Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Genius of Father Ted

Father Ted isn’t a dark show. Neither it is it necessarily a warm-hearted show (but sometimes it is both). It isn’t a show based explicitly around fashionable social issues (though so many perceptive comments on them can be found in it), or a show with roots in Shakespeare, Dickens or Beckett. Writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, along with their cast and directors Declan Lowney and Andy de Emmony, worked hard to make the funniest show you ever saw. Every atom - every guest performance, every throw-way line, every plot detail, every visual gag, every turn of the camera - is directed towards the mystifying process of being funny. The show understands that true comedy - something so funny it’s almost inexplicable - scrupulously honed and structured can take us onto a plane of delight which no other art can reach, and can give us an entirely new understanding of life and society.

To start with the impossible task of trying to capture Father Ted's aesthetic (and I can’t, of course. It just has to be watched), let’s consider the episode The Plague. Father Dougal Maguire has just got a pet rabbit. Father Ted Crilly warns him that it will have to be out of the way when the fearsome Bishop Brennan visits, because a while ago the bishop was stuck in a lift in a department store and some rabbits got in with him (“How did they get in?” asks Dougal “Must have burrowed in - you know, rabbits…” replies Ted) and started “nibbling at his cape and everything.” Just before the Bishop arrives, Ted and Dougal find the whole parochial house is swarming with rabbits. “Oh wow” says Dougal, “It’s like a big rabbit rock festival.” Ted then inadvertently points out a potential plothole: he considers sending the rabbits to the same pet shop Dougal bought his from. “No, Ted, it was a travelling pet shop. They won’t be back till spring.” Bishop Brennan arrives, and after intimidating Ted and Dougal, mentions the time he was in trapped a lift and a bunch of rabbits got in and “started nibbling at my cape and everything.” Later Ted and Dougal, hunting for the rabbits, find them in Father Jack’s locked room: “they must have burrowed in - you know, rabbits…”.

There is much in the writing I have just outlined that is uniquely and inexplicably funny (and I didn’t even get round to one of the rabbits being the spitting image of “that fella, Harvey Keitel”) but crucial to the genius of Father Ted, I think, is the way it embraces its lunacy and uses its own plot flaws as walls to bounce the comedy off. The two plot discrepancies here - the absence of the pet shop and the need to make Bishop Brennan coincidentally terrified of rabbits - perform the same miracle as rhyme and metre in a great poem. The writing and the actors actually revel in the unconvincing explanations, making them so gleefully funny they become rabbit holes down which we tumble, into a world where comedy doesn’t have to persuade you that life is like this to be hysterically funny, and where we can laugh at the absurdity, joy and sublimity of comedy itself as well as the brilliantly drawn characters and finely observed take on Catholic life. How sterile and cloying a show like Friends is by contrast, with no sense of its own ridiculousness, and an inability to consider the fact that its characters are anything other than lovely people. Similarly, the episode Escape From Victory, which sees Ted managing a geriatric football match, seems to be having fun with its own ludicrousness, supplementing its plot with notes on the nature of what comedy requires from such a plot. Ted's star player dies, so Ted visits the body in an open coffin at the wake. Cutting from Ted boasting of how they can't lose the game as long as they have him to a shot of him in an open coffin is a standard sitcom technique, but the script parses it with the following exchange. "So there‘s no way he‘ll be able to play?" asks Ted. "No," replies the Priest, and adds "he's dead." "It’s completely out of the question, then?“ replies Ted, and after a pause adds: “Is it - is it completely out of the question?”

Many episodes of Father Ted work by bringing a bizarre why-shouldn’t-it-be-that-way logic to the surreal vistas Linehan and Mathews have dreamed up. Many sitcoms might alight upon the idea of a priest with a collection of Nazi memorabilia, but it's Father Ted that knows the funniest way to do this: first, establish the priest as a man of erudite references and well-stocked bookshelves. Then have him offer to show Ted his collection of Second World War memorabilia, which Ted's often heard of. Have the dignified and intelligent-seeming priest show Ted first one shelf of memorabilia, then a second, after which Ted enquires if he has anything from the Allied Side "No, I'm afraid that sort of thing wouldn't interest me at all." Surely the funniest possible way of parsing that gag. The idea of a Nazi priest becomes bizarrely mundane. Many sitcoms would be happy to have a comedy prop as obvious as a brick lying around the living room for an episode, but only Father Ted would have a character respond to claims that it brightens up the modern living room according to magazines with the retort "that may be alright for Will Self or one of those fellahs."

The episode Are You Right There, Father Ted? sees Ted, back from a stay at a better parochial house and deeply bored, put a broken lampshade on his head and do a Chinaman impression to amuse Dougal, only to find three Chinese people staring at him through the window. After their affronted exit, Ted, spluttering, demands to know who they are. Dougal replies that they must be part of that new Chinatown area on Craggy Island. Many comedy shows might have seen this as a source of comic mileage, but the joy lies in the way that the show enforces a sense of logic - why shouldn’t Craggy Island have a Chinatown area?

Another episode - Old Grey Whistle Theft - is a master-class in world-building, as surely as the work of Mervyn Peake or Tolkien. Mr Benson’s whistle is stolen, plunging Craggy Island into chaos. A simple enough idea, but the way this story is told gives it a grandeur unique to comedy. First the script establishes Mr Benson’s power, and the significance of his whistle. We see Ted trying to enjoy a picnic, and enduring an altercation with a rude couple who accuse him of taking their spot. An officious figure bursts out of a hut, blowing on a whistle. “Put the fork down!” he commands Ted, who drops his plastic fork like an outnumbered gunslinger as pastiche Spaghetti Western music plays on the soundtrack. Later we get Ted angrily wishing that someone would take Benson’s whistle off him, followed by a dramatic scene, shot from the unseen thief’s point-of-view, of someone doing just that. We then have some wonderful scenes of the resulting panic amongst the people of Craggy Island. The bored local policeman takes to circling the island in a helicopter, sniper rifle at the ready, while the man who runs the local shop explains to Ted that that would be on account of “this whistle ting”, and in turn proudly shows Ted the shotgun he’s bought and “wouldn’t hesitate to use it if anyone tried to take any of the whistles we have here.“ Ted then meets an old lady convinced that this will bring about a scenario similar to “that film, BoyZ in the Hood”, who goes home to lock herself in the cellar until the thief is caught, and he sees that the local paper has a a headline warning of anarchy and a special pull-out colour supplement on whistles. This magnificent exercise in absurd logic is balanced by an engaging, character-based plot, in which Father Dougal is led astray by a cool but wayward priest his own age (and who may just be the whistle thief). In Father Ted, you really do get everything.

