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The Unfolding Text

by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado

Book Reviewed by Craig Young

The analysis of popular culture, of which Doctor Who is undoubtedly part, is increasingly part of the academic discipline known as cultural studies.

The Unfolding Text is part of an excellent series called 'Communications and Culture', which includes two volumes on notorious British anti-porn campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who protested at the adult violence in Doctor Who, as well as the political comment.

The Unfolding Text belongs to a critical tradition known as 'semiotics'. For those without a background in literary criticism, I should explain that semiotics deals with the organisation of meaning in 'signifiers', which do not always bear a one-to-one relationship to what is 'signified'. The best example would be a certain object with a damaged chameleon circuit that resembles a blue police box. Another important focus of this work is how the series has changed the production or concealment of meaning in its codes. Of course, these change as the society around them does. Relayed to this is 'intertextuality' - how is Doctor Who relayed to other examples of the SF genre, or indeed other genres, or stylistic development and current fashions? In its turn, this is influenced by the career trajectories and content of the writers, editors and producers of the series throughout its 25-year run.

Each of the Doctors gets a chapter each, which focuses on their tenure as the Doctor. William Hartnell's portrayal was that of the alien Doctor, who was out of place in the contemporary (1963) shots of London, the schoolrooms and blue police box, which are supposed to represent normality. Initially the series also had a didactic function, and this leads to the explorations of the 'historical' tales. After all the BBC was in a cleft stick; it needed to maintain its role as a carrier of British high culture and compete commercially with ITV. In any case, the focus on history as such was soon de- emphasized due to the popularity of certain denizens of Skaro.

Tulloch and Alvarado characterise Troughton's portrayal of the Doctor as being humanist, and counterpointed to a soulless technocratic universe outside. They further note this sets up a series of oppositions that always result in evil externalised and no moral ambiguity in the Doctor or his supporting characters. They believe that such an approach to social reality has some very real problems, for humanism has a tendency to obscure very real differences that exist between humans. A mild form of cultural criticism developed in the series, then contemporary with developing concerns over authoritarianism, ecology and scientific social responsibility in the 1960s. This narrative strand culminates in the revelation that the Doctor was himself a rebel from a sterile, technocratic society. The War Games removed an element of mystery.

Social realism of a kind and the romantic ideal of the man of action and the man of science keynoted Jon Pertwee's portrayal of the Doctor, continuing the humanism of the Troughton portrayal, but more inclined to take a part in the events himself as opposed to the Troughton performance characteristic and its element of masquerade. By now, the relationship between the series and society were beginning to become more overt.

Feminists asked why the series' female companions were always screaming scatterbrains. Sarah Jane was introduced as a false start, then the show hit the right notes with the active barbarian Leela, the intellectual Romana, the career woman Tegan Jovanka and the scientist Nyssa. And, although this wasn't noted, women began to emerge as villains and involved with command and professional responsibilities as well. As we know, the question has now shifted to "When will there be a female Doctor?" The issues of humanism papering over the cracks began to emerge at this point. Yes, when? Or a black Doctor - or even black companions? (its one-time competitor The Tomorrow People and even the Beeb's own Blake's Seven has pipped it on this account). At this point we start to entertain suspicions that the portrayal of reality in the series has its own series of omissions and concealments, as well as false universalism.

Tom Baker's long tenure as the Doctor showed a number of conflicts beginning to emerge within the narrative structure. Baker played the part in terms of popular absurdist comedy, and latent directional conflicts began to emerge between him and the show's production personnel. Should it appeal to children, or did it have to consider that there was now a cohort of young adults that had grown up with the programme, and accordingly wanted more adult content in terms of content and complexity? Should it be realist or escapist in terms of its content? This crisis seemed to have resolved itself with the events of Season 18 and the departure of the near-infallible trinity of the fourth Doctor, Romana and K9.

The section on Peter Davison is necessarily cursory, as the book's cut- off point is 1983. Still, with hindsight, one can comment on the renewed sense of alien morality and behaviour in both his and Colin Baker's portrayal of the Doctor. Their Doctors killed and made mistakes - Davison in Arc of Infinity, Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks. It became harder to sustain the earlier sense of dualist oppositions and the placement of evil externally. This culminated in The Trial of a Time Lord sequence with its revelation that, not only were the Time Lords corrupt by their monopoly on time travel technology, but one of the Doctor's future incarnations, the Valeyard, was part of the corruption.

The last chapter deals with Kinda and explores its intertextuality (it is compared extensively to Ursula K. Le Guin's parable of Vietnam, The Word for World is Forest). Buddhist and Christian religious symbolism and the representation of female sexuality are explored in ways in which the meanings are coded for this serial. At other levels, the focus on realism and psychological conflict rather than action-adventure, as well as the construction of meaning through dialogue, music, set design and other elements are also treated.

To conclude, I found The Unfolding Text a highly rewarding book. This was probably due to my own familiarity with literary and media criticism and the theories and terms involved. It is useful as a teaching aid within media and cultural studies courses, provides an excellent source of fan information, and is also highly useful as a piece of serious SF criticism.

Anyone who has problems with some of these academic terms should consult Roger Fowler's Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (RKP, 1987) which offers concise explanations.

This item appeared in TSV 10 (December 1988).