It’s incredibly flattering of Johnny to ask me to provide an afterword – or is it an introduction? – to his stupendous blog of Randomwhoness.
A long time ago, when the Doctor Who Universe was less than half its present size, I was the editor of the official Doctor Who Magazine. This was during the late 1990s, when, especially following the Paul McGann TV movie (which in quirky Doctor Who style contrived to be both a massive success and a grievous misfire at the same time), the programme’s stock hit at an all-time low.
With no TV production team or associated marketing myrmidons in harness at the BBC, I was, for a few years, the only person in the world receiving a full-time salary to think deep thoughts about Doctor Who. Even Rebecca Levene, editor of Virgin’s Doctor Who: The New Adventures, had to also keep one eye, and a gently restraining hand, on a range of gay pornographic novels written, pseudonymously, by many of her Doctor Who authors. One of the more lurid sagas even took character names from Horror of Fang Rock and its title from an episode of The Keys of Marinus. Alas, not The Screaming Jungle.
But I digress. Suffice to say that I have, in my time, commissioned and edited a volume and variety of what we might indulgently call ‘Doctor Who journalism’. I’ve also written a fair whack of it – mainly because I don’t know when to shut up. In 2008, I was invited to take over the 600-word reviews of the latest DVDs for Doctor Who Magazine. Well, I say ‘invited’; in fact I cajoled and complained my way into it. However, on finding it impossible to say something new in anything fewer than 5000 words – especially with jokes – I then bullied the magazine into making room for my patience-testing essays about noodling details from The Ark and Colony in Space. I often dreamed about writing – as our Mr Spandrell has somehow achieved – an essay about every single Doctor Who story. There was, however, a complication. The unfortunate fact is, I loathe writing and will do absolutely anything to get out of doing it. The situation came to a head one sunny afternoon in 2013 when I found myself seriously considering stepping into traffic just to get out of writing a review of Terror of the Zygons. Some trifling injury like a broken neck would do it, I reasoned.
Clearly, it was time to take a step back – both from the kerb and Doctor Who – and instead enjoy the work of others. At the same moment, on the other side of our little planet, Johnny was gearing up to launch Randomwhoness. Just for me.
‘Always find something new to say’ was my mantra when writing about Doctor Who. You’d hope that everyone would recognise it as the minimum requirement of the job. Johnny’s blog most definitely achieves it, and in spades, but not every reviewer feels the need to bother; certain that their opinion must be interesting simply because it’s their opinion, and never taking the time to dig deeper, either into their subject or themselves. This in turn leads to that great malaise of Doctor Who writing: cliché. You know the sort of thing. Stories can only ever be underrated classics, oft-neglected gems, quirky oddballs or “a welcome return of the pure historical”. And that’s just the stuff they like. I fear the most frequently-used word in online reviewing – of Doctor Who, and TV in general – is ‘crap’… He’s crap, she’s crap, it’s crap, that monster is crap, oh-why-am-I-watching-this-crap? That’s a good question, my friend: why are you? Of course, it’s a word that only shines a light on the reviewer, never the subject. It testifies to not only a fatal lack of imagination and vocabulary, but also a dangerously contagious toxicity. (A word to the wise… If you ever find yourself following someone on Twitter – or in real life – who describes anything as ‘crap’, then unfollow them, unfriend them or divorce them, as applicable. They’re only ever going to drag you down.)
The quest for good-humoured, original insight, free from cliché, was the engine of my time as editor of Doctor Who Magazine. During those days, battling for the ‘new’, I worked at commissioning formats that placed familiar material in a fresh context. Context was everything, I thought. I was wrong about that. In 1996, we screened Terror of the Zygons to a class of eight-year-olds, to see how differently it might play in the ‘new’ context of ‘the kids of today’. (It played just the same. And it’s funny to note that while Zygons was 21 years old when Class 4G watched it, 23 years have now passed since then.) In a more eccentric vein, Bridget Jones’s Diary, then only a British newspaper column, was adapted for DWM as The Life and Times of Jackie Jenkins, to look at Doctor Who in the context of a fan’s everyday social interactions; many years before Twitter would shift almost all debate within fandom into a ‘social’ context. DWM’s long-running Time Team feature was an attempt – at least in its original format – to look at episodes only within the context of their original transmission: an attempt to see Doctor Who as it was rather than through the distorting lens of what it would become. (Nowadays, the spirit of the Time Team lives on in the form of YouTube ‘reaction’ videos, where the complexities of comment and criticism are cheerfully put aside in favour of half-an-hour of exaggerated gasps. My favourite channel is The French Series Addicts. There’s something very relaxing about watching people talk about The Armageddon Factor in French, especially if you don’t speak the language.)
