There are some Doctor Who episodes that really speak to us – literally! Which episodes are they, and what do they mean for Doctor Who canon?
“Breaking the fourth wall” is a term used to describe TV shows and films that become self-aware – as in, for brief moments, they acknowledge the fact that they are TV shows and films and “break the fourth wall” (or the screen) that separates the performers from the viewers. It’s the equivalent of a theatre actor suddenly switching gears and chatting to the audience about ticket prices.
There aren’t many Doctor Who episodes that employ this convention, as it can often be immersion-breaking and, in Doctor Who world, there isn’t really a camera following the Time Lord around on their various adventures. That we know of.
But the “breaking the fourth wall” convention was used quite early on in the show’s run by the actor William Hartnell. In the first ever Doctor Who Christmas special ‘The Feast of Steven,’ the Doctor turned to the camera to wish all of his viewers a merry Christmas – something that must have come as quite a shock to his companions Steven and Sara, who were seemingly unaware of the fact that their TARDIS travels were being monitored by millions of viewers in 20th century Britain.
Now, the circumstances surrounding this incident are murky. Some people claim that this was an unscripted adlib by William Hartnell, which was retained in the recording as there was no time to re-record, and because editing in the 1960s was costly. Other accounts maintain that this was a pre-rehearsed and approved moment which, while absent from Terry Nation’s original script, had the blessing of the Doctor Who production team.
Whatever the truth, this isn’t the most canon-breaking moment in Doctor Who history, not least because ‘The Feast of Steven’ – like many Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s – was wiped after transmission, and is currently missing. As such, all that remains of Hartnell’s fourth wall demolition is an audio recording and a somewhat grainy telesnap.
In later years, it became easier for Doctor Who episodes to break the fourth wall in less obvious ways. The Fourth Doctor, for example, would often talk to himself, and at times it is unclear whether he is addressing the audience directly, or whether he is simply thinking out loud. Or both.
Indeed, Tom Baker was keen (for a time, at least) for his Doctor to travel without a companion, and whilst the production team was largely against this idea, there were a number of Doctor Who episodes which saw the Time Lord on his own. The most notable example is the companion-less adventure ‘The Deadly Assassin,’ which opens with a fourth-wall breaking monologue about the history of Time Lord society.
And whilst this trope was seldom seen again in future Doctor Who episodes, it was revived for the 1996 TV movie where it served an even greater purpose – introducing a whole new audience to the world of Doctor Who, and the backstory of the upcoming adventure, all within the space of about a minute. And this fourth-wall breaking monologue was even more bizarre given that it was delivered by Paul McGann who, at that point in the story, wasn’t even the Doctor, as he had yet to regenerate.
Of course, “exposition dumps” aren’t exclusive to Doctor Who episodes and are a well-worn convention of TV and film, and they aren’t usually as immersion-breaking. It can certainly be more jarring when a character unexpectedly looks down the lens and, whilst Tom Baker did this sparingly, there are a few moments from his era that stick out, for better or worse.
The first episode of ‘The Face of Evil’ is one of the more obvious examples, where an (again) companion-less Doctor lands on a mysterious jungle planet and ‘chats’ to the viewer. “I think this is not Hyde Park,” he says. “Could be a nexial discontinuity. Must remember to overhaul those tracers. Put a knot in my hanky.”
He does this again in one of the later Doctor Who episodes ‘The Invasion of Time,’ where he turns to the camera and says, “Not even the sonic screwdriver can get me out of this one.” Of course, this is completely in-character for the Fourth Doctor; he frequently spoke out loud to himself, and these fourth wall-breaking moments can easily be explained within the context of the Doctor Who universe.
The same was true for the Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy who, in the final shot of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks‘ episode three, looked into the camera and admitted that he might have miscalculated. Moments like this are not quite as troublesome as William Hartnell’s Christmas message, although there are other Doctor Who episodes like ‘Dragonfire’ where the Doctor hangs off the edge of a cliff with his umbrella for no reason other than to give the viewer a joke about a cliff-hanger ending. Those scenes are hard to explain.
And then there is Peter Capaldi’s famous monologue from the 2015 episode ‘Before the Flood’ where he spends an entire scene talking to the audience about the Bootstrap Paradox, inviting the confuddled viewers to “Google it” for more info. This is certainly one of the more fun fourth wall-breaking moments, as the guitar-wielding Twelfth Doctor then starts playing the Doctor Who theme, which plays out over the opening credits.
Again, as with William Hartnell, this moment is impossible to explain within the context of the show. But, as with the other Doctor Who episodes mentioned in this post, one can always ask: Does it really matter? If Doctor Who episodes are there to entertain us, is it massively problematic if they break the fourth wall, or if they threaten to cause ripples in the fabric of Doctor Who canon?
Certainly, there are moments like the 60s television set in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ that few fans would want removed (it’s about to show an episode of Doctor Who, in case you were wondering!) But how do you feel about Doctor Who breaking the fourth wall? Does it add to the fun of the show, or detract from it? Would you like to see more Doctor Who episodes employ this convention? Let me know in the comments below.
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