Friday, June 22, 2007

Immortality Nerve

[First posted in the week of "Utopia".]

This week: anthropology.

In his book Total Man, slightly-hippy psychologist Stan Gooch examined the genetic roots of some of our best-loved clichés and archetypes, and spent much of his time dwelling on the science-fiction stories of the day. The day in question was sometime in the early 1970s, but very little has changed, even if it's got noticeably worse. In Gooch's view, a great deal of (perhaps even the majority of) published SF was about the schism between mind and body, presumably - and to be honest, this is my interpretation more than his - because SF gives the writer free reign to separate human thought from human weakness and imagine that we really are bundles of intelligence weighed down by ugly, clunking bodies. Of course, Gooch was writing in the shadow of 2001, when transcending your biology and becoming a Starchild was all the rage. But if he'd been writing just a decade later later, in the wake of Star Wars and Yoda's 'luminous beings are we' speech, then the book might have been twice the length. We can also safely assume that in "trash" sci-fi, the kind that used to be summed up by the term "B-movie" in the days before it was replaced by the phrase "straight to video", the same rules apply. All alien takeovers, and all alien parasites, exist in the make-believe gap between our consciousness and our flesh-suits. Possession is nine-tenths of science fiction, as I pointed out in the mid-1990s, before some divot made exactly the same joke in The Science of Star Trek.

The usual approach to "possession and infestation" SF is to blame it on trendy social phobias, but this misses the big picture. Modern-day anxieties are used to justify these stories, they're not the root inspiration. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is supposedly "about" the late-'50s fear of Commie infiltration, while Alien is "about" the late-'70s fear of cancer, venereal disease, and other things that eat you from the inside out, but the same unseen hand is guiding both. (We forget, now, that people refused to even mention cancer until about thirty years ago. One of my aunts died of it, and as a child, I didn't have a clue what was going on: I knew she was dying, yet the name of the killer was never spoken. The 1970s changed this, not least because feminists were determined to talk about a blight that often attacked parts of their bodies unknown to men, parts which were as taboo as the cancer itself. It's not always easy to think of Alien as a product of feminism, especially when Sigourney Weaver's running around in her pants.) By the early 1980s, alien bodysnatching had largely become an exercise in effects one-upmanship, hence John Carpenter's version of The Thing and the rather mendacious advertising claim that it "makes Alien look like Peter Rabbit". By the time we get to CGI-driven cackpole like The Faculty, the idea of something with tentacles living inside your gut has become more mundane than anything in any soap opera, so its usefulness as a political allegory is in some doubt.

Not that it stops people trying. Circa 2007, the most obvious manifestation of this pretend-satirical form of sci-fi is the fetid husk of Battlestar Galactica, in which aliens disguised as humans are supposedly a reflection of contemporary concerns about lurking terrorists. This falls apart, however, when you remember that followers of al-Qaeda - and the word is "followers", not "members", since it's a cultural movement rather than an organisation and you can't have a "war on al-Qaeda" any more than you can have a "war on goths" - really don't look, sound or act like anybody else. The "goths" comparison is a good one, because just as no goth would be able to exist without the need for make-up and the obsession with cod-romanticism slowly making themselves felt, Islamic extremists would be unlikely to infiltrate a high-security installation without giving their co-workers some clue as to their true nature. They certainly wouldn't be able to compromise a whole fleet of spaceships. The Cylons aren't the manifestation of the twenty-first-century Enemy Within, they're the result of something much bigger and much less specific.

And what about Doctor Who? The type of people who write this series are not, by any means, the type of people who might have right-wing anxieties about foreign infiltration. I'll gloss over the old argument about "The Unquiet Dead", because even if you take a view as zealous as mine, Mark Gatiss was only being careless rather than genuinely paranoid. The programme's contempt for the reds-under-the-bed / Mullahs-in-the-mall idea is fairly clear, at least in its modern incarnation. If you can ignore "The Web Planet" and "The Dominators", then even '60s Doctor Who tends to avoid the xenophobia angle: in the midst of the Cold War, the mind-control storylines on Patrick Troughton's watch owe more to tales of World War Two fifth-columnists than Russian spies, and brainwashing is more often an issue of social control than a tactic of devious foreign agents. Returning to the present, though, the fact remains that the series is still obsessed with mind-tampering and still doesn't seem to be doing it because of "current concerns". There are few terrorists in the Doctor Who universe, in the Blairite sense of the word "terrorist". Indeed, the Slitheen are quite the opposite, alien parasites who take on the form of John Prescott rather than Abu Hamza. To Hell with it, the very first episode of the modern-day series involves the Doctor going on a bombing spree in London. Contrary to what various lazy commentators tried to claim at the time, this doesn't make him a terrorist ("terrorist" means "someone who uses terror as a weapon of political control", not "someone who uses explosives"… otherwise, Fred Dibnah would have spent most of his life in an H-block), but it does mean that he's more closely associated with the iconography of terrorism than the baddies are.

