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Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Cartmel’

As everyone seems to be noting at present, time has been very kind to the McCoy-Cartmel Doctor Who stories. There’s a sense in which their critical rehabilitation shouldn’t come as a surprise -for a long time they were the very final stories in the history of Doctor Who as an ongoing proposition, so it was natural for people to look at them as being somehow deficient and representative of whatever-it-was that caused the series’ decline and fall. But now, with Doctor Who restored to its position as one of the cornerstones of BBC entertainment, things have inevitably changed, and the seventh Doctor stories are viewed more in terms of the way they consolidated the series’ late 80s successes and indeed anticipated the elements which would be responsible for its extraordinary resurrection a decade and a half later.

Ghost Light, written by Marc Platt and directed by Alan Wareing, is not one of those McCoy stories which instantly puts you in mind of the modern series, but in many ways it does look better now than it did on broadcast, and indeed for some years after. For a long time the standard fan response to viewing this story was a sort of surly frustration, mainly because an assured and polished production is coupled to a script which is densely written to the point, almost, of impenetrability: no-one could quite work out what was going on. In this post-Father’s Day, post-Angels Take Manhattan, post-Name of the Doctor world, it seems strange to consider that the coherence of narrative was once held to be so important when assessing a story’s merit, but there you go.

ghost light

Certainly summarising the plot of Ghost Light, as presented on screen, is up there with those of Warriors’ Gate and Revelation of the Daleks when it comes to tough assignments. In 1883, strange deeds are afoot in the sprawling mansion of Gabriel Chase. The house is under the control of the reclusive advocate of Darwinism, Josiah Smith, who… You know, it really doesn’t do the story justice to even attempt a capsule synopsis. One of the pleasures of the piece is to enjoy the complexities and layers of the plot as it whirls past you, never actually coming out and saying much of anything directly, but using a variety of oblique strategies to be, and be about, all sorts of things. Lurking within is a Neanderthal, a lizard, and a giant insect, all in dinner suits; a police inspector and a creationist clergyman, both heading for very sticky ends; a deranged explorer; a villain who is in many ways the ultimate social climber; and an alien who looks like an angel. This is the ‘light’ of the title. But where, you may be wondering, is the ghost? Well, in the story on screen, there is no reference to any ghost – but one haunts the script nevertheless, and his name is Robert Holmes.

This is hardly surprising given that script-editor Andrew Cartmel has confessed that discovering Holmes’ work was one of his key breakthroughs in coming to terms with the potential of Doctor Who, and that Marc Platt had been submitting story ideas to the production office since the middle 1970s, when Holmes himself was in residence there. Few post-1978 Doctor Who stories revisit the Gothic horror territory cultivated so successfully by Holmes as clearly as Ghost Light does – the period setting is immaculately achieved, the limitations of the production assimilated seemingly effortlessly – but the resemblance runs deeper than simple aesthetics and atmosphere. The things you can always rely on in the best Holmes scripts are killer set-pieces and striking visuals, and Ghost Light has them both – the script isn’t afraid to write in supporting characters simply to facilitate some memorable death scenes, for example. (Mind you, you could also argue the story looks back even further – the central dynamic of the plot isn’t a million miles from those in The Daemons and The Time Monster.)

That said, Holmes usually kept his scripts under better control than Platt does here, and it is true that, while the general thrust of the plot of the story is fairly easy to grasp (Gist Light, if you will), you would need to be some kind of savant to understand every nuance even after multiple viewings. Even then, I suspect, it doesn’t all quite hang together – how does the Control creature escape in the first episode? What exactly is the relationship between Control, Josiah, and the Husks, particularly in terms of who’s in charge at any given moment? How exactly does Josiah induce Reverend Matthews’ atavism? How exactly is he planning to usurp control of the British Empire beyond simply shooting the current monarch? It all works on a thematic level, but not as a narrative, not quite.

Of course, Ghost Light isn’t just a transitional form between 70s-style horror-inflected Who and the more impressionistic narratives of the current show: it does things of its own, too. Specifically, it plays with ideas on an intellectual level in a way that Doctor Who has very rarely done, tinkering with notions concerning the British class system and the theory of evolution.

It has to be said that Ghost Light‘s grasp of evolution as a concept is not especially well-grounded in science, but then again scientifically-accurate evolution is not really very dramatically satisfying (even Full Circle, the other Doctor Who story with an explicitly evolutionary theme, plays very fast and loose with the concept). Real-life evolution occurs in populations, not individuals, and it is not guided in any but the most general of senses. Ghost Light is full of characters evolving (or devolving), usually with a particular end in mind. Similarly there to serve the plot is Light’s peculiar lack of familiarity with the concept – he must be a particularly alien alien, if he comes from a place where life is exclusively static and inflexible.

