WHO WATCHING

Independent and intelligent Doctor Who publishing from I.B.Tauris. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 2010.

Interview: James Chapman

James Chapman is Professor of Film at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis, hailed as the definitive history on the series.
So Doctor Who is turning 50. Is this actually a big deal?

It’s a very big deal, especially when you consider that there are so few television series that have enjoyed such longevity. Coronation Street must be the only British TV series to have lasted longer than Doctor Who.

The really interesting question is why it has proved so enduring. Doctor Who is so successful now – it has become the BBC’s leading ‘global brand’ taking into account programme and merchandise sales – that it’s sometimes forgotten it has not always been so stable. It was nearly cancelled after 13 episodes – it was saved by the success of the first Dalek story.

I think there are two main reasons for its longevity. One is that the series has been able to negotiate the changing institutional and cultural landscape of British television over half a century. Another is that the series hit upon a narrative idea that built in the possibility of refreshing it every now and again. It wasn’t intended from the start that the Doctor would be able to change – this was a pragmatic response when William Hartnell’s health was deteriorating in 1966 – but having established a form of metaphysical renewal (later it came to be known as regeneration) the series has always been able to refresh itself every few years.

Who would you like to play, or have seen play, the Doctor?

I would have loved another series of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. And a full series with Paul McGann. A shame that the third Dalek movie was never made, as I like Peter Cushing’s dotty-professor version of ‘Doctor Who’. Otherwise it’s interesting to ponder some of the casting suggestions who didn’t happen in the end. Fulton Mackay or Jim Dale in place of Tom Baker, for example. How would the series have been different?

What directions do you see Doctor Who going in the future?

The hallmark of Doctor Who has always been the range and diversity of the stories it can tell – futuristic space opera, historical-costume adventures, present-day Earth invasion narratives, comedy, allegory, intimate emotional drama. At certain times a particular story template has dominated: invasion stories with Jon Pertwee and Barry Letts, for example, or Gothic horror in the early Tom Baker years with Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. With Steven Moffat we’ve seen a shift towards more fantasy-oriented stories following the emotional dramas of the Russell T. Davies ‘era’. I think they are wise to keep varying the formula, which prevents the series from becoming stale.

My predictions for the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi? I think it’s a fairly safe bet that he’s going to meet the Daleks, and probably sooner rather than later. Other than that we might expect him to bring more gravitas to the Doctor than Matt Smith. Narratively, the last couple of years have seen more of an American emphasis in subject matter, and we might get more of that as the production team aims to consolidate its following in the United States.

What I hope we get in 2014 is a full series of thirteen episodes, not the bitty part-series that we’ve had for the last three years.

What is your favourite episode?

I’m tempted just to say whichever I’ve seen most recently! Like most fans, the stories I saw as a youngster made the most vivid impression – and I was fortunate in the sense that my first experience of Doctor Who was during its golden age of horror in the mid-1970s. The first story I remember clearly is ‘The Time Warrior’ and I have fond memories of ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ (they seemed very real to a six-year-old!) and ‘The Monster of Peladon’. My favourites from that period are early Tom Baker stories such as ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and ‘Pyramids of Mars’.

If I had to pick one episode now it would probably be the first episode of ‘The Web of Fear’ (Yeti in the Underground), which shows just how atmospheric and frightening Doctor Who could be. The claustrophobic sets were a bonus in those days. Nowadays the larger budgets and modern special effects technologies means they can represent visually all sorts of environments they never could in the past. From new Who, I’d pick ‘Dalek’, ‘Father’s Day and ‘School Reunion’, and perhaps ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ from the most recent series.

Jon Pertwee’s famous catchphrase was ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’. Can you explain how this is done?

I thought it was obvious! It’s really just a piece of gobbledygook that means nothing but sounds good. Pertwee had difficulty with some lines because of his lisp, but he liked this one and so Terrance Dicks kept on using it and became something of a catch phrase. Alas it never works when my television is on the blink or when the lift is out of operation at work.

Daleks vs Cybermen: who should really win in a head to head confrontation?

A question that fans have debated for generations. It really depends on which version of each monster is involved. The Daleks of ‘The Dead Planet’ were restricted in their mobility to their city, and in the end were overcome by the Thals, so the Cybermen should have no trouble. But if the Daleks adopted gold as a weapon, that would spell trouble for the Cybermen. And the Cybermen of ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ are a pretty pathetic bunch. In a long war I think my money would be on the Daleks – they can go on breeding new embryos, while the Cybermen (who are not robots) need human bodies to convert.

Of course a Raston Warrior Robot would take out the lot of them. ■

Inside the TardisInside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, which has been acclaimed as the definitive book on the series. Earlier this year a revised and updated edition was released to bring the Who story bang up to date, including new material on the eras of showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, and the latest incarnations of the Doctor in David Tennant and Matt Smith.

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