Saturday, 7 December 2013

DOCTOR WHO: NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF 'AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME'


Regular readers [insert regular gag here about non-regularity of readers] will have grown used to this sort of thing. Being not a proper review at all of Mark Gatiss' dawn-of-'Who' docu-drama 'An Adventure in Space and Time', this piece will fail to mention that it was in many ways quite good. It was neither too dry nor too jazzed up, too reverential or too derisory, and balanced the requirements of casual viewers against fans. It evoked the era reasonably well, an era which now feels about as foreign as Skaro, even filming at the old BBC Television Centre shortly before it was summarily closed down. I for one probably enjoyed it more than most of Gatiss' actual contributions to the show.

It does occur to me that there's an inherent problem with docu-dramas - you're always wondering what's docu and what's drama – what's true and what's simple license. Here for example, after the ill-fated 'pilot' episode, William Hartnell complains the Doctor has been made too abrasive. Did Hartnell really spot that? Or did Sidney Newman really threaten to axe the title sequence? All the time you wonder things like that you're being pushed out of the drama, not concentrating on what's happening on screen.

Docu-dramas normally work if there's an urgency to the topic which a straight documentary wouldn't convey, such as Paul Greengrass' 'United 93'. (A compelling film, for all that its barmily right wing.) Or they exploit those contradictions, so you become absorbed in the question of what's truth and what's artifice. Or, perhaps best of all, by combining the two – such as Haskell Wexler's simply awesome 'Medium Cool'.

Neither rule applies to the genesis of 'Doctor Who.'

But that's not what I'm getting at here. What I'm getting at here is that you can't win with this sort of thing. You end up getting shot by both sides. And I will illustrate my point by doing precisely that.


Take the emphasis on producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein. Now Hussein's direction was undoubtedly good, particularly given the technological constraints he worked under. Yet he's never made it a secret that he felt he was slumming it on a silly teatime sci-fi show. (In this recent interview he comments "I was educated at Cambridge, I'd directed Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and now I was doing 'ug and og'. Was this to be my destiny? ...my negativity was rampant.”) Notably, he left as soon as he could.

Whereas if David Whitaker got any kind of a cameo, I'm afraid I missed it. Yet as the script editor of the first season and author of several important scripts after that, he was surely more important to the development of the show than Hussein. Perhaps they simply found script editors less photogenic, hunched over typewriters instead of shouting action. Yet Terry Nation did get a name check. (Inventor of the Daleks, okay, but less important than Whitaker.) And as a writer himself, Gatiss should surely know their worth.

Instead, the focus is on how Lambert and Hussein (who is of Indian descent) disrupted the white boys' club of the BBC. Which, fair play to them, as then youngest producer and youngest director - they did. (In the same interview Hussein describes the BBC as “ double-breasted blazers, old school ties. Men were men and women were secretaries.") But they are presented as a little (to use Shaboogan Graffiti's splendidly useful phrase) 'nice-but-then.' They're “in the story to represent us in the past. To be nice - like we are - but back then.”

The underlying suggestion seems to be one of outsiders producing a show for outsiders, despite being in the belly of a great British institution. But the focus in the early show isn't on the outsiders, the Doctor and Susan, but on Ian and Barbara – regular Brits if ever there were.


But that's not what I'm getting at here. I'm more interested in shooting at this from the other side. As I said over the original Superman cartoons, fans tend to be creative creationists. They seem to want to believe that concepts appear fully formed from a single brow, in a magic lightbulb-above-the-head moment. When that doesn't happen they simply behave as though it did.

Yet the creative process normally works the same way as any other – through evolution. Not evolution as it is popularly imagined to work, in those neat uni-linear diagrams with a chimp on one end and a yuppie with a smartphone on the other. But evolution as it actually works - struggling blindly, falling down many blind alleys. Through endlessly throwing up varieties and deviations, evolution does tumblingly advance. The Superman mythos wasn't built in a day. Elements we now take as its basis took time to evolve. (Staples like Lex Luthor and kryptonite don't appear at all in those cartoons.) Other elements appeared along the way. But the ones that didn't work were simply forgotten about.