Remember what Gooch said: it's all about mind / body dualism, which means that anything involving an Inner Monster comes from the same complex of ideas, whether it's something nasty hiding in your DNA or an extra-terrestrial gas getting up your nose and controlling your actions. When you realise this, you realise that in Season X3 of Doctor Who - yes, that's what it's called, shut up - virtually every story has used exactly the same trick. Only "Gridlock" and "Blink", that well-known firm of solicitors, are exempt. The Plasmavore in "Smith and Jones" is acceptable, since it's just a single sci-fi detail in a story which also involves Vogon-rhino crossbreeds and a hospital on the moon (and which is mainly focused on the humanoid characters anyway). But then we get alien witches who can shape-change into pretty serving-wenches, zombie workers somehow "infected" with Dalek DNA, Professor Lazarus unleashing his Inner Scorpion, an intelligent sun that even goes as far as using the old "possessed people have glowing eyes" gimmick, and the bodysnatching antics of the Family of Blood. All of these are expressions of the same basic idea, and even "Blink" has to be removed from the list of honourable exceptions when you realise that inanimate-objects-with-a-life-of-their-own can be seen as part of the same complex.

You don't believe that…? Well, until the 1960s, you might have been right. But once the Cold War went into techno-fetishist mode, and our culture got hooked on the idea of harmless-looking consumer goods being weapons in disguise, the line between "enemy agents" and "enemy devices" was erased forever. Wasn't it Frank Herbert who said that the most important thing to notice about computers is the way they condition people to treat other people like machines? It's no coincidence that the same era which gave us cheap, pocket-sized electronics also gave us the notion of cybernetic spacemen, or that we've been obsessed with technological polymorphism ever since. This is what Salman Rushdie was getting at, in the chapter of The Satanic Verses that mentions "The Mutants", since Rushdie wasn't paying attention to the plot and thought the Mutts were supposed to be human-machine hybrids (not noticing that this was the Doctor Who story inspired by the end of the British Empire in India, ironic for the author of Midnight's Children). Even Tranformers can be seen as a knock-on effect of this. All human devices are in some way extensions of the human body, yet the link between man and machine seems so much more direct if the device is a spy-camera or a hidden microphone, and we can imagine it being an extendable eye or ear.

Take another look at "Spearhead from Space", in which it's taken for granted that any power capable of making killer mannequins is obviously going to make duplicate politicians as well. Just ten years earlier, no story of that kind would have been made: either the aliens would have been able to take people over, or some unseen force would have been able to make inanimate objects come to life, but not both. In 1960, nobody would have connected the two (c.f. the Twilight Zone episode "A Thing About Machines", in which we see an electric razor slithering up the stairs to kill its owner, but it's animated by his own sense of fear rather than an evil corporation with extra-terrestrial connections). The Weeping Angels in "Blink" are apparently much more low-tech, yet they're still designed to hit exactly the same nerve as the Autons. The final montage makes this clear, sending out a message of "hey kids, never look at statues the same way again!" in much the same way that "Spearhead" sends out a message of "they're just shop-window dummies… or are they?".

(One more question about possession here, since I've already mentioned "42". Why does it make people's eyes glow? If there's some kind of sun-energy inside the victim, then why does it shine through the eyeballs, and not through any of the other soft tissues? Do their genitals glow as well? Why are skimpy little bits of skin like the eyelids enough to stop the light? If you tug on one of your eyelids and point a torch at it, then you can clearly see the illumination on the other side, at least until you go blind. So how do eyelids manage to break the flow of energy? Is it a quantum thing? And if eyeball-flesh is so sensitive to the presence of an alien, then why don't the eyes burn out completely when somebody's possessed, instead of returning to normal afterwards? Blah blah blah windows of the soul blah blah blah iconic imagery blah blah blah cheap special effect.)

