Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Doctor Who: a Forest of Weeds and Roses

(The following piece was written in late 2006/early 2007, just after series 2 of the modern version of Doctor Who. It's out of date in a couple of ways. Firstly, my view of the modern Doctor Who is less optimistic these days,and secondly Verity Lambert sadly passed away in late 2007. The article refers to her in a present tense, and there are mild criticisms of comments she made, though nothing snide or disrepectful. Also, of course, Doctor Who has gone on to win two more Hugos and a Bafta Craft award. I should also point out that my dismassal of stories like The Sensorites and Frontier in Space was my opinion after seeing them once. I haven't revisited them yet, but opinions can change...)

Having Doctor Who back on Saturday evenings has been a dream many of us had long given up on, but even less expected was that it would be brought back with such care and thought. It could have been done in a workmanlike way as Robin Hood and Primeval have demonstrated, or it could have managed to please the long-term fans while failing to gain any standing as a television programme in its own right (the trap the TV Movie fell into). Instead, it boasts remarkable special effects, intelligent writing, fine acting, impressive ratings, good reviews, a Hugo and three Baftas.
Yet the one thing this hasn’t done is improved the reputation of the original series. It still doesn’t look like we’re going to see any terrestrial repeats. The basic stereotype of wobbly sets has continued. This dismissal from critic Kathryn Flett seems to reflect the public’s recollection of Doctor Who: “Russell T Davies has done wonders, admittedly, but the original was cheap, dull, creaky and parochial”. The praise it attracts from critics tends to focus on how Russell T Davies has improved and revamped the series, and much less on the fact that he did so because he was a huge fan of the original.
Was I the only one a little stunned by David Tennant’s choice of words when presenting Davies with the Dennis Potter Award for Outstanding Television writing at last year’s Baftas? He applauded Russell for injecting heart and enthusiasm into a series “that many thought was beyond redemption” My reaction at the phrase “beyond redemption” was “WHOAA!” Surely the show I’ve followed all my life wasn’t that bad? It has occurred to few if any critics that the relaunch has succeeded not just because of Davies’s skill, but also because of the brilliance of the format.
Let’s consider that format. A show about a man who can travel to any time and place, in a ship small enough to be squeezed anywhere. A show that stars the most romantic of heroes, a dashing man of action who never carries a gun, and abhors violence, will tackle any evil, will not be trifled with and yet revels in the absurd and the childish, an anti-establishment figure who doesn’t have time for any government, can’t stand the military and stands up to evil on his own armed with nothing more than a sonic screwdriver simply because he wants to. A man who can arrive on any house and any street, and will employ anyone – no matter how ordinary - to help him in his fight, and who can inspire any one of us to do the same. A man who can change his physical appearance and everything other than his determination to fight evil and his mischievousness, allowing different actors to succeed each other in the role, playing the part whichever way they choose. A show that can give us gothic horror, satire, ghost stories, lavish futuristic sci-fi, comedy, historical tales or action-adventure. A show with no permanent actors and no fixed style. It’s a brilliant format, and it wasn’t created by Russell T Davies or anyone else (not even Sydney Newman, who initiated the programme in 1963 but couldn’t have foreseen the vast array of things we associate with Doctor Who). The success of the new Doctor Who where so many shows have failed (Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, Crime Traveller, Invasion: Earth, Strange, the Last Train, ) and indeed continue to fail (Primeval, Robin Hood, Torchwood) owes as much to the brilliance of the Doctor and the TARDIS as creations as it does to the considerable skill of Russell T Davies and his team, and his moxy in finally bringing it back to our screens. The shows I’ve mentioned lacked a central character as compelling, rich or as useful as the Doctor, and the absence of the TARDIS meant the range of stories they could tell and press attention and ratings they could attract were limited. After all, Randall and Hopkirk could never meet Dickens, watch the sun explode or find the Devil chained up on an alien planet.
Another regrettable aspect of the show’s revival is that it has contributed to one of the most woeful myths ever attributed to Doctor Who – that it had become unwatchable by the time it was taken off the air in 1989. It’s useful for the BBC, tidily explaining their lack of support for the show in the 1980s, and is supported by the programme’s dwindling resources, the criticism it faced from both the fans and the BBC and its low viewing figures during this period. One of the biggest perpetuators of this myth has been Verity Lambert. It was great to see Doctor Who among Channel 4’s 50 Greatest TV Dramas recently, but what a shame to once again see Verity talking about how the show had become a parody of itself by the 1980s, the programme cutting immediately to the Kandyman to demonstrate her point. Viewers with strong memories might remember a particular couple of scenes on the BBC One documentary on Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary: Verity Lambert talking gravely about the show descending into parody, cutting immediately to the Kandyman. The Kandyman becomes an icon of naffness allowing the whole of 1980s Who to be swept neatly away. Verity was at it again in the last SFX Doctor Who Special, in an interview with herself and Russell T Davies. She’s gracious enough to admit that Russell’s take is pretty good, but otherwise talks again about how the show lost its way after she left.
