A comparison of the classic and modern Doctor Who television series.
Has the value of Doctor Who declined since its reboot?
This article breaks down the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who into three periods as follows:
- Classic Who: Doctors D1 (William Hartnell) through D6 (Colin Baker)
- Transitional Who: Doctors D7 (Sylvester McCoy) through D8 (Paul McGann)
- Modern Who: Doctors D9 (Christopher Ecclestone) through D12 (Peter Capaldi)
Warning: there may be spoilers, although I hope to keep it brief with minimal detail.
What is covered
Without going into what is canonical, here I will cover only the televised series in its recorded or broadcast formats (DVD, VHS, digital download); where these are not available in full, substitutes like audio books or novelisations were used, as well as some isolated episodes and animated reconstructions. It took me about 18 months to view (or listen to or read) the whole body of work, from An Unearthly Child (1963) to The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016).
I will explore what makes Classic Who so valuable. On the way, I will evaluate whether Modern Who succeeds or fails to retain or build on this value.
I will not make any general evaluation of Modern Who, which I think has both good and bad points. And I will start with the…
Where does the Doctor come from? If it takes a village to raise a child, or a society to create an ‘individual’ mind, what social background formed the character of the Doctor?
The Doctor and granddaughter Susan begin their story as fugitives, fleeing Time Lord society on Planet Gallifrey in a stolen time capsule they call the TARDIS, and the Doctor generally remains an exile, only occasionally returning.
Perhaps the Time Lords are best seen as akin to a possible far-future human civilization which has come to terms with and resolved most of its problems on the way, giving it great perspective. The have made mistakes in their earlier history, such as their disastrous intervention in the Mineon civilization. See also Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Time Lords preach non-interference with rare exceptions, but allow/guide/set up the Doctor to act as their usually-unofficial agent, nudging the TARDIS to adventurous destinations in Classic Who.
The Classic Who period ends with D6 railing against corruption in Time Lord society.
In Transitional Who, they are largely absent, resurfacing in backstory in D8’s Movie.
Their initial absence from Modern Who raises problems: who is the Doctor defining himself against, where does his moral compass come from, what is their history of intervention? D10 is left to describe their society, and eventually a childhood experience shared with the Master. With the Modern Doctors’ freedom to roam, their journeys seem less meaningful and more touristy, the TARDIS reduced to a taxi service between exotic parties (or even a ‘snog-box’).
The absence of Time Lords in Modern Who also makes the Doctor’s meddling more dangerous, as when Rose resurrects her father, because they are not around to heal breaches and so forth.
By the final story of D10, the for-a-time-returning Time Lords are unrecognisable, led by Rassilon (who was a semi-mythical being to Classic Doctor, regarded as fighting exploitation and corruption) and bent on universal destruction.
Rassilon plans the final sanction, the end of time, the destruction of the physical universe, and for the Time Lords to ascend to become creatures of consciousness without physical form or cause-and-effect: a plan the Doctor stopped during the last days of the Time War.
Perhaps in our Modern fantasy of hyper-individualism, it doesn’t matter where you came from, you just invent yourself endlessly through cultural appropriation and peer mirroring.
No such thing as Society?
Classic Who used a form of shorthand to represent entire civilisations, so that characters typically represented larger factions or world views within them. Modern Who is more obsessed in the minutiae which prevents conveying a broad picture of societies and their concerns, composition and qualities.
Classic Who commonly presents us with societies other than our own: familiar, strange and alien. The story could involve a fresh look at Earth’s past (with or without aliens), or Earth’s future, or some off-world and possibly alien civilization. Appearances may be deceptive, and the viewer has to construct their own mental models, abstracting the principles such societies run on, work through moral relativism, use empathy. These societies are rarely monolithic: they have factions, castes, hierarchies, made up of different cooperating or competing groups.
One such Classic story is The Web Planet: what is going on here, what has happened since the Doctor’s last visit? There are at least four types of intelligent life, competing, dominating, serving, worshipping. The typical Classic longer format of 6 episodes draws the viewer progressively into the social dynamics.
Modern Who seems to be written by Margaret Thatcher’s children, unable to sketch any different or alien society. In the whole of Modern Who, I was unable to find an actual non-human/Earth society fairly sketched. These were more common in Classic Who.
Whenever there is an Earth-historical-past story in Modern Who, there is some alien lurking in a volcano or canal. Therefore there is precious little time devoted to that ancient society, whereas in Classic Who there were historical episodes about old times, without aliens and with those societies front and foremost.
Is it a monster? Monsters vs Aliens
In Modern Who, aliens are commonly portrayed as one-dimensional terrorists rather than as thinking parts of greater social fabric, which at least some Classic Whos showed (Draconians, Sensorites, Thals, the failing society of Robots of Death etc.) (Modern Who does, however, introduce an alien crime family in the form of the Slyveen).
