Whoydensday: Old vs New, strengths and weaknesses

As part of an excellent essay on the role of the Nostalgia Factor in the Russell T. Davies (RTD) era of Doctor Who, Iain Clark makes many excellent points about both the new and the old series of Who, why Sarah Jane Smith was really the only choice as a returning former-companion for the new generation of Who-watchers, and the differing emphasis paid to character vs story in each.

Clark is writing what purports to be merely a review of the one episode of the second RTD season, yet by the end he’s engaging in an analysis of the entire Rose Tyler era in counterpoint to what we see of the characters in School Reunion.

For the most part the purpose of the original series was to watch an idiosyncratic character solve an interesting and largely external story. There may have been memorable guest characters, dramatic moments and moral dilemmas, but there was seldom much in the way of introspection. Only in its twilight years did the show imbue companions like Ace (Sophie Aldred) with anything approaching psychological complexity. In this sense the new Doctor Who has embraced character to a much greater extent, to the point of occasional soap opera. While its stories often follow the same basic templates as the original, when story and character come into conflict it’s now the story that gets short shrift.

Thoughts? Particularly if you’re a new Who fan who’s only catching up with classic Who now instead of being nostalgic for them as part of your childhood.

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17 replies

  1. We’re catching up with classic WHO, but we’re still on Hartnell, so it will probably be quite a while before I can say anything too useful. (I’ve watched bits of Tom Baker and Tristan before, but it’s a long time ago now.)
    I do wonder how much of the character vs plot false dichotomy is a subtly or not so subtly gendered discourse. I am getting the impression that the fanbase is much more strongly female now than it was in the old days, and how much of that is the simple results of a bigger female SF fandom in general, and how much is related to specific features of the New Who, I’m not sure. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

  2. As you probably know I’m not a big fan of the new Dr Who, and haven’t really been watching enough of the newies to comment in detail.
    One of the things that I do find fundamentally offputting is the decision that the Doctor, in the new series, must have a significant sexual identity, which completely severs the nostalgic charm for me. I grew up with Dr Who as a kid, and of course, I identified with him as a father figure and a friend to take me along on adventures. In this way he was redolent of a pre-WWII character ideal, of the gentlemen, or the dandy.
    In this way, perhaps he acted as a kind of potent counter-cultural figure at a time (60s/70s/80s) when sexuality became increasingly prevalent in the media. An anti-James Bond, maybe.
    I don’t particularly know why Russell T Davies thought it was necessary to add sex to the Dr Who plot. For me, and for kids, too, I suspect, this will detract from the charm and hence the attraction of the program.
    The other point, about character, is kind of interesting. Again that wasn’t a huge concern for me as a child watcher; more so perhaps as an adult. But if you are going to deal with character issues in a new series of Dr Who, then I kind of wish it would be dealt with in a different way than the return of Sarah Jane (an episode which I DID see). I found SJ’s reaction to seeing the doctor – regret, and a kind of nostalgia for the wonderful times she had with the Doctor – kind of unbelievable.
    I’m of the view that when you suffer a drastic change of environment, such as often happens in SF and fantasy plots, you’d be apt to find the experience utterly incapacitating. You’d go nuts!, at least for a time. But no – Neo factors in his new life in ‘the Matrix’, and leaps into it with unbounded zest, embracing his fate as ‘The One’. Sarah Jane, we imagine, just potters off, with regrets, perhaps, but continues her life, relatively unaffected. Still, her return is handled with more sensitivity and thoughtfulness than most.
    To my mind, the only writer who has handled this idea of the ‘return to reality’ theme with significant depth in recent times has been Joss Whedon. When Buffy is resurrected from the dead, she suffers a deep depression and initiates a potentially self-destructive relationship with Spike.
    I don’t know. Probably being too hard/missing a lot of points in writing about Davies’ Dr Who series here – I’ve done it before. Just a few random thoughts.
    TimTs last blog post..Spirit of dumb

  3. I think the last to reincarnations of the Dr are certainly more attractive, although I think the Dr after Tom Baker (? the one in cricket whites) was starting to move into this territory.

