I finished my review of The Eleventh Hour yesterday with a brief mention of the significance of the setting of the story in Leadworth and left that hanging, because it is worth looking at in the context of some of the choices made over the years about where to set a story, and how that impacts on audience identification. There are well over 200 Doctor Who stories, so the best way to do this is probably to pick some examples, before we get to The Eleventh Hour:
- The obscure historical location, e.g. The Massacre. This is difficult for the audience to have any kind of identification with, but is part of a teaching approach to Doctor Who, which is why it can be an acquired taste.
- The familiar historical location, e.g. The Aztecs. Also a part of the teaching approach in many examples, but it is also a way in for the viewer and to a certain extent sparks off feelings of nostalgia because of memories of history lessons at school. Note these are often primary school history topics. Only rarely is the series brave enough to take us into the realms of World War Two, for example, because this doesn’t evoke such cosy nostalgia – it challenges the viewer much more and it can be dangerously close to evoking the drudgery of GCSE revision.
- The Earth colonies or space stations, e.g. The Ark in Space. This allows for a futuristic story where we are supposed to care more about the characters because it is our future. This often-cited approach is inherently xenophobic. Russell T Davies expressed the need to make future stories about humans to make us care. Christopher Bailey showed us that it makes no difference if the link is explicit or not. These kinds of stories often provide easy inroads into parallels with the British Empire – you see, we’re still hung up about that and Doctor Who returns to the theme time and time again.
- Space ships, e.g. Frontier in Space. This is almost always Doctor Who trying to be something it’s not, and compete with the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars. Almost always an inherently flawed approach.
- The far future, e.g. Utopia. There is a clear dividing line between what this approach should be doing and what it actually does, because the writers always bottle out of it. It should show us one of the tricks up Doctor Who’s sleeve, which is a completely unfamiliar and unsettling story setting. It is always chickened out of by linking it too closely with humanity or the present day. The further you head into the future the sillier that becomes. But we do very occasionally get the truly unfamiliar, and to do that we have to go…
- Beyond the universe: e.g. The Mind Robber. Yes, these kinds of stories still end up getting grounded in human stuff. They have to or we supposedly can’t relate. But if it’s done right the moment of familiarity is stalled by some top-grade weirdness, such as the first episode of The Mind Robber. One day if we are incredibly lucky we’ll get a story that stalls for four-fifths of its duration rather than one-fifth.
- Parallel worlds, e.g. Inferno. This works so well because it plays with the familiarity of the setting. It seems like we are right at home with our normal, contemporary settings, but then it’s all just a bit wrong, a bit warped. And that’s a compelling way to get the audience involved while genuinely being able to do something different with a story.
- Sciency places, e.g. The Hand of Fear. This appeals to the adult viewers and those who want Doctor Who to be all grown-up. It divides opinions because some viewers will struggle to care, but it does get window-into-adult-life bonus points for the family viewing remit.
- Abroad, e.g. The Two Doctors. Simply an excuse for the team behind the scenes to have a holiday. It makes Doctor Who look a little more exciting and unfamiliar and expensive at times, but basically achieves not a lot. Unless your co-stars are in love and in Paris.
- Towns and Cities, e.g. Rose. We didn’t get a whole lot of this until Ace came along and not much then because Doctor Who up to this point tended to be unremittingly middle class. The core of the Russell T Davies approach was to ground the series in the real world and make the companion a real person rather than a “character”. For that reason, each and every companion since 2005 has been a contemporary human, and nearly every exception to the rule pre-2005 looked and behaved like a human if they weren’t actually human. But that’s a discussion for another day! Tellingly, the “real world setting” of Rose’s life has more than a whiff of the “real world” of the loathsome Eastenders rather than, you know, the real world. Every attempt at grounding a companion since then has been a million times better.
- Villages, e.g. The Daemons. Well, isn’t this cosy. And the reality of Doctor Who for most of its original run is that this was probably the familiar surroundings of its target child viewers (myself included I must admit). Doctor Who often had overtones of privilege, although often railed against that as well. Only later did the series seek to make real strides in widening the demographic. The big benefit of the village setting as well of course is that Doctor Who must also be considered as an international moneyspinner, and the picture-postcard view of Britain sells well abroad. It is also feel-good for the viewers and Doctor Who as escapism is a very valuable thing. Doctor Who does The Darling Buds of May. All together now… awww cute.