So what is it we're supposed to be so scared of? If, indeed, we're supposed to be scared at all? As I've already suggested, I'm not convinced that this is really about fear. "Blink" may be a self-conscious attempt to freak out the six-year-olds, but despite claims to the contrary in the Radio Times, the Lazarus Horror isn't remotely scary: it's so far-removed from actual human experience, and so obviously belongs in the kind of world we see in both modern SF movies and modern TV advertising, that it becomes an abstract quantity. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in theory, even if it's clearly a bad thing in "The Lazarus Experiment". As Tat Wood pointed out in his article "Was Yeti-in-a-Loo the Worst Idea Ever?" - it's in About Time Volume II, you don't have a copy? - the idea that Doctor Who always works better when something scary happens in a down-to-earth setting is deeply flawed, and has led to some terrible errors of judgement by the programme's various production teams. This essay carries a great deal of weight, even if it isn't exactly what Tat wrote, since I had to re-draft it in order to make it readable. (You may note that the published version actually bothers to mention the twenty-first-century version of the series, and isn't too unkind, especially when it comes to the early Eccleston phase. Tat could never bring himself to write good things about Eccleston, possibly because he hates northerners and people with working-class accents, and believes the Doctor to be the exclusive property of university-educated types who spend their time arseing around on punts. I know I'm digressing, but I'm still very bitter.)

Tat's point remains a strong one, even if I want to hit him. Numerous interviews on Doctor Who Confidential have suggested that many of those involved in the programme, Big Russell and the Boy Tennant included, see the essence of the programme as being - in effect - "the incongruous inside the mundane". This is the all-purpose reasoning that's been used to justify everything from parping Raxicoricofallapatorians to monsters who can't even move when they're on-camera (yes, I know, if only they'd thought of it when they were filming the Myrka). And in principle, the programme-makers aren't wrong on this point. The very first shot of the very first episode of Doctor Who told us that something was a-humming inside an ordinary-looking police box, and a space-time machine inside a then-everyday object is as close to the central nervous system of the series as it's possible to get.

Would you see that as an extension of the same core idea, like alien possession or Optimus Prime? Robert Anton Wilson would have done. In The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, he argued that the notion of the "Trick Top Hat" is an ever-present archetype, and a metaphor for nothing less grand than the human imagination itself. On the outside we're fleshy and finite, but we're also capable of seemingly limitless diversity, a concept reflected in hundreds of folkloric stories about bags of food that never run out and cartoons about characters who can produce endless props from out of nowhere. Wilson would have mentioned Felix the Cat at this point, although I'd suggest Bender in Futurama, whose torso not only contains an infinite supply of loot but is also said to be 40% iron, 40% zinc, 40% titanium, and 40% various other things. The connection between the TARDIS and the human imagination / human unconscious seems even more obvious when you remember that it's descended from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So I'll leave it up to you to decide how closely-related this idea is to the "alien possession" concept, but bear in mind that I'm biased here. I'm the one who wrote Alien Bodies, in which the TARDISes of the future have the exterior appearance of people rather than boxes, thus becoming the missing link between possessed humanoids and magic cupboards. And a survey of fan-fiction from the 1990s reveals that I wasn't even the first one to think of it, although I didn't know this at the time. Another result for technological polymorphism.

There is, as ever, a perilously fine line between "archetype" and "cliché". I'd argue that the difference lies in the execution, not in the idea. As an example, here I'll return to something I said seven days ago, although this time in a less scurrilous context. Geeks who don't fit in with the social norm, and who have difficulty communicating with non-geeks, are a universal constant and will always be with us… assuming they aren't us. But if you're a dramatist, and you write a geek character who says exactly the same things as every other geek character on television, and who relies on exactly the same "standard nerd" jokes found in every other geek-related series - as in "Blink", or "Random Shoes", or Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any of the other sci-fi programmes which have somehow reached the conclusion that sending up the typical sci-fi viewer is post-modern and ironic instead of dull by definition - then it's a cliché. Perhaps surprisingly, exactly the same rule applies to monsters, brain-parasites, and sundry exotic space-time phenomena. In context, the Plasmavore is interesting, because it's part of something that isn't precisely like anything else. In context, the sun-bringer in "42" isn't. As if to underline this point: on the same night that BBC1 broadcast "42", Channel 4 broadcast Jason X, accidentally creating the most repetitive double-bill in TV history.

And as me-rewriting-Tat pointed out in the About Time article, it's cute and clever when the London Eye turns out to be an alien transmitter in "Rose" - even if you haven’t already seen it described as a Sontaran weapon of mass destruction in Dead Ringers - because it's not only unexpected, but a way of establishing that this programme is genuinely modern rather than just set in the present-day. When exactly the same thing happens to Alexandria Palace in "The Idiot's Lantern", it's wholly worthless. Turning the everyday into the otherworldly is a specific skill. It requires the writer to have some sense of contemporary values, rather than (say) just relying on an overweening obsession with Quatermass, but it also requires him to avoid obvious, desperate attempts at up-to-the-minute issues like "anyone you know could be a suicide bomber" or "the uncertainty of modern urban life is here represented by shape-changing robots from outer space".

