Tag Archives: doctor-who

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

It was the best of time, it was the worst of time… [DOCTOR WHO: END OF TIME SPOILERS]

So, Russell T. Davies and David Tennant have finally left the TARDIS. Their final story together, The End of Time, did a great job of summing up most of what was best and what was worst about their run. In short, they were at their best when focusing on the small scale and at their worst when focusing on the epic.

The story itself seemed to have been cobbled together by bits of string. Almost none of it held together to form a substantive whole. The Ood at the beginning were simply introduced to get the Doctor into the story. The method of the Master’s resurrection seemed to be entirely contrived to make him all Skeletor-like, entirely redundantly. The “Woman’s” (Romana? Susan? The Rani? The Doctor’s mother/wife? Answer me damnit!) interventions were ultimately irrelevant. Naysmith’s grand machinations turned out to be entirely irrelevant to the main plot, as did, eventually, the Master’s. This wasn’t a story, just a series disparate events punctuated by set pieces. Whatever else you might say about Russell T. Davies’ scripts in the past, at least they tended to have an internal logic.

The fundamental problem I have with Davies’ run is their weightlessness. Things happen with seemingly no consequence. Everything has a magic reset button that can usually be activated with a simple flick of a sonic screwdriver. If you think about it, the 21st century Earth in the Whoniverse should be quite a scary place right now. Over the last five years they have had a succession of alien invasions, including two alien UK Prime Ministers. Just six months before the events of The End of Time, the governments – including the one in the US – were actively colluding with an alien power to sacrifice the world’s children. Yet the only thing people seem to care about on Christmas Day is what baby murdering Barack Obama plans to do about the fucking recession. In the early days of Davies’ run, he seemed to appreciate that these things had consequences – remember Harriet Jones destroying that ship at the end of the Christmas invasion? But as the catastrophes got more epic, so the impact they made on the human psyche seemed to get less and less. If the world portrayed in Doctor Who followed any kind of logic at all, the current Earth population would be in real turmoil.

Davies seems quite unrepentant about this, but there’s a problem. In a world with a deus ex machina around every corner and where every major world event gets forgotten about after a couple of days, why should we care about something like the main character dying/regenerating? Tennant puts in a fine performance, but his raging against the dying of the light had been totally undermined by the fact that he had just managed to bypass an apparent no-win situation literally sixty seconds before. If he didn’t really need to shoot the Master or Rasillon, why did he have to sacrifice himself to save Wilf? How come the sonic screwdriver can do all sorts of apparently magical things yet it can’t flick a switch from a distance of 50 centimetres?

It’s a tragedy because when Davies’ writing is good, it is very good indeed, and Tennant has the acting chops to match. These final two episodes had several fine moments which, almost, made up for all the nonsense going on between them. You could see glimpses of how good the series could have been if only Davies had been a little more restrained. I even liked the little gracenotes at the end where we got to meet all the key supporting cast one last time. I even blubbed during the Rose bit. But yet again, they had been undermined by the monstrous mega crossover that was The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.

Davies deserves enormous praise for his resurrection of Doctor Who and many of the criticisms are misplaced. Frankly, much of the old Who was just as bad. Dare I say that The End of Time was actually better than Logopolis? I think I can. It was certainly better acted and scripted. Complaints about there being too much kissing on the New Who are frankly a little disturbing (Why do the professed fans of a series which started by introducing the Doctor’s “granddaughter” want him to be sexless so badly? Why would it be preferable to make him a cosmic child abductor than a simple family man?). John Nathan Turner all but destroyed the series. There are very few Old Who scripts that wouldn’t be greatly improved by simply halving them in length. Davies by contrast gave the series a real sense of adventure and excitement. He retained all the best aspects of the series while subtly ditching much of the nonsense. I like more episodes of his run than I hate and even his own scripts – when he isn’t writing about alien invasions and Earth in peril – can be excellent. But the line between greatness and rubbish is a fine one and he seemed too happy to keep skipping between the two.

