Sunday, 13 July 2008
THE NEW DOCTOR WHO AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND (Part One)
Exploring new frontiers of time and relative dimensions in lateness, here’s something about the Ecclestone era of Doctor Who – beamed in from the old print days of Lucid Frenzy. After the second part, something slightly more recent will follow. Try to imagine the title atop an imaginary Target novelisation, Daleks advancing across village greens and exterminating cricketers. Oh, and PS – Plot Spoilers!
The Time Paradox
It’s reminiscent of that quote from the Woody Allen film, about wanting our loved ones to take over the role of our parents – while simultaneously putting right every wrong thing we feel our parents ever did to us. But it’s also reminiscent of the scene from the Simpsons where Bart hugs the TV instead of Homer, because “it did more to raise me than you did!”
In short we expect the new Doctor to live up to every selective and over-inflated childhood memory we have of the old – while simultaneously souping up and revitalizing the show for our more discerning modern palettes. And then we go and invest a completely disproportionate amount of emotional weight on it succeeding.
Meanwhile, in counting up special effects budgets or measuring the wobbliness of sets, we simultaneously miss the point from the opposite angle. Just turning a Dalek’s plunger arm into a deadly weapon is like sticking a tail fin and cattle grille on an old banger. Without changing anything under the bonnet, you’re just weighting it down.
Perhaps the best thing the new series can do is sidestep the whole question, and encourage us to do the same. Like a rock star’s son, it has to cut itself free from the shadow and take to the stage in its own right.
Mirrors That Reflect
Besides, for all our nostalgism there’s a lot with the old Doctor Who which needs putting right. How familiar does this sound? An old boy with contrived eccentricities and some annoying kids turn up on some arbitrary planet. There reside some good but rather ineffectual guys, who turn out to be beset by some apparently effectual bad guys. They run around for a bit, then by episode six find out the bad guys are super-susceptible to something or other. Maybe it’s the rubbing of fingers on balloons, the seven times table being recited backwards, or something else along those lines. This dispatches said baddies screamingly, there’s a wheezing groaning noise and they’re off to do it all again the following Saturday.
The very professionalism of the Doctor’s philanthropy becomes a problem. He’s like a cosmic plumber, the bodily extension of his sonic screwdriver, never actually touched by the problems he solves. He’s like a space tourist, admiring the scenery but never actually getting out the car. The right hands saw this problem and made sure the situation reflected the inner state of the Doctor and his companions in some way. But all too often he was in the wrong hands, and became a cipher.
The new series strides in proclaiming its desire to fix this fault in our cosmic fixer-upper. As ever, Andrew Rilstone puts it well: “[Russell] Davies said that he wanted Doctor Who to be character driven. Or ‘emotionally literate’, if you insist… The main ‘fantasy’ plot can be quite silly, but this doesn’t matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. The End of the World was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a spaceship being menaced by a baddie, it was about the Doctor’s relationship with Rose.”
Once you grasp this central point you get the very advantage, not only of Doctor Who but of fantasy, SF, magic realism or whatever you choose to call it. In a soap, to reflect the character’s mental state you have their kitchen or front room. If they’re in a bad way, this room could look a bit messy. In SF you can build a whole planet up from scratch just for them. Its like comparing a fairground hall of mirrors with the mirror in your bathroom. One looks more interesting than the other, but that interest is based on the knowledge that its still reflecting you in some distorted way. Forget that and it soon becomes a gimmick or mere distraction.
No Direction Home – The Strange Death of the (Old) Doctor
Once you get the sense that this could all be going somewhere, then good plot construction can come on board. This means more than simple plot twists, such as the near-weekly notion that Rose must be dead… no really dead this time, no wait, there she is by the drinks machine. Several times it pulls the street magician’s trick of getting our eyes to follow him in one direction while he pulls the rabbit out from another. Returning to The End of the World, we start off thinking this is Rose’s story, about her exile from home. Then we’re hit with the Death of the Time Lords! The Doctor’s the one who can never go home! Whok! We never saw that left hook coming!
Once introduced, this ‘never go home’ theme becomes the main thread of the series.It’s not one that every episode hammers away at, but the more successful episodes tend to allude to it in some way. It’s a smart card to play for it has a metafictional dimension, which plays on the series’ nostalgism. In a very real sense the Doctor’s home world is dead – the family sitting down together and tuning in the paternalistic old BBC set, with honey still for tea. His reappearance conjures up associated memories of our own childhoods, also dead.