Monsters do not require much thought or moral deliberation. Thus categorised, their threat should be neutralised, themselves preferably eliminated. There is no weighing up conflicting rights, no investigation of hidden agendas or false flags, no abstraction of their values and customs. In short, this is the kind of demonisation commonly used by our governments and media today to categorise official enemies; when clearly we have monsters in our midst at home, in positions of power and authority, hiding behind masks of respectability.
In fact, Modern Who hardly seems alien at all.
The Human Condition
Doctor Who, at its best, throws up a mirror or lens by which we can see ourselves better, filtering out prejudices and tribal allegiances, and judging by timeless standards.
It is therefore problematic when stories involve alien influences (Daemons, Nemesis comets and so forth) which are often used to explain and exculpate human wrongdoings (war, persecution, aggression and so forth). However, since all eras of Who from time to time fall into the problematic temptation of writing a “this changes everything!”-type plot (which often involves a new explanation for the start of life on Earth, or wiping out the dinosaurs, or humankind’s development in culture, science and technology to further some alien agenda), I will leave this out of our discussion.
Individualism versus Collectivism
In Classic Who, the Doctor understands that to make decisions that last the test of time is to often override current emotions: to be not provoked, or lured, or bribed, or tempted, or coerced. Where there are grounds for intervention (like existential threats to the universe, mucking about with time experiments or meddling with history, an advanced culture invading a world unable to resist, or the threat of genocide) the collective is valued over the individual. In many stories, the companions and the encountered contribute as much or more to their own salvation than the Doctor, who may be little more than a knowledgeable and friendly catalyst.
The theme of self-sacrifice is common, and fates worse than death (oppression, slavery, extreme injustice, lack of freedom for a people to control their destiny) are shown.
It’s all about Me
The modern Doctor, cut off from his society, lacking a clear purpose, has become the ultimate individual egoist, whose current feelings matter more to him than all others throughout time and space: the perfect sociopath. The show is now about the character, rather than those he and his companions encounter.
Individual death becomes something not only to be avoided (nobody dies today!), but even sometimes portrayed as unnatural (in one story about the Viking-who-calls-herself-Me he bestowed everlasting life on, D12 says “Every single death is a tiny fracture in reality”). What?! Clara rejects Danny’s death, D12 rejects Clara’s death.
Many Modern Who stories tiresomely dwell at length upon the Doctor’s own apparently imminent death, which contrasts the Classic Doctor’s often selfless and good-humoured plunging into personal danger.
Sex and the single Doctor
Classic Who dealt with gender issues, but not really until Transitional Who did the Doctor D8 have an on-screen romantic love interest, which greatly diminishes his alien perspective.
In Modern Who, the show is far more interested in the attractiveness of physical appearance (to the detriment of other qualities). There is frequent and unnecessary innuendo, flirtiness and what one commenter called “gay-friendliness” which may make the show fit better into the BBC’s Saturday night line-up, but detracts from opportunities to address important social issues. Such issues as tolerance and diversity are possibly better addressed in a science fiction show by analogy and the opportunity to abstract principles from unfamiliar examples.
D1’s granddaughter Susan attended Coal Hill school, but young children rarely featured as characters in Classic Who. It was not necessary to have children to appeal to children.
Transitional Who featured juvenile delinquent Ace, whose predilection for explosives was an odd accompaniment for the Doctor preference not to carry weapons.
Modern Who is remarkable in having many instances of children’s bedrooms being invaded by strange adults, who often get them to do strange things based on improbably explanations, and tell them things like the monster under your bed/in your closet is real and will get you unless you do as I say. Red flags, anyone? Combined with the celebrity-importing and sexualised themes and styles, it should make the average child quite uncomfortable, I guess.
There were often multiple companions, giving the TARDIS crew a group dynamic. For example, the growing mutual respect of Zoe and Jamie shows their empathy of common ground despite differences, surely a valuable example to kids.
The dysfunctional crew of D5 may have put the Doctor off, though.
Explicit human romance for the Doctor begins with D8 although the female medic he engages with is not a TARDIS fellow-traveller.
A major problem with many of the Modern companions is that they are now special, instead of being a bridge between viewers and the alien, extraordinary Doctor. Rose/Bad-Wolf, the Doctor-Donna, Amy the girl-woman-mother at the heart of a conspiracy, Clara the impossible girl.
The next major problem with Modern companions is River Song, her marriage to the Doctor, and her parentage in Amy and Rory. River’s out-of-sequence relationship with the Doctor (possibly inspired by a novel/movie) binds a large arc of Modern Who to this soapy, flirty narrative which puts all four characters centre stage, squeezing out others, increases complexity and continuity/logic problems, and adds little to the programme’s traditional strengths.
The stories become just a flimsy backdrop to the domestics.
