On December 17th 1989, television changed forever. When those crudely animated short films first aired on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, no one could have known the impact those shaky yellow hued characters and their love of frosty chocolate milkshakes would have on popular culture.
627 episodes later and their influence is still being felt. From popularising ‘annoyed grunt’ to reinventing language itself – ‘Meh’ is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary – the show continues to carry the kind of cultural cache that makes stars flock to its studio and fans sneakily quote lines in normal conversation to weed out who’s cool or not.
What’s wrong with that? It’s a perfectly cromulent thing to do!
It’s no surprise then that within that 25-year history of remoulding and repurposing the best pop culture for all kinds of yuks and guffaws, occasionally, the Doctor has been seen in and amongst the citizens of Springfield.
And by Doctor of course, we mean the Fourth Doctor… because he’s Matt Groening’s favourite… and probably still the most recognisable to Americans…
So sit back, pour yourself a glass of Henry K. Duff’s Private Reserve, and let’s travel back through the years to find the moments where the Doctor met The Simpsons!
Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming
My favourite Doctor Who appearance in The Simpsons is also his first; in this acerbic, hidden gem from Season Seven – where Sideshow Bob steals a retro nuclear bomb from an army base during an air show and demands the end of all television in Springfield.
The episode itself had a torturous birth. As part of the Writers Guild of America’s remit for television writers, at least once a season, shows like The Simpsons would have to farm out an episode to a freelance writer. In this case, it was the fantastically named Michael Donovan “Spike” Feresten, Jr., a former intern for The Late Show with David Letterman who went on to be a staff writer for Seinfeld.
Despite his eventual credit, Feresten’s first draft was completely rewritten by the writing staff; dialogue and all, leading Executive Producer Bill Oakley to describe it as ‘one of the most arduous rewrites in the history of the show’.
Which seemed to bring out a devastating bitterness in the writers.
It’s here that we get the first appearance by Rupert Murdoch, who, as an inmate of Sideshow Bob’s, chastises him for attacking Fox by screaming ‘Hey! I own 20 per cent of that network!’ – a move that was only approved after Murdoch himself stepped in to halt the censors who demanded the Murdoch-like figure be cut.
There are multiple barbs and slings at Fox – that familiar fanfare, with all its pomposity and self-importance, is reduced to nothing more than the sad ‘wah-wah’ of a lone trumpeter – there’s no value given to both it and television as a whole.
So it comes as no surprise that when the Fourth Doctor appears, as one of the ‘esteemed representatives of television’, it has less to do with his standing and more to do with the show’s attitude towards the medium; it’s a throwaway gag in the same sense a grenade is a throwaway deterrent.
Walking into a room resembling the war room from Dr Strangelove (the whole episode is a parody of 1960’s-era nuclear war movies like this and Fail Safe) alongside the likes of Bumblebee Man and Steve Urkel, its clear where the writers believe the true power of television lies.
His appearance is borne out of a genuine love for television and the show that, for perhaps this week only, can only be expressed through exasperated anger: it’s this, to me at least, that makes this appearance stand out among the other cameos by the Time Lord. It has an edge beyond two titans of television acknowledging each other.
However, it isn’t all biting the hand that feeds you; there are a number of truly inspired gags: Milhouse being ejected from a fighter jet, the return of ‘that guy who, uh, eats people and takes their faces’, and who could forget The Stingy and Battery Show: ‘they bite and light, they bite and light and bite…’
Bart the Fink
From perceptions of the medium to perceptions of you – yes you! The fans! Well, one particular type of fan with this, the next reference to Doctor Who, uttered through the burrito-smeared lips of Comic Book Guy.
An enduring parody (even his catchphrase “Worse. Episode. Ever” has appeared with an entirely different noun in The End of Time) Comic Book Guy, wheeling a barrow filled with said delicious Mexican food, unambiguously and rather practically assesses that: “Yes, this should provide adequate sustenance for the Doctor Who marathon.”
Like the Fourth Doctor representing a particular audience, Comic Book Guy has on occasion taken the views, sometimes quite literally, of the kind of fans sniping at the show from forums such as alt.tv.simpsons and part of his universal appeal comes from this raging self-importance which Hank Azaria, the voice actor behind the character, once succinctly described as “an adult who argues with kids as if they’re his peers.”
Behind the scenes, this episode – which sees Krusty fake his own death to avoid the IRS – is written by Simpsons stalwart, staunch libertarian, gun rights advocate, and my favourite writer, John Swartzwelder.
Something of a recluse, according to Matt Groening, Swartzwelder (who has written 59 episodes, the most of any writer) used to pen his scripts while sitting in a booth at a coffee shop: “drinking copious amounts of coffee and smoking endless cigarettes”. When California passed an anti-smoking law, he bought the diner booth and installed it in his house, allowing him to continue his process in peace.
A fantastic writer with a specific love of the absurd brushing against the mundane (i.e. the perfect Simpsons writer) he now writes satirical novels with titles like The Time Machine Did It (which is brilliant), Dead Men Scare Me Stupid, and The Fifty Foot Detective.
