In anticipation of the next ‘Eras’ feature, we present a reprint of the feature article of ‘Zeus Plug’ issue 7, ‘The Disappearing Doctor’, first published mid-2006...
In November this year the Eighth Doctor will embark on a new series of adventures. Two, in fact, as around this time it’s anticipated that BBC Books will resume their run of Past Doctor Adventures, the Eighth Doctor being one of these now, of course. What does this mean? What could the potential impact be to the series and fandom in general? The answer to both questions is most likely and very sadly, ‘very little’. Ten years on from his debut, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Eighth Doctor is somewhat less than the sum of his many parts.
There are a few reasons for this. The series itself and fandom with it are in rude health – which is by no means a bad thing – we not only have a new series but two new Doctors, new stories and, bless them, new and young fans enjoying the show and giving it lovely lovely ratings. We’ve never had it so good – well, not for quite while. This ought to be good news for the old show as well as old Doctors. A further reason is that in its wilderness years the series may have been idle but fandom wasn’t. Licensed novels, the comic strips of DWM and Big Finish’s audio adventure series ensured and contributed severally to an ongoing chronology for many (and in some cases all) of the Doctor’s previous incarnations that not only broadened but to some degree challenged the traditional canon of Doctor Who. The series no longer had to be defined by the TV series first because while TV was no longer an option for new stories the new media was, and to some fans they were much more than mere adequate ‘make-dos’ – they were superior, worth following in their own right.
Here’s where the problem really started, because behind each of these new endeavours lay the impetus for profit – to follow the story you had to pay for its instalments, unlike the TV series which was, to all intents and purposes, freely available. In this way the series in its alternative media both grew and, curiously, shrank despite all efforts to remain in the public consciousness. Gary Russell interviewed in TSV in 1993 predicted a future for the series that involved a small Prisoner-sized hardcore fan base, and little else. The Eighth Doctor’s extended life came at the behest of these fans and their world. Written for fans, produced by fans, and tailored to the fan market, nobody could fault the dedication of the Doctor’s champions to keep the legend alive – but any marketer could tell you that such ‘cult’ audiences are not sustainable. Is there anything fans loathe more than ‘fan creators’? Here are the peccadilloes of the ‘enthusiast’ made flesh: contemporary pastiche and vaguely-obscured tie-ins, pop culture references, multi-Doctor stories, story arcs, companion-angst, the so-called ‘crack baby’ syndrome of preachy watered-down social comment shoe-horned into an alien invasion story. The most excessive fan fiction works itself into niches within niches, and as it did so it became subject to the whims of fandom – a select audience who had their own relationship with the series and their own understanding of it – a sophisticated one, so that following anything new required the same understanding of canon and continuity. The result that spin-off media saw was that instead of reaching a new and wider audience, it merely served to alienate a lot of fans, and tighten the net around the faithful few.
Indeed, prior to the new series it is likely that fandom had shrunk. The fact that all three media presented the Eighth Doctor’s adventures as a detailed continuum meant that these new adventures were even less accessible to the casual buyer. They were all in their own way a pretty expensive way of following the Doctor’s adventures. In the front line of this new push for the fan dollar, the Eighth Doctor’s own continuity wasn’t consistent across the comic, the books and the audios – there was no need for there to be because there was no one body to regulate it. Even fandom warmed to the idea of divergent continuity, although it took them long enough. In all, these variant life spans for the Eighth Doctor would involve up to ten different companions, several ‘story arcs’ and a steady supply of fan dollars in order to be followed with any success outside of internet-based synopses – hardly a decent compromise but at least it was sort of free). The result is that the Eighth Doctor was kept alive but not whole. He is bound to several self-enclosed and separate continuities running parallel, and for the audios and books at least, these stories aren’t over yet.
Onscreen the Eighth Doctor is assuredly a growing irrelevance. In TV continuity he is isolated, marooned somewhere between Season 26 and the pre-Eccleston era ‘Time War’, of which we may or may not see anything. A good number of fans would believe that it is this event which remains the last hope of actually seeing the Eighth Doctor as portrayed in the TV movie in action on screen ever again. It could be a fitting and last hurrah for Paul McGann, and appears frequently on fan wish lists, but for the moment RTD has ruled out multi-Doctor stories, and there seems no need to realise the Time War in visual form for the moment if at all. With a mixed TV movie as his television legacy (ironically bound with best intentions to pre-existing continuity, half-humanness notwithstanding) this could be it for an incarnation that fandom largely took to heart and unwittingly ran into a series of cul de sacs. It’s a sad legacy, the one defined by and contained in merchandising. There’s every chance that Paul McGann’s return to radio (at least it’s free!) has been secured on the strength of it being of interest mainly to the series’ ‘old’ audience and therefore wouldn’t be the career-threatener its star was reluctant to attach himself to for a while. But the history of Doctor Who on radio is not a happy one, and it remains to be seen whether the efforts, expertise and talents of Big Finish (a star in descent itself, surely, against the new TV series) will help it on its way. Of all the TV Doctors I feel the Eighth got short-changed the most – even more so than the Sixth Doctor. Put simply, he was killed by best intentions. All promise, no closure for the daily press or documentary special. He remains something of a footnote to the non-fan; barely documented, briefly noted. Little wonder then that to many this incarnation has become in the words of the actor himself, the ‘George Lazenby’ of Doctor Who.