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Archive for the ‘TV Waffle’ Category

Every time someone on TV changes their socks these days, it’s billed as a life-changing event, but unless you’re a struggling sock merchant who happens to be endorsed by someone hugely influential it’s almost certainly a lie. Not many people honestly and truly had their existences transformed by the revival of The X Files at the beginning of the year: like many people, I suspect, the main feeling it left me with was of something which was rather better in concept than in execution.

Still, a (very) mixed bag though the new episodes were, it got me back into the habit of watching the show, and when the revival shuffled off I got my hands on a complete boxed set of the original series (well, everything except the second movie) and settled down to relive a particular slice of my youth. As usual, I rather underestimated how long this would take: about eight and a half months, more or less, albeit with a bit of a detour near the end to watch The Lone Gunmen spin-off again.

A big show, then: nine seasons, two-hundred-plus episodes, a couple of spin-offs (does Millennium really count? Hmmm) and movies. I’m pretty sure that even the most dedicated fan of the series would happily admit that it outstayed its welcome, the question is by how much.

Having seen it all again fairly recently, for me The X Files falls reasonably neatly into four or five different phases, some of which are of considerably higher quality than others. The first year of the show, for instance, is quite a different animal from anything that follows: in the absence of a significant on-going metaplot, every episode buzzes with a genuine feeling of untapped possibilities – I remember watching this in 1994 and 95 and finding the sense that almost anything could happen almost addictive. At the time, I recall interviews with Chris Carter where he admitted that he didn’t expect the show to be renewed, and certainly not a big hit, hence the downbeat conclusion to the first season with Mulder and Scully separated and the X Files shut down (the first of many times).

The X Files

Then we roll into what I suppose we must call The X Files’ imperial phase, where it dominated the media landscape and pop culture generally (I have to say I still prefer the first season). I would say this covers seasons two to five (although this a bit of a drop-off in quality towards the end), and is probably the version of The X Files most people remember – the mixture of ongoing meta-plot episodes with the Syndicate and the Smoking Man, with monster-of-the-week stories, including the startling innovation of comedy episodes (the best ones from the pen of Darin Morgan). At this point you can watch the episodes about the Syndicate and still convince yourself that the writers have a clue as to where it’s all going, while the standalones haven’t yet started to repeat themselves too obviously.

One of the interesting factoids I came across in the course of this re-watch was the revelation that the original plan was to conclude the TV show at the end of season five (the name of five’s final episode, The End, is a bit of a clue to this) and switch over to doing a movie every few years. Part of me wonders if this wouldn’t perhaps have been a better idea than what we got, because while there are some good episodes in seasons six and seven – I’m particularly fond of the weirder stories like Rain King, X-Cops, and Hollywood AD – there is a general sense of the show starting to flail about and consume itself. The original Syndicate storyline wraps up in the middle of six, and what follows it is frankly somewhat baffling and lacking in focus or a sense of anyone knowing what it’s leading up to (if anything).

Still, it is at least still recognisably The X Files, which is not necessarily true of seasons eight and nine. It’s hard to see the decision to continue in the absence of David Duchovny as being motivated by anything other than reluctance to conclude a profitable series. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Robert Patrick, a very able actor landed with the hospital pass to end all hospital passes as Mulder’s replacement, the dogged Doggett. Doggett’s habitual aura of bafflement and frustration could well be coming from Patrick himself, as any chance of him being able to establish himself in the show is perpetually undercut by episodes and characters banging on about Mulder all the time. Classic elements of the older episodes, such as the Bounty Hunters and the Oil, still crop up, but what’s actually going on is anybody’s guess.

final-season-the-x-files-season-9

It gets even more baffling with season nine, with the introduction of the bemusing plotline about the Super-Soldiers and Scully’s wonder-baby, not to mention Annabeth Gish as Monica Reyes. Looking at some of the episodes with Doggett and Reyes, you can almost see how the show could have worked and been as vital and interesting as ever with this new duo – although it would obviously have lacked the role-reversal element (intuitive man, rational woman) which was arguably one of the things that made the early seasons so compelling. The thing is, though, that the show is never about this new duo, for Scully and the memory of Mulder are always wafting about the place, and it all feels slightly out-of-whack, looking back over its shoulder.

That said, the decision to axe the show seems to have had the effect of concentrating the minds of everyone involved: the news apparently came during the production of the not-bad standalone episode Scary Monsters, and everything that follows – the series’ equivalent of putting the chairs on the tables and turning off the lights – at least seems to have a point to it. While I would be the first to say that the series does not wrap itself up in the most elegant of manners, there are some genuinely moving moments in these final episodes – the deaths of the Lone Gunmen, Scully giving her child up for adoption. The final standalone, Sunlight Days, is arguably a much more satisfying episode than the actual finale, in the way it plays with the audience’s knowledge that it will very soon be over. ‘The X Files could go on forever,’ smiles Scully, marking the point at which you know the episode will not have the unambiguously happy ending it seems to be heading for, while Doggett’s happy comment that he ‘finally seem[s] to be getting the hang of this job’ also feels knowing and poignant. The fact that the episode is informed by people’s love for classic TV series of years gone by is also surely an acknowledgement that The X Files itself will soon just be a memory.

The finale itself is, I fear to say, hopelessly clunky and contrived, with Mulder on trial in what’s basically a kangaroo court, accused of the impossible murder of a man who was actually an alien (a premise seemingly pinched from an episode of The Invaders), and having to prove the existence of the alien conspiracy within the government in order to save his own skin. It attempts to recap the entirety of the meta-plot from the preceding nine seasons in a matter of minutes, and does so in a manner unlikely to satisfy anyone. One can only assume they were mainly intent on setting up future movies, for nothing is resolved, nothing really concluded: it ends with the X Files shut down (yet again), Mulder and Scully on the run, and Doggett and Reyes zooming off to an undisclosed location with looks of bafflement and frustration on their faces.

Which just leaves one to wonder why the subsequent iterations of the series – the 2008 movie and the revived series this year – haven’t really picked up on the new ideas seeded into the finale. In the final episode, Mulder learns that an alien invasion is scheduled for December 2012, but this never gets mentioned again: unless you count the incipient pandemic from the final episode of the revival.

One consequence of watching the main series again is that it has made me like the revival much less, in the way that it cheerfully attempts to ape the style of the show’s imperial phase while disregarding later developments for both the story and characters (all right, so there was the odd mention of young William, but even so) – I might even get slightly cross about the way they reveal Monica Reyes has been a sell-out for the Cancer Man all these years. Will there be future instalments? The jury is still out, but if they do go for another movie or TV series (and it would wonderful to see a show as smart and subversive as peak-period X Files cast its eye over Trump’s America), they must surely think about giving us some kind of resolution of the main plotline. On the other hand, if the series teaches us anything, it’s that the search for the truth is often a lot more fun than actually finding the truth. That, and that workplace romances aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

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This last week has been a pretty good one, but also a slightly odd one. (Much of what follows is quite personal, an area which I generally try to protect the general population from, so I almost feel the need to apologise for much of what follows, partly because it makes no particular point or argument, partly because friends of mine have almost certainly already heard me articulating some of what is to follow.)

The most recent series of Doctor Who finished last weekend. I watched all the episodes, because the reflex to do so is still there, but the vast majority of them were on catch-up and the ‘of course’ which would once have accompanied the first clause of this sentence is, you will have seen, conspicuously absent. Looking back, I’m not sure which is more surprising: that the series as a whole should be so weak, or that I should be so indifferent to it.

Doctor-Who-596013

(As noted up the page, this is a personal view. You may personally have loved every episode of the recent run and genuinely believe it to have been a golden age in the history of the series. If so, I respect your right to hold this opinion and wish you well. I hope you will extend me the same respect, at least.)

