Posts Tagged With: russell t davies

Who saves the day?

DAVROS: Already I have seen them sacrifice today, for their beloved Doctor. The Earth woman who fell opening the Subwave Network.

DOCTOR: Who was that?

ROSE: Harriet Jones. She gave her life to get you here.

DAVROS: How many more? Just think. How many have died in your name? The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.

(Davros, ‘Journey’s End’)

Recently, I watched the 2005 Doctor Who series again, from scratch, with Thomas keeping me company. It’s aged surprisingly well. It’s New Who before it got bogged down with needless homages to the past. At the time, Davies’ umbilical snipping annoyed me; it felt as if – through the Time War – he was stomping all over the legacy of the show and then turning it into a soap opera.

These days it’s more apparent than ever that this is exactly what he was doing, but it bothers me less. Instead, I concentrate on the good things: the actually-quite-reasonable special effects, the decently-paced storytelling, some pretty creepy aliens (if you don’t get a chill when that phone rings and Noah Johnson’s voice cries “Muuuummmy….”, or when Richard Wilson grows a gas mask through his face, there’s something wrong with you) and even John Barrowman. I know that ‘Jazz Hands Jack’ wore out his welcome long before the fourth series of Torchwood, yet I still love him. And I always will.

But there’s something about that Ninth Doctor, and it’s a recurring trend. Basically, he’s a bit crap.

Part of the problem is Eccleston’s brief tenure in the leather jacket. Davies’ first series as chief writer establishes the Doctor as a broken, violent figure whose ultimate redemption begins when he refuses to kill one Dalek and ends when he refuses to kill a million of them. It’s ironic that one of the final scenes in this first series features the Doctor not watching television in a London council estate but on the floor of a colossal space station, assembling things out of wires and circuit boards and arguably looking seriously Doctorish for the first time since Paul McGann got out his jelly babies. Had Eccleston not jumped ship when he did, the next series would have undoubtedly seen a more confident, self-assured Time Lord stomping around the universe with Rose and saving the day far more than he actually does in this series.

Not entirely useless, but too little and too late.

Not entirely useless, but too little and too late.

That notion of ‘saving the day’ is what drives today’s entry, because for a while now I’ve been compiling a list of every episode in the New Who TV canon, with the intent of determining each Doctor’s relative usefulness. Because if you actually look at Doctor Who in its post-revival years, what you find is a show that’s far less about an ageing Time Lord saving the universe, and far more about his companions doing it for him. There’s far less trickery with wires and exploding shuttles, and far more eleventh hour reprieves, conveniently placed Chekhov’s guns, and more than a few supreme sacrifices.

None of this is new to the show. One of my favourite Classic Who stories, ‘The Ark In Space’, ends with not one but two sacrificial suicides from members of the crew. ‘Earthshock’ saw Adric destroy the Cybermen at the cost of his own life. And then there’s poor old Katarina. But it’s telling that in the ‘Death of a Companion’ section in the companions Wikipedia entry, over half those listed are from New Who. Acts of self-sacrifice – as opposed to pointless deaths, which Classic Who had in abundance – abound in the post-revival era, whether permanent (supporting characters), temporary (Jack) or silly (anything involving Rory). It’s almost as if they’re put in on purpose with the intention of building to one last Montage of Demise, which is precisely what we see while Davros is monologuing during the scene I quoted at the beginning of this post. I could just about believe that, if I also believed that Davies was capable of thinking this far ahead.

But all this got me thinking. Besides the suicides, there are plenty of examples where the Doctor is in a fix and only his companion is able to save him, presumably as part of the now-milked-to-death “companion identification” ethos that the show has tried so hard to promote for decades, but particularly since 2005. We can’t identify with the Doctor, we’re told, so we must therefore identify with his companions. This means making them spirited, independent and likeable (well, one out of three, Martha). Oh, and feisty. Mustn’t forget feisty. They must appeal to the lowest common denominator by being young and pretty because that’s the only way that we’re going to like them. Again, none of this is exactly new (cf. Susan, Leela, Peri, Mel) but it’s fair to say that New Who has over-egged the pudding. It wouldn’t be a problem except that the show now works tremendously hard at building up audience identification for each companion before completely undoing it by turning them into blank-eyed gods, giving them Time Lord mindsets, reincarnating them across the entirety of time and space, or resurrecting them from the dead on a weekly basis. In other words, if you’re a companion and the universe has to revolve around you, it’s going to be hard for people to empathise.

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The long and the short of it is that earlier this year, I went through every single story (note: story, not episode) of New Who and I gave each one a point allocation, depending on how the story finished. We may break it down thus:

The Doctor saves the day, more or less on his own2 points

The Doctor saves the day with help1 point

The Doctor has no real part in saving the day 0 points

I then tallied up the total points that each Doctor accumulated, and divided that by the number of points they could have accumulated if they’d been on top form throughout the series, and from this we get a final ‘effectiveness rating’. So an unassisted, triumphant Doctor who’d starred in thirty stories would amass sixty points. And so on.

