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Posts Tagged ‘Rusty Davies’

Class distinctions seem to be very much a hot topic at the moment here in the UK. This seems to be due to a) the success of The King’s Speech, the tale of one of the toffiest people imaginable bonding with someone who’s not just a pleb, but an Australian, and b) the fact that in a few months time we’re all to be given a day off work (well, those people who actually have jobs – the rest of us won’t feel the benefit of this particular piece of largesse) to celebrate the fact that the future monarch will be marrying a ‘commoner’ – she’s never even had her own coat of arms! It’s madness! (Then again she’s never really had a proper job either, so surely the jury’s still out on her woman-of-the-people credentials.)

So class is a still live issue here in the UK, though perhaps less than it has been in the past: while the way a person speaks, behaves and dresses can still tell you something about their background, you would be unwise to draw too many assumptions from this. Television in general also seems to have abandoned its general condescension towards and suspicion of the working class.

(Yeah, I’m sorry, but this is a piece about the British class system, which really obliges me to use generalisations like ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘posh’. As ever, real life is much more complicated.)

This is hardly surprising given that for a long time TV was, on the whole, made by university-educated chaps, who may not have been that familiar with the full spectrum of society. In the TV of the sixties and seventies one can surely detect a sort of panem et circenses approach in the provision of things like soaps and game shows, and an assumption that the really worthwhile stuff was plays and authored documentaries.

Certainly, if you look more closely at TV SF and fantasy, it seems to be very much a middle-class pursuit. Survivors, in particular, presents a world where the working classes seem to have suffered disproportionately from the plague, and the few still around are mostly either shotgun-toting bandit scum or the comic relief. Blake’s 7 is nearly as bad.

And it’s the same with Doctor Who, throughout the original run. Of the attempts to create a believable working-class companion, only one is really successful, and that’s a character from the mid-Sixties (and before you object, Ace just comes across as a middle-class girl pretending to be ‘street’ most of the time). Honorable mention for Sergeant Benton, though.

The rest of the time, you’re only really likely to meet anyone working class if you go out into the countryside, and even then they’ll probably be a comedy yokel or tramp. I suppose one has to mention Drax from The Armageddon Factor at this point: Drax is a Time Lord and old mucker of the Doctor’s, who he bumps into off in deep space somewhere. Drax has spent so much time in 20th century London he’s gone native and developed a Cockney accent. The crucial thing is that Drax’s accent is irrelevant to the plot – it’s simply a character quirk, and one that to me seems deeply tied up with the fact that he’s basically a comic-relief sidekick to the Doctor.

'Cor blimey guv'nor. Strike a light. Would you Adam'n'Eve it?' etc. etc.

Things improve a bit as the series goes on – though not a huge amount, the ‘girl gangs’ of Paradise Towers still talk like they’ve all been to Roedean – and it does score a definite success in Survival, with its depiction of Ace’s old friends and their haunts in a London suburb of tower blocks and vandalised community centres.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to marvel at the continuity of tone and setting between Survival and Rose, as though one could watch the entire series in sequence and barely notice the transition (and it’s hardly as if either was particularly representative of the series at the time). But one way in which Rose is very much signalling a change of approach is in the social background of its characters.

In the first year of the revived show, there are probably more significant and serious working-class characters than in any five or six of the old run – most obviously there are Rose, Mickey, and Jackie, but in addition to that there’s Raffalo the space-plumber, Gwyneth the maid, all the people at the wedding the Reapers crash, Nancy and her kids, Lynda with a Y… admittedly, some of them come from different societies to ours, but the creative decisions were made to have them dress and talk in way that hits a particular set of cues.

And there’s no overlooking the fact that Russell T Davies even has a damn good try at making the Doctor seem working-class. On the face of it this seems an absurd proposition – not only is his general demeanour that of a brilliant academic, he’s a Lord, for heaven’s sake – but the strengths of the scripting and Christopher Eccleston’s performance are such that, somehow, the quintessential Doctor survives beneath the jeans and leather jacket and accent (one of the very few good gags in Adam Roberts’s Doctor Who parody E.T. Shoots And Leaves was his summarisation of Eccleston’s Doctor as being performed in the style of ‘an unemployed northern builder on E’ – funny, because it’s ultimately true).

His Lordship, slumming it with the chavs.

I’m not sure how much of this was what you’d call a conscious decision on Rusty’s part – nearly all his work outside Who-world operates in this kind of narrative space, with characters from this sort of background. His background writing for soap operas may be significant, or it may just be the way his creativity operates. Certainly it works well in terms of making the revived series accessible to a wider audience, which was doubtless a major concern at the time, although the insertion of the ‘soap opera’ element drew heavy flak from some parts of the fanbase.

It is curious, though, that ever since 2005 the series appears to have slowly creeping back towards its former position. David Tennant’s Mockney accent is just that – no-one in the show seems to read anything into it regarding his background. Post-Rose, the Doctor’s associates have generally gone back to being from the professions – Martha’s a doctor, Jackson Lake is a teacher, Adelaide is a scientist, Christina is a fellow toff – although of course Donna and her grandad don’t quite fit this pattern. (We should remember that Donna was originally only written as a one-off character, and Martha’s replacement was planned to be Penny the journalist.)           

Post-Davies, this shift has only accelerated: you couldn’t describe Matt Smith’s deranged boffin as being in any way down to Earth or recognisable as someone you might meet in everyday life, while Amy Pond hails from a picture-book country village rather than a housing estate or suburban street. The general tone is now fairy-tale rather than soap opera, though it hasn’t abandoned everyday life entirely: putting the Doctor into just such a setting is the whole point and joy of The Lodger, for instance.