Then the new issue of DWM turned up in the middle of the week, and while I was flicking through it at work something very odd happened. I had one of those moments of clarity you sometimes hear about: there I was, reading about the tenure of Peter Capaldi, a brilliant, brilliant actor, who is doing a terrific job of playing the lead role in my favourite TV series, with a new co-lead on the way along with a jolly-looking festive special, and I was feeling almost completely indifferent to it. And this filled me with a sort of anguish and a cold fury I can barely put into words. Just to reiterate: Doctor Who is not currently making me angry. Current Doctor Who doesn’t make me feel much of anything, beyond occasional moments of annoyed irritation and very occasional moments of surprise when it shows brief flashes of the old magic. But the fact that I feel so dislocated from the series makes me very angry indeed.

Can I make you understand just what a big deal this is for me? I’m not sure. Doctor Who has, without a shadow of a doubt, been my unquestioned favourite TV series for nearly 35 years now. Even that understates the matter. It’s been more than just a TV series for me, it’s been… I can’t think of an easy way of describing it. Other interests have waxed and waned, friendships and other relationships have come and gone, my career has taken me around the world, and through it all, Doctor Who has been a constant. Either the TV show, or one of the many books or CDs, or even one of the comic strips or games, has not been far away if I needed a bit of a pick-up. I have watched Doctor Who in beach huts in Sri Lanka, in internet cafes in Kyrgyzstan, and over the complementary internet of a business hotel in Hiroshima. I was one of the people crying in a cinema when Tom Baker came back for the 50th anniversary special (I look back now on the sheer joyousness of that week with something close to utter bemusement: can everything have changed so much in only two years? It feels like something that happened to another person in a distant part of history).

It is just the modern show, as well: The Brain of Morbius came on the Horror Channel the other day and was as much of a joy as ever, to say nothing of Genesis of the Daleks the week before. (Though I must confess to a certain level of fatigue with regard to the Horror Channel’s endless recycling of the same stories again and again – just to get away from it, I watched The Monster of Peladon and The Power of Kroll on DVD not long ago, and I honestly don’t think I’ve enjoyed either of them quite so much.) I was very kindly sent free copies of a couple of new Who books not long ago, and the desire to dig into them and assimilate the opinions therein was undimmed.

Even there, though… well, the reason I was sent one of the books is because I contributed a piece to it, and what am I saying, literally as the opening words of my section? ‘Much to my surprise, I have found myself becoming increasingly disenchanted with the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who…‘ Crikey, when did I write this? Nearly three years ago, as far as I can remember; certainly long before that Golden November. So it has been a long process of estrangement, though accelerated considerably over the last year or so.

Need you ask why? It is Moffat, of course, or at least the Moffat who writes the episodes. Moffat made a joke in the new DWM to the effect that he actually has a Zygon duplicate who does all his interviews and media appearances, leaving him to do the actual hard work of showrunning, which would be funnier if it didn’t actually seem to be true – even today I can read an interview with Moffat and much of the time find myself thinking that this is someone who understands and loves Doctor Who in the same way I do, someone who I am on some level sympatico with. But then Moffat-the-Writer will get up to his old tricks and I will be unable to accept that this is the same person.

The ‘old tricks’ of which I speak? Well, for one there’s coming across as some kind of evil, corrupted clone of Robert Holmes, whose love of the big set piece is not accompanied by any need to ground it in something approaching context. Or there’s that infuriating tendency to write something in as a major shift in the status quo of the series, only to utterly ignore it the next time it becomes inconvenient for a script. Or that apparent tendency to base scripts on the kind of concepts the DWM question-and-answer page was contending with in the early 80s: let’s do a story about someone whose meetings with the Doctor are not chronologically synchronous! Let’s do one where you see different types of Daleks together!

Of course, there is one thing which Moffat has been consistent on throughout his tenure on the show, and it’s this more than anything else which is forcing me away from the series. It’s a bit startling to look back only six years and realise that, as late as the start of David Tennant’s final episode, the idea of turning the Doctor into a woman was something various people made vague noises about at regeneration time, but not something that was really taken seriously. Nowadays, almost entirely as a result of Moffat’s own scripts (Neil Gaiman has also touched on it), it is apparently an inevitability. (And this despite Moffat himself saying in an interview off in the wayback that he was very dubious about this concept – ‘I’m worried that you might not believe,’ was roughly what he said.)

If I had to identify the moment when I stopped really caring about modern Doctor Who, it was when Moffat tried turning the Master into a woman. The gears in my head locked up, I couldn’t (and still can’t) make sense of it, I could no longer sustain my belief in the fiction of the show (see, Moffat, you were right the first time).

(Feel free to write in and tell me I’m a woman-hating bigot, if you really feel the need, but please remember that your saying it doesn’t necessarily make it so. I’ve had that in the past when I’ve commented on this topic elsewhere.)

I am genuinely and absolutely baffled when I am told, with great sincerity and urgency, that this is a necessary and important change for the series. Someone told me with a straight face just the other day that the Michelle Gomez character is there because the programme needed more ‘strong female characters’. Say what you like about the series since 2005, but it has never been short on strong female characters, and even if it had been, there is always an obscure and little-understood process known as ‘creating a new character’.

I think I’ve said before that in this and similar cases – such as the suggestion that the ‘new’ Spider-Man could be of a different ethnicity – there’s a degree of wanting to have your cake and eat it going on: people want to make a statement by doing something new and radical and making a bit of a departure from the past, while simultaneously retaining the iconic qualities of the original character and the emotional investment people have in them.

We could argue about this in terms of metaphysics, morality, culture and even (if you really must) continuity, but what it boils down to is my belief that trying to turn the Doctor into a woman is an essentially meaningless gesture, the primary result of which is the reduction of a much-loved and essentially well-rounded character to an abstract narrative blob. It doesn’t say anything significant about modern society or culture or attitudes to gender that couldn’t be equally well accomplished in some other way.

A few years ago I wrote a review of the novel of Interview with the Vampire, essentially saying that, in terms of metaphorical treatments of the lifestyle of gay men, this was not the most subtle thing I’d ever read. And I got a slightly bemused comment from one reader, to the effect of ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was supposed to be about gay men, I thought it was about vampires.’ In this particular case, it’s the metaphor that lends the story its power, because who can relate to a story about fictional supernatural creatures?

My point is that attempting to turn the Doctor into a woman is a story which has no metaphorical weight or power to it. It has no connection to reality. Don’t tell me it’s about showing that women can be strong, unless you’re also telling me that women can only be strong if they’ve previously spent fifty years as a man. Don’t tell me that it’s making society and culture more trans-acceptant, because to liken the fictional process of regeneration to gender reassignment is both facile and stupid. Don’t tell me it’s about making a statement about non-binary conceptions of gender, because the characters involved have existed within that framework for years, and it will take more than a half-baked retcon to make that go away. It will achieve nothing of value not available through less destructive means. It is pointless.

…sigh. On the other hand, is there any point to writing this? If so, I don’t really see what, beyond giving me the opportunity to get this off my chest. Every year rolls around, every year Moffat goes to further slightly absurd lengths in pursuit of this peculiar agenda, every year I go on the internet to give vent to my frustration. I am aware, thank you, that this is all, when it boils down to it, simply about the fact that I’m just angry about not being able to enjoy Doctor Who any more. I, along with many people I know, don’t foresee myself continuing to watch at all, if the next performer cast as the Doctor doesn’t have a Y chromosome, simply because I will be fundamentally unable to recognise them as the same character. I can’t imagine how I will feel about that; I won’t know until it happens, but I’m pretty sure it will not be good. And the fact it was so totally avoidable, and will serve no real purpose, just makes the prospect worse.

 

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It has been a fairly joyless few weeks, what with the demise of Top Gear (genuinely one of the very few current TV shows to make me laugh out loud), the passings of Leonard and Sir Terry, and the still-looming spectre of a possible Tory-UKIP government in a few weeks time, with the incalculable damage that might inflict on this green and pleasant land. So it was nice to get some good news on Tuesday with the promised return, even if only for a few weeks, of The X Files.