It very much looks as if Steven Moffat has hit the reset button himself for the start of his and Matt Smith’s run on the series. If that’s the last time he uses it, things can only get better.

The Tribulations of Torchwood (SPOILERS!)

Unlike some, I’m neither a Torchwood hater or a “Rusty” hater (the habit of calling Russell Tiberius Davies “Rusty” is the Whovian equivalent of referring to a certain political party as “ZaNuLiebore”). The first season of Torchwood completely failed to live up to its potential, to be sure, but it had its moments and season two ironed out most of the creases. While the weeklong story format would certainly have lead to some changes, I was expecting pretty much more of the same.

How wrong could I be?

Torchwood: Children of Earth was a big meaty lump of good old fashioned paranoid and bleak British TV sci-fi, actually far more reminiscent of Quatermass than Doctor Who. Okay, it still had flashes of the old Torchwood’s silliness – episode two, with all its gratuitous nekkidness and concrete entombment, contained almost as much ridiculousness as the whole of season two combined – but much of that was to wrong foot the audience so it wouldn’t be prepared for the very different direction the series took for the rest of the week.

In fact, the way the writers played with expectations was a particularly clever aspect of the series. The first episode started off as Torchwood-as-usual. As the first series ended with the death of two key cast members, the impression created was that this story would be about how they rebuild the team. As such, we are introduced to Doctor Rupesh Patanjali – an obvious replacement for Owen Harper. Lois Habiba, who is clearly a dab hand with computers, is set up as the next Tosh. We’re introduced to Ianto and Jack’s respective families, which is very cosy. So far, so very conventional. But by the end of “Day One”, Dr Patanjali is dead and revealed as a deep cover government agent and the Torchwood Hub has been destroyed thanks to a bomb stuck in Jack’s ribcage (immortality has its drawbacks). It quickly becomes apparent that this story is going to be bigger and more climactic than anything we’ve seen before.

For all that though, while the scope was bigger, this didn’t mean bigger explosions (the biggest happened on Day One) and kewl CGI monsters. What we got instead was proper sci-fi, which is more about ideas than special effects. The bug eyed monsters are never fully seen and aren’t even given a proper name; all we get to see is the occasional claw jutting out from the mist and a particularly disturbing reveal about what had happened to the children given away in 1965.

Indeed, the monsters themselves, while unpleasant, aren’t the true villains of the piece. It turns out they are little more than bullying drug addicts. The real horror is how the people – and in particular the government – respond. What’s worse, that established rule of modern sci-fi – that with a bit of spunk and an inspiring leader, the human race can beat anything – is left wanting.

So it is that the cabinet sits down and casually discusses what criteria it is going to use to decide which children it sacrifices to the 456, leading to the immortal line “And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables good for?” (I got told off for laughing at that line too loud). We are left asking, would we do it differently? I’m sure everyone likes to think that they would have the moral fortitude to insist that the children had to be selected at random, but there is a certain cold logic to it (after all, could you really operate a ‘random’ policy in practice, and wouldn’t the lowest performing schools be the least likely to stand in the way of the military suddenly appearing and demanding their children? Somehow I doubt Eton would stand for it). A highly political drama (and it is surely no coincidence that Brian Green’s name remarkably similar to Gordon Brown, another Prime Minister famed for sitting back and letting other people take the blame), at one point the 456 asks – quite reasonably – why it is that the human race is so precious about giving up its children in this way while being entirely comfortable with daily infant mortality rate of 29,000. The first instinct of government is to give up the children of failed asylum seekers (no doubt the BNP are preparing a press release right now to denounce the BBC’s low estimate of just 62 failed asylum seeking children in the UK at any given time).

Meanwhile, Captain Jack decides that he won’t stand for it, confronts the 456 threatening revolution and… gets Ianto killed in the process. By the end of the story, Jack has thoroughly debased himself and is forced to sacrifice his grandson in a bid to save all the other children. His only recourse is to run away, off planet. To top it all, the most cold-hearted, nasty member of the cabinet ends up replacing the Prime Minister (Britain in the Whoverse seems to go through Prime Ministers on an almost weekly basis). Have you ever seen a programme on the telly that was so utterly anti-heroic?

