“Chops and Gravy”: Writing about soaps and Doctor Who

DWM #428Here’s something a bit different. It’s not review-related, so may not be of interest.

When I was asked to write a feature for DWM#428 examing how – if at all – Doctor Who had been affected by soap opera, I met up with my pal Chris Hughes (who knows more about soaps than I) in the Heights Bar, Saint Georges Hotel, London. It’s adjacent to the BBC’s Broadcasting House. They serve a crescent of crisps with their drinks.

There we thrashed out a structure for the essay, in the main, so we could assure ourselves there was enough material for such a piece, but also because I wanted to give Tom at DWM a very thorough indication of what the feature was going to be, before going ahead and interviewing people… and writing 8,000 words. I didn’t want to find out latterly I was barking up the wrong tree.

So, below is what I sent. It was invaluable, actually, when it came to writing the final feature. It became a kind of road map that made me feel quite purposeful as I worked my way along to the end. Needless to say, I’ve never used this method again.


Journeying through five decades of TV, we find out why Doctor Who is actually the greatest soap opera in all of creation. It’s a show bigger than its cast, where much-loved characters pitch up for a period of time, before something new comes along to take their place. This is the story – of everyday space folk – that will never end.

We’ve seen it all in Doctor Who, births (the universe), deaths (zillions), marriages (Jo and Cliff, Rory and Amy… erm, Leela and Andred), love (the Doctor and Rose), betrayal (Turlough), greed (Sil) – you name it. And all anchored by the reassuring presence of the show’s own crucible, the TARDIS, a kind of anti-Rovers Return; it’s not the point where everyone meets, it’s the point where everyone departs.

The Sixties: “It’s a Police Box. What on Earth’s it doing here?”

Soaps of the era: Coronation Street, Compact, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Crossroads, 199 Park Lane, The Newcomers, Weavers Green, Market in Honey Lane, Waggoner’s Walk

A young auteur’s desire to do something truly new and bold in television results in the creation of Coronation Street in 1960. Doctor Who? Formulated by committee in 1963 to fill a gap in the TV schedules! But both have commonalities. Doctor Who begins, just like Coronation Street, commissioned for a limited run [I’ll need to check this – was it originally going to end after Marco Polo?] and on the back of an unsuccessful pilot. But is DW truly comparable to the world of soap? A look at its early years would indicate so…

Our lead characters are the everyday Ian and Barbara, who encounter the TARDIS on an ordinary back street, near where you or I might live. Meanwhile the narrative adopts the form of an unending story, each adventure leading into the next.

Change arrives in 1964, when Susan leaves. It’s a massive shock – there was no forewarning the show’s set-up could possibly alter like this. As far as contemporary viewers were concerned, Doctor Who was the ‘Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara Show’. This is a massive shift in our perception and understanding of the programme’s concept. Susan exits, like many soap characters, for love and a new start. Up West. But then in comes Vicki. It’s likewise with Ian and Barbara, but gradually we become settled with the concept that the show is a street down which many cast members will pass. Even those playing the Doctor.

As the Hartnell era continues, the soap parallels are less obvious, bar continuing feuds with the Daleks and the introduction of an estranged ‘relative’ (well, member of the same species), The Meddling Monk. On board the TARDIS, we suddenly find ourselves with a crew – Vicki and Steven, both from the future – who no longer represent the ordinary man on the street. Visually, too, Doctor Who’s destiny lies increasingly in the stars, its kitchen sink beginnings in Totters Lane receding from view. It’s not until 1966’s The War Machines that the TARDIS touches down on a contemporary street once again. Reflecting the sheer novelty of this setting, the episode opens with a relatively extensive establishing sequence of London. And isn’t it great to see the Doctor pounding our pavements once more?

But this is an aberration, and it’s worth pointing out that in the 1960s – and possibly the whole of Doctor Who’s run until Survival [I’ll need to check this!] – we never see him inside a modern day, suburban home, where there’s a telly and a kettle and signs of family life. That’s despite the fact he spends five years in the 1970s on terra firma. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Come the Troughton years, the Doctor is journeying with a Victorian and Jacobite. Adventures are more conceptual, as is the show’s design. Nonetheless, the base-under-siege format could be likened to a soap, albeit a hugely compacted one, where we’re introduced to a group of people and how they inter-relate. And then the monsters come. Mind you, episode two of The Tomb of the Cybermen is a bit like a lock-in at the Queen Vic.

