TV Here we are then, one week to go before the fiftieth anniversary and the moment to take stock. Back in, well I don’t actually remember which year this was back in, when dvd producer Dan Hall announced all of the available material would be released on dvd by 2013 and I decided I’d collect everything ready to watch and listen to the whole of Doctor Who in that year, little did I realise that (a) there would be seven years worth of new material to add on at the end along with two spin-off series, that (b) the amount of “available material” would also grow during the process, oh and that, (c) I’d actually be both still interested in Doctor Who and (d) have the time for various reasons to fit the whole endeavour into about twelve months.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a few contingency plans. So that (a) I began a little earlier with the pilot on the day it was recorded then the first episode on the forty-ninth anniversary, (b) beginning before all of the available material had been released which led to lengthy gap while I waited for the dvd of Reign of Terror and buying the original edit VHS of Terror of the Zygons because it had shifted in the schedules. (c) was less of a problem because each new release brought even greater curiosity as to how the programme stayed on air for all those years and my unplanned hernia operation (yes, I had a hernia operation) (by the way) which left me bed ridden for most of September with little to do, and in the mood to do, but watch Doctor Who, which meant (d) was perfectly fine, as am I now.
There were also a few ground rules, because you must always have ground rules, I think. Firstly that I wouldn’t be blogging the endeavour, not this time. For one thing, the brilliance of this and this rendered the whole idea pointless, and I knew that Who 50 was already going to be enough of a challenge and unavoidably informed by it anyway. So instead I’d simply mark progress and post boring comments on Twitter if I needed some catharsis. Sorry about the two days of Torchwood’s Miracle Day madness. Secondly, that where possible I’d only listen to the missing episodes on audio unless a recon(struction), thanks to the vagaries of release/deletion schedules was the only way of experiencing an episode.
My only companion for the duration (apart from my hernia) would be the production subtitles, the often thoroughly researched text commentaries included on almost all the classic dvds, providing information about the stories providing a welcome distraction during dramatic longueurs and leading to some scenes having to be rewatched due to having become wrapped up in a behind the scenes anecdote when something especially important was happening on screen. Most of these have been provided by Richard Molesworth and Martin Wiggins, with Richard Bignell, David Brunt, Nicholas Pegg, Andrew Pixley, Jim Smith, Paul Scoones, Stephen James Walker and Karen Davies filling in the gaps.
Watching enough of these in this concentrated a period meant I began to see stylistic similarities peculiar to each author, Molesworth with his block capitals transcriptions of alternative drafts and dialogue, Wiggins with his helpful inclusion of Radio Times synopsis and ratings at the beginning of each episode, Brunt and Smith with their hilarious asides. Sometimes I kept myself entertained trying to guess which of the contributors had provided a given commentary like a spoddy You Bet contestant, though it’s fair to say my strike rate would not have seen celebrity guests Dickie Davies, Richard Digance or Kate Robbins leave with any money for their chosen charity assuming they hadn’t bet against me.
If you’ve never seen a story with these subtitles turned on, do so as soon as you can, though be warned they’re as addictive as Doctor Who itself can be. Just as detailed as the Doctor Who Magazine Archives and Fact of Fiction articles, they also have the added bonus of being able to talk the viewer in detail through the nuts and bolts of production. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the process of rehearsing a whole episode across a week then recording it on a Friday night didn’t change until well into the Pertwee years when it changed to two weeks of rehearsal then two episodes recorded on successive nights which, again, was still the norm right into Tom Baker’s first year when it shifted to set by set. The subtitles educated me.
But the process of watching all the series in broadcast order for the first time as opposed to the random approach the modern viewer usually has is educational too. Only then do you notice that with a few notable exceptions, for much of the time Doctor Who is pretty good, meaning that every series and season has its fair share of rubbish, average and excellent stories, even in those eras when the scripts might as well have been typed on gold plated paper or the producers were reputationally taking a dump on the concept for the series and that for all the knocks the Moffat era’s been receiving, it’s not unusual that a series might encompass something as wrongheaded (literally) as Nightmare in Steel and brilliantly entertaining as Hide.
If nothing else all of this confirmed that to an extent I’m as much a fan of the production side of the programme as the programme itself, of the drama inherent in simply getting the thing on the air. Knowledge of that also means that it’s near impossible to actually decide what an “era” is in Doctor Who terms, the broad chunks that it should be separated into. In merchandising terms its usually by Doctor (the Pertwee era). Fans tend to demark things by producer (the Hinchcliffe years). But there’s also an argument to be made for script editor or decade or production method or even whether an episode was made in colour. Such things inform our appreciation of the franchise.
