The website/blog Cathode Ray Tube plays host to some of the most incisive, knowledgeable, intelligent, and just plain gorgeously written comment on British film and telly (both contemporary and classic) that you’re liable to dig up anywhere on the net. A lot of that brilliant writing is all about “Doctor Who”, to which CRT’s founder, Frank Collins, has nurtured a life-long devotion. (He even has actual childhood memories of Yeti on the Underground and murderous mutant seaweed from the deep from back in the now largely lost black and white Troughton years!) Collins has been blogging about the classic series, the Nu-Who reboot, and the various spin-offs which have proliferated since the latter’s inception in 2005, for several years now with wit, warmth and clarity; but most of all his work brings with it a wide-ranging frame of reference that takes into consideration a multitude of perspectives; everything from the design of the show’s sets and monsters, its postmodern use of genre, to the historical and cultural context in which its stories are shaped have been addressed in many of his writings, always managing to remain immensely readable and erudite in the process, while delving deeper into the thickets of theoretical interpretation and subtext than less hardier souls would ever dare countenance. For me, Collins’s weekly blog commentaries on each of the episodes that made up 2010’s series 5 became a practically essential accompaniment to the experience of watching the show itself. Now, those original blog entries have been not so much expanded upon as completely overhauled for this book length treatise by Collins on a series which saw the show’s first change in production team since Christopher Ecclestone became the ninth Doctor in 2005, and in which Matt Smith became the latest (and youngest) actor to assume the mantle of British television’s iconic time traveling hero.
First of all, “Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens” is a slightly more challenging read than its blog predecessor. The author’s general approach depends on closely observed study of each episode, sometimes going into minute written detail whilst drawing from a wealth of critical perspectives derived from various movements and schools-of-thought -- ranging from Queer theory to Jungian psychoanalysis – more commonly found in cultural studies and literary theory, as well as the slightly more familiar approach to analysis found in film studies; the aim being to illuminate, from as many different angles as possible, the matrix of cultural, sociological, historical and political components that Collins finds to have a bearing on how each of the episodes, and the series as a whole, can be read.
It’s a multi-disciplinary approach to criticism that results in a highly intellectually idiosyncratic and personal interpretation of the series’s significance. Collins picks up on thematic nuances from careful consideration of the show’s use of folklore and the mythological allusions he believes can be discerned within it, as well as simply exploring its successes and failures as a viewing spectacle, and the context in which they occur. The title of the book is all important in this regard: not only is it the title of the first episode in series 5’s two-part finale (the meaning and significance of ‘The Pandorica’ being a key plot point throughout), but it also signifies this ‘pick & mix’ approach to the ideas and critical perspectives Collins is experimenting with throughout between the book’s covers. The author is alert to a general fan distrust of such an approach, expressed in the often-voiced fear of the danger of ‘over-analysis’ of film and TV that attends discussion of the kinds of cultural studies perspectives informing much of his writing here, but his mercurial use of these sources, and his ability to combine them with an obvious passion and deep knowledge of the show’s history and other, more easily digestible critical discourses, makes for a reading experience that is certainly challenging, but is also often immensely stimulating and occasionally highly illuminating. Not being hidebound to the demands of any specific critical outlook also helps Collins avoid the pitfall of appearing to want to force the series to conform and fit into any one ideological mould. Although there is use of critical jargon throughout, Collins largely succeeds in avoiding an unwieldy, dry-as-dust academic style, pitching his writing at a level that gives the general reader an entry point while always maintaining a commitment to serious and wide-ranging analysis.
As has been mentioned, although there are several episodes which the author finds are best analysed with recourse to a specific school of interpretation, in the main he favours a peripatetic approach that allows him to examine the show’s meaning from varying perspectives. First of all, there is a general concern with understanding the context and the general background to the reception of this series; how the narrative choices, approach to character development and story settings of new head writer and executive producer Steven Moffat are used to distinguish this particular series from the previous ones, and how they differ from the approaches of previous show runner, Russell T. Davies; how the depiction of new companion Amy Pond, her interactions with the Doctor and her attitude to her fiancé Rory Williams, fits into a broader pattern in the depiction of male/female relationships that can be discerned throughout Steven Moffat’s previous work; and how the major themes of the series relate back to images, concerns and themes Moffat has previously tackled in the episodes he wrote while the series was still under Davies’ stewardship.
