I’ve decided that hanging around Doctor Who forums is a bit like hanging out in a shopping centre with a bunch of teenagers on a Sunday evening. Occasionally you’ll witness a witty exchange of banter, a decent rap battle, a spot of genuine affection from a young couple, a dazzling display of skateboarding. But most of it is people trading insults and showing off. Occasionally a bottle of alcopop gets thrown at a window, although if you’re lucky you can avoid the crossfire: ‘Hide post’ is the equivalent of taking an abrupt right turn into the alley that cuts through past Card Factory and the back of New Look and through to the bus stop, where (mother of mercy) the 8:13 will be along any time now.
Why do it? I get this question thrown at me regularly, mostly by people who are far more sensible and who have full time jobs and who don’t understand (or have simply forgotten) the blood, sweat and tears that go into procrastination when you’re filling in the spare minutes between piano lessons or waiting for an article to go live. Yes, I know the kitchen needs cleaning; I’ll do it later. In all seriousness it’s mostly about people watching. It is by observing them, lurking silently and engaging when you have to, that you find out what makes them tick. There are sociological benefits: we think we understand the fans, but perhaps we cannot say this is truly the case until we have walked a mile in their Converse boots, or at the very least followed at a respectable distance, clearing up the misunderstandings.
In any event – when you hang around the forums, certain phrases jump out at you. “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey” is bandied about more than a geek’s underpants in a school changing room. “The Doctor lies” is another. Both are typically employed in situations where someone wants to contribute to a technical discussion whilst having absolutely nothing of any value to say. Laura Marling titled her second album I Speak Because I Can, which is a noble sentiment unless all that comes out of your mouth is irrelevant drivel.
But here’s one I see a lot. It’s one that deserves discussion – decent, consolidated discussion, which basically means everything I’ve ever written about it on Facebook, conveniently collected into a lengthy fan-baiting article. It’s the “Don’t skip Nine” thing – for the uninitiated, the fearful, almost fanatical devotion that self-proclaimed ‘serious’ fans have towards respecting the legacy of Eccleston, to the extent that they will cajole, ridicule and bully any other fans who say that they’re not particularly taken with him. And it strikes me, having encountered it for years, that we have to clear this up. We have to clear it up because it is a talking point, because it says a lot about what’s wrong with the fandom, and because posts about it are endemic. Seriously. I’m looking at one right now. “Respect the first series,” it says, “and don’t skip it”.
At first glance it seems there is a bit of a straw man thing going on here. I’ve been wallowing in the murky depths of fandom for longer than I care to count and, despite looking very hard, I have yet to actually encounter anyone who says “Do skip Nine”. There are plenty of people who advocate watching it however you want (which is – to throw in a spoiler – basically what I was planning on doing for the rest of this post). But then you do a little digging and you discover that all too often, the Eccleston series gets missed off the American network broadcasts, and as it turns out it is these broadcasts that provide the only Doctor Who that many people the other side of the pond get to see. And thus, when hard-up high school students who can’t afford Netflix grumble that they never get to see the Eccleston episodes and is it really worth seeking them out specially, they’re typically reassured by well-meaning fans who say “No, it’s fine, you can jump ahead if you wan-”
“DON’T SKIP NINE!!!!”
Or, if you want to be marginally more polite, “Respect the first series and don’t skip – ” Look, if I really have to unpack this then let’s get a few things straight: first and foremost, if we’re counting, it wasn’t the first series. It was the twenty-seventh. It’s the first if you count Nu Who as a reboot – which I kind of do, most days, because while many people maintain it’s a single show that gradually evolves, there are still watershed moments and there is a colossal sea change between 1989 and 2005. ‘Rose’ is incredibly different to ‘Survival’. Really it is. Oh, you can talk about common threads and nods to Pertwee, but stylistically, structurally and tonally there is a huge chasm between Seven and Nine: it’s like a great big fiery ravine, with the 1996 TV movie standing in as one of those wobbly bridges that is in danger of bursting into flames and collapsing at any moment.
