Triumph of a Time Lord (Part Two): An Interview with Matt Hills

Last time, I ran the first of a two part series featuring an interview with Matt Hills, a leading British thinker about fan culture and genre entertainment, discussing the revamped Doctor Who series. Hills is currently hard at work writing a book, Triumph of a Time Lord, which discusses the retooling of this classic British series for new audiences and new times. In the first installment, I focused on questions concerning the series’s relations to its most hardcore fans, discussing the argument that the new Doctor Who represents what happens when fans take over control of a media franchise. But that’s really too simple an explanation for all of the changes which have happened here. This time, I asked Hills to drill down on how the changes in the series format reflect trends in British and global television production as strategies to broaden the viewership of the programme.

As with last time, Hills assumes readers are relatively familiar with the contents of both seasons of the new Doctor Who — and makes frequent and telling references to individual episodes. He’s pretty careful not to kill the drama for poor Americans who haven’t had official access to all of the episodes this season (and haven’t figured out how to order them from UK Amazon or download them from some extra-legal source.) But if you’ve really remained in the dark about what happens this season, you may not want to read this since there are some major plot developments that get discussed here.

Of course, there are going to be spoilers afloat in the Doctor Who community at this point: it is really absurd to have such long delays in the distribution of the series between the United Kingdom and the United States, two countries seperated by a common language, at a time when information flows so fluidly across national borders along various digital networks. Television fan culture is now global and producers run a high risk when they muck about with the temporality of information flows!

To what degree do you think the new Doctor Who has been conceived for a global rather than a national audience? I gather there were complaints early on about

the “Americanization” of Doctor Who because of shifts in the format. Have those concerns settled down?

If anything, I’d say that UK fandom has shown a certain pride in the show’s volume of overseas sales – back in the day, this always used to be cited as a barometer of the old series’s popularity. There are still some residual and highly proprietary attitudes among a few UK fans, though, who very much perceive the show as ‘theirs’, which isn’t always helpful. The history of Who has frequently been one where certain groups of fans have contrasted its supposed “Britishness” to the allegedly “American” values of, say, the likes of Star Trek. And that hasn’t totally gone away, even in an era where fans can internationally access the same production information, and spoilers etc, at pretty much the same time via web-based communities like Outpost Gallifrey.

I think one sign that the show has absolutely been conceived of as a global vehicle is its comparative reliance on London as a setting. Filming in Cardiff has frequently doubled for London – even causing some consternation to drunken passers-by on those late-night occasions when the Welsh capital city has been ‘dressed’ as London: I overheard one Welshman shout “how rude!” as he lurched past a London underground sign which the production team had erected in the city centre for the filming of ‘Rose’.

Contemporary London helps to sell the show’s Brit identity abroad: it makes sense as a setting for international audiences much more readily than other UK cities would. The ‘showreel’ used to promote series one to buyers and advertise it on-air to audiences, included that scene of Big Ben being demolished by an alien spacecraft: ‘marvel as an international icon of tourism is trashed’ was evidently just as strong a subtext as ‘we’ve actually got decent special effects’.

And Cardiff’s first appearance was, of course, in ‘The Unquiet Dead’, which compensated for this by capitalising on the BBC’s reputation for costume drama (again, something likely to help sell the show overseas). This combination of ‘cool London’ – set up in the very opening montage of the series – and ‘heritage’/period drama settings makes the show a likely candidate to travel well. And the emphasis on clear storytelling (by Who’s standards) and iconic monsters are also both tokens of a global ambition, as are the occasional inserts of media coverage within invasion stories, which the show has been increasingly careful to internationalise, so that fictional US newsflashes, for instance, are seen on-screen alongside UK ones.

