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

I realised while writing my latest “Domesticating the Doctor” essay (still a work in progress) that I never posted the originals to my actual blog. So I’ll be posting them up this week as I work on finishing the new one.

Originally posted at Doctor Her on 5 March 2012.

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 against 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 as in 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!

8 replies on “Domesticating the Doctor I: Cocoa, Test-tubes and the Classic Years”

  1. Faith says:

    Right from the start, the Doctor describes himself as an exile, and he’s been living that way pretty much ever since, though he has plenty of opportunities to settle down. He just doesn’t want to, which is fair enough, though his attitude towards the companions who do is hardly supportive. But then, he’s ancient. He’s 900+ years old and frankly, if he tried to keep up with all his past companions he would have no time for doing anything else. The concept of him as an alien, with different needs to human beings, is something I feel has had consistently shoddy treatment in the new series. His friends on Earth regularly scold him for not being there when they want him, and yet when are they really there for him? I love your analysis of his family life, how he sort of adopts people and drops them when it all gets too much for him. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the 2005 comeback! My memory of that is the Doctor basically taking up residence in Jackie Tyler’s flat.

  2. tansyrr says:

    He’s 900 years old *now* but was a mere lamb of 200ish (or less) in the first few years.

    I absolutely agree that the new series has done a lot of holding the Doctor up to human standards, as if they were the best in the universe – but then again he has brought this on himself, playing favourites with this one planet for so many centuries. Had he devoted half that amount of time to befriending Sontarans across the various decades and aeons of their world’s history, the new series might have been very different indeed…

    DOCTOR: No, for the last time, I won’t hold a gun!
    ENTIRE SONTARAN RACE: We are judging you so hard right now…

  3. Faith says:

    That’s a really interesting point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the Doctor interacting more often with other aliens, not as enemies (“stay away from my Earth, people!”) or in a single story setting, but inviting them into the TARDIS and showing them around the rest of the universe like he does so often with humans. An alien as a companion, I so want that! Imagine Vastra and Jenny spending a few episodes having adventures in the TARDIS (it’s not even much of a stretch, Jenny is female and British), or the Doctor running back to invite a cat nun aboard. I’d even be grateful for a human from another historical era, but that looks like a long shot at the moment. Just someone who is actually different, you know?

  4. tansyrr says:


    I agree, it’s the one area in which New Who has really fallen down for me – a close-minded idea of what constitutes a ‘real’ companion – those who land outside the restricted view of female, young, contemporary spend less time in the show, and are not marketed in the same way. Even Rory had to wait two years for an action figure!

    The lack of alien planets, especially in the early days, can be put down to budgetary restriction and a determination to not do something at all until they were sure they were doing a brilliant job, but this idea that a main longterm companion HAS to be a young female Brit of contemporary Earth is baffling.

    It’s not like Steven Moffat can’t write a brilliant, interesting, relatable companion from the past or future. He’s given us characters like River Song, Canton Everett III, Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax, Future Oswin and Past Clara, all of which would be credible full-time companions (with the possible exception of River who is obviously a guest star crossover from her own TV show in a parallel universe and has other commitments.

    Everyone keeps talking about wanting the Vastra & Jenny spin off, but I personally would have really liked a whole season of the Doctor staying mostly in their era, having various Earthbound adventures of a science fictional variety, but tied to their place and time just as he has been tied to the home time streams of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy & Rory.

    Historical characters are WONDERFUL, they’ve always worked really well in the context of the show. I’m excited by the possibilities of what’s happening with Clara/Oswin, and it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed all the new companions, because I adore all of them, but I really wanted THAT Clara in the TARDIS.

  5. Faith says:

    Vastra and Jenny – the new UNIT, coming to a Victorian era near you! That would be very, very cool. I would also really love for Rory’s lovely dad to come back. He likes to fix things, carries around a collapsible shovel, knows how to adapt to every kind of weirdness – he is a dream companion! I will, however, try to reserve judgement on Oswin/Clara until we see some more of who she is now. I mean, a girl who dies all the time and turns up elsewhere making souffles, who knows what she might be? Could be aliens after all!

  6. Great post! Actually, as I recall- and it has been a while since I saw The Mythmakers – Vicki chose to leave the Tardis when she fell in love with Troilus. And the early Doctors, at least, did get companions from all times, past and future. Jamie? Zoe? Even Stephen was from a space station, wasn’t he? Later, yes, they tended to go for modern British companions.

  7. tansyrr says:

    Thanks Sue. Many of the early Doctors certainly had companions from other times and planets (all but Jon Pertwee if you include the audio adventures as well as tv). It’s a shame that they haven’t gone there properly in the post-2005 version of the show.

    Certainly Big Finish Audio shows that the myth that ‘historical companions don’t work’ is exactly that – they’ve had an Egyptian pharoah, an Edwardian Adventuress, a chameleonic alien, Mary Shelley and a futuristic Liverpudlian male nurse.

  8. […] on Domesticating the Doctor, we looked at our hero’s distaste of the domestic sphere throughout the Classic Years (with a brief holiday from it when he was Jon Pertwee), we looked at the three Mother-in-Law […]

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