Why Doctor Who should embrace nostalgia for its 60th anniversary
As rumours of former Time Lords returning continue to mount, why are some Doctor Who fans still so wary of the show’s past?
“A man is the sum of his memories,” the Doctor once said. “A Time Lord even more so.”
This typically wise and astute observation from the great Terrance Dicks was the perfect sentiment for inclusion in Doctor Who’s warmly nostalgic 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors. Because what are we, as sentient beings, if not the balance of our experiences – the things we’ve seen, the lessons we’ve learned and the people we’ve met along the way? When Donna Noble had her memories of travelling with the Doctor wiped, it felt like the cruellest possible fate. Because without those memories, Donna was literally a different, smaller person.
And the same goes for Doctor Who itself. As a property of 58 years standing, it has something that most other TV shows can only dream of: it has a mythology. More important than that, though, it has a history that we all share: one that reaches back into our childhoods – however recent or distant – and through which many of us can mark births, marriages, deaths and all the other important milestones of life.
So it’s hardly surprising that, as the show prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday next year, the rumour mill is alive with speculation that former Doctors such as David Tennant and Matt Smith could return for a series of special episodes. Because why wouldn’t you, right?
And yet you’ll find plenty of hardcore Doctor Who fans throwing up their arms in horror – mock or otherwise – at the idea. For them, the show’s past is not so much a foreign country, as enemy territory: the stony ground of creative bankruptcy, where ideas go to die. Or something like that, anyway.
But why? Why has it become fashionable among some of the programme’s most devoted followers to insist that it should only ever march relentlessly forward, eyes front, never looking back? Why this ascetic insistence that Doctor Who should be made for anyone – children, grannies, Saturday night TV audiences – but them?
A couple of reasons, I think. One, they’re just showing off. They’re trying to sound grown-up by talking more like a potential Doctor Who showrunner than a fan. They’re embarrassed to lean into nostalgia because it feels so… well, fannish. And so, to quote another Terrance Dicks line from The Five Doctors, they find menace in their own shadow.
This is not entirely without logic, of course. In 2005, Russell T Davies – the once and future king of Doctor Who – made a huge success of the show’s relaunch by stripping it of all the fussy baggage of Time Lords and Gallifrey and, in his own words, all those “men in silly hats”. Instead, he drilled down to the core principles of an alien and a London shop girl embarking on thrilling adventures across time and space.
But what was the right choice for 2005 – when Doctor Who had been off the air for 16 years, and British TV commissioners still largely viewed science fiction as audience Kryptonite – isn’t necessarily right for the 2020s. Now, we live in an age when you practically need a spreadsheet to follow all the interlaced plots and character arcs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; when even the most casual cinemagoers are delighted to see former Spider-Men crawling out of the woodwork, and DC has a positive colony of Batmen in its belfry.
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(And let’s not forget that, even in his initial, back-to-basics pitch document two decades ago, Russell T Davies was already talking of Doctor Who’s past being a source of “wonderful rich discovery for an excited eight-year-old viewer”, to be introduced gradually along the way.)
Another reason why some fans are so wary of nostalgia, I suspect, is that they still bear the scars of the 1980s, when – in our collective memory, at least – the programme became increasingly continuity obsessed, pandering to the hardcore faithful at the expense of more casual viewers until, eventually, the hardcore faithful were all that remained.
This in itself is quite a reductive reading of the situation – many factors contributed to Doctor Who’s viewer decline in the mid-late 1980s, and it’s honestly a stretch to see the casual name-dropping the occasional old companion being high on many people’s list of reasons for tuning out. But the point isn’t so much that Doctor Who was referencing its own past, as how it was referencing its own past. Because yes, expecting viewers of 1985’s Attack of the Cybermen to remember details from The Tomb of the Cybermen, broadcast 18 years earlier, was a big ask. Similarly, if you’re going to make the Matrix so central to the plot of Arc of Infinity (1983), it might have be useful to remind viewers who don’t have the Target novel of The Deadly Assassin to hand what the Matrix actually is.
But that’s deepcore nerd stuff. David Tennant or Matt Smith coming back for a quick victory lap, on the other hand, is something everyone can enjoy, no matter how casual their relationship with the show. The polar opposite of fan-serving indulgence, it’s actually the biggest, most populist, most crowd-pleasing, big tent move Doctor Who could possibly make. (And this was true even in the 1980s, by the way, when the return of the Cybermen after an absence of seven years was an exciting event for everyone – including the kids who’d never heard of them.)
Even the return of Paul McGann, whose Eighth Doctor has had only fleeting screen-time, would be pretty simple to explain to viewers who aren’t familiar with him. And not just simple, but fun. Exciting. A strange man in strange clothes rocking up and telling everyone he used to be the Doctor? That’s drama. That’s a story. Who on Earth is going to take flight at that?
So the point about “continuity”, surely, is that, as Bananarama would have it, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. If there’s a decent story to be told, and there are no barriers to entry, then what are you afraid of?
It doesn’t have to be nostalgia for the sake of it. But equally, there’s nothing wrong with the odd bit of nostalgia that is very much for the sake of it – if it brings a delicious shiver of recognition to the nape of the neck, without getting in the way of the action, then bring it on.
Though much derided, nostalgia is as valid an emotional weapon as any other in a dramatist’s armoury. Derived from the Greek words nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain, there’s an inbuilt dramatic tension in nostalgia: a recognition that memories are as sorrowful as they are sweet. When you’ve got a story forged over six decades to play with, you’d be crazy not to tap into that every now and again. After all, there’s surely a limit to how many times you can repeat the same format of the Doctor arriving somewhere, fixing something and then leaving again. You have to shake up the formula and raise the emotional stakes occasionally, and plugging into your own mythology is one obvious way of doing that.
And to those who still insist that all this halts the glorious march of progress, I would say: you wouldn’t treat your own history like that, would you? Keep all your precious memories in a locked box, never to be opened? What a diminished life that would be. And the same goes for Doctor Who.
So come on. We’ve all had a horrible few years. Let’s stop thrashing ourselves with birch twigs and pretending we need to live like monks. For Doctor Who’s 60th birthday, let’s lean into the biggest, most glorious nostalgia hit Russell T Davies can throw at us. Casual viewers will love it, the media will love and, if they’d just allow themselves to relax and go with the flow, the hardcore fans would love it, too.
It’s a party that everyone is invited to – after which, the Fourteenth Doctor can strike out into a bold new future with a renewed headwind of love and goodwill. And if the show doesn’t want to look over its shoulder for a year or two at that point, then fair enough. Fresh start, and all that. But the past will always be there, waiting – and it’s honestly nothing to be scared of.