Doctor Who, Wales and the Renaissance of Ingenious Television

Craig Austin considers the parallels between the regeneration of BBC’s premier science fiction drama, Doctor Who, and Wales’ film and televisual industry.

For almost all of the 1970s the British mining industry and the BBC’s premier science fiction drama were both at the pinnacle of their powers. At their respective peaks the British Coal Board, impacted favourably by the global oil crisis, employed over 250,000 workers, while Tom Baker’s fourth incarnation of The Doctor captured the hearts and imaginations of the nation by channelling the theatrical gothic menace of Hammer Films, attracting Saturday evening viewing figures that rarely dropped below 16 million.

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Leap forward no more than a decade and by the end of the 1980s both cultural behemoths had all but concluded their fast-tracked path to decline and ultimate extinction. One broken apart by the obliterating impact of political dogma; the other by a short-termist Director General, all garish cuff links and city trader shirts, who reviewed what is now by far the BBC’s most commercially successful export of the 21st century and deemed it to be ‘rubbish’. ‘I thought it was pathetic,’ recalled Michael Grade in 2002, having already revealed that he found the series to be ‘awful, out-dated and violent, with limited audience appeal’. ‘I’d seen Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. and then I had to watch these cardboard things clonking across the floor trying to scare kids’. Officially ‘rested’ in 1989 it was not to reappear, under the auspices of its new patron BBC Wales, for another 16 years.

Apart from this concurrent period of degeneration, (and a 1973 Doctor Who story ‘The Green Death’; a tale based upon the mysterious death of a miner at an abandoned South Wales coal pit in the fictional town of ‘Llanfairfach’, one which foreshadowed their real-life counterparts in the 1974 miners’ strike), there is little else – on the surface at least – to link these two unwieldy beasts.

The passage of time and the changing face of our nation, however, have gradually positioned themselves by stealth to converge at a point where one – ‘the old Wales’ – has been consigned to its imminent existence as a dusty museum piece, a footnote in the nation’s history; while the other – ‘the new Doctor Who’ – has been gloriously resurrected on the shores of Tiger Bay, a fortuitous driving force of the ‘new Wales’ that occasionally finds itself in the glossy pages of style magazines, fine dining guides, and now, on planets as diverse as Gallifrey and Skaro. It’s a far cry from much of the dialogue contained within ‘The Green Death’ with its reference to a ‘funny little Welshman’ and its portrayal of the inhabitants of Llanfairfach as a band of simple-minded bumpkins whose limited vocabulary runs from ‘isn’t it?’ to ‘doesn’t it?’ with all manner of ‘boyo’ and ‘butt’ in between.

Much like The Doctor himself, the South Wales of 2012, and Cardiff in particular, is almost unrecognisable from its past incarnations whilst retaining identifiably immovable elements of its fundamental being. The redevelopment of the city’s dockland district that commenced in the early 90s and culminated in the (at the time) controversial decision to site the National Assembly for Wales on its banks is routinely cited as the blueprint for urban renaissance and inner-city renewal. Doctor Who, its hugely successful spin-off series Torchwood, and Casualty are just three of the more visible signs of the city’s success within media industries; BBC Wales having done much to champion this particular sector of the city that now contributes an estimated £25m to the local economy. Look more closely though, and it’s evident that those who have raced to embrace its sleekly polished bosom have often chosen the most unimaginative and joyless means of presenting the veneer of docklands innovation to the millions of tourists who flock to the district each year.

A cursory walk along the Bay’s main drag takes in the identikit facades of Harry Ramsden’s, Strada and Nando’s making it seem like less of the gateway to the world that it once represented and more of a stroll through a sterile Milton Keynes shopping mall.  Where once South Wales was driven by a mining/dockside workforce employed in jobs of dangerous, physically challenging extremes they were at least based upon the principles of community, jobs for life and a living wage; principles that Nando’s tend not to holler too loudly from the rooftops of their chicken sheds. The spectre of ‘gentrification’, for many a byword for social engineering, is never too far from the surface and at a time when the property gamblers of Cardiff have inevitably failed to dodge the silver bullet of global economic meltdown; in 2008 a city letting agent reluctantly conceded that, ‘landlords might now be more willing to rent their places out to “people who may not be suited to that type of living”’.

