John Tulloch & Manuel Alvarado: Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text

Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text has the distinction of being the first full length analysis of Doctor Who and the only one sited by the programme itself (the story Dragonfire).

Unfortunately it’s not very good.

Tulloch and Alvarado set out to demonstrate that Doctor Who is a series which gradually ‘unfolds’, growing in sophistication and laying bare its inner workings. They also claim that it does so in stages corresponding to different eras in the show’s ‘production history’ and which are distinguished by different ‘authorial signatures’ of each successive production team.

However they fail to demonstrate either claim.

Their main problem is that in order to establish that the show is increasing in complexity and that different periods of ‘Who’ history actually have these ‘authorial signatures’ it is necessary to examine these different eras according to the same criteria – otherwise the comparisons are as meaningless as comparing the colour of an orange with the shape of a banana. But this book examines each era according to a different theoretical model, rendering any comparison meaningless.

Instead Tulloch and Alvarado merely prove the charge that David Bordwell made in Making Meaning: that ‘meaning’ is largely an artefact of the method of analysis.

For instance, Tulloch and Alvarado analyse the Jon Pertwee stories of the early Seventies (produced by Barry Letts and script edited by Terrence Dicks) through the prism of Barthesian semiotics and ‘discover’ that the stories can be broken down into series of binary oppositions. This is hardly surprising as reducing texts to binary oppositions is precisely what Barthesian semiotics does.

They then examine the early Tom Baker stories (produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, script edited by Robert Holmes) according to the richer theoretical frameworks of Sigmund Freud and Tzvetan Todorov to `discover’ that these stories explore aspects of the Uncanny (Freud) or the Fantastic (Todorov). Again, this `discovery’ is simply an artefact of the method of analysis.

After this they invoke intertextuality and Bertolt Brecht’s theories of estrangement to explore the metafictional or parodic aspects of the Graham Willliams produced stories of the later Baker period to discover that – yes – these stories are estranging, metafictional and parodic.

By the time Tulloch and Alvarado move on to the John-Nathan Turner produced stories of the 1980s the theoretical framework has moved on to the even more complex theories of Michel de Certeau.

Each of these theoretical frameworks is more complex than the previous one and not surprisingly gives rise richer interpretations, interpretations which are *entirely the product* of the theoretical frameworks which gave rise to them.

The application of these theoretical frameworks to different eras is also entirely arbitrary.

For instance, Tulloch and Alvarado justify the application of Freudian and Todorovian analysis to the Hinchcliffe era by claiming that the era is characterised by an emphasis on `doppelgangers’ – but is this a true?

Certainly doppelgangers appear in Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion and The Face of Evil – but the theme had earlier been explored in The Chase and The Massacre during the William Hartnell era; Enemy of the World during Patrick Troughton’s run; and Spearhead from Space, Inferno and The Axons during Jon Pertwee’s term. The theme recurred after Graham Williams took over from Hinchcliffe in Horror of Fang Rock, The Invisible Enemy and The Androids of Tara and again in John Nathan-Turner’s run with Meglos, Arc of Infinity and The Caves of Androzani.

Even if we extend the concept of the doppelganger to characters who do not physically resemble the Doctor but can be seen as representing an exteriorization of his evil side, surely the Meddling Monk, the War Chief and – most significantly – the Master are better examples than Davros or Weng-Chiang?

The doppelganger is in no way a defining feature of the Hinchcliffe era.

It would therefore be just as valid to examine (say) the Pertwee era in terms of the Uncanny/Fantastic. Indeed if we accept Freud’s idea that it is the repression of fears and desires that causes the uncanny effect and that ‘dream work’ involves the disguising of these fears and desires then the early Pertwee’s – widely regarded as representing a ‘realistic’ approach to the programme – would provide richer pickings for analysis.

It would also be easy to explore early William Hartnell stories such as ‘The Romans’ through the lens of intertextuality; while the stories of the Williams era can be broken down into simplistic binary oppositions just as easily as any other. (In fact this latter was done in an earlier article by John Fiske, an article Tulloch and Alvarado criticise for just such a simplistic approach.)

Tulloch and Alvarado’s emphasis on `authorial signatures’ is a welcome departure from Cultural Studies’ anti-humanist denal of agency in cultural production and they make some effort to prop up their arguments by employing interviews with individual production teams. However they ignore what is said when it does not fit their interpretation. Douglas Adams’ complaints about the acting style employed by some of those performing his scripts, for instance, his denial that he was parodying the genre (`I hate that term `tongue-in-cheek because it means you are not trying’) and his criticism of the *lack* of realism in the JN-T era point to someone at odds with Tulloch and Alvarado’s characterisation.

I’m not denying that there are differences in approaches that production teams took, nor am I denying that the programme evolved in sophistication (in some ways). My claim is that Tulloch and Alvarado fail to demonstrate that the programme developed in the teleological way that they claim it did.

And unfortunately the influence that this book had on fandom is all to apparent in the kinds of fanboy posturing that we see in the internal disputes that rack

  1. Andrew says:

    Not a surprise that “the Meddling Monk, the War Chief and the Master” are all so similar.

    • Nicholas Cox says:

      While it would be well-nigh impossible to write a spin-off work or piece of fan-fiction that suggested the Monk, and the War Chief were earlier incarnations of the Master, due to the fact that so many works now acknowledge them as separate characters, they do seem to represent an evolution of the idea that the Doctor should have an equal and opposite nemesis and that, like Pertwee/Delgado and Tennant/Simm, they should match the incarnation of the Doctor they appear with like a dark reflection. This is why, although I do not dislike Anthony Ainley’s performance and enjoy the stories he appeared in, I think it was a bad idea to have him base his appearance and character vaguely on Roger Delgado and have him consistently play the Master opposite four different Doctors.

      • John Miller says:

        But those “many works”(actually you can count them all on your fingers) were only written during the Wilderness Years, and are virtually unknown to most of fandom. In fact the works written during the 26-year run establish them as the same Time Lord. In addition to your excellent “dark reflection” post, I always loved the idea of the evolution of the Master. Originally he genuinely wants to do good, however he is willing to kill some for the greater good, and meddles. Next, he allies himself with the War Lord and co. Finally he truly becomes “The Master” in his quest for order and domination. There’s a clear and obvious progression from the Time Meddler to the War Chief to the Master. This even carries over to the Pratt/Beevers version where his actions have caused his premature burning through of lives, and he now becomes a bitter twisted individual willing to go to any lengths to save his own life. Once he takes on the Tremas/Ainley version, we see echoes of all his previous incarnations. Even Roberts(!) fits this development, as he once again finds himself desperately clinging to life. Certainly the Master Arc from the Time Meddler to the Deadly Assassin is wonderful writing and character progression, from generally good-natured(though extremely dangerous) Meddler to desperate pscyhopath. And to try and split that up is idiotic, ignorant and counterproductive.

  2. Nicholas Cox says:

    I’m sure I read somewhere that some interviewees, maybe Dicks and Letts in particular, found Tulloch and Alvarado irritating and responded to their questioning accordingly. Do you know where I can find evidence of this?

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