“It’s funny, isn’t it? The things you make up. The rules. If that thing had said it came from beyond the universe, I’d believe it, but before the universe? Impossible. Doesn’t fit my rule. Still, that’s why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong.”
(The Doctor, ‘The Satan Pit’)
I am, by my nature, an opinionated sort. I probably wouldn’t have a blog if I wasn’t, at least not one like this. I’d stick to a tumblr account and fill it with memes and gifs. Instead I’ll write reams and reams of text about anything that suits – whether that’s in a dedicated post, or a comment thread on a newspaper website. Never use a single word, I’ve learned over the years, when a hundred will do.
But I have a confession to make: a lot of what I’ve learned over the years was garnered from YouTube hits, Wikipedia entries and a fair bit of bluffing. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to much online debate I’m often far more ignorant than I may come across, having relied instead on the ability to weave an argument rather than actually give it any substance. If you can be convincing enough in your tone, it’s relatively easy to persuade your audience. A little flash and sparkle goes a long way. In this, I’m reminded of Richard Gere singing ‘Razzle Dazzle’ near the end of Chicago, a song I now have stuck in my head and which I thus won’t quote here for fear of inflicting the earworm upon the rest of you.
But insofar as popular culture is concerned I can talk about Doctor Who with reasonable authority, at least up to a point. I can say whether a story was good TV or bad Who, or the reverse. I can deconstruct an episode and talk about what worked and what didn’t (although Gareth does it better). I can view it within the context of the series as a whole (although again, Gareth does it better). I even have a decent-ish knowledge of Classic Who (three strikes, you’re outta there). I can even look at an episode from the point of view of a small child, purely through having watched every episode of New Who at least once with Joshua. (As a result, I can now see the merits in ‘The End Of The World’ and am far more appreciative of ‘Love and Monsters’, even though the oral sex joke is still a colossal misfire.)
Where I fall down, as it happens, is my tendency to make predictions that turn out to be spectacularly and indelibly wrong. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be talking about just a few of them.
“Bringing Donna back is a disaster waiting to happen.”
“No good will come of this,” I remember saying. And you know, you can hardly blame me. Donna Noble was an irritating trollop the first time we saw her. I don’t care that she was ‘feisty’ where Rose was doe-eyed and soppy (largely because feistiness has been the single defining trait of every single companion the Doctor’s had since 2008, with the notable exception of Rory). She had a voice like a foghorn. I was a big Catherine Tate fan, but she essentially aged Lauren Cooper by fifteen years and stuck her in a wedding dress. I spent the whole of ‘The Runaway Bride’ waiting for the inevitable “Am I bovvered?”, and in a way it was almost disappointing they didn’t include it – rather like a famous pantomime dame who’s not allowed to deliver his TV catchphrase.
I should have figured that Unenlightened Donna (which makes her sound like the crap version of Rimmer from Red Dwarf’s ‘Back To Reality’) was thoroughly unsuitable material for an entire series, and that Davies would have to develop her. He did this by taking out the mouth – although the feistiness remains – and getting her to cry in front of an Ood. It’s an overwrought scene, but it solidifies her, if only because her response – to plead with the Doctor to make it stop – is so utterly real. Donna had a moment of clarity at the end of ‘The Runaway Bride’, in which she suggests that the Doctor needs a companion because “sometimes you need someone to stop you”. Davies takes this as his starting point and has her become the Doctor’s conscience in a series where the Time Lord Triumphant is waiting in the wings.
And oh, it was refreshing to have a companion who wasn’t constantly flirting with the Doctor! As is usual with these things they took the situation to the other extreme and ran a whole series of “We’re not together” gags that were typical examples of the lady who doth protest too much, but Davies (like his successor) is always one for his recurring gags, and you can’t have everything. Donna treated the Doctor like a mate, and he responded in kind, and the two worked wonderfully together as a result – indeed, the chemistry between Tennant and Tate was good enough to see them take to the stage the following year in Much Ado About Nothing.
