Friday, 20 January 2012

The Doctor is not Chuck Norris.

(This was written after the broadcast of Moffat's first season. There's the odd bit of overlap with my later Moffat piece, like the Inferno quote)

There’s something that the current Doctor Who production team, need to be told: the Doctor is not Chuck Norris. He really isn’t. He wasn’t when Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, David Whitaker and company created him, he wasn’t when Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks and then Phillip Hinchliffe/Robert Holmes reinvented him (granted, their Doctors were closer to Chuck Norris then the first two were, but they still weren’t Chuck Norris, give or take the odd bit of Venusian Akido or twisting Scorby’s neck). The Eric Saward-era Doctor may have been closer than was comfortable, but that was down to laziness. It’s true Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor had a touch of Chuck Norris, which became a problem in the New Adventure novels, and while in many ways the 2005-onwards version jettisoned this, it was probably 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks that set the precedent. And since Forest of the Dead, the writers of the new series have tended to confuse the Doctor with Chuck Norris. And that’s a shame. Because when you think about it, the Doctor really isn’t Chuck Norris.

It’s probably obvious I’m thinking of the website “”. One in particular reads: “When the boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris" (apparently it’s Chuck’s favourite). This is strikingly similar to a line in Paul Cornell’s New Adventures novel Love and War, in which the Doctor declares “I’m what monsters have nightmares about.” Steven Moffat - who once suggested Love and War when asked in DWM which Doctor Who story he wished he’d written - was taken enough with this line to sample it in his episode The Girl in the Fireplace (mentioning its source admiringly on the episode’s online commentary). A version of it (“Are you frightened of monsters?” “No, they’re frightened of me”) reoccurs during Moffat’s first series as show runner (in The Hungry Earth), which was quotable enough to use in the previous episode’s “Next Time” trailer. It’s all very macho - monsters don’t mess with Moffat’s Doctor if they know what’s good for them.

Remember that in the old days - at least until Remembrance - it was taken for granted that the Doctor wasn’t perfect - he made mistakes, and he couldn’t gain everyone’s trust. There’s a wonderful moment in 1970’s Inferno when Greg Sutton points out “that’s not what the Doctor says”, to which the Brigade Leader sneers “who cares what he thinks.” Sutton snaps “I do - he talks a lot of good sense!” This little moment is gripping and affecting because we the viewers know damn well that Sutton is right, but find ourselves shouting it, over the noise of Stahlman’s drill. And in case you think that audiences don’t like their hero to be less than the demigod surrounded by adoring pilgrims that RTD and Moffat have developed, remember that DWM’s favourite story poll saw every 2005-onwards story beaten to number 1 by 1985’s The Caves of Androzani, and isn’t the extraordinary charged drama of those four episodes built around the irony that we - and Peri - know how wonderful the Doctor is, but no-one else in that story does? But then Remembrance - while a superb piece of tv in itself - comes along and establishes that the Doctor is always in control, that the Daleks are foolish to even consider messing with him, and that he will not merely outwit each foe as he meets them but set in motion traps for cosmic destruction - maybe even genocide. It’s interesting here to compare its climactic scene with that of 1976’s The Brain of Morbius. In Remembrance, the Doctor declares:

This is the Doctor. President Elect of the high council of Timelords, keeper of the legacy of Rassilon, defender of the laws of time, protector of Gallifrey. I call upon you to surrender the Hand of Omega and return to your customary time and place.

The line “I am far more than just another Timelord” was, at least, rightly cut from this speech, although a few weeks later it was done more crassly in Silver Nemesis. In Morbius, on the other hand, the Doctor, believing that Morbius’s brain has been kept in a fishtank for far too long (and dropped at least once) challenges the villain to a mind-duel. “I am a Timelord of the first Rank - what are you?” scoffs Morbius, to which the Doctor replies: “nothing - a mere nobody.” And indeed he loses the duel - his point was that Morbius’s damaged brain is not up to the exertion of winning. He challenged Morbius purely because it was the right thing to do, not because he was a being of awesome power with whom Morbius was foolish to mess. Similarly, in the same season’s Pyramids of Mars, when the Doctor is powerless before Sutekh and responds to interrogation with “I renounce the society of time lords. Now I’m simply a traveller”, there is again no hint that he’s downplaying his identity - the Hinchcliffe production team see him as a traveller who just tries to stop wickedness. Pyramids is thrilling because the Doctor comes close to dying - he tackles an enemy far greater than him, and he wins. Remembrance - superb though it is - suffers on repeated viewings because there’s no possibility of the Daleks winning, leading us to ask: where’s the tension?

