Scholar Phil Sandifer once argued that Doctor Who “is every single story there ever was and ever could be, escaped out into the universe, and running loose bringing them into being.” Doctor Who collapses barriers created by such things as genre or, as I discussed in a previous essay on this site, continuities. This is the franchise with three Atlantises, that crossed over with the likes of Rapunzel and Gulliver’s Travels as early as the sixties, that rung in a milestone anniversary with a story that neither Doctor Who nor Eastenders fans seem to want to take ownership of, that had an entire official novel in the 90s written as a Sherlock Holmes book. In short, Doctor Who has no limits. It exists as a doorway to an infinite potential of narrative.
Given their new storytelling aesthetics, it’s no wonder Lego has leapt on the possibilities.
For those who have somehow managed to miss the exquisite delights of “The Lego Movie,” “The Lego Batman Movie,” and “Lego Dimensions” moving into the cultural spotlight, allow me to explain what they do. These pieces of media are built around the basic Lego pleasure of building and rebuilding, with the imagination as the limit. However, the modern Lego landscape has become dominated by licensed themes, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, and so that is built into the rebuilding pleasure these media pieces embrace. (This being a marked contrast from other storytelling approaches by the company, and despite my adoration for Bionicle, it’s probably a more relevant and sustainable one.) They become not just stories about the joy of reclaiming the building blocks of things and reforming them into new frontiers, but of crossing over characters that aren’t supposed to be crossed over and delighting in the possibilities. “The Lego Movie,” the first of its kind, showcased such delights as Batman comically bringing about the deaths of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian, as just one example of the gleeful mad potential. They revel in the joys of postmodern narrative deconstruction and reconstruction. In other words, they break the rules.
And this is an aesthetic entirely at home to Doctor Who. To refer to Phil Sandifer again, he has argued that “Doctor Who has always been so postmodern,” viewing Paul Magrs-penned Iris Wildthyme stories like “The Scarlet Empress” as delivering the logical expansion “that Doctor Who is a largely postmodern structure run by genre tropes and thoroughly subject to literary theory.” Which is to say the promise Doctor Who has long held, and has on occasion delivered upon, is to be a postmodern doorway to trope deconstruction and reconstruction within literary theory discourses. Lego (and its extensive rights to massive media franchises like DC Comics and Harry Potter) merely delivers on that promise, just as Iris Wildthyme does. It gets on with mashing together genres in tropes in a way that is at once both formulaic in how it reconstructs the ideas and simultaneously anarchic, radical, and utterly brilliant.
Fascinating, then, is how Lego utilizes Doctor Who in its narratives. “The Lego Movie” makes do without our beloved British franchise, but in both “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Lego Dimensions,” it plays a crucial role. In “Lego Dimensions,” Doctor Who is the basic structure of the story, and the entire game is practically just an extensive, interactive Doctor-lite episode. Travel through from franchise to franchise is facilitated by the rift, a zone which is unambiguously presented as the time vortex by the time the Doctor shows up for the fourth level, flying his TARDIS right through it. Even aesthetically it clearly bears a resemblance to the Time Vortex, manifesting as a glowing blue tunnel of whooshing light and energy, with circular patterns resembling those ring-like clouds from the Russell T Davies era opening credits.
Furthermore, the game utilizes the TARDIS to explore many minor franchises that don’t get a full role in the game. By buying the Doctor Who level pack, one gets access to a little Lego TARDIS. And by putting that little Lego TARDIS on the pad, you can fly around in a Lego TARDIS within the game as part of its toys to life interaction. Throughout the game, there are pads specifically designed to land the TARDIS in, where it will dematerialize and travel through the rift/time vortex to somewhere else. For example, using the TARDIS in the middle of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” will take you to STAR Labs from the CW “The Flash” and the ship from “Red Dwarf.” The TARDIS becomes a gateway to anywhere in fiction, and between lines of fiction.
That the climax of the game’s story takes the form of a Doctor Who narrative, then, should be no surprise. The final level takes place in the rift/Time Vortex, the Doctor doing battle against the villain from the TARDIS. He provides the means through which a prison can be created for Lord Vortech, and delivers the final blow all on his own, despite not even being a character the base pack includes as playable. Because the narrative crossover structure of “Lego Dimensions” is at heart the structure of Doctor Who, and thus such an end is both inevitable and fitting. It’s not the most iconic franchise in the game. It’s not even the most prominent one, with the main cast made up of characters from The Lord of the Rings, The Lego Movie, and DC Comics. But it’s the one that knows the territory, and that gives it a special kind of power.