And, so far as one can tell, this return to a slightly more ‘classic’ style doesn’t seem to have compromised the series’ mass appeal in any way. Does this mean Rusty was being overcautious in the way he pitched his earlier work on the show? Well, I don’t know; maintaining a big audience isn’t the same thing as attracting one in the first place, after all, and I can quite see why he wouldn’t want to take any chances. And as I said, I doubt it was entirely a considered choice on his part.

I suppose you could argue that, against the wider background of TV in general, what’s been going on in Doctor Who over the last year or two has been an ultimately retrograde step – moving against the democratisation of TV over recent decades. Possibly – if, as I’ve argued, this is simply the show’s core values reasserting themselves – this is one of the rare signs that the programme we’re talking about is, in TV terms, is a product of a different, ancient world, with its roots in a wholly different style of storytelling. Slightly archaic it may be, but this style has served it well for nearly half a decade and should continue to do so in years to come.

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What shall I do today? The luge? BASEjumping? Shark-tickling? Hmm, all a bit passe. How about Russian roulette? Still not daring enough. I know, I’ll do something really risky and write about Torchwood and its fandom…

There was a strong turn out for the semi-final of the Cardiff Bay Posing Competition…

 

I suppose I would describe myself as a supporter of Torchwood rather than a bona fide fan of the show. I went out of my way to watch the first two series (I was living in Japan and Italy at the time, and you wouldn’t believe the trouble I had tracking parts of season two down on the internet), own all three on DVD and generally know my way around the series and its characters. There are other programmes that I think are considerably better which I’m a lot less committed to, and yet I still hang in there. I suspect this is almost certainly because Torchwood is a Who-world show, even though its place within that world is a sometimes awkward one (for instance, don’t get me started on how the chronology of the two interlink) .

That said, I know I’m very much in the shallow end when it comes to Torchwood fandom, and no doubt many of the hard core will dismiss I even have the right to claim as much. I am aware that there are a lot of people who love Torchwood fiercely but who are only dimly aware of, or largely indifferent to, Doctor Who. (This is one of those things I don’t understand but will happily admit exists.) Torchwood-specific fandom seems to be one of the most committed and ardent followings currently in existence, and I’m certainly not going to start taking cheap shots at them (I’d be on rather thin ice if I did, after all).

However, I am rather fascinated by the way that mainstream and fandom opinions of Torchwood have always remained, broadly speaking, polarised. The first two runs of the show were the ones which established the ardent following it still enjoys, even though mainstream reviews were generally negative (season two got slightly better notices, which it deserved). The third series, on the other hand, was mostly rather well-received in the media – but it seems to be reviled, if not actually abominated, by fandom. Comments that I’ve seen from fans about Children of Earth include ‘the writing was offensive and lazy’, it ‘was a shambles’, and it ‘bordered on sensationalism’ – and those are all drawn from responses to a single blog post about the show!

Well, talk about rifts… It seems that the things that the mainstream likes about Torchwood are the ones that fandom hates, and vice versa. Normally I would say that there’s nothing wrong with Rusty and the programme makers worrying first and foremost about cultivating a large mainstream audience – the show would implode otherwise – but in the case of Torchwood, I can see how fans would feel justified in seeing this as a betrayal. If ever there was a series which appeared machine-tooled to acquire and retain a cult following, it’s early Torchwood. It’s derivative of other series, often knowingly so, and seems designed to appeal to a certain type of very dedicated fan.

(I’m a cult TV fan myself of many years standing, I have many friends who are equally afflicted, etc, etc, and once again I should stress I’m not dealing in lazy generalisations or cheap shots here (is this disclaimer really necessary, I ask myself? Better not take the chance: I suspect tagging a blog post Torchwood or Ianto Jones will result in a bit of a hits spike – part of the reason I’m writing this is to test that thesis – and I’d like to keep the amount of grumpy feedback I get to a minimum…). However, that said…)

Torchwood may – ostensibly – share continuity with Doctor Who, and has borrowed a few characters from it, but its roots as a TV format clearly lie elsewhere. This is probably because the concept for the series was one Rusty Davies came up with prior to his Who revival, and which he returned to and retooled when asked to submit an idea for a Who-world spin-off show. Broadly speaking (and this is by no means a new or particularly insightful comment), Torchwood is Buffy the Vampire Slayer relocated to South Wales and (theoretically) made for an adult audience (a debt the show surely openly acknowledged in casting James Marsters in the second series).

…and the winner went on to challenge a strategically-employed guest star for the title.

Buffy was the biggest cult show in the world around the millennium, with the same kind of zealous following, but it also managed to be popular in the mainstream media as well, mostly due to the strength of the writing – both in terms of the on-going plots, and the characters’ endless capacity for pithy one-liners. The fans in particular became deeply invested in the various characters and their relationships, which helped to ground the show when the monster-of-the-week element became particularly silly.

There was also the fact that – and if you thought I was treading carefully before, you ain’t seen nothing yet – Buffy appealed to minority groups not often well represented on TV. I’m talking about the LGBT fans, of course, which Torchwood also has (or, possibly, had – one other way in which Torchwood has followed Buffy has been in controversially killing off a hugely popular LGB character).

I think one of the reasons why early Torchwood falls down is that it fails to recognise another key element of the Buffy formula – both shows consistently include outrageous (please note that I’m definitely not using the words ‘preposterous’ or ‘silly’ here) stories, but the makers of Buffy, mainly through the dialogue and performances, make it quite clear that they know this, and that the show isn’t meant to be taken completely seriously. Torchwood doesn’t do this – at least not consistently – with the result that it frequently comes across as unintentionally camp, sometimes embarrassingly so.