Collins also casts a critical eye over the fifth series’s more overt attempts to rebrand itself in the form of the casting of the eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith and his companion Amy Pond played by Karen Gillan, and a new logo and title sequence (which Collins unsparingly condemns as looking like something from ‘a commercial for antacid’!). Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor is judged the new series’s greatest asset as it attempts to establish continuity with the David Tennant years whilst developing its own identity, but Collins is a bit more equivocal about the success of Amy Pond as a character. As a fully-fledged member of the Amy Pond ‘Appreciation Society myself, I didn’t always agree with everything he has to say about the her development (and personally I think Karen Gillan’s performance is every bit the equal of Smith’s) but, Collins undeniably makes a well-argued case against what has definitely often been a controversial character. One point Collins makes that does seem particularly insightful relates to how the overt sexuality of the adult Amy is used as a way of re-establishing the Doctor’s asexual ‘otherness’ after several years during the Davies era in which he was often mooted as a romantic hero – potential boyfriend material for Rose Tyler and the object of unrequited love for Martha Jones. Amy Pond is the only companion in the history of the programme to actually attempt to have sexual relations with him, and the emphatic rejection of her overtures reasserts the Doctor as a Peter Pan-like asexual character, still sexually attractive but also apparently above and beyond such things. A detailed study of how the relationship between Amy and her suitor Rory develops across the series adds further momentum to his anti-Pond argument, and is placed in the context of Moffat’s tendency to pair up strong-willed, independent but damaged women with or against ineffectual and weak men.
As is the case in most of Collins’s arguments and analysis during the book, his points on this subject are developed across ten chapters, each one tackling a separate story in the series (some of the stories are in two parts of course, but are still dealt with in a single chapter), and making frequent reference to previous or forthcoming episodes as he does so. More than any other series before or post-2005, the fifth carries with it a complex web of themes and allusions that seem to crop up again and again in different guises and with varying permutations before finally coming together in the concluding episodes, making it particularly apposite for close analysis in that regard. Steven Moffat tends to favour densely layered, intricately plotted story arcs that depend upon wild time paradoxes and a host of recurring themes and symbols -- and Collins is at his most masterful and convincing when charting and unpacking their significance as the series unfolds, using his armoury of arguments from psychoanalysis, gender studies or postmodern theory – whatever, in fact, he feels illuminates the particular point he wants to make the most effectively. Before the series even aired, Moffat made no secret of the fact that he considered the show to be more fantasy fable, or fairy tale, than hard science fiction, and the many fairy tale themes and allusions the series features throughout -- to, say, Little Red Riding Hood, The Secret Garden or Peter Pan – are examined with recourse to their mythology and symbolic importance. Central to the series’s modes of storytelling is its theme of the importance and power of a fantasy life; an emphasis is placed in almost all the stories upon the act of gazing, its connection to knowledge, memory and forgetting. Characters such as the android Bracewell in “Victory of the Daleks” and the Auton version of Rory in “The Big Bang” actualize themselves and gain their humanity either by calling up specific programmed memories of their past or else being acknowledged in memory by others, while the evil Weeping Angels have the power to make their likeness in image a real-world reality, even when that likeness is recalled only in the mind’s eye of their victim. Amy’s forgetting of her parents and her fiancé Rory when the cracks in time erase them all from existence is a series-spanning theme that explains much of her behaviour, and the Doctor seeding his own memory in Amy’s consciousness so that he continues to survive in her fantasy life after he is banished from the Pandorica’s re-booting of the Universe in the concluding episode finally ties all these themes, present in other episodes also such as “The Beast Below” and “Amy’s Choice”, together.