  4. I agree with a lot of what TimT has said except as regards to SJ; I found her response completely human and therefore understandable and that is what, to me, is going wrong with this current Dr- he is being humanized, and in a really cliched way. The last episode was just awful with its “to fight and to die”‘s and the cringemaking homilies about family.
    I haven’t seen the first new series for a while but I think Rose’s character did exhibit signs of severe shock of the new and that is one of the drawbacks of changing the doctor’s companions so frequently- they skip that settling in phase.

  5. One of the things that I do find fundamentally offputting is the decision that the Doctor, in the new series, must have a significant sexual identity, which completely severs the nostalgic charm for me.

    I don’t see this in the same way at all. Obviously the new Doctor is presented as overtly sexually attractive (rather than the more avuncular aspects of earlier incarnations), but for the most part he doesn’t strike me as necessarily being sexually active. Even in his relationship with Rose, I got the feeling more of them being poised on a will-we/won’t we edge than actively sexing it up all over the universe, and that much of the angst of their separation was over the sense that so much had been unresolved. Certainly he actively holds Martha off despite her fancying him rotten, and with Donna he appears relieved that they can simply be mates without the sexual tension.

    I’m of the view that when you suffer a drastic change of environment, such as often happens in SF and fantasy plots, you’d be apt to find the experience utterly incapacitating. You’d go nuts!, at least for a time. But no – Neo factors in his new life in ‘the Matrix’, and leaps into it with unbounded zest, embracing his fate as ‘The One’. Sarah Jane, we imagine, just potters off, with regrets, perhaps, but continues her life, relatively unaffected. Still, her return is handled with more sensitivity and thoughtfulness than most.

    This is surely though a major part of the attraction of the whole fantasy genre – the idea that if You suddenly discover that you are The Protagonist in fantastic adventures that You will relish it and master new skills/attitudes and ultimately triumph. Is it that psychologically unlikely that some people would indeed relish it right from the start? One only has to look at people who are “natural travellers” compared to those who are “whingeing tourists” to see that there could plausibly be some people who would cope perfectly well, even if many/most could not.

  6. It is an interesting question though- with the mind’s propensity to fill in gaps in visual information based on prior knowledge, whether we would be able to extract any meaning from a completely alien world, whether we would be assailed by meaningless sensation (and in effect be ‘mad’) or see something that was simply not there as the only way of resolving the discrepancies, in much the same way that old people who are losing their distance vision ‘see’ all manner of things that aren’t there in the interplay of colour and light in the visual field.
    But, yeah, new assistant goes irretrievably mad or sees cows instead of daleks is not likely to get a guernsey (or a jersey) when pitching a script.

