Behold the Sound of the Universe: Time, Space and Affect in Doctor Who
This paper explores the ways in which Doctor Who uses sound and sound effects to construct space and time on both a cosmic and a subjective-affective level.
Sound in the Western imaginary has long had a privileged relationship to presence: the invention of the phonograph, the gramophone and the telephone (as documented by Friedrich Kittler in Discourse Networks and Film, Gramophone, Typewriter and by Avital Ronell in The Telephone Book) troubled that relationship. Sounds could now be reproduced in the absence of the body which originally produced them, and this – as has been argued by Barbara Engh – profoundly disturbed the ways in which we imagine space and time. Engh writes, for example:
If the phonographic record… bears the mark of the ‘that-has-been’, nevertheless it does so at the expense of the radical dissociation of the utterance from its context. Even if all the [sounds of the past] could be located, these sounds could only be sampled, arranged in a constellation, supplied with a context. (1)
In this paper, I will argue that Doctor Who fully exploits this temporal and spatial uncanniness of synthesized and recorded sound, to two main ends: firstly, sound is used along the lines that Engh sketches, to disrupt linear time and to create a complex interplay between presence and absence; and secondly, sound as a memory trigger is used to explore the affective dimension of television viewing and to comment on the history and timeline of the show itself and of its fandom.
Although sound – in particular, the theme tune and the sound effects produced by the Radiophonic Workshop – has always been crucial to the affective and temporal dimensions of Doctor Who, I will concentrate on New Who in this paper, because its conscious relationship to Old Who - its consciousness of its own temporal position in television and fandom history – allows it to do more complex work with sound.
Through readings of several moments in the first two seasons of New Who, investigating the disjunction between soundtrack and visual imagery, I will show that the brilliantly uncanny sound of the TARDIS functions very much along the lines that Kittler and Engh sketch out. It is both an index of presence in time and space (the TARDIS is materializing here, now), and an aural symbol of the possibility that linear time and space can be overcome (the TARDIS travels in both, instantaneously remapping both space and chronology). I will then go on to a close reading of the second season episode ‘Love and Monsters’, in which the sound of the TARDIS is described as ‘the sound of the universe’ and functions explicitly as the mysterious object of fannish desire. Through this close reading, I will argue that sound is a powerful affective technology in Doctor Who, creating a fragmented, disrupted temporality not only for its fictional universe but, through its function as a memory-trigger, also for its viewers/listeners.
(1) Barbara Engh, ‘After “His Master’s Voice”’, New Formations 38 (Summer 1999), pp.54-63, p.56.
The idea that New Who is talking about its own fandom history when it talks about time and the historical record I owe to some really insightful comments by the brilliant Penny Goodman on the paper I gave at Leeds last May, as well as to discussions of 'Love and Monsters' with the equally brilliant Una and Matthew. I really hope this proposal gets accepted - I've been saying for three or four years now that I'd love to write an entire paper on the sound of the TARDIS, and look! I really might be able to!