After what’s probably still Doctor Who’s finest ever episode, my approach to the Hartnell era was much the same as slow cinema, to simply sit back and let images wash over me, unless it was only available on audio in which case it was whatever images my imagination was in the mood to create. To that end, both The Rescue and Marco Polo were confirmed as my favourite stories of the era and I was reminded that that what the years produced by Lambert, Wiles and Lloyd lacked in budget more than made up for in their desperation to try new things, the restrictive definitions of the kinds of stories the show could and couldn’t tell not having been defined yet. Only in the wilderness years did this level of experimentation return.
It’s during the Troughton era such definitions began to take shape, the often restrictive and ponderous need for a monster in every story, the death of the “pure” historical, that most stories should be split between the “alien invasion” and “base under siege” genres (sometimes both at the same time) and at the very end the removal of some of the Doctor’s mystery, by naming his race and giving him a home planet. All of which is easy to forgive thanks to the peerless performance of the actor in the central role but also to miss because so much of that performance can only be heard and not seen see. The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were still largely audio adventures when I reached them. I can’t wait to see what they look like.
It’s fair to say the biggest disappointment of what ended up being called #whowatchorbust on Twitter was the Pertwee years simply because in this concentrated form I began to realise just how awful the third incarnation of the character is, with his patronising, paternalistic, patricianistic approach to everything and the horrible way he treats the Brigadier and Jo (the sandwich affair) and how he certainly causes the deaths of innocent people in a more insidious way than the Master who at the very least signposts his villainy by looking like a villain. Plus there’s a not overly successful attempt to explicitly politicise the show when it had trundled along quite well implying its philosophy. The Green Death is still unrivalled however.
Thank goodness that the month spent in the company of Tom Baker reminded me just how much I loved him then and still do. Throughout the #prodsubs indicate to the viewer when Baker had changed a line and on almost every occasion made it better, otherwise terrible stories like Underworld and The Sun Makers made entertaining simply because he’s there. Despite everything that was happening in the real world (discovering I had the hernia and what to do about that), watching the Baker years was certainly my happiest even in his final year because I noticed for the first time the rapport he had with Matthew Waterhouse, his character and Adric and the disappointment of not seeing that develop further.
My appreciation of the Davison era, or lack of, didn’t change much. By then, because I didn’t want to be watching his successor’s adventures during my recuperation (and didn’t) I was thundering through stories and travelled from from Castrovalva to Androzani in about five days. Mostly I was reminded just how tiny a scaffold of original material supports the spin-off material, Davison and co’s Big Finish contributions having well outstripped their original appearances. Of all these eras, it’s here we can see the “pretty good” approach to the making of Doctor Who, with Kinda in the same year as Time-Flight. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t time for the main characters to be written in anything approach a unified way.
The Sixth Doctor era’s still rubbish and thank goodness the whole thing was short enough to only take three days and that included sneaking in radio's Slipback. I polished off The Trial of a Timelord in a Saturday. Everything which tends to be said of it is true with the Sixth Doctor an even less likeable figure than the Third, the ponderous, endless TARDIS scenes because of the forty-five minute episode, the general lack of coherence. Whilst its true that it contains one of the franchise’s best ever cliffhangers (episode one of Vengeance on Varos) and committed performances (Colin tried his best), it’s a rudderless thing that doesn’t know what it wants to be any more so …
… thank goodness for Andrew Cartmel who steered the series back on track even if the ratings were too low for anyone to notice. After Time and the Rani (which does at least have Kate O’Mara doing an impression of Bonnie Langford which is never loses its mix of horror and hilarity), the show entered its strongest three years of production, perking me right up even as I wasn’t able to move much other than to eat meals, go to the toilet and change the dvd. Whilst its true that some elements are of the time (Keff off) in seeking to turn the show into a kind of televisual 2000AD, Cartmel reduced the importance of the monsters, noticed that the invasions and bases could be in unusual settings and returned some of the mystery to the central character just in time for cancellation.
All the while, as well as official, broadcast Who, my one concession to the spin-off world was AudioGo & Big Finish’s Destiny of the Doctors which I listened to within chronology which indicated just how accurate some of them have been invoking that chronology. This also meant that as well as the TV movie, the Eighth Doctor was represented by Alan Barnes’s superb Enemy Aliens, a Buchan pastiche bringing together 8th with (still my favourite companion) Charley again, albeit through India’s reading during which you can almost hear the moment when she remembers just how much fun the earliest appearances of the character were. I’m certainly not done with the Eighth Doctor. Expect the reviews of the comics and audios to begin next year. Maybe.
