Weeks 5+6 – Cult TV: Doctor Who

Wilcox and Lavery (2002) identify 9 defining characteristics of ‘quality TV’ – can you apply any of these to other television series that you have viewed recently? Are there any other characteristics that you could add to their list?

The television series I will be applying these points to is Doctor Who, specifically the Tenth Doctor’s reign from 2006 – 2010 (I love David Tennant and he is the best doctor, you can fight me on that).

Wilcox and Lavery’s first two point are “Quality TV usually has a quality pedigree[1]” and “Quality shows must undergo a noble struggle against profit-mongering networks and non-appreciative audiences[2]”. Doctor Who has been around since 1963 and it garnered quite a consistent weekly audience at on average 7 million[3] British viewers for the first few doctors, the Fourth Doctor portrayed by Tom Baker raking in on average 10 million viewers each week which was extraordinary for the series. By the Seventh doctor’s reign in 1989, however, weekly numbers had dropped to on average 4 million viewers. Doctor Who certainly had made a name for itself over the two- and-a-half decades it ran for, but near its end it had lost its appeal to some.

The Revived Era of Doctor Who retained the franchises British following and found new audiences across the world. After suffering with the decline of interest from its fans, the resurgence of Doctor Who in 2005 pushed past the boundaries of the former seasons and emerged into the wider world with a plethora of monsters at its disposal, new faces and old friends amongst them. The 16-year break between the seventh doctor’s final season and Christopher Eccelston’s season gave audiences a long enough period away from the Doctor and his companions for the return to be much loved and appreciated across the Whovian community. A ‘Doctor-ranking’ chart based off of the average episode rating for each Doctor, created by Morgan Jeffery of Digital Spy, concludes that the top four doctors as voted by the fans are in fact the Doctors from the Revived Era[4], thought I have a bone to pick with Morgan over his analysis seeing as David Tennant was placed in second behind Matt Smith – no hate for Matt Smith but if this is based off of episode quality the winner is David Tennant’s Doctor.

That leads onto my next point. “Quality TV tends to have a large ensemble cast[5]”. Each Doctor had his companions and other figures which would appear across the seasons. Some examples of the Tenth Doctor’s companions, most of which convene to fight the Daleks in ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’, include Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Jack Harkness, Mickey Jones, Sarah Jane Smith, Jackie Tyler, Harriet Jones, Ianto Jones and Gwen Cooper of Torchwood, Wilfred Mott, K9, as well as several others we see across the Tenth doctor’s journey, including fan favourite the Master.

With each new Doctor bringing new faces to the franchise, the audience seldom get bored of the new companions. As each has their own backstory and elements they bring to the season, they keep things fresh and interesting amongst the old and new aliens we come across in each episode.

“Quality TV has a memory[6]”, “Quality TV creates and new genre by mixing old ones[7]” and “Quality TV seems to be literary and writer-based[8]” are all true facts in the Doctor Who franchise. The Doctor clearly remembers the aliens he comes across, having to deal with them more than once across the journey. Not only does the Doctor remember aliens, but also humans and familiar faces such as Novice Hame, Harriet Jones, and his old companion Sarah Jane Smith who was a companion for the Third and Fourth reincarnations of the Doctor. Doctor Who is a science-fiction based tv show, however, due to its nature of using time travel it can be both a historic show and a futuristic show. There are several episodes which take place in the past, including ‘The Shakespeare Code’, ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, and the two-part episodes ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Family of Blood’. There are numerous examples of the Doctor travelling into the future, to different world, different galaxies, and so forth. This blending of genres leads to the franchise appealing to a wide audience and standing out amongst other sci-fi space shows such as Star Trek or Stargate.

Quality TV does have a huge reliance on its writers and the consistency of its storylines. I remember my favourite episodes of Doctor Who being written by the same person – Russell T. Davies. We have series 2’s heart-wrenching two-episode finale ‘Army of Ghosts’ and ‘Doomsday’ where fans were given the sob-inducing goodbye between Rose and the Tenth Doctor. We have ‘Utopia’, ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ from series 3 where we see Martha Jones trek across the world to save the planet without the Doctor to help her. We have the series 4 starter ‘Partners in Crime’ and the tail end of the series with such brilliant works as ‘Turn Left’, ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’, and of course we have all the Christmas specials which without us knowing linked together to foreshadow the events of the final special and the Tenth Doctor’s farewell[9]. That “I don’t want to go” ripped many people’s hearts out and I refuse to believe that the emotion in David’s voice at that moment was no genuine. These episodes are not just random picks, the ways in which these episodes are telling their own individual stories and connecting to previous and subsequent stories amazes me and, as a hopeful writer, I hold Russell T. Davies accountable for instilling in me the great need for stories to have flow and connections within them.

The following points I am not sure about just yet: “Quality TV is self-conscious[10]”, “The subject matter of quality TV tends towards the controversial” and “Quality TV aspires towards realism[11]” are all valid point for TV, however, there are some loopholes. A good show will always be aware of its past, its present, and its future – if it doesn’t consider all areas in its decision-making and forward motion than it risks making some big mistakes. Does it mean that these shows which exhibit this awareness should be considered Quality? No. it’s part of basic storytelling, if your characters are not self-conscious than you will lose believability and connection between the audience and your characters. Same goes for the subject matter.

The subject matter does not need to lean towards the controversial in order to make a quality show. Yes, Jack Harkness is gay. Yes, there is interracial relationships between characters. Yes, there are empowered women throughout the series, but that’s not what makes the show quality. Aliens are considered controversial, are they not? Doctor Who has a specific signature which covers many different areas working together – aliens, empowered women, POC, LGBTQ+ characters, past, present, future, space travel, time travel. Alone these elements are nothing new, but together they work to create a believable world that is distinctly Doctor Who.

Realism and time travel, or space travel, don’t really fit in the same sentence. Neither do realism and a raggedy man with a trench coat, converse and a sonic screwdriver, but alas here we are. Quality TV shows can aspire towards realism, however, there are some whereby the contents of their show are anything but realistic. Doctor Who is one of those shows. Does this mean Doctor Who doesn’t have realism in it? No. Realism can be found in the interactions between characters, the actions and reactions to certain events and dialogue, the customs and cultures of these multiple worlds and aliens we see. It may not be 100% realism, but is anything we see on TV?


[1] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 21. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[2] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 21. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Doctor_Who_episodes_(1963%E2%80%931989)

[4] https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/cult/a852277/doctor-who-ranked-actors-doctors/

[5] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 22. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[6] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 23. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[7] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 23. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[8] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 23. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Doctor_Who_episodes_(2005%E2%80%93present)

[10]Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 23. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf

[11] Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. p. 24. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4914230-dt-content-rid-10157823_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Wilcox%20and%20Lavery%202002.pdf