And yet despite all these issues, these days Ghost Light is an extremely satisfying and rewarding story to watch, partly due to the quality of the production, partly due to some of the best dialogue from this era of the series. As a result the performances are also very strong – this may be Sylvester McCoy’s most satisfying performance as the Doctor. Certainly getting rid of the hat and umbrella early on means he looks a rather less cartoonish figure (the garish pullover persists, alas). It is quite startling to think that twenty-five years ago the BBC put something as oblique and strange and complex as this on in what, these days, is The One Show‘s slot. In the past I have suggested that Ghost Light may in fact be that much-discussed and little-seen beast, the triumph of style over substance, but that seems to me now to be a little harsh – there is plenty of both style and substance here, but they never quite mesh into a complete whole. It’s only the fact that there’s just too much going on in Ghost Light that keeps it from being one of the series’ indisputable classics. Even as simply a very good second-rank story, though, it’s something unique.

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You are trifling with us. You are on the brink of destruction, Doctor. We want something bigger. Something better.

If the great leap forward in Doctor Who‘s storytelling in the 1970s was the addition of a vital new moral sophistication, then the corresponding advance in the following decade was the shift away from an exclusively plot-driven format for the series. The great tragedy of this, of course, was that the innovation came only at the end of the decade, by which point a succession of essentially aimless and inward-looking seasons had seriously damaged the series’ potential as a piece of mainstream entertainment.

It is said that impending execution has a great focussing effect on the mind, and this may be true. It is certainly a fact that many of the most striking and thought-provoking stories of 1980s Doctor Who came when the series was, essentially, staring cancellation in the face. It’s common to praise the current version of the series for being modishly knowing and post-modern, but should ratings fall through the floor it’s hard to imagine the current regime making stories which acknowledge the fact that the series is a failure in terms of the popular audience, with a doubtful future – and yet Doctor Who in the 1980s did just this a couple of times – laboriously and obviously in The Trial of a Time Lord, but much more interestingly in Stephen Wyatt’s 1988 story, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Originally broadcast less than a year before the 20th century series effectively ended, this is a story you can actually read as being about the process of making Doctor Who in the late 1980s.

gsitg

The TARDIS’ spam filters go on the blink and it receives a visitation from a junk mail robot, challenging the Doctor and Ace to visit the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. Inevitably, they agree, but they find dark forces are at work in the circus – its original ideals have become hopelessly corrupted and now it serves only as a magnet for a wide variety of peculiar lost souls, of whom are determined to take their chances appearing in the ring – even in the full knowledge that life expectancy there can be measured in minutes…

It goes without saying that nothing remotely like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy would be made for TV transmission nowadays. It is a product of a very particular time and culture, when achingly high-concept ideas could be realised on a painfully low budget, when the barest pretence of naturalism was an optional extra – basically, when the production team could attempt anything, because the powers that be at the BBC didn’t really care what they were doing. Doctor Who normally lurks somewhere on the border between science fiction and fantasy, but this is one of those stories which heads deep into the latter realm. It makes no pretence at being a ‘serious’ piece of SF, but instead adopts a style very reminiscent of the more successful 80s comic books – striking, surreal images proliferate, and the characters are more symbols than attempts at depictions of real people. There is that strange mixture of vivid superficial colour and inner darkness also to be found in many 80s comics – behind the gloss of robot clowns, nerds on BMX bikes and garishly homicidal bus conductors is a story filled with loss, pain, and isolation: quite apart from all the usual Doctor Who mayhem there is the genuinely creepy suicide of a sympathetic character, for example.

The eye-opening scene for me when I first saw the story came in the second episode, with Whizzkid’s admission concerning the circus that ‘…I know it’s not as good as it used to be, but I’m still terribly interested.’ This line could have been taken from any mid-80s DWM letter column. Forget the LINDA characters in Love and Monsters, this is a series figuratively giving its own hard-core fanbase both barrels on screen.

However, it wasn’t for many years that I realised that the Whizzkid character isn’t just a standalone swipe but just one expression of the story’s central concern, which is the reality of producing mass-market entertainment in a competitive environment. With hindsight, Andrew Cartmel’s antipathy to the market-driven ideology of the Thatcher government runs through many of the stories of this era – the implicit criticism of the ‘only the strongest deserve to survive’ ethos later elaborated in Survival is also present here.