  7. Particularly if you’re a new Who fan who’s only catching up with classic Who now instead of being nostalgic for them as part of your childhood.
    That’s me completely. New Who is my Who. I do have vague memories of watching Who as a little kid, but all I can remember is the theme music. I tried watching some Old Who in 2004 and really couldn’t get into it, but Russell T. Davies first Season had me hooked immediately. And now that I am hooked, I do greatly enjoy watching Old Who as well.
    I think, however, that I never would have been drawn into it at all if it hadn’t been for the strength of the characterisation in New Who, both in terms of the Doctor and the various companions. While I agree with Lauredhel that plot vs. character is a false dichotomy, I will admit that I’m willing to forgive an awful lot of plot holes if I’m enjoying the characters on screen, while the reverse is harder for me. Even in terms of plot, however, I find that New Who is more consistently good than Old Who– Old Who had some brilliant stories, but it also had some that were complete dross, and I really don’t think that there’s a single New Who episode that’s come close to being as bad as some of the older episodes, while there are a number of new episodes that match up to the best of the older stories.
    And while this is often pooh-poohed as superficial, I find it much easier to engage with a story when your aliens consist of decent CGI aliens rather than people wrapped in lime green bubble wrap.
    And just so that people don’t think I’m trashing characterisation in Old Who completely (and also because I’m a woman of contradictions), two of my three favourite companions are old-school: Sarah Jane and Ace. Of course, as Clark notes, Ace did get more characterisation than her predecessors (and interestingly, she was supposed to go on to train as a Time Lord). Meanwhile, Elisabeth Sladen has spoken about how much she had to bring to the table in order to give Sarah Jane her distinctive character– she often didn’t have much to work with in the scripts, but she managed anyway. And while Sarah Jane became a favourite of mine before I saw SJA, I have to say that I LOVE the extra levels of nuance that her character is given in that show– you can see the years of experience mapped onto a character who is nonetheless recognisable as the same person who travelled with the Third and Fourth Doctors. I was not completely happy with the way that her relationship with the Doctor was re-visioned as a romance, when that vibe is not at all present between them in the older episodes but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me that Sarah Jane retrospectively romanticised her time with the Doctor when she found it difficult to settle back into normal life.
    One thing that I’ve found really interesting about watching New Who is that a lot of the things that people complain about with regard to Davies’ interpretation of the Doctor are actually things that have precedent in Old Who, even if they weren’t emphasised in the same way. The Doctor as a sexual being, for instance, is something that you actually see in the William Hartnell serial The Aztecs (which really is a brilliant story– it would easily make my top ten in a list that included both New and Old Who). And there’s no denying that there were huge and shiny sparks between the Fourth Doctor and Romana II– obviously this is partly the real life actors’ relationship spilling over, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t become part of the characters themselves.
    The way I see it is not so much that the Doctor was asexual in Old Who, but rather, he was very aloof in general, which meant that he didn’t relate sexually to his companions. In the post-Time War New Who, the Doctor is so very alone that he forges much more intense bonds with his companions and other people that he meets, and these bonds sometimes have a sexual element to them. This is something that the Doctor tends to forget about as a possibility– as seen in the key moment where he remembers how to “dance” in The Doctor Dances, and also in Family of Blood, when the “John Smith” side of his personality expresses disbelief that he would forget that falling in love was even an option. Personally, I feel that exploring this side of the Doctor’s character has, for the most part, been explored sensitively and to great effect. This is not to say that it’s always done exactly right, but overall it’s enriched his character rather than weakened it.
    Lauredhel, your comments regarding a gendered discourse ring very true to me. Just today I’ve been skimming through The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context by Sheenagh Pugh. This book was published in 2005, and so would have been written before New Who screened. Pugh doesn’t focus on Who fandom in particular, but she does reference it with relative frequency– and her main point in doing so is that it was, at that time, one of the only fan fiction communities dominated by male writers. At the time of writing, she noted that people like Russell T. Davies and Paul Cornell started out writing fanfic as youngsters, and had gone onto writing novelisations– and of course, and now they’ve both contributed to actual canon. She suggests that male writers are perhaps more confident about their writing, and therefore look to bridge the gap between fanfic and profic more than female writers do.
    Nonetheless, as the main creative force behind New Who, Davies has given us a show that has many of the elements of fanfiction that tend to appeal to female ficcers– characterisation and emotional vulnerability, an array of potential OTPs, canon slashiness, etc. These days I think that most Whoniverse fic is written by women, although men still dominate those who produce canon. Who knows what will happen in the future, however? Perhaps one of the things that really distinguishes New Who from the Old is that the production of New Who is essentially a fannish activity, even as it produces new canon, and perhaps (I hope) more women will get involved in that in the future– someone needs to fill Verity Lambert’s shoes, after all :).

  8. I think the “psychological complexity” thing is a function of it being a modern show where that is expected of even Sunday night genre pieces. The same can be said of Original Trek vs modern Trek, original BSG vs the reboot, or really any TV series of the 60s/70s in comparison to today.

