I used to believe in the TARDIS but no longer do. I know what you’re thinking. “Well, of course you don’t you dummy! You’re a grown man now, not an eight year old boy!” And this is very true. As an adult, I’m certainly more skeptical and rooted in the “real world” and have an awareness of what is fantasy and what is not. But, I’m also someone who steps through an old stone archway and still thinks “You know, this would make an excellent gateway to Narnia.” That’s not to say I think a gateway to Narnia will suddenly appear, and at this point I doubt i’d want to step into a Christian allegory in the first place. But that’s not say there isn’t a part of me that wouldn’t be surprised and/or delighted if it did happen. And, there was a time when I’d be driving down the road and wonder if, possibly, a TARDIS could just appear. They’re almost always port-a-potties, but the thought was still there. But the TARDIS doesn’t feel the same way to me any more. And, I think part of the reason for that is the new series and it’s production values. The very process that has turned Doctor Who into the slickly produced and stylized series loved by the masses (something my eight year old self would never have believed) may have also made it all less real, to me. But first, a little background on what brought this all up.
I am a fan of Neil Gaiman’s. In fact, when pressed I will often name him as my favorite writer. I have discovered—as I’ve been reading his new book of collected non-fiction writings, The View From The Cheap Seats—that this is probably due in part to us sharing a great deal of the same genre touchstones. And a great deal of these were experienced in childhood, though our childhoods are separated by about twenty years. This should probably not seem like such an ah-ha moment to me, as it makes perfect sense. Yet, there it is. One of the things I love about Gaiman’s writing and really respond to is that his worlds, no matter how fantastic, often have the sense of being just around the corner or just beyond the next door.
So, it’s not a huge surprise when he says he read the Chronicles of Narnia series over and over, as those books are pretty much THE representative example of suddenly getting whisked off to some fantastic world from the disappointingly mundane one you must inhabit the rest of the time. It’s no surprise that, like me, he spent far too much (or is that never enough?) of his childhood in libraries and is forever enchanted when faced with a wall of books. Does there exist a better real-world equivalent of getting whisked away from the real world by a seemingly innocuous something than books themselves? And then, of course, there is the shared love of Doctor Who.
Gaiman’s Doctors were the First and Second Doctors. Mine was really (through the magic of PBS re-runs long after the episodes were first aired) the 4th Doctor. But as he talked about the wonder and thrill and realness of the TARDIS in his forward to the Doctor Who novella The Eye of the Tyger (collected in the book I’m reading) a strange realization struck me… the TARDIS just feels less real to me these days.
Now, let me be quick to point out that this is not a “new Who” versus “classic Who” piece I’m writing here. Personally, I’m a very easy-going Who fan. I like every Doctor in some fashion. Give me any Who and I’m going to be happy. I mean, I’ll happily watch Timelash. I may not be happy the whole time, but I’ll watch it and be happy overall, probably. And I like the thought that there’s really no such thing as “new” or “classic” Doctor Who. It’s all just the same show, with a far too long break in the middle. But the nagging sense is still there that the stylization, beautiful cinematography, and colors the new series utilizes actually lessen the realism for me. There’s something about the grainy footage of old Doctor Who (especially when they were on location) that just had a certain grit and realism to it. Whenever I think of this, I often think of the Doctor’s TARDIS on the side of the road in Logopolis.
Now, before the other TARDIS shows up, it really just looks like some old shabby thing that belongs there. The insanely battered prop probably helps too. It’s so easy to believe that you could be driving down the highway and see that thing over there. It makes the magic of it all that much sweeter. It’s a feeling I just don’t get with new Who. And it’s not just the older analogue tech, either. You’re far more likely to have the TARDIS lavished over in new Who. It’s a thrumming, live thing that the camera worships. And, in it’s attempt to make it more mysterious, I think it often has the opposite effect.
This is not something limited to Doctor Who alone. I think of it often while watching TV shows or movies. I love both storytelling forms, and am drawn to more stylized and aesthetically beautiful films. But as the shots become more lush, and the colors become more graded and processed, it occurs to me that the sense of realism can be lost as well. Now, I fully realize that some of this really is down to me being older, and more aware of the cogs whirring behind the machine. You need only watch a Youtube video of a young fan encountering a TARDIS prop and being amazed by it to see that, to them, the TARDIS is still very real. And, yes, maybe the TARDIS looks more like a prop to me these days because I have seen the featurette on how it was designed, built, and placed on location. And yet, even with all these things factored in, I can’t help but think some of the stylistic choices of the new series are adding to it feeling less real.
I’m certainly not advocating we turn the clock back, slash Doctor Who’s budget, and film it all with a Super 8. I’m just wondering if there’s not some merit in looking backward to craft the future. Maybe a little less style and grandiosity, and a little more realism would be a good thing? You don’t have to sacrifice production value for that. It’s more an aesthetic choice. Combined with some storytelling choices, it can have a very different overall effect when you’re viewing. Like so many of the things I loved as a child, I do believe Doctor Who works best when it contrasts the real and the unreal. If everything gets a bit too fantastical or everyone’s just a bit too smart or well-lit, then you can actually lose the sense of wonder. If I had one tiny wish, it’d be that Doctor Who got a bit more ordinary overall, to let the extraordinary shine all the more.