With the burly drunken ghosts of centuries past still rattling through its narrow windy streets, it is to the ticket offices and gift shops of the city’s newest and biggest tourist attraction that visitors to the ‘new Cardiff’ now flock. ‘The Doctor Who Experience’ is the physical embodiment of a cultural phenomenon that has become as much a part of South Wales life as chips & cheese and the travails of the oval ball. A mammoth undertaking of ingenuity, imagination and artistic daring that re-imagined and reinvented a fictional time-traveller who was first revealed to the world in flickering monochrome almost fifty years ago. An eccentric dual-hearted enigma who kick-started a city’s dockside industry and then went on to inspire some of the finest television writers of our generation to explore the sheer possibility of it all.

‘There’s been a weird backlash among, I presume, fairly stupid people about the fact that both Doctor Who and Sherlock are complicated and clever, but they’re both huge international hits. We make no apology. Don’t expect to do the ironing. Sit down, pay attention and think about it. Audiences like complexity. They follow intricately plotted soap operas all the time. It depresses me when people say, “It’s all far too clever.”’

Current Executive Producer, Steven Moffat is an unrepentant advocate of the kind of eminent television that many of us thought had died a death (in Britain, at least) sometime in the late-nineties; a short-lived imperial phase exemplified by Peter Flannery’s towering Our Friends in the North and the painfully bleak comic tragedy of Tony Marchant’s Holding On. While those series were ultimately constrained by the framework of history, context and veracity, the magic of Doctor Who is primarily driven by its unqualified limitless of scope.

At a recent press screening at the British Film Institute of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, the keynote opening episode of the new season, Moffat’s eyes blazed with gratification when asked by an audience member if the boundaries of his imagination were potentially constrained by the ‘fact’ that the good Doctor is only able to regenerate on twelve occasions.  He turned to smile at Matt Smith, the current and eleventh embodiment of the character and nowadays a ‘pop star’ in the true sense of the term, and reflected on the fact that it at least gave him the opportunity to write for at least two more Doctors; before pausing for thought, staring at the audience, and bursting into a wide grin: ‘Unless I make something up’.

I used to think that the best jobs in the world were either being Alan Hansen or a member of The Beastie Boys but it’s the childlike notion of ‘making something up’ that makes me realise that it’s actually Moffat, painting from a time-worn palette of heritage, legacy and inexhaustible outcomes who is the true incumbent of this much sought-after position. A lifelong fan of the series, Moffat first wrote for the show in the late-nineties as part of a one-off Comic Relief special. When the series returned in its current format in 2005 he contributed some of the most popular initial scripts, including the unsettlingly ethereal, and now iconic, ‘Blink’.

Having taken on the challenge of becoming the series’ lead writer and Executive Producer in 2009 the expectation of fans was at its most acute, given the runaway success enjoyed by his predecessor, the definitive fan-boy Russell T. Davies. Aside from breaking a number of long-standing Whovian conventions – The Doctor now handles the occasional item of weaponry (though never utilises it to lethal ends) and occasionally kisses girls – Davies’ courageous re-imagination of a lifelong obsession, and by association his own childhood, set both the tone and the infinite boundaries of what was to follow. His introduction of supposedly ‘adult’ themes to a teatime family audience, a far from insubstantial undertaking in itself, was carried off with the kind of self-confidence and single-minded composure that few had previously been able to deliver.

Toying with the series’ pre-existing affection for camp and ambiguity Davies injected his scripts, and notably his ‘breakout’ character, Captain Jack, with an inspired litany of intergalactic polari that floated only an inch or two above the heads of most of its wide-eyed audience of children, and for some, their parents too. For others, the message was abundantly clear: ‘gay people exist, and guess what? They exist on other planets, too.’

Throughout his own tenure, Moffat has continued to explore the more playful and provocative elements of the character whilst at the same time slowly building his own foundation for what ultimately became a two-pronged cultural assault on the forces of boredom, complacency and underachievement. His sprawling scripts can often recall the more experimental albums by your favourite bands: occasionally self-indulgent, sporadically baffling, but never driven by anything other than the love of the craft and the well-meaning arrogance of ingenuity.