However, the show’s sharpness cannot be underestimated. It’s affectionate towards Clerical life, but full of lines you’d never get in The Vicar of Dibley. Consider Ted's nightmare of being sacrificed to a volcano god in the episode Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse. He pleads with a tribesman to consider the Catholic way of life, but the tribesman replies "sorry, father, I never could get onboard with that stance on artificial contraception." Or that fabulous moment in Rock-A-Hula-Ted where Ted, after being asked about scandals in the Church, replies "Say there are 200 million priests in the world and 5% of them are paedophiles, that's still only ten million." Or, of course, Dougal's cheerful aside, when being mistaken for Ted, "personally I don't even agree with organised religion."

Key to this is the deft way the essential decency of the priests is juxtaposed with the misery inflicted upon them by the dullness of organised religion. The embarrassed silence in Flight into Terror when one of them, as it becomes clear their plane is going to crash and ideas are being pooled, suggests a moment of prayer, and the moment in A Christmassy Ted when Ted's likeable priest colleagues are staying over at Christmas and find they've missed the Christmas film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) but dutifully try and sit through the midnight mass before nodding off are rather poignant. Who could not be moved by Ted's friends standing up to the monstrous Father Finton Stack in New Jack City after he interrupts their attempts to watch a video with Ted with abuse. "I must say, I think you're a very rude man!" says one of them, to which the demonic Father Stack replies, while smiling sweetly, "If you ever say that to me again, I'll put your head through the wall." To Ted's distress and ours, they leave.

Yet while this is an affectionate show, it's not a sentimental one. Father Dougal is an idiot but no savant, (a sadly unfilmed scene in which he counts a spilled pile of matches like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, only to be told he wasn't even close, demonstrates just how much Linehan and Mathews understood these characters, even outside of the broadcast episodes.) Like Seinfeld, the show has the knack of allowing us to see the characters from a different light and realising just how far they are from nice people, without allowing the theme to dominate in an attempt to make it self-consciously 'dark'.

And then there's the cast. The late Dermot Morgan (I still remember the moment when I heard of his death in 1998 as if it were the loss of a family member) had an energy hard to describe, but what made him an ideal lead was his ability to play voice of sanity to Father Dougal's worst excesses and a wildly funny character in his own right, without the viewers ever seeing the join. He was authoritative when demonstrating to Dougal the difference between objects that are small and objects that are far away (toy cows helped) and yet joyously childish when trading insults with the Hubert Laneish Father Dick Byrne or hurling Trogg's tape-style abuse at Dougal when they try to record a Eurovision song. Has there ever been a funnier running gag than the references to what happened to "the money from that Lourdes Thing"? The joy comes from watching Ted's composure break every time someone brings it up: "that money was just resting in my account" is usually his response, and sometimes "it was a simple allocation of funds." It's our love of Morgan as a performer that makes the anticipation of his reaction as funny as the reaction itself. His performance conveys such a poignant sense of frustrated ambition. Consider his conversation with John and Mary in the episode Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading. "We're going to Rome, Father, we might see your friend." "Who's that, Sophia Loren?" gushes Ted. "The Pope, Father." "He's no friend of mine!" roars Ted, only to realise he's taken the joke too far. Morgan achieves something heartbreaking with these moments of thwarted joy.

Ardal O'Hanlon also gives the performance of a lifetime throughout these 25 episodes. Every facial expression and the delivery of each line works hard to uncover something new in the quest to make the stupidity of Father Dougal Maguire endlessly surprising, and to turn a trope derived from Trigger in Only Fools of Horses into a creation with a life of its own. In moments such as Dougal's blunt "What's wrong wicha?" when Ted tries to cheer up a suicidal priest, his "it was resting for a long time Ted - a good long rest" about the Lourdes money in Ted's account, or his realisation that one of the locals always wears a police uniform because he is a policeman ("I thought he was just having a laugh"), O'Hanlon conveys the sense of a gargantuan engine of imbecility. The sublime scene in the first broadcast episode, Good Luck, Father Ted, in which an animated cartoon is used to depict fantasy and reality switching places inside Dougal's mind (we see a sketch of someone's head, with 'reality' labelled outside the head and 'dreams' labelled inside it, and then we see the two switch places to jolly music as animated rabbits appear and frolic) is a synecdoche for Father Ted itself: the normal and the mad have swapped round, and what will be created for half an hour will be unlike anything you've ever encountered. As we've seen, there will indeed be rabbits running around; there will also be a hamster on a bicycle, a sequel to Speed on a Milk float, a group of priests trapped Vietnam-style in Ireland's biggest lingerie section, and a cameo by Richard Wilson.

The other two members of this magnificent quartet are Frank Kelly as Father Jack Hackett and Pauline Mclynn as Mrs Doyle the housekeeper. Again, it's hard to paraphrase the joy we experience whenever they appear, and the endless affection their performances inspire. In the case of Father Jack, the septic, encrusted alcoholic of unfathomable age, the delight comes from what you don't expect him to say. We all know he's going to smash his way through the parochial house living room window to make his exit, punch Ted when he tries to stop him drinking and drink toilet duck when no booze is available. However, who would have expected him, after angry demands for an apology for telling Bishop Brennan to "feck off", to hold out his hands like paws and croon "I'm sooooo, sooooo, sorrrry" and make a bizarre ingratiating gesture somewhere from the backwaters of sarcasm which can only be described as rabbit-like? (Rabbits, incidentally are getting to be something of a motif). Who would have expected Jack of all people to be the one that defeats Bishop Brennan by finding a tape of him playing on the beach with his illegitimate son, or to frolic with puppies and children when a seasonal change comes upon him?

The perfect Father Jack scene occurs in the episode Speed 3 when Jack takes a liking to the aforementioned brick, attaching a lead and taking it for walks. "I LOVE MY BRICK", he intones, with a struggling but unmistakable sincerity. Ted finds this touching: "perhaps we're seeing another side to Father Jack - a more caring, compassionate..." At this point, of course, the brick strikes him upon the head: "Ah, feckit!" snarls its owner: "Fed-up with [adopting another bizarre version of a sarcastic tone] breeiiiiiiicck." Again, the notes in that little piece of music are exquisite.

