Published on December 13th, 2015 | by Greg Payne0
Graeme Burk And Robert Smith? Get The Doctor On The Couch
Of the veritable library of books on the subject of Doctor Who that exists, the three written by the collaborative duo of Graeme Burk and Robert Smith? (no, the question mark’s not a typo) and published by ECW Press are essential reads. Treading a populist middle ground between the glossy do-no-wrong attitude of the BBC tie-in publications and the pedantic snark of the About Time series of episode guides, Who Is The Doctor, Who’s 50 and now The Doctors Are In manage to be both insightful and critical, but suffused with the love of the series that comes from the authors being long-time fans. It’s the rare episode guide or book-length analysis that combines the qualities of opinionated, exquisitely researched and heartfelt all in one summary, but the entries in Smith? and Burk’s books succeed in doing just that.
Both live and work in the Canadian capital, Burk in communications, primarily in the non-profit field, and Smith? as a professor of mathematics at the University of Ottawa, specializing in infectious disease modeling. Need to Consume met with the pair at Toronto’s Word on the Street literary festival following the launch of The Doctors Are In to chat about what new insights into the beloved show surfaced while writing their latest guide, and their impressions of the show’s (and the character’s) current incarnation. The interview took place in late September, just as the latest series had begun to air.
NTC: I feel like of the three Doctor Who books you’ve written together, this is the one I’d be most likely to give to someone who doesn’t know the show or doesn’t know why I’d be a fan of the series.
RS?: That’s interesting, actually. I hadn’t quite thought of that, but I can see what you’re saying. It is kind of an overview of the Doctors, and who they are, which is more of a newbie thing, I think. Our previous books had sort of talked about the history of the show, or an in-depth analysis of the new series episodes, but I guess this one does look at what Doctor Who sort of fundamentally is. A lot of people have asked us questions, who haven’t been Doctor Who fans necessarily, and asking about, “Tell us who the Doctors are, then.”
GB: I’m not sure if I’d agree. Who Is The Doctor is, for me, is the more introductory of our books. It sort of dives head first into the new show, but it explains what Doctor Who was, all the links to the past, who the characters are, and such. But as Robert said, I understand where you come from with that, because it is sort of a 30,000-feet view of all the Doctors and who they are.
NTC: I mean, if people are going to be investing their time in a show, they’re going to be investing it in the characters, not necessarily the plotting, which is why it stuck me as that…
GB: I can understand that too, and the book is a character study of the Doctor, across all fifty years of his different incarnations. Which hasn’t really been done yet, which is one of the appeals of doing the book, you know, everyone’s done a guide to the episodes, everyone’s done a guide to the stories, no one’s done a guide to the actual Doctors.
RS?: I’m not totally sure that people just come for characters. I think there are some people who come for characters, I’d probably say the majority, but some people do come for the plotting as well. And I think actually sometimes you see this dichotomy between character-based investment versus plot-based investment. I mean, broadly speaking, you can see a difference between the Russell T. Davies era and the Steven Moffat era, there are different fans of each for different reasons, and sometimes they fall into those boxes, I think, of character versus plot. So I guess we’ve done both, in a way.
NTC: The title “The Doctors are In” almost has a psychoanalytic undertone to it. When you were re-watching episodes for the book, did you have a keen eye on, specifically, the psychology of the characterization?
RS?: I think we kind of did, actually. That was one of the pieces of it. It wasn’t the only piece, but it was the shorthand I would often use when talking about the book to people. They’d say “What are you working on?” and I’d say “I’m sort of doing a guide, and it’s kind of the psychology of the Doctors.” And obviously it’s not a psychoanalytic text, but it’s broadly speaking thinking about who these people are, and not just a description, but what’s making them tick? We talk about the Third Doctor, for instance, as kind of having like Time Lord Aspergers Syndrome, which I thought…it was Graeme’s idea, but I thought was really fascinating because actually, yeah, that nails down the character in a way I hadn’t really thought of before, and that’s what we want to do here, is see if we can get to the inner nuts and bolts of what makes him tick.
GB: We were looking at what motivates each Doctor specifically, and why do they react the way they do and why they are the way they are so yeah, so what Robert said what I did with the Third Doctor was something we did…each Doctor has a unique reason why they’re motivated, so we wanted to explore that a lot.