The X Files

I’d been expecting this for ages but I was still surprised – not by the news, but by the strength of my own response when it was confirmed, and also by the fact that a lot of other people were equally delighted. Some of these were folk who I would never have pegged as being the type to spend time in the cult ghetto, and I suppose it all goes to show the extne to which The X Files broke out to become a mainstream phenomenon.

For a while, in fact, I was almost transported back to those heady days of twenty years ago, when the series was receiving its first terrestrial broadcast on BBC2 and rapidly acquiring a buzz. I seem to recall being rather dubious about the first episode, probably because I was under the mistaken impression that this was intended to be some kind of drama-documentary in which the characters would investigate real-life paranormal cases every week. But the second episode, which is still a favourite, won me over completely, while the third…

Well, the thing about the third is that – if you have been living in the cult ghetto since the age of about 7, as I have – it doesn’t try very hard to hide its roots. Squeeze is the story of a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so. The resemblance to the second Kolchak TV movie, The Night Strangler – which concerns a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so – is, to say the least, striking. Of course, chief X-honcho Chris Carter soon went on the record admitting that Kolchak was the inspiration for The X Files, and all this had the added bonus of allowing those of us who were already into Kolchak to feel rather smug and ahead of the game (I say ‘us’, but it’s probably just ‘me’, let’s face it).

Needless to say I bought the T-shirt and a number of posters, eventually winding up with all nine series on VHS (mostly second-hand). I also ended up with a copy of the magazine containing Gillian Anderson’s legendary first photo-shoot, which at one point was changing hands for insanely high prices – I think I’ve probably missed the peak of the market when it comes to selling my own, but fingers crossed the new series will see a bit of a resurgence in interest.

My favourite extended run of X Files episodes is still probably the first series, which is less constrained by its own mythology and more interested in tackling classic horror and SF archetypes – it does the ghost story, the werewolf story, the killer AI story, and so on – but it would be foolish to deny that for most of its run this was a show which managed to sustain a very high level of quality, the production values looking good even when some of the actual scripts were either dodgy or impenetrable. And when the episodes were good there was no cleverer programme on TV.

Nevertheless, I think it would be foolish to deny that the series did outstay its welcome just a bit: the final two largely Duchovny-less seasons often felt like they were reducing the show to a feeble shadow of its former self, and the ongoing meta-plot with the alien oil and the Syndicate and the alien super-soldiers just seemed to be getting more and more involved, rather than actually progressing at all. And it was quite sad to see the series, having achieved a rare move to BBC1 prime time, slowly being relegated back to the small hours on BBC2 as audiences fell off.

This should not detract from the cultural impact of the show, of course. Mulder and Scully went on The Simpsons. Catatonia sang a song about them. You only have to look at the sheer volume of knock-off series which came out in the mid-to-late nineties – you can perhaps even detect a dash of the influence in the 1996 Doctor Who movie, which teams up a rational, intelligent female medic with a flamboyantly eccentric man – or the fact the series was held to be strong enough to support a slew of spin-offs.

I went to see the second X Files movie when it came out in 2008, despite the tepid reviews it received, and my memories are mainly of head transplants, Billy Connolly acting badly, and a dubious subplot about a sick child. And yet I still distinctly recall my strong emotional response to seeing Mulder and Scully again. It was like bumping into two old friends after a long break – obviously they had changed a bit, but it was nice to see them looking well and getting on with their lives, after a fashion.

I’m expecting the same kind of feeling when the new X Files eventually appears. Inevitably one has to wonder what the new episodes have in store, other than the return of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner: virtually every other recurring character had been killed off by the final episode of the TV series, if I recall correctly, so the new episodes may not be able to take the easy route of being a simple nostalgia festival. I’d be wary of an attempt to pretend the last 15 years haven’t happened and just do standalone monster of the week episodes, too, for all that these were some of my favourites. I really hope they don’t attempt to do any kind of ‘passing of the torch’ shenanigans by introducing young, hip, replacements for the two leads – if the final series showed anything, it’s that the magic of the show is in the chemistry between those two characters and performers.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but I’d really like to see an attempt at resolving the ongoing mythology and actually finishing the story off. According to X Files mythology, we were due an alien invasion in 2012, and there’s surely a story to be told about that? I can only imagine how hellishly difficult it would be to recap the existing mythos, in all its insane complexity, while still telling an accessible story for new viewers, but even a failed attempt would be interesting. I suppose we shall see. I am happy to wait; it will give me a chance to consider another great unexplained phenomenon, namely why I don’t have any episodes of this, one of my very favourite TV shows, on DVD. That one at least will be easy to resolve.

(I wonder if it isn’t somehow significant that on this, the tenth anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who, I should find myself writing about the return of another series entirely. What price a proper Doctor Who revival now? Beyond diamonds, I suspect…)

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The Penultimate Straw

dwater

Just a short announcement this week: as Steven Moffat’s idea of what constitutes good Doctor Who now seems to fundamentally differ from mine to a greater degree than I would have thought possible, I have decided to suspend my activities as a commenter on the series (in its post-2009 incarnation anyway), at least until he clears off. I don’t value negativity or particularly enjoy being endlessly critical, so my continuing to write about or discuss the series in public venues is really in nobody’s interest.

To restate: don’t have an issue with any of the actors or directors or other creative people on the series, most of whom do remarkable work from week to week. It’s just Moffat’s storytelling and ideas that I too frequently find disappointing (or even infuriating) these days.

See you on the other side, if there is one…

masterP

(In the words of Morrissey and the Smiths: this joke isn’t funny any more.)

 

 

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I expect that there are some people who are either utterly bemused or actively irritated by the sheer amount of attention Doctor Who has been attracting over the last ten days or so. It is, after all, just a TV show, an occasionally silly, sometimes unpopular and unfashionable one, originally made for children and in not especially well-financed style.

And you would have a point, were it not for the fact that this is, after all, the fiftieth anniversary of the programme’s first appearance. Fifty years! For a TV series to still be on the air fifty years after its first broadcast is, surely, of some historical significance. When it is a genre series, that significance is surely greater. Greater still, when the series is arguably enjoying an unprecedented peak of global popular success.

tardis

So it’s a significant day. But why should anyone outside the Doctor Who village really care? For those of us who have been on board for the long haul, this is of course a wonderful occasion for taking stock and recalling the legions of unsung heroes who have made such remarkable contributions to this most rich and varied of cultural artefacts, people whose names are never usually mentioned in the mainstream media – not just the famous, celebrated people like Verity Lambert or Douglas Adams, but Waris Hussein, David Whitaker, Raymond Cusick. Innes Lloyd. Derrick Sherwin. Douglas Camfield. Malcolm Hulke. Robert Holmes. Barry Letts. Terrance Dicks. Dudley Simpson. Philip Hinchcliffe. John Friedlander. Graham Williams. David Fisher. Graeme Harper. Christopher Bidmead. Eric Saward. Andrew Cartmel. Ben Aaronovitch. Philip Segal. Phil Collinson. Joe Ahearne. Paul Cornell. Gareth Roberts. And many others.

But why should anyone else care, let alone feel the need to celebrate in any way? Is today a good day for more than just the fans of the programme? I think so, and permit me to explain why. Doctor Who may be my favourite TV show – although those words seem madly inadequate – so I am inevitably going to be biased, but I honestly think it has had an effect on our culture and society over the past five decades which has been wholly positive, and is wholly to be celebrated.

This isn’t just because Doctor Who is a brilliant vehicle for telling a certain style of story, though it is: Doctor Who, at its best, has always been unbeatable when it comes to a particular type of fantasy adventure. Nor is it because of the undoubted wit and craft of the storytellers, although the history of the series sometimes looks like one brilliant coup after another, particularly in the early years when their ability to turn limitations into triumphs (the spaceship has to look like a phone box, they have to recast the lead character, and so on) seemed almost supernatural.

These just mean it is a great TV series. What I think makes it such an honestly wonderful institution is the fundamental ethos of the thing: it is about creativity, and imagination, and beyond that it is about tolerance, kindness, politeness – freedom of thought, freedom to be silly. The importance of reason, the importance of compassion, and the importance of fighting for what you believe in.

