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Doctor Who: The Coming of The War Doctor


The drum beat to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who grows ever louder. Still this particular short film addresses a question I've had about Doctor Who for a long time.  As I consider the impact of superhero in a global context, Doctor Who strikes me as singular example of an organic creation of a  superhero archtype in different cultural context.  Doctor Who, based on the definition of the superhero defined by Peter Coogan in his book, Superhero: The Secret Origins of A Genre, is a superhero. As Coogan explains, the superhero acts as an orienting figure that resolves conflicts and contradictions. Furthermore,  Coogan argues mission, powers, identity, and costume are the elements that distinguish the superhero from other kinds of heroes. A careful examination of the Doctor demonstrates that the character has all of these elements.  The Doctor's adventures since 1963 have offered a global audience a vision of superhero cast within the cultural landscape of the United Kingdom.  This reading of the character provides rich opportunities to understand the evolution of the British experience since 1963.  This is why the 50th anniversary is important for scholars as much as fans.

In recent years the BBC has recognized Doctor Who as global brand and moved to leverage the program global awareness into a marketing bonanza.  This has meant the different elements of a diverse Doctor Who fandom that include everything from radio plays to fan fiction has evaluated. Some elements have been made a part of the "canon" other elements have not.  One element that has been included is the 1996 Doctor Who telefilm produced by Fox Television. This film, an attempt to revive the series after its cancellation in 1989, was not well received. Although, I recently saw an excellent paper at  Walking in Eternity: The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Conference by Mark Aldridge that argued this film established many elements that would be common in the 2005 reboot.  The film is notable because we see Sylvester McCoy (the seventh doctor) regenerate into Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor).

Regeneration, the means by which the Doctor escapes death, allows for different actors to take on the role of the Doctor. It also acts as symbolic renewal of the cultural agency represented by the character. As writer and script editor Terrance Dicks explained, “Doctor Who is like a saga. Every few year there will be a new something. There will be a new companion. There will be new writers. There will be new script editors.  There will be new producers. And every chunk of years there will be a new Doctor. So all of these things bring change, which is absolutely to the good. Of course when Barry Letts and I left and Philip Hinchcliffe and Bob Holmes did it slightly differently, we went around mumbling ‘things aren’t what they were in the old days’. But they shouldn’t be, and now that John Nathan-Turner and his script editor Eric Saward have taken over, they will do it differently, and it is quite right that they should. They should not do it the way I would do it. that is the whole point. And I think that is really the answer to what has kept Doctor Who alive - it’s this continuos input.

The problem (if you wish to see it), is that we don't witness the regeneration into Christopher Eccleston's Doctor in the 2005 reboot.  Rather than contend with the complexity of decades of back story, the reboot's first season assumed you knew nothing of Doctor Who.  This allowed a complex and frustrating narrative to be introduced to a new generation of fans.  In the second year of the reboot, it became clear that the new Doctor was in fact, part of the same narrative universe of the 1963 series.  Indeed, elements of the story created on different platforms (books and radio plays) were incorporated into the canon by Russell T. Davies. This new Doctor survived the Time War, which happened between the 1996 telefilm and beginning of the 2005 revival of the television series.  While fans can assume that the Doctor regenerated during this period, it has not been known how many times it happen. Now, with the release of the "Night of the Doctor" we are given a glimpse of the events of the Time War and a new regeneration of the Doctor in the form of John Hurt's War Doctor.  The reality of Doctor created for war is a new and in some ways startling addition to the mythology associated with Doctor Who.  The Doctor has always been a man seeking peace, but willing to fight. Now, in the 50th anniversary story we will see a character made to fight who, in turn, will affirm the need to seek peace.  A telling message for our contemporary debates about war and conflict.
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