RS?: Something like the Seventh Doctor, for instance, I was kind of like…I took the Time Lord Aspergers thing…I didn’t tell you this, I guess, Graeme…I took that as my kind of core idea for how to make the book work. And when I got to the Seventh Doctor, I was like, this is a very contrast sort of character, one minute he’s sort of goofy and juggling things and flopping things on his foot, and the next minute he’s staring down Davros and destroying Skaro and stuff. And I suddenly realized there’s this amazing contrast of a star-killing-demi-god-stroke-circus-performer. It’s such a funny mix and yet it really works, and that to me just nailed that character.
NTC: Was there anything that surprised you about a particular Doctor, or your perception of a particular Doctor, as you were researching this book?
RS?: Yeah, actually the Third Doctor for me, not so much the character himself, but what I realized was that everything surrounding the Third Doctor, I loved. I loved UNIT, I loved the companions, I think that [being] exiled to Earth is such a fantastic idea, it’s one the new series should absolutely do, I would actually be incredibly surprised if Steven Moffat doesn’t have it pencilled in for season eleven or something. I think they should totally strand Peter Capaldi on Earth and just see what happens to him, because it’s the perfect new series kind of touchstone: you can have him there, you have the companion with her life, you have other friends that have come around, you have whole arcs you could tell, and I just thought, that is such an amazing kind of setup. And the Third Doctor for me doesn’t really work in the context of that. I find him a fairly wooden character and so on…works for other people, works for Graeme for instance, that’s fine, but for me I was suddenly realizing, oh yeah, I do love the Third Doctor’s era, as much as I have problems with the character himself.
GB: I think for me it was the Fifth Doctor, because I was writing about, you know, what motivates this character, and I was thinking about the costume, and I suddenly realized: he’s cosplaying as a human! He’s sort of basically cosplaying as what he thinks an English person would dress like, you know, with the cricket whites and the Panama hat, all that sort of stuff, and all the affectations of leaving the TARDIS to go look for the sports section in Timeflight. And as soon as I got that, I went “Ah! That explains a lot about the Fifth Doctor!” So that was my favorite insight.
NTC: Each of your Doctor Who books has had a point/counterpoint element in the essays. Is there a story or a serial on which you guys are poles apart, you could not disagree more?
GB: That’s easy.
RS?: Yeah. (laughs)
GB: Genesis of the Daleks. Which Robert adores in a remarkably traditional way, and I think is one of the greatest assemblages of good clips of Doctor Who wrapped around a very banal story.
RS?: I always thought it was kind of the radical take on Doctor Who and I discovered through these books that I’m this super-traditional fanboy, and it’s kind of weird. And we’ve comically been having this Genesis of the Daleks argument across multiple entries and now multiple books. It plays amusingly, but it’s kind of also true: we’re very different people and we have very different takes, and for me that’s one of the great things about the book. And this predates our writing together. We’d always get together and, you know, have drinks in a bar or sit at a cafe or something and we’d just endlessly debate Doctor Who, and that’s I think what fans do, we endlessly talk about it. We do it online, we do it at conventions, we do it in person, just with friends at the playground. Whatever it is, we tried to capture that with the book, and I think we did. A lot of people talked about how that resonated for them. I love the point/counterpoint, and I take no credit for it ‘cause it was all Graeme’s idea, and I think it’s brilliant, it really gets that fan thing, and I’ve never really seen that in Doctor Who non-fiction writing before.
NTC: In your book, Who’s 50, none of the episodes of “the top 50 stories you must see before you die” were from the Donna Noble season. In this book, you’ve named Donna as the Tenth Doctor’s “top companion.” Did something change, was there any re-evaluation, or…
GB: It’s a tricky one. I think we were both disappointed that we didn’t have a Donna story in Who’s 50. But ultimately, Who’s 50 wasn’t so much the top stories, it was sort of a survey of stories we thought you should watch. But it was done with the most unscientific method of coming up with the stories: we just picked fifty each, and whichever ones gave us the list was the list. And with the Tenth Doctor, we picked largely stories that were about him, or about him not actually even being there in many ways. We picked Human Nature, we picked Love and Monsters, we picked Blink. And so they were all sort of stories…they weren’t even stories that properly featured the Tenth Doctor anyway, much less Donna. So when it came to doing this book, one of our central tenets was, we wanted to repeat as few stories from Who’s 50 as possible. We knew that wasn’t going to be entirely possible when you’re looking at things like the Hinchcliffe era, or the McCoy era or the Hartnell era. Things like the Tennent era? Yeah we can totally focus on other stuff.
