Thursday, 17 July 2008

THE NEW DOCTOR WHO AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND (Part Two)



Click here for Part One

Two Hearts to the Doctor

It would be tempting to try and split this tension into some Doctor vs Rose dichotomy, presenting the old Gallifrean as uneasily cohabiting the Tardis with some “happenin’” street gal from Streatham (innit). Something like the Simpsons episode where Itchy and Scratchy get Poochy dumped on them because he’ll appeal to “the kids”. Certainly, the Rose subplots are at times the most annoying and the least Doctor Who-like. In The Empty Child, for example, the Doctor gets caught up in some genuinely creepy goings-on with a gas-masked kid, while Rose puts on a trendy Britpop T-shirt and employs the whole of the BBCs CGI department for no discernable reason before bumping into the equally gimmick-prone (and ceaselessly annoying) Captain Jack.

But that would be more neat than accurate. To see past this, we have to somehow see past Billie Piper and get to Rose as a character. In Dalek for example, Rose plays a pivotal role, effectively telling the Doctor how things are done on his show. It’s even arguable Rose should be seen as the central character. Not only is the first episode called Rose but the last is Bad Wolf, after her nomme de plume. Perhaps, like Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, New Who is really the story of an ordinary girl who did extraordinary things.

Besides, the Doctor doesn’t always behave absolutely like the Doctor here. As a character, he is famously reluctant to resort to violence. He has two hearts rather than two fists. For example, in The Empty Child he mentions replacing a weapons factory with a banana plantation – “I like bananas.”

But let’s take the episode where the Doctor acts the most un-Doctor – the aforementioned Dalek. This pulls a similar rug from under us as End of the World. At first it seems to be about the conflict between the Doctor and the cocksure arrogance of millionaire collector Van Statten. The Doctor explains the Dalek will kill everything it encounters because “it honestly believes they should die.” The Dalek’s like a snake or scorpion, living out its nature. Van Statten, conversely, is the underbelly of human society – a spoilt child wanting all the toys for himself. The drama is wrought from Van Statten not heeding the Doctor’s warnings. But slowly we come to realise it’s about Rose, about her telling the Doctor not to become what you fight. “Look at you”, she tells him, as he finds himself holding a heavy-duty ray gun.

All very effective… except the Doctor has already had his persona blunted by too close an association with today’s he-man heroes, who mix right with might so often we’ve almost forgotten there’s any other type of character. Seeing him pick up a weapon loses some of its impact when we’ve already seen him guide missile strikes and the like. Captain Jack may be intended as an action man for the Doctor to counter-balance and overrule, but it rarely works that way in practice. At times it just feels like he’s contracting out the he-man stuff.

The true dichotomy at the heart of the series between Davies’ ‘man out of time’ vision and the supposed demands of today’s ‘yoof’ audience. There’s a Doctor Who where Davies’ childhood nostalgism mutatred with his more downbeat adult sensibility, and produced a dark meditation of alien-ness and exile. But there’s another where Davies got boyishly excited to play with all the action figures – hence the struggle. As Davies himself put it: “Right from the very first meeting, the BBC said to me ‘early Saturday evening, six or seven o’clock’ – and that has decided what the show is.” Most of the endemic weaknesses almost everyone has seen in the series – the lack of extended stories, the rushed and over-neat endings, the preponderance of Earth-bound settings – come from this source.

Of course, the BBC’s populist instincts may well have been correct in themselves. It’s worth pointing out that Davies’ dark vision of exile wasn’t really ‘old Doctor’ either, and could have turned into one of those cult classics which you and I loved and no-one else watched. What’s important to note is that the old Doctor was part of an era where it was more possible to straddle such contradictions, indeed where such an ability was regarded as one of the very foundations of broadcasting. For today’s narrowcasted times, things are much harder.

We Demand Narnian Wardrobes and Lucky-Dip Landings!