Note that ‘saving the day’ is ambiguous. For one thing, the term itself may refer to the salvation of five or six people (or even fewer), or the entire universe – in each case I put in whatever the thrust of that week’s narrative happened to be. Furthermore, these narrative thrusts only apply to climactic events – cancelling the bomb, appeasing the wrathful deity, or destroying the Daleks. These may be events in which the Doctor plays only a small part, but it would be unfair to say that he is ever actually useless during a story, with the possible exception of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’. Even in a tale like ‘Midnight’, in which the Doctor spends most of the narrative out of his depth and surrounded by people who fear and distrust him, he is able to use his influence (and another plant and payoff) to convince the steward to do the right thing, and the Doctor’s moral imprint upon events is felt long after she blows Lesley Sharp out of the airlock.

” It’s not like I’m an innocent. I’ve taken lives. I got worse. I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own. Sometimes I think a Time Lord lives too long.”

(The Doctor, ‘The End of Time’)

It’s not a perfect system. For example, if the Doctor has an idea but gets someone else to do it, because he’s otherwise engaged (cf. ‘The Age of Steel’, below, he gets only one point. Some of you may find this unfair. I call it my system of scoring, and I’m the one who put this together, so tough. And with that in mind, I hope the scoring is at least relatively consistent. Let’s see how we get on, shall we? Ninth first. Oh, and important point: acts of sacrifice, excepting those of the Doctor himself, are highlighted in yellow.

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Oh dear. It really doesn’t look good for poor Chris. But as I said earlier, I don’t think it’s his fault. The first series of New Who was very much about bringing the Doctor back from the brink, and I’m sure we’d have seen another side to him if Eccleston had lingered.

On to the Tenth.

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Now, this is interesting, particularly when you compare it to the Eleventh (below). He’s a little more effective than his predecessor, but look at how many stories involved sacrifice – fourteen out of thirty-six, which is over a third. This is almost certainly connected to Tennant’s ability to look appalled and shout “NO!” to BAFTA-winning standards, but no wonder Davros was gloating.

Finally. Finally! Mr Smith.

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Fewer sacrifices, but lots of ‘null points’. And yes, I’m aware that this will need updating again in December when he goes all golden and Christ-like, in another overt display of religious symbolism. Even with two more sets of full marks (unlikely given that November’s instalment also stars Tennant and will probably end with Hurt doing something redemptive and heroic) he’ll be hard pressed to leave any sort of real distinction.

Perhaps all this is grossly unfair. Part of the problem with nostalgia-craving fans like me is that we tend to misremember the past. I’m looking back at Classic Who under the impression that every story ended like ‘The Masque of Mandragora’, but that’s probably not the case. As much fun as it is to sneer at Davies’ and Moffat’s penchant for slow-motion dives into hot lava, it’s equally plausible that were to examine the ranks of Classic Who we’d find similar trends. Personally I don’t think we will. Nonetheless, the only way to be sure is to compile similar lists for every. Single. Doctor. And then expand them to include comics, novels, Big Finish productions, fan-fiction…

But that can wait. In the meantime I’m off to watch tonight’s episode: ‘Gridlock’, in which the Doctor witnesses the overdue demise of a character with a massive head. And for a change, I’m not talking about the chief writer.

Categories: New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The (Jurassic) Ark In Space

I’m sure Comic Con is great. And I’d love to see San Diego. But I’m glad I wasn’t there for the Q&A I’m going to talk about tonight, because I suspect it would have set my teeth on edge.

A lightly spoiler-ish article on io9 – forwarded to me by Gareth – details the Grand Moffat’s plan for the new series, and on the face of it, the outlook isn’t pretty. As much as I look forward to every new season of Who, hopeful that it’ll in some way eclipse the last in terms of quality – or, perhaps, atone for some of the sins of previous episodes (I’m looking at you, Ms. Raynor) – I think it’s fair to say that this one has me as unexcited about the show’s return in autumn as I’ve ever been.

Let’s start with the trailer.

To anyone under the age of ten or who happened to love Cowboys Vs. Aliens, this is undoubtedly brilliant. To anyone who was watching TV in 1993, or who happens to have seen TV that was made in 1993, it rips off at least two episodes of Red Dwarf. I was one of the few who thought ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ was overrated in the first instance; I have no wish to see it remade by the Doctor Who team. And that’s before we even get to that shot of a Dalek eyestalk, which is in itself oddly reminiscent of Return of the Jedi.

Yes, those Daleks. Moffat assures us that we’ll see

“more Daleks than you’ve ever seen in one place — and every generation of Dalek.” And it looks fantastic, now that the visual effects are just being completed. “Lots and lots and lots of Daleks. All the things you see when you close your eyes.”

Maybe I’m in a minority here, but when I have nightmares about Who, they don’t involve Daleks. They involve reruns of ‘Fear Her’. I’m not frightened by the Daleks; overexposure has rendered me completely indifferent to them. The Daleks are no longer scary, and thus no longer appealing. And there is a glint of fanboyish glee about Moffat’s desire to get the gang together, as if he were a chubby, bespectacled ten-year-old appearing on Blue Peter or The Antiques Roadshow with his collection.

