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Posts Tagged ‘Newsnight’

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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