Monday, 10 June 2013

“I'LL EXPLAIN LATER”: BELATED THOUGHTS ON THE MOST RECENT SERIES OF 'DOCTOR WHO'

Yes, okay, this is terribly late. And bits 'n' bobs from it first surfaced in mailing comments left hither and yon. Apologies who gets a 'watching Dave' sense while reading any of it. A slightly more sensible look at 'Name of the Doctor' resides here.

Even now, there's points where it resembles a show I might want to watch.
For I would be happy to tune into some free-form thing, a kind of ideas generator on overdrive, throwing out a succession of surreal incidents which you're never sure whether to find funny or creepy. An updated 'Avengers', a jazzier, poppier 'Twin Peaks' rejigged for teatime, a less sketch-showy 'League of Gentlemen.'
I would then have watched a girl phoning the IT helpline and getting through to the Middle Ages, or a Victorian street urchin giving directions like Satnav, and not worried about what any of these strange segues actually meant. They were just there to taste. And there's times, when you're trying your damnedest to make it add up, you feel the show looking at you disdainfully – like that's so squaresville, daddy-o.
But then five minutes later we're being nudged in the ribs and asked “did you see that bit, eh? Are you getting it?” There's clues to watch out for, mysteries to be resolved and prophecies to be fulfilled. (Prophecies, always plenty of prophecies.) I mean, it's called Series 7B for heaven's sake! What sense would Series 7B have made in the old days? When a new series meant it was on the telly, and not-a-new-series meant it wasn't. Some time ago Moffat coined the phrase “I'll explain later.” At the time we all thought he meant it as a gag. Now I'm not so sure.
In wanting it both ways I can't help but feel that it ends up neither place. It's wrongfooting itself. And a lot of it's branches stem from those snapped roots.
Think of those infamous cop-out endings, when everything gets sorted out with the discovery of a magic leaf that can helpfully save planets or a handy reset button lobbed aboard the Tardis. Maybe they don't only do it to annoy or because they know it teases. Maybe things now have to have some sort of stitch-up anti-resolution like that. How else can you escape from a painted corner, except decide you were never really in one in the first place? Nothing can be satisfactorily clicked shut because nothing fitted together to start with.
One persistent advantage of the new show is the way it's consistently avoided entangling itself in it's historical continuity and cutting itself off from new fans. Take for example the return of the old adversary the Great Intelligence. It's not only those who have seen the old Second Doctor episodes who will know what he's up to. True, nobody knows what he's up to, as he chops and changes arbitrarily from one scene to the other. But at least that's levelling.
However, in a classic case of out-of-the-frying-pan, Moffat's through lines have instead been threatening to entangle it in it's new continuity. Thankfully, there's a welcome reigning-in of these. Each episode is mostly self-contained; only's Clara's mystery is kept running, threaded through things, only occasionally coming out on the surface before burrowing down again. Unlike River, Clara herself is innocent of any of this, so can fulfil the old assistant role of saying “what's that Doctor?” a lot, rather than “spoilers”. A casual viewer stumbling across the show, however befuddled by the gobbledegook thrown at him from within that episode, would at least not suffer too much from what surrounded it.
But pruning back that bindweed also serves to expose how repetitive each episode is becoming. The best episodes in Series 6 were the incidental ones – 'The Doctor's Wife', 'The Girl Who Waited' - who slipped through the through-lines' grip. To take the second example, it didn't explore Amy's back story or develop her relationship with the Doctor. But it was never intended to. Instead it reframed it, it saw something already existing from a fresh angle, and then...most importantly of all... it left. Now it seems any notion, once coined, has to be absorbed into the DNA of the show. Wasn't there an episode recently where we found out more about the Tardis? Did that go down well? Then, hey, let's have ourselves to another one!
And worse, those repetitions are becoming unmoored from their original context and made as shufflable as cards. We're being told things we've been told before, only this time (like Eric Morecambe's piano playing) not necessarily in the right order. I seriously considered taking the sentences from my previous reviews and rearranging them so they no longer make sense. For that's pretty much what's happening on the screen.

