Is there a Doctor in the house?

With the success of Kelvingrove’s new Doctor Who exhibition, Tara Hepburn examines the British love affair with the Time Lord.

When Russell T Davies took the reigns of Doctor Who in 2005, he was asked by one of many baiting journalists why he thought people loved Doctor Who quite so much. He answered sincerely: “because it is the greatest idea in the history of the world”. This seems somewhat ridiculous, of course, but with recent visitors to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum choosing in vast numbers to scope out the new Doctor Who exhibition instead of the works of Da Vinci or Van Gogh which hang elsewhere on the walls of that fine building, you’d be forgiven for thinking Davies’ claim may have some merit in it after all. The exhibition showcases some of the best, and most recognisable, Doctor Who props from its 50-year history, and has been the subject of unprecedented demand, being sold out virtually every day since it opened a few weeks ago. Staff stress that you book in advance online, the burden of turning away excited Whovians on a daily basis having obviously become far too much to bear.

The Doctor Who of old has long-held an almost national-treasure-like place in British hearts, proving that good ideas and exciting storylines are sufficient compensation for high-tech sets, or high-brow scripts.

Nonetheless, during the show’s years of absence from television between 1989 and 2005, Doctor Who quietly cultivated an image for itself as a haven for geeks and nostalgic enthusiasts. When the Doctor came back in 2005 after a 16-year-long regeneration period, there was a sense that the whole thing really had to be pretty good. With the best technology and writing that licence-payers money can buy, coupled with part-time television impresario and full-time Whovian Russell T Davies at the helm, the new series did not disappoint.  Doctor Who stepped up its game, and was picking up ratings and awards faster than the speed of, I suppose, the TARDIS.

More telling, however, than the show’s critical success, was its success in achieving that rarest of feats – Doctor Who actually became, for the first time in its geeky history, almost cool. The series seemed to be made, rather than broken, by shafting its familiar low-budget special effects; successfully doing the Doctors exploits the often-frightening loyalty they deserved, and making the whole thing seem a lot darker indeed. The women in the series were lifted from their occasional 20th century position as screaming ciphers, to intelligent and genuinely helpful sidekicks. The Doctor, too, became full of warmth, love and charm, elevating him to a level of social aptitude that would almost allow him to pass for human – and indeed endowed him with far more heart than a vast number of supposedly actual-human characters on British television today.

For all that the technology was, of course, far better than the older incarnations, this alone rarely ensures improvement all-round, as the recent high-tech/low-quality Star Wars films prove. The storylines and ideas – which were almost always gripping anyway – broke into mainstream consciousness thanks to a quality of script-writing that the show had not consistently seen before. With one of the UK’s leading screenwriters Steven Moffat (recently Steven Speilberg’s selection as scriptwriter for his forthcoming Tintin project) on board, the series became witty, tender, and emotionally-driven on top of all else. Moffat’s episodes were huge hits with audiences and critics alike, with the speech given by Professor River Song in “Forest of the Dead” which begins “Everybody knows that everybody dies…” considered to be amongst  some of the most touching dialogue on British television last year. The greatest achievement of recent Doctor Who writing exists in the respect that it has for the intellect and attention-span of its audience, which is not only lacking in much of current childrens’ television shows, but which seems increasingly elusive in television scripts in general.

As it happens, Saturday night television needs stuff like Doctor Who. With much of the TV-time afforded to talentless people auditioning for praise that is rightfully out of their podgy grasp, or lottery numbers idly rolling out of a glorified bingo machine, it is clear that this once-lucrative evening of TV is plagued by people chasing all kinds of fictional dreams. It would be far less ridiculous to curl up and watch David Tennant chasing cybermen, or Charles Dickens. The idea of spending a Saturday night watching TV that was essentially made for children, and which features sub-human alien creatures seems, then, to be the rule, rather than the exception.

This breakthrough in the new-found cultural importance of everyone’s favourite Time Lord was made clear two summers ago, as the organisers of London’s gay pride march found themselves in last-minute disarray, having accidentally scheduled their festivities to clash with the Doctor Who finale. Fearing a low turnout, a big-screen was organised for Trafalgar Square, meaning that the Doctor’s antics were played out to a keen crowd of Londoners, a privilege that the capital only usually reserves for important national sporting events – such as the World Cup final, or watching England getting beat in the World Cup quarter-final. Newspaper columnists had a field day, wondering exactly what had turned the Doctor into such a hero for the modern-day gay community – musing that his sidekicks were beautiful and spirited enough to qualify as modern-day gay icons, or even – somewhat embarrassingly – that David Tennant’s handsomeness had something to do with this new-found keenness for the show.

What was actually interesting, however, was not that Doctor Who had potentially gone all gay but, rather; the fact that a large-scale public event of any description could be threatened by a Doctor Who episode seemed an incredible reflection of just how important the series has become. Time will tell whether or not Doctor Who is the greatest idea in the history of the world, but with more people visiting Kelvingrove to look at a Dalek than a Dali – it doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous after all.


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