About Time

Britain’s national superhero has alternately worn a scarf, a leather jacket, and lots of question marks. No longer.

Photograph courtesy of the BBC

“You’re Scottish. Fry something.”

So saying, the Eleventh Doctor spat, spun, and spiraled his way to British TV audiences last weekend, and, on the whole, the Doctor Who nerds were satisfied.

After all, this new Who ticked all appropriate Whovian boxes. Saved the world? In less than 20 minutes? With some gags? And a monster sufficiently frightening to send smaller children running for cover?

It was all done by the book—not that there is a book. Not one the show’s makers will admit to, anyway. But there is, it’s a book of particularly English imagination. It’s the unwritten rules governing science fiction for young British people, and it’s been under continuous review since Doctor Who was first successful back in the 1960s.

For us Brits, the Doctor is nothing less than our national superhero. He’s our Superman, our Captain America. Consider:

1. Like all caped crusaders, he wears a costume.

The costume changes with every new Doctor, but it’s a costume without doubt. The Fourth Doctor couldn’t do much without his ridiculous long scarf—indeed, he’d have looked ridiculous tramping the galaxy’s streets without it. The scarf reflected the Doctor; he and it were both long, scruffy, liable to trip people up. Like the Third Doctor’s frills, the Seventh Doctor’s umbrella, and the Ninth Doctor’s leather jacket, the scarf was an identifier—a mini-brand within the brand. The Fifth Doctor was cursed with probably the worst costume, a bizarre beige get-up covered in question marks. They probably represented his endless internal conundrum: Why am I wearing this crap?

Time Lords are just as prone to megalomania as the rest of us.

2. The Doctor is indestructible.

Kill him if you must—really, just kill him. Unlike those superheroes who depend on a super power to rejuvenate their damaged bodies—metal-coated skeletons? Pah!—the Doctor’s defense is the ultimate scene-stealer, season-closer, and casting director’s dream. He renews himself. His whole self. His body, his costume, his personality, his catchphrases. Out with the old, in with the slightly older. If Wolverine and the Doctor had a fight, the Doctor would win, because Wolverine would eventually get bored of the regenerating. He’d swear and go to the pub. More Doctor Who villains should do that.

3. The Doctor is good.

He fights for good, for justice, for peace, for equality. Good grief, he’s not just British, he’s left-wing British. Sure, he can be grumpy (grumpy Doctors to date: First, Sixth, Ninth), but even his grumpy selves are ultimately good, too. All of them, grumpy or otherwise, battle bad guys without hesitation. That’s what they do. Occasionally the Doctor fights other Time Lords, but only because they’re bad Time Lords. Oh yes, there are bad Time Lords, just as there are bad mutants. Time Lords are just as prone to megalomania as the rest of us.

4. The Doctor has a super vehicle.

Unlike Batman’s car or the X-Men’s jet, it’s the most British transportation device you can imagine. Ugly. Squat. Prone to error. And yet, capable of journeys spanning millennia. A bit like the national rail network.


In common with many superheroes, the Doctor also fell from grace for a few years. The audience grew up and started watching other shows. The grumpiest Doctor of the lot, the Sixth, turned people off. The casting of children’s entertainer Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor didn’t help much, and the first few stories he starred in marked the show’s lowest points. Then, just as viewing figures looked worse than ever, McCoy’s Doctor underwent a subtle regeneration all of his own, transforming into a scheming, manipulative dark horse of the cosmos; some fans say his final stories were among the most exciting of the lot. But it was too late: The series got axed, and dematerialized from Earth space/time in 1989, returning only momentarily for an (awful) 1996 movie. Then, zap, he reappeared in 2005. Regenerated, re-invigorated, re-written. Updated for a modern TV audience. The Ninth Doctor, then the energetic Tenth, did their Time Lordy stuff under the direction of Russell T Davies, newly enthroned Lord President of the BBC. All was mostly well, but Davies did have a habit of, well, overdoing the deus ex machina endings.

