Review 2006

Neil from Behind The Sofa asks:
Why is Doctor Who so disappointing all of a sudden? Is it down to age?

In two thousand and two when the prospect of a new television series looked completely impossible, I decided that someone needed to do something and after watching the film Jerry Maguire late one night sat down to write a mission statement, what I thought would be the model to follow if ever anyone decided to produce a new series. I looked at the kinds of drama series that were in production but also wanted to reflect somewhat the novels I'd been reading and the audios I'd been listening to. From April 2002 then:
A vision for the future of television Doctor Who:

Main Characters: The Doctor; Female companion; The TARDIS
Familiarity. Turn on your average post-Troughton story this is your set up. The companion explores the problem at hand, The Doctor explains and solves it. The average viewer isn't expecting three 'teenagers' and a robot. Better to give depth to one companion than to have two or three ciphers.

Six one hour episodes.
Clarity, attention span, budget. With judicious and careful editing most tv Who stories could be told in an hour - the audio version of Genesis of the Daleks which crams six episodes onto long play record proves this. Yes, it's nice to see Tom and Lalla running around Paris in City of Death but it doesn't exactly drive the plot forward does it? If Buffy can do it, so can 'Who'.

First episode - Cybermen. Last episode - Daleks (with cliffhanger ending)
Nice and familiar. Monsters, and monsters the public have heard of. Could redesign the Cybermen a bit, but keep the Daleks as pepper pots (that's half their appeal). Daleks in last episode not first so as not to show all your good cards.

In between, The Doctor takes his companion to see the first civilisations (Stonehenge, Ancient Egypt, even earlier) and the end of time (last surviving human, aliens trading the last human DNA remains). Episode set on a strange alien planet, episode on a starship.
The Hartnell era might be a good pattern to follow. So two sci-fi, one quasi-historical, one pure historical. Random order. I'd have the historical as episode two, sci-fi three, then follow in The Time Meddlers footsteps and sell the quasi-historical initially as a historical. Then Sci-Fi, then that Dalek story. Returns the show to unpredictability; the TARDIS guidance circuits have malfunctioned so he doesn't know (and therefore we don't know) where he'll end up next (that's real adventure isn't it?). Historicals potentially an easier sell now alongside the monster stories because the BBC are still so good at them.

Ignore continuity references, but don't contradict anything too much.
Base everything on what the general public probably knows - yes, we know The Doctor is a Timelord, but do we need some boring old episode on Gallifrey to prove the point? Only exposition relating to plot at hand then, and make the stories self contained. No need to keep referring back to 'the canon' all the time, but don't contract it. That way the old fans will be content that this isn't a re-boot, but the new fans won't start turning off in their droves when it becomes clear that they should have seen half a dozen old stories and read four novels to make the present story at all comprehensible (Attack of the Cybermen - aaaaaaaaaah!)

No romance, but lots of flirting.
See Pertwee and Jo Grant; Tom Baker and everyone (apart from Harry); whilst I personally had no problem with 'that kiss' this is a family show.

Family show, but scary enough to need a sofa
Everyone says they hid behind the sofa. Nothing wrong here - scary monsters and cartoon violence. But keep to the model of The Doctor using his mind to outwit his opponents.
Most that is common sense stuff but I'm still amazed, excited and pleased at how closely the new series matches my expectations. But for some reason during the second series, I began to find faults and cracks and although I was mostly loving some of the episodes I kept having a nagging feeling that I wasn't enjoying the series as much as I could be.

Before listing what these reservations are I do want to drop in some caveats. In no way is this supposed to be a 'the problem with Doctor Who article in the same vein as the Torchwood analysis I recently published. In relation to performances and production and direction it's as good as we could possibly have expected and it's amazing that you can now see kids in Forbidden Planet getting excited over a copy of Murray Gold's soundtrack, attempting to convince their parents to invest because it comes with a free badge. I loved the latest special The Runaway Bride and watching the special documentary on Christmas Day I had a lump in my throat.

I love the Tenth Doctor. David Tennant, being a fan himself, his performance is a believable amalgam of the previous nine and yet has still brought his own indefinable magic, which is backed up with writing that makes him thoroughly likeable. Author Paul Magrs has said: 'I was always pleased when the Doctor was content to blunder into things, let himself meet fabulous characters in that sweetly picaresque eighteenth century way of his' - he was describing the Eighth Doctor (the Paul McGann incarnation) but that's entirely true of Tenth, that carefree attitude that can switch to seriousness at a moments notice. Some have criticized the pop culture references, the Ghostbusters moment being particular dislikes, and some of the smugness, but above all the man is heroic and precisely what the drama needs.

The treatment of the companion has improved too and that's definitely a legacy of the spin-off culture. Rose Tyler had a life, a back story and a developing personality that effected her reaction to each adventure, changing more than just her costume across the seasons. This simply didn't happen before - Nyssa lost her family and home planet but this was hardly remarked upon again, at least not in an emotional way. Indeed companions would often join and leave in the most random of circumstances when the actors contract was up for renewal and often in stories that had little or nothing to do with their passing. The final episode of the last series, Doomsday was pinioned around the loss of Rose, written that way because the only way to split those two up convincingly was to stick them in different universes.

