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Dr Who As Cosmic Clochard: Why We Don't Need Another Topman Dr
Robert Barry , June 10th, 2013 05:43

With Matt Smith soon stepping down from his role as Dr Who, Robert Barry argues that after a run of actors who look like they've stepped right out of Topman, it's time to find a Time Lord more in tune with the series' darker origins

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For the best part of a decade now we have have endured a series of Doctors who have looked like the Bullingdon Club and acted like Bono. With the departure of the latest foppish do-gooder, it is time to consider a change.

You can see how it happened. Faced with a long dead, largely discredited series, ignominiously cancelled years ago and beloved at the time only by slightly odd, obsessive men of a certain age; the problem of how to turn such a well-flogged horse corpse into an attractive, viable, marketable prospect was bound to be a thorny one. Of course – why not? – call in some talent. Get a proper actor in the lead. Someone people like. Someone with a little bit of clout. Paul McGann. Christopher Eccleston. Everyone likes them. Everyone knows they're good actors. Reliable. Dependable. Recognisable faces. Names, even. Dare I say, bankable.

Herein lies the problem. The role of the Doctor has somehow gradually been construed as a hot one for an ambitious young actor with an eye on his career and a pushy agent to boot. For the best part of ten years now, the Doctor has been played by a series of actors. Paul McGann. Chris Eccleston. David Tennant. Matt Smith. Fine actors, no doubt. But actors they remained. William Hartnell was not an actor playing the Doctor, nor was Patrick Troughton, nor Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker neither. For as long as their performances were bracketed by the signature oscillator swoops of Delia Derbyshire's music, they were the Doctor.

But wait. Before you skip the rest of this piece to type the snide below-the-line remark that I know you are itching to make, let me stress that I say this not out of nostalgia for the dear old Doctor I grew up with. I did not watch Dr Who as a child. Or barely. When I grew up, we had Sylvester McCoy, and even I will not make excuses for McCoy. McCoy was a crap, somewhat embarrassing incarnation of the Doctor who I had little time for in my youth (and yet still I think, yes, he was the Doctor – he surely can't have been anything else).

I really got into Dr Who somewhere in my mid-twenties when, as an assiduous masters degree student writing a dissertation about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I decided to gather as exhaustive a collection of wobbulator-soundtracked VHS tapes as I could manage. Given that (a) at the time everyone in the world was chucking out VHS tapes like piss-stained asbestos, (b) I lived in an area with a remarkably high concentration of charity shops, and (c) I had sufficient free time that I could beat even Dr Who fans at eBay auctions, before long I had amassed and watched and re-watched a pile of tapes as big as a wall. So I discovered the 'old' Doctors pretty much contemporaneously with the new. For those familiar with the new series alone, a few things about the character of the Doctor as originally developed come as quite shocking.

Firstly, the Doctor has no fucking interest whatsoever in saving the world. He does not give a shit about your shitty planet. Which will come as some surprise to fans of the Doctor-fucking-Jesus who has been occupying the Tardis for the last eight years. William Hartnell's first Doctor is a seriously ambiguous character. He is not – at least not at first – a nice man, by any stretch. Most of the threat to the protagonists in the early episodes is entirely brought about by this Doctor, who then leaves it up to the poor school teachers that he has quite aggressively kidnapped to try and sort it out. It really isn't very clear who the 'good guy' is supposed to be. And this is all for the best.

Similarly, watch a few episodes of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor and it becomes immediately apparent that though, yes, the world does get a bit saved from time to time, it always seems to be somehow by accident. A sort of by-product. Tom Baker's Doctor does not want to save the world. He wants to go on holiday. Every episode starts with him trying to have a nice peaceful holiday. Something gets in the way. He has to sort it out, in much the same way that one might sort out a visa problem in a foreign embassy or a broken tent peg. Only this tent peg is ten foot tall and trying to kill you and everyone you know.

This is the other thing. The relationship between the Doctor and his assistants. At a certain point – I don't know, I suppose they'd been watching too much Moonlighting or something – it became a kind of law that there had to be this flirty, will-they-wont-they unresolved sexual tension thing going on between the Doctor and his assistants. With, say, the Fourth Doctor and Leela, or the Third Doctor and Liz Shaw, or even the Second Doctor and Jamie, there was never any question of unresolved sexual tension. You just knew they were fucking. It simply wasn't discussed. There was no need.

I refuse to believe that anyone could possibly watch these episodes without the casual working assumption that whenever these characters were not onscreen, they were in bed – either making love or smoking post-coital cigarettes. But for all their cooey eyes and pouty good looks, there is something strangely asexual about Doctors Nine, Ten, and Eleven. And you certainly can't imagine any of them smoking. It's like Twilight.

As soon as I saw Chris Eccleston as the Doctor, I knew I wasn't going to like him because he looked like he'd just stepped out of Gap in the latest collection. Since then we have been given a series of Topman Doctors, Doctors who dress only in the most boring and conservative of present day high street fashions. And what, I ask you, do contemporary cuts and trends mean to a man who travels through time at will? In the older series it is made perfectly clear how the Doctor acquires his clothes: they are found, stolen, improvised.

