_Doctor Who_ and the Revenge of Television Studies

By: Peter Gregg
17 November 2000

	It can be safely said that when, in the spring of 1962, BBC 
Head of Drama Sydney Newman undertook an endeavor to create a 
modest children's television show, he couldn't even have 
conceived that it would only come to rest at the advent of the 
1990s.  _Doctor Who_ was by then an international phenomenon.  
Cancelled ("put on hiatus") twice and its lead played by seven 
different actors, it survived changes in popular culture, media, 
and technology to become the longest running science fiction 
series in the world.  But, that title alone does not demand 
attention from academics.  
	What does warrant attention by media and mass 
communications scholars is _Doctor Who_'s unique position to 
serve as a historical document and a litmus test of mass media 
influence on, and by, a given culture.  Television (literally 
"seeing from a distance") acts as a way to look backwards in 
time, both by examining the subjects of the program and by 
studying the technology that helped to create the program.  In 
terms of technological evolution, television has moved more 
quickly from primitive forms to more advanced forms (ie. black 
and white to color, lo-fi to hi-fi sound) than those transitions 
for film.  Thus, it is easier to chart the changes within the 
medium, as examples are more readily apparent.  Moreover, the 
culture from which a television show arises more easily affects, 
and is affected by, that given program than film.  Because of 
the long production times associated with film, a cultural in-
joke may be passe by the time the film has run a year later, but 
the television program, with shorter production times and even 
live broadcasts, can respond and refer to societal events closer 
to their occurrence.  Additionally, more people watch a 
television program on a given night than watch a film.  This 
affords television the ability to change cultural norms more 
quickly and with greater ease.  Because _Doctor Who_ ran for a 
quarter century and television has been a mass media for only 
fifty years, we can examine these changes against the constant 
backdrop of a single show instead of creating a hodge-podge from 
various shows over the same duration.  
	Because the BBC exercises much more control, and has a 
finer division of labor, regarding television production than 
most American production companies and broadcasters, _Doctor 
Who_ also gives people an introduction to the various 
occupations' roles on a given television program.  Also as a 
result of the explicit division of labor, academics can examine 
the changes that each individual can bring to a production.  For 
example, one can examine Robert Holmes' work under Philip 
Hinchcliffe to his earlier writings under Barry Letts.  An 
examination of the similarities and differences could indicate 
the control which the producer had over the scripts or, for that 
matter, the thematic or structural constants in a given writer's 
catalog regardless of producer or script editor.  A shorter 
running program would probably not have the diversity to warrant 
an undertaking of this nature.
	Unlike many other programs, _Doctor Who_ experimented with 
content, form, and format, but still tried to fit within the 
genre constraints of science fiction.  The program originally 
was, and always claimed to be, aimed at children and their 
parents.  That said, the producers have always tried to ensure 
that Mother and Father will watch.  There has always been a 
concerted effort to include all members of the family.  
Consequently, we can study the role demographics have to play. 
We can ask "Why are most companions female?" and "Why is the 
Doctor male?" and get answers that tell us something about the 
society that was watching the program at the time.  _Doctor Who_ 
often changed its look and directorial style from episode to 
episode or season to season.  This gives us the opportunity to 
study the results if one were to alter science fiction 
expectations. _Doctor Who_ attempted to explain, or introduce an 
audience to, historical events, as in the serial "The Aztecs," 
to re-explore gothic narrative, as seen in the "The Brain of 
Morbius," or to see how comedy can be handled within the genre, 
as demonstrated by "The Romans."  These attempts indicate the 
flexibility of the genre itself.  It could make these changes 
and still maintain its audience base.
	_Doctor Who_'s duration also gives us the means to measure 
its changes in response to public expectations of content and 
form.  It has been well documented that the style of the Pertwee 
era was deliberately styled after both James Bond and _Star 
Trek_.  The successes of the British Bond overseas in America 
and Britons' love for the American science fiction television 
show forced _Doctor Who_ to change course from the previous 
"monster" era to the more dapper and dashing Bond-meets-Kirk 
style that marked much of that era.  The box office smash _Star 
Wars_ pushed the public's demands for realistic special effects 
to a new high.  The way the program responds to these demands is 
an important technological and historical document.  There were 
also important internal demands placed upon the program.  For 
example, the long-running tenure of Tom Baker necessitated 
producer John Nathan-Turner to change the look of both the lead 
role and of the program itself.  
	Perhaps a more important issue is where the study of 
_Doctor Who_ leads.  This is a problem which finds its answers 
in a look at film studies.  It is generally agreed upon that 
film's birth begins with the showing of the Lumiere brothers' 
films in Paris 1895, but it wasn't until the work of the Soviets 
in the 1920s, and of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and 
1940s, that the groundwork was set for academic insight into 
film as art and tool.  Until that point, film was primarily 
regarded as a medium for the uneducated masses with the purpose 
of obtaining financial gain.  American scholars primarily 
disregarded film studies up until the 1960s, following the lead 
of French new wave critics and filmmakers like Godard and 
Truffaut, scholars who changed the look of film as we know it.  
Presently film studies is an important element of mass 
communications and cultural studies.  Television's role in these 
studies should not be overlooked.  As the academic base grows 
regarding television studies, we can only hope that television 
itself will be positively changed and better understood than is 
its role now.  We have an opportunity to change the look of 
television itself by looking toward its past.  By examining the 
changes one program made over the course of its long existence, 
we can come closer to the realization of enduring, positive 
change.  If we know the role television plays in our life and 
can positively control it, we can make ourselves better.  
	Today's scholars of _Doctor Who_ and television will become 
tomorrow's directors, writers, and viewers.  If _Doctor Who_ has 
a legacy for the future, it should be in the manifestation of 
the understandings it brings us today of the media, our world, 
and our role to play in them.

c Copyright Peter Gregg, 2000.


     Peter Gregg is an instructor of media studies at the 
University of Minnesota.  He holds a Bachelor's degree from 
Moorhead State University, and is currently a Master's Degree 
candidate at the University of Minnesota.  He has the 
distinction of teaching the first university class about the 
_Doctor Who_ television program: Moorhead State University's 
class "Speech 489 -- _Doctor Who_: Materializing Through 26 
Years of Television".
     As an academic he has presented a paper on media influence 
at North Dakota State University and was also a semifinalist in 
the National Forensic Association National Tournament.
     His _Doctor Who_ related interests have had him lead a 
_Doctor Who_ seminar at the 1999 ValleyCon in Fargo, North 
Dakota, and have also led to his doing a telesnap reconstruction 
of the _Doctor Who_ serial "The Crusade", episodes 2 and 4. 


Prepared for:
'Time and Space On Television' - 
A Display of Realia Related to the 
_Doctor Who_ Television Series

A display located at:
Milwaukee School of Engineering 
Walter Schroeder Library
November 23, 2000 - February 01, 2001

Display sponsored by:
Earthbound Timelords 
Wolves of Fenric 
Milwaukee School of Engineering MAGE Club 
Milwaukee School of Engineering Walter Schroeder Library


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Last Updated November 30, 2000