Of course, this element of the story is more obvious now due to the almost eerie way the Psychic Circus itself seems to prefigure the various theatres of cruelty overseen by Simon Cowell and his imitators: the parallels are, to say the least, striking, as various different people are lured to perform before the merciless gaze of the audience – survival only lasts as long as they succeed in being entertaining.

As it is for singers or acrobats, so it is for TV shows, of course. The danger with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is to read too deeply into the allegory – who do the Gods of Ragnarok ultimately represent – the mainstream audience? The BBC itself? Is the death of Whizzkid the show acknowledging that being constantly in thrall to its own fanbase is not the way forward? Is Nord, therefore, intended to represent the vacuous action-adventure narrative that was so much an early-80s staple?

This way madness lies. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is endlessly fascinating on a metaphorical level, but as an actual face-value narrative it is rather flawed – is the latter a consequence of the former? I think it may be so. Regardless of this, the story teems with unanswered questions and unelaborated pieces of back-story. Coherent narrative is secondary to big concepts and strong imagery – this is pretty much the Cartmel era’s approach in a nutshell, but this story shows this tendency more clearly than most. Characters move from location to location without any real explanation being given. Remarkable coincidences abound. And why hide the medallion in the bus? Why hide it at all?

Nevertheless this is a story that looks better and better as time goes by, and it looked pretty good in the first place. Accepted wisdom is that Doctor Who was valiantly struggling on in the late 80s, and any positive verdict given to a story must be accompanied by the qualification ‘given the circumstances’. I’m not sure about this. Some of the McCoy-Cartmel stories are good by any standard, but this one, for all its flaws, still seems to me to have a touch of greatness about. Quite appropriately, in the circumstances.

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This last month has not been especially satisfactory in some ways. Specifically, I have been marooned in the wilds of Buckinghamshire with nary a DVD player to be seen and only an intermittent wi and fi connection. I have thus been able to partake of many fewer seventh Doctor stories than I would have liked.

This is a shame as I find this particular era of the series to be endlessly re-watchable and in many ways more interesting than other, more celebrated periods. That isn’t to say that every story is golden, or that there aren’t consistent flaws running through many of the stories of this time. For a long time it was indeed fashionable to mock Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor as the crap one (even Mark Gatiss infamously took a vicious public swipe at McCoy’s performance) – while recently enjoying some ethnic nosh with a chum at a distinguished public house near Waterloo Station where McCoy’s photo graces the wall not far from that of fellow Doctor Peter Cushing, my friend went so far to suggest that McCoy was the ‘Roger Moore of Doctor Whos’. Several cans of worms to go into there – but the real problem is that he had a point. While much of the McCoy era is great, it is also genuinely flawed. McCoy himself was no disgrace as a Doctor, but his effective range is limited.

Even the best stories from this period struggle to match up to the best of some earlier Doctors, and the only story I managed to watch all the way through via internet video-sharing websites is not even widely acclaimed as a good McCoy story. Nevertheless I have always been fond of it, and its name is Paradise Towers.

Paradise Towers

The plot is at least straightforward this time around. The Doctor and his companion Mel arrive in Paradise Towers, a famous high-rise development. The Doctor is keen to explore the tower block, while Mel fancies a trip to the swimming pool on the roof. However, they find society within the towers on the point of collapse, the people there split into bitterly divided factions: Caretakers, Residents, and Kangs (all-girl street gangs). Even more ominously, the robotic cleaners who supposedly maintain the building appear to have started killing off the human occupants.

It is surely self-evidently true that, broadly speaking, Doctor Who falls into two big historical chunks. What some people may argue about is where the dividing line between those two big chunks falls. For me it is not between Survival and Rose – but a few years earlier, between Time and the Rani and Paradise Towers. Or, to put it another way: Paradise Towers is the first Doctor Who story of the modern era.

A contentious statement, no doubt – but consider the high concept that forms the basis of the story, its details filled in with a broad brush. Also the equally broad comedy and big performances from several of the guest cast. Also the knowing raids on modern pop-culture (as opposed to classic literature) and obvious (if toothless) satire on the period in which it was made. Or, to put it another way: there’s a direct line of descent from Paradise Towers to Gridlock, and arguably on to The Beast Below.

Despite all this, of course, Paradise Towers is still a story laden down with the conventions and tropes of a typical Doctor Who story from the previous few years. Credit where it’s due, the plot does boil down to yet another iteration of that Robert Holmes staple, the corporeally-challenged villain from years gone by, captive in a subterranean location, struggling to find a means of escape, while the plot does essentially boil down to some decent set pieces broken up by an interminable sequence of capture/escape routines with some corridor-jogging thrown in for the sake of variety. Perhaps this is why it feels like time has not been kind to the story – it takes a very long and circuitous route to get somewhere we’ve already been many times before.