The problem is, as I came to learn, this obsession with context was built on a false premise. The most entertaining Doctor Who writing is not about formats and gimmicks. It’s not even about the episodes under discussion. It’s about the person doing the writing. It’s about having – as Ian Chesterton once put it – an enquiring mind and a sensitive ear. In choosing ‘random chance’ as the driving agency for his blog, I suspect Johnny was looking for his own structural conceit – his USP, in the manner of the Time Team – but what he has actually achieved is to completely unshackle Doctor Who from that terrible burden of ‘context’, with each story assessed entirely on its own terms; allowing its strengths and points of interest to shine through, free of preconceptions and cliché. And his random journey also captures the spirit of the series’ own – returning a sense of the unpredictable to that which has become all too familiar. With each blog, Johnny steps from the Tardis into a fresh new world, ready to savour the adventure.
Savour is a good word for it, because Doctor Who appreciation is – though many forget this – all a matter of taste. We fall in love with the programme as children (generally), and it works in the same way that anyone ever falls in love with anything, be it football, chocolate, that boy or girl on the bus to school, the music of Miley Cirus or the paintings of Monet. The very first time you saw Doctor Who, a series of bombs detonated deep in your brain, clearing out vast slums of minor infatuations, and blasting a shining multi-lane highway directly from your eyes and ears to the pleasure centre of your brain; flooding it with dopamine and a general feeling of well-being. You and Doctor Who became connected forever, in a very real sense. But that’s the easy bit: it’s instantaneous. Unfortunately, you are then doomed to spend the rest of your life trying to convey this wholly visceral response in mere words. While the greatest of our poets have found lyrical ways to express the tragedy of romantic love, even Keats and Wordsworth would struggle to describe the feeling you get while watching the final episode of Logopolis, never mind The Dominators Part Three. Though Sylvia Plath might have a crack at that one.
Because Doctor Who is, in the larger part, enjoyed on screens, it’s generally treated as a visual art, with the same ‘language of appreciation’. And that’s where things really start to go wrong. Let’s take a fan of the aforementioned Claude Monet, for example. He has his socks blown off at the age of 10 when he first sees Woman with a Parasol or a vision of foggy London at sunrise. His mind stands on end. Then, he tries to experience every painting by the artist he can find; either in person or via books or online. Next, he reads about Monet and learns about his life, his methods and how his work fits in with the broader sweep of Impressionism, the Franco-Prussian War and the microclimate around Giverny. By now, his nose is right up against the art, debating the merits of individual brush strokes and blobs. Eventually, he might come to describe himself as an expert, able to lecture at length about which of Monet’s canvasses were considered superior or otherwise. “Is this one of the good ones?” a curious friend might enquire, pointing at a painting of water lilies – just one of over 250 such paintings. “Well, actually…” our Monet fan would reply. “It’s not generally considered one of the greats.” As an oration regarding the painting’s faults begins, the rest of us might begin to wonder whether he were still fan of Monet at all, so literally is he missing the big picture.
