In The Eleventh Hour, Matt Smith’s Doctor quite famously said “all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will - where do you want to start?”, giving us one of the most eminently quotable lines of his era. It’s also one of the best ways to encapsulate the sheer potential of Doctor Who as a program; part of its magic, and indeed part of why I love it, is the fact that it’s a show that really can do anything.
Unfortunately, though, “everything that ever happened or ever will” has, more often than not, been portrayed more as “anything that ever happened or ever will in British history”.
That’s a tad unfair, admittedly; the series isn’t quite as anglocentric as I’m portraying it to be, I suppose. However, in Peter Capaldi’s two series (both fantastic, I hasten to add) we only left England once; in Matt Smith’s years, while there were a few occasional jaunts to Germany, Venice, and quite memorably America, the series remained predominantly confined to the British Isles. The same is true of David Tennant’s years, as well as Eccleston’s.
All things considered, the classic series fared much better in this regard, with early stories taking us to revolutionary France, America, Rome, China, and Palestine; while it did, admittedly, gradually become less of a focus, it is worth noting that these early years had a far more global focus than their current counterparts.
Of course, there are some immediate counterparts to contend with, before even getting down to why I think this should happen. First of all is the question of the budget – can the Doctor Who production team effectively and cheaply create sets for episode set in foreign countries? After all, part of why we spend so much time in Victorian London is because the BBC has various sets and costumes ready from their acclaimed period dramas set in this era. The honest answer to that question is simply that I don’t know – I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of the Doctor Who budget. There are likely ways to do it economically, of course; not every episode set in a foreign country requires location shooting like The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, which we know already from Daleks in Manhattan, The Girl in the Fireplace, or Let’s Kill Hitler. It’s also worth noting, of course, that the aforementioned Classic serials didn’t have any overseas filming, and completed the episodes on quite limited budgets – it’s not necessarily going to be extremely costly to set episodes in foreign countries, in any case.
The other point which is often raised in connection to this suggestion is a lot trickier to get a handle on, given that it’s not really a viewpoint that everyone holds, and it’s based in an idea that’s difficult to define anyway – the idea that Doctor Who should always retain some sort of innate Britishness, by virtue of the fact that it’s being made by the BBC. Just what an “innate Britishness” is becomes hard to qualify when you consider just what it might mean, but I doubt there’s any risk of the show losing that if it goes abroad a little more – after all, its most iconic symbol is a London police box, and the two current leads are from Glasgow and Brixton respectively.
With that out of the way – a digression which, admittedly, may seem a little superfluous if they’re not counterpoints you’d thought of yourself – it’s time to get down to the actual point of this article. Doctor Who should strive to become a little more worldwide; the Earth based stories should diversify, spreading out across the globe.
In part, that’s simply a desire for something new and different; as I’ve mentioned already, we spend a lot of time in Victorian England, for example, or indeed contemporary London. Isn’t it far more exciting to go somewhere new, to see something different? Is that not the entire purpose of Doctor Who? Wouldn’t you love to see, say, an episode set in feudal Japan? Or perhaps a time travel episode centred around Ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone, and Napoleon’s army? Maybe it’s time to go to India, and meet Gandhi and Nehru? A personal interest of mine is communist Russia, so I’d love to see a story involving, say, the Bolshevik revolution or the Kronstadt mutiny. Not long after he first got the role, Peter Capaldi said that he’d love to see the Doctor meeting Martin Luther King Jr, and getting “involved in the civil rights struggle” – something that would require a TARDIS trip to America, really.
Naturally it’s not just historicals – you can do present day and even future stories set all around the world. An alien invasion over a foreign backdrop could well be a great way to find a fresh new take on old classics, with Adipose in America, or Autons in Singapore, and so on and so forth.
Really, that’s what’s the most important part about this – finding new ways for Doctor Who to be fresh and innovative each time it’s on the air. I think in many ways, aiming to avail more fully of the potential granted to you by a story engine that can go “anywhere in time and space” would ultimately push the writers to be more creative; exploring different cultures, different times, and indeed different parts of the world would, I think, give us a much stronger programme. None of this means I don’t already love Doctor Who, of course, because I really do – I just think that, if it really begins to take place worldwide, we’ll be able to actualise a little bit more of the show’s limitless potential.
And that’s very exciting.
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