The Zombies of Nostalgia

  • Reading time:5 mins read

One of the things I find inane about British Doctor Who fandom is that even those too young to remember the original show tend to get caught up in its nostalgia value more than its actual content and message. It’s like they don’t like the show for what it is and does, but for the other associations that it brings to mind — of childhood, of times long past.

For all of my moping about the 1980s, and attempts to reconcile new things with my experiences of childhood, I don’t… really consider that kind of a mentality very constructive. In this case I also think it gets in the way of appreciating what the show really is about — which is a shame, as the show’s message is both unusual to mainstream TV and, I think, one of the most constructive messages around.

Here’s something I wrote a few months ago on a Web forum that I keep telling myself to avoid, as it eats up too much time and doesn’t give me back much in return — except maybe the opportunity to think about things that aren’t doing me much good to think about right now. The question was, what is it about this show that appeals so strongly to people, to allow it to last for so long? Most of the responses were about nostalgia, which irritated me enough to respond in my own grouchy way.

Yeah, I, uh… Coming from a US perspective, where it’s always been seen as something for college students and usually shown late at night, into the early morning, I wouldn’t say that these are fundamental or intrinsic parts of its appeal. I didn’t really get into the show until I was in my twenties, and that was because of the intellectual anarchy of the thing.

At its most basic level the show is about curiosity and taking the initiative to understand things beyond their surface appearance. I mean, it’s about a guy who looks human but isn’t, who explores all of time and space in a ship that looks like a police phone booth but isn’t. Even the most basic surface details, like that man’s face, are always in flux. For all of the small revelations over the years, the show’s backstory is still basically a big question mark. The show’s whole message is that what matters isn’t the facts, isn’t the answers. It’s the reasoning and the questioning. It’s about the way you approach things, not what you find.

Troughton pretends to be a bumbling fool, to cause people to underestimate him — taking advantage of others’ inability to see beyond that surface.

Pertwee takes the time to understand the Silurians rather than just assuming that they are monsters.

The Autons are terrifying because of how they subvert appearances, and the questions that they raise about what we take for granted.

In “The End of the World” Eccleston dismisses assumptions about posterity, anxieties about mundane problems, even the importance of our Earth in its own right. Really, the greatest surviving memory of human culture is Soft Cell? Oh well, people did good things. They made new opportunities for others to do good things. They moved on. Everything dies, and nothing really matters all that much. The only constant is change; adaptation. The willingness to see things differently, do things differently, try new things. That’s all there is in the end.

So, I would say that it’s the show’s attitude that stands out — at whatever point in one’s life that one might encounter it. And likewise to me, it’s those eras and those stories that best embody that attitude that most hit home.

And of course all of that passed without comment, while everyone afterward kept going on about nostalgia, and quoting earlier posts that reinforced what they were saying. So… here, just because I like feeling validated sometimes, I’ll quote something of my own.

This AV Club review of “Rose” serves well, I think, to explain why I broadly like the Davies era so much, and find that its spirit better typifies the show’s original ethos better than most of the eras in between (and since).

The emphasis then isn’t on the Doctor providing answers, but rather on Rose asking the right questions and being willing to listen to the answers. As the Doctor himself notes, Rose doesn’t believe him when he says the plastic men are trying to invade Earth and conquer humanity, but she’s still listening. She wants more from her life, which is why she ultimately accepts the Doctor’s offer, but she also just wants to understand the impossible things that are going on around her. And it isn’t just her interactions with the Doctor that are important. Her trip to Clive’s shed is also useful in reminding the audience how insane the entire concept of Doctor Who truly is. Even though Clive is basically right—he misses out on the time travel aspect, but since the Doctor is effectively immortal, it’s hard to not give him passing marks—and Rose is wrong when she dismisses him as a nutter, the key there is that she is wrong for the right reasons; Rose isn’t going to abandon all logic and reason without some fairly compelling evidence. And that fact makes the moment Rose finally steps inside the TARDIS all the more magical.

If you haven’t seen the AV Club’s Who coverage, it’s pretty darned good in general! In particular I think the reviews of (the recently miraculously recovered) Enemy of the World and Web of Fear are pretty much on-target. They’re more forgiving than I tend to be, but then I’m a cranky one.