You got no Respect
Modern Who cannibalises many of the successful components of Classic Who, but other cultural phenomena are granted scant respect.
Alien encounters are now often reduced to throw-away anecdotes or passing gags, often involving partying and narrowly avoiding marriage to some creature.
The history and culture of China is used as throwaway packaging for a time message in one story, and historical characters are often little more than celebrities.
Don’t know much about History
In Modern Who, history appears often as wallpaper or, I suspect, is suggested by other BBC dramas in current production to borrow sets and costumes from.
A knowledge of history also offers suggestions for future stories. Sadly, in Modern Who there is little sense of scholarship.
A propensity for Violins
Swelling music, lots of running and shouting, hardly a single TARDIS journey can be undertaken without the crew pinging off the control room rails like a break of pool balls. My suspicion is that Modern Who is often trying to inject empathy and excitement with stylistic flimflam to cover up superficiality and lack of engaging storyline.
London and Cardiff
Anglocentricity dominates Modern Who. The entire Season 1 is on or orbiting Earth. Almost always in an English-speaking corner (London, Cardiff, USA, Scotland). And very often in the current time of the companion, who keeps in regular touch with family and friends.
The Christmas specials further reinforce a very narrow view of Earth.
A lot of the cultural references (gameshows, even the Benny Hill theme tune that the Doctor knows) are horribly British and dated.
How many times have we seen the Blitz, but have we seen anywhere the British bombed?Even when the story leaves Earth, there is usually an alternate or future Earth, or a human colony or outpost or space station or England-in-space.
Even Imperial measurements exist in the Modern future.
And so, so many aliens/robots in Modern Who wear the form of humans: even Daleks now for chrissake!
The Doctor’s character varies throughout his reincarnations, but there are some significant changes in Modern Who.
The First Doctor (D1) is elderly in body and often in mind, prickly and devious, self-described as brilliant but actually leaves a lot of the problem-solving to his companions, relying on his unreliable but vast experience and technical ability.
I will draw on one authoritative external remark to clarify how the Doctor was conceived:
Verity Lambert, original producer, on casting the Doctor: "And certainly not, under any circumstances, part of the Establishment." The Lambert Tapes, “The Doctor” at 0:47 on Planet of Giants DVD
Yet in Series 8 of Modern Who, the Doctor is inducted as Earth President, which is about as Establishment as one gets.
During the Classic Doctor’s exile to Earth (D3), the stories are often both explicit and implicit critiques of Earth culture and society: war, imperialism, consumerism, superstition, greed, oppression, militarism, authoritarianism, scientific recklessness, environmental destruction, sexism, elitism, bureaucracy, fanaticism, factionalism, mass media and propaganda, and fundamentally a difficulty in just all getting along. All those peace conferences under siege. Home and returning home are also strong themes.
But these themes are often soft-pedalled in Modern Who, in spite of being mostly set in current Earth, and often aliens not humans are to blame.
It gets to the point where Clara is apparently more important to the death-intolerant Doctor (D12) than the rest of the universe. Thus the Doctor proves to be more dangerously deranged than his worst foes. Is this the insane culmination of individuality and ego? Megalomania and psychopathy.
Sadly, the question of "what would it be like to be corrupted by the power to travel in time and space" is a far less interesting question than "what would it be like not to be corrupted by the power to travel in time and space". By making the Doctor ordinary, even petty (or his companions extraordinary) you kind of lose the point of Doctor Who.
In this article, I have painted a picture of Classic Who, where the Doctor is an alien man of science, driven by curiosity and sense of justice, from an advanced civilisation he not always agrees with. With the uncertain navigation of his TARDIS through time and space, he often gets caught up in events, and works with any being willing to aid the causes of liberty, justice and knowledge. He does not respect unearned authority, but has made friends (as well as enemies) throughout the universe.
His Classic Earth/human companions form a bridge between the Doctor and us viewers. They are not special, but have recognisable professions, talents, qualities.
Transitional Who introduces more mysticism and eventually a romantically-entangled Doctor.
Modern Who reboots with the Doctor as an isolated individual, his people lost in the Time War. His companions are often special. Neither are clearly role model material.
The Modern Doctor is more powerful, with almost full control of the TARDIS, no Gallifreyan Time Lords to keep him in check, and becomes gradually more corrupted by his contact with Earth. The show becomes steadily smaller in focus, more egoistic than individualistic and the collective fades in significance. The show becomes about the main characters, with hardly any alien or historical insight beyond excuses for fighting monsters or flirting or turning the Doctor into an implausible fearsome warrior.
The Classic Doctor was our sympathetic guide to the wonders and perils of the intelligent and sentient universe. The Modern Doctor has become a petty, self-pitying, antisocial and dangerous shadow.
I will leave for another time the question of why the show might have changed this way.