RS?: I think the issue around the Donna stories is like, I love Donna as a companion and yet I would say there are two good stories in that era but they split the Doctor/companion relationship across them. So there’s Midnight and there’s Turn Left, and the problem is neither of them feature the Doctor and Donna, and so that’s really the reason why, I think, they didn’t turn up in Who’s 50, because neither of those quite work for that, which isn’t to denigrate their relationship, it’s just not in those two good stories. There are other stories which are perfectly fine, but I wouldn’t [put] them in “the 50 stories to watch before you die.”
NTC: You were both fans of the original series as it aired, but a lot of Nu Who’s fan base has only come to the show since the relaunch. Do you think this audience watches it with a different sort of critical eye than the long-timers do?
RS?: I think they do. I think the nature of TV-watching has changed enormously, and it particularly changed during the wilderness years. So when Doctor Who came back, the world had moved on, and so TV had to adapt. But I think that’s just natural. I mean, you don’t get the same show, obviously, after fifty years, and you don’t get the same audience, and you don’t get the same types of audiences even. Kids today for instance are far more sophisticated. I was just thinking, when the recent season premiere aired, in the opening [scene] there’s a mention of Davros and then the credits roll, and I’m thinking, anyone who doesn’t know who Davros is immediately would go online and just Google that and they’ve got a minute and a half while the credits roll to figure that out, and they’re “oh, he’s the creator of the Daleks, ok, we’re good to go.” That would just never happen in the old series, and so you just have a totally different sensibility that you bring. I think we were quite on board with that from the very beginning. Graeme wrote for [the fanzine] Enlightenment, which I wrote for too, and right from when the new series started we were clear that there was a new show, it was exciting and so on. A lot of classic series fans were kind of holding on to the old stuff and it turned out it all kind of melded anyway over the years, and I think that’s great.
GB: I remember back in 2004 I was talking with the organizer of a general science fiction convention in Toronto and I was saying, are you guys ready for the change that’s going to happen to the Doctor Who track once this new show comes up? You’re not going to have panels like, you know, “UNIT dating: is it the seventies or the eighties?” You’re going to have to have panels on the Doctor and Rose “shipping.” You’re going to have to have all these different elements that I saw in Buffy tracks and I saw in the tracks for other shows that were quite popular in the fifteen years between the two versions of Doctor Who. So yeah, I do think fans watch it with a different eye. I think television is now watched as much for the relationships between the characters and the sort of arcs that characters have as much as they are for the actual drama and the stories. I think when Robert and I went in to doing these guides, we said we’ve got to cover both. We can’t just explain that “Oh, this is a reference to Genesis of the Daleks and UNIT was also in the seventies and the eighties.” We have to be able to talk about, this is how the Doctor and Donna’s relationship progressed through that season, or the Doctor started out this way in the Eleventh Doctor’s era and ended this way. So we tried to accommodate the wide diaspora of Doctor Who fandom today.
NTC: We’re two episodes into the new season. Do you have any impressions on where it’s heading or is it too early to start critiquing?
RS?: So far it’s heading in a very interesting direction. I have no idea what’s coming next, I kind of don’t want to know until I see it, I’m very much looking forward to where it’s going now. Peter Capaldi is doing really fantastic amazing different things, and I’m loving what I’ve seen so far. I can’t wait for the rest.
GB: I’m very pleased with it. I’m a little kind of sad about the two-part format because I think what we’re finding is that they’re stretching out stories to accommodate a two-parter rather than it naturally being so. I think the first two episodes were really great, but I also wonder if it was just a really good sixty minute episode that was split into ninety minutes. I really, really do love what Capaldi’s doing, I really do love where that’s going. I do wonder if the season arc’s going to be about the Time Lord/Dalek hybrid, and I do wonder if, when the Doctor said “I’m sorry” to Clara if he doesn’t know something that’s going to happen with her. So we’ll wait and see. I’m pretty terrible at speculating, though.
NTC: Do you follow leaks and pre-publicity, or do you go into every episode as much of a blank slate as you can?
(they both laugh knowingly)
RS?: That’s a very good question because we are on polar opposites, I think, of this. I am a complete spoiler-phobe. I know nothing: I know no titles coming up, I don’t think I even know any writers. I know absolutely nothing about what’s coming, and I’m really excited and I really hope I can keep it that way. I’ve got to be very careful around social media when Doctor Who’s showing for those couple of months so I have to tread very carefully. I love coming to it fresh, I feel like you only have one chance to be surprised, and I’d like that to be when I watch the thing.