In the end it all got very tedious and companion-centric, as we’re treated to yet another series finale where the Doctor’s closest ally becomes the most important thing in the universe (I don’t know, what was wrong with just travelling with him?). This is always a mistake, because it kills any sense of empathy we might have with the character – it gets very hard to like Donna once she starts spouting technobabble and teaching the Children of Time how to fly the TARDIS. Then the Doctor takes it all out of her head, in another death-that-wasn’t-really-a-death – it’s a cheap trick, but that final, wordless scene in the control room is stupendous (particularly when you then read that Davies originally intended for the Doctor’s brooding fit to be interrupted by Cybermen, which would have ruined the episode). Series four wasn’t always an easy ride (the Sontaran story is still rubbish), but Donna’s easily one of my favourite companions, and Tate played her to perfection. Much missed.
“Torchwood’s gonna be great.”
I refer you to something I wrote on October 17th, 2005.
“It sounds like a cross between The Lone Gunmen and Spooks, with a dash of Queer as Folk. Whatever you think about Davies’ political agenda with Captain Jack, he was an interesting and compelling character whom I liked a lot. In terms of character arc he was there to provide a suitably gung-ho replacement for the previously violent tendencies of the Doctor – once Eccleston’s incarnation decides to stop being a war hero and goes back to pacificism (notably after ‘Dalek’), he became more like some of the previous, more peaceful regenerations. At the same time, he retains a vicious streak: while Jack isn’t violent for the sake of violence he is nonetheless far more comfortable handling a gun, and in that sense he almost seems to be a projection of the Doctor’s own buried sense of violence; a necessary character. For all that rambling, he was one of the most fun aspects of the last season, and I can’t help thinking he deserves his own show.
It could all go horribly wrong, of course, but just consider the alternatives – they could have decided to make a spin-off series entitled The Further Adventures of Mickey.”
Ah, Torchwood. It could have been so glorious. A lot of people don’t like Jack Harkness, but I confess I always found him watchable, whether he was flirting or shooting – often both at the same time. The prospect of a darker, more adult-themed show, able to discuss the issues that Doctor Who, with its family audience and prime time slot, couldn’t touch? With Barrowman at the centre? Bring it on.
What we got was episode after episode of inane plotting, unnecessary swearing and ephemeral fucking. Barrowman spent most of the first series standing on a rooftop looking broody. It’s like Davies had cutscenes from Devil May Cry 2 playing on a loop when he was approaching deadline. Episode two was centred around sex as a plotline (ha!) but it was embarrassing rather than appropriately carnal. And I don’t mind a bit of language, I really don’t, but not when it comes across like the work of ten year old schoolboys who have been left alone with a tape recorder, charged to produce a radio report but unable to resist the temptation to goad each other into muttering the occasional rude word.
Torchwood eventually got much better. I nearly gave up after that first series, but in the second they all stopped fighting amongst themselves, gelled as a team and had a lot more fun. James Marsters turned up. Oh, and it has one of the funniest series openers I’ve ever seen. A couple of years later there was Children of Earth, a five episode miniseries that stands amongst RTD’s finest work, at least for the BBC, and which upset a good number of people for killing off a much beloved character – a brave decision and the sort the show has never shied away from, taking its cue from the likes of 24. Then it all went to pot again with Miracle Day, which took the formula stateside, without much success (although it does have a mesmerising performance from Bill Pullman). The finale of this features Barrowman saving the world by depositing his bodily fluids inside a gigantic crack. The irony of this is not lost on me.
So I was right, I suppose, if you count those middle two series, but I’ve always seen Torchwood as a missed opportunity. It’s not entirely down to the writing, which was uneven but occasionally brilliant, but the whole show never seemed entirely sure whether it should be appealing to the teenage market or the adults who watched Doctor Who with their kids. In the end, it never fully appealed to either, which is a shame because Barrowman is a great actor, and there were some wonderful moments amidst the dross, particularly once the show stopped taking itself too seriously – such as the time Jack and Ianto were searching an empty office block for their quarry. “Check the roof,” Ianto mutters. “You’re good with roofs.” More scenes like that, and we’d have had the makings of a classic.
(FWIW, I also think Martha and Mickey: Bounty Hunters definitely has wings.)
Tomorrow: we look at theories concerning one of the biggest conundrums the show’s thrown up since its revival, and how I couldn’t have been more wrong about the Eleventh Doctor…