November 23rd, 2013
Before the last of these essays, a little bit of other stuff…
This post is going to go live at precisely midnight — at which point it will be the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and so this is the last of the fifty stories essays.
Enough people said they would want a book of this that I’ve put one together, and that is also available from midnight tonight. You can buy it as a paperback, hardback, Kindle ebook (US) (UK), or non-Kindle ebook (with no DRM on the ebooks). And for those of you who visit us at Thought Bubble, you can buy a paperback copy off me personally.
But don’t worry if you’re too poor to buy one, or you just don’t like me and don’t want me to have money — the essays are essentially the same as they were when published here, but without the dodgy screencaps, and with quite a bit of copy-editing and fact-checking. You can still read the original versions here for free.
But anyway, here’s the last essay…
The Snowmen is a story that already, eleven months after its broadcast, cannot be viewed in the same light as it was on Christmas Day 2012.
When it was broadcast, the choice of villain seemed very odd — the Great Intelligence, a character who had appeared in two Patrick Troughton stories, forty-five years earlier, and had never appeared in an episode of Doctor Who since. Not only that, but both stories it had appeared in (The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear) were missing from the BBC’s archives, victims of the policy that had seen so many episodes destroyed. Almost nobody watching could ever before have seen a story with the character.
It seemed all the odder because the story didn’t seem, apart from a little wink to the earlier stories at the end, to rely especially on the character being the Great Intelligence. The character Richard E. Grant played could have been any character at all — it didn’t have much connection with the way the Intelligence had behaved previously. In the previous stories it had animated robot Yeti, while here it was animating snow. Obviously there’s the snowman/abominable snowman verbal similarity, but this Great Intelligence, rather than the Lovecraftian figure of the original, was more like a computer virus (something made far more explicit in his next outing, in 2013′s The Bells of St. John).
But then, in mid-2013, the rumours that had previously been confined to a small number of fans broke publicly — a huge number of missing episodes had supposedly been found, including the Troughton stories The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear.
Those two stories were released in October [FOOTNOTE The Web of Fear with one episode still missing, reconstructed with telesnaps.] (along with persistent hints that there may be more where they came from), and suddenly the fact that the 2012 Christmas special had been written as a prequel to a lost 1960s story made a lot more sense, although Steven Moffat continues to claim, unconvincingly, that it was just a coincidence.
But it also shows something about Moffat’s version of the show, as compared to Davies’. While Davies seemed to want to keep the pre-1989 series at arm’s length, incorporating ideas from it but trying not to scare off the non-fans, Moffat has, from the start, been eager to place his stories, and Matt Smith’s Doctor, in the larger context of the series. Not just by bringing back old monsters and villains — if anything, Moffat does that rather less than Davies — but by making direct reference to the other Doctors, including footage of them in montages, and having his stories comment on pre-1989 ones.
In The Snowmen, the Doctor is even seen operating a Mr. Punch puppet, which for a story so heavily indebted to Troughton is almost certainly a nod to Troughton’s role in another children’s Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights.
Clara, the companion introduced here, was born on November 23rd, died aged twenty-six, and would later come back, albeit in a changed form. This iteration of Moffat’s “special companion” represents, in a way, the show itself, a representation strengthened when we later find out that she has been weaving her way through the Doctor’s timeline right from the start — in The Name of the Doctor in 2013, we actually see her advising the first Doctor which TARDIS to steal.
There’s a sense here that the programme is being made for the hardcore fans again, rather than for the family audience that Davies always claimed to be making it for (though, as we have seen, the claim didn’t always match up to the reality). Nods to the past, returning monsters from forty-five-year-old stories, isn’t this all a bit…well…a bit Ian Levine?
In some ways, this is definitely the case. As anyone could have predicted, as the revamped series goes into its ninth year it’s no longer the novelty it was in 2005 and 2006. People know, now, if Doctor Who is the sort of thing they like or not, and while a lot of casual viewers will have turned on for this story, because it’s a special Christmas episode, not every story can be an “event”.
And so since The Snowmen was broadcast, we’ve seen an increase in these nods to the past. Paul McGann has returned to televised Doctor Who, to regenerate into a curiously Valeyard-esque character played by John Hurt. All the previous Doctors were featured in small cameos in the series finale in 2013. And on November 23rd, we’ll be seeing a multi-Doctor special featuring at least David Tennant along with Matt Smith [FOOTNOTE: I say “at least” here because the production team have been rather good at keeping at least some secrets, and so we can't know if their denials of other Doctors being involved are true until we see the episode, which will be broadcast the same day this book is released.], and the return of the Zygons.
But does this mean that, like the last time the series was aimed at fandom rather than the general public, it will disappear?
I doubt it.
When Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, it was consistently getting four or five million viewers, not counting those who videotaped it to watch later. Currently, it’s getting between four and six million viewers, but with several million choosing to watch it later through streaming services like the BBC iPlayer. Superficially, that sounds very similar, but the difference is that when Doctor Who was cancelled there were only four TV channels in the UK, so making a programme that only appealed to five million people made no sense. Now, on the other hand, with the dozens upon dozens of channels available, making something that five million people watch regularly is a minor miracle. There is no longer really any such thing as a mainstream TV programme, with the possible exceptions of a few soaps and singing competitions. Everything is a cult now.
But eventually Doctor Who will be cancelled all the same. It may be in five years, it may be in fifteen, but it will happen. All TV shows eventually get cancelled. TV itself, as a medium, may not exist that much longer.
But Doctor Who is a good enough idea, and one with a long enough history, that it will come back again, in some form, as long as there are people around to tell stories. Twenty years after it gets cancelled, there will be someone out there, who may only be five years old now, who remembers that programme she liked as a child, with the strange man in the blue box who fought those aliens that looked a bit like dustbins, and she’ll get an idea, and find a way to get that idea made.
And whether she knows it or not, she’ll be following in the steps of Verity Lambert and David Whitaker, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, David Maloney, Paul Cornell, Jacqueline Rayner, Lawrence Miles, Steven Moffat, and all the others, good, bad, or indifferent, who’ve added to the story of the Doctor over the years.