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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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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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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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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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In the past I have occasionally written about the political attitudes to be seen at work in the storytelling and concepts of Doctor Who (sometimes only to be seen if you screw your eyes up tight and put your head on one side, but even so). However, it occurs to me that there is fruitful territory for investigation if one looks at the actual political mechanics of Who-world, especially in its version of contemporary (or recent-history) Earth. Which politicians and other public figures do Who-world and our own reality share? What are the differences, and can we tease out some kind of story behind them?

The Doctor’s own credentials as a Republican or a Monarchist have never been articulated in detail, but given he’s happy to hob-nob with the royalty both of Earth and other planets (he is, after all, a Lord) it seems unlikely he is dogmatic about this sort of thing. In terms of the Earth royalty he encounters, Who-world and real-world history seem to agree in every respect –  his encounters with Rick One, Liz One and Two, and Vicky are all at the points in time when one would roughly expect them to occur.

(Although, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there’s a mild point of conflict when it comes to Battlefield, which alludes to the possibility of a reigning male monarch despite being set prior to the ‘present day’ of the more recent UNIT stories – at which time, specifically in Voyage of the Damned, Liz Two is still depicted as being on the throne.)

Well, this fidelity to fact is not entirely surprising if you think about it – politicians and other figures come and go on a fairly regular basis, but the Royal Family are pretty much a fixture. It’s in the storytellers’ interest that the fictional world and the real world be as similar as possible, just to maximise viewer engagement. A fictional prime minister requires much less suspension of disbelief than a fictional monarch.

Of course, there are also things like libel laws to consider, which largely prevent the show from using contemporary figures as characters. Possibly as a result of this, the general principle is that the show tends to stick closer to real-world fact in matters of history than it does when dealing with the present day – the most obvious example of this being the appearance of Winston Churchill as a character in Victory of the Daleks. Churchill is such a mythologised figure now that it’s easy to forget he was still alive when Doctor Who started broadcasting, at which time using him as a character on the show would probably have been unthinkable.

Despite being fairly heavily embedded in the side of the British establishment from the mid-60s on, the Doctor’s dealings with the political class for much of this time tended to be with junior figures – principal private secretaries, and suchlike. These are the sorts of figures regularly appearing in stories like Doctor Who and the Silurians (Masters, decent but doomed), Inferno (Gold, amiable but ineffective), The Claws of Axos (Chinn, pompous and inescapable), and The Sea Devils (Walker, grotesque and incompetent). The civil servant is a nuisance-figure in many of the third Doctor’s stories, and it’s only towards the end of his run that we meet a contemporary politician who’s an actual threat – Charles Grover, Minister with Special Powers, is one of the leaders of the Golden Age group in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Naturally, the BBC wanting to stay neutral, we never learn which party Grover belongs to, or indeed much about his policies beyond his being environmentally-conscious.

It's all the bloody government's fault I expect.

It’s all the bloody government’s fault I expect.

Only very occasionally do we get an idea of who’s really at the top of British society during these stories. The first occasion is during The Green Death, when such is the clout of Global Chemicals that they are able to have the Brigadier slapped down by the Prime Minister himself – whose face we don’t see, but who’s addressed by a colleague as ‘Jeremy’.

Now, whether you think The Green Death is set in 1973, 1979, or 1984, the fact remains that the UK has never had a Prime Minister called Jeremy! It seems a safe bet that the production team were suggesting, not necessarily seriously, that Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would get into  Number Ten. In the real world, Thorpe never made it: persistent rumours of a sex scandal, a dead Great Dane and an alleged conspiracy to commit murder all combined to end his career. In Who-world things may have gone differently.

Nevertheless, not that long after The Green Death, the mysterious ‘Jeremy’ is definitely out of office (unless there have been some fairly remarkable surgical developments) as when the Prime Minister phones up the Brigadier in the final episode of Terror of the Zygons, he respectfully answers ‘Ma’am.’ You could argue that at this point (whenever it is – 1975, 1980, or 1986) Who-world and real-world politics are back in sync and the Brig is talking to Maggie Thatcher, but there’s no reason why he can’t be talking to Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle or someone completely fictional.