I didn’t even object to the Power Rangers Daleks, despite the cynical (and rather obvious) collect-the-set marketing ploy. It’s just that I don’t trust anyone at the New Who offices to be able to do anything interesting with the Daleks. And making the Daleks interesting is crucial to their success, and the very reason why so many of the post-2005 Dalek episodes have been second / third-rate: include the Nation’s Finest, and you’ve got a clear ratings winner, so there’s no need to actually come up with a story, just a different setting (Daleks in Churchill’s England / depression-era New York / the Black Forest). Chuck in a couple of cries of ‘Exterminate!’, add some trigger-happy military types who don’t know what they’re dealing with and who are certain to meet early and untimely deaths, and you’ve got yourself an episode. I’m not unremittingly nostalgic for Classic Who, but the unfortunate truth is that Dalek stories are lazy, because the last time they did anything genuinely interesting was back in 1988.

Things don’t improve with the second episode of the series which will, apparently, be called ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, which calls to mind obvious (and, one would assume, quite intentional) parallels with Snakes on a Plane. No episode with such a title, you may think, could possibly fail on any level. I’d counter thus:

1. The last time Doctor Who did dinosaurs, they were shit. The story wasn’t, but the dinosaurs were. I know they were on a shoestring, but still. Just saying.

2. ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ is written by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote ’42’ and the season 5 Silurian episodes, all of which were shit.

3. Snakes on a Plane is also shit. It’s not even mindless entertainment, fine-if-you-don’t-take-it-seriously, so-bad-it’s-good shit. It’s just shit. Irredeemable shit.

I think that’s enough shit to be going on with, don’t you?

Meanwhile, at an arc level…

How did Moffat come up with the idea that the Doctor’s name was “the first question?” someone asks. “To be honest, it’s been there from a start. He never gives his name. Other Time Lords do, but he doesn’t. Clearly, his name is very important. Only I know why. We actually find out the truth” about the importance of the Doctor’s name.

That Doctor. His refusal to give his name is indeed unique, and categorically unacceptable. I was just discussing the sheer bloody-mindedness of it only the other evening, in the pub with my mates the Rani and the Master. That was before we were interrupted by the Other and the Meddling Monk, who wanted to borrow 20p for the pool table.

Elsewhere:

Someone brings up the idea that the Doctor leaves the brakes (the “blue boringers”) on when he flies the TARDIS — and Moffat notes that River Song was probably winding the Doctor up about that — because you might notice that when she flies the TARDIS, it still makes that same wheezing, groaning materialization noise.

Yawn, the brake-crunching, pull-to-open, needs-six-people-to-fly-it-TARDIS. But here’s a thought – and I voice it aloud despite the fact that it’s going to stomp all over everything I’ve just written. We might, to be honest, be at the stage where we have to stop taking these throwaway remarks seriously and just accept that the continuity of Who is one big mess. As, of course, one would it expect it to be, with a multitude of writers and guest writers and chief writers and script editors, all with their own ideas as to what the show should be, and that’s not to mention the novelisations and comics and BF productions, with inconsistencies and disputed canonicity. Consider, for example, the Doctor’s regeneration limit – established as twelve in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and adjusted accordingly thereafter until, in the SJA ‘Death of the Doctor’ story, it was mentioned by the Eleventh Doctor that “there isn’t one”, a story that was promptly picked up by the Guardian and made into a front page web article for a few hours on a Tuesday evening.

Moffat’s consistently making silly jokes, and while the remarks about the TARDIS brakes have no doubt stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate amongst the engineers who post at Outpost Gallifrey or wherever the fans hang out nowadays, there is nonetheless the strong possibility that he just put it in because he thought it was funny (and it could have been, except it came from River, who is irritating). Similarly, Father Christmas is probably not called Jeff (now that was funny) and the Doctor probably didn’t throw the TARDIS manual into a supernova (although I’m sure the story where he did just that exists somewhere). And yes, the pull-to-open thing in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ was wrong. But that’s the point. Under Moffat’s reign (and, to an extent, Davies’ before it), episode writing is a dialogue, a nod to the fans, an acknowledgement of their presence and – often – a subtle dig at them. Every episode is going to be pulled apart and analysed to death within hours of its transmission, and the writers know it. Such things are thus put in to purposely wind us up, and they succeed.

The truth is that Doctor Who can be whatever the chief writer wants it to be, because it’s transcended continuity. There are certain fundamental ground rules – no true love, no kissing, no beards – but that’s it. The fans have spent years shoehorning and explaining and reconciling continuity, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. For example, Tegan’s appearance in A Fix With Sontarans‘ is non-canon, because the story is non-canon, because it’s a story that occurs within the context of a children’s programme hosted by a chain-smoking northerner in a tracksuit – and the subsequent fanfiction attempts to reconcile Tegan with the Sixth Doctor, while undoubtedly well-meant, were frankly silly.

