On Doctor Who, stories and ‘canon’

(Or, ‘Nick’s writing complicated posts about Doctor Who again, so look away now if you’re only here for the politics)

First up, if you haven’t already, go read Teatime Brutality’s post ‘Canon and sheep shit: Why we fight‘ which explains why there’s no such thing as a Doctor Who ‘canon’. Second, if you haven’t seen The Night Of The Doctor yet, you probably should before you read further, as there will likely be spoilers.

So, The Night Of The Doctor features Paul McGann’s Doctor. In it, the Doctor mentions a list of companions from the Big Finish audio dramas. Thus, according to some people, this means those dramas are now ‘canon’.

In the same vein, during The Name Of The Doctor, the Doctor has a conversation with Madame Vastra. Because of this, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is now a purple catfish called Brian.

Both these statements are equally nonsensical. To quote Teatime Brutality:

“you’re assuming a British mass-audience show from 1963 would work like American cult-audience show from the Nineties.”

The important thing to remember about Doctor Who is that it was created as a way to tell stories, not as a story in its own right. Go look back at the way the series was created and for you’ll see that it was, as Douglas Adams reputedly said, the only good thing ever created by a committee. The Doctor, the companions, the TARDIS – none of them were created with any complicated back stories in mind or with detailed stories of their own to tell. Instead, they were purely functional creations designed to facilitate a series that could tell stories of the past, future or sideways in time. It wasn’t intended to be about telling any bigger story, and no one envisaged the way it would develop. (The central joke of The Pitch Of Fear is that no one actually envisaged the series continuing in the way it did)

The people who were making and consuming Doctor Who in that period certainly had no concept of it having a ‘canon’ that they had to slavishly adhere to. Like most non-soap TV series of its time, each story was a separate event, with references back to previous stories only ever made to reintroduce old villains. They’d try and aim for some sort of consistency, but David Whitaker (Doctor Who’s first script editor) saw nothing wrong with completely rewriting how Ian and Barbara met the Doctor for the first novelisation of the series, and the whole thing was changed again for the film. The problem for us in comprehending this is that shows that are a collection of stories with no continuing elements are vanishingly rare on TV nowadays. Everything has serialised elements, plot arcs and character arcs and aspires to be one long story. (Hustle is probably the most recent series with the least arc-based storytelling – there are very few episodes of that making reference to others)

However, I would argue that the reason Doctor Who has survived so long – and will continue to survive long after we’re all dead – is because it resolutely resists any attempt to turn it into one story with a beginning, a middle and an end. To imagine that it should be like Star Wars, with its varying degrees of canonicity for different stories is to assume that they’re the same thing when they’re obviously not. Star Wars began as a single story by a single person, while Who began as a framework for telling lots of stories by lots of different people. Sure, you can imagine what you think is the beginning of the story, and it might be a great story, but it’s still just one story amongst many others, in the same way that Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood is just one version of the story, and not a ‘canonical’ telling of it.

There are millions of Doctor Who stories out there – some have been made for television, some are in books or on audio, some are comics, some on stage, some are words in internet archives, some are enacted by children in the playground and others only exist in their creators’ heads. Some are brilliant, some are awful, some redefine the character of the Doctor and the nature of the universe he inhabits, some take great pains to leave everything exactly as they found it and some feature characters you’ve never even heard of having adventures you (and possibly even they) don’t really understand or comprehend. But they all exist, and every one of them is just as real as all the others. Now, you may argue that some mystic process of canonicity makes some of them more real than the others, and doing that might make you happy, but I prefer to see them all as stories, all entertaining someone somewhere and for me, that’s far more important than whether it has some official stamp of approval. Just let the stories be told and the only category you’ll need is whether you like them or not.