From this point on, the Doctor spends less time in Britain, and when he’s there he spends much less time dealing with civil servants and other bureaucrats (although he seems to enjoy the company of Sir Colin Thackeray of the WEB in The Seeds of Doom). This is a trend which continues, on-screen at least, until the end of the original run. Time-Flight indicates that the Doctor’s dealings with the British government happen under the auspices of something called Department C-19, run by a Sir John Sudbury in 1981, but we learn nothing more about it. Is this the section of the Ministry of Defence which liaises with the United Nations where matters involved UNIT? Could it (a tantalising thought) be the official designation of Torchwood at this point in history? It is never expanded upon.

The 1989 stage play The Ultimate Adventure deserves a mention for its opening scene, in which the TARDIS is summoned to Downing Street and the Doctor given a mission by Thatcher to preserve world peace. This was broad stuff, played at least partly for laughs (Colin Baker attempted to slip a few topical jokes in when he took over the show) – but it was fun.

At some point before Who-world’s 2007, its politics and ours definitely had one point in common – in Rise of the Cybermen Mickey suggests a parallel world might be a place ‘where Tony Blair was never elected’, indicating he was Prime Minister in Who-world for at least a while. Quite when this was is never made clear, and the late 2000s in general proved to be an even more challenging time to be a senior politician in the UK than they did in real life.

The years of turmoil start in 2006, with the Slitheen attempt to infiltrate the UK government by impersonating (obese) minor members of the establishment (in Aliens of London). For these people to rise to the top, the then-current Prime Minister had to be removed, which he duly was. The PM’s corpse tumbles out of a cupboard on-screen – apparently a Tony Blair lookalike was considered, but the man on screen is visibly someone else (maybe Blair looked different in Who-world).

For the remainder of 2006 the Prime Minister is apparently Harriet Jones, a sitting MP under the previous incumbent. Jones is depicted as a rather Thatcherite figure once she actually becomes PM – there is a veiled reference to the General Belgrano controversy in The Christmas Invasion – but not an actively malicious one. Given that he previously predicted she would be in office for a considerable period, and oversee something of a new Golden Age (Charles Grover would have approved), it seems perhaps a little harsh of the Doctor to topple her government and drive her out of office: possibly even hypocritical, given his own lack of remorse when it comes to blowing up alien craft. It was almost certainly unwise, given what follows.

Yes, you know who she is.

Yes, you know who she is.

Exactly who it is that immediately follows Harriet Jones as Prime Minister in 2007 and part of 2008 is never really made clear – at this point Blair may have had his moment – but their government seems to have been an unpopular one. Towards the end of the year a new grouping led by the eerily charismatic Harry Saxon is enjoying a healthy poll lead, as reported in Victor Kennedy’s newspaper in Love and Monsters. There may be an election producing a hung parliament towards the end of the year, as by Christmas 2007 Saxon is in a position of authority over the armed forces, ordering them to open fire on the Racnoss ship over London in The Runaway Bride. The logical deduction is that Saxon is Minister of Defence in a coalition government – it was probably at this point that he worked with UNIT to design the Valiant carrier.

Saxon becomes Prime Minister in his own right following another election at some point in 2008. Following the not very thinly veiled ‘massive weapons of destruction’ and September 11th gags in World War Three, the Saxon-as-PM storyline is another piece of broad satire from Rusty Davies, as an implicit parallel is drawn between Saxon (who is, of course, the Master, the show’s quintessential supervillain) and Tony Blair. ‘We didn’t really know what his policies were… we just liked him,’ Martha says in The Sound of Drums, trying to explain the Master’s electoral popularity, and echoing criticisms of Blair’s own supposed ‘all style no substance’ appeal. This seems to me to be just more apparently-satirical comfort food, as Blair had become a deeply unpopular figure by the time these episodes were broadcast (almost in the same week he left the office of Prime Minister himself). Likening Blair to the Master is not particularly fair to either of them, surely.

It’s interesting, by the way, that one of the celebrities endorsing Saxon as Prime Minister is a real-world politician, the cat-loving non-dancer Anne Widdecombe, who was a sitting Tory MP at the time the episodes were broadcast. Are we to conclude that Widdecombe is amongst the MPs who abandoned their former loyalties to join the ‘Saxon party’? Was Anne herself really in the picture about what she was appearing to do?

