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Black Sky Thinking

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

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.