I don’t think you need to cross that bridge, necessarily. There is no problem with starting in the modern era and leaving it there. The past is another country, a Shangri La (literally, if Ken Dodd has anything to do with it) of strange and wonderful delights, but let’s deal with the elephant in the room: a lot of Classic Who is slow and doddery and while I love it to bits, it really isn’t for everyone. If we’re ever going to move on, we need to accept that some of it is boring. I still haven’t seen ‘Meglos’. It’s partly because the Target cover scared the crap out of me when I found it, as an uninitiated ten-year-old, in our local library, but it’s also because I’ve just never bothered and from what I can gather I haven’t missed very much. Those of you who are in here regularly will know that I write for The Doctor Who Companion, which periodically puts out feelers for new staff. When Phil (the site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief) was on one of his previous recruiting drives he included the following: “You have to like the show, but it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen every episode”.
Here’s the thing: half the people who are shouting “Don’t skip Nine” (and I know this, because I’ve talked to them) are happy to wallow in blissful ignorance when it comes to their knowledge of pre-2005 Doctor Who. “Oh, it’s not the same thing,” they say when I bring it up. “Because, you know, it’s a clean break. But there’s so much in that first series that defines what follows. If you don’t watch Eccleston, you don’t know about how he met Jack and Rose and how he helped Jack and how Rose helped him. You don’t know about Bad Wolf and so ‘Day of the Doctor’ makes no sense, and you don’t know how the Ninth was born in battle, full of blood and anger and reven-”
OK, stop. You’re quoting now and it’s embarrassing. I mean, I get all that; honestly I do. But it works on the other side of the coin. I have never been comfortable with this idea of the Doctor as a composite – it always strikes me he’s a dazzlingly inconsistent character who was written to reflect whatever attitudes the writers of the day wanted to advocate. But if we must see him this way, then we need to start at the beginning. For example, if you skip Hartnell, the significance of companions in the Doctor’s life will be lost on you. You’ll never really understand Donna’s words at the end of ‘The Runaway Bride’, and why he really does need someone with him. If you skip Troughton, you’ll miss out on why the Doctor was running, and why the clownlike persona that later informs Smith’s era is actually a facade, even though a number of people find it irritating.
If you skip Pertwee, you don’t understand the Doctor’s ambivalent relationship towards the military, and how the Brigadier’s actions at the end of the Silurians are echoed, to a certain extent, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, and you’ll fail to grasp the Doctor’s relationship with Sarah Jane; hence most of ‘School Reunion’ will go over your head. If you skip Baker (the first), you’ll never fully understand ‘The Witch’s Familiar’. If you skip Davison, you won’t understand why the death of Adric haunted the Doctor for years, and had a keen bearing on the way the Eleventh Doctor developed. If you skip Baker (the second), you’ll miss out on a crucial plot development that informs, at least in part, the War Doctor’s eventual decision to use the Moment. If you skip McCoy, you’ll miss out on the gradual darkening of the Doctor that is the first stage of his road towards the Time War.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.
There’s a problem with that little rant, and it is this: it’s possible to enjoy ‘School Reunion’ without having seen ‘Hand of Fear’. Consequently, it is equally possible to enjoy ‘Utopia’ without having seen ‘Parting of the Ways’. And yet the Eccleston warriors persist in their hundreds, insisting that he must never be skipped. It’s all very noble (sorry, that’s the wrong companion, surely?) but it betrays a certain hypocrisy, because when you actually confront indignant fans – you know, the ones who insist there is only one way to watch Doctor Who, and that’s from the ‘beginning’, right the way through – then the argument collapses faster than a house of cards that was sitting on a table at the onset of a small, localised earthquake. It turns out that many of these people have not seen Troughton. For them, the beginning is 2005, and everything that precedes it is commentary. I know this because I have checked.