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with... oh I can't be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with… oh I can’t be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

Widdecombe does not appear to be in the Saxon cabinet, which briefly appears in The Sound of Drums before the Master murders them all with nerve gas. It is a necessary quirk of maintaining a fictional universe closely based on our own that the near-complete slaughter of the government (not long after the death of a previous PM and the demolition of the seat of government) has no apparent effect on the everyday lives of people in the street. Things certainly seem to be back to normal by the Doctor’s next visit to the present day in Partners in Crime – some tongue-in-cheek dialogue about the sheer unlikelihood of the events of the previous episodes (the PM killing the American President then vanishing without a trace) was cut from the episode on the grounds it took lantern-hanging a shade too far.

Normally one would have expected a protracted period of political instability to follow not just the death or disappearance of the entire cabinet but also (one would assume) the total collapse of the party elected to power – one can’t really imagine the Saxon Party continuing in the Master’s absence, for all that he clearly still has followers in positions of influence.

Nevertheless, by late 2009 normal service appears to have been restored, with the sitting Prime Minister during Torchwood: Children of Earth being a Brian Green (more subtlety from Rusty: Brian Green as opposed to Gordon Brown), whose party is, as usual, left indeterminate. Five different Prime Ministers in the space of three years is, obviously, unprecedented in British history; the conclusion of Children of Earth offers us the prospect of a sixth, with Green’s premiership looking threatened.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

The same story reveals that Torchwood Three, at least, liaises with the Home Office. Given that Harriet Jones, while Prime Minister, indicates that she isn’t supposed to be aware the institute exists, there are some curious indications as to how the UK establishment operates in Who-world – although, following the events of Doomsday, it would hardly be surprising if Torchwood One, at least, found itself dragged out into the public view – or at least the awareness of the elected government.

The whole area of contemporary politics is one of those which the series has pulled back from since the installation of Steven Moffat as showrunner. An early draft of The Power of Three featured another new Prime Minister in office in 2014, this one openly hostile to the Doctor (presumably due to the effect he and his associates have had on the political establishment over recent years), but this element proved unpopular with the  production office and was dropped.

The series’ dealings with the politics of other nations have been much more limited, particularly during the original run. The same principles hold true, however – the President in 1969 during Day of the Moon is, as you would expect, Richard Nixon, for example.

When the plot of The Sound of Drums requires the Master to murder the President of the USA, however, the programme opts to wheel on a wholly fictional character rather than a nudgy-winky version of George W Bush. That said, the gentleman in question introduces himself as ‘Arthur Coleman Winters, President-Elect of the United States’ – the fact he is specifically President-Elect appears to be an attempt to suggest that Winters is actually Bush’s successor, but yet to be sworn in.

Either the American political cycle in Who-world is very different from ours, or this means that The Sound of Drums takes place very late in 2008, following that year’s election. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this idea, but it does mean that Torchwood series 2 now mostly takes place in 2009, making an already busy year in Who-world even more frenetic.

Presumably the gentleman who is the President of the USA by the end of 2009, and who addresses the world with his scheme to save the global economy (given the popularity of The West Wing with the makers of the current show, he may well have a secret plan to fight inflation), is the person originally elected as Winter’s Vice-President, promoted into the top job upon his assassination. Nevertheless, he is Barack Obama, who has obviously had a very different career in Who-world.

This is another example of the show’s world seeming superficially identical to our own but being rather different once you dig into the detail of it – something which is virtually a necessity given this is a fantasy show with a real-world basis. It’s unlikely to change for as long as the show remains in production, and watching the makers continue to walk the political tightrope will no doubt retain its odd fascination.

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I’ve often said in the past that Russell T Davies’ genius in overseeing the return of Doctor Who lay not in what he changed about the series – and let’s not forget how controversial the focus on the companions’ families was, at least to begin with, nor how strange the change to the 45-minute story initially felt – but in what he didn’t. I myself was firmly in favour of rebooting the continuity from scratch, entertained various notions of a mercurial, Hartnellesque Doctor, and so on – but the series that eventually appeared stuck very closely to the template the original had used, especially from 1973 to 1977: the Doctor and a single companion, with frequent trips to a ‘home base’ of sorts on contemporary Earth, with a bunch of other recurring characters there.