At least the scenery is interesting. The characterisations are vivid and memorable, even if they are essentially cartoons – with the exception of the Kangs, all the guest characters are grotesques of one kind or another, and it’s this very unreality that makes the story viable. Imagine Paradise Towers done ‘straight’ as a naturalistic drama – most of the characters would seem ridiculous, a handful of them actually obscene. The story has clearly been conceived as a non-naturalistic fable.

Perhaps this is why, to a modern eye, it doesn’t completely satisfy. It may be a fable, but one gets a sense of Andrew Cartmel’s political sensibility straining at the leash, dying to do a story about the collapse of society under Thatcherism. Viewed as a satire, though, Paradise Towers simply doesn’t work, largely because of its very cartooniness. Squalid real-world high-rises are a symbol of deeper problems in wider society: but there is no sense of a wider society here, the Towers and their inhabitants exist in isolation, given only the flimsiest of back-stories. The world of the story has been thought through in only the most perfunctory of ways*.

Nor does the story really cohere. Put simply, the first three episodes consist of the Doctor and Mel being harassed by the various different factions of the Towers, with the threat of the robot cleaners chugging along in the background. Then, come the final part, the villain finally gets the chance to put his plan (which is simply to kill everyone) into action, at which point an unlikely coalition is forged. The story of the killer brain in the basement really has no connection with the various tales of social atavism and collapse going on in the rest of the building.

So the story may not hang together, it’s not especially well-directed, and Richard Briers’ performance (particularly in the last episode) hardly chimes with his reputation as a great actor. But the story is, if nothing else, sincere, there are some funny set-pieces and decent lines, and at least one of those classic Doctor Who moments: for me it is the scene in episode two where the Doctor tricks the caretakers into letting him escape – a wonderful, charming scene, with McCoy at his very best. It’s impossible to imagine any other Doctor save perhaps Troughton playing that scene quite as well as he does.

Paradise Towers is really a story of individual moments rather than a coherent whole. Looking at it properly for the first time in a decade, all the things I have enjoyed about it in the past remain: its freshness, its energy, its sense of genuinely caring about things beyond the simple requirements of the narrative. But now I am also aware of how much it exists on the boundary between old-style Doctor Who, which is primarily plot-driven, and new-style Doctor Who, which is either concept- or (more commonly) character-driven. It is still in thrall to the weakest elements of the old, with all its captures and escapes and trips up and down corridors, while the central concept of the story is not quite strong or well-thought-through enough for it to really satisfy as a good example of the new. I’m still fond of it, but I think it’s most interesting as an example of Doctor Who in transition.

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*The Obligatory When’s-It-Set Bit

Paradise Towers is one of those stories which is, on the face of it, relatively easy to place (at least roughly) on its own terms – but doing so raises a slew of questions. The Doctor reports that the building won awards ‘back in the 21st century’. The population in the story are the first people to live there, given the Doctor states it was members of the same society (the In-Betweens) who imprisoned Kroagnon in the building (at a point when it had apparently only just been finished). Given the age of the Kangs and the fact the Rezzies haven’t all died of old age, the inhabitants can’t have been there more than about twenty years. So therefore we are left with a date between 2100 and 2120.

Of course, this begs the question of what the war was that all the In-Betweens went off to fight, and what became of them. And where exactly is Paradise Towers, given it’s apparently so remote as to be safe from the war (and completely cut off from all other civilisation)?

Answering the last question first, exterior shots of the building show it standing under a blue sky, and the fact that Mel and Pex cheerfully run around the roof indicates the atmosphere of wherever-it-is is breathable. Is Paradise Towers on Earth, then? If so, where?

It’s never actually stated that the inhabitants of the Towers are (originally?) from Earth, but given the cultural stereotypes involved, some of the names (Tabby, Tilda, Maddy), and fact that the Towers have rats in them, it’s hard to shake the sense that this is what’s being implied. On the other hand, the Doctor’s line that ‘Space is a big place’ suggests that Kroagnon was originally an alien who came into contact with the In-Betweens.

It’s very difficult to come up with even a working hypothesis that’s completely satisfying, mainly because there are so many unanswered questions in the story itself. Earth history in Who-world does not make reference to a major war around the turn of the 21st century (a time when Earth itself had very little presence in wider galactic society). My inclination is to suggest that, despite implications to the contrary, the civilisation shown in the story did not originate on Earth, and the Towers themselves stand on some unknown alien planet.

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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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