…and there’s another (associated) piece of traditionalism that should never – repeat, never – have been thrown out. In the ultimate rule of if-its-not-broke-don’t-take-your-sonic-screwdriver-to-it, the Doctor should not be able to control the Tardis! This rediscovery of the time-flight manual may well have been brought in to allow for the preponderance of Earth-set stories. Though there’s allusions to adventures on far stars, the furthest the on-screen antics get from our home planet is a couple of satellites around it. Davies has openly said the Saturday-night-at-six-or-seven-o’clock audience might not take the Quadrillian quadrant or whatever, so he was more prone to set events in central Swansea instead. A working Tardis might explain why they keep coming back to the same place week after week. If so, this was a mistake built to justify another one…

Of course the Tardis is like a microcosm of this, or for that matter any other, successful series. Apparantly occupying only a set amount of schedule time, it gives the optical illusion of being bigger than it looks – hinting at other offshoots and adventures which we never see but tease at our imaginations. But as any stage magician will tell you, for optical illusions to work the audience mustn’t look at them too hard.

There are functional reasons for a random Tardis apleanty. For one it keeps the box in the background, where it belongs. It works best as a Narnian wardrobe, enabling another adventure then sitting quietly in the corner until its end. (The corollary rule to its uncontrollability is that only the Doctor and his chosen assistants ever get to go inside it – a rule which gets broken just as often and just as annoyingly.)

For another, it stops the Tardis being a get-out-of-trouble-free card. A go-anywhere-at-any-time box which is by-the-way indestructible needs a pretty hefty chunk of green kryptonite to counteract it’s power. Without any of this it becomes either a story-extinguishing deux ex machina plot device or a time-paradox worrying tooth, with neither a path to go down. After I’d had this thought episodes appeared to encapsulate both these ideas, which marked the twin low-points of the first season. Fathers Day (the one with Rose’s Dad) nominally blamed the death of the Time Lords for it’s ultimately nonsensical timebending games, but it was the souped-up Tardis which (literally) drove them to it. Boom Town (the Slithene-in-Swansea episode) took the opposite tack and ended up in perhaps even a worse place. It’s bizarre to think we’d complained about deux ex machina endings before this gormless literalisation of the concept, where Tardis becomes just another word for God. We truly didn’t know when we were well off.

Finally, and most obviously, the lucky-dip landings make for a perfect source of stories – like the Tardis is a dressing-up box without a bottom. But there’s more than plot functionality afoot, and this takes us closer to the heart of it. The Doctor’s nomadism, his exile from his sedentary race, is the very nub of who he is – the endless itinerant, the astral traveller… (If you really can’t guess where this is going, it gets revealed in the finale.)

But the contradictions of Davies’ two vying approaches (as alluded to earlier) cut straight across this heart. Returning once more to The End of the World, imagine how much more poignant Rose’s plight would be if she was not just a visitor to a strange time but marooned from home. Her Earth would be as dead to her as surely as the other Earth was dying before her. Her calls to her mum on her astrally-assisted mobile could have become a regular feature. As the years travel go by her mum’s still inside the same afternoon she left, asking her what she wants for tea that night. The mobile, the totem of street-girl empowerment, would paradoxically come to underline her isolation. But this is Saturday-evening-at-six-or-seven-o’clock, and there is time for none of that.

The Re-uniting of the Ways

You really want to know how Doctor Who it all is? There’s a simple measure. Listen to the theme tune! Music is often drama’s skeleton key, the element they assume you’re only taking in subliminally. The new theme tune has strings added, this is true. They are annoying, an unnecessary intrusion to the cold electronic beauty of Delia Derbyshire’s original. But then it could be worse – they could be higher in the mix! With a little effort of will, you can even block them out. How high those strings are in that mix is a barometer of how watered-down the concept has become.

