Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Bringing Doctor Who Back for the Masses: Regenerating Cult, Commodifying Class

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Bringing Doctor Who Back for the Masses: Regenerating Cult, Commodifying Class

Article excerpt

The return of Doctor Who (UK 2005-), one of the most iconic British television sf series, generated audience ratings that had become the exception rather than the rule. The average overnight ratings for the first new episode 'Rose' (17 Mar 2005) were 9.9 million viewers, peaking at 10.5 million.1 The original version of Doctor Who ran from 1963 to 1989, while the 'regenerated' version is still running and is now seen as one of the BBC's leading global export products (see Johnson). The show follows the adventures of the Doctor, a traveller in time and space who has the ability to regenerate his body, enabling the actor playing him to be replaced many times over, thus giving the series a longevity not enjoyed by many sf television programmes.

For the launch of the first season of the new series,2 the Doctor's outward appearance changed more radically than it ever had with previous regenerations. In the original series, the Doctor's varying incarnations referenced him initially as older and cantankerous (William Hartnell), a clown (Patrick Troughton) and then later harlequinesque (Colin Baker). More consistently, however, throughout his original incarnations, the Doctor maintained visual references through his costumes to notions of the eccentric 'gentleman', a figure deeply enmeshed in a cultural heritage of the British middle and upper classes.3 In the new series, the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) was unveiled with a more relaxed urban and fashion-conscious image, appearing in a leather jacket, t-shirt and large black boots. With Eccleston also came a non-RP accent from Salford in Northern England. Although not the first time the Doctor has had a non-Southern English accent, this was the first coupling of a visual and an accent change. This distanced the Doctor from both the Southern English RP accent with its cultural capital and associations with 'poshness', and from the more formal 'gentlemanly' attire of the original series. Since Eccleston's incarnation, the BBC and its various production teams have rarely made the Doctor's image one with such distance from the middle- to upper-class connotations of his original identity.

In this article I consider the tensions created by the desire to revive Doctor Who's cult status and the industrial needs to make the series a mainstream - then global - success, and the fate of class narratives and representations in these ambitions. I approach class in terms of its representation and consider how it has featured across the new and original series. In doing so, I argue that the industrial demands on the new series to appeal to new viewers meant that it was at its most inclusive in terms of working-class representations when it relaunched, helping to revive its cult status, while securing the audience needed to survive. I suggest that once successful, the series' returned to a middle- and upper-class imaginary in tune with the increasing normalisation of middle-class identities and the recuperation of the classed archetype of the 'English gentleman'.

In this article, I will first consider class in relation to its representation in Doctor Who, then analyse the original series of Doctor Who and the class identities and representations it foregrounded. I will consider the launch of the new series in that context and, finally, reflect upon the tone of the new series subsequent seasons in relation to class.

Class, British television and Doctor Who

Class is often under-played as a structuring force in the UK, yet research suggests it is still a powerful social institution that affects people's life chances (Morley 488). Class as a system, although structuring in its nature, still shifts in terms of its material and cultural makeup. Mike Savage and his colleagues have recently proposed an approach to class to capture these complexities - one that not only takes account of employment, the focus of previous sociological models of class in the UK, but also of cultural, social and economic capital. …

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