Moffat’s episode Forest of the Dead marks the next turning point. The idea of the Doctor as “Time’s Champion” from the New Adventures had, mercifully, been ignored by Russell T Davies (The Ninth Doctor’s description of himself as the “Oncoming Storm” of Dalek legend in The Parting of the Ways might be a nod to the “Ka Faraq Gatri” idea behind the New Adventures and 1990s Dalek comic strips and novelisations, but you get the sense that Eccleston’s more vulnerable Doctor is saying it to pull some weight with the Daleks), but this story saw the Doctor defeat the monsters by reminding them who he was. It wasn’t entirely inconsistent with Moffat’s earlier episodes - The Girl in the Fireplace had the aforementioned Love and War quote, while The Doctor Dances ended with the Doctor able to bring everyone back to life (which was triumphantly moving in that episode precisely because it’s the one thing that can’t normally happen in a Doctor Who story - Eccleston’s heartfelt “just this once, Rose, everyone lives!” seems less poignant now we know the Doctor will be doing it again in Forest of the Dead). It was, however, a disaster, which should never have got past the first draft. Firstly, it’s a get-out clause, an exceptionally lazy and unimaginative way of concluding an adventure story. Secondly, the idea of unquestionable authority is ethically dubious. Instead of being taught that wickedness can be fought by effort, decency, improvisation, intelligence and by seeing things from a different angle, children growing up with this dumbed-down version of the Doctor are being taught that you shouldn’t worry about monsters because the Doctor will deal with them and his authority is total. He might as well just flash a badge. It’s especially worrying at a time of increasingly trigger-happy tactics by British police, defence of torture by the US, and a highly dubious war. This is not a time to bring up children to believe in infallible authority - is that really what Doctor Who stands for?

Moffat’s next Doctor Who work - which saw him become show-runner - would use this idea as a touchstone. The Eleventh Hour climaxes with the Doctor warning off another alien race by reminding them who he is. This time it’s done in far more detail - they discover by scanning the planet that he is the person responsible for repelling all invaders, and instantly find images of his face following that of each invader, as if they’d typed “aliens - and who kicked their asses” into Google Images - it’s oddly like the moment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Zaphod enters the Total Perspective Vortex, which normally kills you with the shock, only to find out he is actually the most important thing in creation. The difference is that here the hubris seems unintentional. The episode ends with a trailer for the rest of the series that showcases the Doctor warning (in the cliff-hanger to The Time of Angels) “If you’re smart, 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!!!”. It sounds an awful lot like the Incredible Hulk’s “don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, it sounds a little like the voiceover on a trailer for a Batman movie, it reminded me of the catchphrase “Big mistake!” from the much-hated spoof of macho action-movie excesses Last Action Hero and it even sounds a little bit like the Shaft theme music, but it doesn’t sound much like Doctor Who. For pomposity like this, it deserved its Graham Norton cartoon.

In the penultimate episode of that series, The Pandorica Opens, Moffat gathers more old villains than ever before, putting the Doctor in a situation greater than any of the previous finales. What does the Doctor do? He reminds them all who he is. “Remember every black day I ever stopped you!” he warns. Then he challenges them to “do the smart thing - let someone else try first!”, and because none of them have the guts, their ships all fly away (they settle for sneaking up on the Doctor later, and then putting him in a box instead of killing him, for reasons which have so far escaped me). Remembrance’s “return the hand of Omega!” scene was the forerunner, but here it’s done with practically every monster the Doctor has ever faced.

What’s really worrying is the thought of where all of this will lead. Forest of the Dead also gave us River Song, a character who exists to tell us that things will be getting more exciting later on (“Spoilers!” has actually become a catchphrase of hers. Again, one is reminded of the Graham Norton cartoon). River tells us that the Doctor will become a superhero, one whose power dwarfs that of the Tenth (and this was a guy who’d scared off an alien invasion force with a Satsuma, imprisoned aliens in supernovas for all eternity, cured a group of patients infected with every disease known to man and jumped through mirrors on horseback), who only has to click his fingers and the TARDIS doors will open. At the end of the episode, Tennant clicks his fingers… and the TARDIS doors open. You see where I was going with the Chuck Norris allusion. “Chuck Norris has no CTRL button on his keyboard because Chuck is always in control.” If the Doctor clicks his fingers, doors will open.

Doctor Who should be open-minded. The Doctor should be a moral will-o’-the-wisp, moving to different situations, considering different viewpoints, trying to understand different environments, helping the show to raise more questions and ideas than realism-bound shows can. He needs to make mistakes, to be vulnerable sometimes, to struggle to find answers rather than have fervent admirers hand them to him (even UNIT salutes him now). Neither the show nor the Doctor should be predictable or safe, but unfortunately safe is exactly how you feel when the Moffat-era Doctor is around, with a Sonic Screwdriver that, thanks to Cold Blood, can now knock weapons from his opponents’ hands.