  9. I’m sure there are a few hints in the original Dr Who series about the Doctors sexuality – the touchstone for me was always Susan, in Episode 1, season 1, who calls the Doctor ‘grandfather’. That seems clear enough (ruling out plot twists about Susan being adopted, or similar – and I don’t think the original creators of the show would have ever intended to take the show in that direction.)
    Though one major difference between the old series and the new series is this – the Doctor never kissed one of his companions like he did Rose Tyler in the season one ending/season two beginning! In the new Who series, the companions clearly aren’t intended to be to the Doctor in a children/father relationship, or even a solely friend/friend relationship. But then, the Sarah Jane Smith-meets-Rose Tyler episode makes it clear that, in the ‘New Who’ universe, many of the old companions would have been viewed in a similar sexual/romantic light as well by the Doctor.
    So in that respect I’m much happier with the old Who than the new Who. Yes, it’s partly a personal thing due to how I saw Who as a child, and how I come back to it as an adult – I’d rather encounter these questions about sex and relationships in a different SF, not Doctor Who.
    TimTs last blog post..Spirit of dumb

  10. I grant you there are different ways of looking at this, Tim.

    Though one major difference between the old series and the new series is this – the Doctor never kissed one of his companions like he did Rose Tyler in the season one ending/season two beginning!

    You mean when he was drawing the spirit/breath/energy of the TARDIS out of her body so that it wouldn’t kill her? It didn’t look very sexual to me, have to say, much more like a literal kiss-of-life.

  11. I like how Donna Noble (and I’m quite liking Catherine Tate this serious) is poking fun of the implied sexual attraction between the Doctor and his current companions.
    So I tend to agree with tig. And what Amanda said also needs to be noted as well re reimaging of old sci-fi faves.
    Now for the oblig mention of Leela. The greatest companion of them all.
    I’m liking the new Who. There is an element of humanity in most episodes that is just stunning. Except for the last one. It just didn’t get to me like the first few of this series.

  12. Shaun, the Doctor’s Daughter episode didn’t quite work, did it? It seemed rushed, meaning much of the dialogue was overly simplistic, and there was plenty of material in that world/plot to explore in a two-parter, which would have worked better. But when you’re working within the constraints of a 13-episode season, sometimes this sort of shoe-horning has to occur no doubt, less than ideal though it might be.
    TimT, have you seen the 90s Doctor Who movie, with the 8th Doctor, the luscious Mr McGann? That was the break in Who canon to seeing the Doctor as an actively sexual being, and being attracted to a Companion.
    RTD’s background in Whovian fandom communities, knowing how people responded/debated those developments at the time and since, may well have coloured his decision to drop the Doctor’s asexuality for the revived series as well, but it’s not really fair to say that he arrived at it out of the blue.

  13. I assumed that the new sexuality angle was to pull back in viewers like me (it’s all about me!) who watched it as a kid (from behind Mum’s chair) and who were curious enough to watch the new series, especially with a bit of eye candy as the Dr. Then once we were hooked…

  14. Mindy, I’m sure that’s part of it! RTD strikes me as someone who looks at as many angles as possible. Sometimes this ends up with ideas that are perhaps overly-clever and thus a little off-putting, no doubt. But on the whole I think it’s been a good thing. It’s certainly struck gold in terms of mining the zeitgeist in the UK.

  15. Firstly – how good is it to start the day with a Dr Who blog post? Thanks Hoyden team.
    I’m a past and present Who fan and where I probably wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in the relationship dynamic between the Dr and his companions in the original series, because I was 10, I really like it in the new series and I think it’s given it a great edge and depth that is probably behind the phenomenal ratings for the final two shows of season 4. To hark back to the ‘gratuitous’ post on David Tennant (and can there really be such a thing? That would be like saying there can be a gratuitous John Simm’s post – bah!), it has a Shakespearean dimension to it in the new series that is ripper to watch. There are layers of tragedy to the characters and the story lines and a wonderful sense of optimism permeates it all to overcome life’s (the Universe’s) travails – although I do agree with earlier comments that there are moments of soap opera to the new series that I love and cringe at, at the same time.
    It’s interesting watching series one of the New Who again and there is an awkward tension there between the Dr as Rose’s father figure and someone she is totally in awe of and falling for romantically. The age gap between them came up often so it was interesting that when the Dr regenerated he came back in a body far closer to Rose’s age than his predecessor.
    I loved the episode with Sarah Jane returning – it was a great plot and Anthony Head was fabulous to boot – and it was very contemporary to have the two ex’s, as it were, meet and compare notes. There’s a lovely level of irony and humour to the script in the new series that is summed up quite neatly in this episode.
    One last comment – Leela was by far my favourite companion in old Who.