A lot of people have been very critical of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who output. Some of it, it has to be said, is fair. Davies has two writers rummaging around inside him. One comes up with grandiose stories that end up becoming schmaltzy, soggy messes such as last years’ season finale. But when he is stricter with himself, Davies is capable of pulling off superb drama such as Midnight and Turn Left. Torchwood: Children of Earth was also quite reminiscent of The Second Coming, his pre-Doctor Who collaboration with Christopher Eccleston (the last good thing I’ve seen on ITV and also an example of event television that ran on consecutive nights). I’m a big fan of Stephen Moffatt but while he has proven his ability to do “creepy” he hasn’t thus far shown much of a “dark” side. For every Blink there have been two “everybody lives!” By contrast, even in something as seemingly bland as the Kylie Minogue Christmas Special, Davies set the story up so that all the “good” people died and the “bad” people lived. If Moffat’s Doctor Who lacks this edge, it will be much the poorer for it.

Back to Torchwood, what next? Well, opinion seems to differ on whether they have effectively killed the series or set it up for an exciting reboot. Notwithstanding the fact that bad ratings would almost certainly have killed it, I was left thinking they are planning on the latter option. They even had a bit of foreshadowing: just what was that incident that Ianto referred to “150 years ago” that Jack was somehow mixed up in that was apparently proof that the 456 should back off? But essentially the series will have to start again from scratch, with a new Hub and a new cast (Lois Habiba will presumably be back – and Johnson?). And I really want to find out what is up with the Weevils, and what has happened for Captain John – and Billis? One thing is clear: from here it can’t go back to business as usual. I, for one, really want to see that series.

UPDATE: I finally got around to reading Daddy Richard’s take on the series. Some similar conclusions but much more depth: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

Doctor Smith I Presume?

Matt Smith as drawn by (c) Paul J. Holden.
Matt Smith as drawn by (c) Paul J. Holden.
This can’t be a nine wishes for 2009 because he won’t actually be appearing in the role until 2010, but I am intrigued by the casting of Matt Smith for the 11th Doctor Who.

It appears to have upset a great many people and in this X-Factor age everyone seems to think they should have been consulted (imagine if they’d gone down the talent show route… Brrr!). What is most striking is that most of the objections appear to be based on what Smith is – i.e. young, white and male – rather than based on any informed view about his acting talent.

I have sympathies for those disappointed that it wasn’t Patterson Joseph as he is a great actor. And, superficially, I will admit to having a yearning to see someone in their 50s or 60s in the role (if you may recall that I was flying the flag for Simon Russell Beale). But the argument that ‘this time’ it should have been a black actor or a woman is tokenism pure and simple. They were casting an actor, not a face.

I only recall seeing Matt Smith in The Ruby and The Smoke (and its sequel) but he seemed like a good actor. The fact that he has plenty of stage experience is also a plus for me.

I do hope they put a lot of thought into how the character might develop. What I would be most disappointed to see is Smith emerging as a carbon copy of the Tennant Doctor. The whole cocky, god-like, ‘no second chances’ schtick has well and truly run its course. I’m hoping he’ll go for more of a nervy, Davison-meets-Troughton personality and be deliberately more fallible.

The other thing that I’m hoping they will avoid is having all his companions fall in love with him. Russell T. Davies’ tenure was marked by heightening the emotions in the show. Nothing wrong with that. But in so doing, he did occasionally teeter towards cliche. It had reached such a point by Tennant’s third season that they had to explicitly rule out the possibility of Catherine Tate’s character having a romantic relationship with him.

Sex is a poor substitute for emotional depth. If the last few years of Doctor Who haven’t taught the new producers that, then the direness of the first season of Torchwood and the triumph of Sarah Jane Adventures should have done by now. If there is a danger of having such a young Doctor it is that trying the same sort of thing they did with Rose and Martha would come across like a badly sung and danced copy of High School Musical.