The pitch for Torchwood‘s first two series would be ‘the adventures of a pansexual time-travelling adventurer as he leads a team of alien hunters, in Cardiff’ – perfectly good stuff for a conventional SF series, except for the last two words. ‘In Cardiff’ makes it something oddball, potentially ludicrous, possibly brilliant. One or two episodes excepted, Torchwood never shows much sign of realising what an odd show it is, though. It spends its time self-consciously trying to be mature and serious when it ought to be being arch and knowing.

Those are the flaws of early Torchwood, for me – obviously ‘proper’ fans of the show will disagree. I suspect any defence of the show will hinge upon the strength of the characters and their relationships with one another, rather than the quality of the scripts and direction of individual episodes. Certainly, I’ve read more comments along the lines of ‘For me this show just won’t be the same without [insert name of recently deceased regular] in it’ in association with Torchwood than any other programme.

For me, though, Children of Earth was a quantum leap forward for Torchwood, the moment at which it finally became the ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’ we were initially promised (but surely Doctor Who is ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’? Mutter, grumble…). For the first time it didn’t seem to be trying to do anything beyond just telling a really good story – and, while a few incongruous lapses in plotting still got onto the screen and the story peaked a bit early, they generally succeeded. It may not have been perfect, or up to the standards of the best of the other Who-world series, but it was at the absolute very least no worse than the first two series.

And yet the Torchwood fanbase says things like ‘a shambles,’ and ‘lazy and offensive’… let us turn our attention (finally) to the dark heart of Children of Earth, and what is surely the reason why it is so hated: they kill off Ianto Jones. I said at the time, even as the lad was gasping his last, that this would cause ructions on the internet, and I was right. Torchwood fans are wont to complain about commentators fixating on the, er, strong and varied response to Ianto’s death by a small minority amongst their number, so I will only be mentioning the death threats against the script-writer this one time. For those not familiar with the situation (and, hey, thanks for reading this far if so), the Save Ianto Jones campaign has, over the last year and a half, regularly sent the BBC messages by post and email, dispatched packages of coffee beans to the makers of the series – the exact number is disputed, although the people at SaveIanto.com claim it’s well over a hundred bags – and maintained a physical shrine to the character in Cardiff itself.

A picture of your actual Ianto Jones shrine, should anyone doubt it’s real…

(Surely it’s a bit late to ‘Save’ Ianto given that he’s already dead? Wouldn’t Resurrect Ianto Jones be a more appropriate rallying cry? I suspect my pedantic tendencies have slipped the leash again. Anyway…)

Quite why Ianto’s passing has caused such a strong reaction is, on the face of things, a mystery, given he was very much in the background for much of the first series, and rather lacking in personality. Then again, this may be the beginnings of an explanation – this isn’t the first time a relatively minor supporting character has gone on to become a fan-favourite, as something similar happened to Worf in TNG. Could it be that, in some cases, fans actually prefer a character who’s a bit of a blank slate? It’s a lot easier to idealise someone like that, than someone much more strongly conceived and characterised like Owen (a shrine to whom is not, to my knowledge, extant).

Then again, the issue of Ianto’s sexuality complicates the matter, with his death criticised on the grounds that it perpetuates the trope that gay people are doomed to cruel and untimely deaths. This leads on to the mind-boggling accusation by some people that Rusty Davies is homophobic. Er, yeah. This is a complex issue that I don’t propose to tackle in detail here, and all I will say is that if it’s unfair and misleading to show a gay character dying, it’s surely also equally unrealistic to suggest that they are less prone to unhappiness and tragedy than anyone else (which seems to be what some people propose be done).

Well, anyway, he was my favourite character too, and I was sorry to see him go… but his death was memorable, and certainly in keeping with the general tone of Torchwood as a series, and quite possibly necessary to the plot of the story (your correspondent braces for angry feedback). It certainly hasn’t put me off watching future installments of the series.

We are now in a situation where a fourth series of Torchwood is in the works, produced by the (presumably now-well-caffeinated) BBC and the Starz network – a new run of a show which has never truly been a mainstream hit in either the USA or Britain, and whose dedicated fanbase, while largely respectful of the programme-makers, still seems in part to be deeply unhappy with them. Is Torchwood: Miracle Day going to be pitched wholly towards a mainstream audience in the same way that Children of Earth was? It seems unlikely to me – it would surely be easier to come up with a new show along similar lines, with less baggage. I suspect that Starz may have come on board on the strength of the size of the Torchwood fanbase and the guaranteed audience that appears to represent. If so, they could be in for a shock. Certainly the makers of the new run have a herculean task on their hands if they want to win back all the disaffected Ianto-lovers out there. Hell hath no fury like a cult TV fan scorned. I am cautiously optimistic about the new series, but one way or another I think it could really struggle to find a properly appreciative audience.

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If the complete history of Doctor Who is written – something which I sincerely doubt will ever happen – then the astonishing renaissance of the series’ fortunes in the middle 2000s will surely receive much attention. The programme went from being an ex-TV series (albeit one with a strong grasp on the public’s affection), continuing in at least three different media (each the subject of its own fierce cult following), to something vibrant and focussed and vastly successful in the mainstream. And this seemed to happen virtually overnight.

While some commentators at the time praised Russell T Davies for his bold new 21st Century take on the series, as time has gone by it’s become clear that Davies’s real genius was not how much he changed but how much he didn’t. Davies’s prominent inclusion of minority sexual politics and incorporation of a wider supporting cast (the ‘soap opera’ element which is so widely reviled) are relatively small potatoes compared to the fact that the revived programme basically has the same format, the same values, and takes place in the same continuity as the original.