  16. Hrm, what to say that hasn’t been said already? New Who fan here, catching up on the old school via bits and pieces.
    I agree that the dichotomy of story vs. character development is inaccurate; I think that if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s less of a problem of the series and more a problem of RTD’s writing. (Brilliant lead-ins, and then he just blows his proverbial load far too soon.) I’d say that Girl in the Fireplace, Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, and Human Nature/Family of Blood have good story and characters at the same time…
    And to be perfectly honest, the way things are now on Who is symptomatic of the shift in television series as a whole. Over the last decade, the Western public has made it clear that long story arcs and characters one can relate to are essential to successful television. Even standalone programs like CSI have a certain amount of character development and running plotlines now. It’s not a question of what’s better or worse for DW, but a greater change overall.

  17. I watched Dr Who a lot as a kid, being a big SF fan and ABC/Brit addict, but most of it seems to have gone out of my brain (except for an abiding fondness for Tom Baker’s Doctor). I was very leery of the new series, as I was with the movie (I only got about ten minutes into the movie before fleeing in horror). It took me ages as a result to start watching and getting into New Who. As I got into it I started seeing it as a new show, and ditching the legacy in my head.
    For me, there’s not an awful lot to compare them, even when I went back and started watching a lot of Old Who (I just finished State Of Decay last night). The new series just seems to me, and I realise this is subjective, bolder, brighter, funnier, deeper. I could crap on for hours about the ins and outs of an episode. I do like watching Old Who but its pleasures seem much simpler, and I have to wade through a lot of turgid plotting and acting and wavering-suspension-of-disbelief lime green bubblewrap!
    There’s some real gems with the plots and I really like the Doctor sashaying about the place like he owns it and getting in and out of mischief, but I guess the sheer old-fashioned-ness of the worldviews inherent in the script bore me. I don’t know, a bit of a mono-culture with everyone and their identity despite the many cultures we see. Everything seems so *male*. The lack of apparent psychological complexity makes people a bit flat for me. The Doctor’s inexplicableness, by contrast, implies that there’s a lot going on with him that we don’t see, the mystique, but for me watching the old series in hindsight, I’m not sure that the powers that be actually had much idea of what that could be.
    Anyway, I guess I don’t watch a lot of telly these days, but along with stuff like Whedon’s shows, new Doctor Who’s really hit the spot. In particular themes about family being about love and connection, about whether escapism is ever the answer, whether violence is ever the answer, what evil is or is caused by, when does power = responsibility start to corrupt (or otherwise render one culpable) … (and the role that governments and leaders play and the effect on their citizens), anthropological ideas about incommensurability (mutual incomprehensibility), what being human really means… well, I guess I’m really interested in this stuff in real life! Quite left-wing questions, most telly seems so depressingly pessimistic and narrow (or just plain glib) about human nature, even sci-fi. Plus, another thing I like about New Who, seeing a mix of racial/sexual identities, and such fripperies as strong female characters, really does kinda attract my attention. (Although I’d hardly call the show A+ in these respects, I bash it frequently.) Having trawled the Doctor Who Forum/OG quite a bit, I’d say that the perception that characterisation = girly!gay!soap! is alive and well with these sci fi fans. Also, amusingly, a lot of the guys get very offended, like their childhood-playground-masculinity is at stake all over again, when it’s suggested that the show has never been hard sci fi, more like sci fi fantasy. (Sounds kinda girly!)
    People say they can see new themes in the old series… I guess I find I have to squint and extrapolate most of ‘em. So… I’m pretty heavily in favour of the new series, even if when I step back I find it hilariously over the top at times (guess I’m really a sucker for it).

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