Doctor Who is often talked about in the same way: instructive, obstructive, hectoring. Endless surveys and rankings have sold us the idea that there might be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Doctor Who, or perhaps even some ‘ideal’ of it – some perfect blend of The Caves of Androzani, City of Death and Blink that we have only so far caught glimpses of as flickering shadows at the back of Plato’s cave. But how can there be a perfect Doctor Who when nobody can agree on what it might be like in even the broadest terms, let alone the details? Fandom is deeply divided, for example, over the issue of the genital arrangements of the lead actor, never mind anything actually important. During the later years of Steven Moffat’s stewardship, a common cry from fans was: “But these stories are too convoluted for ordinary viewers! Why can’t the Doctor just land on a planet and fight a monster, or discover a mystery and solve it?” Then, after Chris Chibnell provided exactly that kind of story, the wail came: “No, not like that! These stories are too basic!” It’s a classic example of ‘being careful about what you wish for’, but the real problem is that some of the programme’s most-avowed fans are pushed up so close to the work that even the smallest shift in tone or nuance can completely fuse the brain. Those standing further back – that ‘wider audience’ so often fretted about – simply don’t suffer the same problem. Nor do the fans who come along a generation later, as they always will, and are left to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Doctor Who considered as visual art is a blind alley; especially any idea that there might be some fundamental methodology or ‘trick’ to getting it right. In truth, a healthy appreciation of Doctor Who is more like wine tasting, in that any perceived nuance or depth is to be found only within and relative to the senses of the consumer. Yes, there may be some broader consensus when it comes to the quality of certain producers or vintages, but new wine is just as vivid, varied and intoxicating as old, and whichever you prefer to drink at any given time is entirely down to your own palate. And, sure, there is a background science to it all: methods of production you might study in detail, but it will only get you so far. A good bottle of wine is born of a thousand influences and factors, and even then, two people drinking it on the same day will have very different responses. One might relish every drop, another tip it straight down the sink.
Then there is the language of wine tasting… This bottle is flamboyant yet refined, with a mellow finish. Or you might prefer a full-bodied, earthy variety with lively top-notes. Just like Doctor Who writing, and those ‘oddballs’ and ‘classics’ and ‘pseudo-historicals’, it is an evolved language that offers shared meaning to the cognoscente, but comes with no absolutes. Somewhere out there, I imagine, there is a capacious, crotchety Chianti, a well-rounded bohemian Burgundy, and a pleasant, open Malbec.
And like wine, Doctor Who is best enjoyed in company. Chug down too much of it on your own and you are likely to be left muddle-headed and vaguely depressed. During the last year or so, here in the UK, there have been regular screenings of Doctor Who stories at the British Film Institute to tie in with the release of the Blu-Ray box sets. Each time I attend, it’s like seeing the episodes for the first time. Not because they are shown on a bigger screen or have had their every pixel polished by the Restoration Team, but because they are being enjoyed in company, and in an atmosphere of general goodwill. The jokes are funnier, the mistakes more charming, the drama more heartfelt, the melodrama more camp.
Sadly, we can’t all rewatch every episode in the company of 500 other fans – I simply don’t have room in my downstairs hall for all those Forbidden Planet carrier bags – which is where quality writing like Randomwhoness proves essential. As well as being great, good-humoured company, Johnny becomes our sommelier. He’s swigged and swirled and spat his way through the whole cellar, so his well-trained palate and gift of language can help us discover and appreciate new flavours in every bottle. There’s no bad wine on his wine list. After all, every Doctor Who story has a story of its own. With The Smugglers, for example, Johnny ponders – with gentle, humane insight – what it must have felt like to be William Hartnell as the show he helped catapult to success now asks him to step aside. For other stories, it’s the narrative that offers the key points of interest. If you’re looking for a place to get started, try Planet of Fire or Hell Bent. The big question for both is broadly the same: what the heck is all this nonsense supposed to be about? Two stories that might seem, at first blush, to be as different as can be, turn out to be not so different after all.
There are over 250 essays here for you to savour, and I guarantee that each TV story will feel richer after you enjoy them with Johnny’s ‘tasting notes’. Best of all, he writes with an understanding of the Single Great Truth that we might wish for all of fandom to recognise. There’s no right or wrong Doctor Who. There is no good or bad Doctor Who. There’s no significant difference between The Keys of Marinus and The Ghost Monument, or The Aztecs and Rosa. There’s no great meaning to it all. It’s just a wonderful, random journey through space and time.
And so, I raise a glass to Randomwhoness. It has an ethos, a life… a spirit all its own.
Why don’t you sip it and see?
Gary Gillatt is a former editor of Doctor Who Magazine and author of the BBC book Doctor Who: From A to Z. A selection of his reviews of Doctor Who stories can (and must) be found here. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Gillatt.
Congratulations Jonny on a great blog. I’ve enjoyed the numerous essays you have written on my favourite and no so favourite stories – now I turn to the essays about the stories I would naturally consider reading about in the first instance That’s where I’ll find more nuggets of gold!
Thanks Tim! That’s really appreciated.