Whatever monsters are out there, they’re going to end up making a mistake. They’re going to mess with the Doctor. Bad move, pal. You just wait till he gets on your tail. (“’Cause being this is a sonic screwdriver, the most powerful magic wand in the universe, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question - do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?”) With the Doctor around, there’s nothing to worry about at all, really, is there?

TV Shows You Mustn't Forget #2: Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet (nothing to with the film of the same name) was a six-part series for Channel 4 broadcast in 1998, the work of writer-director Joe Ahearne. It was ostensibly about vampires, but bore the same relation to True Blood, Buffy and Twilight that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does to In Like Flint. Superbly written, directed and acted (well, except in one key area, which we'll come to), this show demonstrated precisely how such a thing should be done. Every damn inch of it it was what Torchwood should have been.Ultraviolet took a schlocky premise - vampires exist, and always have, and there are people whose job is to hunt them - and played it absolutely straight, making the absurd plausible. It centres around a sinister, Catholic Church-backed police unit who track down vampires with Father Pearse Harman (Philip Quast) as its enigmatic, taciturn leader, haematologist Dr Angie Marsh (Susannah Harker) as its scientific brains, and Vaughn Rice, (the terrific Idris Elba) a gulf war veteran who had to kill his fellow soldiers after vampires got to them, as the muscle. Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport) is a police officer whose best friend Jack (Stephen Moyer, who went on to do True Blood, but trust me, this is better) has been turned. After Michael has staked him through the heart, Pearse offers him a job, which he must balance with fending off the attentions of Kirsty (Colette Brown), Jack's fiancé who wants to know where her husband-to-be is and what Michael isn't telling her, while all the time wondering if he's on the right side.

The show doesn't get bogged down in endless glorification of how macho and above everyone the organisation is. Instead, the four characters are presented as getting on with their job. The word 'vampire' is never used. The Code 5s (code V- geddit?) are 'neutralised' with carbon bullets or wood to the heart, and their ashes are placed in metal tubes and filed away. The Code Vs can't be seen in mirrors, pictures or videos, and their voices can't be heard on any audio equipment. The sound of a Code V speaking on a phone via a computer's speech software programme is frightening because it is both new and real, rather than a gothic cliche.

While Doctor Who and Torchwood go overboard with their attempts to persuade us this is really happening (tv news footage, reports from abroad, celebrity cameos and reactions from religious nuts, protesters or politicians), Ultraviolet relies on a few well-chosen words to create verisimilitude. Pearse's line "Our free-range days are over" and his talk of culling, asking Michael if he really thinks it's a coincidence that the fire of London happened after a plague, sell this concept in the same way that Doctor Who and Torchwood's respective use of clips of Paul O'Grady discussing the moving planets on his show and police refusing to charge people with attempted murder because people have stopped dying really don't sell theirs.The show preferred tension to special effects: the scene where Vaughn is trapped in a warehouse with four caskets on synchronised timelocks containing Code Vs is infinitely more exciting than anything in Torchwood or Battlestar Galactica. You also won't find in those shows a single moment of acting as good as Idris Elba's tour de force in this scene alone, conveying fear, rage, resignation and then determination so believably that you'll breathe a sigh of admiration as well as relief when it ends.

Pearse has non-hodgkins lymphoma: how brilliantly and subtly Philip Quast sells this, in comparison with the wishy-washy way Roslin's disappearing cancer is dealt with in Battlestar Galactica. The contrast between his ilness and the escape from mortality the Code Vs represent is beautifully underplayed. Susannah Harker is also exquisite as conveying so much through so little. Her husband and daughter were both turned, so Pearse 'neutralised' them. Watch the look on her face when she considers letting Michael revive the ashes, and consider what a hammy mess Torchwood's Eva Myles would have made of it.

Torchwood's idea of a good guest star was James Masters - Spike off of Buffy - because... well, hey, it's a SF show and everyone knows Buffy was an important SF Show, and the Buffy fans will be delighted, especially if we make his character resemble Spike. Ultraviolet's idea of a good guest star was Corin Redgrave, for the more eccentric (and nowadays abandoned) reasons that he's a fine actor and that this is a drama series which deserves actors good enough to increase the tension and add depth and shading to the concepts being examined. Redgrave's unforgettable appearance as Dr Paul Hoyle, the first Code V the team capture, in the last two episodes owes more to Patrick Stewart's appearance as the Russian spymaster Karla opposite Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than to Lucy Lawless turning up on Battlestar Galactica for an episode.The scenes of Angie and Pearse interrogating Hoyle are powered by the knowledge that Hoyle is a friend of Angie's neutralised husband - he argues that he and her daughter are still the same people despite their conversion - that he can tempt the ill Pearse with immortality and that he enjoys an existence free of Pearse's God or afterlife. Here are the pain, tension and ambiguity that we find in proper drama, as opposed to the "doing unimaginative, generic stuff with hunks, babes and robots but hinting every now and then that it's a bit like the 'War on Terror'" school of shlock-posing-as-drama that Battlestar Galactica fans mistake for the real thing. Wondering what Pearse says in the confessional when he takes sanctuary following the interrogation (was he tempted?) is so much more worthwhile than wondering who's a Cylon or if Starbuck will win her latest CGi battle, and these three marvellous actors achieve far more in handful of scenes than a full season of Adama and Tigh arguing ever does.