And if that’s all a bit abstract and airy-fairy for you, look beyond the actual substance of the series: friendships made through a shared love of the series, marriages brought about, children born. Imaginations sparked into life – whole generations had their appreciation of the joy of reading kindled by the 13 million Doctor Who novelisations published between the 1970s and the 1990s – and careers in publishing and TV forged as a result.

So that is why I will personally be enjoying today, regardless of exactly how the actual anniversary episode turns out (hey, I’m on such a golden cloud of positivity at the moment that I’m fully expecting it to be wonderful). Today is not just a good day for Doctor Who and its fans: it is a great day for British culture and everyone who would like to believe in a better world.

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As Peter Capaldi receives his first official DWM cover, all the agitation and uncertainty of the summer seems to be fading away, and it feels slightly strange to look back and recall some of the wilder discussions and stronger sentiments which were in currency. Nevertheless, fandom did seem unusually exercised this time around. I myself distinctly recall that moment where we were treated to a close-up of ‘the new Doctor”s hand prior to his name actually being announced, and my flood of relief at seeing it was obviously that of a man.

The calls for the Doctor to be regenderated seemed much louder this time than they have been in the past; I don’t recall any but the most cursory discussion of the possibility prior to Eccleston or Tennant being cast, nor in 2008 (though admittedly I was a bit out of the loop at the time). This time round, it turned into a bit of a Thing, even warranting a DWM article on the topic.

Funny. But not real.

Funny. But not real.

I talk about a ‘discussion of the possibility’ but what really struck me about the various outpourings on the topic was just how little discussion was actually taking place: this was such a polarising issue, people either saw the idea of a female Doctor as perfectly unremarkable and a natural development for the series, or a ludicrous bastardisation of the entire character and concept, with no middle ground or room for debate. Did people snipe? Did they accuse? Did they name-call? Yes, yes, and yes. Did they discuss? Not so much.

Personally, and this isn’t really important to anyone but me, I am in the ‘terrible idea – never, ever’ camp, along with most of the other old-school viewers of the programme whom I know. It does seem to me that most of the advocates of the regenderation are people who have come to the series in the last ten years (a few big names like Gaiman and Cornell notwithstanding). Quite why this should be is something I am reluctant to offer an opinion on.

What does strike me is that this more than anything else this resembles some sort of religious schism, with both sides completely entrenched and absolutely certain that their beliefs are correct. I used to feel vaguely disturbed by news reports of Creationist pressure groups attempting to ensure that no Darwinist candidate ever secured the presidential nomination – however, now I am completely okay with the idea of making sure any future showrunner is ideologically sound on this topic (which rules out Neil Gaiman, for one).

However, however, however: when it comes to this sort of radical reinterpretation of a character, I have become aware that I am woefully inconsistent. I had a bit of a problem with the gay Green Lantern DC introduced last year, not because I object to gay superheroes (or indeed gay people in general) but because I thought the whole thing was very cynically promoted. I have no issue whatsoever with Miles Morales, the Afro-Hispanic Spider-Man Marvel have introduced as an alternate version of the character. I’m not even particularly exercised by the feminisation and change of race of Dr Watson in the American TV version of Sherlock Holmes – I think it’s another dubious and arguably cynical idea, and it’s not a show I would ever sit down and watch, but it doesn’t ignite the explosion of outrage and despair within me that I’ve no doubt the announcement of the twelfth Doctor being a woman would have.

I don’t think I’m a misogynist any more than I am a homophobe or racist, so why should this be? I don’t particularly want to go through the reasons why I think the Doctor is essentially male, mainly because this doesn’t seem to be an issue much lending itself to reasoned discussion. But I do think this can potentially tell us about some of the things that makes Doctor Who special as a concept and the Doctor special as a character.

The clue is that there have been female versions of the Doctor in the past, of course, and they left me notably non-outraged – the ‘ultimate’ Joanna Lumley Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death, and the equally final Arabella Weir Doctor from the Doctor Who Unbound series. The difference, of course, is that both of these versions appear in comedy skits based on the series – Lumley, certainly, arguably so in the case of Weir – and are outside the main continuity of the show.

I’m sorry, I usually try and avoid the C-Word like the plague, but I’m going to have to talk about the concept of Canon. Canon presupposes that there are two kinds of Doctor Who story – ‘real’ ones, which all connect to tell a single, consistent story running from An Unearthly Child to The Name of the Doctor and onwards, and ‘unreal’ ones which are somehow even more fictional than the rest. The Lumley and Weir Doctors are both non-Canon, obviously; were Matt Smith to transform into – I don’t know – Miranda Hart, she would be the first Canon female Doctor.

I am much more relaxed about the concept of Canon than I was a couple of decades ago – did the New Adventures count? Did the early Big Finish stories count? Then again, these days I tend to dismiss everything beyond the actual TV series as apocryphal and leave it at that. But Doctor Who’s idea of Canon is different from that of other, broadly comparable series and institutions.

Partly because this is Doctor Who originated as a TV show rather than, say, a series of books and stories. One can meaningfully talk about ‘the Sherlock Holmes canon’ in terms of the stories actually written by Doyle (as opposed to all the pastiches written by other people since). This exists as a sealed bubble and has done since the death of Doyle in 1930. The same could be said of the Cthulhu Mythos, since the death of Lovecraft, and the Conan saga, since the death of Robert Howard.

Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in that manner – it’s been handed on from writer to writer with no-one truly having a claim to being the single key figure in its development. However, this is equally true of characters in other media – for example, comics superheroes, many of whom have histories even longer and more complex than the Doctor’s.

The concept of Canon is a much more flexible one when it comes to comics characters – of the big companies, DC Comics in particular is wont to aggressively re-write the histories of its characters on a regular basis. There’s less an idea of Canon here than one of an archetypal concept of each character – individual story developments may lead to a gradual drift away from this, but sooner or later the character will be reset back to this point. As a case in point, there was some brouhaha in 1991 when Lois Lane discovered that Clark Kent was really Superman, and even more in 1996 when the couple actually married, but as of 2013, in the comics at least, they are not and have never been married and she does not knw his identity.

How is this possible in the same narrative? Well, it’s not, and this isn’t strictly speaking the same narrative. I remember a time when people only ever used to reboot computers, but now it’s always happening to continuities: resetting the clock to zero (or, the archetypal set-up) and allowing writers to tell stories with a minimum of constraints in terms of historical baggage. It’s happened to Superman, Batman and Spider-Man in their most recent movie outings; it’s happened to Godzilla about six times (usually with the respectful proviso that the original 1954 movie remains as the foundation stone of the series); something broadly similar (yet, to my mind, uniquely unsatisfactory) happened to the Star Trek universe when JJ Abrams got his hands  on it.

One of the advantages of this kind of reboot is that it instantly sets the original continuity apart – it doesn’t quite turn it into the equivalent of a definitive canon, in the sense of the Doylean Holmes canon – but it does mean that creative people are less likely to be excoriated for making radical changes to characters. I’m happy to ignore Elementary, with its modern setting and female Watson, because it plainly is just a slightly weird alternate take on the original Sherlock Holmes characters and doesn’t attempt to pass itself off as a genuine continuation of the characters.

Hey, if it floats your boat...

Hey, if it floats your boat…

There have been plenty of alternative versions of Doctor Who – the comic strips, the Cushing Doctor, the Trevor Martin stage Doctor, the Unbounds, and so on – but one of the things about it which is perhaps more surprising than many people realise is that the continuity of the TV series has never knowingly been rebooted: a single narrative thread does indeed continue unbroken, from 1963 through to the present day.

That this has happened is actually roaringly unlikely: Philip Segal’s planned American TV show would have started over again, while at least one of the other proposed versions from the 90s would have seen the ‘canonical’ seventh Doctor handing over to an alternate Doctor from a parallel universe. BBC executives at one point wanted Tom Baker to regenerate into Paul McGann in 1996, which would presumably have created a new continuity with a different fifth Doctor. Mark Gatiss’ pitch to revive the series around the turn of the century would have been a clean reboot of the series from scratch with a new first Doctor.

