05 October 2013

The Gentrification of Doctor Who

Gentrification : The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.

So what do I mean when I say The Gentrification of Doctor Who? Let's rearrange that explanation a bit. The restoration of a deteriorated TV show by people who used to be fans but are now running the show, often resulting in displacement of older ideals for something that is bright, shiny, and new.

The Change
Yes, The show certainly has changed since coming back in 2005 and the changes are immediately visible. I, and the many classic Who fans, were surprised at the look and feel of our beloved favorite show. We couldn't believe the BBC was actually spending money on our show, that made us feel good. But little did we know just how much longer we could actually still call it, Our Show.

Early Doctor Who was a sometimes unpolished mess. When you're dealing with a no-budget show you come to expect it. Monsters had an unnatural look (but you didn't mind). The scenery was set in a studio most of the time or in a quarry (so we used our imagination). And the special effects (when there were used) were generally so-so (so why bother). But we who loved our British sci-fi cult show and ignored the masses as they laughed at us. Generally, it was the message behind the show we loved. The Doctor, with a companion or three, took on some of the most deadly challenges and in those very early days the danger was mostly local problems.

Then after the wilderness years, onto our screens came Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor; Britishness with so many British references. As an American who has watched all the British shows I could, many of these references still went over my head and I had to look up many of the jokes I didn't originally get. But that was part of living in the Whoverse and I think that's why a vast amount of Americans don't like British shows. They don't get the jokes.

I Thought It Was A British Show?
Then a Funny thing happened after David Tennant took over as the tenth Doctor. Something that made some of those snickering masses take another look at the show. And they saw something they liked. Looking back I can see what it was. In Tennant's first series they had begun the gutting process of the Britishness from the show. Yes, there was no mistaking it was still British, but not as much as Eccleston's series or classic Who. And this became favorable to more fans worldwide as most were previously disposed to looking down on it. And the inhabitants of the Whoverse thought this was a good thing. More viewers was good.

By Tennant's second series the world seemed to have caught Tennant-fever. Not Doctor Who fever, that was just a side benefit. The mass effect seemed to point directly at David Tennant. By the end of Tennant's third (plus 4 specials) series, the show had spread more than any old fan could have imagined. Now, the premiere of a new series was broadcast on the same day as it was shown in Britain.

When I look back, there's a dark cloud that began looming over that time. I encountered a few classic Who fans that said the Doctor had become too human like, too knowledgeable about the day to day workings of the human mind. After all, the Doctor is supposed to be an alien. For myself, he gave the impression of a slightly manic James Bond.

How It Changed
But the bigger, and potentially worse, problem I saw was the change in story telling style. Having been brought up on the slower, 4-6 parters which took weeks to unfold, I began to recognize the change that was reshaping Doctor Who. The show had gone from a standard British serial to a Hollywood-style procedural and it had to cram not only the story, but place-setting it into a shorter version. At first you could see the difference when the British version was 55-60 minutes but the American version was 42 minutes. What oh? What did they cut out? As the Matt Smith era began, it seemed like there was now only one version. The one that would fit neatly into any TV network around the Globe. This is when it was painfully apparent that Doctor Who had gone from a quirky British cult show to a Hollywood knockoff procedural show.

So what is one of the factors that leads me to this conclusion and just where did this all stem from? First let's take a look at where this all began and go back to the Jon Nathan-Turner [JNT] era. JNT was the first of the fans to obtain a position of power in running the show. Russell T. Davies was third following Philip David Segal, the force behind the 1996 movie. So JNT was loving his show but not doing it very well. JNT wanted the show to survive so much, he stayed on when the BBC said they'd cancel it if he left. This was a career killing move on his part. But the start of attracting new fans by change started there.

Where Are We Now
So, where does the whole gentrification thing enter for the 2005 series? The new fans, who had never seen the classic show enter the Whoverse expecting much more from their entertainment. The last two decades of CGI and production values elevated what they expected from their TV shows. I have talked to many of these people who have watched the classics and enjoy them. I have also encountered near fans which denigrate the classic show as not worth their time. It's too slow. The sets are too wobbly. The acting is crap. And so on… All they want is their new show cause, in their words, "The classic shows aren't as good as the new series."