Much of the best tv SF is made by people setting out to make drama instead (and succeeding). The wonderful first five or so seasons of The X-Files - the strongest influence discernible on Ultraviolet - were a testament to his. The team behind them avoided cliche, cast interesting actors, directed, lit, edited and scored with subtlety, made every character an interesting human being, and above all made each monster-of-the-week very, very real. It too was a show in which special effects were beside the point: it was the scripts, acting and direction we were hooked on. This wasn't escapism, but decent tv. SF has become far more prominent in the current decade of television than the 1990s, but only thanks to infantilising itself (and when it's not infantile, it's adolescent). Ultraviolet feels adult in a way that Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood could never be. Consider the show's treatment of abortion and paedophilia. The scene in episode 3 where a woman pregnant with a Code v embryo goes in desperation to an abortion clinic, only to realise it's a dubious pro-life organisation that attempts to talk women out of it, would have been done very differently by Torchwood. The pro-life woman working in the clinic would have been overplayed with gusto, numerous sick jokes would have been made, and the character would be reduced to a caricature bigot, while the whole scene would have had a smug "religion is terrible" message. Here, although we share the woman's horror at the pro-lifer's sickly piousness and her feeling of entrapment, we feel that the pro-lifer is a person, and that these are two characters with different viewpoints, rather than one character with a viewpoint and another purely there to be despised.

The fourth episode similarly portrays paedophilia as an all-too-believable horror rather than a demonised one. A local paedophile and his routine are portrayed with the same matter-of-fact, unflinching efficiency we'd expect from a police procedural show, while the gruesome idea of a paedophile who has discovered that his victim, being a child-vampire, has no innocence and therefore cannot satisfy him (or be filmed) is played entirely straight. Compare this with the dreadful casting of Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes in Torchwood, in which he leeringly talks about how he loves it when his young victims run from him. This is salacious, cynical, adolescent television, which hasn't got a clue about how things like paedophilia or Alzheimers (I mention that because I'm thinking of an even worse episode of Torchwood in which Owen is depressed because his girlfriend is diagnosed with "early onset alzheimers", only for it to turn out to be an alien squid hiding in her brain) affect human beings. The difference is that Ultraviolet is for grownups.

It had one flaw, sadly: Jack Davenport's miscasting. He's inoffensive, but gives the same hangdog performance here he gives in This Life (which ironically would have fitted in on Torchwood) and Coupling. He is convincing neither as a police officer (in the scene where he has to ask a class of school children some questions following an incident, I found it hard not to notice that the PC who used to come and address my primary school had more gravitas), nor as the audience's identification figure (he's supposed to be a voice of reason between the fanaticism of the Code Vs and the scarcely preferable fanaticism of Pearse, but hIs performance seems modelled on Neil from The Young Ones and Harry Enfield's Kevin the teenager). Having three steely, no-nonsense and frankly terrific actors like Elba, Barker and Quast as his costars is tough on Davenport: every time Elba informs him where they're going next you keep expecting him to reply "like I'm bothered, man" and go up to his bedroom to paint his walls black and write in his journal that no-one really understands him.

People coming to Ultraviolet for the first time will have to deal with the sinking realisation that there's no more of it. When I showed it to my dad, he said plaintively during episode 5 "I can't believe they didn't make a second series of this!". However, does a masterpiece need a second series? It's beautifully structured, beginning and ending with Michael's friendship with Jack, and its carefully cultivated sense of ambiguity as to whether Pearse or the Code Vs are the more dubious side. All six episodes were written by Joe Aherne; had a second series gone ahead (bearing in mind that Ahearne was - and indeed is - also a busy working director) other writers might have been required, and we might have seen what Ultraviolet looked like with weak concepts, padding, predictability, repetitive plots or inconstant characterisation. In the first series, there's one writer, and he really knows what he's doing.So do get hold of a DVD of Ultraviolet (and again, remember there's an unrelated film of the same name to avoid) and relive the six weeks when British tv still made SF for grown-ups