Mrs Doyle is the final cog; with her in place the show is perfect. As with Jack, it's the audience's anticipation of how Pauline McLynn will handle these moments that takes centre stage here. The dainty way her legs wobble as she tries and fails to climb rather than fall down from the windowsill after putting up the Christmas decorations, the look of High Tragedy on her face when Ted buys a tea-maker and her 'test' after making sandwiches (she selects one, takes a bite, contorts her face while desperately beating her neck and chest and then announces "they're fine") Her initially simpering and then demonic exhortation when serving tea - "Go on, go on , go, on guan guan guan GUAN!" - has rightly joined catchprase history, but Linehan, Mathews and McLynn pushed it further in the scene where Mrs Doyle approaches Father Finton Stack - a priest with a predilection for the Ghetto-blaster - and, drowned by the endless rap music, produces cascade of cardboard placards upon which these words are emblazoned in felt-tip. It's a lovely moment of dumbshow (each "go on" has its own card), and comes just as we were wondering how Mrs Doyle might react to the unexpected and boisterous presence of Father Stack in the household.

There's so many supporting characters to praise: John and Mary, Tom, Father Larry Duff, Father Noel Furlong. Each one gets funnier the more you get to know them, and each one lends their performances their own distinctive sound within this comedic orchestra. John and Mary are a married couple who run the local shop. Whenever we meet them, they are usually mid-way through a hideous row, trading blows as well as insults, but when Ted or Dougal show up they instantly put up a facade of sweetness. "Hello, Father!" says John when Ted enters the shop while Mary is forcing his head in a bucket of water, "Mary was just washing my hair." Several novels' worth of detail about the duplicity of marriage, the torture of Catholic sanctions on divorce and the different relationships between the private and public faces of marriage and religion are conveyed in scenes lasting barely five minutes, simply by the accumulative effect of having those two characters return every other episode.

Father Larry Duff is built around a straightforward running-gag premise: Ted gives him a call on his mobile whenever he's in need of guests, as "Larry's tremendous fun." During, immediately after or as a result of the phone call, something terrible happens to Larry. Yet consider two of these scenes. In one, Ted is trying to get rid of the aforementioned rabbits and remembers that Larry often mentioned that one of his all time fantasies was to have a few rabbits running about the place. Ted phones Larry, who replies that having a few rabbits around the place was indeed one of his all time fantasies. Ted explains his problem. "Ah, sorry Ted, I don't think I'll be able to take them," replies Larry, "I thought the rabbits idea was a bit far-fetched, so I got twelve Rottweilers instead." the camera pans back. There are hideous dogs flanking him. "I'd take them, but I think the Rottweilers would upset them."' After hanging up, he simpers at one of the dogs: "Oh you're a bad dog - don't you look at me like that! You're a very bad dog...." He then screams as, offscreen, the Rottweiler attacks his outstretched hand. We know why that is funny, but why is it so funny? It's yet another way of making the standard comic situation sublime by acknowledging its contrived nature (note the way Larry instantly uses the same phrase "a few rabbits around the of my all-time fantasies", transforming it from an incongruity into a given) but Larry's sheer presence, with actor Tony Guilfoyle's beatific face and his way of delivering his lines in a chirpily over-enunciative tone, gives us the sense that as the plot is handed over to each of these characters, it becomes funny in a different way. The characters are like different valves on an organ.

The second scene, in Old Grey Whistle Theft, sees Ted phoning up Larry to ask about a picnic they've planned. Larry, held at gunpoint, tells Ted they won't be able to make it: "You know Father Williams who was driving us? Well, they found a big box o' machine guns in his house." Ted is astonished. "Well, you think you know someone..." sighs Larry. As Ted rings off to continue with the episode's picnic plot, another priest makes a run for it and, as Larry looks on, a soldier opens fire, and we cut back to Ted. A tough little vignette about the relationship between faith and violence in Ireland, rendered extraordinary by being put into the mouth of the serene Father Larry Duff. The phrase "Big box o' machine guns" becomes poetry.

This celebration wouldn't be complete without discussing the extraordinary performance of Jim Norton as Bishop Brennan. Appearing in just three episodes, the Bishop is responsible for ensuring that these three failures of priests are kept hidden on Craggy Island. Norton is playing a familiar figure (Superintendent Chalmers in The Simpsons comes to mind), but brings such ferocious energy to the screen that he never seems to be playing the straight man, even though ostensibly his role is to find out what Ted, Dougal and Jack are up to and get angry. The episode Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse, in which Ted, having forfeited a football game with Father Dick Byrne, has to carry out the mission of the episode's title as a result, is built around an inevitable outcome: of course Bishop Brennan will realise that Ted kicked him up the arse, but when this moment comes, it's frightening. The sight of Bishop Brennan's cape flowing like Batman's as he runs towards the Parochial House howling for Ted's blood is hard to forget, and while the episode has gained much comic mileage from seeing how many times it can use variants of the phrase "kick him up the arse", hearing the Bishop use them himself is sublime, as if the same joke the episode has been giving is being sung in yet another key:

What brings me here, Crilly? Well, I suppose I would have to say the company, hah? The fresh air, the view from my window of that great pile of sludge - but number one on the list would be the matter of you kicking me up the arse - yes I think that is the one I would prioritise. Don't try my patience, Crilly! You kicked me up the arse: try to deny it and I will have you fed to the dogs!

The other reason for Bishop Brennan transcending the role of mere foil is the little touches of dignity and verisimilitude that Norton embellishes him with. There's his reaction to Dougal calling him Len, his occasional profanities (Don't call me Len, you little prick!", "you address me by my title, you little bollocks!"), his reaction when Ted suggests a moment of prayer (“No! I don't want - allright then, alright carry on, carry on“), his snarl of "what are yeee looking at?" after shoving the Pope aside in his realisation that Ted DID kick him up the arse, his witty moments of sarcasm ("Ah, the Kraken awakes," he sneers when Jack comes out of his slumber). My own favourite is the look of uncharacteristic amusement on his face whenever his PA - renowned as the most sarcastic priest in Ireland - displays his talent ("Did you come by car?" "No, we flew in from Southern Yemen."), even gesturing towards him and looking at Ted with a "doesn't he just kill you?" expression on his face. This is the kind of little touch that makes Father Ted endlessly rewatchable: its strong gags and characters are parsed by notes of verisimilitude, like lines of poetry made to scan in surprising ways.

Father Ted is the greatest comedy from this side of the Atlantic, and along with Seinfeld the greatest comedy of all time. That's the closest I can come to explaining why.

