Sunday 31 August 2014


Yes, there's a new Doctor. Yes it's further proof, as if we needed any, that Peter Capaldi is a good actor. Yes, the Tardis has had one of its periodic refits. While the credit sequence has had it's biggest 'Changing Rooms' moment yet...

But beneath the hood - it's the same old same-old, isn't it?

When the show first came back, now nine years ago, we knew the most likely way it could fail. We didn't fear the Daleks or the Cybermen, or any other monster of the month. We feared it would spend too much time looking back over the old show, from the observation platform of hindsight. That it would become too obsessed with continuity. There'd be episodes which attempted to reconcile all the different theories as to the Cybermen's origins, and there wouldn't be any general viewers. After all, that was what the old show had itself started to slip into, before it was through.

But we needn't have worried. That never happened. Instead they went back to the Cybermen and just made a whole new origin up. The show may well have had other faults. But by leaping over the primary snare it became something people could actually watch.

Yet disaster finally befell from another direction. Instead of getting caught up in the minutiae of its own history, it became mired in its own cleverness. That whole 'missing Doctor' plotline epitomises everything from recent years. Rather than obsess over actual continuity, it chose to make some up and instead obsess over that.

Meanwhile, general viewers are rewarded by being served the show they didn't watch but always imagined it was. It's been chopped to fit their expectations. Take the Daleks. Even the old TV comic strip was called 'Doctor Who and the Daleks', like they were butter and toast. But that perception was always misconception. The Daleks were off air for five years of the old show. Through reasons beyond the show's control, true. But the show still carried on. Now they have to show up at least once per season. Because that's all part of the tradition we've just invented for ourselves. And the new Doctor has to run into them pretty double quick, just to prove he is the Doctor.

Or take the Victoriana fixation. There was never any sustained link between the show and the Victorian era. True, the Doctor himself could look Edwardian – which is tangentially connected to the Victorian. But that was to make him stand out from the settings, a deliberately counter-intuitive move for a science fiction show designed to make the lead character look - to coin a phrase – differently strange. Notably the most Edwardian Doctors, the First and the Third, had the least to do with Victorian times. Yet people always imagine some such connection. So here it is. The Doctor now has a bunch of mates, the Paternoster gang, waiting obligingly amid all that Victoriana for his next re-visit.

Further, the more the show becomes obsessed with its own faux-lineage, like an upstart nouveau rich family forging coats of arms, the more it struggle to intertwine itself with British cultural lineage. And of course the apex of British history, as far as such stuff is concerned, is the Victorian era. That's when Britain was at it's most Brit-tastic. And this reduction of British history to a theme park of course has a terribly mollifying effect on our perception of history. Just as if Niall Ferguson was the historical consultant, there turns out to have been nothing really wrong with any of it at all. A nation at ease with itself has retconned gay marriage back over a couple of centuries. Well, provided it was kinky.

But it does the most violence to the character of the Doctor. He was once the aristocrat who had chosen to forsake his lineage, and preferred to hang out with the little people. The first time he went to World War Two (ironically, in Moffat's first script), he met up with a gang of orphans and street kids. The very next time he showed up was because Churchill had him on speed-dial.

Of course, 'Who' historicals were never terribly... well, historical. They inevitably said more about the era that produced them than the one they were set in. But there's something insidiously post-modern in this theme-park history, where the past is not only reduced to a dressing-up box but celebrated as such. It suggests history doesn't really happen after all, it's relationship to the present is more a kind of variation on a theme. The way we live is a given. Time is just a production line where more of it gets made.

And that seems part of the mindset which has led to things getting so stuck. I wonder, for example, just who was supposed to be watching 'Into the Dalek'. Though 'Dalek' was never mentioned by name, there's specific dialogue references to it which might seem jarring if you didn't have that context. Yet for those of us who had seen 'Dalek' the whole thing seemed such a thematic rehash they might as well have just re-shot it. We might have guessed how 'Dalek' would end up. And we might have nursed a sneaking sense it wouldn't be with the big, bad Dalek destroying all life on Earth. But the jolt of surprise comes from the effects proceeding have on the characters. We watch the stone and at first we miss the ripples emerging.

This time round, we sat waiting for it all to happen and then it did. Whoever you were, old viewer or new, there would have been a feeling the episode was actually aimed at someone else. But of course that's not the point. The point is that there's more 'Doctor Who'. It's the most long-running SF show of all and there is already more of it.

This was a show which always prided itself on its ability to revitalise itself, something epitomised by the lead character reincarnating. Its secret weapon was a reset button bigger and more powerful than any other, which could be pressed at any point. Well now that button's been pressed. With absolutely no difference whatsoever. Unless you look at the furnishings.

If I was minded to review this show now, on an episode-by-episode basis, it would be more as a cultural barometer, as a signifier of modern Britain. Except Shabogan Jack is already doing all that, doubtlessly much more ably than me, so I don't have to. I shall inevitably be sad enough to watch it. If a particular episode here or there strikes me, I may even be minded to review it. But a blow-by-blow account? Reviewing this cyclic series of events as a TV series is starting to feel like a category error.

The new series of 'Walking Dead' is here. There's a fresh Nordic Noir drama in the celebrated BBC4 Saturday night slot. My recorder's full of stuff I never seem to get a chance to sit down and watch. I expect yours is too. I have a backlog of books to read like you wouldn't believe. That's before you even start on the things I've meant to post here. So do any of us really have to bother with some more of the same, just because of the trademark at the top of it?


  1. Wow. That is very cynical.

    Four episodes in, are you feeling any more positive?

  2. I feel less cynical than disengaged. It's the sort of show you'd expect to be on TV nowadays. The fact it happens to be called 'Doctor Who' doesn't really seem all that important.

    There's the thing about the new credit sequence being just some guy messing around on YouTube, then it being taken up and put on the show proper. I just wish the whole programme could be like that, new people continually arriving and new stuff flying in from unexpected directions. Except it's such a flagship now it has to be a bankable commodity, so it can't be.