The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: What’s Special About Multiple Multi-Doctor Specials?

October 15, 2013
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This is the inaugural post in a new Antenna series, The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, which commemorates the television series’ fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. Stay tuned for regular posts in the series throughout the remaining months of 2013.

You may well have noticed that this year is Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. A number of the show’s prior anniversaries have featured what fans like to call “multi-Doctor” stories in which different incarnations of the good Doctor team up to fight evil together. “The Three Doctors” (1972—3), “The Five Doctors” (1983), and “Dimensions in Time” (1993) have all contributed to this subgenre of Time Lord entertainment, but the multi-Doctor story hasn’t just been a birthday gift. TARDIS Wikia lists some 77 such stories, many of them hailing from officially-licensed comic strips and short stories. Indeed, the Big Finish Short Trips series accounts for some 20 or so multi-Doctor stories just by itself. What gets counted, and what gets left out, remains a matter of debate in this exercise: for instance, TARDIS Wikia rather pointedly includes unmade “The Dark Dimension” and excludes “Dimensions in Time” (infamous for upsetting long-term Who fans with its EastEnders crossover and almost total incoherence).

These “specials” may appear to be in danger of becoming slightly less special in 2013, however. Arguably, there are no less than four multi-Doctor stories currently on the go or pending: “The Day of the Doctor” on TV for the anniversary day of November 23rd, and Big Finish’s audio adventure “The Light at the End,” along with IDW’s licensed “Prisoners of Time” and Big Finish/AudioGO’s “Destiny of the Doctor.” The latter two efforts don’t need to involve actors who played the Doctor – just their likenesses and descriptions – whilst Big Finish’s own special release features all of the “classic” Doctors via performance or technological trickery. Finally, the BBC TV special looks set to involve Matt Smith and David Tennant, plus John Hurt as a previously unknown incarnation, as well as possibly another “classic” Doctor.

Multi-Doctor stories are special to fans for a variety of reasons. They help to bind together Doctor Who’s vast narrative world, suggesting that rather than a series of different eras and production phases, all the Doctors are simultaneously whizzing through time and space, and might bump into each other at any moment. Converting production contingencies into a co-present Whoniverse is a handy trick, but multi-Doctor TV stories also emphasize what Paul Booth calls in Time on TV a “temporal displacement” of incarnations. Assorted Doctors are taken out of their timestreams and timelines (in production terms, the 1960s through to the noughties) and combined in potentially nostalgic confections. Amy Holdsworth’s book Television, Memory and Nostalgia ends by taking “Time Crash” (2007) as emblematic of how TV engages with past and present: “Time Crash” is, we’re told, “not a collapse of past and present but an affectionate evocation of television’s significance to our understanding of and relationship to both.” All this, and a decorative vegetable too.

But Holdsworth is right to draw attention to how past and present are set in new relationships by these time crashes or collisions. Indeed, it could be argued that returning actors, re-inhabiting roles they may not have played on TV for quite some time, are likely to create pastiches of prior performances, mannerisms, and catchphrases. And as Richard Dyer has so eloquently noted, at its best pastiche allows audiences to know themselves “affectively as historical beings.”

A small number of Doctors get their “Day”?

So, does “The Day of the Doctor” look set to work in this way? I would suggest not: its publicity poster (pictured above) stresses Smith and Tennant, with Hurt relegated to a far smaller image. Rather than audiences being inspired to reflect on their relationship to some fifty years of pop-cultural TARDIS travel, only a production span of seven years or so is called to mind (2006—13), making this both a curiously compressed relationship between (recent) past and present as well as one which focuses strongly on more youthful Doctors. Hurt’s older figure seems likely to be a villainous version of our protagonist, as well as representing a new face rather than a reminder of earlier productions. Of course “The Day of the Doctor” resonates, as a title, with the anniversary date and its global premiere along with #savetheday hashtag. Youth-orientated media culture seems well served here, as does a kind of event TV “presentism” that’s slightly at odds with a special assumed to commemorate fifty years. It’s not about decades of the Doctor, it’s about a “day.” And it’s not about ageing actors cueing memories of past Who, it’s about two fresh-faced TV stars and a guesting big name thesp. Peter Capaldi’s imminent tenure suggests the show isn’t afraid of older Doctors, but on the strength of “The Day of the Doctor” and its current paratextual presence, you’d be hard pushed not to feel that it wants to brush Doctor Who’s age, and the passing of production time, under the carpet of Rassilon.

And then there’s the matter of multiple multi-Doctor tales. Rather than cohering across media platforms, these seem to float in their own islands of quasi-canonicity. “The Light at the End” can presumably only feature Doctors one through to eight as a result of Big Finish’s standard license, while Big Finish/AudioGO and IDW get a shot at “the eleven Doctors.” Perhaps comic book readers are felt to be more attuned to “team-up” stories, but each of these audio/comic adventures feature monthly releases focused on a different Doctor, eventually layering into a sequence featuring all incarnations (and perhaps allowing greater interaction between them as the anniversary year comes to a head). Instead of primarily uniting Doctors in a magical, memory-spanning collision of past and present, these reunions and recombinations seem driven by medium-specific release patterns (an audio or comic a month makes industrial sense: a TV episode a month ranging across incarnations would be extremely quirky scheduling). And alongside industry release patterns, these multi-multi-Doctor “specials” are also conspicuously delimited by commercial licensing deals: Big Finish can unite “classic” Doctors in “The Light at the End,” even if the TV series seems intent on limiting itself to current and previous incumbents (more temporal compression than temporal displacement). The outcome seems surprisingly fragmented for what could be a grand bridging of all eras.