Tellingly, it’s the series of the Seventies that the makers of the most recent seasons seem to have taken as their template – and an era which, incidentally, was unafraid to include surprising political themes of its own, and had a larger regular cast than at any other time in the original run. When 21st century Who pays a homage to the old show, it’s most commonly to an episode first broadcast in the Seventies.

However, in one area the revived programme is strikingly different from the pattern that had evolved in the original series by that point. As I’ve argued in the earlier parts of this series, by the Seventies the stories Doctor Who told revolved around villainous antagonists, with monsters a key but secondary feature of the programme. One thing you can’t say about the Russell T Davies years is that they are particularly abundant in villains.

Instead there are many stories where the antagonists are basically just monsters – sometimes with a spokesperson, such as the Gelth, or with basic personalities of their own, such as the Slitheen. The BBC stipulated that the new series contain as many monsters as possible, but it seems they had no such requirements in terms of villainous characters. There are still villains, but in smaller numbers than for years.

Davies has spoken of his uneasiness when it comes to the inclusion of out-and-out, wholly malevolent villains in his scripts, feeling it to be simplistic and unsatisfying to a modern audience. When villains do appear, the story is careful to give them a plausible motivation – usually financial, in the case of the Eccleston season’s bad guys. Particularly interesting in this context is the episode Boom Town, which (in addition to being cheap to make) exists solely to explore the motivation of a pre-existing villain and the ethics of the Doctor’s relationship with her. In the end Margaret Slitheen never quite gains the audience’s sympathy, and the episode is more about the light it sheds on the Doctor’s character (he’s unequivocally in favour of the death penalty, which I personally find startling), but it’s still a thoughtful piece almost inconceivable in the original run of the show.

As the crowd shrieked, Margaret Slitheen proceeded to take it all off.

Given this relative paucity of villains, there’s a new trend towards a type of story where the circumstance in which the Doctor finds himself is an antagonist of sorts (said circumstance usually involving some kind of monster, admittedly). Thus the nature of time is largely responsible for the (somewhat incomprehensible) predicament central to Father’s Day, while technology running out of control causes the problems of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace.

As the series goes on more traditional villains do start to appear more regularly, some more successful than others. Mr Finch is arguably the revived show’s first power-hungry megalomaniac, but his success is mostly a matter of performance, not writing. From the same season, Lumic is basically just a karaoke version of a certain rather better known wheelchair-bound creator. Later on, though, the Doctor has such effective foils as Professor Lazarus and Son-of-Mine (even if Lazarus spends much of his time as a CGI scorpion and Son-of-Mine likes to keep his family around him).

One key element of the new series, which manages to be essentially new and wholly backward-looking at the same time – a neat trick – is its attitude to recurring monsters. It’s interesting to jump a time-track and consider how the new series would have developed had the BBC been unable to secure the use of the Daleks, as seemed likely until mid-2004. Davies has already admitted that in this event the Eccleston series would probably have concluded with Cybermen besieging the Game Station, but beyond the issue of individual stories, there is the fact that the return of a different classic enemy was a core element of all the seasons the writer oversaw.

This is possibly a result of the way each season is now conceived, with an overall plot building to a dramatic finale. Every such finale to date has featured a returning opponent – on four occasions out of five, the Daleks have been central – and it’s starting to look as if, in the case of the really big name monsters, they are being used not as a shorthand for evil but as a shorthand for significance.

Overall, the big name enemies have been revived successfully. As time goes by the Daleks possibly suffer from overexposure and the demands of the ongoing storyline, but at least none of their stories are actually boring. The Cybermen probably come off worst of the big three, with a shiny new look not really compensating for their origin and nature being fundamentally reconceived, and their generally being pushed into the background of their stories by other monsters and villains. On the other hand, the Sontarans are spectacularly updated in a way which opens up exciting new areas for them, while still being wholly faithful to their original stories. (Admittedly, much of this is undermined by the events of The Poison Sky, wherein it is revealed that the Sontarans’ reputation as the greatest warriors in the universe appears to be founded on them taking on enemies who can’t shoot back.)

When the Master makes his inevitable return it is very much in line with the way the character was presented in other media in the missing years – most obviously in the way Davies attempts to give him at least some kind of coherent motivation. Prior attempts had varied from the dubiously personal – embittered, after the Doctor mucked up one of his experiments (Flashback, in DWM) – to the somewhat clichéd – corrupted by his own desire for power, that he might do more to improve the universe (The Dark Path novel) – to the broodingly cosmic – the youthful Master was betrayed by the youthful Doctor and forced to become a disciple of Death incarnate (the Big Finish audio Master) – possibly that should be ‘broodingly cosmic and slightly convoluted’.

As usual, Davies opts to paint with a broad brush and has the Master as a general-purpose nutter, driven insane by his exposure to the Time Vortex as a boy. Fan metaphysicists can have a lot of fun trying to work out, given that ‘the drums’ plaguing the character were retroactively placed there via time travel at a point quite late in his life, whether this origin still holds true for the character in the older stories. It’s a moot point, anyway. I would argue that the success of the character upon his initial return is at least as much due to the performers involved as to the script – while Utopia is one of the best episodes the revived series has produced, and The Sound of Drums has its moments, Last of the Time Lords is a bit creaky in all sorts of places. Davies makes up for all this when he revives the character in The End of Time – I would argue that the presentation of the Master here is the most satisfying element of the story, as the character has a depth and presence almost never previously seen. The climactic sequence of the Doctor and the Master, each unable to see the other be killed, uniting to repel the Time Lords is a summation of both characters and their relationship that has seldom been equalled at any point in the series.