Besides, the Doctor lies. At least this one does, because that’s how Smith likes to play him and Moffat likes to write him – and ultimately they’re the ones calling the shots. Personally, I’d consider the revelation of the Doctor’s name to be a clear violation of one of the unwritten rules – but they’re myrules, not his. However much I may have whinged this evening, the fact remains that mine is a singular viewpoint, and my own views of what Who ought to be are always going to be different from even the most like-minded friend or colleague or fellow-blogger. Phillip Pullman said that writing isn’t a democracy, and Doctor Who – despite the collective input I mentioned earlier – isn’t really a Jungian collective. It’s whatever the person in charge makes it. The bottom line – and the only question we should really be concerning ourselves with, when all is said and done – is whether or not the creative decisions made at the top make for good television. Because ultimately that’s the only thing that really counts. So perhaps we should be viewing series 7 in that light. Roll on autumn – and bring on the dinosaurs.

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The Great Doctor Who Party (ii)

(If you’ve missed out on the earlier bits of this little saga, they’re available here. And here. And, if you’re really bored, here.) Let’s start with the suit, which we bought on Ebay.

That buffet, then.

“HI- I- AM-HERE-TO-FIX-YOUR-TAR-DIS.”

 

I’d much rather forget the entirety of this one, but you can’t have a children’s party without pink wafers. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it.

Job well done, I think. I can take no credit for this; I did the labels and took the photos. My other half did all the work.

As I may have mentioned, the Musical Weeping Angels was a non-starter, but everyone went for the find-the-monster quiz – even though we think it was sabotaged by the eventual winners, whom I’ve now decided hid the Empty Child picture after making a note of the number, which would explain why no one else could find the damned thing. Well, you can’t win ’em all. Literally, as it turns out.

Anyway, it all went off swimmingly, and himself enjoyed it tremendously. And that, of course, is the only thing that really counts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like this:

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“Why am I handcuffed? Why do you even have handcuffs?”

Posted on by reverend61

Oh God. I really should stop with the anagram generator.

Word games are endemic in New Who. There was Doctor Who >> Torchwood, for a start. Then there was Mister Saxon >> Master No. Six, which Davies maintained was a coincidence but which did, in any case, provide a convenient point of explanation for Josh when we got to the culmination of the series 3 story arc. More recently, and on a related note, I worked out that ‘James Moriarty’ is an anagram of ‘Majority Master’, which is funny when you consider the introduction of the Master as a Moriarty to Pertwee’s Holmes (as Terrence Dicks is fond of re-establishing in pretty much every 2 Entertain commentary). I even got an entire Who / Sherlock pastiche out of it.

But it turns out ‘Sonic Screwdriver’ can be rearranged to form ‘Doc screws in River’. Gareth pointed out that ‘Screwdriver’ more or less contains half this as is, so it’s not much of a stretch, but it’s still pretty lurid, and not something I should really be thinking about just before bed…

“I knew I shouldn’t have asked him to use the turbo setting.”

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Protected: Taking the p*ss

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The God…complex?

Posted on by reverend61

Someone get out the horse tranquilisers; Moffat’s off on a rant again.

An article in today’s Metro quotes his comments to BAFTA Guru, in which he speaks about the “fairly stupid” people who dare to suggest that the shows he creates are too complicated. “They’re both huge international hits,” he allegedly fumed. “We make no apology. Don’t expect to do the ironing; sit down, pay attention and think about it.”

The image of ironing during Doctor Who (something I do when we’re watching the older, simpler stories) reminds me of a review I once read of Johnny Cash’s Unearthed box set – a posthumous compilation of outtakes and unreleased material from his various American Recording sessions with Rick Rubin. “This is not music,” said the review – which may or may not have been in Q magazine – “to have on in the background when you’re washing up, or in the car, or at dinner parties. This is music to be savoured, digested and above all listened to properly”. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point: there are some things that need to be savoured. It’s too easy to let them gloss over you and ignore what’s going on. In a pleasing nod to the times when people used to really explore the music they acquired, Classic Album listening parties have recently become something of a hit.

It would be tempting to suggest that the stupid people to which Moffat refers are brain-dead, council estate-residing simpletons who think that what you see on The X-Factor is what actually happens, believe everything they read in the Daily Mail, consider Eastenders to be the summit of good drama and whose parents worshipped Diana and were big fans of “that lovely song from Titanic“. It would be tempting, but it would be inaccurate, because it would ignore the work of the hopeless Dan Martin, who obviously thought that Moffat’s complicated writing style warranted a front page Guardian article (OK, front page of the Guardian website, but isn’t that all anyone looks at these days?). Indeed, the web’s awash with debates and blog posts about whether the show is now too complicated for younger viewers – a sentiment that is as needlessly patronising as it is hideously inaccurate, given that most younger viewers can programme the Sky+ box with more adeptness than their parents, as well as outclassing them at video game events and even understanding the plot of Artemis Fowl. What we really mean, I suspect, is that it’s just too complicated for us.