But it also has a deeper, more political dimension.The Doctor was the epitome of English enlightened paternalism. Shouldering the white man’s burden as he sorted out their problems for the Thals or this week’s gang of grateful foreigners. Yet there was simultaneously a genuine liberalism about him – a distrust of conformity, a celebration of difference, a faith in brains over brawn. Its scarcely a coincidence that the series’ classic era was the ‘permissive’ Sixties and Seventies, a moment of opportunity poised between the crushing rocks of the two Cold Wars.
But while the strange death of liberal England has dragged most popular media rightwards, Davies’ Doctor recoils to the left. Most episodes have some political subtext or other. Let’s take The End of the World again, seeing as it’s lying so handily where we last left it. It parries resurgent British xenophobia by exposing the absurdity of keeping Earth-race purity alive while the planet is dying. So far, reasonably traditional. Pertwee or Baker could have done all that. Other episodes push it a touch further, putting crop-tech dystopias against anarchist rebels (The Long Game).
But Aliens of London most decisively runs up the colours, which are no longer classic small-l liberalism. The real Prime Minister is usurped and locked in a wardrobe by shapeshifting profiteering alien imposters, only for the natural order to be restored and the golden age returned. In The Empty Child, the Doctor tells wartime London not to forget to create the welfare state. (Even though we all have.) For all its frenetic modernity and foregrounding of mobiles and internet connections, the New Doctor is Old Labour.
Try Satire and Some Take Ire
But perhaps the biggest leap is into direct political satire, undertaken most blatantly by the controversial Aliens of London. The significance wasn’t that the Doctor was put into conflict with some value embodied by the British Establishment (such as warmongering), but that he was put into conflict with the sitting Cabinet – or at least an immediately transparent stand-in. This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”
As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.
As for it being ‘un-Who’, perhaps so. Perhaps traditions are being undermined. But, if you’ll pardon the expression, who cares? For the post-war generation, sticking a Dalek spaceship in Trafalgar Square had a particular resonance. That’s why its variants could be repeated so often over the next twenty-five years without everyone switching off out of tedium. For us a flying machine crashing into a tower has a particular resonance, even when the tower’s the very un-twinned Big Ben. But it’s not the same resonance. The different image works upon us in a different way. We’re different folks and we need different strokes. New times warrant new approaches.
But if there’s no rule to stop the new Doctor doing satire as a genre, that doesn’t mean he can undo its own intrinsic flaws. This is less true of Aliens of London than of Bad Wolf, which mixes the old Pertwee episode Carnival of Monsters with Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics and then throws in a dash of the Truman Show for good measure. A parody of our TV-addled times is welcome, even from the TV, but going specifically for the Big Brother brand and the Anne Robinson quiz show is a mistake. It’s what turned the latter-day Simpsons to folly, seduced into toothlessness by the neatness of celebrity cameos. Animal Farm is not made a lesser work by the fact that Stalin never read Napoleon’s lines out on Jackanory. The first rule of satire is to never get too close to your target. Pissing on them works better that way. (Little capital is made from going for the brand names anyway. Giving The Weakest Link the death penalty is the throwaway gag you thought of the first time you saw it. More critical distance may have given more bite, not less.)
All Along the Telegraphing
But while the programme needs updating for our age, it can’t be taken too far or change be made for change’s sake. Can’t, but inevitably does. The old Doctor cuppa is put through the makeover cappuchino machine, and ends up tasting different but with a whole lot of froth to wade through. The first episode in particular gets things off to a very bad start, with lots of flip ‘ironic’ dialogue clearly tailored for the Buffy generation.
And of course on the back of this comes the hype. Which at best is harmless, and its even fun to see Daleks back on the cover of the Radio Times. But with the hype comes the telegraphing. You can run from this, but it’s hard to hide. For example, even if you didn’t read the hype articles it was hard to switch off the telly before the next-episode trailer. First the initial Dalek appearance was given this way, when it was clearly written to be a surprise sprung on you mid-way through the episode. But this was beaten hands down by the second Dalek appearance, given away despite being a cliffhanger twist delivered at the end of the next episode!
Of course you can get all meta-historical about this if you so desire. Legends and folk tales absolutely lack the concept of a first reading (and with it the concept of a twist or surprise), as they were normally recited communally. It would be like putting a twist in the middle of the Easter Mass. Even early novels had chapter-head summaries which existed solely to give the game away – “whereupon Jane discovers Mr. Rochester’s first wife to be still alive, quite mad and hiding in the attic” etc. But those things were written that way! Today’s stuff is written with the twists in mind, then spoils them itself!
Part Two will follow shortly…