One more reason to use a digital watch…

Beyond the big names, the revived series has also shown a willingness to revive other successful monsters – and even unsuccessful ones on occasion. Davies has said that the decision to launch the series with the Autons was based solely on their appropriateness for that particular story, but – in addition to increasing the sense of the series returning to its Seventies roots – it also reaffirms the programme’s commitment to its history. The return of the Macra smacks of ‘oh well, why not?’ Return visits by the Ood and Cassandra are in the classic tradition of successful opponents making a swift reappearance (although the Ood are rapidly building up an impressive list of appearances which shows no sign of stopping).

The presence of the revived show’s spin-offs presents some odd new avenues for monsters to recur in: the Cyberwoman episode of Torchwood isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, while the Slitheen have carved out a rather successful niche for themselves as the ‘house monsters’ on The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Other aliens have crossed over between Torchwood and SJA without appearing in the parent show.) What we’ve yet to see is a classic series enemy returning directly to one of the spin-offs, though we’ve come close: the Trickster – a regular villain on SJA, and mentioned in Turn Left – is suspiciously similar in agenda and dialogue to the Black Guardian, while Mandragora  was all set to return directly to SJA until the script demanded too many divergences from the original concept.

This is a little disappointing for old-school fans, but at least it proves that the programme-makers are putting the stories first, rather than simply wheeling out old enemies for nostalgia value (the recent episode The Lodger was for some time going to be a sequel to Meglos). New show-runner Steven Moffat has always been ambivalent at best when it comes to discussing the return of old enemies, mainly due to the fact this usually involved revisiting old ground.

That said, the most recent season has stuck quite closely to the formula established by the Davies era, with an overarching narrative and returns from classic enemies and successful recent creations. (It’s exceedingly doubtful that things will continue in this vein: the first season after a major change of personnel has never been very indicative of what will follow.) Moffat continues to be a little villain-averse: The Beast Below revolves around a basic misunderstanding between human and alien, and while The Pandorica Opens presents a pleasing panoply of old enemies working in concert, all but the Daleks are banished from the concluding episode of the story.

Interestingly, the latest revamps of both the Daleks and the Silurians have been unpopular, both being a little too iconoclastic for the tastes of many fans. And while the Silurian two-parter is virtually a smaller-scale remake of the original story, Victory of the Daleks really just appears to be an exercise in housekeeping, rebooting the Daleks back to being a ubiquitous and ongoing menace as they were in the mid-Seventies.

The production team were infuriated when yet another Dalek redesign proved unpopular.

How soon the next appearance of the Daleks will be is another matter. It has been announced that the 2011 series will feature no returning monsters or villains whatsoever – the first time this has happened since 1978, and only the fourth time in the history of the series it has been done. (That said, the presence in the trailer for the upcoming series features yet another Ood, suggesting the definitions of what constitutes a monster have been surreptitiously rewritten.)

One shouldn’t get too hung up on things like this, as it seems likely that reappearances by classic foes will continue to be part of the fabric of the series, just as the kind of stories the series tells are utterly dependent on monsters and villains to work. New enemies and old are part of the grammar of the series – in a very real sense they are necessary evils.

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I am occasionally accused of treating Doctor Who as if it were a religion. I tend to get rather annoyed when this happens, mainly because my show has never caused any wars, perpetuated any major social problems or injustices, or been responsible for much of anything beyond mild boredom and occasionally substandard storytelling.

 

The Doctor strikes a familiar pose in front of some Romans...

 

However, simply because it is something of a phenomenon and because there is an awful lot of it to select from, you can put virtually any interpretation on it you like and find something to support whatever it is you’re trying to say. Nevertheless, there was something of a world-wide jaw-droppy-open moment a few years ago when the Christian Right organisation Movieguide nominated the episode Gridlock for one of their Epiphany Awards. This was not just because the episode features married lesbians, inter-species reproduction and a cat wearing a nun’s wimple (none of which are things you would expect the Christian Right to be big fans of), but because the series – in its revived form anyway – has never really minced its words.

In addition to some quite scathing swipes at British foreign and domestic policy (presenting Tony Blair as a psychopathic maniac being about the mildest of these), Russell T Davies never really pulled any punches in putting his own atheist beliefs into the show. At one point the Doctor visits a place where religion is, like weaponry, banned, while on another occasion he is quietly amused by the ability of human beings to ignore evidence for the existence of aliens, even after countless attempted invasions, while continuing to believe in things which are invisible and intangible (the implication being that he’s talking about… oh, surely you can work it out).

Despite all this, I’m fully aware of a number of committed Christians who are regular viewers of the show, and at least one of the writers of the new series is a Christian himself. (I also know one Christian who refuses to watch it at all on the grounds that it’s apparently ‘occult’, but that’s a separate issue.) Because the show is the show it is, some Christians have picked up on what they perceive to be strong Christian themes and imagery in the show and are writing about it as though this were the only such interpretation.

Well, I’m always vaguely suspicious of people trying to use fantasy and SF fiction to promote religious ideas that weren’t necessarily the creators’ intention. My own parents, who are believers, were keen to see a Christian subtext to things like E.T. (a personal project of Steven Spielberg’s, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – Jewish), and the original Star Wars (if there is a real-world spiritual basis to the Jedi religion then it’s either Taoism or Shinto). Even Alan Moore has gone on record as interpreting the Superman mythos in explicitly Christian terms – the perfect man with extraordinary powers who was sent from the sky by his father to save people and inspire others (the creators of Superman were also Jewish).

