Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who: Fan Service Meets the Junkyard Look

May 16, 2011
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‘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.


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5 Responses to “ Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who: Fan Service Meets the Junkyard Look ”

  1. […] has 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 […]

  2. Myles McNutt on May 16, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    A fantastic reading of Gaiman’s contribution to the season, Matt.

    I think “short story” was where my mind first went with this episode: of course, the series’ episodic nature means that this term has always been floating around the series, but something about the rehappening of it all made it feel poetic and symbolic in ways I would not normally associate with “episode” as a term. I realize that this is silly, and I usually hate to bring in literary terms to describe television storytelling (especially if it’s subconsciously driven by the author’s previous work), but “short story” just sounded better in my head.

    What struck me is the fact that, despite being far from a superfan, I didn’t feel as though the poetry of this story was necessarily dependent on intense fandom. Although the episode was certainly embracing the series’ history, and although little details (like the old control room, which is one thing I caught) called directly to particular elements of that history, the *sense* of history was palpable even without knowledge of it.

    Perhaps proof of the value of anthropomorphization, or simply proof of the shrewd fan/producer balance Gaiman is able to strike.

    • Matt Hills on May 17, 2011 at 10:57 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Myles. I think the question of when literary terms are used in relation to TV drama is a really interesting one. (And this felt a bit like a comic book “one-shot” too, even though it had the ‘water in the forest” line attributable to Moffat, and the other arc stuff worked in). Usually, literary terms seem to be used to elevate TV — it’s “novelistic”, and so on.

      Given that, what interested me about reading Gaiman’s ep as akin to a “media tie-in” is that this tends to be a (sub)culturally devalued form. Rather than celebrating Gaiman’s genius, or elevating this as a “special” episode, I wanted to restore the context of industrial control, i.e. focus more on Gaiman’s situated agency. And I wanted to play with the notion that televised Doctor Who, even at its most “special”, may not be as distinct from the tie-in novel in terms of working practices and narrative limits as tends to be commonly supposed — at least in the case of a non-showrunner TV writer who’s been brought in as a hired hand.

      Gaiman’s storyline inverts the show’s mythology, and I guess my response likewise inverts what I’d see as the standard relationship between ‘quality’ TV drama and the ‘literary’. Hence my pondering what would happen if TV scholarship were to draw self-consciously on *devalued* forms of the novel in its sense-making, rather than seeking to discursively and culturally valorise beloved TV texts.

      • Andrew O'Day on May 19, 2011 at 9:32 AM

        Very interesting discussion, Matt! I thoroughly enjoyed the episode and actually came to it (I’m almost ashamed to admit) without knowledge of Gaiman’s previous work. What interests me is the way your use of the word ‘junkyard’ in the title reminded me of the fact that the very opening episode ‘An Unearthly Child’, from 1963, began with the TARDIS in a junkyard. Although you don’t explicitly mention this point, it seems to tie in with your idea that ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ plays with fan knowledge of the programme in an almost postmodernist way (where fan Steve Manfred was called upon to give his expertise), while reversing things in a weird way. This image of the ‘junkyard’ seems fascinating since the narrative itself is made up of things from the past and I’m curious to hear what wonderful things you can do with the image…

        • Matt Hills on May 19, 2011 at 12:03 PM

          Thanks, Andrew, you’re quite right to pick up further on the junkyard setting — Gaiman has referred to this in interviews as a deliberate reference back to Totter’s Lane from 1963’s ‘An Unearthly Child’. But it strikes me that this is an unusual bit of intertextual referencing. It recontextualises what was originally a contemporary, realist environment (in Classic Who) as a fantastical ‘junkyard planet’, simultaneously fitting into the ‘dark fairytale’ remit of Moffat era Who *and* being readable via Gaiman’s author-function as a fantasy writer. And as such,’The Doctor’s Wife’ offers up a very overdetermined junkyard — which fits, too, with Myles’ observation that part of Gaiman’s skill lies in just how shrewdly he combines fan/producer roles.