And there begins the process of gentrification. I have seen this cause rifts on Doctor Who forums having segments of fandom become alienated toward one another. Many new fans are sanctimonious about how much better the new series is than classic because everything is so much better now. If the special effects aren't epic movie level they're disappointed.

So is the gentrification of Doctor Who a good thing? Depends on who you ask. The fans who took up the show in the last eight years say it's fantastic and many say are glad it's not that crappy old 20th century show (though some new fans embrace the shows' roots). Fans who grew up with the classic show mourn the loss of something that will never be regained (though some feel that's a good thing).

I feel the show has reached more people than ever before by sacrificing part of its soul. Not its entire soul as it's still the most quirky, genre-hopping show on television today. But there's no doubt, it's made a deal with the devil. Some people feel that was necessity in order to keep it on the air. Maybe it was. Do you think JNT would have struck up the same deal given the opportunity? I believe he would have. In the end I'm just glad to have some version of Doctor Who on the air, even if it isn't exactly the version I'd like to see.

Any Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who.

If anyone agrees or disagree I'd love to hear your opinions and how you see the change.


  1. I'm fascinated by your comment that they 'gutted the Britishness' in the Tennant era - could you give any examples? I certainly felt the show changed from Eccleston to Tennant, but I've always put that down to the fact DT's Doctor was obviously supposed to appeal more to those looking for a 'cute' Doctor. I never thought of it as the show having more of a 'global' tone, and as a Brit myself, I probably didn't notice what you're talking about in quite the same way so I'm intrigued by exactly what you mean.

  2. Thanks for your question.

    I don't think Britishness can be nailed down to specific items. Like all identities, it is evolving and reforming with every moment.

    It's possible that the feeling I have that the Doctor has lost some of his Britishness comes from my being an American and the majority of my entertainment comes from America. I've watched Doctor Who since the 1970s and it gave me a distinctly non-American view. Christopher Eccleston's series left me with that same feeling. It was with Tennant, and later with Smith, that the feeling, something in my gut, said the Britishness was slowly beginning to ebb. It's difficult to put into words, thus your question, but I'd have to say it's the general demeanor and mannerisms of Tennant, and later Smith, that seem to point to it attempting to have more of a global reach. It's still British, but not at the level it was in the classic series.

    I think I need to do a follow up to this post...

    1. Perhaps something to do with the fact that Tennant is a more obvious 'fanciable' male lead, whereas Eccleston definitely fits the 'quirky but not conventionally handsome' definition you could give to most of the classic Doctors? I've been watching since the 70s too and thinking about it, yeah, I think I can see sort of where you're coming from. Perhaps it's also that S1, being the first, was still mostly able to tell stories on a relatively small scale (until the finale with billions of Daleks, at least) but after that of course it had to keep on just getting bigger and bigger, which definitely makes it feel less like the classic series and more like current US shows.

    2. There's no way it couldn't change over the years. Audiences are different. The show in the 1980s was really nothing like the show in the 1960s. Probably as far removed as the reboot in 2005 was from the end in 1989.

      When it returned, Eccleston's Doctor was still quirky like his 20th century counterparts. But they knew in order to sell this not only to America, but globally, they needed to make some modifications. A pure British show would never break the wall like James Bond. In fact, they did it in an interesting way to Bond. Pre-Craig they'd put a typically British spy in danger around the world—the fish out of water. A very tough fish but a out of water nevertheless. The Daniel Craig movies have stripped away much of the suave coating from all the previous Bonds and he's essentially a thug who just got his license to kill.

      So they needed to do something similar to the Doctor. It wasn't as drastic but it was something they needed to do to sell it better.

      And I've always said, "Any Doctor Who is better than No Doctor Who." Many of the classic fans feel the same way and enjoy the older stuff just a wee bit more.