At this point in the original run, the TARDIS was semi-steerable and so it was implied that the companion travelled with the Doctor out of the sheer joy of it – Sarah is clearly pretty distraught upon being told that she has to go home at the end of The Hand of Evil, and many years later it’s during Rusty’s tenure that this is properly articulated.

That it’s done so at all demonstrates one of the distinctive things about the modern show: the focus on the regular characters as just that, individual characters rather than ciphers carrying out plot functions – there’s an overall swing away from it being a plot-driven series to a character-driven one. Obviously this extends to how companion arrivals and departures are dealt with.

As part of the series’ new style, one thing totally (and thankfully) absent is the out-of-the-blue departure, with a companion deciding in the last five minutes of a story that this would be a nice to move on. (This may be due to the artistes’ contracts being handled much more professionally, who can tell – in at least one case during the original run, the producer kept hoping an actress would stay on, only finally accepting they were leaving while their last episode was actually being filmed.) Companion departures are foreshadowed, written into the overall story of a season, and arise seamlessly from the way they’ve been characterised.

And so it is that Rose, who is established (however objectionably, if you’re anything like me) as the Doctor’s One True Soul Mate throughout her stories, has to be physically ripped from his side and banished to a parallel universe by a series of wobbly and arguably contrived plot devices. There is no way this character, as written and performed, would ever leave the Doctor’s side voluntarily, and her departure reflects this. Doomsday, until very recently, was unique in that it is fundamentally the story of how a companion leaves the Doctor. This is not the story of how the hubris of Torchwood unleashes a Cyberman-Dalek conflict on present-day London – all that is just window-dressing for Billie Piper crying on a beach somewhere. The Daleks and Cybermen are just there to lend heft to the circumstances of Rose’s leaving – the same is not true of the Master in Martha’s final regular story or Davros in Donna’s.

Oh, stop milking it.

Oh, stop milking it.

If you want to properly characterise companions and not make them basic ciphers, you almost instantly run into the problem of how to differentiate them. We have yet to see how Steven Moffat will make the new girl distinct from Pond – although having someone likeable whose backstory isn’t completely wrapped up in the Doctor would be a good start – but in Rusty’s case the defining characteristic of the lead companion was the nature of their romantic feelings for the Doctor. After the quasi-romance between the Doctor and Rose (and I’ll fight to the death to keep that ‘quasi’, dammit), the dynamic between the Doctor and Martha was one of unrequited affection (the way this is played has the unfortunate consequence of making the Doctor look like a thoughtless arse and Martha a drip, but that can’t be helped) and this again feeds into her departure and provides a decent rationale for it – all the business with her traumatised family helps too.

(Although one has to wince a bit at the way Martha Jones gets treated after her initial departure – shuffled over into Torchwood for a bit, then dragged back for three dud episodes with Donna, then a lot of running around with plot devices in the finale where she plays third fiddle to Donna and Rose, and then finally showing up in what can only be described as a marriage of convenience never even hinted at before. Really? Really?)

In the same way, the relationship between the Doctor and Donna is explicitly framed in platonic terms – that this, which was implicitly the default setting throughout the original series, was stressed as something new and unusual at the time, tells you a lot about how the series has changed – but again, she is, like Rose, presented as someone who finds travelling with the Doctor to be a transformative, utterly fulfilling experience.

So here again it’s obvious that there can only realistically be an involuntary departure for this character. I find it a little curious that after frequently vowing he would never kill off a companion – this would send the wrong set of messages to the show’s young audience – Rusty effectively does just this to Donna, or at least the Donna the audience has come to know and care about. Another set of wobbly plot contrivances is invoked, requiring the Doctor to wipe her memory of him – or, to be more precise, block it from her, on the understanding that if she gets it back her brain will fry. Hmmm. Or, possibly, she will just shoot energy out of her face and then faint for ages, which is what actually happens in The End of Time. So much of the latter end of Rusty’s tenure is deeply suspect in narrative terms that it feels mean to pick on this particular element: suffice to say that it is another example of a companion not quite leaving the TARDIS feet first, but certainly doing so kicking and screaming.