It's not about "current concerns", it's not about Yeti-in-a-loo, and it's not even about scaring the kids. "The incongruous inside the mundane" is the essence of Doctor Who because Doctor Who relies on the most primal, mythic imagery in order to function, and for human beings, there's nothing more primal than that mind / body divide: it's the thing that's been with us ever since we started to use tools, ever since our ancestors began to realise that a big sharp rock could become an extension of the human body, and thus reached the conclusion that the body itself is just a tool of an invisible, untouchable Inner Self which somehow pulls all the levers. The divide is human culture, in a way. It's the notion that's shaped all our ideas about identity and society, even though it doesn't really exist. From the Trick Top Hat of the TARDIS to the vulnerable, techno-dependent squid-horror of the Daleks, this programme has spent more than forty years working on the same primal impulse, and dear God it sounds as if I'm writing the closing speech of a BBC4 documentary now. But even the Doctor himself, a man who gets a new body at irregular intervals while somehow keeping the same indefinable core of Doctoryness, can't survive without that imagery. If you are familiar with BBC4 documentaries, then you may have seen the channel's recent history of children's television, in which one modern-day four-year-old excitedly explained that 'the old Doctor turns into the new Doctor!'… and said it with exactly the same conviction as a Christian claiming that 'on the third day, he rose again'. Well, naturally. Both events seem equally irrational, but both have the same aesthetic logic. They appeal to the same human impulse. The Inner Self. The immortality nerve.

Obviously I haven't mentioned "Utopia" here, because I'm writing this before it's actually been broadcast. But it's by Russell T. Davies and it's got Derek Jacobi in it, so it's bound to be good. And nobody cares about my "good" reviews, only my supposedly "insulting" ones. For instance, the above article is probably the most lucid thing I've ever said about Doctor Who, yet it's guaranteed to get less attention than calling Chris Chibnall a big spaz.


- I'd just like to point out that to this day, I still haven't seen a single episode of Transformers. But I remember watching the adverts at the age of thirteen, and being puzzled that even though both sides in the Transformer dispute had the same ability to flip between war machine and everyday object, the evil Transformers were called "Decepticons" (to suggest that they were doing something terribly treacherous by pretending to be Walkmans) while their opponents were "heroic Autobots". Clearly, some consumer goods have a greater degree of moral rectitude than others.

- Having now consulted the internet, I've learned that Fred Dibnah's speciality was his ability to demolish gigantic chimneys without using explosives. We apologise for any distress this inaccuracy may have caused.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Scariest Thing About "Blink" is...

...the ghostly face in the far-right window of the police station.

Here's the close-up:

Name That Beast

[First posted after "The Family of Blood".]

This week I'd like to ignore the complex issues of mortality and social responsibility raised by "The Family of Blood", and talk about monsters. Old monsters. Dirty old stinking monsters.

Once, many years ago - or at least, more than ten, which qualifies as "many" because I'm attempting to sound wise while still retaining a facade of youthful enthusiasm - I read a Doctor Who book in which the villain was a malignant bodiless intelligence who could control the minds of human beings. On the whole, this was no more interesting than any of the other malignant bodiless intelligences we've seen over the years, yet I still found myself wondering about the similarities between this spurious new aether-monster and the Great Intelligence from "The Abominable Snowmen" (1967, although you probably knew that). And, weirdly assuming that this was "continuity" rather than a desperate lack of imagination, I heard myself think: 'Wow, the Great Intelligence! This might be its first appearance in the series for nearly thirty years!'

Looking back on it, this was clearly a moment of epiphany. The moment when I was hit by the sudden, shocking realisation that… if it did turn out to be the Great Intelligence, then it wouldn't actually make the story any more interesting.