Friday, 18 November 2011

How Steven Moffat ruined Doctor Who

(update here: )

River Song is right: this is the Doctor's darkest hour. Doctor Who has been many things in its 48 years - including terrible - but now under Steven Moffat it is suffering the worst fate of all: it's become static. Moffat, having already written for all four seasons of the Russell T Davies-led version of the show, has discovered what the public, TV critics and Doctor Who fandom will accept, and unlike the show's 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner, who sporadically tried to do the same thing, he's competent enough to get away with it. You won't find any episodes that will embarrass some viewers or unsettle fandom, but neither will you be confounded, disturbed or challenged.

This version, week after week, is exactly what we expect from Doctor Who: darkly-lit "spooky" sets, monsters, hurried technobabble, the claim that the whole universe will be destroyed, and the cutest, safest, most unsurprising and least interesting Doctor ever devised, with his zany hats, his adorable little bowtie, his comedy catchphrases and his funny little stories about all the famous historical people he's met. Congratulations are due to all those fans who complained that 2006's Love and Monsters was too silly (and perhaps too idiosyncratic, too different, too affecting, too interesting?) and that Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor took it too seriously and didn't look right: you've won, and those of us who like intelligent tv have lost.

Almost everything that went wrong with Doctor Who in 2010 was detectable in the 2005-2009 version. Some weren't necessarily bad things to begin with, but have merely atrophied through lack of movement, and an unwillingness to bring things forward. There is perhaps one difference. A strength and also a weakness of Russell T Davies's version was his lack of interest in science fiction. Guest star Timothy Dalton described his aesthetic particularly well as 2001 one moment, Coronation Street the next. Scenes of alien invasion and monsters would be countered by nicely-observed details about mothers who check you've got the receipt when thanking you for a Christmas present. At its best, this technique adds verisimilitude, increases our affection for these characters and helps with the suspension of disbelief. At its worst, it can result in sloppy plotting. Stories like The Parting of the Ways and The End of Time felt right emotionally, with the characters, sacrifices and departures well-handled, but on a second viewing it is hard to tolerate the contemptuous way Davies handles the unconvincing McGuffins and the Doctor's breezy way of explaining how they work. For better and for worse, Davies was more interested in people than in science fiction. Moffat, on the other hand, is a geek. Let's clarify these terms. A major disservice done to SF/Fantasy is the way it is frequently confused with its duller brother, Geekery. SF/Fantasy is about the universe, the human race's responsibilities, morality, life, death, fear, wonder, (proper) science and different ways of seeing things. Geekery is about things which not only don't exist literally, but have no metaphorical value: bullshit science, people who come back to life after being killed off, different versions of time-travellers bumping into each other in different timelines and CGI "energy" emanating from people when the plot requires it.

In a work of Geekery, the text itself is fetishised: it might not raise any questions, tax the intellect or interest anyone other than fans, but at least geeks can watch it, and discuss who River Song really is, whether Batman and the Joker are mirror opposites of one another, what would happen if the Enterprise's transporters malfunctioned and what Yoda's midichlorian count is. It's a lovely way for nice, often wonderful people to meet, but that's that's the sole value. Few could argue convincingly that The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon or The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang have anything to stimulate the intellect, anything in the way of coherent, structured narrative, or a smidgeon of originality, but fans can enjoy debating who River Song is, whether the dead future Doctor can be saved, what caused the cracks in time, and why Amy's pregnancy is in a state of temporal flux.

These questions have nothing to do with drama. Let's not delude ourselves that we're talking about complexity here, either: admitting "I had no idea what was going on" carries an implication that this is because the scriptwriter was cleverer than than you, but as Chris Weston pointed out in Emine Saner's fine discussion of the show in The Guardian recently, a child's scribble may be hard to decode, but hardly complex. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mulholland Drive, Memento and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian are difficult because they're rich: there's more going on aesthetically than can be understood literally, hence the rewards gained by subsequent viewings or readings. The Big Bang, The Day of the Moon and The Wedding of River Song may be hard to follow, but they are also predictable, contrived, vacuous and full of plot holes. Guy Ritchie's notorious film Revolver is pretty hard to follow too, but that's hardly a case of more things going on in Ritchie's head than one can take in on the first viewing.

If Moffat has another idea, it's his wearisome take on Doctor Who as a fairy tale. He argues that Doctor Who isn't really science fiction, but a story that takes place "under children's beds". The supposedly subversive juxtaposition of fairy tales and modernity, and all those cute little truisms about how children prefer fairy tales dark, because it's the parents that want them expurgated, has been around for long enough now. In the years since Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment and the ascension of writers of "dark fairy tales" like Neil Gaiman into the mainstream, this has changed from a juxtaposition to a given. Is it really subversive to put monsters in a child's bedroom any more? Otherwise, Moffat has kept everything from Russell T Davies's version that so desperately needed to be jettisoned. . Let's look past the music that drowns out the dialogue, the desperate reliance on the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, the need for triumphant endings in which the monster is humilated as the music swells (The Day of the Moon was a big offender here) the rushed nature of the 45-minute format, the constant claim the whole universe will be destroyed only for a reset button to put if off until the next series and the dependence on monsters. Its biggest hindrance is the reliance on arc plotting. In the first Russell T Davies series, the words “Bad Wolf” were hidden in several episodes. This wasn't intrusive, even if it did hamper the end of the series with too much expectation upon one phrase. By the time of Davies's final full season this had grown out of control. Each episode would contain references to the fact that "all the bees have disappeared", disappearing planets and something called the "Medusa Cascade", and in the season finale the lucky viewers were told what these things meant. This "Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter A" style of television is a serious menace to quality drama, and the art of fiction itself. It's flourished in America, with shows like Desperate Housewives, Flashforward, Heroes, Lost and 24 teaching viewers to judge tv in terms of how good the thing they think might happen in the next episode will be, rather than how good the episode they just watched was. Obviously, we are setting ourselves up for a fall by convincing ourselves that these questions will be answered satisfactorily, but more worrying is the way that we tolerate mediocrity because we convince ourselves the finale will be triumphant.