The 1996 US-UK co-production of Doctor Who was far more self-evidently “Americanized” than the current series. There, the TARDIS had a “cloaking device”, and the Doctor kissed his ‘companion’ in a more straightforwardly romantic manner compared with the various contrivances Russell T. Davies has used to justify this event. And though some fans may feel the latest show has been “Americanized” in the sense that it’s followed in the wake of US TV successes like Buffy, or adopted a story arc approach characteristic of shows like The X-Files, in fact elements of the new series’ format can be traced back through previous Russell T Davies’ screenplays and even his own Who novel – the emotionally complex, hard-hitting, and beautifully condensed Damaged Goods – as well as being indebted to developments in other Who novels: for example, the matter of groups of people (conspiracy theorists) trying to track the Doctor was raised in the Virgin novel Who Killed Kennedy, and is not simply or directly a reaction to developments in genre ‘realism’ in US cult TV (even if some of these 1990s Who novels may, themselves, have been written in the shadow of The X-Files). And the self-reflexive depiction of fandom (done far more directly than ‘Love & Monsters’) is carried out in Kate Orman’s Virgin novels Return of the Living Dad and Room With No Doors, in which a fan actually discusses negative fan stereotypes and asserts that he wanted to “get a life” by emulating the Doctor. Given that these adventures were written for, and sold to, a fan niche market, it’s not at all surprising that they moved ahead of the new series in terms of explicitly addressing fandom as a subject. But there is a very strong argument that far from simply reacting to American cult & quality TV, the new series is partly reacting to developments there (and production values) and partly reacting to developments within an international community of professionalised fan writers.

If the series were conceived of more centrally for a national rather than global audience, then I’d argue that it would display far more of a sense of UK regionality than it does. Even Christopher Eccleston’s “all planets have a North” Doctor has been rapidly replaced by David Tennant adopting an estuary English (or London-ish) accent in line with his Casanova performance, and the international sales that presumably garnered. And Peter Kay’s Bolton accent surfaces in ‘Love & Monsters’ only when he is under heavy monster make-up, seeming to suggest that the producers wanted to reinforce the point – yes, this is still Peter Kay the famous comedian, even under all the prosthetics. Otherwise, the dominant norm in the new series of Who is that its characters and settings are London-default and largely speak in ‘received pronounciation’ or Queen’s English: plus ca change. UK regionality is suppressed because of its irrelevance to a global audience: the fact that the series is made by BBC Wales has made relatively difference to its material form, though it has undoubtedly been a great boost to the Welsh TV industry, which – much like UK fan audiences – has again shown considerable pride in its success. And I think that takes me back to where I came in on this answer!


Doctor Who has been perceived as a children’s program in the U.K. but largely watched by adults in North America. Do you think the current series retains this focus on children viewers? How have the producers sought to balance between these two likely audiences?

In the UK, the new series has been credited with ‘reinventing’ or ‘rediscovering’ the family audience for prime-time TV drama. Press reports have made much of this, and the general sense appears to be that the success of the show has challenged industry wisdom, which had previously stressed the break-up of trans-generational audiences into different age-based ‘niches’ who would hardly ever watch the same programme together. The show has also been successful in terms of the relative gender balance of its audience: it really does seem to represent all things to all people right now!

So, though the old series may sometimes have been deemed a kid’s show – or ‘children’s telly that it was almost OK for adults to enjoy’ – this depiction seems to have fallen by the wayside rather. To be honest, I think the old show was always something of an oddity in terms of its unusually broad appeal: when it was pretty much at its height in terms of popularity in the 1970s, it always bridged a massively wide range of ages – audience data given in The Unfolding Text (1983) proves that. And the reinvented series is no different, typically balancing its ‘adult’ and ‘child’ appeals very carefully so as to work as a cross-over show.

One of the key shifts is the massive influx of family-based storylines, many featuring child actors and characters in major roles. Not only does the show work hard to represent the Doctor and Rose as desirable travelling companions – the brief being that audiences should like them and want to befriend them – it also uses families in a variety of ways. Yes, there’s the Tyler family and Mickey, but even beyond this, the family really is omnipresent. The Slitheen aren’t just an alien race, they’re a family group. And the human family in ‘Fear Her’ confront an alien which is alone, cut off from its kind and its own vastly extended family. ‘The Empty Child’/'Doctor Dances’ revolves around the question ‘Are you my mummy?’ of course, and ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ also centrally features a family dynamic. The majority of new series’ stories involve family crises – even the parallel world of ‘Age of Steel’ is viewed through very much through the lens of family. And in ‘Fear Her’, the Doctor alludes to his own family, something which the series may well build on.

There’s also more than a hint of family-type relations in the warmth and affection between the Doctor and Sarah Jane in ‘School Reunion’, and Rose talks of getting a mortgage with the Doctor in ‘The Impossible Planet’/'The Satan Pit’, which though it may carry some romantic implications, is also about the idea of elective rather than biological ‘family’.