This revelation was less obvious than it might now seem. Bear in mind that I entered fandom (of a kind) via Doctor Who Weekly, and learned most of what I knew about the history of the series from chunky "anniversary" volumes like Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, now clogging up the shelves of Oxfam shops nationwide. Most of these books were hugely inaccurate, but that's beside the point. In the years before cheap video, the fans were obsessed with the series' past - a past we never thought we'd actually see, not even the bits that hadn't been taped over by the BBC - leading to intense debates about whether the Daleks or the Master were the Doctor's greatest enemy, depending on whether you counted their appearances in terms of stories or individual episodes. I was part of the generation which thought about Doctor Who in much the same way that American sports fans think about baseball, with scorecards and statistics for every occasion: part of me still "knows" that there are nine-and-a-half Cybermen adventures, even though this information is clearly out-of-date as well as completely useless. In the 1980s, the return of any "old" monster was greeted with a great whooping and cheering, because (in effect) it improved that monster's batting average. Even the producer came to think this way after a while, which is why he kept bringing back the Master even when everyone was sick of the bastard. So, a brand-new story featuring an arch-enemy not seen since 1967…? Even if it only happened in print rather than on TV, it still scored points. As if attaching the name of something from the before-I-was-born era of Doctor Who was in some way an excuse for the wretched banality of it all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, in the wake of "Human Nature". For all its highs, there are parts of the episode which just seem slow, but… not in the ways we might expect. The slow bits aren't the "talky" bits: in fact, the three-and-a-half-sided love-triangle between the Doctor, the New Girl, the Semi-Doctor and This Year's Love Interest are a pleasant reminder of what things were like in the days of "proper" telly, when characters were allowed to have quiet conversations and not everything had to be rapid-cut or filmed with a shaky hand-camera. No, the slow bits are the "monstery" bits. Aliens disguised as human beings are never interesting, and in the case of "Human Nature", they spend the whole episode establishing themselves as generic body-snatchers. In a series that treats spaceships and bodily possessions as an everyday occurrence, it really shouldn't take four minutes of screen-time for Baines to find a UFO and then demonstrate that he's been taken over. We've seen all of this before, many, many times, so it's not as if we need to be told every little detail. Nor do we need all those scenes of possessed people acting out-of-character and plotting amongst themselves, when we know they're going to say exactly the same things that alien plotters always say in these situations. Because while the Family of Blood is indulging in all this routine villainy, the regulars are doing something much more involving, and even the thirteen-year-old boy on the games field is going all Twelve Monkeys on us.

But: a-hah, I thought. A-hah. The Doctor describes these aliens as hunters. They track their prey by smell. They have a strong sense of family. They insert themselves into human bodies, they've got a thing for strange gases, and they clearly prefer fat victims. Even Rebekah Staton looks like a younger, cuter Annette Badland. Is the message not clear, I asked myself? After all, the villains in the original novel of Human Nature were far less generic, and why would any writer make his own creations less interesting unless he were planning to turn them into some other form of monster? In short: are these not the Slitheen, or at least some other Raxicoricofallapatorian family? Is this not likely to be the big twist in the second half of the story? True, they seem more reliant on other people's flesh than the Slitheen we used to know, and their mother is so degenerate that she's become a vapour who lives inside a novelty paperweight (unless, of course, she's a Slitheen guff who's somehow acquired the power of speech). But they have so much else in common, even more so than the Bane from the Sarah-Jane pilot, who might be considered Slitheen wannabes anyway. Then there's the curious fact that although we don't see any Slitheen when Smith flips through his Journal of Impossible Things, there's a later scene in which Nurse Redfern specifically points to a portrait of one, just so we get a close-up of its smug Raxicoricofallapatorian face. As if we're being gently prodded to remember something. Oh, yes: ah-hah is very much the word.

I thought.

The Slitheen turned out to be like all other gas-men, though: I waited for them all day, and they never turned up. Now I feel a sense of disappointment that's wholly of my own making. But the question remains… even if the School Bully and the Scary Little Girl had unzipped their heads and revealed themselves to have big green baby-faces, would that have made any difference? Because whatever their true nature had turned out to be (and it's got to be said, their status as vaguely-defined near-immortals seems to have served the plot rather well in the end), it wouldn't have changed the fact that the first half of the story is still a bit slow when the bad guys are on the screen, or that the Family is still made up of generic body-snatchers. The Slitheen in "Aliens of London" work because they avoid the usual gamut of "possession" clichés: putting big flabby monsters inside politicians isn't an attempt to generate hokey sci-fi suspense, it's a way of turning them into Hogarth-style grotesques. They don't waste time creeping about the place with mad staring eyes, the way the Family of Blood does. Whatever you call the villains in "Human Nature", hokey sci-fi suspense is their stock-in trade, and it's the one whacking great flaw in the story. Although admittedly, they automatically become more interesting once they're dumped in collapsing galaxies or trapped in mirrors.