Mayored to the Mob
Cometh Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con, cometh the Doctor!
In a gaggle of sci-fi cameos, references, and perhaps the best celebrity cameo ever (take a bow Mark “Luke, be a Jedi tonight” Hamill), the Fourth Doctor can be seen signing autographs for awaiting nerds (apparently, Alf was busy).
Whenever these twin elements – the Convention and Mark Hamill – are prominent, this Season Ten episode soars: the musical numbers, the references, Luke Skywalker selling Sprint; it’s never better. It’s such as shame that the plot, which sees Homer becoming the Mayor’s bodyguard, falls flat in comparison.
Executive Producer at the time, Mike Scully, has often been criticised for starting what became a permanent turn towards the absurd for its own sake and in this, and the episodes around it, that you can feel it moving away from the heart of the show, the family, and more towards Homer’s oafishness; leading critics to describe perhaps the best television character to not come from Gallifrey as ‘Jerkass Homer’.
These claims seem almost quaint now considering the lower standard of recent episodes but there are moments when – and it becomes more evident when the show starts to slide away from creating a heightened parallel of the world around us and more towards self-consciously wacky or nonsensical jokes that undermine its own history – the show basically became just another animated series.
Albeit one that could still occasionally produce some great television.
Treehouse of Horror X
Inspired by the horror comic boom of the 1950’s – where EC Comics reigned in blood with titles like The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror – before the CCA closed the casket on terrifying teens; The Simpsons grasped the flaming torch of terror and, using the model from horrifying portmanteau films, brought the tradition back from the dead.
The anthology episodes gave the writers a chance to break free of the confines of the world they had created. Nothing was considered canon; any source of reference, be it Edgar Allen Poe, King Kong, or A Nightmare on Elm Street was considered fair game.
So it’s surprising that we’ve not seen more of the Doctor. In his sole appearance in Season 11’s Desperately Xeeking Xena, the Fourth Doctor is encased inside a PET bag for ‘safekeeping’ by the notorious villain, The Collector aka Comic Book Guy. It’s then down to newly created superheroes Stretch Dude and Clobber Girl aka Bart and Lisa, to free him, Yasmine Bleeth, and Lucy Lawless from a fate worse than eBay.
It’s all harmless, Marvel-baiting fun.
One notable piece of trivia is that segment writer, Tim Long was hired by director Richard Donner to write a Broadway musical version of The Goonies (called “Hey You Guys!”… Okay that’s not true) which feels far too close to actually being a The Simpsons gag for comfort.
A parody of Michael Apted’s Up Series, this Season 18 episode sees documentary filmmaker Declan Desmond (played by Python Eric Idle at his most smarmiest) return to Springfield to film the next instalment of his exploratory series into the lives of Springfield’s finest (except Lenny who is too boring for film).
At one-point, Homer tells Declan: “Check with me in 8 years, Doctor Who. I’ll be kicking your ass with a golden boot!” Which goes to show that Homer is at least aware enough of the show (and that it exists within his universe) to know who the Doctor is and that he can travel through time.
As for the episode itself, the overall theme of appreciating what you have when it comes to family, doesn’t break any interesting or new ground for the show. It’s not a particularly good episode but neither is it poor. The concept just feels a little undernourished.
We’ll check back in eight years and see if its improved.
Holidays of Future Passed
This is more like it. A Christmas and far future episode and it’s one of the best of Season 23 (and possibly the best future episode since Lisa’s Wedding).
A heartfelt look at reconciliation between the different generations of The Simpsons family where each individual character and their offspring have either softened with old age or atrophied with resentment or remorse.
Basically, every Christmas then: am I right? Am I Right? Sigh… It’ll be lonely this Christmas…
Anyway, looking towards the future (for that is where you and I will be spending the rest of our lives!) and it seems law enforcement will be handled by Daleks complete with truncheons and Policemen’s helmets, because you can never be too British.
It’s a rare treat to find such an emotional episode so late in The Simpsons run. Especially one that favours honesty, such as the scene where Bart and Lisa, a little bit worse for wear, sit in the treehouse to discuss the challenges of parenthood.
The real ace up its sleeve is its treatment of Homer, who, thanks to old age, has mellowed back into the sweet, caring father that he could, on occasions, be in those halcyon early days of the show – it makes sense that, as he got older, he would be the wisest character when it came to rearing children because, for all his and their faults, they are his greatest success. Homer carries the kind of wisdom that comes with age; from knowing that, the problem you currently face is nothing that time and a little bit of forgiveness can’t cure.
It’s a brilliant piece of writing in an outstanding episode… plus it has a Dalek too! What more do you need?
Love is a Many Splintered Thing
Love is in the air and, like most airborne viruses, it’s eating away at Bart.
Struggling to come to terms with pass relationships in a dead-on parody of the opening of Annie Hall, Bart decides to give love another go when he discovers his long-lost sweetheart Mary Spuckler (Zooey Deschanel) is back in town.