Like the first, that second series also brought some classic stories as good as anything the franchise has produced in any medium. No one saw The Girl In The Fireplace coming, distilling everything that's oddball and goofy about the concept whilst and the same time injecting passion and sadness. The story of the Doctor saving Madame de Pompadour, the French courtesan from clockwork men from the future using windows in time from a spaceship lacked the one line synopsis that most stories are dogged by but still managed to be exciting accessible entertainment. When the Doctor's heart was broken at the end, you felt it was because of the underplaying - he'd met someone who seemed to understand him but she was lost in time. It wasn't like the loss of Rose later in the series; they were friends but never equals in the same way that Reinette could be.

The problem with the second series is that these kinds of unresolved emotional arcs that cut the Doctor to the core were fewer than in the first series when the Ninth Doctor was at the centre. The Chris Eccleston model was still getting over the effects of the destruction of his home planet and as the season wore on it became apparent that a time war with the Daleks had led him to doing the deed himself. What this meant was that every story was personal; from trying to save the Gelth in The Unquiet Dead to fighting to save everyone in The Empty Child ('Just this time Rose, everybody lives!') each story had his struggle with guilt at the core and was about him dealing with being the only survivor of his race. In the second series, that guilt has lifted and so when he tries to deal with the problem at hand it's out of the goodness of his heart, his moral duty to protect the innocent.

But, and this is a big BUT, this has meant that there has been a move towards attempting to shoehorn in the sentiment to the extent that every story apparently needs to have an emotional crescendo. In some cases that really works - in Fireplace or School Reunion (and to a lesser extent The Runaway Bride), mainly because those are about the Doctor and his feelings. In the very worst cases, Fear Her for example, there are about three climaxes and there is a law of diminishing returns so that by the time the Doctor is lighting the Olympic flame it's just too much. Such climaxes are also drowned in music and in a Hollywood sense the chords are telling the audience how they should feel which can make some of us feel a bit disgruntled.

The other big problem is that given that the main characters have a time machine that can go anywhere in history or the cosmos, the broadcast adventures seem to spend a lot of time in London in the suburbs in the twentieth or twenty-first century, something that hadn't occurred to Davies until journalist Ben Cook mentioned it to him in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine. Much as I loved the latest Christmas episode, it's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to set it in some far future Christmas. Is (almost) present day Earth to be invaded every 25th December for as long as there are specials?

Elsewhere Davies has mentioned how impressed he is that at the dawn of the series, the Doctor and co would find themselves in a vast range of locations all of which were achieved on a very tiny budget, but for some reason, that hasn't been reflected in the new series, with the various comic strips and novels doing the really wacky experimental things instead (Love & Monsters a tale told from the point of view of a fan of the Doctor accepted). In short, why no pure historicals which are just about the Doctor plus one and the Police Box lost in history?

In 1999, Doctor Who Magazine asked a group of writers who were fans of Doctor Who what they thought the new series would be like. It's become a bit of a legend because they somehow managed to pick on Russell T Davies, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Gareth Roberts, all of whom would go on to write for the new series in some capacity (the other was Lance Parkin who hasn't yet been tapped despite having tv experience although it's rumoured he was asked but couldn't due to other commitments). At the end of the interview there are two telling quotes. When asked for final thoughts, Moffat says that 'the way you'd know you'd got it right would be if the 11-year-olds all jumped up and down and said it was the best show ever and all the sadder Doctor Who fans muttered that it was no longer serious adult drama like it was when they were 11.' Which is exactly what has happened. Seeing the kids at the Doctor Who Concert goggle eyed but genuinely happy to see all of the monsters and David and the clips from the episodes proves that actually so long as they're happy, that's ok.

All of these grumbles seem like small issues, all artistic choices reflecting the tastes of the current production team. That's always been the way of things with the franchise, each producer or editor having their own idea of what it should be and what it should be about and that's why we love it - none of it looks or sounds the same. The brief was about bringing the series back and making it as accessible by as wide an audience as possible and here we are looking forward to a third series, a rating success all round against stiff competition. The general audience expects a big emotional punch and the domesticity is born from a need to produce a series that reflects people's lives. They're never going to please everyone least of all us fans all of the time, but as the kid in Forbidden Planet being excited about the cd proves, it's not really about us. The final quote in that roundtable is actually from Davies himself and reflects actually how seriously he understood the undertaking: "God help anyone in charge of bringing it back - what a responsibility!"


Anonymous said...

Maybe because it's a TV show primarily aimed at children ?

Anonymous said...

No sorry incorrect, Doctor Who is a FAMILY show that is aimed at everyone like Strictly Come Dancing and The Two Ronnies.