- Leadworth. Yes, this fits the category above but it’s doing something quite different. So let’s finish with that hanging thread from The Eleventh Hour review…
This is not just a backward step to the Pertwee era, as it might at first appear. Yes it’s a quaint village setting, complete with a duck pond, but that’s not the point. Because this is not quite the village of the privileged child, it’s the village the non-privileged child saw in their mind’s eye when they read Enid Blyton, or a myriad of other children’s fiction. It’s that perfect view of the world of childhood, and it’s also the gateway into another world of adventure. So this is Steven Moffat beginning to follow the path that he is going to take, grounding Doctor Who in something it has never really been grounded in before: children’s fiction. And that’s a rich and untapped area for Doctor Who to explore. What a clever chap… RP
The view from across the pond:
When Roger told me he wanted to do a piece called “settings”, my first thought was to ask for a preview so I could share comments. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it is far more interesting when we approach things from different angles, and Roger and I do that frequently to great effect.
As television viewers, we know that Doctor Who is written by people and that, by the nature of the show, the Doctor has to win in order for the show to go on. But as Doctor Who fans, we take the narrative and piece it into a “real world” where the events “actually happened”. The writer says “this episode will take place in a small town instead of inner city”. But as Doctor Who fans we know, something else is behind it all. When Doctor Who was coming back in 2005, there was talk of changing the look of the TARDIS. Somehow that didn’t happen and I may know why…
In The Doctor’s Wife, something we’ve known to some extent since the third story back in 1964, The Edge of Destruction, is confirmed: the TARDIS is sentient. Idris, or the TARDIS-in-a-person of The Doctor’s Wife, tells the Doctor that she chose him. If we take the real life approach, we know the writers are creative and thus an amazing story is created. But the fiction is more fun to play with! If this sentient ship views past and future differently than we do, then it makes sense that she saw the Doctor as a person who could make things better throughout the universe, so she did indeed choose him.
In other words, the TARDIS knows what she’s doing when she selects the setting of our adventures. Think about it:
- What would have happened if Polly and Ben were traveling with the Doctor when they encountered the Krynoids? (My sister and I would not have had as much fun running from Krynoids in my grandmothers back yard, that much is for certain…).
- What if Ace were present during the events of The Ark? Chances are her Nitro 9 would have went off and ruptured the Ark’s hull and killed everyone. End of story!
- Turlough would not have been able to scream like Victoria to kill the weed creatures in Fury from the Deep. (Maybe Mel…)
- Would Dodo have been able to save the 9th Doctor from the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways? How about Peri?
- Would Tegan have been any help to the Doctor during his Trial of a Time Lord?
- Imagine Susan instead of Leela in The Talons of Weng-Chiang! The Doctor would have received an axe to the back and that would have been that – no “it’s the end but the moment has been prepared for…” speech!
- Jamie would not have been able to save the space freighter from crashing in Earthshock.
- Why then was it that Clara never connected with the Doctor throughout all of time until the 11th Doctor? Because the TARDIS always put the Doctor with the right people for the right adventure!
- And when the Doctor tries to leave Wales when he sees Jack approaching, in Utopia the TARDIS sticks around long enough for Jack to jump on. Which in turn allows the Doctor to get his hand back which eventually saves the TARDIS from destruction by the Daleks in Journey’s End.
And therein lies the mind behind all of those trips – the TARDIS itself. Perhaps the TARDIS understands the nature of those who she lets travel with the Doctor. She chooses the settings that will make the most sense for her Doctor/companion combo. Remember “the Doctor-Donna”? Maybe that’s why she was so unsure about Clara. But even Clara’s splintered existence as the woman who eventually tells the Doctor to “take this one”, is ultimately the result of the TARDIS allowing her to travel with the Doctor to begin with. Maybe that’s also why we’ve only ever had two malfunctioning TARDIS episodes (The Edge of Destruction and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS); she doesn’t typically malfunction. And going back to that first one, she was working on communicating with the 4 people she was traveling with at the time (Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor). She shows the scientists the scanner and the water dispenser. She shows Barbara the clocks. Rudimentary communication perhaps, but for a machine that perceives time differently than we do, it’s brilliant. Frankly even Susan’s “freak-out” might have been the result of her latent psychic ability picking up on something from the TARDIS. It would give new meaning to why she was so upset and manic.
Nothing may be able to offer more proof than the final scene of The Doctor Falls. The Doctor, fighting regenerating, says “If you’re trying to make a point, I’m not listening…”. And what point does our favorite time machine use? Bringing him to meet his first self, presumably just before he too regenerates… I guess we’ll have to wait until Christmas to find out what that point is!
So why put this under “settings”? While Roger works on what I am certain will be a brilliant look at the choice of settings the writers select for their stories, I don’t want us to forget to keep that door to the land of fiction open wide. The writers deserve full credit in the real world, but our TARDIS is the doorway for all of those adventures; our limo to the stars. Whether moonbase or sea base, IceWorld or sentient sun, London or USA, Skaro or Gallifrey, Manussa or Deva Loka… the TARDIS knows what she’s doing and where she’s taking us.
May she always make the right choices on where to take the crew. And may she always be that ancient, new, wonderful, hope inspiring, blue Police Box that we all know and love. ML