Moffat is big business now and the source of a huge amount of the BBC’s global income. Doctor Who is currently the most downloaded TV show in the USA and its merchandising arm earns the corporation hundreds of millions in worldwide sales. Yet rather than sitting at home in his monogrammed slippers, lighting cigars with fifty pound notes, he opted instead to reposition the character of The Doctor for an entirely new generation (who, remarkably, have bought into its heritage, lineage and back-story without question) as a skinny-jeaned Shoreditch fop whose velvet and tweed attire could conceivably have been cut by his own razor-sharp cheekbones. And did I omit to mention the seemingly effortless triumph of resurrecting both Sherlock Holmes and the entire long-forgotten notion of ‘event television’ itself?

For far too long, British television had chosen to exist in its own bubble of complacent convenience; a gilded existence of self-serving denial that, even in the face of televisual virtuosity such as Seinfeld, Band of Brothers, and The Larry Sanders Show, decreed that above all else U.S. television was vacuous, superficial and a flimsy facsimile of its high-minded colonial cousin.

HBO came along and swiftly changed all that of course, and in a post-Sopranos world where high production values are permitted the luxury of co-existing alongside marginal viewing figures (step forward, Mad Men), the UK can now at least boast of two separate cultural phenomena that deliver both intelligent cinematic small-screen experiences and substantial viewing figures. For the first episode of the new series Moffat goes all-out from the off with a cavalcade of – in his own words – ‘lots and lots of scary Daleks’; presumably on the understanding that if you go to the first night of a Stones tour you want to see them doing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ rather than trotting out some previously unheard material. The Saturday night challenge to

The X Factor (its cultural nemesis in so many ways) has undeniably been laid down, and in a battle that will not be won on viewing figures alone we can only hope that our children ultimately opt for the palace of dreams over the grubby conveyor belt of the artistic sausage factory.  ‘The assumption that the audience is intelligent has paid off hugely for us, not just on Doctor Who, but on Sherlock too,’ said Moffat, speaking to Richard Bacon on BBC Radio on the morning of the BFI screening. ‘I’m doing two shows that assume the audience is reasonably smart, and they’re both doing incredibly well,’ he adds, before tellingly suggesting that, ‘Maybe the news is that people are clever after all’.

Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who in the space of little more than 18 months has already begun to rival Basil Rathbone as the nation’s ‘Holmes du choix’, rises to the theme: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get every single bit of all of his deductions. Who ever does?’ Cumberbatch says. ‘I think people like not being insulted, I really do. We’ve gotten far more sophisticated as audiences because we see media in such different ways, and yet still in our mainstream output on television it’s all about people being patronised.’ Both Moffat and Cumberbatch are explicitly clear that challenging the audience intellectually is what sets the show apart from the usual prime time fare: ‘One of the features of the original stories is that he wasn’t a period piece character; he wasn’t a fussy old uncle,’ Moffat says of Holmes. ‘He was a young man and he was a scientist who was up-to-the-minute on forensics … cutting-edge and modern.’

The thriving legacy left by Russell T. Davies, the native of Swansea born in the same year that Doctor Who was first screened, is one that has left its own inspirational mark on the nation’s imagination and the economy of his own homeland’s capital city. Fast approaching the same half-century as The Doctor himself, he is a Welshman who will have lived through the miners’ strikes of the 70s and 80s, the Aberfan disaster, and numerous Grand Slams; a conflicting epoch when his nation ruled the rugby world yet was almost brought to its knees by the dismantling of its heavy industries.

Perhaps more than anyone else he appreciates the mutually beneficial, and now almost inextricable bonds, that have welded Doctor Who and South Wales together: ‘Doctor Who and Torchwood have a special atmosphere because they are made in Wales. The crews love working on them. Similarly, the people of Cardiff and the city council have embraced and welcomed the shows, particularly because the appeal of them crosses the generations’; notably adding, in a nod to the oft-lamented community spirit of yesteryear, ‘It’s as if a member of your family had done something particularly good, that everyone can be proud of, from grandparents to kids, and there is a real sense of ownership, which communicates itself on screen in the subtlest of ways’.

Perhaps, on reflection, the notion of community never really went away. Perhaps the nation really is as open to televisual sophistication and complexity as Moffat and Cumberbatch hope.  Perhaps people really are clever, after all.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis