What 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 Gunfighters. The 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