To paraphrase the Fifth Doctor: ‘That’s the wonder of Doctor Who. You never quite know what you’re going to get.’
In the show’s earliest days, the audience pretty much got to unwrap a surprise present every week. No story titles, no ‘episode one of four’, just a few clues in the Radio Times or occasional newspapers. And the variety! Modern day, historical, futuristic, ‘oddball’. Action adventure, psychological thriller, morality play, horror, farce. Stories narrated by characters (Marco Polo) or in song (The Gunfighters)! Stories without the Doctor (Mission to the Unknown)!
But things changed. As time went by there were fewer surprises. Less room for experimentation.
The 2005 season cut out a further variable: with multiple producers and script editors, not to mention the infamous tone meetings, the production team could ensure a certain homogeneity across the board. There’d be no startling changes in tone – or, indeed, quality – that may have plagued other times in the show’s history. And by now the formula was clearly set. As had happened for years, the TARDIS arrived, its crew investigated, there were antagonists, they got caught up in the action, there was a triumphant conclusion, The End. Stories were neatly divided between contemporary Earth, futuristic, historical. It was a solid, highly successful structure that could have been replicated for years.
Ha! They built on it instead. They brought back the surprises. Not just in the nature of the stories, but in the ways they were told.
There was a new Doctor, but the rest of the characters were so well-established that stories could actually be about them, not just happening to them. They could be subverted – the bodyswap in New Earth and the alternative reality of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel worked because we knew Rose and her family so well.
School Reunion did a very clever thing. It threw us into the story partway through. In a story of 50 minutes, this break from the standard formula was a touch of genius, giving us more time to spend with the characters – and especially with Sarah Jane Smith. From the lofty heights of 2013, when we’re used to companions and their families popping up again and again – the only one in the last few years who’s made a clean break with the TARDIS is Adam – it’s maybe hard to remember what a huge deal it was to see an old face outside of an anniversary. And this actually explored the issue of what happens in life post-Doctor, the impact he has on people.
The Girl in the Fireplace is a high-concept story – something they were very keen on in the early days of Doctor Who, if their determination to make a show based solely on the idea ‘the TARDIS crew gets miniaturised’ is anything to go by. As Planet of Giants proved, high concepts can be hard to sustain for long in an interesting manner, whereas fitting the standard Doctor Who formula into 50 minutes could be a challenge of a different kind. This, then, was a perfect use of the 50 minute format.
Love & Monsters. Another masterclass in how to use the 50-minute format to greatest advantage. It’s a story that the word ‘oddball’ could have been coined for, practically embodying experimental storytelling in Doctor Who. It’s told via video diary, it has flashbacks, it has music. What makes it especially clever is that it manages to be a story without the Doctor, but about the Doctor. We’ve revisited Sarah Jane, now we see how everything the Doctor does touches someone, somehow. The story may be funny and silly, but it’s also thoughtful and extremely moving. Consequences aren’t something Doctor Who has bothered about very often, apart from in the broadest strokes (The Face of Evil for example), but this shows they can be touched on without robbing the viewer of action and excitement.
Then there’s Daleks versus Cybermen. Although this had never actually been done before, it still seems like distilled essence of Doctor Who. Action! Adventure! Monsters! Battles! But despite this, there were new, unexpected touches – ones that hark back to the early days in several ways. ‘Planet Earth. This is where I was born. And this is where I died.’ This is Rose’s story, and she’s telling it to us. Such a simple device, but so effective.
I wonder if it was tempting to leave the heartbroken Doctor deep in angst at the end of the series. I suspect most creators would have done that. But what we got was so much better. Who could predict that sudden, amazing shift in atmosphere as Donna arrives? There’d been nothing like that since Dodo blundered into the TARDIS after the trauma of The Massacre. And just like the shadow of a caveman falling on to a police box, it set up the next story too. That’s a pretty nice present to unwrap.
1. “Hello, Sarah Jane.” She’s still the same Sarah, she’s wonderful, she’s investigating, and she’s just seen the TARDIS and realised who this strange young man really is. If you don’t want to simultaneously grin and cry you’re not human. School Reunion
2. “If my nightmare can return to plague me, then rest assured, so will yours.” At which point the Doctor jumps a horse from a spaceship to pre-Revolutionary France through a mirror. Hurrah! The Girl in the Fireplace.
3. “He can’t see me. It’s unlucky the night before.” The sheer horror of what the Cybermen do summed up in a few short sentences. Poor Sally Phelan. The Age of Steel.
4. “Oh, that’s Rose Tyler. She lives just down there. Bucknell House, number forty eight. Her mother’s Jackie Tyler. Nice family. Bit odd.” Elton’s impossible task turns out to be slightly less impossible than expected. Love & Monsters.