It’s interesting to note that in both the SFX and the BBC interviews she also speaks disparagingly of Jon Pertwee (from the early 1970s rather than the 1980s), arguing that he was “definitely more of an establishment figure” and that the show lost its magic from then on. Ironically, Pertwee was actually the most fiercely anti-establishment of all Doctors, his inability to escape from Earth only further exacerbating his intolerance of the military and bureaucracy. It seems that for Verity Lambert, Doctor Who went off the rails not so much in the 1980s, as in the post-Lambert era. Inevitably, there is a danger of seeing the period of the show’s genesis as more interesting than its subsequent two decades, in much the same way that Sean Connery will always remain the most fondly remembered Bond regardless of how good subsequent films are. The difference, though, is that in marked contrast to the Bond films, Doctor Who neither peaked nor established its exact nature in the 1960s – the first 1970s season is as crucial a manifesto as Season One, reinventing the show as an action-adventure programme and its hero as a non-violent James Bond. It’s actually far more different to Season One than Russell T Davies’s version is to the original run. Any narrative of the show peaking in the 1960s, becoming fixed in the 1970s and declining in the 1980s should therefore always be challenged.
Another myth regarding the show’s decline in the 1980s is that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were inappropriately cast. This myth was partly fuelled by their poor costumes – which become a useful visual icon like the Kandyman in demonstrating the decline: all one has to do in a documentary is show a brief clip of them – and partly by the disastrous attempts in the earlier scripts (such as 1984’s The Twin Dilemma) to make the Sixth Doctor less likeable. The most obvious example of this myth was is the infamous gag in Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’s sketch for Doctor Who Night suggesting that “towards the end any old f***er with an equity card” was cast. (It’s significant that this line was edited out for the sketch’s inclusion in the recent In the Beginning DVD release – now that Gatiss is writing for Doctor Who, a certain diplomacy is called for). The two actors themselves, though, are no more poorly suited to the role than anyone else – they’re certainly stronger and more likeable actors than William Hartnell, and more charismatic - though less consistent, and more likely to go over the top - than Peter Davison.
It’s also something of a misconception that in terms of experience they were odd choices – Davison, Tom Baker, Pertwee and Hartnell were hardly better qualified – who could have known for sure that someone that used to play angry army sergeants, a comedian, a relatively unknown actor and a vet from All Creatures Great and Small were going to be great Doctors? Dismissive remarks about the last two Doctors tend to accumulate due to their occupying the end of the series’ run - at a time of low popularity - rather than what they actually brought to the role.
However, what really riles about the myth is that by 1989, Doctor Who had undergone something of a creative renaissance. From 1987 onwards, the casting of Sylvester McCoy - the best all-round Doctor since Tom Baker - and Sophie Aldred as Ace - the first great companion since the 1970s - and the replacement of Eric Saward with a far more imaginative script editor, Andrew Cartmel, resulted in some of the most original and satisfying Doctor Who stories since the Hinchcliffe era. We start off with something of a stepping-stone in season 24 - it’s far from great, but unpretentious and likeable overall, with a sincere attempt to get back to telling fun and inventive stories rather than the obsession with continuity, past glories and gimmicky ideas (such as the Trial) that had marked out much of mid-1980s Doctor Who.
At the time, all the fans and critics noticed was an increasing cheapness and reliance of guest stars. When, in seasons 25 and seasons 26, we were presented with two of the finest seasons in the show’s original run, we never even noticed. The fact that the show was stuck in a graveyard slot, poorly promoted and visibly running out of money didn’t help - fans launched fanzine campaigns against the producer, wrote articles in the Daily Mail and appeared on Did You See berating the series’s alleged decline while great stories such as Remembrance of the Daleks, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric (a strong contender for the finest of the original Doctor Who stories), Ghost Light and Survival passed them by. The truncated length – four stories instead of six – was also a factor in this, as it left us with only four or five outstanding stories overall: had the seasons been normal length, we might have had two or three more tales of the calibre of Fenric and Remembrance, making it a harder period to dismiss. It still strikes me as woeful that the series was cancelled after the broadcast of some of its finest serials. When the show returned, there was much talk about why and how, but little suggestion that maybe it shouldn’t have been axed in the first place. Hopefully the DVD release of Survival will remind newer generations that Doctor Who in the 1980s hadn’t entirely ground to a halt, and that outstanding Who stories didn’t begin in 2005.
