The new series of Doctor Who: Fleeing from format?
|FEATURES - TV|
Critiquing the curious relationship of Doctor Who's new series to the classic series...
When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, I was genuinely excited. Despite having grown up in the period following the cancellation of the classic series, I quickly became a fan through watching the repeats and collecting the stories on video cassette. Many a dark evening was spent watching this or that thrilling adventure (and some truly awful ones) in time and space with the Doctor, his companions, and his foes.
Despite the fact that many of the stories I watched were from the 1960s, '70s or '80s, and constructed on what was obviously a shoestring budget, I was not put off; I was captivated. By the sense of danger and adventure. By the bold ideas and the characters. By the horror and the action. By the sometimes humorous, sometimes cantankerous anti-establishment lead character. As a child I was very much under the impression that, if this was being made 'for me' I was definitely not being pandered to, and secondly, that what happened in the stories really mattered and were taken seriously by the cast and writers; even if it sometimes looked a bit like pantomime it was usually played pretty straight. Peril was perilous, danger was dangerous, and people would die horrifyingly on a regular basis. So what is my assessment of the New Series, of NuWho?
The New Series has given itself two basic tasks. One, to put back and keep on our screens a programme by the name of Doctor Who that maintains substantial visible continuity with the classic series in many ways. Two, and this is where conflicting elements start to come in, to seek to define this resurrected programme against many aspects of the classic series, even fundamental aspects in pursuit of task one.
In itself this is neither good nor bad. If anything it is on balance probably a good thing to seek to redress the shortcomings of the classic series that could not simply be transposed into the cultural environment of the early 21st century without modification. But this is no more than what has always happened in the show's history anyway. What matters, ultimately, are the choices involved and their execution.
Two words. Farting. Aliens. I know, it's crude and unfair to start with such a low blow right away, but I do so with a reason. The farting aliens of Aliens of London were reflective of the concerns of the production team about whether or not they could make the relaunch of Doctor Who a success. Russell T. Davies is on record as stating that it was their belief that they could pull in the adult audience, if simply out of curiosity or nostalgia.
The real question for them was: Would it pull in the kids? This was why in Rose you never actually saw the hapless cannon-fodder characters get blasted by the Autons, this is why you had the farting aliens and so on. Old Who style violence and horror was out and gross out humour was in. However, the problem is that, in actual fact, this is a very partial truth at best. Looking back from the present the first series of NuWho looks like uninhibited sanguinary and horror.
"When, as a fan, you find yourself hoping that the lead character is disintegrated on the spot, you know we're in trouble"
Who could forget the blood-red giblets flying across the screen from an exploding Cassandra in The End of the World? The Daleks massacring their way up the space station during the The Parting of the Ways (What do you mean you weren't cheering?), the gas masks forcing their way up through people's faces in The Empty Child or the Doctor being tortured in Dalek. This came from the need to demonstrate fealty to the original series - one only shows such things if they fit with the aims of the storytelling, the atmosphere one is seeking to create, whether or not the characters take events around them seriously and so on - a need which seemed to evaporate with the second series as the desire to define the show against its earlier self grew and grew.
This dual character of the first series contains the seeds of later decline, though they co-exist alongside a genuine attempt to remain somewhat true to the spirit of the classic series. The negative aspects mostly seem to take two forms, exaggeration or fetishism of some particular aspect of the show or a character, or seeking to define the present show or some aspect of it against the fundamentals of the past, undermining itself severely in the process.
Exaggeration and fetish
On the first count, one thing that springs to mind is the 'Doctor as superhero legend'. The seed of this is having the Ninth Doctor reveal that the Daleks have given him the amusingly hyperbolic nickname of 'The Oncoming Storm', presumably after they heard him in the bathroom. This later grows into the insufferably smug Tenth Doctor telling the Vashta Nerada to 'look him up' in part two of Silence in the Library, causing them to temporarily flee in terror. Though it is nice to know that invisible space piranhas can read. All this finds its nauseating apogee in the Eleventh Doctor ranting incoherently giving a cider-fuelled 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' speech atop Stonehenge to a cartoonish alliance of baddies hovering above him in spaceships, who then promptly scarper. When, as a fan, you find yourself hoping that the lead character is disintegrated on the spot, you know we're in trouble.
"Though it is nice to know that invisible space piranhas can read."
What about bad faux moralistic posturing? The Doctor is clearly a highly developed moral individual who sides with the oppressed against dictators, mad scientists, warmongers, rapacious capitalists, and destroyers. But this necessarily involves a degree of practicality - you have to break eggs to make an omelette - and though not one to resort continuously to the use of force, the Doctor has, historically, been practical enough to use force when a situation requires it. The flip-side is that the Doctor has frequently been on the receiving end of violence and coercion. Both of these are almost complete taboos for the New Series yet are also, in a weird way, two of its central occupations.