When Russell T. Davies left the TARDIS at the end of the last decade, Doctor Who was still compelling television, even if it had deteriorated into soap. His obsession with grounding the Doctor and giving him a family (completely in opposition, one could argue, with the original spirit of the show) had detracted from some of the very good ideas he’d had, because all too often we were forced to watch the invasion stories through their eyes. Thus when John Simm used his DNA as a template for every human being on the planet, we were treated to three minutes of Catherine Tate crying on her mobile. When the Autons crashed through a shopping centre, we were forced to endure a screaming bout from Camille Coduri. And when the Children of Time (and don’t get me started on how much I detest that terminology) were trying desperately to get hold of the Doctor, the entire sequence was hampered by Billie Piper’s incessant whinging. Frankly the only extended family member on Doctor Who that never outstayed his welcome was Bernard Cribbins, who was never less than great, even when he’s dropped into the middle of a shameless Star Wars rip-off (14 minutes in, if you wanted to look).

Moffat’s response to all this was to tone down the domestic drama and bring in a string of plants and pay-offs, ontological paradoxes and general wibbly-wobbliness. Now, instead of remarks about disappearing bees, we’re given thirteen glimpses of Amy’s crack (Must. Not. Make. Jokes). Instead of the Doctor actually dying at the edge of the lake, we discover that he was hiding inside a robot we’d met earlier in the series (that one was, at least, faintly plausible). And all those random apparent continuity errors in series five were, in fact, an older Doctor who was wandering back through the memories of Amy Pond just before she rebooted the universe.

Which reminds me –

ANDY: Rimmer was a hand-picked special agent for the Space Corps. He had his memory erased and was programmed to behave like a complete twonk so no one would suspect he was on a mission to destroy Red Dwarf in order to guide Lister to his destiny as the creator of the second universe!

LISTER: You what?!

ANDY: Yeah! You know the bit where Lister jump starts the second big bang with jump leads from Starbug?

RIMMER: [Incredulous] Jump starts the second big bang?

ANDY: Well, that’s the final irony, isn’t it? Lister, the ultimate atheist, turns out in fact to be God!

Meanwhile, back on planet Who, the Amy Pond who’s wearing the eye patch is a parallel Amy Pond who’s not married to Rory. She’s not the same Amy Pond as the Amy Pond who visited the Gangers with the Doctor and Rory, or who dressed up as a pirate in ‘Curse of the Black Spot’, because that turned out to be the Ganger version of Amy. Nor is it the future Amy who has (despite no formal training) become highly competent with a sword, even if she’s got the odd wrinkle. The real Amy was in fact in some sort of medical bay about to have a child. But even this Amy is re-imagined from her own memory.

Which reminds me:

[RIMMER sits on the edge of his bunk, thoroughly depressed. What’s about to happen will not alleviate this state.]

RIMMER: [VO, muffled] I don’t want you to panic, Arnold, but I’ve had a jolly good think, and I think I know how to explain this to you.

[He sticks his head above the table. His past self stares at him with a mixture of fear, shock and abject horror.]

RIMMER: Hi.

PAST RIMMER: Hi. I’m staying calm this time.

RIMMER: Good.

[Just then CAT and LISTER enter. The past RIMMER does a double take, looking from the LISTER on the bunk to the one in the doorway.]

LISTER: Yo, Rimmer, there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.

RIMMER: Not now, Lister.

PAST RIMMER: [very tense] TWO Listers? And a strange man with large teeth!

CAT: Hey, I’m a cat!

PAST RIMMER: [not a well man] Oh, of course you’re a cat! Come in, sit down, there’s plenty of room.

[Just then who should drop by but the just-married couple, LISTER and KOCHANSKI.]

FUTURE LISTER: Yo!

PAST RIMMER: [losing it fast] THREE Listers!! Splendid!!! Perhaps Lister here would like to go over to the fridge and open a bottle of wine for Lister and Lister!!!! Rimmer here doesn’t drink, because he’s dead, but I wouldn’t mind a glass!!!!!

RIMMER’S VOICE: I don’t want anyone to get into a flap here, but I’m the RIMMER who’s from the double-double future.

[He rises from the dresser in the corner and steps forward. He is dressed in a tux, and has a thin moustache.]

FUTURE RIMMER: I’m the Rimmer who’s with the Lister who married Kochanski. Now, from this point on, things get a little bit confusing…

PAST RIMMER: Please! Before anyone says anything else, I’d just like to make a little speech. GO AWAAAYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!

——

Or, as Kryten might have put it, “Now I have to go back in time so that I can sacrifice myself, so that we can end up in the mess we’re in now. All in all, today’s been a bit of a bummer, hasn’t it sir?”.

The point is that general paradoxes and silliness were fun in Red Dwarf because the pudding was deliberately over-egged. It was television that made you think – the time travel-themed episodes, in particular, were always complicated – but there was never any question of the science being allowed to overshadow the comedy, and you knew that as soon as Robert Llewellyn had finished making one of his complicated expository speeches, Chris Barrie would interject with a snide comment and steal the scene (or Danny John-Jules would just play dumb, which was also amusing, at least for a couple of episodes). Now, you have River Song revealing herself as the long-lost daughter of Amy and Rory, whom they first met in what was (we presume) her second incarnation, before seeing her again towards the end of her life, and then encountering her again as a child, who regenerated into the girl they grew up with who then regenerated into – anyway, the point is that none of this is funny and that at the end of it, we’ve still got River. Nothing has been gained, and much time has been wasted having to endure Alex Kingston admiring her own arse.

