Myrkas of the World Unite: Is Doctor Who Posh? (Part 2)
The classic series of Doctor Who ended on a council estate, and the revived series began on one. It’s tempting to see the choice of location as a subtle reassurance that Doctor Who was picking up where it left off. The impression was strengthened when Rona Munro, the writer of that final episode, became the first (and to date only) classic series writer to return in the 21st century. Munro’s return was in part an acknowledgement that her generation of writers did more to prepare the ground for the new series than a casual audience, familiar with Sylvester McCoy only as “the one they had when it ended”, might realize. Yet it also demonstrated how much the show had changed. Munro’s new series episode featured Bill, a character who was casually introduced as a working-class lesbian. Back in the Seventh Doctor’s era, Munro and actress Sophie Aldred fought losing battles to acknowledge Aldred’s character Ace’s bisexuality, or at least have her speak with a class-appropriate accent.
Aldred pointed to Billie Piper’s performance as Rose as being similar to what she’d hoped to do with Ace. Rose’s eponymous introductory episode explores her background in ways that the classic series hadn’t done since the original line-up of Ian, Barbara and Susan, showing her as the only child of a single mother working a thankless job. Under Russell T Davies this focus on the companion’s backstory became standard, with Rose and Donna both presented as working-class from the outset. On one level, this makes them aspirational figures – ordinary people becoming heroes. On another, it makes the show’s portrayal of working-class life quite barbed.
Every companion needs a reason to escape, and in the case of both Rose and Donna, they were escaping from a world which offered them no future. Since Doctor Who’s portrayal of the political class is usually even more fantastical than its portrayal of the working class – good luck working out what, say, Harold Saxon’s tax plan is – this dead-end world is rarely portrayed as something imposed on them from the top. Instead, it’s the result of the people around them, and although characters like Rose’s mum Jackie or her boyfriend Mickey become more dimensional later on, their first appearances generally present them as burdens to the companion. (Honourable exception: Wilf Mott)
In this aspect, Doctor Who was responding to a trend in popular films and TV shows of the New Labour era that showed working-class Britain as a stifling place for independent thinkers; call it the Billy Elliottization of Doctor Who. Even the Doctor joined in with a bit of Little Britain-style all-in-good-fun classism, joking about “happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs” in School Reunion. But the other important aspect of Davies’s plan to repopularise the show involved taking the upper-class traits out of the Doctor himself. After the 1996 TV movie Davies asked David Liddiment, then boss of ITV, what he thought of it from a non-fan perspective. Liddiment, it turned out, enjoyed everything except Paul McGann’s “fancy dress” costume. When Davies got his chance to make his favourite show he deliberately set out to remove that weakness, casting Christopher Eccleston, a politically active working-class Northerner noted for his work in gritty realist drama, and allowing him to play the part in a leather jacket, with a shaven head and his own Salford accent.
There’s a famous running gag in Eccleston’s lone series as the Doctor which points out the absurdity of expecting aliens to speak like moneyed British people; someone will ask why the Doctor talks like a Northerner, and he responds with the perfectly meaningless answer “Lots of planets have a North”. Just because Eccleston’s Doctor feels the most working-class doesn’t mean the others were from the opposite end of the class scale, though. Discussing Matt Smith’s bow-tied, tweed-wearing Eleventh Doctor, Steven Moffat suggested that William Hartnell was the only previous Doctor who felt posher than the median standards of British television at the time. Nowadays we interpret Tom Baker’s booming, rich, wonderfully clear voice as upper-class, but Tom Baker was working as a bricklayer in Liverpool when he got the part. He spoke that way because, when he started acting, British actors were expected to speak in “received pronunciation” or RP.
Before Jodie Whittaker, only four Doctors spoke without RP accents; after Eccleston came David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, whose lairy Estuary English could easily come from a market trader or a City trader. Accents are not a useful guide as to how a Doctor will come across on screen. Sylvester McCoy retained his own Scottish accent as the Seventh Doctor, but his Doctor’s detachment and manipulative qualities felt more aloof and aristocratic than the posher-sounding likes of Peter Davison or Paul McGann. Likewise, Peter Capaldi’s Glaswegian burr played against his costume, which was far more Pertwee than Eccleston.
Perhaps clothes are a better guide to how the show wants us to see the Doctor. The Doctor’s first regeneration took him from the well-heeled Edwardian look of William Hartnell’s Doctor to the Chaplinesque hobo costume of Patrick Troughton’s, and sure enough Troughton’s Doctor was more of an underdog than his predecessor. Jon Pertwee’s costume was inspired by the hero of the then-contemporary adventure serial Adam Adamant Lives!, about a Victorian dandy transported to modern-day London. He was literally dressed like a fantasy of a rich nineteenth-century Englishman.
The dandies, though, operated outside mainstream respectability, and this is key to understanding Tom Baker’s costume, which in its own way is even more freighted with class significance than Eccleston or Smith’s outfits. Troughton and Pertwee’s costumes were based on fictional characters but Baker’s was based on a real person, allowing us more insight into what niche of society this Doctor is meant to remind us of. The inspiration was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of the cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, part of a decadent late-nineteenth century artistic scene which came to be known as ‘bohemian’, after the region of modern-day Czechia which became a hub for its adherents.
