The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: Of Anniversaries and Authenticity, Costumes and Canon

December 5, 2013
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The Four DoctorsIn many ways, Doctor Who’s Series 7 finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” marked the beginning of the golden jubilee celebrations (albeit six months early): the episode echoed a cherished tradition for major Who anniversaries by including new footage of past Doctors, as well as archival material. However, for the first time the new footage relied entirely on non-speaking stand-ins, their faces out of focus or in shadow, with the result that the principal signifier for each Doctor was his distinctive sartorial look.

Compared to the decidedly impressionistic recreation of past Doctors’ outfits by James Acheson and Colin Lavers in “The Three Doctors” (1972) and “The Five Doctors” (1983) respectively, Howard Burden’s costumes for the “Name” cameos show considerable attention to detail. This is particularly striking in the case of the First Doctor, who appears in the pre-credits sequence on Gallifrey and again at the climax. The body double here is seen only in long shots, which alternate with close-ups and medium close-ups digitally incorporating footage of William Hartnell. Each shot of Hartnell is tight and short enough that in fact only the most general costume correspondence was needed to make the body double a credible match. Yet Burden was evidently taking no chances; his homage to Maureen Heneghan’s original costume design was remarkably precise, at a stroke establishing “authentic” costume as a key value for the anniversary season. This use of costume as a marker of authenticity was to play out in unexpected ways, with various ramifications for Who tradition and canon, in both “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Night of the Doctor.”

John Hurt as The War Doctor in "Day of the Doctor."

John Hurt as The War Doctor in “Day of the Doctor.”

The culminating moments of “Name” introduced a past Doctor who was, from the audience’s point of view, not a past Doctor at all – the “forgotten” incarnation of the Time Lord played by John Hurt. While this brief, tenebrous sequence allowed little opportunity to see the details of Hurt’s richly textured costume, unofficial photographs from location filming had already revealed that in the fiftieth anniversary special Hurt would be wearing a leather “U-Boat” jacket similar to that chosen for Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. The likeness was enough to provoke speculation well before “The Name of the Doctor” aired, and even before Hurt himself had disclosed that he was playing “part of the Doctor.” Fan interest was further piqued by the fact that Hurt’s double-breasted waistcoat bore more than a passing resemblance to the one worn by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. All this led to the quite reasonable supposition that Hurt might be “another version of the Eighth or Ninth Doctors.”

As it turned out, the melding of sartorial images is a function of Hurt’s playing a missing incarnation between McGann and Eccleston. The logic of Howard Burden’s costume choice in terms of branding and affect is easy to discern. The leather jacket, which is the dominant element of the outfit, reinforces the New Who aesthetic and allows the war-ravaged Hurt incarnation to stand in for the absent Eccleston. For the observant fan, the secondary detail of the waistcoat helps subtly to bridge New Who with the TV movie and thus Classic Who. (Hurt’s “sawn-off” version of the Classic-era sonic screwdriver represents another such visual bridge.) What’s particularly noteworthy about the War Doctor’s costume is that rebranding is achieved through a strategic break with Who precedent. Hurt’s outfit situates his Doctor “authentically” within the canon precisely by subverting the tradition that each Doctor’s costume should be unlike his immediate predecessor’s. Nor, as it turned out, was this to be the only such breach of this tradition in anniversary productions.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in "The Night of the Doctor."

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in “The Night of the Doctor.”

Among the biggest surprises of the jubilee season was the Eighth Doctor’s scintillating return and regeneration into Hurt’s incarnation in “The Night of the Doctor.” For this “minisode” Howard Burden designed an entirely new outfit for McGann. At one level this was no doubt a response to the actor’s well-known dissatisfaction with his original costume and wig. However, as with Hurt’s costume, the main function of the new ensemble was surely to form a bridge, this time between the War Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s own prior image in the TV movie. For “Night,” McGann once again wears a frock coat and patterned silk waistcoat, but this time more muted, the coat being earthier in tone than the TV Movie original and made of a soft, matt, woolen fabric rather than flashy panne velvet and satin. In other respects the costume tends “prophetically” toward the militarism of Hurt’s outfit. Thus the canvas soldier’s leggings worn by the War Doctor are prefigured by the Eighth Doctor’s leather gaiters, the War Doctor’s khaki field trousers by his predecessor’s tobacco brown twill work-pants, and even Hurt’s tattered scarf by McGann’s casually knotted silk neckerchief.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in the audio drama series “Eighth Doctor Adventures.”

The Eighth Doctor’s costume for “Night” was also interesting for what it was not. In 2012 Paul McGann secured approval to introduce a new outfit, satchel, and sonic screwdriver into publicity and packaging for the Eighth Doctor audio dramas he records for Big Finish Productions. The new costume was very close to Eccleston’s: leather pea coat, tee shirt, and jeans. Clearly it was too close for the purposes of the anniversary specials, with their sleight-of-hand sartorial “retcon” of the War Doctor incarnation. There is slight irony in the rejection of the 2012 costume, given that one of the most discussed aspects of “The Night of the Doctor” has been the name checking of the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish companions, which effectively established his audio adventures as canon. Yet brand logic evidently required that this new inclusiveness apply only to the aural component of Big Finish’s work, not to all its “televisual” trappings.[1]

This is the sixth post in The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, Antenna’s series commemorating the television franchise’s fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. Click here to read the previous entries in the series. Stay tuned for Pam Wojcik’s upcoming entry on Tuesday, December 10.

[1] Matt Hills, “Televisuality without television? The Big Finish audios and discourses of ‘tele-centric’ Doctor Who”, in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who, ed. David Butler (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), 280–295.


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