In John Lydon's autobiography, he discusses his inspiration for the ad hoc style that later became known as 'punk'. "It's difficult to explain," he says, "but I always sensed a certain flair of how bums dressed in London. Street urchins, bums, tramps – whatever you want to call them – had a much better way of wearing their clothes… I sensed an indestructible jauntiness to it, almost cavalier and reflecting pride in what they were… Wearing bin liners came from watching the transients in London. I used to love the way they wore bin liners. I thought it was so shiny and neat, much better than leather."

The Doctor is just such a tramp. A time-travelling transient. A cosmic clochard. He is a man who lives in a phone box. I have seen men round the corner from where I live who live in phone boxes and they do not look like they might be asked to do their own collection at H&M. The Doctor is, in many ways, more homeless, more itinerant, more immigrant, than any man whose gaze you have ever avoided in the street. He has no home, no country, no planet, no temporal dimension to call his own. It is about time he started acting as such. If you are not deeply worried, somewhat disturbed even, by this figure then something is wrong.

So I believe we need a Doctor who is bitter, irascible, shifty, and a bit smelly. Not someone calculatedly wacky like Tennant or Smith, but someone who you suspect probably has serious mental health issues. Someone utterly socially inept and slightly frightening, and someone who you would probably cross the street to avoid.

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James Reid
Jun 10, 2013 10:53am

A horrifying mental image of a priapic Jon Pertwee eagerly mounting sweet Caroline John is now indelibly scorched onto my retinas.

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Jun 10, 2013 6:02pm

The bookmakers have apparently stopped accepting bets and Rory Kinnear will be the next Dr. Mid-thirties and balding. Topman and floppy fringed young good looking spiffing love interest for the sexy female assistant, not. Then again this could be merely a diversion from another young good looking spiffing love interest being cast. To be honest, I don't really get the excitement of the modern Dr Who (or since Colin Baker for that matter) and find it difficult to watch the programme. Enjoyed the Tom Baker era and the beginning of Peter Davison's tenure, but back then I just saw it as a half and hour filler of fun with crap monsters and wobbly sets featuring the "space" music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, comprising some old bloke pressing one key on a Roland synth in between the other TV humdrum of a Saturday afternoon of Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks followed by the "comedy" "genius" of Little and Large or whatever was on at the time.

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Jun 10, 2013 9:25pm

The Doctor in The Authority is well worth your time, especially the Earth Inferno arc.

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Jun 11, 2013 1:43am

This is what ive been saying this whole time! Stop selling out to get views and money and be true to the character ! Matts a good actor he made the whole goofy doctor thing work for me but for god sakes if the next doctor looks like a fucking british justin Beiber im done with the show!

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Jun 11, 2013 3:51am

You say, "watch a few episodes of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor and it becomes immediately apparent that though, yes, the world does get a bit saved from time to time, it always seems to be somehow by accident. A sort of by-product. Tom Baker's Doctor does not want to save the world. He wants to go on holiday."

That's not the vibe I get from this clip:

Clearly the doctor sees the importance of saving the world of the twenties so that Sutekh doesn't alter the timeline and destroy the world of 1980.

Your point is made here:

In this clip he decides to go fishing instead of finding the next segment of the key to time for the White Guardian. The key here is that he is not so keen when other people such as the Time Lords, the Brigadier, or others tried to make him do something for no apparent good reason.

I think this is rather a case of the Doctor being anti-authority as opposed to having no interest in saving the Earth. I would suggest that the truth is actually, in the cases where the threat to Earth was proved to be genuine, that would be the point where he would become profoundly motivated to save the Earth.

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Jun 11, 2013 3:17pm

I suggest the writer of this article to get over himself. Doctor Who has always been a show about re-invention. Times chance, so does the writing, so does the character itself. It is not here to satisfy tv "scholars" who think that it will be so original and unconventional for the protagonist to be some middle aged grumpy space hobo talking to himself about nothing, just drifting in space and time for no reason whatsoever. What a pretentious critique not only on the current writing and reboot of the show, who most people agreed it was a stroke of genius, but also on the casting. Furthermore, it is so pathetic and uncalled for to say that Eccleston, Tennant and Smith were cast just because they look like "Topman and Gap models"? Have you watched American television at ALL? If you consider these amazing actors simply eye candy, then you are insulting them as performers, and you are insulting the viewers intelligence. Because I guess that for the writer of this aricle, a real Doctor Who fan should be watching a William Hartnell lookalike dressed in a potato sack wearing a silver foil hat, rambling about Marcel Prust and time lost while making braids out of celery. Its a tv show, that has now become a huge successful franchise within 5 years of its reboot, before it was dead for over a decade, and that is because of the choices the producers, writers and casting director made. Sit back and enjoy the ride, or else watch something else. Like Shameless.

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katherine elizabeth
Jun 12, 2013 2:37am

Only the Stupid Americans thin they have enough brains even to enjoy the overrated sludge you just mentioned -EW-. But some of us are Smart. Americans, that is.