Learning that he’s been taking love for granted, Bart and then subsequently Homer find themselves cast out among the similarly self-inflicted down at Brokewood Apartments. Determined to win their women back, the pair force themselves through a strict diet of British rom-coms, one of which features a very familiar blue box.
This Season 24 episode benefits from having an unusually focused story; although thanks to some self-serving cameos and a reliance upon beyond-tired storylines (Homer does something wrong, Marge kicks him out… yadda yadda… they get back together like there was any chance of that not happening), it’s neither satisfying or particularly interesting to watch.
However, the episode does also boast a special guest appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch – who just so happened to be in the right place at the right time and managed to back himself two roles (are you going to say no to those cheekbones?), as the British Prime Minster in the Love Actually parody and as Severus Snape (yeah, like I said, it’s a little self-serving).
This is a strange one. It has all the makes of a classic story.
Diggs, a transfer student and an expert in Falconry who suffers from a mental illness, befriends one of the family; eventually saving both the family member and the falcons at the local show.
The problem is, the family member is Bart.
It’s not that the episode isn’t affecting; it’s just that you can imagine just how more impactful it would be in the hands of, say, Lisa – a character well known for wearing her heart on her sleeve and not for telling people to consumer her summer wear.
You can’t escape the feeling that we haven’t really learned anything new about Bart’s character: his sense of injustice is a bedrock of what makes him who he is; it’s just hard to see this encounter as being as powerful as the moment Bart accidentally kills a mother bird in Bart the Mother or the dozen or so other times he has acted out before his moral compass resets itself and he is compelled to do the right thing.
As for the Doctor Who connection, Diggs lists both the TARDIS and Dalek #7 as people who he would like to meet (what’s wrong with Dalek #6?).
The Season 25 episode also has the indignity of being the least watched episode of The Simpsons in America with an audience at broadcast of only 2.69 million.
Treehouse of Horror XXV
Heading down the delightfully cul-de-sac of outlandish premises, reality-breaking situations, and dead-on movie parodies, this Treehouse of Horror episode doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it does allow fans jaded by recent episodes (and general fans of movie parodies) to unite to laugh at Moe dressed as a droog.
The mid-section of this trio, A Clockwork Yellow trucks in the quantity of its allusions rather than the quality of its insights into the movies of Stanley Kubrick. This Simpson-ized Clockwork Orange has enough invention to carry things along nicely; its smartest move is to have Moe as the leader (“Moe is their leader”) which frees Homer and the other droogs (called Glugs here) to add a yellow sheen to some of Kubrick’s iconic imagery.
Artfully avoiding the trap of using parody as a joke in and of itself by it’s sheer energy and unexpectedness (there’s a great Barry Lyndon gag punctuated by Comic Book Guy announcing that even he doesn’t know where the reference has come from), it’s another great addition to the Treehouse of Horror pantheon.
As for it’s Doctor Who connection, when concocting a serious of diabolical pranks, one of the ‘nasties’ puts into a hat the jape “Tell Each ‘Doctor Who’ They’re the Worst” which is something that we cannot condone… plus if you believe Peter Capaldi (which we do), then any Doctor can be someone’s favourite.
It’s viddy, viddy true.
Enacting a perfect Venn diagram of most people reading this feature, this 2017 episode concerns Doctor Who, graphic novels, and Lisa Simpson episodes of The Simpsons (it can’t just be me who loves a good Lisa Simpson story?). Well, any episode that explores the family dynamic usually carries more impact than the more outlandish, barrier-breaking episodes which often leave most fans scratching their heads and muttering something about the ‘good old days’ being dead and buried.
However, Springfield Splendor, a parody of sorts of American Splendor – the 2003 movie adaptation of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, which seamlessly blends the life of the author with his autobiographical graphic novels to tell a fourth-wall-breaking story of finding the poetry in everyday life – succeeds by finding the connection between Lisa and Marge, who as respective writer and artist for Lisa’s own slice of real life, Sad Girl, because an important tool in Lisa’s plea for understanding, kindness, and acceptance.
Of course, this being The Simpsons, that heartfelt plea is soon undercut when a theatre impresario dissects Lisa’s Sad Girl graphic novel; turning it into a parody of every tacky theatre cliché you care to mention. When the momentarily-swept-up Marge falls for the gaudy excess of the production, only a last-minute realisation saves her from a parental disaster.
Sure, it might feel like we are treading along familiar ground but in visualising Lisa’s digressions and focusing on one of the strongest relationships the show has in its arsenal, it’s a rare later series treat.
So, I hear you cry, what about the Doctor? Well, in mimicking an earlier entry in this perfectly cromulent guide to Doctor Who and The Simpsons, at the Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con, where Lisa is a guest on a Women in Comics panel alongside Alison Bechdel (Fun House), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), and moderator Roz Chast (a long-time New Yorker cartoonist who assures Lisa that her comics are both ‘Funny ha, ha’ and ‘funny aha, ha’), there’s a TARDIS lurking in the background.
The Simpsons Season 29 continues with Haw-Haw Land in January 2018. Doctor Who Series 11 is expected to return in Autumn 2018.