The Eleventh Doctor, brand new on our screens last weekend, represents a new era. There’s a new production team, a new man in charge.

This new man is Steven Moffat, and the most important thing you need to know about Moffat isn’t that he wrote some of the best Doctor Who stories of the last few years, but that early in his career he wrote something much, much more important. It was called Press Gang.

The premise of Press Gang was simple enough: the adventures of a bunch of teenage reporters, writing and producing their own newspaper for kids in their town. Miraculously, they had a well-equipped, spacious office. Astoundingly, their parents and teachers didn’t seem to mind them spending nearly all their time inside it. Sounds ridiculous.

But: Press Gang was fabulous. Part comedy (but without an annoying laughter track), part social commentary, part soap opera, part love story, it had the benefit of tight plotting and frequent one-liners. It was a show for kids who knew they were sick of kid shows. It won awards, and grown men declared their affection for it. Press Gang had a respect for its viewers, and paid attention to detail in a way that most shows go out of their way to avoid.

Now, 20-something years later, the kids who sat open-mouthed watching Press Gang are writing TV columns for newspapers and magazines. This explains why there’s so much national excitement about this new Who series: If Moffat does with Doctor Who just half of what he accomplished with Press Gang, we’re in for a fantastic treat.

With Moffat in charge, Doctor Who is on the verge of becoming a superhero comic with time travel in it.

Just as we were treated by Moffat’s scriptwriting contributions to the last few series of Who. Moffat stories like “Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” worked better than most because time travel was embedded in the plot. Where his predecessor Russell T Davies endowed the TARDIS (the Doctor’s time-traveling machine) with mystical powers and time vortexes and whatnot, Moffat stops to wonder: How would a time traveler appear to other people? For example, in “Blink,” he appears as a tangle of disjointed clues the heroine must piece together, or in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” it’s as a lifelong companion, a person who recurs like a dream. Time travel isn’t just a convenient plot device for getting the characters into a particular situation; it’s a character in its own right. The situation happens because of the Doctor’s time travelling, not in spite of it.

We saw this again in last Saturday’s season opener, “The Eleventh Hour.” The newly regenerated Doctor met his assistant-to-be when she was a little girl, then disappeared in his TARDIS promising to return in five minutes. A slight error on his part turned that five minutes into 12 years of waiting for her—something we later see has had a direct effect on her personality. Meeting the Doctor again after all those years, she’s no longer the cute little kid who cooks his food on demand. Now, she’s instinctively untrusting, convinced that yet again, trusting this weirdo with anything important is only going to end in disappointment.

If you spend just half an hour reading about the Doctor on Wikipedia, you’ll notice there are people—lots of people—who know everything there is to know about Who history. For us (yes, I’m one of them), details matter in Who. The history, the back story, the stuff about which Doctors were grumpy and which were better equipped to be superheroes, all of this matters. We want to see the new series referencing its past in a more intelligent way. Not just bringing back the Daleks because every Doctor has to face the Daleks (the oddly shaped, one-eyed, xenophobic destroyers of half the galaxy) but because back in Episode 2 they insulted Lynda, and Spike took offense and convinced Colin to help him take revenge with a typewriter ribbon and a sonic screwdriver battery—and the whole thing only made sense when Lynda and Kenny mentioned it in passing again in Episode 12.

You know how shows like Lost and Heroes drop so many clues to mysteries, but never get rounding to solving them all? Moffat does those, but better: He ties them up neatly. With added gags. Maybe at the end of that episode, maybe not until many more episodes have gone by, but he remembers, and he delivers those satisfying “I knew it!” moments treasured by fans. He’s one of the fans. Now he’s in charge of the show.

Press Gang was a drama with jokes in it. Hopefully, with Moffat in charge, Doctor Who is on the verge of becoming a superhero comic with time travel in it. Or possibly the other way round.