REVIEW – The Unsilent Library: Adventures in New Who

An exciting batch of ten essays published by the Science Fiction Foundation explore how a 50-year-old show can be a contemporary hit.

Doctor Who is a hugely popular program that unlike the TARDIS is as big on the outside as it is on the inside. With over 50 years of cultural significance, thirteen canonical iterations of its titular character, along with a great many more iconic companions, gadgets and monsters, the show has barreled along through time and space spurred on by its own evolution. Unfortunately, the show disappeared from the airwaves in 1989, before finally being resurrected on 26 March 2005. This was the day “Rose” would be transmitted on BBC One, the first full episode of Doctor Who in over 15 years and one which would launch the program into unprecedented success with audiences both old and new.

Head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies brought the program back with renewed contemporary relevance in social, political, linguistic and technological terms. With the show regenerating right alongside the real world, a batch of essays from 2010 titled The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the new Doctor Who mindfully explores the updated aspects of the 2005 revival in intricate detail. Edited by Simon Bradshaw, Graham Sleight, and Tony Keen, the collection of essays unpacks how to construct a timeless universe that is never wholly apart from planet Earth.

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The first chapter to note is Graham Sleight’s ‘The Big Picture Show: Russell T. Davies’s writing for Doctor Who’, which analyses the base point of the programs 2005 resurrection. Sleight breaks down Davies’ writing of the series to four key elements: depth, pace, scale and Davies’ aptitude for science fiction. According to Sleight, all four of these elements function together immediately in 2005’s ‘Rose’ for a defining mislead: a shot of the vastness of space, only for the view to be turned to Earth and then centred on the Tylers’ morose council flat. Using this as a jumping off point, Sleight digs for the real world within the fictional world, delivering nuanced analysis that somehow explains the frequently impossible universe of new Who. Every fiction is pin pointed to something real. There is also a stellar comparison between the writing of Davies and current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, a comparison that could cause a whole new Time War between fans of the program.

Skipping ahead, the brilliant third chapter in the collection comes from Una McCormack, titled ‘He’s Not the Messiah: undermining political and religious authority in New Doctor Who‘. McCormack’s central thesis is that, “Russell T. Davies […] demonstrates deep skepticism towards Utopian projects aimed at human perfectibility, whether eternal life […] or citizenship of the (purportedly) rationally governed state”. The pitch is a solid foundation to a thought-provoking essay, exploring the natural limitations of the human race and its constructs. After all, The Doctor is often found fighting administration and bids for immortality, such as in 2007’s ‘Gridlock’ and  ‘The Lazarus Experiment’. The list of episodes goes on and on: the Doctor appears and discovers an ideology or construct that opposes his values, and then swiftly dismantles it. It is a recurring motif of Doctor Who that is applicable to today’s society, what with the orange Who-like monster now leading America. McCormack also applies a Foucauldian reading to Davies’ Doctor Who, charting an analytical course that is fascinating to read and adds a whole new dimension to the program. Consequently, Chapter 3 offers some really vivid ideas to explore that live and breathe on their own and adamantly apply to today’s world.

Catherine Coker’s chapter 6 titled ‘Does The Doctor Dance? Heterosexuality, Omnisexuality, and Spontaneous Generation in the Whoniverse’ is a vital addition to the collection. Coker contends that 2005’s ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ are together, the first real doses of omnisexuality within the Whoniverse. Coker contends that from here “Davies presents a true sexual spectrum through its characters both major and minor”, a thesis that puts Doctor Who in a unique position. The essay does well to highlight this significant fact, in that science fiction usually handles sexuality as a brief obstacle instead of an ever-present norm, an “awkward ‘issue of the week'” as opposed to a normality of society. As Coker brilliantly notes in this chapter, Whovians have a lot to be proud of in their show, by the fact that Davies rejects this model and “instead chooses to address the group as part of the regular viewership of the show by allowing the LGBT population in his universe to exist and thrive”. Following this important set up are considerations of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack being an ‘Omnisexual Superhero’ as well as an intricate exploration of The Doctor’s lack of sexuality. The Doctor and Rose shippers have a lot of good material to gauge on here…


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Ultimately, the TARDIS is always connected to earth, and you won’t watch Doctor Who the same way again after reading this collection explaining why. The full contents of the riveting collection, as well as how to purchase, are listed below:

The SF Foundation is now offering The Unsilent Library at the discount rate of £1 (plus p&p). Purchasers should contact to order.