On the one hand the Doctor becomes an absolute pacifist, reduced to moral posturing that does not even make sense (I can save you Daleks of Manhattan! I can save you Davros! I can save you Howard from the Halifax!) and the Doctor's enemies are not allowed, for the most part, to lay a finger on him, or him on they (perhaps seeing the Doctor get knocked on the head is deemed too disturbing for children). This takes root early on with Nine happily admitting in his final story that he is so principled he would allow everyone on Earth to be exterminated rather than to destroy the Daleks, and Ten's exaggerated sniffiness about guns and relentless, actually very selfish, grieving for the dead Master in Last of the Time Lords. In a more general form we get the mostly deathless universe of Steven Moffat. The Moffat-verse, like the opposite of Logan's Run, like the opposite of a Swiss clinic. Everyone lives. That syringe is actually full of MORE LIFE!
On the other hand we get, somehow, the other extreme. To show that the Doctor is actually a bad-ass we get indiscriminate, unprovoked mass slaughter from the Doctor in A Good Man Goes to War, blowing up a fleet of Cybermen for no apparent reason beyond the need for the story to make him look like he means business and have a cool looking explosion while Rory gets to spout action hero catchphrases while looking cool. "Brap, brap!", said the Doctor, as they watched the cybermen's sheltered accommodation block explode, showering them with bits of harmless cyber-granny.
There is also the 'wrath' of the Tenth Doctor against the alien misfits in Family of Blood, Ten declaring himself the 'winner' of the Time War in Waters of Mars and free to fashion history as he sees fit...all designed to contrast with the portrayal of the Doctor as an absolute pacifist and all-round infallible good egg. The problem is that we get two disconnected extremes that bear no relation to one another and are only ever portrayed in a way that makes a big fuss out of each extreme as 'defining' character moments. No middle ground, no mediation between the two seems to exist. Perhaps the sentence of execution passed by Eleven on the irredeemable Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is attempting to bridge the gap in an angular and apparently controversial fashion, though I don't think that it merits any controversy myself.
The second main way in which the New Series is defined is in its conscious counter-posing of itself versus the classic series in a way which takes the fundamentals of the show and transforms them into their opposites while ostensibly including the original premise. This can lead to the show undermining itself badly, and risks slipping into a state where instead of being told stories we get simple mucking about with the format of the show as a substitute.
"You get Daleks without the substance that actually makes them Daleks. But what if you don’t want funny, ironic Daleks? What if you want actual Daleks?"
To take an example from Doomsday, the bitchy Daleks. Now, in Doctor Who the Daleks are genocidal Kaled mutants, bubbling lumps of hate who show no mercy and bring fear and terror to the galaxy. But in order to define itself against this premise while still somehow including it we get the Daleks treated as a complete joke at the same time as being the major concern of the story for the Doctor and co. Unable or unwilling to write the Daleks as what they are, the writers muck around with the format. Even Mickey is too busy making funny about Rose's increased heart rate and Stephen Hawking’s electronic voice to notice that he could die at any second. The writer, in this case Russell T. Davies, turns the Daleks into a pastiche, has the characters not give a hoot about them, and takes great delight in making the Daleks do things that Daleks would never do instead of writing them as, well, Daleks. The mucking about with the format only undermines both the Daleks as a concept and the purpose of having them - that is, to generate a sense of threat! But in much of NuWho a genuine sense of danger is considered far too visceral. Danger cannot be dangerous, peril cannot be perilous. You get Daleks without the substance that actually makes them Daleks. But what if you don’t want funny, ironic Daleks? What if you want actual Daleks?
A similar view can be applied to the role of the companion. The (sometimes true, sometimes false) memory of the classic series is that the (often pretty) female companions existed solely to provide eye candy, state the obvious about what was happening, and be damsels in distress who would sell the danger in the story by screaming hysterically.
The reaction against this has been to make the companions miniature heroes in their own right, unafraid of the terror that lies out there in the universe, mocking it alongside the Doctor with sit-com one-liners and smugness. Serious, even deadly situations evince wisecracks and glib remarks which undermine the story but which give us the sassy, strong, modern companions who are designed to contrast with the screaming, fainting females of old. That most New Series episodes are written in a sit-com style where everything is played for laughs does not help; in a way it is woven into the fabric.