Then, time compressed and within a couple of hours of Survival and the TV movie I was deep into the Eccleston era which when watched in such close proximity, for all of some of its innovations feels very much like a tonal continuation of the Cartmel era presumably because of Russell’s admiration of the New Adventures which had as its spine “masterplan”. The mystery is back and it’s all about what the Doctor’s withholding from his companion, albeit because he’s trying to psychologically deal with the horror himself having wrought on his own people the same fate as the Daleks in Remembrance. Apropos of nothing, the pizza conversation in The Parting of the Ways is one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in all of Who history.
Just to make things a bit more interesting and so more difficult, I decided to watch nuWho utilising the viewing order I posted on the blog in July, slipping between the Tennant episodes, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures and for the most part discovering that indeed Russell T Davies et al had been meticulous in how the various sections worked together only now and then effected by the shared world problem of wondering what Torchwood was doing during some global catastrophe being dealt with by the Attic gang and vice versa and just why the Doctor only seemed to drop in at various points. Even Planet of the Dead seemed to make some sense this time around albeit because I was following the Doctor’s narrative order.
Torchwood’s problem are still writ large most of it barely watchable in the traditional sense. My coping mechanisms included turning the audio commentaries on for the first series (generally pretty boring unless Russell or Julie are involved) and tweeting through most of everything else (sorry again for the Miracle Day madness). The cabinet scene in CofE: Day Three is still its high point even though it has nothing to do with the stars but the actual high point are the Radio 4 episodes when the show seemed to become much more relaxed in its skin, told some “pretty good” stories and in The House of the Dead arguably gave the show its finest three quarters of an hour thanks to its twist ending and heartbreaking denouement.
Heartbreaking for a whole different set of reasons is The Sarah Jane Adventures simply because it ended too soon and for the wrong reasons – I couldn’t watch the Lis Sladen tribute on the BD. Bits of it are as good as classic Who but even more than Torchwood it also fulfilled the franchise maxim of presenting a fair few duds to compensate, not least Secret of the Stars. Having not enjoyed most of Phil Ford’s earlier instalments on broadcast, I was pleasantly pleased to find myself loving Enemy of the Bane with its final appearance from The Brigadier. You can certainly also see that Davies had decided Luke was gay pretty early on; we don’t see the easy comedy of Luke misunderstanding girls or relationships at all.
As far as I’m concerned, Tennant’s still above criticism, he was a tremendous Doctor (though it’s important to stress Eighth is still my favourite) but something of a transitional figure in terms of the Time Lord’s identity. If the Davies era is about anything it’s about the Doctor embracing whimsy again, of utilising toys, sweets and disguises in his adventures, of getting to a point when he can wear a bowtie and mean it rather than the lifeless prop of the man he isn’t in Human Nature. He’s almost embarrassed by the clockwork mouse in The Doctor’s Daughter and the Ghostbusters debacle could be seen as him trying whimsy, trying to get back to the man he used to be, and getting it wrong. Only once he’s put Gallifrey to rest and …
… regenerates does the bowtie fit, is it cool and here I am in the thick of the Smith era awaiting its end. It’s here that the reconfiguration of the franchise during the wilderness years is enunciated most clearly and usually in the less showier stories like The God Complex, which manages combine Resnais-like surrealism with a quite powerful discourse on belief systems. Rita’s bravery in death and the Doctor’s destruction of Amy’s faith in him are two of the few moments I really cried during this whole project, Murray Gold’s music a destructive force as is Smith’s acting when he has his “convincing” voice on, when he’s trying to make someone work against their own nature.
If it hadn’t been for my hernia, I wonder if I would have finished, not that the hernia was in any way part of the plan. I’ve completed the fans right of passage, looked into the Untempered Schism and escaped unscathed and escaped still a fan and with the ability to understand more of the in-jokes which I missed having not paid much attention until the early noughties. But I’m not more or less of a fan, though its fair to say it’ll be a while before do it all again with the commentaries turned on or work my way through the dvd documentaries or continue with the Eighth Doctor era. Perhaps I’ll just enjoy the new episodes as they’re broadcast for a while, after I’ve caught up on dvd releases which have gone unwatched because they emerged out of sequence.
Do I want to revisit any of it, now that I don’t really have to? Unlike some fans, I’ve never been someone who thinks “I’m in the mood for The Horns of Nimon tonight” or some such (is anyone?) because there are so many other new things to see instead. Watching nothing but Who for twelve months plus has meant I’m well behind on all kinds of other television, not to mention books and music, far more than I’d ever be able to catch up on even with a TARDIS. I presume I’ll simply carry on buying and watching any new dvds (can something still be described as a “lost episode” if it’s on Amazon?) and enjoying or bitching about the new series and thinking about this year with the same fondness as this, this, this, this and everything mentioned here. In 2013, I did that.