I've never believed that a single line of dialogue, or even a single name, is enough to change the basis of an entire script. Generations of fanboys have (for example) tried to claim that "Image of the Fendahl" raises the stakes of the whole series, because it pits the Doctor against an enemy which "is" death, and yet… we only know it's supposed to "be" death because the Doctor says so, once, in a single line of a single scene. Watch the rest of the story, and the Fendahl just looks like any other poxy life-sucking monster we've seen over the years. And clearly, a generic disembodied intelligence doesn't become any more worthwhile if it's a generic disembodied intelligence from 1967, although it took me a distressingly long time to break the '80s fan-conditioning and notice this. Likewise, only Mark Braxton would be a big enough arse to believe that if the Doctor refers to some giant CGI crabs as "Macra" - rather than as "Crabulons", or "Clawrentulas", or "Sniptrodines", or any other spurious sci-fi name - then it changes the nature of an episode to such a degree that it's even worthy of a mention in the Radio Times. Yet somehow, I find myself disappointed that a bunch of family-obsessed hunting-monsters in 2007 don't have the same name as a bunch of near-identical family-obsessed hunting-monsters from 2005. Even by my standards, this is irrational.

Mind you… given that the Family wants to be the Doctor, it's tempting to imagine that each member of the group is a distorted aspect of the Doctor himself, especially since this is the only twenty-first century story in which we see the (hurriedly-sketched) faces of his previous selves. We might suppose that the Fat Bloke is Colin Baker, or that the One Who Looks Much Too Young is Peter Davison, and they've even got an army of Jon Pertwees circa Worzel Gummidge.

Five More Attempts at Making Something Scary by Giving It the Face of Mark Gatiss

Number One: Otters.

Bring Me Sunshine-Monsters

[First posted after "42".]

Did I mention how much I hate sci-fi…? I'm fairly sure I did, but what bothers me is how often I have to say it. For the most part, this is because it's much easier to be irritated by sci-fi fans than it used to be. There was a time when these people would (quite rightly) be routinely dismissed as the petty, insular, self-obsessed tedium-engines they really are, but now they've somehow managed to acquire a media-voice of their own. Just five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for anyone who believed that Babylon 5 was the height of dramatic sophistication - or, in modern-day terms, anyone who actually thinks that Heroes is a serious television programme - to have made themselves heard beyond the pages of SFX, yet now these people are somehow managing to get their point across as if… well, as if they had intelligent opinions of some description. Perhaps what I find most objectionable about this is that they keep trying to drag Doctor Who into things, although on the plus side, at least nerd-scum only like the really rubbish episodes of Doctor Who which are "dark" and "cult" instead of the interesting funny ones. The most obvious living symptom of this trend is Mark Braxton, geek-in-residence at the Radio Times, who doesn't seem to acknowledge anything as watchable unless it involves a bloated story-arc about galactic space-wars (his review of "Gridlock", which completely ignored the story and seemed to believe that the cock-obvious "revelations" about the Time Lords were the whole point of the episode, would have been hilarious if it hadn't been so depressing).

In terms of modern-day Doctor Who, the obvious acid test is "Love & Monsters". We could have predicted that geek-bores of all descriptions would hate it, partly because of its complete lack of po-faced angst and partly because it's actually a competent piece of television. No, "competent" does it a disservice: "Love & Monsters" is driven by such a well-timed, well-executed dynamic that you can see the structure of the story even if you turn the sound off [here we pause, briefly, to allow any nerd-scum reading this article to say "well, that would certainly improve the episode, hahahahahahahah… oh, God, I'm so lonely"], and the editing alone should be enough to win awards in a sane world. But even though it's clearly not going to be a hit with sci-fi fans, what I find most striking is the fact that the division is so binary. As far as I'm aware, every single sci-fi fan in the country hates it. And, connected with this but just as odd, everyone I'd consider "interesting" seems to like it. This puzzled me, at first, simply because nothing else I know of has ever caused such a clean division. I've even met interesting Tories in my time, but "Love & Monsters"? Nope, it's straight down the middle. Bores hate it, non-bores don't.

(N.B. Here I'm only talking about grown-ups, naturally. Like "Kinda" before it, "Love & Monsters" fails in at least one of its Doctor Who duties, as it'd obviously be dull and bewildering for children. Even I wouldn't have liked it, as a ten-year-old. C'est la vie.)