But, crucially, Doctor Who also gets to be the only franchise in the film in on the joke. Like “Lego Dimensions,” Doctor Who’s owning the turf gives it that special boost in power despite bigger and more iconic giants around it. In the great big montage of villains being unleashed from the Phantom Zone, from Sauron to King Kong, the Daleks get a cheeky (and improvised) line by the Joker calling them “British robots. Ask your nerd friends.” It’s hard to stress just how brilliantly fitting this is. It’s not, unlike some have suggested, a rights issue. “The Lego Batman Movie” 100% had the right to call them Daleks. Instead, they get them totally wrong as the joke, with the audience expected to totally get what they’re supposed to be as part of that joke. As every fandom pedant can tell you, the Daleks aren’t robots. However, that has the odd effect of adding a strange validity to them that none of the other villains get. They get to exist on more in-universe terms as a strange new alien menace, the way they would to most humans meeting them for the first time on the main show. They can walk through a door between narratives without having to boast their iconic fictional power the way Voldemort and such do.
Naturally, the TARDIS wiki takes this to mean “The Lego Batman Movie” is worthy of coverage, which is possibly my favorite part of the whole thing. Because yes, of course “The Lego Batman Movie” is canon in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s a hugely successful blockbuster in which Doctor Who gets just as iconic a role as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, reaching mass audiences far more likely to hold it as part of their vision of Doctor Who than, say, something like Graceless. But they get the logic behind it totally wrong. To them, it’s because the Daleks are licensed and clearly in it, without any jokes at the expense of them being serious Dalek threats. “No twists, no gags, nothing breaking from what we would expect from regular ol’ Daleks,” as opposed to more obvious reasons like the sheer cultural importance of the film within the modern landscape of Doctor Who. The only reason they’re not the butt of the joke in this film is because the show has been in on the joke of the postmodern narrative structure since before postmodernism was cool. The Doctor, the Daleks, the TARDIS, and all, they always have held the postmodern power to transcend narrative confines. They’ve even been able to joke about and satirize themselves in-universe in the manner the film is debated over for doing. Just look at “Destiny of the Daleks,” a serial that’s a tug of war between Terry Nation doing a generic Dalek story and Douglas Adams taking the piss out of it, with effects like, yes, the Daleks being described as robots.
Furthermore, the TARDIS wiki community has missed the best implications of the whole film! Above all else, “The Lego Batman Movie” is a queering of tropes, a common postmodern activity and one exemplified by Iris Wildthyme. The film takes the fundamental tension of the archetypal hero/villain need for each other and turns it into a homoerotic one, with the Joker as a jilted lover attempting to get Batman to reciprocate their relationship, reconstructing the traditional nemesis dynamic within a tropey romantic comedy frame. Within the film, the source of metafictional joining is in the Phantom Zone, with the act of sending villains there portrayed as the idealized act of dedication between hero and villain, a treatment only those most special to each other would inflict. (however that is in no way a complete divide, characters like Hermione Granger can be glimpsed walking around Gotham perfectly fine). Naturally, when we finally get a look inside, there are thousands of Daleks there. How’s that for a queering narrative, the Doctor as the implied gay lover of a whole battalion of Daleks? It’s the same suggestion as has been made countless times with the Doctor and the Master, but taken that extra delightful step further through cheeky postmodern thematic implication. But then, that’s something TARDIS wiki does rather tend to miss. Doctor Who isn’t for the ticking of continuity boxes. It’s for postmodern infinities of potential. As a wise blogger once pointed out, all we’ve got ruled out is Noddy.
“The Lego Batman Movie” isn’t something new to Doctor Who. Nor is “Lego Dimensions.” But they do mark an important moment in media and Doctor Who’s role in it. With its revitalized widespread cultural impact and an embracing of postmodern aesthetics and values in media like that of Lego, the limits of what Doctor Who can be are well and truly exploding. It’s always been the case that any story can be a Doctor Who story. But now, we finally get to see that in practice. Within this storytelling territory, Doctor Who is right at home. And my god, it is brilliant.