GB: I’m the exact opposite. I will follow anything, anything gets leaked I’m on it, I tend to just, you know…I’m not bothered by being spoiled about things. Yes, there are certain details that I’ll watch it and “Ahhh! Would have been nice not to have known that,” but at the same time I enjoyed it anyway. I’m not as bothered, I’m completely the exact opposite to Robert.
RS?: I’d like to add that my girlfriend is the same as Graeme and it causes all these fights between us! It’s the only real substantial fights that we’ve had. But she wants to know everything and I’m like “Just watch! Just watch and enjoy!” Especially when we’re watching older episodes that I know the answers to and it infuriates her that I won’t tell her stuff, and she just grabs her phone and starts to look it up on Wikipedia and I’m like “This is terrible!” but I have to just let it go because…it’s not me.
NTC: Graeme, you posted something [on FB] a few weeks ago how you felt that the last season was unjustly passed over for Emmy consideration. What makes this current run so strong in your eyes?
GB: Well, it wasn’t necessarily passed over, because in order for it to be considered it would need to actually be an American co-production, which Doctor Who isn’t, so I was technically wrong. I do think it honestly was, though. For me, season eight was the best drama on television, and I finally was able to say that not just out of team loyalty to Doctor Who. I genuinely felt that. And I think it’s two things. One, I think it’s Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, he really just hit the ground running and he was really great, and he had a really fascinating arc, and I think his relationship with Clara was really great and that upped Jenna Coleman’s game and we suddenly saw her really come out and do amazing stuff. But the other thing that happened was I think Moffat learned the lessons from the second season of Sherlock and started to realize that “Yeah, I can do the whole clever plot games, but I can also add a layer of emotion and character drama on top of that and I can make this really compelling.” And I think that’s exactly what made the third season of Sherlock really exciting, and really worked for me with this. That sort of arc between Clara and the Doctor and they’re coming together, they’re coming apart, they’re coming back together, it’s fascinating to me, and really moving.
NTC: Does the introduction of Missy as a character put to bed the debate about casting a woman as the Doctor, at least for a couple of regenerations? Or is that a useless debate anyway?
RS?: I don’t think it puts the debate [to bed], I think it opens it up even more. I think that Missy shows how you can make the Doctor a woman, and it was a huge success. I’ve been saying for years now that they should have a female Doctor, I think it’s way overdue, it’s kind of embarrassingly overdue, and a lot of people have been saying it couldn’t be done well, but actually now you see Missy and you see just how well it can be. And of course, like everything else, it’s going to live and die on the casting and the writing and so on. Obviously, it would be great to have more female writers but…it’s obvious now, I think. Missy makes it clear that there should be, and I think there will be, a female Doctor.
GB: I was probably more agnostic than Robert on whether there should be a female Doctor for a long time. I mean, I wasn’t against it, but I wasn’t sure if it could work or not. And Missy, as Robert says, proves that it can, and proves that really…it’s like with a male Doctor ultimately, it’s just going to depend on, have you cast the right person for it, are you creating the right flourishes for it? Missy, to a certain extent has…it’s frustrating because I think Missy works really well in many ways, and she works well when [Moffat] is writing her more like Moriarty and less like a nasty River Song. It’s still a work in progress, but I do think it’s very promising, and yeah, I think we may see one down the road. For me I’d also like to see a person of colour play the Doctor, too. That’s something I would like as well.
NTC: Two years ago it was the fiftieth anniversary and it was filled with tie-ins and special events. Does the current “anniversary-free” era give the show a little breathing room?
GB: Yeah! On my podcast, Reality Bomb, we were doing an annual thing called the New Season Hype News Quiz, and I discovered, when we got to this season, there was remarkably little hype compared to the previous season which had the world tour and all the stuff with that, and the previous year, which was the fiftieth anniversary. So it’s nice to have that kind of a breather, you can actually have sort of…I don’t know, the classic series equivalent might be Season 13 or 14 which is just a really good season of Doctor Who that isn’t about the events but is actually about just doing cracking good stories with people at the top of their game. And that’s what I’m hoping for.
RS?: Last year was Peter Capaldi’s first year, and the previous year was the fiftieth anniversary, so you had the obvious events built in. I guess it’s true there are fewer events, but still we’re talking…there’s a theatrical release of a two-part TV episode in 3-D. There’s huge stuff happening still, it’s just we’ve gotten very spoiled over the last few years.
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