Essentially, the ontological wizardry of Doctor Who seems to have become its entire mythos. The show has become a show that is about time travel, rather than an adventure story with time travel as a central element. In the old days, the Doctor would go somewhere and have an adventure, and then disappear. There was no mucking about with history, no sudden appearance of gigantic black bats, no talk of fixed points or time being in flux (well, there was occasionally, but not every sodding week). When the jacketed Doctor in ‘Flesh and Stone’ who tells a blinded Amy that she has to start trusting him is revealed to be the later Doctor who is about to be erased from history, I don’t think “Ooh, how clever”. I think “You smug bastard, Steven”. Because (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) it smacks of showing off. I know that he uses predestination and parallel realities to drive home an emotional point – something that worked particularly well in ‘Blink’ and in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and to a certain extent in the first River Song story before she became the irritating hussy she is now – but it feels these days that it’s more about making the programme complex and involved simply to up your game, rather than because it’s the right thing for the Doctor. In other words, our chief writer sticks these things in as ‘rewards’ for fans who deconstruct each episode to oblivion on the blogosphere – while Davies hated internet geeks, his successor seems to relish their work, as long as they’re not revealing spoilers.

But there’s always a danger in pandering too much to one community. The central problem under Davies’ reign was that Doctor Who was trying too much to be lightweight Saturday entertainment, losing something of its original self in the process. With Davies’ departure some of the original spirit has arguably returned – there’s still too much of Amy and Rory working out their marital discord, but at least we don’t have to spend every other episode wandering around Cardiff. Doctor Who has evolved in this manner at the cost of some of its abrasive charm: it’s an overblown, epic drama these days, and perhaps they’re so far down that road they’ll never be able to return, but the narrative would arguably work better if the writers would learn that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that while most sensible people can follow the intricate dot-to-dot patterns they sketch out, we’re so exhausted by the time the picture is completed that we no longer care what it is. So I don’t think Moffat’s approach to the show is excessively complicated. I just think it’s needlessly complicated. There’s a difference.

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The Gold Road

Posted on by reverend61

Something for Valentine’s Day…

I may be misremembering the classic series, but it strikes me that the new Doctors – particularly Tennant – are far more hands on than their predecessors. It helps that Tennant’s Doctor, despite his occasional cockiness, was a very human character. This was also the age of the Russell T. Davies soap approach, where every companion was embroiled in a story of unspoken love / unrequited love / love in denial. (I’m being a little unfair to the Doctor / Donna story, really, which – despite once more placing the companion at the centre of the universe, thereby negating our ability to relate to them – was one of the less irritating series arcs. The recurring “Oh no, we’re not a couple” gags were tiresome, but they were a darn sight better than Freema Agyeman’s incessant sulking.)

Actual moments of romance were (out of necessity) few and far between, and that’s as much a trait of the series in general as it is of the Doctor. I actually wonder if there’s a rule book somewhere in the dim and misty archives of the BBC (you know, the room where Terry Wogan did Auntie’s Bloomers) that dictates the Laws of Time:

Anyway. Leaving aside the romantic slush, have you noticed the bear hugs? There are a lot. I mean an awful lot. There are comedy hugs, unnecessary hugs, farewell hugs laced with dramatic irony, bittersweet hugs, hugs that you really want to see develop into something else and hugs that you frankly didn’t want to see at all (Jack? I’m looking at you. Now sit down and put it away). Doctor Who has become very dark over the years, but there are moments of light and fluffiness, and when you put them all together it’s a bit like chomping through an economy size bag of Haribo: over in a flash, because they’re so compulsively moreish, but you feel sick afterwards.

About twelve years ago I was doing hospital radio. Our status as a registered charity meant we could play more or less what we wanted, within certain ethical parameters, and one of my favourite records to play on a Saturday was ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’ (notably used as the theme from ‘The Golden Girls’), which at the time I absolutely adored. It took a few years of detachment for me to realise that it’s a dreadful, dreadful song – it’s almost inconceivable that the man who could have penned ‘Lonely Boy’ could have come up with something so dire. (I actually blogged about this quite extensively some years back, so there’s no point going into my particular hang-ups again.) But when I was twenty and naïve, it was the best song in the world. At some point I went off it, and the CD then spent the best part of a decade on its shelf, sandwiched between Genesis and Goldfrapp, a safe distance away from anything that could turn those little bits of data into recognisable sound.

Then, when Andrew Gold died last year (somewhat prematurely, at the tender age of 59) I listened to it again, and realised it held a certain kitsch value. It’s nicely produced and competently performed; it’s just the sentiment I can’t stand. At the time I was in the middle of another Who video – that’ll come next week – but I suddenly had the idea of combining two different types of cheese. Because it strikes me that the Barney-like hugging of the family-friendly Whoniverse that Tennant’s Doctor inhabits – encompassing a whole network of allies and spinoff shows – was perfect for a montage. As a result this was extremely easy to put together, at least in terms of finding suitable clips, because it was just a question of forwarding through to the end of each episode, which is when the mushy stuff invariably happens.

