Dr Who is not what it used to be. Let’s get that out of the way for a start. The children of Russell T. Davies have traces of their ancestors, but overall, at best, it is like ‘the good doctor’ has stepped out of the confines of his playground and gone on to play in a neighbour’s bigger and brighter place. Like Sherlock Holmes turning up in Luther. The special effects, for which Dr Who in its first twenty years was both beloved and ridiculed, have belched outward into the largely unsatisfying realm of the CGI wankfest that television and film-makers are so artlessly enslaved to. The ‘new’ Dr Who (anything from Ecclestone on) has perhaps had the misfortune to exist at a time when CGI has allowed cult film-makers to put sharks in tornados, have sharks chew down aeroplanes in mid-flight, and have giant sharks fight other giant creatures that you wouldn’t want to entertain in giant form. (Sharks are having one helluva time of it at the moment). Many Dr Who fans would balk at the suggestion that the new incarnation of their show has any relation to films such as Giant Octosaurus Versus Megasharktopus, but nobody has yet been able to explain to me why the Tyranosaurus Rex in Peter Capaldi’s first outing was five times taller than St Paul’s cathedral.
The old Dr Who, at its best, when it wanted to frighten, was the stuff of nightmares. Literally. The new show has had its moments, but they are moments in-keeping with the tradition of Terry Nation, i.e. high concept bogeymen. The weeping angels and the gas mask kids who are searching for their mummy are straight out of the mindset that brought us the Daleks and the Cybermen. The same that brought us Freddie Krueger and Michael Myers. The implacable pursuant. The thing that follows. But these are the inhabitants of nightmares, not the realm; they are not the fabric of a nightmare, the walls and air and claustrophobia that houses the things that chase you. The CGI worlds of the new Dr Who might impress those who are likely to be impressed, but they will only scare those who are looking to be scared, and will never make anyone feel truly uncomfortable, psychologically and atomically messed-with.
But let’s shoot back to the solid worlds of the old Dr Who. Hemmed in by budgets and a Beeb that didn’t look down on it as a major project, the old Doctor went about in worlds of uncanny dislocation, of dense claustrophobic scenery, where doorways led only to smoke and light, where picturesque English villages were deserted, where people would metamorphose off camera in a wink, or in front of your eyes in a smudge, where entire earth-threatening plots were unravelled and solved in one darkly lit room. By being forced to not show a planet burning, Dr Who was a programme that focussed on faces, focussed on panic, it became inverted, and… that word again… claustrophobic.
In the 1984 serial ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, Peter Davidson’s Doctor fights a Dalek force in a condensed space made up of blacks and greys, the human forces of the space station under attack are often unable to move freely due to a physical lack of space on the set. The weapons the humans use look suspiciously like battery-operated torches strapped into some plastic tubing. They do not look like weapons, they look like kids’ toys; and they barely act like weapons, and yet they destroy foe who fall in their death throes like children at play. Here we have the simplest of dream-like disconnects: what is being witnessed is familiar and yet also removed from familiarity.
Once the action of ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ moves from Butler’s Wharf, where the Doctor and his assistants find a time corridor that takes them to the space station, we are in a dreamscape – one so common to the old series. Outside the confines of the three or four rooms of the space station, there is a real feeling that nothingness exists. The nothingness presses inwards, the light shines through doorways – an affect created out of cheapness to blind the viewer to the studio apparatus beyond – but the effect is to create a void. Dreams, nightmares, claustrophobia is not about being unable to reach the expanse of reality outside the walls; it is about being acutely aware that beyond those walls is oblivion. Hopelessness.
On top of all this, the body count in ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is extremely high. There are no holds barred. Men and women are gunned down, disintegrated, laser-beamed; Daleks spew out of their machines after being injected with plague; blob-like uncannistered Daleks feast on human soldiers – again the unconvincingness of these attacks (essentially, like a man wiping his face with a jellyfish) is part of the terror. It is unreal. The horror is unlikely and yet the walls – the void – close in.
The old Dr Who, of course, had a preoccupation with nightmares in general. Throughout, there are dream sequences and references to a realm of the mind. It is fertile ground for horror, but the creators’ understanding of the complexities and parameters of the realm of the nightmare also place Dr Who in an esteemed tradition of horror literature. The aesthetic connections with artists such as Goya are often quite obvious, but the umbilical connection between the internal discombobulating terror of the dreamworld and the real threat in the outside world is acutely understood. In 1983’s ‘Kinda’, Tegan, the doctor’s feisty and peril-prone assistant, is the conduit for an ancient daemon that arrives through sleep. Great literature, from Victor Frankenstein dreaming of his rotting mother, to Catherine Earnshaw appearing as an apparition at Lockwood’s window, has examined this relationship many times. Dr Who knows it is the job of art to drag the unconscious into the conscious, no matter how terrifying that might be.
Perhaps the new Dr Who recognises that the old went a little too far down the road in exploring this darkest of corners. The new Dr Who will always let the kids know everything is okay, really. It does so much right, and is always more adventure than grim eschatological essay. In Cardiff there is a very popular exhibition called The Dr Who Experience, and I can’t imagine, had it existed in 1984, seeing long queues of children eager to ‘experience’ piles of bodies in proto-fascist dioramas inhabited by hyper-paranoiac shrieking alien machines.
At the end of ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, as the Doctor steps through the carnage and bloodshed of the battle, Tegan, his feisty assistant, says she is leaving: ‘It just isn’t fun anymore,’ she says tearing up. And she’s not bloody kidding!
Original artwork by Dean Lewis
Now listen to the follow up podcast: Gary Raymond and Gray Taylor discuss Dr Who and the Stuff of Nightmares.