Having said all that, there are quite a few rather good genre Christian allegories, with the best, and best-known, being the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, which does lay it on with a trowel somewhat (although, given this, the denouement – with the message ‘Behave or we’ll kill you’ – is startlingly authoritarian). Personally I have a great admiration for the Babylon 5 episode Passing Through Gethsemane, which deals with themes of responsibility, guilt, and forgiveness in a Christian context with great sensitivity. Other shows, comics and movies are a bit less full-on in terms of doing a full-scale allegory but quite happy to use some Christian iconography and imagery.

For example:

Must try harder to be subtle, guys.

 

Charlton Heston saves the world in The Omega Man.

From Smallville. This scene references Clark Kent's 'crucifixion' waaay back, but I couldn't find a picture of that (sorry).

 I suppose if you’re intent on playing with these kinds of themes and imagery you’re as well to sneak them into a SF or fantasy film, as they tend to get overlooked, these kinds of films being generally dismissed and disparaged. No-one, rather to my surprise, made much of a fuss about Darth Vader being the product of an immaculate conception, while the similar material in The Matrix (Neo rises from the dead to assume his full power, while his real name translates as Son of Man) was carefully buried.

And, returning at long last to our original topic, it’s not unknown for people to stick Christian iconography into Doctor Who. Probably the worst offenders here are the makers of the McGann TV movie, which features a newly-resurrected, white-robed Doctor vacating his ‘tomb’ early on, and climaxes with him being fitted with a high-tech crown of thorns. More recently, even some of the Davies episodes start to creep into this territory despite Davies’ professed agenda. The climax of David Tennant’s second series essentially has the Doctor revitalised by the power of prayer, in an incredibly Messianic sequence. The very next episode seems him ascending, flanked by angelic Hosts.

So I suppose one can meaningfully ask the question of whether the Doctor is, on any level, a truly Christian or even Christ-like protagonist. He does score heavily over most fantasy heroes (with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Hobbits) in that he is largely non-violent and almost always non-sexual. (Although, interestingly, the recent episodes which have seen him at his most Messianic have also defined his relationships with his travelling companions in the most explicitly romantic terms.) He also makes a habit of sacrificing his life to save others and then coming back in a somewhat altered form.

I think you’d be stretching a point to argue that any of these things were done intentionally, though. The non-violent and non-sexual elements of the character are basically hand-me-downs from the original conception of the Doctor as an ancient wizard, while his periodic renewals are the result of the original leading man being too ill to carry on performing in a series which continued to be popular.

One enters rather dangerous territory when comparing anyone, fictional or otherwise, to Jesus, as this sort of entails one coming up with a set of ideas as to what Jesus was actually like and really stood for. Some people, normally Christians, tend to get rather touchy on Jesus’ behalf if you attempt this sort of thing as it’s something which they have strong feelings about themselves.

However, it’s probably safe to say that Jesus could be described as a man on a mission, and an authority figure. For the vast majority of the time, the Doctor is neither – he just wanders around rather irresponsibly, just doing things he enjoys. He doesn’t seek out evil in order to confront it, but if he comes across it he feels morally obliged to intervene. On numerous occasions he turns down or evades positions of responsibility in order to resume his carefree lifestyle.

What’s particularly interesting in this context is a run of stories, originally on TV in the late 1980s but then continuing in comics and novels, in which the Doctor’s character goes through a fairly radical change. The Doctor begins to deliberately target his old enemies and other forces of evil, enmeshing them in machiavellian schemes that lead to their own destruction. He has assumed the (rather nebulously defined) role of Time’s Champion, which leads him to become increasingly callous, and estranged from his companion. He is more explicitly the mythic figure alluded to in some recent episodes (‘he is ice and fire and rage… he stands at the centre of time…’) than ever before – yet at the same time, he is less identifiable and likeable.

This isn’t to say that there’s no overlap between Christian ethics and the Doctor’s, but you could say the same about virtually any action-adventure hero. The fact remains that all these characters – the Doctor, Captain Kirk, Judge Dredd, James Bond – have emerged from a Christian cultural background and are inevitably defined in response to that to some extent. As fantasy figures they inevitably depart from accepted cultural standards to some degree – though the Doctor does this less than most. And, on rare occasions, he does show signs of moral uncertainty when placed in a particularly tough situation: most famously when ordered to commit genocide, of course, but he actually cracks under the pressure and makes a serious moral mistake towards the end of The Waters of Mars.

I suppose in the end one could argue that the Doctor is an inspirational figure, but not in the sense that he embodies or encourages a particular set of moral codes (except in the most general terms). He himself doesn’t intentionally set out to show people how to live their lives, let alone tell them as much. I think he’d be quite shocked if people did set out to unquestioningly follow his example. He doesn’t blindly accept authority of any kind – he asks awkward questions and uses his wit and intelligence and conscience to work out what to do for himself. I leave it to you to decide for yourself whether these characteristics of the Doctor are truly recognisable amongst the very real virtues of Christianity and its adherents.

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You can say what you like about Rusty Davies’ scripts, but you can’t deny that he doesn’t treat the audience like idiots. If he is required to do something that might possibly stretch your credulity a point or two too far, then he at least does you the courtesy of hanging a lantern on it. Surprisingly frequently he doesn’t even need to go that far: he’s creative enough to work his way round many problems that might have defeated someone else.
 
