Domesticating the Doctor I: Cocoa, Test-tubes and the Classic Years

Domesticity and Doctor Who don’t seem to fit together, as concepts. There’s something about this show, and its fandom, and possibly the hero himself, that rails against the ordinary and the everyday.

You could argue (as I think I might, in future posts) that a major theme of New Who is the uncomfortable and at times antagonistic relationship that the Doctor has with domesticity – he rails against it, runs from it, fails to see it when it smacks him in the nose, and on several occasions, has to compete with it for the attention of his companions.

Feminism often struggles to deal with the same issue. There’s a long tradition in feminist history of dismissing or disassociating itself from anything that smacks of the domestic, and while that’s an understandable side effect of trying to increase the options of female (and indeed, male) roles, it’s important to accept that domesticity can be a perfectly valid life choice. Even for superheroes.

Choice is key, though. There’s a big difference between characters who choose to embrace domesticity and those who are pushed into it against their nature. It doesn’t seem likely that the Doctor would ever willingly choose a domestic path… or does it? Before discussing the uses of domesticity in New Who, I want to look at the (far fewer) instances in the Classic series where domesticity is remotely relevant to the Doctor’s aimless, epic lifestyle in the TARDIS.

As it happens, this is the theme of the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” The First Doctor has ceased his wanderings in time and space in order to give his granddaughter Susan a “normal” life in one place for a while, and it’s driving him nuts. Susan is enjoying school, but not very good at faking normality, and when her teachers investigate, the Doctor takes the first opportunity he can to cut them all loose from 1963 London, and hurl them into the unknown.

We never learn the truth of how and why the Doctor ended up being Susan’s carer, but it’s very clear that the parental role is not one he inhabits comfortably. The addition of Ian and Barbara to the crew, however, gives Susan a semblance of “normal” family life in amongst all their mad adventures, at the expense of Ian and Barbara themselves, who have been ripped from their own life.

The contrast between mad adventuring and domesticity is actually rife through the First Doctor’s era. For a start, we get to see where they all eat and sleep, something happily ignored for decades at a time in the show. The Doctor accidentally goes through a cocoa-related betrothal ceremony with Cameca in The Aztecs, and responds to this discovery with utter bemusement (but isn’t above using the relationship for his own benefit). He abandons Susan so she can make the most of a fledgling romance in a war-ravaged future Earth (REALLY not a good parent) and promptly takes on a replacement in Vicki, who serves as his surrogate granddaughter up until she also falls in love, and the Doctor cuts her adrift in a war-ravaged Troy. Are we sensing a pattern here? The Doctor is willing to emulate family life on his own terms, travelling around randomly in his intergalactic house, but never considers allowing Susan or Vicki to bring her new boyfriend/future husband into the TARDIS.

(Obviously production decisions have a lot to do with this choice, but I didn’t say this article was going to be fair!)

It’s not until the Third Doctor that we see something close to domestication imposed upon him. The Time Lords may have ensured he is stuck on earth in one time stream, but it’s the Brigadier who provides the Doctor with a job and a laboratory, making sure he stays in one place. And boy, doesn’t the Doctor settle in? Luckily there are plenty of alien invasions to keep him amused, but in between all the adventuring and military politics, his life is almost cozy, with female assistants to pass him his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is. The TARDIS, meanwhile, acts as a glorified cupboard in the corner.

Don’t get me wrong – the Third Doctor is constantly railing and complaining about being stuck on Earth, and never entirely accepts his confinement. But it’s telling that even when the Time Lords free him from his exile, he doesn’t quit his job – in between travelling in time and space he keeps returning to the laboratory and his UNIT family, drinking Sgt Benton’s excellent cuppas, bickering with the Brig, and tinkering with his cars on the weekend. Likewise, Jo’s time as companion never involves cutting herself of from everyday life – she goes on dates, earns a pay check, goes home to change her boots, and still gets to flit off to alien planets during work hours. Liz never even got to leave Earth!

This Third incarnation of the Doctor, then, is fully house-trained. But as soon as he regenerates into his Fourth identity, he and the TARDIS are off again, without looking back. Whenever the Doctor returns to UNIT you can see that he doesn’t quite fit, and isn’t tempted to stay with them. He is a domestic tourist again, occasionally turning up in the suburbs or someone’s home, but only when there’s something nasty in the woodwork.

The Fifth Doctor Years transform the TARDIS into something more home-like than had been seen since the early 60′s, with his companions’ bedrooms as regular sets, but eventually they all leave him to go home, or to find a new one. The Seventh Doctor examines domesticity through something of a scientific lens as he sorts out Ace’s back story, but family and home life in that era of Classic Who are portrayed very much as sources of gothic and suburban horror rather than somewhere safe and warm.

In the New Adventures novels, there’s only one really clear instance I recall where the Doctor was completely immersed in domesticity – the novel Human Nature by Paul Cornell, which I’ll talk about when I get to the David Tennant years rather than deal with the same plot twice. It’s one I highly recommend, though, if only to compare to the TV version!

In the Big Finish audio adventures, which occupy a headcanonspace for me between the classic and new series, even though there is substantial overlap with New Who, there’s only one relationship that I felt really pulled the Doctor against his nature into something like a domestic sphere. This was the pairing of the Sixth Doctor and Dr Evelyn Smythe, who is also the first ‘old lady’ companion the Doctor has ever had, though she was only 55 (a spring chicken!) when she first ran away with him.

