Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who: Fan Service Meets the Junkyard Look
‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is a title that plays with fan knowledge. It cites a fake Doctor Who episode title from the show’s history, except this time it’s canon. With corridors. And roundels. As a mission statement for an episode by Neil Gaiman, the title itself proffers fan service. It promises consistency with Gaiman’s author-function, reperforming values linked to his ‘brand’. Writing in The Neil Gaiman Reader (2007:122), Jason Erik Lundberg argues that Gaiman’s work has been marked by “the old switcheroo” – an emphasis on character reversal. Though one might argue this is a convention of weird tales, what’s striking about ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is just how much its addition to the mythos of Who relies precisely on reversal. It’s even thematically signalled in the quarrel between the Doctor and Idris – while the TARDIS doors bear the legend ‘Pull To Open’, the Doctor is chided for doing the reverse, and pushing his way in. When push comes to shove, this episode also reverses the show’s foundational scenario: rather than the Doctor stealing the TARDIS to see the universe, it’s the other way round, with the sentient Ship stealing a Time Lord in order to go travelling.
There’s an illusion of transformative work here – although this seems to alter the rules of the Whoniverse, in fact it leaves all the game pieces in play as they were. As such, it feels like the perfect piece of media tie-in writing, illustrating what M. J. Clarke’s article on the subject calls a “paradoxical situation” whereby tie-in writers are called upon to add “elements to a series… [in an injunction that's] fundamentally at odds with the… mandate of playing within the rules” (2009:447). ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ finds an inventive way of playing this game by giving the TARDIS a narrative voice – filling in blanks in the programme’s hyperdiegesis which have been previously hinted at (TARDIS sentience) yet never dwelt upon. While this supplements canonical knowledge of the Doctor’s departure from Gallifrey, it doesn’t actually change anything. The events of the Doctor’s back-story are affirmed yet re-inflected – recoded in line with established fan knowledge. Likewise, the bubble universe conceit narratively justifies a shifted, Gaimanesque tone while insulating the established Whoniverse from this authorial voice. The TARDIS is thrown into a human body; Gaiman’s world-building is thrown into a bubble outside usual storyscapes. And the episode’s special, Gaiman-y status is made visible on-screen via blatantly budget-saving reuse of the Ood and old control room: “look”, this announces, “I’ve written something so ambitious I’ve ripped out the show’s budget matrix”.
Again like the perfect tie-in writer, Gaiman blurs the line between fan and producer, not only in terms of his own Who fandom, but also via “using fan-created artifacts as short-cuts in… research processes” (Clarke 2009:444). Interviewed in SFX #209, Gaiman notes that he called upon the services of a Doctor Who expert, fan Steve Manfred, in order to incorporate TARDIS continuity (2011:82). Similarly, tie-in writers interviewed by Clarke attested to the need to create stories which meshed perfectly with continuity. These writers were often fans of the franchise they were contributing to (Clarke 2009:443), drawing on their knowledge and/or asking other fans for help with hyperdiegetic information. Clarke’s sociology of culture account accords perfectly with Gaiman’s working practices, suggesting the latter has internalised industry pressures.
But, I hear you cry, what about Gaiman as auteur? What of the fact that he’s writing for the Doctor himself, on telly and everything, rather than creating a tie-in? Well, Gaiman observed in 2003: “It’s probably a good thing that I’ve never actually got my hands on the Doctor. I would have unhappened so much” (in McAuley 2003:9). And here’s the thing: when he does get to write for TV Doctor Who, Gaiman doesn’t “unhappen” back-story at all. Rather, he rehappens it, giving a new perspective on established events and nesting an alternate story story (rather than an alternate history story) within ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. This is why Neil Gaiman’s Who is more akin to a tie-in than we might expect; Gaiman would certainly be licensed to “unhappen” stuff if he was the showrunner. This is exactly what Russell T. Davies did when he took over and promptly unhappened Gallifrey (whilst Moffat unhappened the entire universe in his first series). But as a contributor to a show run by others, Gaiman is structurally in the position of a tie-in writer despite creating a TV episode. He has to leave things as he found them: the TARDIS can acquire a human voice, but come episode end, everything’s put back in the (Police) box, bar one new mysterious line of dialogue: “the only water in the forest is the river”. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in an episode about the TARDIS’s voice, Rory misheard a word or two in this final message?).
Gaiman’s skill lies in how expertly he resolves the “paradox” faced by the tie-in writer, or the contributor to someone else’s show. Idris allows him to simultaneously “add value” (the TARDIS speaks) and honour minute details of TARDIS continuity. Myth has often been defined in media studies as a resolution of contradictions. And in this sense, Gaiman creates new myth in his franchise contributions – he finds surprising ways to resolve contradictions between continuity and “added value”. Here is an author-function premised, in part, on cleverly recoding franchise mythology.
Showrunners might encode meaning in formats and arcs, but the writer-as-hired-hand is called upon to analyse a different creative problem: how to patch something in which fits the current format and how to put a distinctive stamp or tattoo on that contribution. Recoding – pull not push; the TARDIS not the Doctor – is Gaiman’s mythic resolution to the tie-in paradox. In short, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is fan service as bricolage; shiny novelty assembled from the bits in continuity’s junkyard.