Doctor Who Q & A with Professor James Chapman

Posted by ap507 at Nov 20, 2013 12:15 PM |
Professor James Chapman answers questions about the enduring success of Doctor Who and what the future may hold for the franchise

In anticipation for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary, Professor James Chapman from the Department of the History of Art and Film answered a series of questions detailing his opinions on the show, the differences between Doctors and his predictions for what may happen in the future of the franchise:

"How surprised were you by the revelation on 4 August that Peter Capaldi would be the 12th Doctor? How well suited do you feel that he is for the role?"

Professor James Chapman: "Once bookmakers had suspended betting it was no surprise that Peter Capaldi was announced as the new Doctor. An interesting choice that bucks the trend in the new series so far towards ever younger stars. One never knows how the new incumbent will play the role, of course, though we might perhaps expect more gravitas than with the Eleventh Doctor. I think Capaldi is only the second Doctor (after Colin Baker) who has previously appeared in the series as another character (though David Tennant was in one of the audio dramas)."

Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Have you identified any trends in the casting of the doctors? How has each actor brought a new dimension to the iconic character?"

JC: "I think that yes, certainly, each actor has brought something distinctive to the role. I don’t think there are any real trends as such, other than that the Doctor maintains his Britishness (it would be unthinkable to have a Doctor with an American accent!) and a certain sense of quirky individuality and eccentricity. Often there has been casting against type. Patrick Troughton, a renowned serious character actor, played him as a clown, whereas Jon Pertwee, known as a comic actor, played him in a strongly heroic mould. Peter Davison was the first ‘dishy Doctor’ and I think we’ve seen that with the David Tennant and Matt Smith incarnations too – casting with a view to the series’ female fans. I rather hope that with Peter Capaldi we might get a slightly darker version, as with Sylvester McCoy."

"Doctor Who is arguably more successful now than ever before, with international audiences in particular finding appeal in the show, despite its inherent English-ness. Why do you think the audience for the show is as broad as it is?"

JC: "There’s always been an international market for quality British TV drama, so in that sense the success of Doctor Who is no surprise. Look at the success of Downton Abbey and Sherlock too. The refreshing thing about new Doctor Who is that now the series is seen by the BBC as a high-end drama rather than some cheap, cult science-fiction show.

It was always very broad-based in its appeal. From the outset Doctor Who was designed as a family (not a children’s) tv series with characters to appeal across age groups. And narratively it works on different levels. For young children it’s got monsters and special effects; for teenagers who might be getting interested in science fiction and fantasy it’s got those genre ingredients; and for adult viewers it has moments of emotional drama. That said adults can appreciate green monsters too!"

Source: Wikimedia Commons
"How important has Doctor Who been in bringing science-fiction television into the mainstream?"

JC: "Good question – and difficult to say. When it started in 1963 science fiction was a marginal genre in television, certainly in Britain. There’d been US anthology series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, which often dramatized SF short stories, but Doctor Who was written specifically for television. Nowadays SF is very mainstream in cinema and on television. But it became mainstream in the 1990s when Doctor Who was off the air. That’s when we had the likes of Babylon 5 and the Star Trek continuation series, again from America. I’d say that the reinvention of Doctor Who in the twenty-first century has built upon the growing popularity of science fiction television rather than driving it."

"How do you feel the series has adapted over the years to satisfy a modern audience?"

JC: "How long is a piece of string? It’s always had to satisfy a modern audience: the audience of 1963 was a modern audience. I think it’s very successfully negotiated the changing institutional and cultural landscape of British television. The device of ‘regeneration’ – originally, of course, forced upon the production team by William Hartnell’s declining health – has built in the possibility of renewal, so the series is able to refresh itself periodically. I think it’s responded to wider social topics and anxieties, too. In the 1960s it addressed fears around nuclear war and radiation (‘The Daleks’) and dehumanised technology (the Cybermen stories). In the 1970s it responded to the environmental movement (‘The Green Death’) and the rise of second-wave feminism (Sarah Jane Smith). In the 1980s we had a heritage-hero Doctor (Peter Davison) coinciding with the success of Brideshead Revisited and Chariots of Fire and stories addressing issues such as television violence (‘Vengeance on Varos’) and inner city social problems (‘The Happiness Patrol’)."

"Do you think the modern Doctor Who measures up to the quality of the original series?"

JC: "In many ways yes. Obviously the production values are much higher, and new special effects technologies mean that the series is able to visualise alien landscapes in a spectacular new way – it’s no longer the case that all other planets have to look like either a quarry or the inside of a greenhouse. Obviously the writers write for the technical possibilities of the medium as it exists at the time. But I’m not sure that the quality of the writing is any better.

Both the classic and the new series have had their share of duds alongside the best episodes, and overall I’d say that new Who has been less consistent in quality overall than it was, say, in the 1970s. I thought the 2013 (part) series was rather a mixed bag. I still think the 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston was the best of new Who. One point I will make is that the style of Doctor Who – with a mixed range of story templates rather than a fixed formula like a police show – makes it difficult to find writers. Under Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes in the mid 1970s, and again under Russell T. Davies in 2005-9, there was a small pool of writers. Steven Moffat has tried to expand the range of writers employed – as Graham Williams did in the late 1970s and John Nathan-Turner in the 1980s – though again with mixed results."

Source: Wikimedia Commons

"There has been some talk in the media suggesting that the producers of the show should consider casting non-white or female actors/actresses in the role of the Doctor for future episodes. How do you think this would change the nature of the show, and what would the fan reaction be?"

JC: "I think fans would be outraged if there was a woman ‘Doctor Who’ – just as if there was a female James Bond. I don’t think it will happen. First because it would too radically alter the Doctor/companion relationship – the Doctor has to be the dominant role and the companion is there to ask questions. I can’t think of any examples in popular fiction where this has worked with a woman in the lead role. And second because there’s no textual evidence to indicate that a Time Lord can in fact change sex when they regenerate. There is some evidence that they may be able to change ethnicity, though, so there’s no reason we could not have a non-white Doctor. Idris Elba has been mentioned a few times (as he is for just about everything, including James Bond, at the moment) and I think an actor such as Adrian Lester would be a very good Doctor. But not until after Peter Capaldi has had a long and successful tenure!"

"With fifty years of history to call upon, is there any element you would like to see the producers use again? (For example: a plotline or specific villain?)"

JC: "I’d like to see them try a ‘straight’ historical story again – i.e. one with no monsters or science fiction elements – but I very much doubt this will happen. Otherwise I’m looking forward to the return of the Zygons in the Golden Jubilee special. I’d like to see the Yeti back in the London Underground and it would be interesting to see what modern special effects might make of the Zarbi."


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