There are limits to the series’ portrayals of family though, and the way these can work to bridge different generational audiences. While childhood is well represented – frequently giving younger audiences an identification figure in addition to the Doctor and Rose – the show has neglected older audiences and characters. The first Doctor, back in 1963, was a ‘grandfather’ type: the casting of Eccleston and Tennant seems to view the nominally lead character as necessarily youthful and energetic, if not unconventionally ‘sexy’. Age and ageing don’t seem to play well in this new series: the inclusion of some slightly older characters in the Graeme Harper-directed ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/'Age of Steel’ (in the forms of Mrs Moore and Lumic’s henchman) appear to be indebted to Harper’s own role as the ‘elder statesmen’ of directors, and his use of a repertory of actors whom he’s worked with across his career. ‘Fear Her’ and ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ do also feature grandmother characters, though in relatively minor roles. On the whole, the cross-generational world of new Who is one where youthfulness remains at a premium.

The show has also sought to balance appeals to younger and older audiences through its patchwork of different tones. One minute slapstick or broad humour, the next political satire, and the next pop-culture referencing: Davies’s show-runner role has lent the programme a deftness of touch, making it much more of a combinatorial matrix of darker and lighter moments than ever before. This may again be something learnt from the best of contemporary and recent US TV.

But again there are limits, always limits. Despite this leaping to and fro between different tones, nothing too ‘adult’ should intrude: sex exists only as a euphemism or an implication, and death is curiously bloodless. Much of the new series still has to happen off-screen, or through unfolding subtexts.

Writers do sometimes seem to view these limits as boundaries to be toyed with, however. Steven Moffat’s award-winning series one script may use the euphemism of ‘dancing’ for the Doctor’s apparent sex-life, but it does so with such insistency, if not nakedness, that the idea that this is a “subtext” really seems to melt away. At the very least, there is only a wafer-thin line between ‘coming right out and saying it’, and the strategy which Moffat pursues. And he introduces Captain Jack Harkness, a bisexual character – OK, he’s science-fictionally coded as ‘omnisexual’ – into a prime-time “family” show… without any tabloid newspaper outcry.

Forget ‘reinventing’ the family audience against industry wisdom: this was the greatest achievement of series one, in my opinion. What might have looked, in some ways, like cosy viewing – oooh, the BBC does war-time period drama, and Rose is wearing a Union Jack flag – was really cutting-edge television with a sharp twinkle in its eye, and a mischievous banana in its pocket (bananas are good). I couldn’t believe the production team had got away with it – but they not only did so, they did it with style to spare.

Perhaps this tightrope-walking hasn’t just been about ‘balancing’ different audiences. It’s also been about challenging where, exactly, the lines should be drawn between audience ‘niches’, and between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ viewers. And although some older fans have decried the Slitheen fart gags, the inclusion of farting in TV drama has, on some occasions outside the world of Doctor Who, acted as a marker of ‘quality television’. For example, the Jimmy McGovern-created BBC series, The Lakes, featured at least one scene of repeated farting by way of marking out its ‘realist’ and inclusive intent – it was as if the star writer was saying, ‘hey, you don’t hear much of this in TV drama, do you, but I bet you do plenty of it in real life, right?’ And arguably, Russell T Davies wasn’t just playing to the child audience with a whiff of toilet humour, as older fans have complained: he was also daring to include such material, making this sort of moment and tone an example of ‘sophisticated’ risk-taking with dramatic seriousness, and simultaneously an instance of ‘childish’ glee or rebellion against good taste. The old series didn’t boast alien races farting while the Doctor sought to save the world.

Another point in its favour: ‘Aliens of London’ also features what may well be the fastest (intentional!) tone-shift in Doctor Who history: from farcical comedy to pure, pure tragedy in the time it takes for poor, poor space piggy to be gunned down.

Honestly, give international Who fandom about ten years, and these episodes (‘AoL’/WWIII’) will be acclaimed as classics…

Much of the interest of the new series has centered around Rose, who has to be

one of the most popular companions of all time, as well as being key to bridging between Doctors Nine and Ten and thus knitting together the two new seasons. Rose’s emotional life and secondary relations have been much more central to the series than previous companions. Is there a concern that her departure may adversely impact the series in a way that is very different from the departure of the other companions or for that matter, the shifts in casting of the various Doctors?