So it is with his return to Who-world, the SJA story Death of the Doctor, which I and no doubt many other people have been getting awfully excited about for the last six months. This tale, in addition to all the usual SJA stuff, featured a pretty much full-scale appearance by Matt Smith as the Doctor, as well as an even-fuller-scale one from Katy Manning as Jo Grant-as-was. (She hasn’t played this part since before I was born, let alone SJA‘s target audience.) Chucked into the mix were various new monsters, UNIT, an alien planet, and one of Jo’s grandchildren. And yet it still didn’t manage to seem completely overloaded or contrived.
 
The basic story (evil vulturine aliens conspire to steal the most miraculous object in the universe) was pleasingly coherent while not being so straightforward as to be obvious. One gets the impression with Rusty’s stuff is that he starts by deciding what kind of emotional beats he wants to hit and then building the plot around them, and while I sometimes find the results of this a little exasperating, here it worked fine. It was an astonishingly brave move to devote time to a key scene where the Doctor and Jo (neither of whom is a regular, let’s remember, and only a tiny percentage of the audience must have any attachment to Jo) shared a special moment together, but it was the highlight of the show for me – and was it my imagination or did Matt Smith look eerily like a young Jon Pertwee in that scene?
 
Some of the other familiar Rusty tropes got an outing as well – aliens created using a lazy zoomorphic shorthand (aliens who are brutish and unsubtle? Let’s make ’em look like rhinos. Aliens who are obsessed with corpses? Break out the vulture costumes!), cheeky recycling of material (in this case a respray of the Graske suit), and some remarkably florid nomenclature (the Doctor supposedly cops it in the ‘Wastelands of the Crimson Heart’, which I suspect you get to by hanging a right at the Silver Devastation and then turning off just before you reach the Continent of Wild Endeavour). But after four and a half years of Rusty as High Lord of Who these sorts of things have a sort of reassuring familiarity to them, for me anyway. Others may disagree.
 
If I had a serious complaint to make about Death of the Doctor it was that some of the emotional stuff in the early scenes was just a bit too heavy handed. We all knew the Doctor wasn’t actually dead, so banging on so much about grief and loss didn’t quite ring true. One could also say nasty things about the poor matte shot of the exterior of UNIT’s Welsh outpost (and as the Brigadier would doubtless say, isn’t it supposed to be a secret organisation?). If anyone lost out due to an overloaded plot, it was Laila Rouass’ character, whose motivation just didn’t quite seem to be there (mind you I’d happily watch her in nearly anything, so I may be biased). But the rest of it was fine, fun, breezy stuff.
 
Many years ago a friend introduced me to the impressive, if slightly bonkers Who fan fiction of a lady named Jeri Massi. The charming thing about Ms Massi’s work is the nonchalant way she discards or rewrites stuff off the telly to suit herself, or at least her own conception of what Doctor Who is actually about. The impression I originally got was that she thinks Doctor Who is actually about the adventures of impulsive teeny-bopper Jo Grant. None of the other Doctors even get a mention, and at the time I was reading every story focussed on Jo (I understand this has since changed). Ms Massi didn’t like the way Jo was written out at all and lost no time in breaking up her marriage on the grounds that her new beau was actually a bounder and a cad (didn’t bother to retcon The Green Death to make this more credible, though).
 
Anyway, the reason I’ve just burdened you with all that is that I’m dying to find out what Ms Massi will make of Death of the Doctor, which effectively takes a shotgun to all of those notions (and many other fondly-held pieces of fanon), though I suspect she will just dismiss it all as not being part of her personal canon, which I respect. Jo is still married to Cliff! (Though he doesn’t appear.) She has a slightly implausible number of offspring! She’s turned into some sort of crazed activist! It all rings true though. One got the impression Rusty got a bit carried away unloading news on numerous other companions as well, so in addition to the Massi and Global Conspiracy versions of Jo and Cliff, you can (probably) say goodbye to the Face of the Enemy take on Ian and Barbara, and…
 
Well, you know, when I first heard the reference to ‘a woman called Dorothy’ I assumed it was the old Hartnell companion, the one who in the various Virgin Publishing books caught syphilis, shacked up with a hack journalist and was eventually shot in the head by an agent of the Master in the early 1970s – but it seems I’ve backed the wrong horse as usual, as it seems much more likely this is intended to be McCoy companion Ace, whom we all thought was killed saving the world from giant psychic dust-mites. Or became some sort of surrogate Time Lord. Or wound up living in 19th century Paris with either a Russian emigre or a clone of Jason Kane. (I love the chaos of 90s Who continuity. You could wander around in there for your whole life and never get bored.) Either way, some people are going to get narked.
 
Which brings us neatly to the issue which brought this story a little bit of extra publicity, somewhat mind-bogglingly. Has the Limit of Thirteen actually been abolished? Well, there’s plenty of wriggle room here for both sides. The Doctor does indeed claim to have 507 regenerations, which if it is true takes the pressure off the production team until some point in the 23rd century, but if you’re an ultra-trad you could just as easily point out that he’s only saying it glibly, to shut his interlocutor up. In any case, it’s only said once on screen, which is fewer times than anyone saying the Doctor is half-human – and everyone seems perfectly happy to forget that ever happened. So, one way and another, there was something in this story to keep everybody more-or-less happy. Except possibly Jeri Massi.
 
Update: apparently Rusty has confessed in an interview to indeed writing the ‘507 lives’ line as a joke, and doesn’t himself believe it’ll stick. Part of me is smug, part of me is disappointed, and part of me hopes he is wrong.  
 
 
 
 

 

(Post Script – Possibly a rule is developing where the better the classic story that SJA refers to is, the less impressive that SJA story turns out to be – last week riffed on Pyramids of Mars and wasn’t particularly good, while this week had a Timelash reference – I mean, for crying out loud, Timelash… – and it’s great. Quite how this relates to how Mona Lisa’s Revenge very pointedly didn’t refer to City of Death – though it obviously should’ve – yet still managed to be lousy I am still contemplating. I’ll get back to you.)