It only started to make sense when a former acquaintance of mine - a man who bears a closer resemblance to the Comic-Book Guy from The Simpsons than any other human being I've ever met, and who has complete video collections of every iteration of Star Trek - expressed his own personal disgust at "Love & Monsters" by saying that in order to demonstrate his contempt, he was thinking of sending a Hawaiian shirt to Russell T. Davies. What he meant, of course, was that he saw a similarity between "Love & Monsters" and the most ludicrous excesses of the John Nathan-Turner producership. As the early JN-T years were "dark" and "gothic" and "serious", and all the other things that sci-fans like - although to be fair, this was the early '80s, when Blade Runner was new and those things still seemed interesting - he was specifically referring to the latter part of the Nathan-Turner epoch, the age which gave us the still-unspeakable horror of Season 24.

Now, at first, this comparison shocked and appalled me. Granted, I can see how a creation like the Abzorbaloff might not go down well with someone who thinks that Star Trek: Enterprise is "bad television" because it contradicts the continuity of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I can see how such a man might consider both the Abzorbaloff and (say) the Kandyman to be much of a muchness. I can even see how he might consider both to be "silly" while considering shape-changing robots whose spines glow when they have sex to be "serious", and indeed, I might even expect him to feel that way. But the grotesque, cack-handed ineptitude of "Time and the Rani", compared to a script so super-aware of the conventions of Doctor Who (and, most importantly, of the way we perceive those conventions) that the red bucket / blue bucket sequence seems to make sense even though there's no earthly rational explanation for it...? I'm sorry, I have to object.

Wait, though. Wait, because here we're on the verge of understanding something critical about Doctor Who, both then and now. Before we try to see things through the drab, let's-pretend-that-liking-spaceships-and-aliens-make-us-"imaginative" viewpoint of the average sci-fi fan, let's ask ourselves one question. What, fundamentally, did John Nathan-Turner think he was doing? Because in 1987, the year of "Time and the Rani", "Delta and the Bannermen", and two others which are almost as bad but not quite, the producer simply didn't see himself as making a sci-fi show in any sense. Lost in showbiz and obsessed with TV as an entity in itself, Nathan-Turner saw Doctor Who as - to sum it up in a single phrase - The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. The idea of it being a "cult" programme, in the '90s sense of the word, was of no interest to him at all. He saw it as part of a long tradition of BBC variety, with laughs, frolics, guest stars, big impressive sets, and even the odd musical number if possible. Let's keep that thought in our minds for a while: The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. If you're a sci-fi fan, then such a thing is an abomination. Even if you like Doctor Who but feel ambivalent-at-best towards programmes about office-like starships and people with prosthetic foreheads, then it sounds like a kind of heresy. But…

…but just for a moment, try taking it out of context. Forget that we're talking about Doctor Who, a programme which means something slightly different to every single one of us, a programme so varied in its format and its history that it sparks more arguments about what it "should be" than any other series ever made. Just suppose that the Radio Times advertised a brand new programme which described itself as "The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters". Would you watch it? Because I bloody well would. In fact, I'd positively go out of my way to see it, whereas - for example - I've never felt remotely compelled to find someone with Sky and get them to show me a recording of Firefly. Yes, I'd probably watch Firefly if it were on terrestrial, but "sort of like Star Trek, although everyone says it's better" just isn't going to enthuse me. The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters? Now, that sounds like proper television.

So, the problem with the later Nathan-Turner epoch isn't that there was anything wrong with his mission statement. Nor is it that Doctor Who "shouldn't be like that", since it's been so many things in its time that a few more mutations couldn't have hurt. The problem is that he wasn't competent enough to get away with it. If we refine the Morecambe-and-Wise-Show-with-monsters idea, and interpret it as a hybrid of light entertainment and gonzo adventure, then… in order to be successful, the resultant programme would need to involve a genuinely contemporary sense of what "light entertainment" means and a genuinely contemporary sense of what "adventure" means. Yet "Delta and the Bannermen" is so far from either of those things that it's an obvious embarrassment to anyone who comes within ten yards of the final broadcast. Nobody in 1987 would have found it lightly entertaining or remotely adventurous: even at the time, it just looked old, crap and inane. Imagine if someone did it right, though. Imagine they made a version of Doctor Who in which the jokes, the guest stars, the showbiz spectacle and the whacking great set-pieces were more important that the gloomy sci-fi posturing. Imagine they made a version of Doctor Who which was fast, funny, family-friendly, and perfectly in tune with the tastes of the age, a version which could get away with songs, sketches and blatant parodies of other TV programmes without the audience finding it weird.

