Posts Tagged ‘TV waffle’

Okay, in the course of this piece I’m fully expecting to find myself in some fairly abstract and definitively trivial areas, so let’s start with a nice simple, easy question that cuts straight to the matter we’re here to discuss. Observe, please, the picture below with the five gentlemen in it.

Now: do they look the same, or different? And if so, why?


It’s not actually a trick question, but it does lead us into some fairly peculiar (and, to me, quite interesting) areas connected with how people – fans, mainly – engage with and think about Doctor Who. I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for ages but always shied away, simply because it is such an esoteric area. But now it seems to me that it has a certain relevency, simply because some Doctor Who fans are worrying about, essentially, a very similar question. Observe the second picture below.

Now: do these two men look the same, or different? And why?


The key question here is basically this: how realistic is the Doctor Who TV series in how it represents the events of the stories it depicts? As you can see, straightaway we’re off into the depths of the Fan Zone, as the question presupposes the actual existence of Who-world as something separate from the TV series that created it. It’s not real, of course. It’s a meaningless question. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can’t have a go at answering it.

Many visual aspects of Who-world have radically changed over the years, one of the most discussed being the appearance of the Cybermen, as documented in our first picture. This is largely due to improvements in costume-making, of course, and changing standards of what is perceived to be credible to the audience of the day. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet look very different to those in Nightmare in Silver – to the viewer, at least. But do they look different to the characters in the story?

Let’s choose a slightly different example and consider the destruction of Earth (or a close lookalike). The demise of Earth in The End of the World is a great-looking special-effects triumph, of course, as convincing as such a thing can be. The destruction of Mondas in the first Cyberman story, on the other hand, more closely resembles a blob of polystyrene melting off the end of a stick. In story terms, the two events are almost identical – but their realisation is vastly different. Yet, in terms of the fiction, it’s safe to assume that they would have appeared the same to observers within the universe of the story. So isn’t there a clear gap here between the events of the story and how they are presented to the TV viewer?

I think there is. The real question is when we are dealing with this gap, and when we can take what we see on screen at face value – in other words, how can we tell when a change in Cyberman design between stories is intended to represent an in-universe change, and when it simply represents an improvement in costuming or creative choice on the part of the production team?

As I say, this is not a question many people are likely to lose sleep over. I would have said it was mainly an issue to dedicated continuity cops and writers of fictional history. The first widely-distributed attempt to tackle this problem was David Banks’ history of the Cybermen in his book of the same name – and Banks does take the design of the Cybermen as being a true representation of their in-universe appearance, the appearing and disappearing ear-muffs on a number of designs leading him to postulate a whole series of dynasties of different sub-species of Cybermen cross-pollinating with each other. If you simply assume that all Cybermen look more or less identical no matter what their origin, writing this sort of history becomes a bit easier, but the results are much less interesting.

Changes in Dalek design over the years have mostly been less obvious – the two most recent updates excepted – but nevertheless they have taken place. I haven’t seen a concerted effort to write a Dalek history incorporating the shifts in design, the main issue being that the two main designs from the 20th century series – the small, light grey ones first seen in The Dead Planet, and the larger, darker-coloured ones first appearing in Day of the Daleks – seem to appear almost at random (if viewed from an ‘historical’ perspective), with the dark greys being the first Daleks created in Genesis of the Daleks, but also appearing in 2540 (Frontier in Space, et al) and the final years of the original Dalek history (Destiny of the Daleks, et al), while the light greys show up in the 22nd century (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the year 4000 (Mission to the Unknown, et al), and the last days of the original Dalek Emperor (Evil of the Daleks).

One could go on and on – the number of fingers possessed by Sontarans varies between stories, the Silurians look very different in their first two appearances, and so on. Changes in the appearance of gadgetry and places also abound, particularly the sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS interior.

However, while most of these (possibly superficial) changes go unremarked-upon in the 20th century series, major changes in the TARDIS usually do. The peculiar TARDIS interior decor of The Time Monster is referenced in the script, the switch in control rooms at the beginning of The Masque of Mandragora likewise. The new console in The Five Doctors is lovingly showcased in the opening shot of the story.

It’s a rare example of the 20th century show acknowledging this sort of change. One of the things that makes the 21st century programme (particularly under Steven Moffat’s curatorship) subtly but distinctly different is the way in which these changes are not just acknowledged but foregrounded. Another change in TARDIS interior is a significant element of The Eleventh Hour, while Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a watershed moment: not only do two clearly different models of Dalek appear in the same story for the first time – the story demands that they really are as different as they appear to the viewer – but this fact is central to the plot, it’s what the story is on some level about. Nightmare in Silver attempts something similar by including two different makes of Cybermen at different points. It would seem, then, that the gap between the fiction and its realisation is no longer present in the current show – or, if it is, it’s much less obvious.

But what about when it comes to casting? There are many actors who have racked up numerous Doctor Who appearances playing different parts every time. Are we to suppose that – to pick an example at random – Supervisor Lowe from The Invisible Enemy and Laurence Scarman from Pyramids of Mars (both played by the estimable Michael Sheard) really were spits of each other? The Doctor doesn’t comment on it and under the standard conventions of TV one isn’t surprised by this. No-one comments when a character in The Macra Terror is played by different actors in different episodes, after all; this sort of thing is standard in soap operas too (though it’s something that happens relatively rarely in Doctor Who – perhaps the very existence in-universe of the idea of regeneration, where characters can be ‘visibly’ recast, makes it difficult to ‘invisibly’ recast them like this).

There is the odd moment when the show seems to be winking at the audience about this, though – one comes quite early on, in a missing episode from The Daleks’ Master Plan, when William Hartnell makes some tongue-in-cheek ad libs about a particular character seeming oddly familiar (the same extra had previously appeared in The Crusade) – but no-one comments on Steven Taylor’s uncanny resemblence to Morton Dill, for instance, the sixth Doctor’s potential sideline as a Commander Maxil lookee-likee, or Amy Pond’s doppelganger in Pompeii.

On the other hand, there have been times when casting a previously-used performer as a regular has resulted in an in-universe reference to this. Romana admits to copying Princess Astra’s appearance for her second incarnation (mainly because they’re both played by Lalla Ward), while Smith and Jones gives us the biologically unheard-of phenomenon of identical cousins to explain Freema Agyeman’s appearance as different characters in two stories set in the same time and place.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the question of what reference – if any – they are going to make to Peter Capaldi’s previous appearances in Who-world when he appears as the Doctor. Some people – I say people, I mean fans – are actually fretting about this, complaining that having seen Capaldi as Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Children of Earth they can’t now accept him as the Doctor. Others are engaged upon heroic attempts in continuity-copping to explain the similarities.

Well, I can’t believe they’re going to go that far in the TV show, but I wouldn’t bet against a little reference or two just as a nod to the fanbase. Then again, I may be wrong. One of my issues with the current version of the series is that it does sometimes feel like high-class fanfic, or something inspired by browsing through the DWM lettercolumn or Q&A page from thirty years ago: Why not do a set of stories about the Doctor meeting someone out-of-sequence? Why not do a story set entirely inside the TARDIS? Which is the most advanced type of Cyberman? And so on. It seems to me that the current show’s willingness to do episodes actually about changes in monster design and the in-universe reasons for this is a sign of somebody’s fannishness running out of control. I’m not sure all the stories have been strong enough to justify these conceits – and if they’re going to continue in this self-regarding vein, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

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