YES YES WE NEED A DICK TO PLAY HIM! But a sort-of fuck-up do-gooding Dick, because that Is what the Doctor is trying to be, in his own special Asperger's-esque fucked up way. And i happen to Be an aspie, so there. PICK ME, maybe. I'm good for it. I am female HAHA AND one of those smart Americans you never read about in the funny papers. Cue the aforementioned comment about the Second Doctor's speech concerning those who fight evildoers, or some such. The chosen one should be the unholy love child of John Hurt, William Hartnell and Tom Baker.

(The Oxford Murders + An Unearthly Child + The Boy Who Kicked Pigs = Tinkerbell Jebus Doctor, otherwise known as G. Lasgow Wingnuts.)

Obviously they should cast Hugh Laurie. Or Colin Morgan, who, though young, is quite snarky and fetching in a dress and under an aging spell, either way the gate swings. TWO WORDS: OLD. MERLIN. just don't give us anyone who can't string two words together and thinks OMEGA is some new kind of phone text slang. Please. GOD. NO. The person they choose has to you know, GET IT.
I loved all the Doctors so far. damn it. Don't screw it up for us now. it'll just be Lutfisk. And god knows most of us don't like THAT. It's stinky and it smells. LOL.


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katherine elizabeth
Jun 12, 2013 2:40am

In reply to katherine elizabeth:

and i was referring to all the creepy-bad one-dimensional shows the article-writer mentioned, not anything in the posting comments.

;) love smithy, wish he wasn't leaving. But still... Doctor Who is Change. NOVEMBER WHY U NO HERE NOAWWW?

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Martin Fidler
Jun 12, 2013 6:18pm

Glad to see someone mention Iwan Rheon. I think he's born to be the doctor. Misfits and GOT merely auditions for the part just like Daniel Craig showing bond characteristics in Layer Cake.

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Mr. A
Jun 13, 2013 2:58am

Screw you, Screw you, and Screw you!

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Jun 13, 2013 5:00pm

Socially inept? A bit frightening? You've describe the Sixth Doctor, my favorite.

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Jun 15, 2013 6:10pm

I think SOME people like Doctor Who a bit TOO much...

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Jun 21, 2013 3:41pm

What portion of the Classic Series were you watching? Obviously not enough and not in sound mind. You completely missed the early character arc of the 1st Doctor. He went from irascible survivor to champion because of the influence of his friends and traveling experiences. I suggest if you truly want to appreciate that portion of the show you delve into a more complete history than charity shop VHS tapes and consume the missing audios & recons. Then continue on through the 2nd Doctor and tell me how the heck anyone can imagine him shagging his male companion Jamie. Or fulfilling his promise to look after Maxtible's daughter by shagging her?

Do your homework and then you can come back and offer a point of view on how the role should be played. Until then you just look like a fool.

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Jun 25, 2013 8:51am

Your case is a strong one, and I agree with it, up to a point. The trouble is, pretty much everything you're asking for has been tried before. And Colin Baker's wretched interpretation was the outcome.

And the Doctor should never, *ever* get it on with his companions. They're different species, who relative to the Doctor have the lifespan of a gnat. It would be like me forming a sexual relationship with my pet cat. I'm fond of my cat, but there are limits.

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matthew unfortunate
Jun 26, 2013 6:05am

David Thewlis: perfect Dr.

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Russell Dixon
Jul 19, 2013 10:10pm

Good points made here but Doctor Who isn't a documentary it's saturday night entertainment. I agree though the actors playing the Doctor recently have been bland.

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Aug 5, 2013 12:23am

Peter Capaldi. Genius casting.

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Aug 5, 2013 1:12pm

You need to get the audience to care about your characters for the story to succeed. I don't think most people would care about a character like you describe... if it's someone with no morals, crazy in a scarey way, or someone we want to avoid, then its someone we won't want to watch, and we won't care what happens to him. Basically from the perspective of a "story" character if the Doctor was like you describe, the series would be dead in less than one season because no one would care about that character.

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Aug 6, 2013 1:55pm

I'd be curious to know what the author of this piece makes of the Peter Capaldi casting

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Ben Coleman
Aug 16, 2013 1:56pm

Mark E Smith for Doctor!

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Mark Smaller
Aug 25, 2013 8:39am

Okay to set the scene - I grew up with Doctor Who. I remember William Hartnell, all be it not the actual first series. The first four actors were the Doctor at the time, but that is because I was young, I didn't know of these men outside of the Doctor. The magic broke with Worzel Gummidge. There was life beyond the Doctor, the third Doctor became a man playing the Doctor. The fifth Doctor and sixth Doctor created problems, I was a more aware teenage, and they were actors one had seen on the screens before hand, one had been a famous vet. McCoy was less well known (to me at least) so made the role his own whilst he could. All the Doctors were styled, sometimes over styled (Peter Davidson's questionable cricket whites).

Robert Barry forgets that this is a television program aimed at children, they are unlikely to have seen Eccleston in the gritty adult dramas before hand, or Tennant as Casanova. He is looking at the new Doctors as an adult in a world they are still operating in. Whilst he is looking at the old Doctors set in a time capsule.

But having said that - a good piece.

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