Andrew Gold’s back catalogue is owned by the UMG, and their somewhat draconian stance on copyright meant that I originally couldn’t post this on YouTube, because it was blocked worldwide. I have thus placed it on Viddler instead, as recently as this evening when I uploaded a new version that got rid of a couple of old glitches that annoyed me. Looking at it again, I’m conscious that it didn’t actually start out as a love story – that was never my intention – but in some respects that’s basically what it became. A bit like my life, really. Happy Hallmark Day.

Edit, 3 Feb 2013: the UMG copyright stance appears to have shifted somewhat – I had a go at uploading this yesterday, purely on a whim, and it got through! The link has been updated as a result.

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Inside off-track

Posted on by reverend61

Have recently been reading this:

It’s official and BBC-backed and glossy and superficial and sycophantic (not that you need to be a BBC release for to have an inflated sense of your own or someone else’s self-worth; check out Andrew Cartmel’s Through Time for an appalling lack of judgement when the author comes to look at his own stuff in the 80s). There are far, far too many uses of the word ‘iconic’ – a term that is bandied about too frequently and in the wrong contexts in any case, and which should not be applied to anything that is not at least twenty years old, but it’s sprinkled throughout this episode as liberally as the young Lister’s use of the word ‘crypto-facist’ in ‘Timeslides‘. There’s a lot of back patting and literary high-fiving and remarks about making pioneering television – it’s like watching six hours of Confidential. Certainly there are glimpses, here and there, of the tensions and problems that occurred during production of the Slitheen episodes (for example), but these are typically glossed over with comments like “There were a few heated words, but we pulled together and worked it out”. I realise it’s basically an expanded press pack, and that it probably would have been counter-productive to actually tell the truth about Christopher Eccleston, but the whole thing gets very tiresome in places: sometimes I just yearn for a little transparency.

For all that it’s quite fun. There are some interesting insights into earlier drafts of stories and the way that characters developed, and Gary Russell writes competently and with enthusiasm. He’s talked to a lot of people, and the anecdotal style works well, and it’s interesting to get differing perspectives from directors, writers and the creative team. At the same time there are a few telling comments that, with hindsight, we can regard with a raised eyebrow of Roger Moore proportions: Dan Zeff, for example, warmly reminiscing of his time on ‘Love and Monsters’ by remarking that “I thought it was going to be this oddball episode they threw together, and I’d end up doing the one everyone remembers as duff”, which is exactly what happened anyway. Oh, and Russell T. Davies talking about the departure of Rose at the end of ‘Doomsday’, and telling us that “the whole point of losing her is that we miss her but she’s gone. Like the Doctor, we can never see what she gets up to in that parallel world. It would have spoilt the heart of the whole franchise actually, and we’d know too much and it would water down that climax” – which is presumably why he then decided to bring her back for series 4.

But it is to Helen Raynor, serving as script editor during these fledgling revival series, that I will give the last word:

“A lesson we learned on Series One was that we hardly ever have a red herring, in an Agatha Christie way – we never take the viewer up a story cul-de-sac in order to make them think something’s happening when in fact it’s something else. But there’s a big difference there between your red-herring-story-cul-de-sac and actually having a story which takes you in unexpected directions. And I know that’s because Russell feels that very deliberate red herrings somehow make you distrust the show and the storyteller – they feel as if they’re putting a joke over on the viewers rather than taking them on an exciting story journey. So I think one of the tricks with a Doctor Who script is to constantly allow it to go in exciting and surprising and unexpected directions, but not by simply stopping the story for twenty minutes while you do a bit of a tap-dance routine and try to dazzle the viewer into thinking something else is going on. It’s useful to spot that in advance and to steer writers away from it.”

Oh, how times have changed.

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Silver Screen Nemesis

Posted on by reverend61

Years ago, there was a joke doing the rounds:

Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. None – they just sit there and hope it’ll come back on.

Post-2005, of course, this doesn’t work (although it’s still funny, if you know your history). But I had to change it:

Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lighbulb?
A. Thirty – one to change the bulb and the remaining twenty-nine to rant about how much they preferred the other one.

Actually, the twenty-nine is probably misrepresentative: there will be a fair few who will argue vehemently that Russell T Davies was the best thing to happen to the show in its fifty-year history, that the soap aspects humanise the show, and that there was a reason Doctor Who was cancelled. They’re right about the last part – the rose-tinted spectacles are out in full force when it comes to classic Who, and I think we let it cloud our judgement. I’m abivalent about much of new Who, but when it comes to comparisons with the old stuff I do confess to seeing both sides of the argument, and am therefore, as Oscar Wilde once said, a man who can’t actually see anything at all.

But that’s a whole other blog post that I will eventually write. To summarise just here, the digital age has brought about a new wave of critique and online commentary that can be as acidic as it can be sycophantic. There are few shows that are subject to as much critical scrutiny as Doctor Who, and I can think of no other programme – in the UK, at least – that is grilled, dissected, torn to shreds, hung, drawn and quartered by the people who profess to be its fans. We’ll justify our behaviour by claiming that we love the show for what it once was, or what it could be, or what it should be, or what it…never won’t be…sort of thing. All the while we’ll ignore the little voice inside that says “It’s back. And you always wanted it back. Isn’t it better to have it like this than to not have it?”. (For some reason, mine always sounds like Patrick Troughton.)