Take for example that Tardis episode, helpfully titled 'What It Says On the Tin.' (Actually, it may have been called 'Journey to the Centre of the Tardis.') However sympathetic I am to noted Who sage Andrew Rilstone when he argued such a journey is a fool's errand undertaken by a know-nothing, I'd have to concede a salvage crew invading the Tardis is in itself quite a good idea.
It's still taking incongruous elements, but this time getting them to work for you. Like creative miscasting, the salvage crew think they're in they're in some 'Dark Star' dirty SF universe, blue-collar blokes getting their overalls mucky in some space truckstop. But they're actually in a fairy story, and when they try to steal the magic object (made of stuff not meant for man to hold, and all that) the magic house responds by losing them in a labyrinth. Tooled up with hardware, they can blow down any door. They just can't find one. It also effectively underlines what kind of show we're watching, and even works in an in-joke over those repetitious corridors of old. (I'm not sure how I feel about it being black guys who don't belong inside the fairy tale world, but aside from that...)
But then the sub-plots arrive as if they've been double-booked. The human/android schtick is not only filched from 'Blade Runner', but apparently by someone who has had no more contact with 'Blade Runner' than having it recounted to him by a pub drunk. Who probably hadn't seen 'Blade Runner' himself...
Even if we were to accept it cohabiting with a fairy story, 'Blade Runner' is emphatically not about replicants becoming human but humans becoming replicants. (Remember how the original release had a happy ending? Remember how that turned out to be grafted on by the studio? Remember how that surprised absolutely nobody?) While we also get ossified creatures on attack mode who are pulled from 'Sunshine'. Similar to above... A shopping list of ideas, told to hold hands, jump on stage and hope for the best.

And this remains true even with a better episode such as 'Cold War.' There are no prizes (not even no-prizes) for noting it's a remix of 'Dalek'. It shares the same concept of armour as mask, the creature finally emerging from within as an objective correlative of it's 'true' nature being revealed. True, the photocopy gets blurry in places. Clara's encounter with the chained foe happens because Rose's did, even though one has a reason to and the other clearly doesn't. But 'Dalek' was a good episode so even a blurry photocopy of it kind of works.
Well... kind of. It then greedily eyes up 'Alien' and tries to combine all the above into the classic base-under-seige story as a bone thrown to fans of the old show. (It foregrounds it's 'old idea updated' by picking an early Eighties setting, a point the old show was not only still on but still popular.)
But, needless to say, none of the pieces really fit together.
That solitary Dalek doesn't skulk in the shadows of some confined space, occasionally striking out. Instead it acts as though it has never seen any Howard Hawks films at all. Inside some vast high-tech complex, It's constantly detectible to well-equipped guards, who get ample time to stake out defensive positions. Yet, though there's a whole lot of everything to stop it with, nothing works and it wheels inevitably forwards. The episode is built around the irony that, with all that power imbalanced its way, the force-fielded Dalek is inside starting to feel self-doubt.
Meanwhile the Ice Warrior kills two men just to work out how they tick, then turns out to be basically a nice guy after all. It's like 'Alien' ended with Ripley and the monster shaking hands and making up. It has, in a literal sense, no integrity because it's not sewn from whole cloth.