It breaks my heart to think that while viewers of such 1970s season-closing Doctor Who stories like Inferno or The Talons of Weng-Chiang would be saying to one another excitedly "wasn't that good?", the current generation say to one another "what have we learnt so far?". Moffat has gone a step further than Davies by giving this arc fetish a face, in the form of River Song. River exists to tell us something more exciting will happen later on. She even uses "Spoilers!" as an intolerably smug catchphrase. When we first meet her, she is at the end of her life (though Moffat even fudges that by having the Doctor 'save' her consciousness and upload it to a virtual reality world where she can live forever - how did that get past the first draft?). The Doctor subsequently meets her at earlier and earlier points in her life. There's much emphasis on who she is, how often she's met the Doctor, what role she will play in his future, but is there really a character there?

Instead we get a lot of adolescent scenes of a vaguely vampish woman with a laser gun shooting people while exchanging cutesy flirtatious banter (her other catchphrase is the truly vile "Hello sweetie!"). Is there a single reason to care about her? What has she done except shoot people, flirt in a way that Moffat seems to think evokes Lauren Bacall but comes across like someone's drunken aunt at a wedding, and occasionally claim to be an archaeologist? It builds up to the single most disastrous plot twist ever devised: the revelation that River is Amy Pond's baby daughter grown up. Its meaningless is spectacular: it's too remote to make any emotional or metaphorical impact, and it doesn't actually alter this drab character or raise any questions. Even Amy's loss of the baby, abducted not long after birth, turns out to carry no emotional weight. Amy and her husband Rory go through whole episodes barely mentioning it, including the episode The Girl Who Waited where we meet a future Amy abandoned for 36 years: clearly post-natal depression isn't a factor in Moffat's universe. That this is supposedly because they've met River as a grown-up and know she'll survive is an extraordinary indictment of just how little interest in character motivation Moffat has, making a nonsense of the recent defence by one of his writers, Gareth Roberts, that the show was only a challenge for viewers to follow because of its "emotional complexity". Moffatt warned that this would be a "game-changing" cliffhanger, splitting the season into two while we supposedly waited in suspense, but what kind of game was this before, and how is this any different now?

When Moffat isn't focusing on what will happen at the end of the series, he's relying on cliches to sustain stand-alone episodes by other writers. Let's have a pirate episode. Let's have a vampire episode. Let's have a spooky hotel like in The Shining. Let's meet Churchill. This is the now rather congealed template laid down by Davies, who would present his writers with what he called a "Shopping list", believing that a cliche can sustain the atmosphere, characters and plot of a whole episode. The Lazarus Experiment in series three is the result of Davies specifying "Marvel comics" and "mad scientist" (the best of Davies's and Moffat's own earlier episodes, by contrast, delighted by creating their own tropes: rhino police on the Moon, clockwork robots obsessed with Madame De Pompadour, people whose faces turn into gasmasks, Ardal O'Hanlon as a catperson in flying goggles stuck in a traffic jam of flying cars. You've never seen any of those things before).By the time of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People on Moffat's watch, we've reached the stage where the show is too cliche-encrusted to have anything to say. This episode tackles cloning. A group of cloned "flesh avatars" of factory workers - used like fork-lift trucks for hazardous work - are inadvertently rendered sentient. Consider this heartfelt monologue by one of them:

My name is Jennifer Lucas. I'm not a factory part. I had toast for my breakfast, I wrote a letter to my mum [...] I am Jennifer Lucas. I remember everything that happened in her entire life. Every birthday, every childhood illness. I feel everything she's ever felt, and more. I'm not a monster! I am me!Me! Me! Me!

There's little verisimilitude here: The obvious points that any piece of science fiction on the subject of cloning have had to deal with are regurgitated. Blade Runner and Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go found more provocative, moving and artistically innovative ways of exploring this (even the trashy film Total Recall did far more interesting things with the concept of memories as the source of identity), but in MoffatWorld these films and books are as good as unread and unwatched. Without any interest in what has been done in this field before, or any desire to tackle it from a fresh perspective, all the show can do is run through a series of stock questions, supposed dilemmas and would-be surprise revelations for each subgenre - in this case, that a clone would have the same memories, that a clone would regard themselves as the same person , and a twist regarding who is the clone and who is the original. One can predict the same plodding results for any 'issue' the show tackles.

As for Vampires of Venice and The Curse of the Black Spot, what could one possibly find to say about them? These are episodes forged from solid cliche. Regarding the former, the first misgivings I experienced about Moffat's tenure were upon seeing a clip from it on a chatshow. We see standard Hammer-Horror vampire babes in the white night-dresses we all know they have to wear (because they're vampires, right?) , and the Doctor notices they have no reflection. Amazingly this is strung out, with the Doctor checking the mirror several times, as if it were genuinely shocking and dramatic, rather than a given. The latter is a pirate story. We know this because it's got pirate hats, and cutlass fights, and treasure, and a enchanting sea-siren, and pirates doing evil laughs, and a scene where the characters have to walk the plank. And the Doctor gets to say "Yo-ho-ho!". As for the tired "revelations"' in both these episodes that they're not really vampires or sirens after all, but aliens and a spacecraft's malfunctioning Medical computer respectively, one wonders how much longer series is going to rely on that cyber-Scooby Doo routine, done brilliantly in The Empty Child and The Girl In the Fireplace - Moffat's excellent first two stories for Davies's version - but now so predictable.

Why, then, are we hearing so little about this desecration, as one of the greatest tv series ever devised is reduced to something so snarmy, battery-farmed and philistine? Firstly, it's because there's a common assumption throughout all media that popular culture, unlike literature, is not worth intelligent critique - a problem exacerbated by the death of tv criticism. When Philip Roth publishes a novel, it's subjected to a plethora of reviews of widely varying opinions, and despite Roth's reputation few critics seem afraid to voice dissent. Mark Kermode and Kim Newman recently made the same point about this within days of each other. Newman observed on Twitter that when he expressed disappointment with the latest Conan the Barbarian movie, he was met with admonishments of the familiar "what were you expecting, Citizen Kane?" variety, while Kermode, promoting his book on the declining quality of Hollywood blockbusters, also observed that this excuse is used for the era of Michael Bay. Doctor Who fans face the same quandary: if we point out the script's limitations, the stock response is that it's only for children, it's only a bit of fun, what did we expect? The Wire? Dennis Potter? Stephen Fry, a fan of modern Who, unintentionally demonstrated this with his comments in the Q and A following his delivery of the 2010 BAFTA Annual Television Lecture:

The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults.[...] like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong.

What's interesting is not merely that Fry sees no gulf between Doctor Who and Merlin, but that even a fan of the show is under no illusions as to how far it is from intelligent drama. It's curious that it doesn't seem to strike him that Doctor Who might be surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong if it were better-written. The myth that you can't have ambiguity, depth and decent plotting because it might put off the kiddies should surely have been disproved after decades of the extraordinary work of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner.

