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Lord of time

29 November 2013

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AFTER a concerted attempt to resist the Time Lord epidemic that swept the nation last week (oddly, the more sophisticated and serious the media outlet, the keener they were to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what remains essentially a children's programme), it occurred to me that I would hardly be doing my duty as TV commentator if I passed over an event to which everyone else accords so great a cultural magnitude.

BBC2 attempted to confront the issue with Me, You and Doctor Who: A Culture Show special (Friday). How much of our childhood fears had been given corporeal shape by the Saturday teatime encounter with the bending of the space/time continuum and Daleks? How much was our embryonic moral compass informed by this science-fiction clash between the forces of good and evil, by the heroic willingness to confront existential danger even unto the possibility of self-annihilation?

I was happy to entertain all these possibilities, excitedly discussed by a distinguished line-up of commentators - but then they showed archive clips of the actual programmes, and, like an insubstantial pageant, it all fell to dust.

The main problem was the presenter, Matthew Sweet, whose enthusiasm for the subject reached such levels of rapture as to require any reasonable viewer to step back a pace. A less emotionally involved presentation would have given us more space to join the devotees in their cult. Claiming that we would not yet be enjoying the privileges of civil partnership or same-sex marriage had it not been for a gay kiss in some episode or other makes anyone long for a sense of perspective and realism.

But what of the anniversary programme Doctor Who: The day of the Doctor (BBC1, Saturday), a 75- minute blockbuster? It contained many good things. I was particularly struck by the opening scenes, set within the pantheon of Britain's icons: an East End Board school, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery. Even Queen Elizabeth was involved; but in this case the first monarch of that name, who appeared to have jettisoned the title of Virgin Queen, thanks to her infatuation with the Doctor.

All this is part of a significant trend, observable in the Olympics Opening Ceremony: British heritage employed to add gravitas to a work of fiction, the employment being at the same time ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but also respectful and admiring.

This is not at heart a subversive or radical critique: it is essentially romantic, even reactionary. I fully expect the Doctor Who 100th anniversary to be played entirely by real members of the royal family and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The story sought to engage us with a Manichaean struggle: crucial moral issues of conscience and twists of the extremities of science. Should the Doctor destroy all Arcadia's innocents as the only way of ridding the universe of the most powerful race of evildoers (Daleks, of course, bent on extermination)?

It often lapsed into incoherence and playground humour, but the set pieces were oddly affecting, especially the line-up of all 12 emanations of the Doctor, combining to save his native planet.

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