But I’m optimistic they won’t make this mistake. I have a lot of respect for Stephen Moffatt, both for his Doctor Who scripts and his earlier work.

As for the Tenth Doctor? It will be interesting to see how he goes and to what extent the four specials will be interlinked. And where does Prof. Song’s seemingly long marriage to him fit in?

Should the tall skinny young bloke be replaced with a short fat older bloke?

Listening to Simon Russell Beale reviewing David Tennant’s performance of Hamlet on Today this morning, I am reminded of a point I wanted to make on my abortive “memo to Steven Moffat” blog post. That is, wouldn’t SRB make a fantastic Doctor? He would of course be more in the Troughton mould, but that is no bad thing in my view. I just think he would be superb – and fundamentally the kids would love him. What does the panel think?

DVD economics: what price Doctor Who? (UPDATED)

Can someone explain this to me?

Life on Mars Season 1 Box Set

  • DVD Release Date: 15 May 2006
  • Run Time: 472 minutes
  • Amazon Price: £16.98 GBP
Doctor Who Season 1 Box Seat

  • DVD Release Date: 21 Nov 2005
  • Run Time: 585 minutes
  • Amazon Price: £49.16 GBP

Those 113 minutes seem awfully expensive. Is this really the most profitable price the BBC should be charging for Doctor Who, two years after original broadcast? That would suggest a remarkably inelastic demand compared with other DVD boxed sets.

UPDATE: Via Facebook, a friend of mine has just pointed out the following pricing regime for another group of BBC DVD box sets:
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 1-8) – £104.99
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 1-4) – £24.98
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 5-8) – £24.98

Would it really be too much of a strain on the license fee to give the chaps pocket calculators?

Confidentially speaking…

Funny thing that Doctor Who Confidential. It is supposed to give you the inside gen of that particular week’s Doctor Who. This week, Derek Jacobi was the main guest star. Without wanting to give anything away, you would have thought they would have at least mentioned that this is his second appearance in Doctor Who, after this. A remarkably appropriate little factoid as well, given what actually happens in the episode.

(As an aside, it is fascinating visiting a website from the dim and distant past of 2003. They did things differently back then.)

It’s doubly strange given that while they appear to be ashamed of their Derek Jacobi-related past, they seemed quite happy to acknowledge their past association with Eric Roberts.

The inexorable rise of Chris Chibnell

After the last episode of Torchwood Season One, I offered my own considered thoughts on the programme which, with the exception of the Guppy Fans, appeared to go down quite well.

One of my arguments was that the main problem with the series was the lead writer: Chris Chibnell. In the last series he wrote 4 episodes. For season two, I am now informed, he will be writing 3. Well, that’s a sort of progress, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Chibnell will be returning this weekend with the Doctor Who offering 42. I’m torn on this one. A pre-watershed Chibnell might actually work, as one thing we are guaranteed is that Martha won’t be getting jiggy with the Doctor (or, to follow the Torchwood habit of giving all the sex to the ugly annoying sidekick, K9). On the other hand, and I’m guessing here, but I suspect the name of the episode has less to do with Douglas Adams and more to do with Jack Bauer. A 42 minute episode in real time? This is either going to work very well or very badly.

I’m magnanimous enough to hope it will be the former.

Extreme Normalcy

I’m intrigued that the latest 2000AD Extreme Edition features a number of old Max Normal reprints, given that this somewhat obscure supporting character got his own little (acknowledged) homage in Saturday’s Doctor Who. Has the editor (and former DWM honcho) Alan Barnes been on the blower to Russell T?

It’s all a conspiracy.

UPDATE: As well as the stated Max Normal reference, Gridlock also has some clear Halo Jones Book 1 references. Holographic news reader Sally Calypso seems remarkably similar to the computer generated news reader Swifty Frisco, and idea of casting off the underclass is similar to the Hoop.