[Oh, and we’ll have to acknowledge the present day setting of The Faceless Ones, The Web of Fear and The Invasion… not sure how they fit into the thesis yet.]

The War Games, of course, changes everything and reveals the secret soap opera at the heart of the show. The Doctor has a home; a borough! He has responsibilities (which he’s shirked) and a community (which he’s rejected). And it becomes clear which soap archetype he fulfills: He’s the rebel.

The Seventies: “So… the fledgling flies the coop”

Soaps of the era: Emmerdale Farm, General Hospital, The Brothers, Crown Court, Pobol y Cwm, Angels, Garnock Way

Much like the 1960s, the decade begins with the Doctor back on Earth. Tellingly, our first shot is of the TARDIS thumping down in a woody glade. The Pertwee years are set in a never-England, a few years in the future, and preponderantly rural. It’s arguable that this is the landscape the franchise would revisit in the 21st century as Leadworth in Doctor Who and the various lonely research stations in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Certainly, when the Doctor is powering Bessie down an unmarked country lane, it never feels as though he’s about to hit commuter traffic, or that we ourselves might come across him while stuck in a jam on a Sunday afternoon. [Of course, we’ll have to acknowledge the fact season seven stories like Spearhead from Space and Doctor Who and the Silurians do have sequences set on everyday high streets… perhaps hinting at a grittier EastEnders-style of soap the show could have become.]

And yet, the sense of soap opera is never stronger. In a decade dominated by occupational soaps (Emmerdale Farm, General Hospital, The Brothers, Angels) here’s an army one. Or is it a family soap? Using Jon Pertwee’s ‘mother hen’ analogy, we can see how the boys (and girl) from UNIT fit into that template. Brig’s the authoritarian father, Yates is the conflicted elder son, Benton the slightly slow kid-brother, Jo is the ditsy sister who comes of age as the show progresses. Her departure in The Green Death all but cries out for a ‘Peggy’s Theme’ over the end credits.

Meanwhile, the Doctor (the younger-than-his-years granddad, or glamorous, worldly older man?) is spending his time at cheese and wine parties, trading bon mots with captains of industry. The comparisons are unavoidable… at the height of its popularity, Doctor Who has suddenly become the BBC’s glamour-soap, The Brothers – in which, rather neatly, Colin Baker would turn up in 1974, taking on the Roger Delgado role as ruthless merchant banker Paul Merroney.

It’s also worth noting that during this era Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks launched Moonbase 3 – an outer space soap opera.

When Tom Baker and Philip Hinchcliffe arrive, the intention is clear: to break up the cozy familiarity of the format. This Doctor is no longer happy in a family, and often asserts his independence (obviously, the “I walk in eternity” speech). There’s still the odd encounter with alienoids in the home counties, but once again Doctor Who is taking to the skies. Granted, The Key to Time season returns a slight serial element to the show, but there’s never any real sense of stories rolling on into each other.

The Eighties: “Neighbours with roundels”[1]

Soaps of the era: Triangle, Brookside, The Bill, Albion Market, EastEnders, Howards’ Way, The Practice, Casualty, Neighbours, Citizens, Park Avenue, Home and Away

DW is fast journeying into an era where the soap opera truly comes of age, establishing itself at the top of the TV food chain. Under John Nathan Turner (whose pet project is to bring back 1960s soap Compact) the show becomes more of a serial once again. More pertinently, the interplay and relationships between the TARDIS crew is considered a valid avenue for drama (they barely get out of the TARDIS in Part One of Earthshock).

In a move prescient of what would be happening in the soap world, Tom Baker suddenly finds himself laden with a youthful supporting cast, before he himself is swapped out for a younger man. The soaps soon follow suit; Brookside launching in 1982 and finding favour with young adults thanks to the likes of Damon and Karen Grant; Kevin Webster and Curly Watts spearheading a Weatherfield youth invasion in 1983; EastEnders launching in 1985 with its teen contingent up front.