The second reason is that Moffat is a cynic rather than an incompetent. Nathan-Turner's worst decisions: putting question marks on the Doctor's clothes to denote mystery, giving Colin Baker's Doctor a multicoloured costume, casting Dolores Gray as a 'celebrity' cameo for the 25th anniversary, bringing back a Cyberleader from a 1960s story with an unrecognisable costume and an unrecognisable voice but the same actor squeezed inside - alienated the public as much as the fans, hence the three seasons from 1986 to 1988 that saw the the entire show retooled and reformatted three times to try and counter the unpopularity of the previous season.

Moffat, however, knows how to push buttons. His Doctor is so carefully, almost admirably, tailor-made, it could be a brand name. Following the David Tennant model, it's the same mixture of cute good looks, with a patina of geek chic, vaguely professorish but not so much it would alienate the girls and still with the hint of an action hero beneath the foppish lock of hair (looking at Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in Moffat's other "take a tried-and-tested character and do it safely and cutely" show, one wonders if Moffat is growing thousands of these guys in a vat somewhere), the costume with its reassuring resemblance to Tennant's, the bowtie to remind us that he's eccentric without rendering him unattractive or unusual.

The Hartnell-to Eccleston Doctor (perhaps with the exception of Paul McGann in the 1996 American tv movie, a forerunner of Matt Smith's focus-group Doctor, both of them personifying the vaguest Platonic conception of Doctorishness) was a figure who embraced, represented and investigated the different. He wasn't always comforting, didn't always win everyone around, and wasn't a galactic celebrity. There's a terrific moment in 1970's Inferno when, during an ever-mounting crisis, someone says "That's not what the Doctor says", to which another character sneers "who cares what he thinks?", and the first speaker roars "I do: he talks a lot of good sense!" This moment is exciting and emotionally involving precisely because the audience has not been sated with details of the Doctor's nobility, and not that many of the cast have had kind words for the Doctor: the viewer feels an emotional pull as something important but largely ignored is acknowledged.

From Tennant onwards, the Doctor became a much more conventional, sanitised figure: an action hero, and a pin-up. When Moffat cast the 11th Doctor, after publicly hinting he would cast an older actor, he cast a younger version of Tennant, and built the the whole programme around the Doctor's ability to kick arse and monsters' realisations that they'd messed with the wrong guy. "If you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there's one thing you never, ever put in a trap... ME!!" he sneers at one point. It sounds like the Incredible Hulk (you won't like the Doctor when he's angry) and Liam Neeson in Taken, but not much like a non-violent, xenophiliac Timelord who regards fighting fire with fire as a contemptible human delusion.

The very first episode of Moffat's reign, The Eleventh Hour, ended with the Doctor defeating alien opponents by reminding them who he was, a bizarre moment of creative hubris Moffat previously succumbed to in Forest of the Dead, his last episode for Davies's version. And yet turning the Doctor into a cute but macho figure who might as well flash a badge to scare all disagreeables away makes a horrible kind of sense. When producer Piers Wenger, promoting the 2011 season, named Twilight as an influence, he knew what he was doing. It may have made your teeth grind if you cared about quality tv, but by God he knew what he was doing. The original Doctor Who was the show that tried. With no CGI, little time for reshoots and largely studio-bound resources, it attempted to create worlds inside your living room. It wanted its viewers to use their imaginations, not only to improve on the variable special effects illustrating compelling concepts (Robert Shearman, who wrote for the show in 2005, commented on a DVD feature for 1981's Kinda that it wasn't let down for him as a child viewer by the extremely poor giant snake because he could see that it represented a much more powerful concept of Evil. I prefer that to a piece of CGI that represents nothing, like Prisoner Zero in The Eleventh Hour) but to extend their empathy, to embrace the alien and reject the parochial. After making you believe that the secrets of the universe could be concealed in a police box in a junkyard, it tried to convince you that a race of intelligent reptiles found hibernating in a cave in Derbyshire were no more aliens than the human race were, that patriotism can blind as well as strengthen, that the world is more important than a country, that science beats superstition and that you should never be afraid of changing, learning, disobeying and growing. That's the little show that tried. Moffat's Doctor Who is the big show that doesn't need to try. If you don't believe me, get hold of a DVD of Carnival of Monsters, a Doctor Who story from 1973, and see how writer Robert Holmes relies on a protagonist and an audience with enquiring minds, rather than a macho action hero who scares away anything uncozy and an audience the writer is frightened of boring. Instead of reassuring pop-culture jokes every five minutes, loud incidental music to tell us what to feel and action-movie setpieces to keep the audience from watching ITV1, this story cares about atmosphere.

First the Doctor and his companion Jo arrive onboard the SS Bernice in the early 20th Century, only to find the crew's memory is affected and they are repeating the same actions Groundhog Day-style, while on an alien planet we a see a bunch of bureaucratic aliens bicker with a couple of travelling carnival performers as they attempt to bring a "miniscope", which miniaturises lifeforms and displays them in a zoological peepshow, through customs. The SS Bernice is attacked by a dinosaur. After escaping through a hatch in the ship, the Doctor and Jo find themselves in open marshland surrounded by ferocious wild alien beasts known as Drashigs, and realise they are in the Miniscope. The bureaucratic aliens squabble about the threat of infection posed by the lifeforms in the miniscope, only for one of one of the little creatures (the Doctor, of course) to break free from it, grow to full-size and berate them. This imperishable story creates worlds within worlds inside the viewer's head which will always be with them. It uses a child viewer's imaginative potential to question what's outside - not merely regarding Drashigs, but what's outside the realms of bureaucracy, xenophobia and cruelty to what seem to blinkered minds smaller creatures.