But Doctor Who has not – so far – been rebooted. I think this is largely down to the fact that the people at the top of the show are fans and love the heritage of the programme as much as anyone – ‘…worst of all, it’ll be a reboot. No thanks’ (Rusty Davies, discussing the possibilities of the 2005 relaunch), ‘…it should be one big long story, not two different versions’ (Steven Moffat, dismissing the idea of a US-made Doctor Who running in parallel with the current show).

There is, I suppose, a strong case to be made that most of the reasons leading to other TV and film series being rebooted do not apply to Doctor Who: the facts that the show is infinitely recastable – that this is actually incorporated into the narrative –  and unlikely ever to run out of ideas are two of the main reasons why it has lasted half a century.

And yet, in a strange way, this also makes the series uniquely vulnerable. Doctor Who doesn’t have a closed canon like Sherlock Holmes, while any archetypal version of the Doctor is a hugely nebulous thing at best. If the BBC does a bad version of Sherlock Holmes, as it has a couple of times over the years, one can simply dismiss it as a poor adaptation and look forward to the next one, which will be an entirely separate entity. Should they make a similar creative misstep with regard to Doctor Who – and here it’s very difficult to resist mentioning Colin Baker’s costume – then the series is stuck with it in perpetuity.

Steven Moffat dismissed the prospect of an American-made, parallel series. I don’t know, but I think I’d rather be showrunner on that show than the British one – it would be a terrific opportunity to revisit the mythology and characters, free of the demands of continuity. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of the Doctor being female some of the time in this sort of show, provided it was seeded into the format properly.

And the existence of a second version of the series running in parallel might go some way towards firming up the archetypal concept of Doctor Who as something existing beyond the confines of any particular incarnation (by incarnation here, I mean TV, films, books, and so on). The existence of two equal valid versions of Doctor Who would be more likely to lead to more – the concept transcending its TV origins to become a genuine cultural icon across different media, which it currently is not. The only casualty would be the existence of a single unified continuity – and given that the continuity we’ve got largely doesn’t make sense anyway, would that be so great a loss?

I started by talking about a schism between Doctor Who fans and find myself discussing the possibility of destroying any idea of Doctor Who as a coherent narrative – and doing so as though this were potentially a positive thing. Whether or not this happens is, I suspect, largely down to who is curating the show at the BBC and their attitude towards the idea of Canon. It would be very interesting to see a modern version of the show not overseen by a card-carrying long-term fan, for this reason and many others.

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Okay, in the course of this piece I’m fully expecting to find myself in some fairly abstract and definitively trivial areas, so let’s start with a nice simple, easy question that cuts straight to the matter we’re here to discuss. Observe, please, the picture below with the five gentlemen in it.

Now: do they look the same, or different? And if so, why?

cybeflavours

It’s not actually a trick question, but it does lead us into some fairly peculiar (and, to me, quite interesting) areas connected with how people – fans, mainly – engage with and think about Doctor Who. I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for ages but always shied away, simply because it is such an esoteric area. But now it seems to me that it has a certain relevency, simply because some Doctor Who fans are worrying about, essentially, a very similar question. Observe the second picture below.

Now: do these two men look the same, or different? And why?

twocaps

The key question here is basically this: how realistic is the Doctor Who TV series in how it represents the events of the stories it depicts? As you can see, straightaway we’re off into the depths of the Fan Zone, as the question presupposes the actual existence of Who-world as something separate from the TV series that created it. It’s not real, of course. It’s a meaningless question. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can’t have a go at answering it.

Many visual aspects of Who-world have radically changed over the years, one of the most discussed being the appearance of the Cybermen, as documented in our first picture. This is largely due to improvements in costume-making, of course, and changing standards of what is perceived to be credible to the audience of the day. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet look very different to those in Nightmare in Silver – to the viewer, at least. But do they look different to the characters in the story?

Let’s choose a slightly different example and consider the destruction of Earth (or a close lookalike). The demise of Earth in The End of the World is a great-looking special-effects triumph, of course, as convincing as such a thing can be. The destruction of Mondas in the first Cyberman story, on the other hand, more closely resembles a blob of polystyrene melting off the end of a stick. In story terms, the two events are almost identical – but their realisation is vastly different. Yet, in terms of the fiction, it’s safe to assume that they would have appeared the same to observers within the universe of the story. So isn’t there a clear gap here between the events of the story and how they are presented to the TV viewer?

I think there is. The real question is when we are dealing with this gap, and when we can take what we see on screen at face value – in other words, how can we tell when a change in Cyberman design between stories is intended to represent an in-universe change, and when it simply represents an improvement in costuming or creative choice on the part of the production team?

As I say, this is not a question many people are likely to lose sleep over. I would have said it was mainly an issue to dedicated continuity cops and writers of fictional history. The first widely-distributed attempt to tackle this problem was David Banks’ history of the Cybermen in his book of the same name – and Banks does take the design of the Cybermen as being a true representation of their in-universe appearance, the appearing and disappearing ear-muffs on a number of designs leading him to postulate a whole series of dynasties of different sub-species of Cybermen cross-pollinating with each other. If you simply assume that all Cybermen look more or less identical no matter what their origin, writing this sort of history becomes a bit easier, but the results are much less interesting.

Changes in Dalek design over the years have mostly been less obvious – the two most recent updates excepted – but nevertheless they have taken place. I haven’t seen a concerted effort to write a Dalek history incorporating the shifts in design, the main issue being that the two main designs from the 20th century series – the small, light grey ones first seen in The Dead Planet, and the larger, darker-coloured ones first appearing in Day of the Daleks – seem to appear almost at random (if viewed from an ‘historical’ perspective), with the dark greys being the first Daleks created in Genesis of the Daleks, but also appearing in 2540 (Frontier in Space, et al) and the final years of the original Dalek history (Destiny of the Daleks, et al), while the light greys show up in the 22nd century (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the year 4000 (Mission to the Unknown, et al), and the last days of the original Dalek Emperor (Evil of the Daleks).

One could go on and on – the number of fingers possessed by Sontarans varies between stories, the Silurians look very different in their first two appearances, and so on. Changes in the appearance of gadgetry and places also abound, particularly the sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS interior.

However, while most of these (possibly superficial) changes go unremarked-upon in the 20th century series, major changes in the TARDIS usually do. The peculiar TARDIS interior decor of The Time Monster is referenced in the script, the switch in control rooms at the beginning of The Masque of Mandragora likewise. The new console in The Five Doctors is lovingly showcased in the opening shot of the story.

It’s a rare example of the 20th century show acknowledging this sort of change. One of the things that makes the 21st century programme (particularly under Steven Moffat’s curatorship) subtly but distinctly different is the way in which these changes are not just acknowledged but foregrounded. Another change in TARDIS interior is a significant element of The Eleventh Hour, while Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a watershed moment: not only do two clearly different models of Dalek appear in the same story for the first time – the story demands that they really are as different as they appear to the viewer – but this fact is central to the plot, it’s what the story is on some level about. Nightmare in Silver attempts something similar by including two different makes of Cybermen at different points. It would seem, then, that the gap between the fiction and its realisation is no longer present in the current show – or, if it is, it’s much less obvious.

But what about when it comes to casting? There are many actors who have racked up numerous Doctor Who appearances playing different parts every time. Are we to suppose that – to pick an example at random – Supervisor Lowe from The Invisible Enemy and Laurence Scarman from Pyramids of Mars (both played by the inestimable Michael Sheard) really were spits of each other? The Doctor doesn’t comment on it and under the standard conventions of TV one isn’t surprised by this. No-one comments when a character in The Macra Terror is played by different actors in different episodes, after all; this sort of thing is standard in soap operas too (though it’s something that happens relatively rarely in Doctor Who – perhaps the very existence in-universe of the idea of regeneration, where characters can be ‘visibly’ recast, makes it difficult to ‘invisibly’ recast them like this).