Even more tellingly, all of this happens at a point where Doctor Who leaves Saturday nights for the first time in its history, venturing out into a twice-weekly slot which – some have theorized – laid the foundations for EastEnders. It’s a lovely coincidence that Leslie Grantham (inspired to act by prison visits from Louise Jameson) appears in Resurrection of the Daleks almost exactly a year (give or take four days) before he helps batter down Reg Cox’s door in Albert Square.

As the decade continues, the show becomes increasingly preoccupied by its own history, staging soap-style comebacks for characters such as Omega, the DW equivalent of Ray Langton fetching up back at the Rovers.

Things change around the time of Colin Baker’s arrival – the extended cast is dumped, although extended TARDIS scenes remain, almost as a hangover, even though there’s no opportunity for layers of inter-play. There’s a conscious effort to provide a new twist on one of the show’s perennials as the Rani – a female Master, everyone! – is introduced. Very much posited as a soap ‘bitch’, she’s played by Kate O’Mara (Emergency – Ward 10/The Brothers/Triangle), who, of course, would shortly go on to star in uber soap Dynasty.

And then, suddenly, the series becomes the soap, as Doctor Who faces a classic ‘they’re trying to close us down!’ threat from the BBC hierarchy. When the show does return, it’s all but in the guise of Crown Court.

During its final years on TV – under script editor Andrew Cartmel – there’s both a desire to make DW ‘true’ SF, but also grounded in reality. Remembrance of the Daleks does well to place the show in the real 1960s, buffeting against racism, a quasi-credible military and a world where, when people die, there’s a funeral. But it’s not until the original run’s very final episode that the Doctor finally walks into the kind of front room we, ourselves, might well be viewing the show from. Survival sees the Doctor ducking into corner shops, youth centres and a proto-Powell Estate (plus, meeting a nascent soap starlet). As he and Ace trudge away muttering they’ve got work to do, it turns out they’re not going to be straying all that far.

But the reason for Doctor Who’s TV demise? Coronation Street, of course, crushing it in the ratings war! (But DW will have its revenge…) However, you could also argue it was soap in general. In the early 1990s, soap opera was set to expand. On 20 October 1989, Corrie sprung a third regular episode and in November Emmerdale Farm became Emmerdale as the Tate family arrived to usher in a new aggressively marketed version of the rural saga. Waiting in the wings, Verity Lambert’s own Eldorado (1992 – although that show really proved there was no longer a public appetite for oddball characters in alien environs) and a third regular episode of EastEnders (1994). There was just no room on TV for Doctor Who anymore.

The Nineties: “I finally meet the right guy, and he’s from another planet!”

Soaps of the era: Families, Jupiter Moon, Family Pride, Eldorado, Machair, Hollyoaks, Rownd a Rownd, London Bridge, Springhill, Family Affairs, Quayside, Westway, Holby City

For far too long, it feels Doctor Who’s future is the prose format of The New Adventures, but then that’s no different toPark Avenue on Teletext! Soaps continue to rise, and from 1995 onwards, they become a permanent part of Christmas Day TV in the UK. When the Doctor does return, he’s in Canada, and starring in a production which – visually – owes something to ER, but is perhaps more inspired by The X Files. Most notably, there’s very little here that draws upon what we recognize as the domestic soap opera. In fact, the idea that the tropes of that genre might mesh well with DW is as alien as the see-through snake squirreled away in the guts of poor paramedic Bruce.

However, however! Early drafts of The TV Movie script are rather different, revealing a torturous The Young and the Restless-style back-story for the Doctor, involving paternal secrets and sibling rivalries between bastard half-brothers.

Also, if we don’t do it in a box-out, Springhill deserves a mention here!

The Noughties: “Chops and gravy”

Soaps of the era: Doctors, Night and Day, River City, Silver Street, Holby Blue, Echo Beach, The Royal Today, The Cut

The opening seconds of Rose tell us a lot about how soap played an important part in Doctor Who’s successful 2005 comeback. Starting in outer space, the camera then zooms in on Earth, London… and Rose’s alarm clock, and her ordinary life, getting up for work. It’s a literal journey through sci fi into soap.