'My mind's burning! I'm about to die - oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.'

‘My mind’s burning! I’m about to die – oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.’

With two of the three previous companions departing via some form of banishment (with a liberal helping of mind-wipe mixed in in Donna’s case), should we be surprised that the same fate ultimately awaits the Ponds? It’s interesting that after a set of stories that specifically sets out to explore the consequences of a long-term association with the Doctor – lasting over a decade, if Amy’s maths is to be trusted – their actual relationship concludes with a bang rather than the whisper and a slow fading from each others’ lives that one might expect. It’s tempting to conclude that the overblown sentimental finale is now so entrenched as a staple of the programme that not even Moffat can break its’ grip; personally I rather hope not.

And so the Ponds are banished also. Even the bods at DWM, who are contractually obliged to be broadly positive about the new series, accept that the actual plot mechanics of The Angels Take Manhattan are chiefly notable for Not Making Any Sense. Once again, the need for an overblown sentimental finale trumps all other considerations – I’m tempted to make my standard complaint here that, currently, Doctor Who is much more interested in being Clever and Moving than it is in actually constructing coherent narratives, but that’s kind of the subtext of nearly everything I’ve written about the post-2010 series – and again it’s a finale revolving around an involuntary departure from the TARDIS.

It’s tempting to blame this spate of moderately soap-opera-inflected tragedies on the shifts in the series’ format that occurred in the mid-70s, most notably the convention that the TARDIS gradually became more and more susceptible to the Doctor’s controlling influence (The Doctor’s Wife probably constitutes a semi-retcon to this, but no matter). With this in place, the plot device of the companion wanting to get home (one of the series’ initial drivers) instantly became redundant, with the replacement idea being that the companions were there out of choice.

I’m not sure this explains everything, though. It seems to me that one of the key characteristics of the modern series, and one of the few which really betrays the deep fan roots of its creators. The characteristic in question is this: the new series routinely takes things which, in the original run, were either deeply-buried or unconscious subtext, and foregrounds them as key narrative elements.

The loneliness of the Doctor is never really addressed head-on in the original run, but only alluded to in passing in a few memorable scenes. It’s one of the key themes of many tenth Doctor episodes. His status as a mythic, titanic figure, which has been at the heart of so many recent episodes, never really gets going in the original run – significantly, the few references to this were picked up and elaborated upon in the fiction coming out of the fan culture which was in many ways the place of origin for the revived series’ approach and style.

One of the main principles of Rusty’s tenure on the show was ‘The Doctor is wonderful, and travelling with him is wonderful too’ – and Steven Moffat seems to have retained this as a precept, too. This is an idea which, stated in those terms, is entirely new to the revived series – it’s almost literally impossible to imagine anyone from the original run talking in such an on-the-nose fashion – emotional articulacy was an unknown concept back then. Watching the original run, you can infer that Jo and Sarah and so on must clearly feel this way, but no-one ever talks about it quite so directly.

Nevertheless – and this may be a consequence of the compressed storytelling demanded by a 45-minute timeslot – in the new series this idea is dragged into the foreground and recited almost as a mantra. Given that we’re frequently and explicitly told that Travelling With The Doctor Is Wonderful, options for plausible companion departures, particularly of the voluntary kind, naturally become rather limited. Hence the wobbly logic and involuntary nature of so many recent leavings of the TARDIS.

I hope I’ve made it clear that, even if I think recent companion departures leave a bit to be required in the plotting department, they’re no worse – and, in many ways, arguably better – than the way most companions were written out during the original run. With a few very distinguished exceptions, this is one aspect of the format that the series has always struggled to come to grips with in a truly satisfying way. Whatever the problems currently attendant in this area, they seem bound up with the wider issues of the series’ storytelling style. Whether a change in the latter would produce an improvement in the former remains to be seen: not that such a change would appear to be imminent. The big goodbye is now, I suspect, part of the format, for good or ill – and it’s likely to remain a tragic goodbye, too.

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