There is the odd moment when the show seems to be winking at the audience about this, though – one comes quite early on, in a missing episode from The Daleks’ Master Plan, when William Hartnell makes some tongue-in-cheek ad libs about a particular character seeming oddly familiar (the same extra had previously appeared in The Crusade) – but no-one comments on Steven Taylor’s uncanny resemblence to Morton Dill, for instance, the sixth Doctor’s potential sideline as a Commander Maxil lookee-likee, or Amy Pond’s doppelganger in Pompeii.

On the other hand, there have been times when casting a previously-used performer as a regular has resulted in an in-universe reference to this. Romana admits to copying Princess Astra’s appearance for her second incarnation (mainly because they’re both played by Lalla Ward), while Smith and Jones gives us the biologically unheard-of phenomenon of identical cousins to explain Freema Agyeman’s appearance as different characters in two stories set in the same time and place.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the question of what reference – if any – they are going to make to Peter Capaldi’s previous appearances in Who-world when he appears as the Doctor. Some people – I say people, I mean fans – are actually fretting about this, complaining that having seen Capaldi as Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Children of Earth they can’t now accept him as the Doctor. Others are engaged upon heroic attempts in continuity-copping to explain the similarities.

Well, I can’t believe they’re going to go that far in the TV show, but I wouldn’t bet against a little reference or two just as a nod to the fanbase. Then again, I may be wrong. One of my issues with the current version of the series is that it does sometimes feel like high-class fanfic, or something inspired by browsing through the DWM lettercolumn or Q&A page from thirty years ago: Why not do a set of stories about the Doctor meeting someone out-of-sequence? Why not do a story set entirely inside the TARDIS? Which is the most advanced type of Cyberman? And so on. It seems to me that the current show’s willingness to do episodes actually about changes in monster design and the in-universe reasons for this is a sign of somebody’s fannishness running out of control. I’m not sure all the stories have been strong enough to justify these conceits – and if they’re going to continue in this self-regarding vein, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

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As they say in Rome, after a fat Pope, a thin Pope. Anyone wondering what the sound of thousands of men in early middle-age sighing with a combination of relief and joy is had the perfect opportunity to find out on Sunday night, as a generation of veteran Doctor Who fans were delighted to discover that their hero was now back to being older than them again.

There has been a colossal amount of coverage of a piece of news which boils down to seven words: Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. More, in fact, than seems possible, or at least sane: but I suppose this is the modern reality of the show, which is a moneyspinning brand for the BBC as much as it is a fantasy drama.

What do you mean, you're sick of seeing this photo?

What do you mean, you’re sick of seeing this photo?

I mean, even I, who love and think upon the show more than is sensible, thought that devoting thirty minutes of live TV to the announcement was a little bit OTT. Possibly this is mainly because I have an allergy to the brand of brainless, manic enthusiasm which is Zoe Ball’s default setting – but I defy anyone to honestly suggest that the announcement programme wasn’t just twenty-five minutes of pap and filler leading up to a revelation which can’t have shocked anyone who’d been following the news last week.

Ah well. Peter Capaldi, eh? A good choice, surely; but also a very different one and thus a very interesting one. Before I dive into all that with some pointless, empty speculation of my own (everyone else is doing it), it is quite interesting to survey all the ways in which Capaldi’s casting is being analysed and deconstructed.

This is mainly down to the fact that the Doctor is yet again a white male – and back to being a distinctly mature figure (though a quick comparison of photos of William Hartnell and Capaldi will instantly show you that being 55 in 2008 is a very different thing to being 55 in 1963). The chorus of militants who, to judge from their utterances all summer, seem to think that having a male Doctor is a flaw in the programme, are still there, emitting the odd grumble, while the reliably contrarian Daily Mail, ever alert to age-related controversies, have managed to dig up some fans complaining that Capaldi is ‘too old’ – a particularly priceless comment being ‘Very very disappointed! The Doctor meant to be someone young (sic), both matt and David were very cute and funny doctors, and now they give us an old guy, no offence to the new guy he may be an amazing actor but he just doesn’t fit the part’. This was from ‘Fara23’. I am going to stick my neck out and guess that a) Fara23 is a young lady and b) her all-time favourite story probably isn’t The War Machines.

But you know what? I’m sort of reminded of Andrew Cartmel’s contribution to OUTSIDE IN: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers (still on sale at only $24.95), where he sat down to examine the racial politics of The Talons of Weng-Chiang but eventually concluded all the arguing and fretting about this was just refrigerator noise – the only thing that really matters about this story is that it is brilliantly written, acted, and directed (except perhaps for the rat). It’s the same with Peter Capaldi being cast as the Doctor – his age, accent, class, ethnicity, and so on really is very secondary to the fact that he’s a brilliant actor of exactly the right type.

Even so, and even given that we know virtually nothing about what he’s going to do with the part (it’s amusing that every fan seems to automatically assume that any new Doctor will be playing it darker than their predecessor – wishful thinking I suspect), adding to the refrigerator noise is irresistible. Capaldi’s not the first Scottish Doctor – and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t approached when David Tennant moved on, the two of them are a little too similar in appearance and energy – and it’s debatable as to whether he’s more or less of a household name than Christopher Eccleston was when he was cast. The real talking point arising from this announcement is, inevitably, that of Capaldi’s age.

As I said, 55 now isn’t the same as 55 in 1963, but he’s still at least 15 years or so older than every other full-time Doctor cast in the last 40 years, and the question is simply one of how much this will inform his performance and the nature of the show. On the face of things Capaldi looks like much, much more of an old-school Doctor than anyone else this century, and in an odd way this is actually makes him quite a radical choice.

I can’t imagine a Capaldi Doctor having the same quasi-romantic relationship with his companion that characterised David Tennant and to some extent Matt Smith’s takes on the character, and this will be a major departure: I suspect a lot of the new fanbase (the ones I probably wouldn’t get on with if I met them) really gets off on this sort of thing. Also, Christopher Eccleston famously found the schedule of making the programme gruelling; it made David Tennant ill – so how is an actor approaching 60 going to deal with it?

What I draw from this – and I may well turn out to be totally wrong, as usual – is that we may be in for a really radical shift in the dynamic of the series: rather than the dominant, central Doctor of the 70s series, with a single companion, could we be in for a return to a different style of storytelling – three or more regular characters, and a more equal division of screen-time between them? This would lighten the load on Capaldi, for one thing, and allow for the soapy nonsense to take place between the various companions.

It would be a bold step, but I think the series at present needs to take one, and it might even inspire Steven Moffat to raise his game a little and go back to thinking in terms of proper storytelling rather than gimmicks apparently inspired by fanfic and early-80s issues of DWM. He might even think again about doing longer stories, which I’m really starting to miss. But, as I say, it’s much too soon for any speculation to be worthwhile and so I shall stop. At the moment all we know is: Peter Capaldi is the Doctor! And I for one am very happy that he is.

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Refrigerator Noise Update:

1. It really does seem to be a fact that everyone automatically assumes that any newly-cast Doctor is going to play it darker than their predecessor: a friend whom I didn’t have tagged as much more than a casual Who watcher came up to me at a party (yes, it was that night of the year) and basically said ‘So – Capaldi! Going to be darker, isn’t he?’

As I said, it’d be foolish to make predictions so very early, but I’d be a little surprised – there’s a limit to how successfully dark you can make the lead character of a Saturday night family adventure series. Also, it kind of presupposes that ‘dark’ is all Peter Capaldi either wants to do or is capable of doing: in short, it’s a form of typecasting.