The production team seem to be putting a specific gloss on this departure, namely that it simply indicates one of the strengths and core values of the Doctor Who format: that the Doctor’s adventures will always go on. The show is bigger than any one star. Eccleston’s departure, and Tennant’s successful first season, would certainly seem to lend grist to this mill, even if it suggests that in the context of the fast-moving contemporary media industry, Doctor Who may never again see an actor in the lead role for more than three or four years.

Though Rose and her family have been crucial to the new show’s success, it looks as though the programme will return to its roots in ‘similarity and difference’. In other words, giving the ‘companion’ a family has worked well: solution – bring in a new family with a tweaked and slightly different dynamic, but still recognisably following the by now established template. Rose’s departure was also, of course, seemingly the narrative end-of-the-line for the rest of the Tylers, with Jackie and Pete reunited in that alt-universe at the end of ‘Doomsday’.

I think the challenge presented here is the same sort of challenge which Who has always responded to across its run, whether new or old series; how much novelty do you inject with a change of cast, and how much sameness do you play safe with? It sounds as though the new companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), will again be London-based, continuing the metropolitan bias of the new series which has already worked so well to sell it globally. The latest character’s family apparently includes a brother – so at the very least, there are already new narrative possibilities opened up by the likes of sibling rivalry! But these possibilities are clearly very much constrained by a need for continuity and sameness – just as the change from Eccleston to Tennant couldn’t afford to make radical changes to the format. Film and TV critic Kim Newman commented on this in his recent ‘BFI TV Classic’ book dealing with the series, observing that given the success of the new series, it is highly unlikely that its producers will want to make radical changes, at least in the foreseeable future, to what’s now a proven hit formula and a flagship BBC product.

Arguably, Doctor Who‘s biggest format shifts have come in the past when there have been major upheavals in the TV industry – whether this was the shift to colour TV in the UK in the seventies, or the industry perception that fragmented target audiences were more important than a ‘mass’ audience which took hold across the eighties, and caused Who to be self-consciously positioned in the UK as a ‘cult’ show with its own dedicated but dwindling fan-base who would watch it no matter when it was scheduled. By contrast, with the new series sparking an interest in the UK in the ‘family audience’, and doing remarkably well in multi-channel, digital TV households – its high production value special effects and multi-tonal approach seem to have made it collective required viewing on the main ‘cinema’-style TV in many households – it is in the rare position of being a trend-setter at this point, rather than having to react to industry changes.

Given all this, I was still sad to see the Tylers vanish out of series two’s story-arc as a job lot. I think it would’ve been interesting to confront the Doctor with his responsibilities to Jackie, had they both been trapped together on ‘our’ side of the universal fault-lines. What would she have made of him finding a new travelling companion, someone who was effectively replacing her daughter? Would she have hated the Doctor for cutting her off from Rose forever? Though the end of ‘Doomsday’ certainly felt like a full and satisfying resolution – a proper ending, which if I hadn’t already known better, would’ve had me speculating it was the end of the ‘Russell T Davies era’ – I think there was potential for many more loose threads.

That’s the price you pay for a big ending, I guess. It does mean that the show’s newfound emotional realism now won’t be able to develop its post-companion theme in such full-blooded ways. Instead, Rose’s absence will no doubt be referred to, but in a more anodyne and less dramatically-compelling, threatening manner. And given the Doctor’s repeated promises to Jackie that he would keep Rose safe, a headline failure for him would’ve really been something to focus on and pick away at. However, it would also have been too dark, probably, for the current format – too much family angst and not enough uplifting optimism!

Some have commented on the different emotional dynamic of the new series – more romantic, melodramatic, operatic, pick your term, compared to the emotional reserve one associates with some of the earlier Doctors. What factors led to this shift in tone?

Three words: the female audience.

There, thought I’d finish with a succinct answer!

Oh, OK, it isn’t quite that simple, but almost. A key aim for the new series, from what I’ve heard, was to make it a TV drama ‘brand’ achieving very close to gender parity in its audience. What the show absolutely could not afford to be was ‘science fiction for the boys’. It had to appeal to women via its re-branding. So it was that early promotional images played up action-adventure and pretty much removed science-fiction from the advertised genre mix, making the show about the Doctor and Rose and their thrilling, transcendent escape into space and time.