And it goes further: I have to have the same conversations with Classic puritans for whom 1963 was the Alpha and 1989 a kind of Omega, and everything that follows that is commentary. Both theories have their advocates, but what about Big Finish? If I was to say that the only way to have a full appreciation of the show was to listen to the hours of supplementary audio material that accompanies it, could you really argue with me? What about the books? The comics? The video games? Where do you draw the line? Canon, you say? All right, what’s that?
You get this sort of double standard all over the forums. Just the other day, for example, I had an altercation with a fan who took umbrage with the Thirteenth Doctor’s ‘cruel’ or ‘cowardly’ behaviour in a few hand-picked (and misrepresented) scenarios: her callous treatment of the spiders, for example, or the irresponsible manner in which she flushes the P’Ting into outer space where it will presumably inflict more damage. “Not only has this Doctor forgotten the promise,” he griped, “She doesn’t even know what the promise means.”
Well. First and foremost, the ‘promise’ is a shameless bit of retconning from Moffat, albeit retconning I’m happy to endorse on the grounds that it’s his remit (and, as this chap pointed out, “Every episode since 1963 is to all intents and purposes a retcon”. But that’s kind of the point. The ‘cruel and cowardly’ thing was an off-the-cuff Dicks remark that later became a myth, albeit of the fluffy sort. It’s mostly harmless, but preaching it as some kind of orthodox liturgy does the Doctor something of a disservice, given that he’s broken it on multiple occasions throughout the years: witness the destruction of Skaro, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, the Ogron who got shot in the back, the climax of ‘The Dominators’ (and please don’t get me started on Hartnell). Frequently the Doctor will casually blow something up and then walk away without a second thought. Sometimes he’ll even crack a joke (sit down, ‘Vengeance on Varos’, the macaroons are in the oven). The Doctor has no business being a role model of any sort – and if you’re going to chew out Whittaker, you have to chew out every single one of them.
I don’t have a problem with people who think Eccleston’s series is important. It is, even though I never really took to him as the Doctor. I also agree with the notion that watching it gives you a decent grounding in things that happen later, just as I maintain that a decent knowledge of the Peladon stories is helpful when you’re watching ‘Empress of Mars’. Things only become unpleasant when you decide that your own particular approach is the only sensible way to watch Who – in other words, when it is used (as it frequently is on the internet) as a stick with which to beat other fans. That’s when it gets sticky, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun. When I eat scones, I start with butter, then add a layer of jam, and then a healthy dollop of cream. In Devon, they do it the other way round. Believe it or not, I’m OK with this, just as I am OK with people who have sugar in their coffee. Why should there be only one way to skin a cat?
If you wanted to watch Doctor Who, you could start at the very beginning and work your way through. Or you could start at 2005 and then go back to the Classic episodes when you’re done with series 11. Or you could do as I did, and dip in and out, watching old stories in between the new ones. Watch a different story for each Classic Doctor and then investigate the ones you like. Or skip the eighties entirely; many people do. There is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ way of doing it. There is the approach that works for you, and that’s all that matters. Certain things are improved when watched in order – ‘Earthshock’ loses a certain something, for example, if it is the first Adric story you’ve seen. Conversely you can watch ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ having never seen ‘An Unearthly Child’ – or anything with Davros, for that matter – and you’ll be quite content. This is a show about time travel, and if some things happen out of order, it’s not a big deal. Welcome to the Doctor’s universe.
So skip Nine if you want. No one worth their salt will care, and anyone who lectures you about it isn’t worth engaging with. As with any other Doctor, he lifts right out and it’s possible to enjoy the show for what it is having never seen him. You’ll miss out on the gas mask zombies, one of the finest (and most fearsome) creations ever to grace our screens, but you’ll also miss ‘Boom Town’. Every cloud has a silver lining, just as every rose has its thorn. And believe it or not, there are some Roses you don’t have to pick.