Try also 1977's The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a story which should, by rights, be disposable, being a mixture of every Victorian pulp cliche imaginable: a Fu Manchu style villain, a phantom beneath the opera (or theatre on this occasion) an evil ventrioquist's dummy, a killer praying on ladies of the night, a giant Rat, the Doctor in a deerstalker, a pathologist acting as an amiable Watson figure, a music-hall proprieter with a love of alliterative vernacular. Instead, our affection for the latter two characters - Litefoot and Jago - is allowed to increase, so that the story takes on a new dimension when they finally meet, and the explanation of who the shadowy Weng-Chiang really is (Magnus Greel, 51st Century war criminal, failed time traveller and "The Butcher of Brisbane") is allowed to let the story glide into a genuinely evocative and solidly imagined vision of the future. Magnus Greel, Jago and Litefoot are the heart and soul of the story, not the rat or the running around, and the sonic screwdriver is nowhere to be seen. One of the greatest scenes in Talons is the scene where Litefoot has been left alone with the Doctor's companion Leela, a savage from another world. The two have supper. Leela hurls herself upon the cold collation left out by Litefoot's housekeeper with the ferocity of her tribe. Litefoot stares, stunned but too polite to complain. Leela notices: "aren't you going to eat?" Smiling nervously, Litefoot delicately copies her eating habits, and attempts to offer her cutlery. Leela takes only the knife: "It's a good knife". No loud music is used to tell us this is funny and charming because it clearly is. Actors Louise Jameson and Trevor Baxter underplay the comedy, and the dialogue doesn't need to spell out the parallels with Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. We're in the quiet atmosphere of a Victorian drawing room getting to know these characters. If The Talons of Weng-Chiang had been done by Moffat and his team, none of these things would be so, but the giant rat would look better.

A third recommendation would be 1979's City of Death by Douglas Adams, possibly the greatest Doctor Who story: watch it and experience how a piece of writing so frothy and unashamedly light and funny is plotted, structured, acted, designed and directed with such attention, intelligence and respect, and how a frivolous little comedy can be so nuanced, so aesthetically rich and so full of ideas, patterns and rhythms that it never fades no matter how often you see it. This most tongue-In-cheek of all Doctor Who stories (though Douglas Adams hated that phrase: he worked at his comedy) seals off the excuse so commonly used for The Curse of the Black Spot and Vampires of Venice: "but it's only a bit of fun." That didn't stop Douglas Adams and Robert Holmes from writing brilliantly.

But while Adams and Holmes obviously outstrip anything from the Moffat era, let's remember something more surprising: Nathan-Turner trumps him too. Oh, his reign saw far more laughable stories than Moffat's, I admit, but, to adapt another piece of trailerspeak from River Song, he fell so much further and rose so much higher. His Doctor Who was brilliant one week, terrible the next, and I prefer that to the consistent standard of inoffensive, solidly-made mediocrity which distinguishes the current version. Nathan-Turner is best seen as the crazy old uncle who bequeathed you some wonderful stuff up in the attic - it hardly matters there's a load of broken coat-hangers up there as well. Years later, the best stories of Nathan-Turner's era - Ghost Light, The Caves of Androzani, Kinda, Remembrance Of the Daleks, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Survival, Revelation of the Daleks, The Curse of Fenric - continue to delight and surprise in fresh ways, whilst we're forgotting about Vampires Of Venice and Night Terrors as we speak (and who remembers the plot of The Eleventh Hour?)

Should Doctor Who be scrapped? Never: what's the point of replacing it with any other science fiction or fantasy series when it has the most versatile format imaginable: no fixed cast, a craft small enough to fit anywhere that can travel in space and time, and no limitations on genre. Its one recurring theme is the power of the imagination, both in its potential for creating new worlds in the head that linger, and for creating new ways of empathising, understanding and seeing. Doctor Who at is best was an anthology show: a gritty thriller about petty warfare and gunrunning (Caves of Androzani), a complex Buddhist parable on colonialism and evil with feminist undertones (Kinda), a blackly comic story about evolution and late Victorian Britain (Ghost Light), a witty tale of two conmen who pretend to sell people planets (The Ribos Operation): this show could give us everything. People often love their country the most when they're struggling under the dictator. One day, when Moffat's gone, a new version of Doctor Who will be made. It will be the best tv show of all time. It was before.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Some Objections to The Big Bang Theory

It's a cause for concern that SF writers are beginning to talk approvingly about The Big Bang Theory as a show that indicates how SF culture has become hegemonic. I noticed Kari Sperring suggest this during a panel at The British Library during the recent "Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as we know it" exhibit, while Paul Cornell suggested the same thing on his blog, and Iain Banks has admitted to identifying with Sheldon. Personally, I think the idea that this show represents a breakthrough for acceptance of fan culture - let alone SF or science - makes about as much sense as the idea that The Black And White Minstrel Show was a great moment in the history of race relations.

First of all, The Big Bang Theory is a thoroughly illiterate little show. There are references to Klingon Boggle, Green Lantern, the Incredible Hulk, HALO and Battlestar Galactica and cameos by Kevin Smith, Levar Burton, Will Wheaton and Stan Lee, but no references to JG Ballard, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe or Ursula Le Guin. The characters are supposed to be geniuses, and yet there's never any indication that they, or the scriptwriters, have read a book. The characterisation is inconsistent: anything that gets a laugh will do. Wouldn't someone of Sheldon's scientific ability be sceptical of the bogus science in Star Trek? One moment he's complaining that Babylon 5 "fails as science fiction", the next he's bemoaning the cancellation of Firefly, which has a good deal less science, and is a people-based drama of the kind of which Sheldon should have no understanding. Similarly, if he has no sense of humour, why does he say "What's not to love?" when someone mentions the sitcom Scrubs? The show confuses science geeks with SF fans (Even The Simpsons managed it a little better with its stereotypical and often problematic creation Comic Book Guy: he's no scientist, but a collector and consumer, with an MA in Folklore and Mythology).

This is because the writers are neither interested in science fiction nor in science: they like the contrast between a bunch of guys playing Klingon Boggle or playing with toy Incredible Hulk hands and girls putting on trendy outfits and going dancing. The people that write this show are the same kind of materialistic cynics that gave us Friends: indeed, The Big Bang Theory inherits that show's mantle as the most gender-essentialist thing on television. "This is what men are like," it tells its audience, "they like nothing other than computer games, comics and mainstream SF, which they discuss in an obsessive ritualistic way rather than holding interesting conversations about them, otherwise they talk in scientific jargon that girls can't understand, they're terrified of human contact and socially inept, they have no knowledge of the outside world, and the only other type of men out there are good-looking but untrustworthy, dumb or unattainable".