Part of that ambition was to integrate modes of storytelling which would appeal to male audiences with those appealing to women – it being taken as read that you can’t definitively characterise sci-fi as ‘boys’ stuff’ and melodrama as ‘for girls’ (though there are gendered patterns in media consumption, which is why broadcasters think in such terms). Making Rose’s role basically equal to that of the Doctor was only part of this process. Techno-babble was banned, as was ‘outer space’ sci-fi – the fear being that audiences wouldn’t ‘relate’ to visions of the far future. There’s some anecdotal evidence to support this sort of assumption – I interviewed female fans for one research project recently, and a number of them spoke about finding Buffy ‘realistic’, but said that they hated certain Star Treks for their ‘lack of realism’. Some generic hybrids, and themes, obviously play better than others, whereas some genre imagery, such as science-fiction construed as spacecraft, seems to turn off specific audiences – such are their prejudices and opinions.

Where new Who has done ‘outer space’ it has generally sought to anchor this in relation to immediately recognisable present-day concerns and themes – whether looking satirically at abuses of journalism and TV news in ‘The Long Game’, or Big Brother reality TV in ‘Bad Wolf’. And though ‘End of The World’ and ‘The Impossible Planet’/ ‘The Satan Pit’ buck this noticeable trend somewhat, they each have their present-day points of identification: in the former, Rose phones home, and the show ends with a walk through a present-day city (Cardiff, again doubling for London). And the latter two-part story was, surely by design rather than accident, originally broadcast in the UK either side of media fuss about it being the 6th of the 6th of 2006 – hence accumulating free media publicity and tying into the absolutely contemporary, even as it depicted a far-future space opera dealing with demonic forces. This sort of planned tie-in also indicates, for me, the almost unprecedented extent to which the new series is planned and rationalised as a continual media event.

As well as desperately seeking the female audience, and not wanting to alienate anti-sci-fi viewers, the new series’ emotional dynamic is also evidently part of its critique of the original, and part of its attempt to fit into norms of contemporary ‘quality’ TV which tends to offer genre and tonal hybridity unified around core emotional content and a detailed ‘series memory’ rewarding audience loyalty. I’ve heard it said that the new romanticism of the programme is simply about fitting into a more openly emotional context in the UK – post-Princess Di – but this strikes me as incredibly lazy copy-writing, to be frank. Britain hasn’t suddenly changed that much; I don’t find myself knee-deep in extravagant emoting on a day-to-day basis. No, the series has changed in response to US and UK TV industry patterns in ‘quality’ content, as well as fans’ criticisms of plot-holes and emotional absences in the old series: it certainly isn’t a mirror of some supposedly vast social upheaval in the UK! What it is, is a very cleverly constructed and managed brand, which is far more intently controlled and policed for consistency than ever before.

In essence, it’s the ‘MacDonaldization’ of what used to be a rather rickety old cult Brit show.

I mean this in a non-pejorative and analytical sense (American sociologist George Ritzer has written about MacDonaldization, at some length): the new series delivers a consistent series of pleasures, just as one would properly expect from a brand. Already in an episode like ‘Fear Her’, there’s a sense of the writer – Matthew Graham – looking to tick the boxes of what should go into a “new series” pitch: strong family story and child-actor presence; monsters-of-the-week in the guises of an animated scribble and the possessed Chloe; emotionally uplifting, with the Doctor rescuing the Olympic flame; a little quirky moment encapsulating one of fandom’s critiques of the original series (why does the TARDIS always land facing the most convenient or easily accessible way out?). It’s not that any of this is ersatz, or even self-parody, just that it seems a touch too much like self-imitation pursued in the interests of serving up the same, established and regulated format. Old-school Doctor Who‘s defining quality was probably, above all else, its sheer patchiness; new Who would never dream of stooping to such radical inconsistency. It’s a far more disciplined and rationalised beast, down to every last emotional beat. But no doubt it’s just a phase the show’s going through – after all, regeneration has always been its greatest strength.

– Matt Hills, Cardiff University

HillsM2@cardiff.ac.uk

Thanks again to Cynthia Jenkins and Henry Jenkins IV for their help in formulating these questions.

Comments

  1. KJ Mobberley says:

    This interview articulates almost perfectly my views on the new series. Spot on.

    With regards to the Satan two-parter’s transmission dates either side of 6/6/6, I guess that was deliberate. But it must be some kind of Jungian synchronicity that the very next episode, Love&Monsters as it happens, had an official audience rating of 6.66 million viewers, especially if you consider a fan theory dating from the 80s that audience figures tend to reflect how people felt about the previous episode, via WOM?