Anyway. The fans were out in force yesterday afternoon over the announcement that Doctor Who is “to be made into a feature film”. There’s no script, no cast information, no story, no release date and no production crew. That didn’t stop the Guardian readers launching into a passionate debate about the whys, wherefores and whethers. Suffice to say that the article and subsequent commentary tell us nothing that we didn’t already know, except that Dan Martin is an idiot (but I knew that already) who knows bugger all about Doctor Who and will fill his columns with provocative puff pieces that serve only to fan the flames, rather than support the cause of decent, constructive journalism. I have stayed firmly out of this debate – I have nothing to add to it and no firm opinions either way (what’s the point of speculating about a film that hasn’t been cast or scripted and for which even the tone and context has yet to be announced?). And it’s curious, because staying out of the Doctor Who debates always leaves you with one of those Naked Lunch moments where you suddenly stop and wonder what on earth you’re actually doing with your time, and what the point is, so I read the first few comments and then abandoned it completely, so as to avoid winding up thoroughly dispirited with my wasted life.

It’s not as if the series’ planned jaunt to the cinematic format is new. Only yesterday I mentioned the rotten 1996 TV movie, clearly pitching (unsuccessfully) at a different target audience and changing the very essence of Doctor Who in the process. It’s not so much the inconsistencies (Paul McGann’s revelation that he was “half human on my mother’s side” had the fanboys tearing up their parents’ basements in anger, but anger is only there if you choose to believe him, because “rule number one: the Doctor lies”). It’s the whole tone of the piece that’s wrong: Eric Roberts is hopelessly miscast, the new TARDIS’ interior seems unnecessarily elaborate, and the story is tedious and meandering. It’s a shame, because with a little more effort it could have seen the start of great things for McGann, who has had to be content instead with his radio work – which, while admittedly prolific, is scant compensation for the screen time that the eighth Doctor really deserved.

But what I want to talk about today is the 1965 production, Doctor Who and the Daleks – the first of two jaunts for Peter Cushing, playing a wholly human, non-canonical and quite different Doctor. The film has a TARDIS (homemade, and lacking the definite article), and Daleks, and the Doctor has a (human) granddaughter, and supporting characters who share the names of the television Doctor’s first companions, but that’s about the end of the similarities. This adventure sees Dr. Who (as he is named, which is a less rare occurrence than you might think) set off on an adventure after Roy Castle falls on the controls.

TARDIS interior. Different to what you might expect.

Undaunted, the gang travel to a retroactively named Skaro to oversee the end of a conflict between the Daleks and the Thals. Searching the plastic jungle for the McGuffin mercury they need to repower TARDIS, the team find themselves captured by the metal monsters. After several futile attempts to escape their prison cell, the Doctor finally twigs as to the reasons for their lack of success, rising from his seat and seemingly breaking the fourth wall. “There!” he cries triumphantly. “That’s how they know what we’re doing!”

Right, so that’ll be the really really big security camera, then.

The gang eventually escape by insulating a Dalek and then removing its brain from the casing, allowing Roy Castle to climb inside. Handy, this chap.

A single protruding fin gives the only clue as to what’s hiding beneath that blanket.

Meanwhile, the other Daleks don’t suspect a thing.

Dalek lava lamps. Because even when you're a disembodied brain trapped in a wheelie bin, style is important.

 
Heading into the petrified jungle, the gang regroup with the Thals.
 

Years before The Truman Show, painted backdrops were in.

 
 
 
There’s a bit of plotting and scheming in the jungle, and more of those tight costumes.
 

Nothing remotely homoerotic here. Honest to God.

 
 
Eventually, the Doctor manages to get the Thals to overcome their pacifist instincts long enough to launch a counter-attack on the Daleks, and everyone heads back to the city, where – in one of the film’s most amusing sequences, a Dalek is pushed down a lift shaft:
 
 
It all ends well, and the gang head back to the jungle for their farewells.
 

Cushing's Doctor. Still not ginger.

 

Which you can't really say for this lot.

 
As cinematic forays go, it’s not a disaster. Cushing himself is affable and fun, the Daleks are suitably menacing (despite being disappointingly vulnerable to people grabbing them and pulling off their eye stalks) and the sets and supporting cast are fun. Taking the film out of continuity and giving it a parallel context is arguably its greatest strength: if the new film were to emulate this formula, the fans would be suitably outraged but at least there would be no problems with trying to make it fit. The weakest element – one David Yates should bear in mind – is the use of Roy Castle, who is implemented here as a fundamentally silly character, whether he’s falling over things, trying awkwardly to impersonate a Dalek or running around TARDIS in a blind panic in the film’s epilogue. He’s a character who eventually finds an inner strength but who exists, for the most part, in a vacuum of simple and rather gratuitous comic relief.
 
 
Thank goodness those days are gone…
 
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