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Amongst the basic human rights that we all enjoy and often take for granted, an easily-overlooked one is the right to be wrong – commonly utilised at the same time as the right to be stupid, and, of course, the right to free speech. (Personally I’ve never needed it, of course.) Some kinds of wrongness are less acceptable than others, obviously. Not liking Doctor Who because you just don’t go for fantasy or you’ve received serious permanent brain damage I can empathise with, if not entirely understand.  On the other hand, should you object to it on the grounds that it is ‘occult’ – well, we’re either never going to discuss it again or have a very, very lengthy and heated argument.

Another group I’m prone to get exasperated with is that odd subset of Who fandom who dismiss great chunks of the series as ‘not counting’ somehow. This particular fault-line tends to be most pronounced when it comes to the 1963-1996 version and the one that’s been running since 2005 (oddly enough, the American-led TV movie production usually gets lumped in with the first run). Personally I can’t really understand why this should make any difference. I was talking to a work colleague a few years ago and he admitted that a friend of his was a lapsed Who-fan – she just didn’t like the new stuff. ‘But,’ he added, ‘she was still really annoyed when Chris Eccleston left after only one year.’

‘Why?’

‘She thought he was frivolously wasting one of the Doctor’s regenerations.’

Well, it’s nice that she still cared, I suppose. But people who get precious about this particular subject are another group who I tend to get grumpy with.

Everyone properly familiar with Doctor Who knows that the series changes its lead actor every few years. In a typical example of making a virtue of necessity, the show writes these changes into the narrative in exactly the way the Bond franchise doesn’t – the change is part of the Doctor’s alien physiology, and some of the stories immediately preceding or following a regeneration have been amongst  the series’ finest. (And some of them have been horrible, of course.)

14 years into the show’s run, a writer named Robert Holmes needed to put a villain in dire straits to make the story he was working on function. As the villain was from the same planet as the Doctor, Holmes decided that the bad guy had exhausted his allowance of bodily renewals and was thus in danger of death. Apparently arbitrarily, he settled on twelve as the maximum possible number of regenerations. As the show was only its fourth Doctor at the time, this probably didn’t seem like a big deal.

Robert Holmes. Secret plan to destroy Doctor Who not pictured.

Now, of course, we’re on our eleventh official Doctor and the regeneration limit has become more of a live issue in recent years, particularly with some very dedicated fans. While on the one hand they love the show and want to see it continue on into the future (though I’d suspect they secretly hope it will be finally cancelled just before the moment of their own death), the fact that they treat every last detail of continuity with the sort of reverence normally only accorded to Holy Writ has put them in a bit of a bind.   

Anyway, after various rumblings and jokes and oblique comments on the subject over the past year or so, it seems as if the Lords of Who have finally broken cover and repealed the limit of thirteen. As if this wasn’t already guaranteed to provoke frenzied outrage, they’ve made things even worse by not doing it in Doctor Who itself but in one of the spin-offs. (The show in question hasn’t aired yet so the exact nature of the dodge isn’t quite clear.)

As the regeneration limit doesn’t appear to be a factor in the story involved, one almost suspects this has been included solely to wind up certain people. (To which I say: huzzah! You go for it!) Certainly, the fact that the writer is Rusty Davies, already something of a totemic hate-figure amongst ultra-trads, suggests that this is just being done in the way it is to draw the fire away from incumbent showrunner Steven Moffat.  (Not that one gets the impression he’d give a damn anyway.)

I’m probably taking far too political a view of this. In any case I am anticipating the shrieks and squeals of affronted continuity fundamentalists with probably a bit too much pleasure. Anyway, to them I would say this…

Robert Holmes didn’t write the limit of thirteen into continuity because he decided it was crucial to put a limiting factor on the longevity of his favourite show. He did it because it suited the story he was writing at the time. Caring about the story you’re writing at the time means you’re more likely to get great stories. Caring more about the big story that started in 1963 and is still going on now (because that’s all that fretting about continuity really is) is a recipe for… well, bad things. Honest.

Anyway, I find the whole thing of revering the limit of thirteen rather ironic, given that at the time the story in which it was introduced was savaged by that generation’s ultra-trads  for… rewriting established continuity. (Eh?) Glad you asked. The very first time the Doctor speaks of his own race in any detail, he describes them as ‘living forever’ – no hint of any kind of limitation there. Later on, the Time Lords offer the Master a new lease on multiple lives on two separate occasions – he even takes them up on it the second time. Even sticking strictly to continuity, there’s more evidence against the thirteen limit being in force than there is supporting it.

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

And it’s not as if the series isn’t riddled with other examples of continuity being ignored and/or messed up. The main character’s stated age has magically reduced itself. A major and beloved character retires from one job slightly before he actually starts it, if you do the sums. One character fails to recognise an alien being which has spectacularly invaded his home planet twice in the previous five years. There is the ongoing and rather delightful chaos of when exactly the series’ ‘present day’ actually is, and how the various spin-offs relate to that.

So the apparently-impending abolition of one piece of continuity really doesn’t bother me at all. Once, it might well have done. I’m slightly surprised about how mellow I’ve become, to be honest. And if the ultra-trads want to froth and sizzle and rave about something they have no control over, that will ultimately increase the lifespan of their favourite thing almost immeasurably, and that everyone else will either welcome or be completely indifferent to, so be it. As I mentioned at the start, everyone has the right to get it wrong some of the time. Or even all of the time.

Which is probably for the best, all things considered.

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