Evelyn is a fabulous character, and managed to soften the blunter edges of the Sixth Doctor, not complaining about his pompousness as Peri did, but actively training him out of such behaviour. In “Thicker Than Water,” when he takes Mel to meet Evelyn, it’s clear that he credits Evelyn with having substantially improved his manners and temperament in dealing with people.

That word ‘cozy’ comes up again – while there is no romantic spark at all between the Doctor and Evelyn, they settle easily into the dynamic of an old married couple, and their adventures are dotted with nice chats, cups of cocoa (of the non-marital variety), and gentle holidays in between the madness and the Daleks. Evelyn leaves for love, but that’s not the end of her adventures, nor the end of her relationship with the Doctor, who COMES BACK TO SEE HOW SHE’S DOING ON PURPOSE, something which I don’t think has happened in his history before. This relationship was very much a hint towards how the 21st Century Doctor (both in audio and on TV) was going to develop differently.

For the most part, the Doctors of the classic series and their associated (pre-2005) spin offs not only avoid domesticity, and long term family or relationship ties, but seem to look straightthrough them, ignoring their existence. No, not even ignoring their existence, because he’s so rarely put in a situation where they impinge upon his reality.

The endless traveller is constantly moving forward. He never stops to pick out furniture, or to drop in to any former companions’ homes for tea, biscuits and baby photos. Even his beloved TARDIS is constantly changing (or being changed) by him, often at times of emotional crisis – the jettisoning of Romana’s room, for example, or the restoration that happens just before The Five Doctors.

But something does change for him, and it’s possible that the turning point can be seen in the portrayal of the elderly Seventh Doctor at the beginning of the TV Movie, which also marks close to the halfway point of the Wilderness Years between Classic and New Who – instead of the stark white console room, we see flying buttresses and a sitting room that resembles a Victorian parlour – the Doctor sips his cup of tea and reads a book, surrounded by the music from his record player, a dish of jelly babies and a cluttered (one might almost say, cozy) assortment of possessions.

It’s a calm, utterly domestic scene between a Time Lord and his TARDIS. Who else, after all, was he ever going to settle down with?

The Eighth Doctor we see in the TV Movie was every bit the undomesticated adventurer of most of his predecessors, but for the first time in that story we see a companion’s home, and a friend for the Doctor who is willing to not only turn down his invitation to travel in the TARDIS, but to counter it with an invitation of her own: to stay with her, and fit into her life.

Of course he didn’t say yes – barely even took the question seriously. But the fact that it had been asked was a turning point for the series. Not since Cameca in The Aztecs and Susan before An Unearthly Child had someone suggested to the Doctor that he stop moving for personal reasons, and choose to settle down in one time and place.

When Doctor Who came back in 2005, that question was going to get larger, and louder, and domesticity would no longer be something the Doctor would have the luxury to ignore, as the show itself began to pay greater attention to the needs of the humans around him.

But this post is long enough already. Tune in soon for Part II of Domesticating the Doctor!

11 comments

  1. Sally Odgers says:

    Really enjoyed this first half article, Tansy. I’m hoping there’s a subscription button where I can – um – subscribe. Aha, I see there is, below.

  2. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Marvelous! Well done!

  3. Kmasca says:

    A great rundown – looking forward to the second part.

  4. This is a most excellent post – I hadn’t thought of looking at the show in that way before.

  5. Jennie says:

    Sixie gets a bit of domestication in The Two Doctors, which revolves around food and eating, and ends up with the Doctor and Peri deciding to go vegetarian. The results of this decision can be seen at the start of RotD when Peri is complaining about his cooking.

    As for going back to see Evelyn, I think that’s a direct result of him being torn up about what happened to Peri, which has been explored by many Big Finishes, novels and comics (including one written by Colin himself), so it’s not necessarily a comment on the Doctor as a whole and his direction, but on Sixie in particular.

    (not that my response to any given Doctor Who post is NEEDS MOAR SIX or anything…)

    • MOAR SIX is a valid response to anything!

      I kind of love the fan theory that the reason the Seventh Doctor is so controlling & sneaky and manipulative is because of all the traumas of Six – and that likewise the Eighth Doctor is the way he is because of recognising he went WAY TOO FAR as the 7th.

      • Jennie says:

        I like those theories too <3 Although it's not my favourite fan theory; my favourite is that Doris Lethbridge-Stewart is Benton, but post transition. Car dealership, my left buttcheek…

        I have been a massive Six fan since his very first appearance, when I was about six myself. I finally met Colin this Saturday and, if anything, am now even more so. He was so lovely.

  6. Kate Elmer says:

    Clever, clever, clever! Absolutely fascinating, fun and thought-provoking analysis.

  7. Sally Odgers says:

    I follow Six on Twitter and he DOES seem lovely. One thing I like about the whole crew of him is that he’s so different… but still believably the same person. Different aspects come out in different incarnations, just as different family points come out in different generations.

  8. [...] the last Domesticating the Doctor post I talked about various instances from Classic and Big Finish Doctor Who of the Doctor being [...]

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