Genre Clashes

gunfightersWhat is it about Doctor Who that allows it to continue indefinitely, while other sci-fi series fall by the wayside after a few years?  Mike hit the nail on the head in his Storytelling 1 article when he compared Doctor Who to an anthology series.  There is an element of that, because the TARDIS functions brilliantly as a way to simply drop the Doctor into any kind of adventure, and it doesn’t need to be anything like the adventure he was in the previous week.  So it comes down to versatility, never allowing the viewers to get bored.  You’re not keen on this week’s episode?  Never mind, next week Doctor Who will be doing something completely different.  And a lot of the time that means Doctor Who is playing in somebody else’s playground.

Most of the time Doctor Who is a sci-fi series, or often a fantasy series (more often than most people realise).  Both of those genres are about allowing a mode of storytelling that is not possible in dramas that are based in the contemporary scientific world as we know it.  Most sci-fi and fantasy is about a magic door or some kind, i.e. a way of getting characters into situations that are beyond the realm of everyday life as we know it.  So if we want to look at the most typical and genre defining form of sci-fi we would probably look at Star Trek, and there we have a spaceship that takes the crew to new and interesting places.  The Enterprise (and now the Discovery to an even greater extent) is our magic door.  If we look at fantasy we have literal magic doors to places like Narnia and Wonderland.  But the TARDIS is the ultimate magic door, because it can literally lead to anywhere at all.  The key added ingredient is time travel, which is something a lot of sci-fi and fantasy lacks.

If the TARDIS can land anywhere, there is nothing to stop it landing within other genres, and it does that frequently.  In fact, for its first few years it stopped being sci-fi altogether about half the time, because once the TARDIS landed in history it was simply that: the Doctor exploring the past.  Nowadays it’s always the past with aliens invading, but in the 60s it was almost invariably just a straightforward interaction with historical events.  Flowing naturally from that we get to see history through the lens of different cultural interpretations, so The Crusade is Doctor Who doing a Shakespeare play, while The Gunfighters is Doctor Who doing a Western.  The latter of course is a window into history via a subset of the movie industry, and different genres of movies have been fruitful territory for Doctor Who to crash into.  The Chase is a road chase movie in space, The Feast of Steven lands the Doctor onto an actual film set, The Smugglers is a pirate film, and so on.

Of course, the most common film genre Doctor Who references is Horror (we have two articles on that: Doctor Who and Horror and Horrific Influences) and the Christmas episodes often play with other genres (Doctor Who and Christmas).  The Return of Doctor Mysterio is one of the most obvious examples in recent years of simply crashing Doctor Who into a completely different genre, and also an example of how that doesn’t always pay off.  The problem there really boils down to the genre being too closely connected.  It is much more effective to crash into something completely different like a romantic comedy (The Lodger) rather than a genre that is another side of the same coin.  Superhero films are too close to sci-fi and fantasy to be a good mix – they are awkward bedfellows, so it feels incestuous and shines too much of a light on the failings of the genre it is visiting.

Different types of films and television are pretty obvious candidates for genre clashes, so it was really only going to be a matter of time before Doctor Who tried its hand at crime dramas, soap operas, disaster movies and the like.  During the Pertwee era it was trying to be James Bond.  Bad Wolf gave us reality television and quiz shows.  But where genre clashes get really interesting is when they visit a non-screen-based genre, and that’s extraordinarily rare.  Buffy gave us a musical, but Doctor Who has only ever teased us with The GunfightersThe Mind Robber played by the rules of fiction books, with characters only able to speak lines written for them by their authors.  Artistic inspiration is rare: Castrovalva plays at being an Escher painting, while Warriors’ Gate has the work of Caspar David Friedrich as its starting point.

After 54 years we’ve just scratched the surface of what is possible.  That’s what keeps Doctor Who alive.  What will be waiting for us through the magic TARDIS doors next time?  RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to Genre Clashes

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    Really love this article and I’m glad to have sparked the idea with my former article! Thanks for that – that’s teamwork!
    I’d say Doctor Who has done crime drama with Ocean’s Eleven/Time Heist. And to a certain extent, Easter’s own Planet of the Dead with our cat burglar, Lady Christina.
    For soap opera, we’ve had the whole romantic season long arc in a love triangle (ish) between Rose/Mickey/Doctor.
    And the very third Doctor Who story, Edge of Destruction, was a disaster movie in the TARDIS. Think “The Poseidon Adventure” where the ship breaks down and is sinking. Or for that matter, Voyage of the Damned; in every way the Titanic (in space). But no crystal to throw overboard…

    I agree it’s what keeps the series fresh and it works wonderfully.

    The only thing you said that I can’t agree with is The Return of Dr. Mysterio being weak. I think Capaldi knocks it out of the park with this one and it’s brilliant. I know it’s the comedy sprinkled throughout. A lot of it is subtle but it’s peppered in throughout the episode and the superhero element doesn’t detract from anything. If I have one issue with it, it’s that, like so much else in Who lore, Grant will never be mentioned again. It’s the problem I had with Ashildr and the hybrid. HUGE threat to all of the universe and we’ve never heard of it before and will never hear of it again. That’s the problem modern Who has with writing anything “huge”. They don’t have a consistency of writers to make “huge” actually pay off. Anything of that magnitude should be resolved by season end so there’s no lingering lore that can’t be explained. Because where was Grant during “Children of Earth”, for instance?

    Anyway, really fun article. What other genre clashes have people picked up on, I wonder?


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    Big Finish certainly took the anthology aspects of Dr. Who to heart with Unbound. Because UK TV has a unique talent for anthologies with Brian Clemens’ Thriller, Armchair Thriller and Tales Of The Unexpected, Dr. Who’s penchant for tending towards an anthology may have been the show’s own talent for simply improving on many SF basics as did Star Trek, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

    It may be worth reflecting on Dr. Who mashups, certainly Season 26B, given how fans, which I can certainly verify, may be prone to finding some Whoniversal significance in everything. But then the comic book spinoffs I remember from my teens, mostly for recurring monsters and occasionally the more non-recurring ones like Voc Robots, Quarks and Daemons, openly qualified as SF anthology stories and quite imaginably influenced the Wilderness Years.

    Dr. Who has the blessing of being whatever you’d like to make of it. It doesn’t even always have to be SF which Chibnall is taking to heart by bringing back the exclusive-period-piece adventures now for Jodie’s reign. That’s why Dr. Who has always been a saving grace for me in the midst of all the murky constrictions of life and most other TV endeavors. It’s purely an anthology in the sense of it being diversified enough with each new story. So that made it as realistic enough as life should be in the adventurous sense. Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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