The bohemians were often drop-outs from rich families, and the Fourth Doctor’s pivotal story makes this a literal part of his history. The Deadly Assassin begins the show’s tradition of hinting that the Doctor was being lined up for a very nice life before he fled Gallifrey; he was a member of Prydonian Chapter, a caste who seem to have Time Lord politics sewn up in much the same way that Oxford and Cambridge do with British politics. Even in exile, he keeps being offered Presidency of the Time Lords, a position which he always turns down. By the end of the classic series hints were being dropped about the Doctor being “more than just a Time Lord”, and the new series’ Time War mythos gives him power of life or death over his old home world.
The Deadly Assassin also portrays Time Lord society as being corrupt and complacent, at best run by pampered idiots, at worst by murderous traitors. This was a version of Doctor Who for the people who had followed Watergate and the Jeremy Thorpe trial, and were astonished as to how venal their supposed betters could be. The Fourth Doctor, a man who’d seen the heart of the system and turned his back on it, was a hero they could cheer for – a sort of space-time Tony Benn. The problem with establishing mythos for a show as long-running as Doctor Who, though, is that you can’t write something that works for every era. If the show’s central mythology was being laid down today, might the Doctor be more potent if he or she was once just an ordinary refugee, akin to the aliens the Twelfth Doctor finds hiding out on Earth in stories like The Zygon Invasion and Face the Raven? Must the Doctor have some kind of privilege in order to become a hero?
Well, maybe. The appeal of the Robin Hood archetype, the rebel aristocrat, has outlived many anti-establishment historical moments and will surely outlast this one. The Doctor’s former status also gives extra dramatic weight to his repeat confrontations with Gallifrey, which became more frequent during the 1980s. As it did so, though, it depoliticized the Doctor’s manner. It was as if the writing staff – who remained predominantly Left-to-liberal – were taking on board Margaret Thatcher’s catchphrase about there being no such thing as society. Peter Davison softened the Doctor’s voice and wore a costume that positioned him as a more benign type of aristocrat than Hartnell or Pertwee – less House of Lords, more Blandings Manor. The clothes worn by Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, on the other hand, seemed designed to have no real-world resonance at all.
When Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor tears verbal strips off his former kin in The Trial of a Time Lord, it’s well-acted but it lacks the resonance of previous face-offs between the Doctor and his home planet. Gallifrey versus the Second Doctor is Olympian gods ganging up on a hobo. The Sixth Doctor versus Gallifrey is a person in a strange costume shouting at people in strange costumes. Likewise, the Seventh Doctor is a knowingly unreadable web of clashing class signifiers – a brolly, a Scottish accent, a fondness for jazz and coffee, a professor-student relationship with his companion, a hand-knitted jumper – adding up to a singularly mysterious Doctor.
In its own way, that approach has been the most relevant to Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. Just as Peter Capaldi’s accent places him outside the British power elite but his costume places him back inside, Moffat’s two longest-running companions are deliberately hard to scan for clues to their backgrounds. Our first look at Amy Pond shows her working a low-paid job without any family support, but also living in an expensive house in a picturesque village. The fact that her social context doesn’t make any sense ends up being the first clue to the mystery unraveled at the end of her debut season, a trick repeated with the multiple-choice origins for Clara. For all that Moffat has added a lot to Doctor Who’s mythos and storytelling methods, his conception of the role of the Doctor and his companion is the sort of thing Hartnell-era viewers would recognise. Once again, the Doctor is an alien with the air of an upper-class British eccentric, who picks up people in a crisis and unpicks their back-story as he goes along.
Which brings us to Jodie Whittaker. Obviously, there’s a limit to how much we can infer from her Doctor at the moment, but the fact that people have been scouring her costume for clues to her character (is the rainbow top an LGBT rights statement? What do the earrings mean?) suggests we’re getting something very alien again. David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctors have plenty of layers but their basic sensibility can be inferred from their first in-costume promo photos. So far this seems impossible with Whittaker’s Doctor.
Early rumours suggest that Bradley Walsh’s Graham – good name for a companion, that – will be a rogueish character, aligning the Thirteenth Doctor and Graham with one of the few archetypes in adventure fiction where the woman is the senior character: Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin, the aristocratic adventuress and her hired muscle. Yet the first teaser, with the Doctor ordering pizzas and stealing food and newspapers from her companions while they’re not looking, doesn’t show her as an aristocrat, or any kind of authority figure.
Russell T Davies occasionally painted his Doctors as Christ figures, while Steven Moffat began by comparing him to a child’s imaginary friend. Chris Chibnall has chosen to introduce the Thirteenth Doctor as something more Troughtonesque. She is a trickster figure, a character whose strength lies in being hard to pin down. The Doctor lives between categories – now including gender – has no home, thrives on instability and loopholes and is as likely to play a prank on you as she is to save your life. About the only thing we can say for certain is this: she definitely sounds like she’s from Yorkshire.