And that's even more true for 'Doctor Who'. Superman at least had two authors whose names you can cite. Doctor Who was devised by committee. Bunny Webber's original draft of the concept was some strange mixture of the uninspired with the (to use Sidney Newman's response) “nuts”. He had almost no influence on the show that subsequently appeared. Anthony Coburn wrote the stone age story Hussein rolled his eyes at, and a sequel ('The Masters of Luxor') which was possibly even worse. But he also wrote the classic 'Unearthly Child' - and invented the Tardis. What do we do with this information? Easy! We forget about the stone age and we focus on the Tardis. We stick with what works.

This lack of a strong original template actually helped the show over time, allowing it to change and mutate as it chose. Stories are not bound to one specific time or place, or to a certain type of narrative. The Doctor could be marooned on Earth, then free to roam the stars again. Even the lead actor could change, even the title character's personality.

After he'd taken over 'Who' Moffat also started showrunning 'Sherlock'. Note the subtle name shift. Because it wasn't really Sherlock Holmes, was it? Because Sherlock Holmes is a character written by Conan Doyle, wholly by Conan Doyle and by nothing other than Conan Doyle. Everything else is after the event – adaptation, imitation or commentary. Moffat's decision to update the setting, and to tell new stories which obliquely refer back to Conan Doyle's, that's throwing himself in with commentary in order to stay away from imitation.

Whereas when he was showrunning 'Doctor Who'... well actually the reverse isn't quite true. As mentioned before, when he does things like make the Doctor the centrepiece of his own stories, it feels like a wrench. But the borders are broader and more elastic. After the long break, when 'Who' came back it was still 'Who.'


Plus, and largely for that reason, he's one of those characters who inherently feel like fan property. His lack of fixed, defined parameters make him a kind of promissory note for the imagination. In the Whoniverse it's not even that fans turn pro, though they do. It's like the distinction doesn't apply in the same way. Heroman from the planet Crippling is a spoiler product for Superman, to fool small children out of their pocket money. But the Doctor is almost a code name anyway. He most likely made it up one day when challenged by some dunderheaded Security Guard. So the fan who signs his name to Dentist What is writing about the Doctor, he's just swapping one code name for another. (I've even had a stab at Who fanfic myself, the only such effort I've attempted in the past three decades.)

Without that promissory note, would the Doctor have survived the off-air years? Try it the other way. With it, he could never be deprived of oxygen. Conan Doyle tired of Holmes and tried to kill him off. And okay, he failed. But the Doctor has no creator. Consequently he has no potential destroyer either. If anyone tried, the rest of us would simply re-route around him. The BBC tried it themselves and that's precisely what we did.

In short, talking of the show in terms of its inception isn't really talking of the show at all. It's like calling an album of baby photos a biography. Gatiss' drama was probably better than anybody was expecting, but was working from the wrong plan. 'Who' did not fly so long because it was thrown from so lofty a height that it could ride the air currents ever since. 'Who' has flown so long because of endless peddling. The secret of its longevity is that people (fans and pros) have kept it going. It really is that simple.

In which case, you may ask, how should they have celebrated the big five-oh? Well, rescreening 'Unearthly Child' was a better start. While a four-year span wasn't enough of an adventure through time, fifty would have been.They could have show an adventure each for every Doctor, similarly to Andrew Hickey's Fifty Years posts. Or, should that have screwed too much with the endless repeats of 'Great Railway Journeys', shown the combined Doctor stories, 'The Three Doctors' and 'The Two Doctors.' Of, if it absolutely had to be be a docu-drama, perhaps one that accelerated through the years – like a fast train, stopping only at the most pivotal points.

Fifty years... it's about the fifty years. The span counts for something.


Coming soon! Now I promise to shut up about 'Who' for a bit...

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