The Tylers are very much an EastEnders family (although, writer Rupert Laight argues they’re more a Corrie clan), and when the Doctor steps into their hallway, flipping through Heat magazine, he’s stepping into a paradigm that’s brand new for the show, but one that feels absolutely natural and sensible for most viewers. This is the real world! People fancy each other, worry about what’s for tea, watch telly… The absolute key episode here is Aliens of London, which is really: “What if the ETs landed in E20?”. Here’s the Doctor, watching the whole thing unfold – as we do – on telly!

In his ninth incarnation, the Doctor himself is a bit soapier. He’s real, he dresses like a Mitchell brother, he has an emotional journey to embark upon. The Tenth Doctor is perhaps less worldly, but his romantic melodrama with Rose becomes even more heightened. Meanwhile, a whole soap opera is churning away on Earth, even between the Doctor’s visits: changes in government and the like. It could be argued that the continual tipping of the hat towards the ‘real’ world begins to pall after a while – crowds of people in Chiswick gazing awe-struck at the skies becoming a bit of a recurring motif. But the soap template continues to serve the supporting characters well (maybe not so much The Family Affairs -esque Joneses). Fear Her is ‘Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure at Brookside Close’ while Turn Left is in some ways a thematic development of Aliens of London – “ETs in E20, when there’s no Doctor”, utilizing a supporting cast who we’ve grown to love so much, they can step up and take centre stage. Plus, that argument between Donna and her mother over which route she should take to her job interview plays out like an EastEnders two-hander.

The soap stuff isn’t just going on down here. Across time and space we follow the travails of Captain Jack and the Face of Boe, plus the everyday folk of the year Five Billion.

And then: Sarah Jane Smith is back! She’s like the show’s own Annie Sugden, a much-loved character who we’re always pleased to see and who’s very presence infers a sense of legitimacy on proceedings. It’s also worth noting how her relationship with the Doctor is revisited and ‘soapified’. She, of course, goes on to launch her own series of adventures, set on an everyday street where you or I might live, while Torchwood also takes to the airwaves – the franchise’s very own Hollyoaks: After Hours if you will.

When the Tenth Doctor bowed out – with a 20-minute coda saluting the soap opera it had created within – Doctor Who got a special kind of closure. It beat Coronation Street in the New Year’s Day ratings!

So where does that leave us today? You could argue that, once more, Doctor Who is setting off away from soap – Amy and Rory live in a very stylized England, and neither have family members looming large in their life. Urban Britain – for now – is off screen. But… the last series did culminate in a big old wedding, gatecrashed by the Doctor’s ex-wife, and overshadowed by a complicated love triangle twixt Time Lord and his two companions.

Meanwhile, in the Cheshire village of Hollyoaks, a stranger – named Smith (Kevin Smith, actually) – has wandered into town. He’s eccentric, odd. And he’s claiming to be an alien.


The ‘Pickled in Time’ challenge: We ask our interviewees to pick between various DW and soap characters – who would they chose to remove from time?
The Soap-Sci Fi Swaporama: We swap characters from the worlds of soap and DW and see what happens…
The E20 Dilemma: Does Doctor Who exist in the EastEnders world? Well, yes – Bradley was a DW fan, and so was Trevor back in the early 1990s. Then there was Ricky educating Charlie in sexual politics: “What about the gay one in Doctor Who? The big yank?”[2]. So, does EastEnders exist in Doctor Who? Of course, thanks to the Barbara Windsor cameo in Army of Ghosts, and references to “Walford”. But then… how come the Doctor was able to visit Albert Square?!
Jupiter Moon: The sci fi soap.
The Crossroads Cross-over: Investigating the odd correlation between the Midlands set saga and our favourite series in space and time.
Viva Las Vegas!: Russell T Davies only Corrie script was for a spin-off video farce. We brave the bling to ring every possibly DW connection out of it.
Ken Barlow is the Doctor: ‘Nuff said.
Springhill: The soap DW fans should love.


One thought on ““Chops and Gravy”: Writing about soaps and Doctor Who

  1. That was interesting. But, I thought Mary Tamm was in Brookside, & Tom did an interview in which he said that he could play a part on Coronation Street, arriving at the Rovers Return as a wandering transvestite.

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