But the good intentions only achieve so much. Time and time again the supposed drama of a scene gets utterly sandbagged as the characters in general refuse to take their own plight seriously. And on occasion when, quelle horreur, the gravity of a situation is actually allowed to peek through a bit and the characters begin to respond even slightly naturalistically, the programme is so self-conscious about it and how exceptional this actually is that the whole thing frequently comes off as overwrought. Most of the time either there is no attempt to generate any sense of danger because Doctor Who is a 'romp' now, or if there is then there is frequently no-one there to sell it to the viewer with any enthusiasm or realism.
This is made all the worse when one considers that one of the positive lessons drawn from the classic series was the need to give the New Series a more human touch, deeper characters, something that had always leaked in from time to time but only very inconsistently.
"In the end, the moves towards displaying deeper hues of human feeling in the show are transformed into sugary Big Emotional Moments™ that can usually be seen coming a mile off, filled with tears and with the Murray Gold turned up from 11 to 12...on the Richter scale."
But adding more dimensions to the lives of the companions, adding a greater depth of emotional responses and self-reflection to the Doctor's character, though all great ideas, stumble in the execution. The constant ironic dialogue obstructs the process of caring about the characters or the attempts to add emotional depth and a richer psychological palette. In the end, the moves towards displaying deeper hues of human feeling in the show are transformed into sugary Big Emotional Moments™ that can usually be seen coming a mile off, filled with tears and with the Murray Gold turned up from 11 to 12...on the Richter scale.
The show reaches for emotion but, for the most part, serves up sentimentality. That is, to quote from James Baldwin, via Comrade Wikipedia, "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel...the mask of cruelty". You either get blockbuster-style sentimentality to force a sense of importance amongst meaningless run-around spectacle, or you get dilution to avoid it being too visceral and not cosy enough. Sometimes the shot finds its mark, I am happy to admit, but the need to include a BEM™ as a matter of routine does tend to make it both overused as well as overwrought.
Another aspect of this counter-posing of New versus Old, or the perceptions at least, can be seen in the way the show is produced. As against the supposedly slow and plodding classic series, we get the 'pacy' - that is, tediously fast - new series. Writers for the new series have expressed that you do not just have scenes of people stood around talking, and not only that, but that every episode ought, in fact, to represent a genre crash, switching almost at random between being a romance, a horror, a comedy, a thriller, etc.
This lends a feeling of incoherence and a sense that some stories just do not know what they are trying to be, attempting to be several different things at once and succeeding at none of them. Steven Moffat says that Doctor Who is half Hammer Horror and half The Generation Game (Nice to see you, to see you...!), but I must have missed all those episodes that took inspiration from The Generation Game. Is there a Doctor Who with an evil oversized cuddly toy on a conveyor belt that I don't know about? And no, you cannot steal that idea for an episode! This essentially strikes me as revisionism of the history of the programme. Most Doctor Who serials contain humour - as most good Who should - even ones like Genesis of the Daleks or The Curse of Fenric , but this is not the same as making them contain elements of outright comedy. By all means do a comedy, but keep the outright comedy out of any story that’s meant to be vaguely serious. The insistence upon the crashing of genres and of tones more often than not leaves only a car wreck.
A mini blockbuster every week?
This is the tag-line for the present 2012 run of episodes, and if it turns out to be nothing more than another way of saying that the episodes will have high production values then it is relatively harmless. But what other kinds of words might one associate with the 'blockbuster'? Plastic? Soulless? Dependent upon spectacle? Sentimental? Dramatic voice-overs as if from nowhere? New Series season finales in particular are plagued by these problems, which are present in revived series as a whole, but for some reason they tend to reach their highest concentrations here.
Think of the RTD series finales, or think of A Good Man Goes to War or The Wedding of River Song. All of these display utter terror on the part of the writer, the terror that arises from a lack of belief in the dramatic viability of Doctor Who in and of itself as a programme. The writers positively flee from what one could consider much of the basic format of Doctor Who.
This is partly why the best episodes of the New Series tend to be the ones that have had the least money thrown at them, as they are forced to tell an interesting story within relatively tight limits. 2011's The God Complex and The Girl Who Waited, the finest stories of that year's run, are pointed examples of this and positively rebelled against many of the standard NuWho clichés.
For the most part, however, there is the terror that some channel-hopping viewer who does not care what form their momentary screen-based distraction takes will happen upon the programme for a few seconds and, seeing the absence of crying, big explosions, and right-on if quite patronising and token identity politics characters, will keep flicking through the channels, and that the BBC, sensing this, will choke Doctor Who to death in front of us The Deadly Assassin style. And when this happens, dear viewer, it will be your fault for being a moaning git in the first place.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.