‘The Black Archive’ #25: ‘Doctor Who’ (1996)

❉ What new is there to say about the Eighth Doctor’s debut? Nick Mellish parties like it’s 1999… or 1996…

“A great portion of the essay is dedicated to looking at the TV movie through the prism of what is and is not ‘British’: is the TVM a slice of British adventure, an awkward capitulation towards American sensibilities, or a hybrid-cum-mess of the two? And what even is Britishness?”

There are certain names in Doctor Who and its fandom that manage to impress as they are seemingly able to turn their hand to any number of mediums and make a good job of it.  Paul Driscoll must surely be well on his way to being one of them, being an editor, publisher, author and essayist.  In this, the latest release from Obverse Books in their Black Archive range, Driscoll has quite a challenge on his hands: what new is there to say about Doctor Who, the 1996 television movie which introduced us to the Eighth Doctor?

Driscoll very early on makes clear that he is not going to dive deep into the making of the episode as that’s been well covered elsewhere; rather, he will use some of this detail as a springboard for wider discussions on themes within the episode itself.  This is to his essay’s benefit as it allows him to give us some interesting readings into the script and its realisation, from quite why the structure it has works to its dramatic benefit to how changes at the last minute actively harm some of what the script is trying to say.

Perhaps appropriately for the age of Brexit (though the age of Brexit appears to be taking its sweet time in ever ending), a great portion of the essay is dedicated to looking at the episode through the prism of what is and is not ‘British’: is Doctor Who a slice of British adventure, an awkward capitulation towards American sensibilities, or a hybrid-cum-mess of the two? And what even is Britishness?

The last point gets a lot of attention and as with the Black Archive essay on The Time Warrior, the sheer volume of sources used to back up arguments and construct theories is impressive.  Driscoll is clearly not someone who skimps on their research.

In part due to this, it makes for a diverting academic read.  I think it’s to the essay’s credit that it stands tall on its own and overshadows what is otherwise one of the book’s selling points: a new interview with Matthew Jacobs, the episode’s writer.  The interview comes at the end in the form of an appendix and it’s interesting, but it’s Driscoll’s use of it throughout his essay that really makes it sing.  He critically engages with much of what Jacobs says, using it as a prism through which to read key moments in the script and it’s these portions of the essay that grabbed me the most.

For all that the ‘half human’ controversy overshadows fan opinion of Doctor Who at times, Jacobs’s justification of it is worth the time to read, and so too is Driscoll’s use of it as a lynchpin for many of his arguments.

There is perhaps an assertiveness in the writing sometimes that chances its luck a little (the equivalent of “I have proven” instead of “I have tried to show”); if you don’t wholly buy the argument being made, this can feel a little presumptive.  However, there is also a clear conviction behind what is being said and how it is written, and a bit of strident statement in an essay about a story that screamed ‘I’m here, I’m not going away’ is forgivable I think.

By the end of the book, I came away wanting to watch Doctor Who again with new viewpoints in mind; to re-read Regeneration by Philip Segal and Gary Russell; and to finally dive into the world of opera, something I’ve been half-meaning to do for a while now.  This is the sign of a success.  Who’d have thought we’d be re-watching Paul McGann’s debut with fresh eyes all these years later? Hats off to Obverse Books and Driscoll for making this the case.


❉ ‘The Black Archive #25: Doctor Who (1996)’ by Paul Driscoll was published in November by Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99. CLICK HERE TO ORDER.

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