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Inside the Tardis, by James Chapman
Experts in alien killer armchairs: A scholarly analysis of Doctor Who is all very well, but the prof's been beaten to it by the fans, contends Matthew Sweet
Sunday 28 May 2006
Doctor Who is accustomed to renaissance. He clutches at his hearts, announces that this is the end and, in a blur and blaze of Colour Separation Overlay, becomes a man with an entirely different Equity number. That's nothing, however, to the renaissance currently being experienced by Doctor Who: Russell T Davies grinning his big Welsh grin all over the BAFTAs, ratings so huge that they have altered industry prognoses about the future of TV drama; a nation enthralled by the chavvy, chipmunky majesty of Billie Piper.
My tutor at university used to say that one of the most significant things about the Renaissance was that it was the moment at which it became impossible for one person to have read every book in existence. What era can we be said to have entered when it is no longer possible for a single person to have consumed every text bearing the Doctor Who logo?
This month, the tally of new material includes four episodes of the new Saturday night series on BBC1, four instalments each of the cable spin-offs Doctor Who Confidential and Totally Doctor Who, one issue of Doctor Who Magazine, two issues of the Doctor Who Adventures comic, two audio-only dramas on CD, three hardback novels, one paperback novella, seven mass market non-fiction books and one academic study by the Professor of Film at Leicester University.
So to participate completely in the cultural practice of Doctor Who, you would have to devote every waking hour to it. You would have to give up your job and renounce family and friends. You would have to stay hunched in your room for days at a time. (If you've just thought of an unkind joke about Doctor Who fans, hush your mouth - at least they don't go on the rampage through city centres when they don't like the result on Saturday.)
James Chapman is not the first academic to subject Doctor Who to seminar-style analysis. That honour goes to a double act, John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, whose Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1983) applied the theoretical discipline of the Frankfurt school to Doctor Who's melodramas of alien invasion, alien possession and alien killer plastic inflatable armchairs.
As Chapman observes, this approach caused so much amusement in the Doctor Who production office that one of the book's more impenetrable sentences made it into the series. In the 1987 story "Dragonfire", a glum-looking heavy asks Sylvester McCoy's Doctor: "What do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of its auxiliary performance codes?" The Doctor, for once, is speechless.
When The Unfolding Text was published, Doctor Who non-fiction existed principally to tell you what the acronym TARDIS stood for, and that Patrick Troughton played the central part in the style of "a cosmic hobo" - whatever that was. The potential readership just wasn't ready to investigate the hermeneutic coding of William Hartnell's astrakhan hat. And, judging by Chapman's book, neither are they now.
Chapman's approach is unpretentious, readable, solidly authoritative and self-consciously anti-theoretical. "The Doctor may have conquered Daleks, Cybermen and Ice Warriors," he argues, "but would he survive an encounter with Foucault, Derrida or Deleuze?"
In place of theory, Chapman has substituted long hours of truffling in the document files of the BBC Written Archives. The results of this aren't quite as pioneering as his publishers claim; he was beaten to most of this stuff by the non-tenured scholars of Doctor Who Magazine. Fascinating memos on the genesis of the series - in which the Doctor and his companions were a team of time-travelling troubleshooters scooting about the universe in a flying saucer - won't be new to anyone who bothered to click through all the extras on the recent DVD release of William Hartnell's first three stories.
I don't remember, though, having ever before clapped eyes on the internal BBC correspondence inspired by the unfortunate appearance of the title character of the 1979 story The Creature from the Pit. "The Monster appeared in the studio resembling nothing so much as a giant green blancmange with a four foot phallus," agonised the producer, Graham Williams. "The most easily available (and essential) function gave the impression of erection." Despite these anxieties, the on-screen evidence suggests that Williams was unable to prevent Tom Baker putting the creature's pseudopodia into his mouth and blowing. There was, I suppose, no official watershed in 1979.
When it comes to the more recent incarnations of Doctor Who, getting hold of official BBC paperwork is trickier. Like the contestants on Catchphrase, Chapman must content himself with simply watching the screen and saying what he sees. Some future researcher will get the gig of examining the exchange of memos relating to Colin Baker's dismissal from the series - or, indeed, the emails that preceded the departure of Christopher Eccleston. But Chapman's book is an extremely good starting point for anyone wishing to think seriously about Doctor Who - if you think that's a valuable way of employing your time.
Somebody, though, ought to start writing the sequel straight away. Doctor Who is becoming more complicated and expansive by the day, and its effective analysis might require an author with a slightly more adventurous approach.
Doctor Who isn't just 28 seasons of television drama and one TV movie with Paul McGann in a dodgy wig. It's also 43 unbroken years of comic strips, 100-odd audio dramas, 300-odd novels, thousands of web pages and a mixed bag of stage plays, radio plays, webcasts, feature films, annuals, sketches and story anthologies. More importantly, Doctor Who is something that we do as well as watch or read. Its concepts and metaphors have invaded our language. It has colonised the British consciousness more effectively than any race of rubber-skinned aliens. It is a monstrous, unstoppable, ever-growing discourse.
So what would happen if, on some time-trip to the Left Bank in the 1970s, Deleuze , Derrida and Foucault encountered Doctor Who? That's easy. It would simply slide on top of them like a giant green blancmange with a four-foot phallus.
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