Daftness to Darkness: Ten years of Doctor Who Trailers
You love them, right? You watch them online and then you share them. Doctor Who trailers used to be fleeting things that happened between the National Lottery and Casualty. Now they’re events. They’re picked apart, watched and re-watched and even watched after everything in them has been seen in context many times over. And then they’re mashed and remade and uploaded as monetized art. In the days of quick attention spans, a decent TV spot is worth its weight in gold.
The trailer for Doctor Who series 9 launched last week, and you can’t have not seen it by now, even if you’ve been living under a rock (mostly because at least one of your Facebook friends will have lifted said rock, shone a torch underneath and dragged you out to look at a minute and a half of thudding, fleeting images). This latest preview has been greeted with general wonder and rapture. I am, I confess, somewhat ambivalent amongst the myriad “permission to squee!” comments. But we’ll get to that later.
Because here’s the thing: it’s been a little over ten years since we saw the very first ‘proper’ TV spot, that brief introduction to the re-launched Doctor and his new look. And while the sum total of my narcotic dabbling runs to thirty seconds of secondary smoke inhalation while a couple of friends were doing weed one evening at Leeds University, I imagine that in some respects the experience of that first trailer is probably not unlike taking heroin. Irrespective of my eventual feelings about how he did (and please, let’s not drag that up again) I don’t think we were ever quite so excited about any Who trailer as we were the first time Christopher Eccleston walked into the TARDIS, peered straight through the fourth wall and said “D’you want to come with me?”
After the series nine launch, I went back to those old trailers. I watched all of them in sequence, and I discovered that they change an awful lot. There’s a development. There’s a slow and steady growth of self-confidence. The trailers often reflect the style and tone of the series they’re previewing with far greater accuracy than anyone could have predicted. Looking back on it now, it’s amazing to think how radical that first trailer was: the Ninth Doctor actively extending his invitation to Rose to the audience at large, in precisely the same words. The goal of this is primarily to hook an unsuspecting public, many of whom expected the show to fail – and the effect is rather like a telethon, in the way that its central character broke with the previously established convention of keeping the focus confined entirely within the set (The Daleks’ Master Plan notwithstanding, of course). Amazingly, it works. The delay on Eccleston’s monologue is borderline irritating, but it sort of emphasises the time travel theme.
To contrast, the trailers for Tennant’s first two series are a disaster. The series two trailer sums up many of the worst things about the Tenth-Rose series: the two of them against the world, armed with nothing but a mortgage. The Doctor invites the audience along in much the same way Eccleston did, with twice the panache and none of the sincerity. Piper has one line, and even then she comes across as irritating, which more or less sets the tone. Series 3 isn’t much better: if the Doctor spent most of 2006 fawning over Rose, he spent most of 2007 completely ignoring Martha, and the series-wide gap between them is manifest in an interesting split screen effect. They’ve not even had a proper scene together yet, and already she can’t get close to him.
It’s in 2008 that things start to get interesting, because the fourth wall is re-bricked, the show apparently no longer feeling it needs to prove itself. Observe:
“It’s OK,” this one lets us know at the outset. “I know this is Donna, but look! She’s gone all sensible and calm! She’s taken up astronomy! SHE’S SPEAKING IN A REASONABLY PACED VOICE BELOW 95 DECIBELS!.” This embodiment of a grounded, mature Ms Noble is almost immediately followed by the memorable scene from Partners in Crime in which the Doctor-Donna mug at each other through two panes of glass, unaware that Sarah Lancashire is watching, but it was an amusing moment, so we’ll let that one go. And as a side note, this is where the booming starts big time – you know, the big, heavily reverberated THUD that accompanies each fresh image; it is a contemporary harbinger of doom. It is used in everything, and it sets my teeth on edge. Curiously there are five identifiable monsters in this one, if you include Clone Martha, and six if you include Billie Piper’s teeth.
Actually, spotting the recurring themes and images is a big part of the fun. Besides the booming, there are the explosions, usually (but not always) accompanied by someone diving away in slow motion. There is the TARDIS spinning through space. And the Doctor runs, sometimes quite a bit. From 2011 onwards, there’s a tendency to showcase certain scenery, particularly if it’s on foreign soil. “Somewhere different,” muses the Doctor as the camera rolls over the Utah desert; “somewhere brand new” – coded language for HEY, AMERICA! WE SPENT SHEDLOADS OF MONEY TRYING TO MAKE YOU ENJOY THIS!
Things change gradually. Series 7 – or at least its first half – was about the Ponds outgrowing the Doctor, of course: he’s next to useless in The Angels Take Manhattan and not much better in A Town Called Mercy. The trailer actually encapsulates this beautifully, even if the resulting effect grates. This is the Doctor’s ‘difficult, teenage phase’, the triceratops joyrides awkwardly juxtaposed with the moral angst he experiences when debating whether or not to turn Kahler Jex over to the Cyborg. Oh look, now he’s in his bedroom, and I think he’s smoking weed. I’m not angry, Doctor. I’m just disappointed.
What eventually happens is this: the Doctor sneezes in the TARDIS, and then Peter Capaldi turns up and from then on all we’ve had are jump cuts of briefly-seen monsters; nothing tangible, but enough for a quick screen grab and discussion on the forums. Capaldi looks sinister and ambiguous: this is a dark Doctor, who has traded ballet for moral indifference and acidic quips about rubbish humans. And then:
There are numerous things that could be monsters. The Doctor does look chirpier, mostly thanks to the hair, which is emulating Pertwee’s in the same way his clothes did last series. The rest of it seems to be a maelstrom of unconnected ambiguities that are about nothing at all, designed to keep the Tumblr feeds ticking over until September. Who was that masked woman? Is the hand-in-the-ground a deliberate nod to Carrie or simple coincidence? Am I confused because this is the only trailer I’m not able to view with the benefit of hindsight, or is this stuff actively getting worse?
And what do we learn from all this? Well, I’ve learned there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or re-invent the wheel, or flog a dead horse. I’ve learned that Murray Gold really needs to rein it in, although that’s hardly headline news. I’ve learned that I will always want to go with the Doctor, whatever the contents of his press releases and how much they either hook me or fail to.
But most of all I’ve learned that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Because there’s a bit in that final trailer that I notice each time I watch it, but whose significance was initially lost on me, until quite recently. And it’s marvellous because of what it does, perhaps even by accident. It’s a moment after the Doctor’s “kiss it to death” monologue where Capaldi is in the TARDIS, shot from below, and he looks down at the camera, shrugs, and offers the faintest of smiles, directly through the fourth wall. And in an instant I’m as excited as I was when Eccleston first proposed a little spin in his time machine.
In an instant, it’s ten years ago, and we’re right back where we started.