The new series is better than the old in many ways: better effects and production values, obviously. The scripts are often sharper, and the characterisation of the companions stronger. For example, there’s a nice moment in Aliens of London where a policeman asks the Doctor if his relationship with Rose is a sexual one. He says no, and the matter is dismissed, but the fact that the script raises the issue - instead of ignoring it as the original series did – makes his relationship with Rose more convincing, and brings home the fact that it is non-sexual because the writer chooses to portray it that way, rather than because he is unable to allude to sex. (Remember, by contrast, the infamous decision in The Five Doctors not to give the Fifth Doctor and Susan any scenes together because the production team was frightened of drawing attention to the idea of Davison’s Doctor having offspring). It’s also a lot cannier and funnier in its use of pop-culture and teenage language to appeal to younger viewers (compare this with the “yoof” dialogue Ace was sometimes saddled with). It is more experimental – Dalek, Father’s Day, The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace and Love and Monsters do bold things with the show’s format and characters that have never been tried before, and create genuinely outstanding drama. Most notably, the modern version is much more emotionally powerful - these episodes have far more of a remit to moving the viewer than the original series did.
We shouldn’t feel afraid to admit that the original series was also better than the new one in other ways. For a start, the original remains unsurpassed at claustrophobic atmosphere. It remains to be seen if the new version can create tense stories along the lines of masterpieces such as 1977’s Horror of Fang Rock or 1975’s The Ark in Space. Tooth and Claw was for me, one of the few failures of the relaunch. Its relentless humour (couldn’t the “we are not amused” joke have been tightened up a bit?) and the smug, flippant attitude of the Tenth Doctor and Rose in that particular episode (despite the horrors they have witnessed, they head for the TARDIS at the end of the episode chuckling as if they’ve just had the time of their lives at everyone else’s expense) robs it of tension.
It doesn’t help that the episode only lasts 45 minutes: it is hard to bring the Doctor and Rose to the location, establish a claustrophobic atmosphere and have them meet the supporting characters in such a short length of time. When you have elaborate jokes also taking up precious moments of the airtime, you end up with an excellent werewolf that gets little to do but walk around, some brilliantly realised Kung-fu monks who don’t get used at all after the teaser, and a very hurried climax. With Fang Rock or Ark in Space, on the other hand, we spend 90 minutes trapped aboard Station Nerva or in a lighthouse, wondering how the Doctor can possibly overcome this dire threat.
Another criticism - so far, a minor one - that could be levelled at the new series is that while all three seasons have featured a remarkable array of beautifully acted and believably written supporting characters (Florence Hoath as Nancy, Sophia Myles as Madame De Pompadour, Marc Warren as Elton and Jessica Hynes as Joan to name just a few), all of them have so far been the Doctor’s allies. The new series’s villains - such as the Slitheen, the Racnoss, the Carrionites, Roger Lloyd-Pack as John Lumic and Anne Reid as the Plasmavore - are by contrast more generic: even the Family of Blood, superbly macabre as they are, are not three-dimensional in the same way as the other characters in Paul Cornell’s story, right down to Rocastle the Headmaster - beautifully played by Pip Torrens - in his few but vivid scenes. Whether the new series can give us richly-developed villains on a par with Tobias Vaughn from 1968’s The Invasion, Harrison Chase from 1976’s The Seeds of Doom or Sharaz Jek, Morgus and Stotz from 1984’s The Caves of Androzani remains to be seen.
One other hurdle the new series may have to face is its stance on alien planets. We haven’t had an alien planet as evocative as, say, the Cheetah Planet from Survival: instead, the few stories from the new version set on other planets tend to move indoors fairly soon. Of course, when presented with stories of the calibre of Love and Monsters, Blink and Human Nature, it seems churlish to complain about their setting, especially as their plots and characters would be unsuited to an alien environment. However, whilst the Pertwee “exiled to earth” format allowed the Doctor to complain about the TARDIS not working and his struggle to escape from earth, it seems jarring that the Doctor and first Rose then Martha are travelling around the entire universe and we aren’t going with them. It’s a problem highlighted by the way that the temptation of the TARDIS, and the many sights it can bring, plays a major part in both Rose and Martha’s development as characters.
It would be futile to suggest that there were episodes of the original series as moving as Father’s Day, as ingenious as The Girl in the Fireplace, or as spectacular as The Parting of the Ways, but to my taste it would be equally wrong-footed to argue that Rise of the Cybermen is equal to 1970’s Inferno (which remains a masterclass in parallel Earth stories), or Rose to the same year’s Spearhead from Space (which is a much more satisfying alien-invasion story, with much more well-realised Autons). The new version is another chapter in Doctor Who’s long and chequered history: admittedly a hugely important one, but not the definitive one.