"This is what women are like," it tells its audience, "they are attractive, and wear nice, revealing outfits; they love shopping and going dancing; They've never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or Buffy The Vampire Slayer but have read Eat, Pray, Love; they paint their toenails; they believe in astrology and psychics; they keep falling in love with Mr Wrong and fall back on ice cream when things fall through with him; they don't know anything about science, Maths or SF but can 'name all the Kardashians'; on the other hand, the girls that are into science, who wear glasses, couldn't get a date at the Prom, were bullied at school, are comically sexually frustrated and aren't really feminine, are a different matter of course." Indeed, it's depressing how much Amy resembles Olive from On the Buses: the focus is either on her 'hilarious' bodily details (body hair, etc) or on her expressing  sexual desire and of course it being thwarted (with Sheldon in the role of Arthur.) If Raj is the most racist character on tv - part of a horrible tradition stretching from Hurree Ramset Jam Singh to Mind Your Language - then Amy is the most misogynistic. What makes Mayim Balik's performance and that of Johnny Galecki as Leonard increasingly hard to watch is the sheer contempt they exude towards the type of people they are supposedly playing, their mugging growing more concentrated and frantic as they make their characters apologise more and more for the failings of women and geeks as far as the writers are concerned.

Many people expressing dislike for The Big Bang Theory's UK equivalent, The Inbetweeners, have been met by the response "you've sooooo never been a teenage boy." Both shows colonise, insisting that there is no-one out there other than these archetypes. The world - not a secondary world created by the writers, mind, but the real world as far as the writers are concerned - consists of only these types and no-one else. A typical example of this occurs when Sheldon bemoans the choice of a motorised dirtbike as his childhood birthday present: "What 12-year-old boy wants a motorised dirtbike?" "er...all of them?" replies Penny. Whenever the possibility of a stereotype being untrue is raised, the script crushes it hungrily.

In the 1990s, there was a Channel 4 documentary on Terry Pratchett in which a fan tried to make the reasonable point that Pratchett readers "are not all 14-year-old Boys and they are not all called Kevin." Whoever made the programme then abruptly cut to one of the numerous fans at a book-signing. "For?" asked Pratchett as he took a book from him. "Kevin" replied the youth. It's identical to a moment in The Big Bang Theory set in the local comic-book store in which Leonard suggests: "Just because people are into comics doesn't make them weirdos." "What about the guy over there with the superhero t-shirt tucked into his sweatpants?" replies Penny. "Oh yeah, that's Captain Sweatpants: He doesn't really help the point I'm trying to make," concedes Leonard.

In The Inbetweeners, when the characters visit an old people's home, and one character instantly comments that old people smell, the other chastises him, there's a comic beat, and then he acknowledges that there is indeed an old people smell in the room. The same "denial of cliche/beat/reaffirmation of cliche" rhythm is then used to morally repugnant effect when he tries to engage one of the residents in conversation, urging his companions that there is nothing depressing about old people: "I think I've done a poo" says the elderly woman, the actress delivering her line in as dehumanised and sepulchral a manner possible. In this show, all cliches are truth. When characters in The Inbetweeners crack jokes about a teacher being a paedophile, you can bet that it will turn out he actually is one by the end.

The Big Bang Theory isn't as bad-natured as that, but it shares with its nastier brother a rule that any attempt to challenge a cliche will be brought back down to Earth, and it too is a show that reduces the world. Its opening title sequence tells us everything: we see a montage of the world's scientific history - the most interesting thing we ever see in this show - which zooms into an image of the five characters sitting in an apartment eating take-away food. The take-away food carton, like that vilely cute mirror-frame with the glass missing that hangs over the peephole in Friends, or the gigantic coffee mugs in the same show, is the perfect synecdoche for materialistic, flat-sharing, twentysomething values.

A genuine marriage of science fiction and comedy - as we find in the immortal The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the comparatively underrated and delightful Red Dwarf - enjoys playing with ideas. Regarding the latter, a beautifully orchestrated scenario in the episode Cassandra saw the Dwarf crew confronted with a computer that could predict the future in its entirety, leading not only to some delightful gags, but to questions on the nature of free will, and allowing the writers to once again construct their own narrative shape for a whole episode (as seen in Backwards, in which time runs in reverse, and Demons and Angels, in which the goodness and evil are extrapolated from Red Dwarf and personified).

Red Dwarf also demonstrates how a science fiction element can be used to explore the characters' personalities in interesting ways. The episode Terrorform saw the crew trapped inside Rimmer's mind, having to quite literally conquer his personal demons by telling him they really care about him, only to cheerfully admit lying once they've got out. Dimension-Jump saw Rimmer confronted with the nauseatingly heroic Ace Rimmer, a version of himself from a parallel universe with one difference (one of them was kept back a year at school). Incensed by the others' admiration for him, Rimmer clings to the assumption that Ace got all the breaks he never got, but before leaving Ace reveals to Lister that he was the one who was kept back a year.

Not only is this far more interesting than anything in The Big Bang Theory - raising questions such as whether choice rather than fortune is the cause of decency, and whether we can shape our own personality - but it demonstrates that such enthusiasm for ideas can make for far more affecting characterisation. The relationship between the members of the Dwarf crew is probed in Quarantine, in which Rimmer takes revenge for his shipmates' contempt by keeping them in a spurious period of quarantine, resulting in cabin fever, while the question of whether their lives aboard Red Dwarf as the fag-end of the human race are worth living is raised in The Inquisitor, in which a mysterious droid tries to fix the meaningless of the universe by deleting those he deems to have had worthless lives from reality, spelling bad news for two of the Dwarfers, and Back to Reality, in which the characters are told that 'Red Dwarf' was a total-immersion video-game and their actual lives are much worse. This is a genuinely existential show, interested in the plight of four losers In a cruel universe, struggling to avoid getting on one another's nerves while finding their search for aliens rewarded only by the detritus of Mankind's intergalactic ventures.

Hitchhiker's, too, is a meal of endless ideas: a device that kills you by showing you infinity and an arrow saying "you are here", a planet with a dust-cloud covering the sky whose inhabitants are so terrified by the revelation that there are stars concealed behind it that they are driven to multi-galactic genocide, and a ship powered by Bistromatics: the principle that numbers behave differently in restaurants to anywhere else (inspired by the discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount billed at the end of a meal).

By contrast, the writers for The Big Bang Theory prefer to have their characters discuss if Mrs Incredible from The Incredibles would need birth control or could use her elastic powers to form a diaphragm, or if Dick Grayson should take over from Bruce Wayne as Batman.

Provided you have no Seinfeld DVDs in the house, I see why so many find The Big Bang Theory a sunny enough way to spend 25 minutes (though less so when Howard, Raj, Bernadette or Amy are the only ones on screen), but its reputation as a show with the slightest interest in SF is ludicrous. It's well-made trash.