But even so, why this default presumption of a dark Doctor? Is it what the dedicated fans really think they want, and if so, why? I think it really must be what the fans are after, but it would be unwise to assume a single reason for this, for there is not a single breed of fan. For the older fans, it may be that they still have the strongest memories of Doctor Who as the terrifying experience it was in their childhoods, an incredibly potent brew of monsters and menace. Naturally they are going to associate the best of the show with darkness. Many of the new generation are probably of that age where they still spend time in their bedrooms writing poetry revealing how unfair life is, and a brooding, dark hero would probably appeal to them too. I suspect that both groups are still a little sensitive to accusations that being a devotee of a fantasy adventure TV series is quite silly, and anything which gives the appearance of gravitas will be fine with them, too. I still suspect the twelfth Doctor will end up being a lighter shade than most people are anticipating.

2. Saw my first op-ed piece crowbarring the announcement of Capaldi-as-Twelve into a supposedly serious piece of political analysis (from the London Evening Standard). I don’t have it to hand, but the thesis was that casting a more mature Doctor may influence politicians into thinking that more seasoned patriarchal figures may be acceptable. On average, British political party leaders have got a lot younger over the last twenty years (not unlike successive Doctors, of course), but I am dubious as to whether my show (wonderful as it is) has quite enough clout to convince veteran politicos to revert to electing an older generation as their candidates to lead the country. If nothing else the piece shows just how massively newsworthy the show remains, which must on some level be a good thing.

 

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Further to my thoughts yesterday on the importance of keeping in touch with the news media, I woke up today and – as I usually do on a Sunday – popped on Not the Andrew Marr Show just while my brain put itself into gear. They were reviewing the papers, particularly the front of the Mail on Sunday – which has as its headline some pointlessly vague nonsense about a terribly important political sex scandal which they aren’t actually permitted to give any meaningful information about. Sharing the front page with this was a picture accompanying the announcement that Matt Smith had announced his departure from Doctor Who.

We take it for granted that an outgoing (or indeed incoming) Doctor is big news, but it really does prove that this is not a TV show like other TV shows… will there be a dedicated programme just to make the announcement of the new guy this time? Hmm.)

Anyway, I mention this just because had I gone straight onto the internet this morning without looking at the TV my first inkling would probably have come from an invitation to ‘Like’ a Facebook page lobbying for ——– ——— to become the twelfth Doctor. I don’t want to be unkind to the performer in question, which is why I’ve —-ed their name, but they would probably not be amongst the top 7000 names on my own wish-list.

In short, here we go again. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add to the masses of slightly frenzied speculation already clogging up vast swathes of the internet (I mean, I don’t want to be a killjoy here, and I’m aware I’m going to come across as a massive hypocrite, but come on, folks: there’s everything happening in Syria, and now Turkey’s kicking off, not to mention the current government’s attempts to destroy the fabric of British society by stealth, and we’re all discussing personnel changes on a TV show? If future generations were to describe us as decadent, how would we be able to respond?). However, there are just a couple of points that occur to me.

moffsmith

Firstly, with Matt Smith leaving the show before the end of the year, surely the clock must now be ticking on Steven Moffat’s own tenure with the programme? I don’t say this purely because of my lack of enthusiasm for Moffat’s version of the show (although considering the high hopes I approached the eleventh Doctor’s tenure with, I have to say that most of what’s happened over the last three and a half years has been disappointing), but because if history shows us anything, it’s that now is the right time for Moffat to go.

If you look back at Doctor Who‘s production history, you do see that a change of Doctor usually coincides with a change in the production team: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ time in charge matches the run of the third Doctor to within a story either side, Tom Baker was motivated to finally leave by the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer, incoming producer Innes Lloyd was the instigator of the first change of lead actor, and so on. (This is not to say that a change of producer is necessarily always accompanied by a change of Doctor, by the way.)

The only times we have seen the same regime overseeing multiple Doctors have been with Rusty’s work with Eccleston and Tennant, and John Nathan-Turner’s tenure with Davison, Baker, and McCoy. We’re still not quite sure when it became apparent that Eccleston was only going to be a one-season Doctor, but in any case this is surely a special case; it’s hardly as if Rusty and the crew had done all they wanted to do with the show in the space of 13 episodes. But as far as the JNT years are concerned – as I said just recently, if there was ever a time when the show wobbled and threatened to look tired and irrelevant, it was in the 80s, with a production team who seemed to be running out of ideas and didn’t want to be there.

The character of the Doctor is so much a creation specifically of the showrunner these days, rather than the script editor, lead actor and individual scriptwriters working in concert. (Gareth Roberts has observed that Rusty Davies and Steven Moffat both wrote the Doctor almost as idealised versions of themselves.) Does Moffat have ‘another’ characterisation for the Doctor in him that will match the eleventh? Even if he does, doesn’t that commit him for staying for another three years, until the Next Guy in turn announces his departure? I can’t quite imagine another showrunner coming in and taking over a Doctor created by someone else (though I suppose it is possible: there was a distinct possibility of David Tennant staying on for the first year with Moffat, after all). Also, Moffat’s effectively cracked America for the series and is in the process of overseeing what’s looking like a very successful anniversary year: what else can he realistically expect to achieve by staying on?

Still, unless talks have quietly been going on and a successor is already moving into place (in which case we can expect a departure announcement from Moffat fairly soon), I expect we will be seeing at least one full season with Next Guy with Moffat as lead writer. A shame; a completely fresh start with Next Guy and New Showrunner would have been a genuinely exciting prospect. As it is I’m just battening down the hatches for more of the same, albeit with different hair.

Secondly – I love Tom Baker. For me he is the Doctor above and beyond all others (sorry, no discussion on this one). But I really, really wish, when planning the announcement of his own departure in 1981, he hadn’t turned to JNT and said (I paraphrase from memory) ‘Let’s have some fun with the press – how about if I feed you a line that the next Doctor could be a woman?’ And I really wish JNT hadn’t gone along with him on it.

I know the possibility of a transgender regeneration has now been written into the text of the series (I love Neil Gaiman. But I really wish etc, etc), but if there was one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between me and the show in perpetuity (and the very idea is a shocking one, it’d be like losing a leg or a major sense organ in terms of how it would affect my sense of myself) it would be a sex change of the main character.

Partly this is because many of these cries declaring ‘now’s the time!’ seem to come from people who don’t really seem to care about Doctor Who as such, but simply have an agenda to push or are just looking to make mischief (one such burblehead popped up on News 24 to give his, ahem, informed opinion on the issue). But also I think it would be genuinely bad for the series as a piece of drama, and completely at odds with the way it has developed over the last eight years.

The 20th century version of the show frequently treated characters as collections of plot functions, rather than actual people: when a regular character did succeed in coming to life it was most often down to the efforts of the performer involved. What 21st century Doctor Who has managed to do (and whether, in fact, it’s gone too far in doing so is another story) is to treat characters as people. In this context suddenly turning the Doctor into a woman would be a massive retrograde step: it’d be effectively saying to the audience that there are no unbreakable threads of continuity where the Doctor is concerned, just a narrative construct that can do or be anything necessary to either propel the plot, or – in this case – grab some publicity.

Or, to put it another way… I have issues with Steven Moffat as a showrunner, as I think is abundantly clear by now. But I’m really reassured by his response when this very issue was put to him a few years ago. His response was (again, I paraphrase from memory) ‘sure, in the fictional universe of the show maybe it’s possible – but I’m not sure you could make it work as a story. I worry that you might not believe it was still the same Doctor.’

So, in short, I’m really hoping that Moffat takes the opportunity to move on, gracefully, soon. But I’m also very relieved that, as far as we know, he’s the one in charge of casting the new guy, whoever he may be – and I use the word ‘he’ with precision.

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This is what happens when you take a bit of a time out from the stresses and strains of normal life, as I currently am: you start losing touch with the important points of current affairs. When I’m not on the dawn patrol, I usually make a point of at least looking in on the BBC’s heavyweight news and current affairs show Newsnight, but this has been slipping recently (also, it clashes with Parks and Recreation on the other side, but I digress). As a result I completely missed a surprisingly lengthy item on the May 29th episode.

