Doctor Who, Quality TV?

This little ditty is a short response paper I wrote for a seminar I am taking on TV Theory & Criticism. The readings for the week were on "cult tv" and "quality tv," so naturally I decided to apply the topic to DW. Not all of these ideas are 100% original I'm sure. I'm a music theorist, so I'm sure there are writings on DW in cultural studies and multimedia studies that address similar issues. But I broke down the show as I saw fit for application of the argument of "quality tv," particularly regarding the use of musical scoring as a marker of "quality" (something Matt Hills addresses in his Triumph of a Time Lord text, though not in the kind of depth or making the kind of connections that I personally see as obvious ... but like I said, I'm a music theorist). Anyway ...


The issue of Doctor Who (DW) being "quality tv" has been a hot topic in fandom, particularly critical DW fandom, since the show returned to air in 2005. After a span of over fifteen years without DW being aired regularly, the show had been placed—through nostalgia and general passing of time—into a limbo between cult tv and classic tv. Interestingly, British audiences seemed okay with calling DW "cult tv," even though the series and its heroes and enemies were (and still are) ubiquitous in British culture.

Interestingly, New Who seems to set itself against Classic Who as a way to purport its status as "quality tv." Rather than four 22 minute episodes to tell a story, a sort of episodic serial where there is narrative continuity but only for a limited number of episodes, the New Who series switched to a season of 13 42-minute episodes more in line with hour-long dramas in the US and UK. Yet it still remains culturally ubiquitous in the UK, and somehow has made itself into "quality tv." None of the shows or articles mentioned seemed to really discuss shows that have/had the kind of exposure that DW does. (Granted most articles dealt explicitly with US television.)

It seems so nice to try and treat a show, particularly one like DW, in a vacuum; it has so much material and so much internal canon and textuality that it provides its own points of comparison. But it seems like in the grand scheme of things there are three points that has helped DW transcend into "quality tv" since it restarted in 2005.

The first is its departure from a theatrical style of presentation into a cinematic one. Early DW was like watching recorded theater, from the rehearsal style to the lighting and set design down to the editing process. The current run, however, has clearly aligned itself with can be considered cinematic production values. The most noticeable change is the move from the two- to three-camera recording technique and the use of video rather than film. I admit not knowing a whole lot about the differences in number of cameras to different genres and styles, but there is a clear difference between this camera set-up to the newer style of the show. In the new series there is a clear use of film (and now digital) as a recording format, and a departure from the theatrically-staged set-up of the classic series. According to Feuer ("HBO & the Concept of Quality TV," Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond), the use of theatrically-styled staging and production values aligned television shows with a higher form of art. However, for Doctor Who to distance itself from its earlier iteration, it had to completely depart from theatrical styling. Fortunately for the show, cinematic styling seems to be the contemporary styling associated with “high art” and “quality,” allowing a show to distance itself from itself while retaining its marker of “quality.”

The second point, and probably the most noticeable change, is the difference in scoring techniques. The classic show relied heavily (and towards the end of its run, entirely) on electronic, avant-garde musical scoring provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The use of electronic sound was a staple for marking a show or film as “science fiction,” or at least a type of story-telling that could align itself with science fiction. It was also a cheap and easy source of musical material for the show, which continually dealt with a low budget. The modern series, in contrast, is scored in a tradition set by Star Wars and 2001. Rather than relying on electronic sound as a marker of science fiction, these films used orchestral scoring from the Classical and Romantic musical traditions to align themselves with mythology and fantasy rather than strictly science fiction. The new series of DW goes a similar route, relying on bombastic orchestral scoring, character-specific musical cues (not really leitmotifs, but often labeled as such), and maximalist musical use (as opposed to minimalist) to create a sense of action-adventure and fantasy rather than sci-fi “otherness” in its narrative. Relying on a cinematic styling of musical scoring marked the show as one of higher production values, marginalizing genre discourses of science fiction and reinforcing the idea of contemporary story-telling and action-adventure (an argument Matt Hills makes in his Triumph of a Time Lord text). The New series' use of contemporary popular music is a interesting as well, though that topic deserves its own attention.

The third point is the focus on producer and writer as a marker of “quality.” When the new series began in 2005, Russell T Davies set himself up as the proprietor of the show, labeling himself as “showrunner” and care-taker of a fabled franchise. His writing for Queer as Folk, a highly regarded television show (arguably a “quality” tv show) brought with it the connection to previously existing television work besides just the classic DW series. With him he brought well-know television writers, particularly Steven Moffat (Coupling) to help set the show up as a one with quality writers and producers. Now, with Moffat at the helm, the show has had writers the like of Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and next season will feature an episode penned by Neil Gaiman (Coraline, Good Omens, The Graveyard Book, The Sandman). Over the past five years, the show has moved from “quality tv” where “quality writers” are pursued to write episodes to a show were “quality writers” want to write episodes. The classic series did have “quality writers,” most noticeably Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), pen episodes; the difference here comes from quality science fiction writers (Classic series) and quality non-science fiction writers (New series).

I find it fascinating that one text (Doctor Who) can operate on different levels of quality and still remain “quality.” Meaning, the Classic series aligned itself with theatricality and the otherness of science fiction as a genre to mark its quality, while the New series aligns itself with cinematic presentation and action-adventure/fantasy to mark its quality. This has created a clear divide between the Classic series and New series while allowing it to be “quality tv.” The break in the series’ transmission in 1989 thus seems critical to the success and over-all longevity of the show from a cultural viewpoint. Its re-invigoration allowed a retention of “quality” even though the attributes of “quality tv” (which are arguable and seem to be always up for debate) seem to have changed since the show’s inception in the 60s.

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