But, as the saying goes, who cares? Though everybody inevitably measures this Doctor against their childhood favourite, he should most sensibly be compared to his nearest neighbour – Sylvester McCoy. This despite the fact that so much is nicked from the McCoy era – modern tough-gal assistants and flying Daleks – then labelled as new by the hype machine. But, while the McCoy era could throw up some good ideas, it mismanaged them. This incarnation rediscovers and makes more of them. Though it’s anti-traditional ruthlessness is often pushed too far, it’s still the right direction to travel. And thank the Tardis for what it isn’t – a perfectly preserved museum piece.

Besides, in many ways this series takes things back to basics. For all his years of going anywhere and being anyone, the Doctor must have something at his core. In fact the series’ endless flexibility only makes it more vital that this core remains inviolate. Who – who really – is the Doctor?

Andrew Rilstone defines him as “an essentially non-violent character who solves things with his mind.” Fair enough in itself. But the Doctor is more than a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, asserting brains over brawn and subjecting mysteries to rational explanation. A brain in the wrong hands is just as much a weapon as an exterminator stick. The Doctor has an enlarged brain, true, but more crucially he has two hearts. He’s called ‘The Doctor’, has magician-like ‘assistants’, travels astrally. Science is merely his magic. He’s a shaman and an alchemist, and the thing he’s ultimately about is transformation. He’s even given to transforming himself from time to time.

Evil in his universe tends to be less an absolute force and more a product of the misguided or misunderstood. It’s less about kicking bad guys and more about healing the sick. In The Empty Child, for example, the malevolent monster disguised as a child crying for his mummy turns out to be nothing other than a child crying for his mummy.

The fans might baulk to hear this, but the character can only time travel as well as the script writers allow him. Unless this new series is made for us, about our time, it’s a waste of our time. Its conceit is to present something that’s about now but to aim for the audience of old – the universal, family audience of long-lost liberal England. It finds that audience more fractured, less homogenous than in the past. So it presents its main character as lost, the last of his kind, fighting battles others have forgotten. The adventure is on. Just as he journeys to heal some imaginary alien society, the Doctor must spin stories whose telling re-bonds us, which heal our society. If that sounds like a tall order, then small wonder the failures are frequent. But adventures are not made to be easy. And there are successes in there too.

“You need a Doctor”, Christopher tells us in the series’ finale.

Damn right we do.

2 comments:

  1. jim from round the corner19 July 2008 01:14

    Hi Gav

    Are you saying, as his comment 'don't forget to invent the welfare state' suggests, that the Doctor is the cosmic equivalent of social democracy??!!!

    I know I'm being thick, but I don't really understand all this deus ex machina stuff. You'll have to explain it to me sometime.

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  2. No, that was Blake’s Seven.

    It’s Latin for cheating.

    Let’s say, for example, you had some character in imminent danger from... oh, I don’t know... Daleks. Then imagine they get rescued by some other character appearing out of thin air with a great big Dalek-blasting gun, with no prior indication they were out there or preparing to do such a thing.

    Of course no-one would ever do such a thing. At least not in the final episode of a major Saturday night TV show. And never one broadcast on 5th July 2008. They wouldn’t dare. It’s just by way of an example.

    Literally it means ‘God out the machine’, because so many Greek dramas would end with God winched down on a crane (hence ‘machine’) then busily resolving everything. Cure the blind, banish the bad and make sure the class nerd got it on with the Prom Queen. (I may have made the last one up.) Almost by definition it’s a disparaging term, suggesting God is being used as nothing more than a handy contrivance. Justice from a jack-in-the-box.

    Bizarrely, Davies was already drawing flak for this lazy and hackneyed device when he started to employ the term literally. First the Tardis got to be God (Boom Town), then Rose (Parting of the Ways) then most recently Donna. Whos’ next? K9 as the deity, anyone?

    I’m not even sure how it was supposed to work. Surely she should have only gained powers equivalent to the Doctor’s, which didn’t seem to be doing him much good at the time. I guess by that point internal logic had ceased to be even a nodding acquaintance...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_Machina

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