Doctor Who and Absurdism

Posted Monday February 6, 2006 by John Gunders in |

OK, I know that Nick is supposed to the Doctor Who expert, but I couldn’t help noticing how different the writing and design were in the final seasons, compared to those when the show was at its peak (late Tom Baker/Peter Davison). (My own arbitrary designation: but Tom Baker was my doctor.)

Granted, much of Sylvester McCoy’s defining melancholy was probably a retrospective projection from devastated fans who didn’t realise (fortunately) that they only had to wait 16 years for the next episode. And it did provide a fitting tone for the show’s long decline.

But the style I am talking about started (at least) with the Trial of a Timelord meta-series: while the early episodes were quite conventional, even a bit prosaic, the climax of the series takes place in the Timelord’s Matrix—a computer archive of all timelords (living and dead) thoughts and experiences. Here someone with enough will and power, such as The Master, can create their own reality. This allowed the show’s producers to dispense with conventional reality and create a design that was—at times—quite surreal.

From this point, the writing and—especially—the design departed from the usual television drama fair. The Happiness Patrol was notable for its stark, minimalist sets, that would have looked more appropriate on the stage than on television, while Earl Sigma—with blues harmonica—would appear serenading the empty boards like a character in a Beckett play.

This post-Brechtian theme reached its apotheosis with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, where the artificiality of the sets was actualised: not only in the billowing canvas of the big-top, but in the desolate sands of the planet. That it was absurd for a fruit-seller with horse-drawn carriage (the show’s “everywoman”) to camp daily in the deserted wastes is no longer important: the writers are confident that viewers will identify the morality-tale origins of the character, and not complain about the lack of realism.

And this leads to my point: these final episodes show a clear allegiance to the Theatre of the Absurd. The minimal sets; archetypes rather than characters—the chief clown and the Candyman; and continuing themes of meaninglessness and repetition ( Greatest Show, Paradise Towers, Ghost Light), are all aspects of this philosophy. While I would not claim that Absurdism underlies the show (almost invariably the theme of Doctor Who—if there is one—is optimistic), certain obvious stylistic elements have been introduced: perhaps to make the show look a little more “literary”, or perhaps they were running out of ideas. It doesn’t matter: for me, it lent a melencholy dignity to the final episodes of the show, and demonstrated that Doctor Who was about more than just good and evil and a ridiculous blue box. It spoke to the human condition in all its confusion and absurdity.

Your Comments

  1. Nick Caldwell writes:

    Posted: 6 02 2006 - 07:53 | Permanent link to this comment

  2. jebni writes:

    Posted: 15 02 2006 - 02:45 | Permanent link to this comment

  3. Nick Caldwell writes:

    Posted: 15 02 2006 - 13:22 | Permanent link to this comment

  4. jebni writes:

    Posted: 19 02 2006 - 07:22 | Permanent link to this comment

  5. Nick Caldwell writes:

    Posted: 20 02 2006 - 08:47 | Permanent link to this comment

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