they landed (adventure ends), and when the TARDIS materialises, that’s exactly what he tries to do (new adventure begins). Furthermore the TARDIS wasn’t just a means to travel between stories, it was also their home. They had bedrooms, with rather uncomfortable-looking couch beds (surely Ikea should have started selling those by now), and even a food machine that produced Mars Bars tasting of (salty) English bacon. A whole story was spent just inside the ship with no monster or villain!
That the programme under John Nathan-Turner was returning to these roots was hinted at in Season Eighteen. Look at the beginning of Full Circle, as the Doctor not only talks about having just returned home the Earthling from Meglos but also looks forward to visiting Leela and Andred on Gallifrey – and to top all that we’re then taken to no lesser place than Romana’s rather frilly bedroom. Once into Season Nineteen this approach is in full swing. Take The Visitation. Straight into the adventure? Oh no. The first time we see our heroes, the Doctor and Adric are having a long argument about the latter’s Total Survival Suit escapades on Deva Loka, then Tegan and Nyssa have a bit of a chat about the Mara in their bedroom. We see quite a lot of the TARDIS interior, no futuristic stuff here, just gleaming Eighties-style bedrooms with pot plants. Even after the adventure proper begins, Nyssa pops back to have a wander around the show-home TARDIS interior, which is even equipped with that spaciest of things, a fire extinguisher. All in all, things seem a bit more mundane than they previously were.
But is that a problem? Season Nineteen’s been called a soap opera, and not just because it was going out at seven o’clock (or thereabouts) on Monday and Tuesday evenings instead of the traditional Saturday teatime. (For context: over on ITV the hours between 6 and 8 usually had one or more of Crossroads, Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm.) There’s probably not much in TV terms that’s more mundane than a soap opera, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘bad’. Soaps are the stories of people rather than situations – and those people have usually been thrust together geographically rather than by choice. The main characters stand around bitching about each other, or about other main characters. Actions will have consequences in future stories. Identities are swapped. Someone’s dad (or at least someone who looks like him) keeps turning up and spoiling things for everyone else. EastEnders, or Kinda, Black Orchid and Time Flight?
Soaps aren’t a cosy place to be. The Doctor’s world is crumbling around him. He’s already lost K9 and Romana – in fact, he doesn’t really have any friends left. Tegan clearly doesn’t want to be travelling with him. Since his regeneration, the Doctor seems to regard Adric as little more than a nuisance. And while stoic Nyssa gets on with everyone, she isn’t an equal or a confidante for the Doctor. Things are snatched away from the Doctor one by one. A quarter of the TARDIS is jettisoned. The sonic screwdriver is destroyed. Adric even loses the TARDIS homing device. Nothing that might help the Doctor or make life more pleasant remains – and on top of all that, he’s no longer safe. In soaps, main characters actually die. Valerie Barlow getting electrocuted by a hairdryer and Ernie Bishop being shot in a wages snatch go hand in hand with Adric’s exploding freighter. Hardship and jeopardy have been reintroduced into the Doctor’s life, fun and friendship have been removed, yet he carries on regardless. Surely that makes him more of a hero than ever…?
1. “I wonder, boy, what would you do if you were me, hmm?” The newly regenerated Doctor clutches some imaginary lapels as he channels his first incarnation. Castrovalva Part One.
2. “We’ve already met. This is Enlightenment and I am Persuasion.” The TARDIS crew gets a shock as two giant frogs reinvent themselves through the medium of Tegan’s fashion sketches. Four to Doomsday Part One.
3. “Don’t think it!” “Too late, I’m afraid – you already have.” The Ten Tegans (a dream to some, a nightmare to others) pop into existence as the sinister Dukkha teaches Tegan that not even her own thoughts are safe. Kinda Part Two
4. “Now I’ll never know if I was right.” Adric goes to his death without even the satisfaction of a final answer. (Do not underestimate the power of this moment on girls who were nine years old in 1982.) Earthshock Part Four