“Classic” Doctors reunited.

There is a more celebratory interpretation, mind you: perhaps Doctor Who’s big day has not fallen entirely prey to marketing ploys, event TV presentism, and BBC Worldwide licensing deals. Perhaps the decision to focus on a smaller number of Doctors than fans might have expected isn’t such a bad thing (“The Day of the Doctor” could almost be entitled “The Two Doctors” or “The Three Doctors,” depending on your view of the John Hurt/missing incarnation revelation). After all, “The Five Doctors” has been criticized by Jim Leach for a “breathless and diffuse” narrative resulting from the effort to cram in so many protagonists, while Keith M. Johnston accurately describes ‘Dimensions in Time’ as “Doctor Who reduced to visual spectacle… dispens[ing] with narrative logic to offer the programme’s ‘greatest hits’.” The spectacle of seeing many Doctors on screen – an unusual special effect, to be sure – apparently works against narrative. By focusing only (or primarily) on Doctors Ten and Eleven, “The Day of the Doctor” implicitly responds to generations of fan disappointment and critique aimed at multi-Doctor stories. It’s concerned with telling a strong story rather than providing excessive “Doctor porn” (a lot like “continuity porn,” but focused on the Doctor’s different guises). Fans incessantly engage in aesthetic debate over what makes good Who, and “The Day of the Doctor,” written by a producer-fan, strikes me as highly cognizant of previous fan discussions and aesthetic commentaries (spectacle over narrative; incoherence over structure) that have surrounded the “multi-Doctor” category.

Mannequin mania?

In the end, what may be particularly special about all these “specials” is the extent to which they combine industry sense (release patterns; licensing; promotional “stings” and hashtags; restricted paratextual publicity) with fannish critique (“too many Doctors spoils the TV storytelling”). And this epic collision between fandom and brand management offers a different kind of multiplicity altogether.


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One Response to “ The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: What’s Special About Multiple Multi-Doctor Specials? ”

  1. Sean Duncan on October 15, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    Great post, Matt. A few thoughts:

    You state: “… that it wants to brush Doctor Who’s age, and the passing of production time, under the carpet of Rassilon” by focusing entirely on the 2005- Doctors. It seems clear that Hurt’s role was originally intended to be for Eccleston, who declined to participate, and so Hurt’s presumed Time War Doctor will get a brief appearance here (and, it’s rumored, perhaps an appearance in the Christmas Special, as he mentioned working with Capaldi in the future).

    My take as a fan:

    First, doesn’t it seem plausible that the focus on the present could be as much about marking the end of an era as it is playing to the presentist focus of current Doctor Who fans? It seems as though Capaldi’s hiring was in the works for quite some time, and there are persistent rumors that Matt Smith is being forced out rather than wanting to end his tenure now. It seems that a 50th with Tennant, Smith, and Hurt might be a nice clean way of finally putting a cap on the RTD era — something that it seems Moffat has been slolwy trying to do for some time.

    In the past two series, the Doctor has reverted to stylistic elements of the original series in many ways (his new costume, the design of the TARDIS control room, the sparing use of the Daleks, the lessened role of the companion’s family, even the baroque style of episode titles, e.g. “The Rings of Akhaten” or “The Crimson Horror”). It strikes me that “The Day of the Doctor” may be Moffat’s attempt to wrap up many of the lingering elements of the RTD version of the show that he inherited — the presence of Hurt’s presumed Time War Doctor seems to imply that the Time War will be discussed and perhaps even resolved/reversed?

    Additionally, I see John Hurt’s “mayfly Doctor” appearance as another interesting (or depressing, depending on your perspective) rehash of Moffat’s earlier work. Much has been made of Moffat’s recycling of elements from his earliest Doctor Who stories — the library in “Continuity Errors” is rehashed in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, while the time-traveling revision of one’s life is rehashed in “A Christmas Carol.” Now we have a key element of “The Curse of the Fatal Death” popping up in Doctor Who proper; a one-off Doctor who allows for (1) stunt casting, getting someone like Hurt who would unlikely ever commit to a series like Doctor Who for an extended period of time and (2) giving the audience a pleasure derived from such a brief appearance — lots of other questions (and I assume fanfic) will be spawned by his brief appearance.

    I’m not sure I have a point with this one, but it does seem commensurate with how Moffat has handled the show so far: Pulling elements of Doctor Who back to what it was in bygone days (and reversing or removing elements that RTD brought to the series) while also re-using bits that he’d established in earlier Doctor Who work. I see the 50th anniversary special as having the potential to be a final cap on an era (moreso than even the final Matt Smith episode), and I am curious to see the extent to which this is the case. Given the recent hirings of new blood to the directoral pool (Ben Wheatley) and the writer’s pool (Frank Boyce), I’m excited about the beginning of the Capaldi era, and it certainly seems like they could be going in a very different direction with the show.