Good, even novel ideas can still crop up. The central conceit of 'Hide', that what appears to our senses as a ghost is actually a woman stuck on time-delay, is in itself quite a brilliant one. And like the Tardis corridors it has a metafictional subtext, suggesting the monster-menaced girl is the default setting of the Whoniverse, like the kernel inside the nut. Yet it's not really capitalised on. If we're intended to think of it as the centre of the Whoniverse it's not really the centre of its own episode, but just another passing carriage in the parade.
'Hide' would of course fare much better without that final twist, which was actually more of a compound fracture. I should admit part of my frustration was my being wrongfooted by it. With the heavily underlined Seventies setting, and the clear-cut division of labour between the equipment-fixated science bloke and the psychic, empathic woman, I assumed we were in for some kind of feminist story. And, naturally enough, I liked my idea better. Even so, yet another love story seems very much a second option.
Yet what really galls isn't that they're love stories, so much as the kind of love stories they are. They always seem so instructional, the equivalent of those old public safety films. Much as they laid out the importance of looking before crossing roads or not going swimming where there's no water, these tell you to look the girl in the eye and tell her how much she means to you. It's like the scriptwriters see us the way zoo keepers do pandas, in need of a great deal of coaxing if we're ever going to get breeding. Perhaps they're worried if they don't do this there won't be future generations to watch the show.
Worse, this exemplifies a wider tendency. Watch the old show and you're soon surprised by, for a family show of it's era, how dark it can be. Now there's a kind of feelgood goo which suffuses everything, a goo which acts as a kind of glue intended to stick all these ill-fitting elements together. Did any of that actually make any sense? Never mind, didn't it make you feel gooood? The classic example would be the leaf, but that's so annoying I wouldn't trust myself to start on it.
When I was a lad and all of this was fields, instead of DVD box sets and i-player catch-ups we had Target novelisations. Which had the line on the back cover about “the changing face of Doctor Who.” Let's concede straight away that the old show was forever getting stuck in corridors, for all that the uber-fans don't like admitting it, but there still felt something about change in its DNA.
Which raises the question, with this speeded-up product upgrade, how come we are spending so much time looking at the bloody stuck face of Doctor Who? How can a show whose supposed selling point is it's openness and flexibility, it's ability to renew itself, end up stuck on repeat like this?
My two favourite seasons of New Who have been the very first one and the first Moffat season. And my favourite individual Doctor is the glorious Ninth. Not solely because he had the foresight to depart after just one series. But at the time time it doesn't exactly seem a coincidence.
Much like comics, TV is often the poor relation of other media. It would ape films, hopefully televise plays or expectantly adapt novels, hoping some of the kudos would rub off from that more select company. And now you can catch up with it at any other time, it's become almost in competition with itself. When you can watch it anytime, why bother watching it now, on Saturday night? The solution they've come up with is Event TV, much like an 'X Factor' final is Event TV. You just need to be there.
We've gone from...
“Did you see Doctor Who on Saturday night?”
“Of course I did! It's the Seventies. There's bugger all else to do.”
...to...
“Did you see Doctor who on Saturday night?”
“Well I was going to go down the pub and stream it later. Then they said they'd finally reveal who River Song was, so I stayed in to catch it. Turns out she's what everybody had been saying she was all along. The internet was cross. I wonder who the Silence can be?”
The old Doctor was just some traveller, who journeyed across a rather under-budgeted universe, righting wrongs cheaply. It has just enough mystery, enough sketchy references to bigger contexts at something bigger to entice children with over-active imaginations. But the new show was billed as some sophisticated new thing for our new times, which would be done newly.
It was as if it had grown up in parallel time to us, like an old school friend we met again as an adult. You might reminisce about the old times. (“Remember how 'Trial Of a Time Lord' went on for bloody ages and then just gave up on itself. My, how we laughed!”) But only to underline how new were the new times.
Now it's like we happily agreed to meet for a beer, which ended up with his crashing on our sofa for the past six months. And we can't help noticing he keeps saying the same things over again, in a slightly different order. They don't really sound as clever as they used to.
As I said when the show first came back, they've changed the credit sequence. They've added stuff to the cold electronic beauty of the theme tune, which was perfect and complete the way it was. But the old theme tune was still in there. Now they've changed the credit sequence again. Now they've changed the credit sequence more. There seems less of the old show than ever. Come to think of it, there seems less of the new show than ever...
Coming soon! Plays! Gigs! Visual art! All guaranteed belated...

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