Steven Moffat, perhaps the finest writer on the new series, has expressed a different attitude towards the original series. In DWM’s Seventh Doctor Special, Who writers each contributed an article discussing the virtues of each Seventh Doctor story. While Gareth Roberts and Paul Cornell offered infectious celebrations of Paradise Towers and Battlefield, Moffat’s commendation of Remembrance of the Daleks was rather different in tone. It began by enthusing about the new series: “Right now, as I sit typing, I’m a few feet away from the stunning new TARDIS set…” before breaking off and saying, with a palpable sense of irony, “so let’s talk about Remembrance of the Daleks! No, actually, let’s really do.” Although he then praises the story, a patronising opinion of the original series as dwarfed by the new version is detectible.
The article gets more mean-spirited as it continues, with one odd remark: “I remember running home to see Part One, skidding… like a cartoon character. I’d say like Sylvester McCoy, but it’s not a place I really want to go”. It’s difficult to understand this cryptic reference – does he mean he disliked McCoy’s performance? A few lines later, he speaks of “Ferret Man suddenly becoming the Doctor” and “the little bloke from Vision On”. So total is this contempt that actually elaborating on what was wrong with McCoy’s Doctor, or even naming him, is considered unnecessary. It’s a shame that one of Doctor Who’s brightest current storytellers sees the show he wrote for two decades later as only really coming to life in recent years.
That given, it would be going too far to say that there was nothing wrong with 1980s Doctor Who: it went through a very turbulent time under John Nathan-Turner, and suffered under the uncertain hands of script editor Eric Saward. Seasons Twenty to Twenty-two in particular (but not, as is commonly assumed, the show’s last three seasons) appear to have no idea about where they are moving, with little cohesion, under-explored characters and a struggle to find suitable writers. As Gareth Roberts remarked in his recent DWM interview, they would have benefited greatly from the “tone meetings” of the current version. This was also the period that Doctor Who shrank from a teatime family show (something which its revival has restored it to) to a cult show dependent upon a not always appreciative fanbase, which led to its demise.
However, Doctor Who has been nothing over its forty-plus years if not inconsistent; right from the start, there’s been as much chaff as wheat. This is the show that followed City of Death with The Creature from the Pit, The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma. It’s an anthology show: Black Orchid, Carnival of Monsters and The Curse of Fenric are all excellent, but have remarkably little in common. To dismiss the whole of 1980s Doctor Who as substandard is as foolish as arguing that no decent film or novel has ever been published in that decade.
Furthermore, only two periods in the show’s history have ever been consistently outstanding and with a small number of misfires: the Hinchcliffe era and the current revival. The 1960s, Pertwee and Graham Williams eras are almost as variable in quality as the 1980s. A scan of the Hartnell era, for examples, reveals some great stories such as The Daleks’ Master Plan, but also some stinkers such as The Space Museum and The Sensorites. Even episodes that were thought classics - such as 100,000 BC and the first Dalek serial - are a lot ropier in places than we remembered. The Troughton era, despite having one of the finest Doctors at the helm, is a lot more problematic creatively than many remember, with a reliance on the unimaginative “base under siege” model (The Moonbase, The Wheel in Space) and as with the Hartnell era, a tendency for both the Doctor and his companions not always to be as involved with the main action as they should be (one of the jarring things about 1960s Doctor Who for those raised on the later periods is that when Hartnell, Troughton or one of his companions were due for a holiday, their character would simply disappear midway through the serial, which was very hard to smooth over in an hero-led adventure series). In the Pertwee era, one can line up the outstanding stories (Robert Holmes's two auton stories, the Silurians, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sea Devils, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and many would add Curse of Peladon and The Green Death) with the duds (The Time Monster, The Monster of Peladon, Frontier in Space) and find something of a fifty/fifty split. Conversely, the mid-1980s might be one of Doctor Who’s less creative and consistent periods, and yet we still have Snakedance, Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks hidden inside them.
No matter how many weeds occupy a particular Who era, there are always a few hidden bloomers, and vice versa. Russell T Davies, who tends to be more diplomatic than Steven Moffat, reflected in a November 2003 DWM interview – not long after the announcement that he would be bringing the show back - that he had no particular favourite era, but loved “the whole thing”. This seems to me to be far more in tune with the nature of the programme. One can find pleasures or interests even in Doctor Who’s weakest seasons. The best analogy I have found for the brilliance of the original Doctor Who comes from Dr Johnson’s assessment of Shakespeare. Johnson had to admit that Shakespeare’s work didn’t fit into his preferred classical model of works of carefully structured, scrupulously considered works of Art (the Augustans didn’t like their literature to be frivolous or inconsistent). Instead, he saw it as “a forest […] interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses”. There are a good deal of weeds and roses in Doctor Who’s original run: it’s as foolish to ignore vast swathes of the forest as it would be to insist that Troilus and Cressida, A Winter’s Tale, and indeed anything other than Shakespeare’s famous comedies and tragedies are worthless. Let’s not allow the fact that it is currently blooming to overshadow some of those past glories.

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