It is impossible here to do full justice to the amount of fresh insight and elucidation Collins is able to bring to these themes and motifs over the course of the book, but the series certainly benefits from and appears all the richer for his efforts, although it is important to emphasise that this text doesn’t claim to be anything other than Frank Collins’s own personal view of the series, as rendered by his particular set of reference points and textual associations: you won’t necessarily agree with or find all his analysis totally convincing, but you will find plenty of cause to stop and think and examine your own assumptions about what you’ve previously see on screen.
There is a political dimension also to some of Collins’s most pertinent criticism. His critique of Mark Gatiss’s “Victory of the Daleks” has many challenging things to say about the tensions between genre and the representation of historical events in the series. Collins’s in-depth knowledge of the series is particularly useful here, and comes to the fore as he itemises the episode’s fleet of nostalgic references to the colourful Dalek adventure films made by Amicus in the ‘60s (referenced also in the new bright blue and white-rimmed TARDIS exterior design) and classic late sixties Dalek stories such as “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Evil of the Daleks” , and the story’s (in his opinion) overall unsuccessful attempts to combine them with a World War 2 Blitz setting that ends up resorting to patriotic ‘Britain can take it’ myth-making and a caricatured vision of Winston Churchill. There’s an examination of the politically dubious role of the Vampire in modern culture and its relation to the fear of race contamination and immigration in Collin’s review of “Vampires of Venice”, as well as a look at the episode’s reverently nostalgic recreations of the mis-en-scene of numerous Hammer Horror vampire Films.
Nostalgia and its appeal to a new generation of writers who grew up as fans of the show and are now writing and setting the agenda for it, is a major theme of the book and plays a central role in Collin’s deconstruction of Chris Chibnall’s “The Hungry Earth/ Cold Blood” Silurian two parter. Collins is pretty clear-eyed about exactly why this Jon Pertwee love fest doesn’t work, and it’s one of the best chapters in the book, despite being about probably the worst story in the series! Elsewhere, Collins foregoes his customary diverse and multi-disciplinary approach to criticism by attempting to demonstrate how Queer Theory alone can cast illuminating light on the narrative trajectory and subtext of Gareth Roberts’ episode “The Lodger”. Another excellent chapter on Richard Curtis’s “Vincent and the Doctor” examines the series’s relationship with history as genre and its attempts to comment on the commodification of art and the link between artistic creativity and depression as symbolised in our culture by the figure of van Gogh.
Every page of “Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens” bristles with such a multitude of sometimes ingenious, sometimes far-fetched, ideas, flights of fancy and multifarious methods of theoretical interpretation, that the brain positively spins with the effort to keep up with the wandering mind of Mr Collins. But the main point is that ultimately the book offers the willing reader a gratifyingly pleasurable and entertaining joyride thorough the Whoniverse and its cultural and sociological byways, that’s often thought-provoking and inspiring, bringing provocative new possibilities of understanding to our appreciation of what still is one of the most imaginative and creative shows the medium of television has yet produced.
The book is available from all the usual online outlets or you can order it straight from the publisher at www.classictvpress.co.uk. It comes with eight pages of colour behind-the-scenes photographs taken by the fans that followed the show when it went filming on location for series 5 during 2009, as well as a full-page black & white print at the start of each chapter. The book contains a few eccentricities I might have been able to do without: for instance, Collins seems to have a very stingy attitude towards paragraphs; you’ll be lucky if you spot more than one every two pages and the reader is often confronted with great slabs of unbroken text that might be slightly off-putting initially. Also, end notes at the end of each chapter or foot notes might have been preferable to quoting the title and author of every paper or book he refers to, in full, within the text, as it can interrupt the flow of an argument somewhat on occasion.
But Frank Collins has produced a book that is fiercely idiosyncratic, displays a wide-ranging intellect the size of a planet, but which is also endearingly open and inclusive in its desire to share its expansive knowledge with as many people as possible – much like the eleventh Doctor himself, in fact. And I don’t think I can come up with a higher recommendation than that.