Now, as we know, the world is going through one of those rocky periods at present. It is not what you’d call a slow news decade. So did Newsnight decide to devote many precious minutes to the worrying impetus given to English neo-fascist groups by a terrorist killing in Woolwich last week? Did it look at the responsibilities of ISPs in the wake of a child murder to which online pornography may have been an inciting factor? Or was it perhaps looking at the future of the European project as the single currency seems to creep ever-closer to meltdown? No. Rather gobsmackingly, Newsnight ran an item discussing the important issues of a) whether Doctor Who went rubbish in the 1980s and b) if so, why?

Andrew Cartmel revisits a past, er, triumph for Newsnight.

Andrew Cartmel revisits a past, er, triumph for Newsnight.

Well, as anyone who knows me will be all too aware, taking Doctor Who much too seriously is my default setting, but even so this surprised me. (I look forward to Jeremy Paxman’s series of reports attempting to resolve the UNIT dating problem and determine when exactly Revenge of the Cybermen is set.) And part of the reason for this surprise is that this is an issue which even Doctor Who fans don’t seem to actually discuss very much. It is certainly something which I have spent much time mulling over, but I’ve always been reluctant to give an opinion on it. However, if BBC News is going on the record…

I iPlayered the Newsnight piece, and while it was slightly tongue-in-cheek it was still an impressively thoughtful and balanced look at the question. Okay, a clip of the Myrka got wheeled out, also that tedious old self-mythologiser Michael Grade, but there was an in-depth look at The Caves of Androzani which took pains to point out what a really remarkable piece of TV this is, and identified just what made it so different from most other stories of the period.

That said – and this may be due to this being an item made, ultimately, for a mainstream audience, not well-versed in the particular narratives of the series – if a single cause was identified as being responsible for 80s Who‘s downfall, it was the production values: not just dodgy sets or props, but also the often studio-bound multi-camera VT method of production. Wheeled out in tandem with this was the slightly tired old assertion that audiences had got used to the look of big-budget SF movies like Star Wars and so on.

Well, I’m not even close to convinced by that one, as it seems to suggest that either Hollywood never made a single SF film prior to 1977, or that if it did, they all had comparable special effects to Doctor Who of the same period. The word ‘piffle’ leaps irresistibly to mind: films like 2001, Planet of the Apes, and Silent Running were all around while Doctor Who was being made in the 60s and 70s, and the show didn’t appreciably wobble then. And let’s not forget that the programme consistently outperformed big-budget filmed SF shows which were put up in opposition to it in the 1970s (Space 1999, for one).

But back to the main issue at hand: did Doctor Who go rubbish in the 1980s? This question seems particularly pertinent to me right now as I am currently picking my way through selected middle-lights of season 22. Actually, that middle-lights crack is a bit uncalled for, as the last episode I watched was the opener of Vengeance on Varos, which – whatever else it may be – is certainly not rubbish. Misjudged and morally dubious it may be, but it’s still a story which seems more and more prescient as time goes by: a weak leader of a bankrupt population, forced to entertain the masses through cruel reality TV shows and endless votes. And this is before we even get to the way in which the programme smartly deconstructs the whole process of making and watching TV.

varos

On the other hand, not all the stories from around this time have the same intelligence and inventiveness, but most of them share the tendency towards badly-misjudged creative decisions: most of these stories are deeply cynical, punctuated by startlingly graphic violence, and populated by rather unsympathetic characters. (I’ve heard it suggested that most stories of season 22 are unsuccessful attempts to copy the style of Caves of Androzani, and I think there’s a grain of truth to that.) Given that script editor Eric Saward apparently didn’t agree with Colin Baker being cast as the Doctor, it’s perhaps not surprising that the main character seems almost to be sidelined much of the time.

Despite this, I don’t think season 22 is quite the nadir of 80s Who; that dubious honour goes to its successor, which always seems to me to be an example of a questionable idea, indifferently executed. But just as season 22 has moments of brilliance, so even The Trial of a Time Lord is not wholly without merit. And as for the McCoy seasons that followed it – well, I don’t think they’re perfect by any means, but I think they’re a vast improvement over their immediate predecessors. As you watch them you can see Andrew Cartmel, in particular, figuring out how to work with the available resources to produce stories that are contemporary, imaginative, and entertaining.

When 21st century Doctor Who first appeared, the talents involved – while not exactly dissing the 80s incarnation of the series – made it very clear that they were drawing their cues primarily from the previous decade. Rose plays with images from a 1970 story, and the Doctor-and-girl dynamic is apparently intended to remind us of ‘classic’ companions like Sarah. But this seems to me to be spin, motivated mainly by the poor reputation of 80s Who – if you go back and look at the final years of the series’ 20th century incarnation, you can see a lot which points the way to where the programme is now.

Primarily this is in the McCoy years, which feature housing estates and the companion who originates from them, an increased fascination with the character of the Doctor (even to the point where whole stories focus on his identity), and a greater interest in characterisation. But even before this, you could argue that the years have been kind to stories like Mawdryn Undead, with its intricate timey-wimey plot – and JNT’s much reviled obsession with attracting publicity to the show by any means necessary surely has an echo in the ‘movie poster’ culture surrounding the current series.

In fact, if you look at the long list of charges levelled against John Nathan-Turner’s regime – and if we’re talking about 80s Who, we are inevitably talking about JNT’s Who – something very odd occurs. JNT’s Who is always bringing back old monsters rather than breaking new ground (we have, of course, just enjoyed a season featuring the Great Intelligence, Silurians, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Daleks). JNT’s Who is obsessed with fannish continuity references (in the most recent season there were shouts out to Tegan, the Eye of Harmony, the Valeyard, and many others: not to mention the way that all the stories seem to link up with one another). JNT was always inappropriately casting comedians and pop stars in key roles (recently there have been guest spots by David Walliams and one of the So Solid Crew).

I’m not a particular fan of the current version of the series, as regular readers may have discerned, but I do not draw all these parallels to suggest that Doctor Who currently is as rubbish as it was in the 80s – nor to suggest that it was no more rubbish then than it is now. The two versions of the show were made in different contexts, and in different cultural situations, and directly comparing them is futile. However, given the parallels exist, it’s very hard to avoid the idea that 80s Who was in some ways ahead of its time.

Nevertheless, I do think the quality drop-off in 80s Who is more pronounced than the one we’re currently going through: the never-completely-resolved Doctor-centric plotlines of recent years may be a bit exasperating, but the stories themselves are generally snappy, good-looking and reasonably well-thought-through. You seldom get a story where the director appears to be operating entirely on autopilot or where the production designs are actually depressing.

And one further way in which JNT seemed to be ahead of his time was in his conception of Doctor Who as a brand, something the BBC takes very seriously these days but was unarticulated at the time. It’s the branding of Doctor Who in the 80s that results in some of the most-criticised aspects of the show: primarily the costuming of the leading characters as icons rather than actual real people, but also the general concern with the cosmetic details of the programme simply as a set of icons, rather than the substance of the storytelling. As a result, one gets a gradual sense of the programme slipping off into its own solipsistic world where it does not exist as mainstream drama, or an element of a larger culture, but always and only as Doctor Who. The end result of this process is a set of stories like season 22 or 23, which may be okay on their own terms, but are frequently wildly inappropriate for a mass family audience.

If current Doctor Who succeeds where 80s Doctor Who fell down, it’s because – so far – all due care and attention has been paid to ensure that the stories do not actively repel casual viewers. It’s hard to imagine, in the 2040s, another news report discussing whether Doctor Who went rubbish in the 2010s (then again, foreknowledge of this week’s report would have come as a nasty shock to anyone in 1983) – but does this mean the show is now miraculously proof against ever going rubbish again?

Of course not; the idea is ridiculous. And, as I hope I’ve indicated, I think any slide into rubbishness in the mid 80s was only a relative and partial thing. However, a slide did occur, largely I think because the makers of the series took its continuing success for granted. Whatever their faults (and I’m aware that for many people they can do no wrong), the current production team of the series seem fanatically determined not to let that happen again. And even I can only applaud them for that.

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