Do I even need to say it…? We don't have to imagine, because that's what we've got. My geek-acquaintance was right all the time, though what he saw as an insult is a compliment in most normal people's eyes: modern-day Doctor Who is like The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. The difference between the Nathan-Turner version of the programme and the Russell T. Davies version is simply that Davies is competent. "Love & Monsters" may be the most blatant example of this, not least because of the Abzorbaloff - the thing which sci-fi bores hate most of all, since they positively demand that all monsters should be "serious" (these are, remember, the kind of people who believe that "intelligent conversation" means talking about how good the CGI is on Gollum) - but really, it works to the same pattern as all of Davies' other episodes. If you take it as read that this is a hybrid of fantasy drama and laugh-a-minute-Christmas special (and let's face it, David Tennant meeting Queen Victoria has more in common with Eric Morecambe meeting Cleopatra than with Commander Seriousface meeting the Ambassador from Mangooska Six), then you start to realise that we're living in John Nathan-Turner's dream… whereas John Nathan-Turner himself just forced us to live in his nightmare. So far we've had aliens who give away their alienness by breaking wind rather than by having glowing eyes or stiff little fingers, we've had robots with the voices of twenty-first-century TV presenters, and we've had two Christmas editions full of murderous festive decorations. All of these things have worked perfectly, and only a "serious" sci-fi fan would be insipid enough to think that Peter Kay in a giant green potato outfit is in some way an aberration. Yes, if you actually believe that "Aliens of London" is meant to be serious speculative drama rather than just great television, then you're not going to enjoy it very much. But Davies' own description of it as "like Spitting Image" is telling. Babylon 5 it ain't, thank Christ.

(A side-issue here: as far as sci-fi fans go, Doctor Who is hamstrung in a way that no other programme has ever been. As I've said, we all have our own ideas of what the programme "should be" like, and we all have our own expectations of what any given episode is supposed to show us. This means that as far as geeks are concerned, Doctor Who is actually allowed to do less than most sci-fi / fantasy series, even though it's got a mandate to do an awful lot more. If a "serious" sci-fi series did an off-the-wall comedy episode in which someone investigates the central characters from an outsider's point of view, then it'd be considered witty and cutting-edge. In fact, The X-Files did exactly that, yet somehow "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is considered a masterpiece while "Love & Monsters" is considered an abomination. And if a "serious" sci-fi series took a week out from epic story-arcs about interdimensional warfare to tell a small, low-key story about an emotionally-damaged family in suburbia being haunted by a small, low-key monster, then it'd be seen as a breakthrough, yet old-school Doctor Who fans refuse to embrace "Fear Her" because it's nothing like "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". Note that even "Rose" and "The End of the World" were slated by dull people on first broadcast, for being "too fast" and "too comical"… the nay-sayers weren't happy until "The Unquiet Dead" gave them a self-consciously "cult" episode, effectively an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation with Charles Dickens instead of Mark Twain, with lots of dark spaces and no scary bright colours that might attract teenage girls.)

From my point of view, the trouble with current Doctor Who is that not everybody shares Davies' vision. Here I don't just mean Mark Braxton, Comic-Boy Guy, or any other "cult" dullard, but the other writers. Because the truth is that if you start out with the notion that Doctor Who is a sci-fi series, then you'll become trapped in a universe where only sci-fi things can happen. People have seriously tried to claim that both "The Impossible Planet" and "The Lazarus Experiment" are "traditional" Doctor Who stories, presumably because they both involve lots of pointless running-away-from-things, but this is clearly bunk: no Doctor Who story of the twentieth century was remotely like either of them. In fact, both are effectively straight-to-video sci-fi-horror movies, with all the horror taken out. Yet once again, the perception of Doctor Who as sci-fi leads people to connect it with that kind of sci-fi, as if "traditional" takes in everything from William Hartnell shouting at Aztecs to Vin Diesel hitting an alien in the face with a flamethrower. If you start with (ooh, let's say) a routine story about predictable space-explorers facing predictable enemies in a predictable environment, then it's not going to get any more interesting just because you put David Tennant in the middle of the story and get him to talk faster than everyone else. The current belief seems to be that if you've got a po-faced action-adventure about spaceships, then forcing the characters to do something "quirky" every five minutes somehow changes its nature. But it didn't work in "The Impossible Planet" (in which the Doctor hugs the captain before becoming just as drab as all the other crew-fodder), and it doesn't work in "42" (in which questions about Elvis vs. the Beatles are apparently supposed to distract us from the overall twaddle-quotient).

If you seriously believe that this series is meant to be sci-fi, then you can probably put up with the banality of it. If you're the kind of person who enjoys droning on about how great the effects in the new Spider-Man movie are, then you might even enjoy it. If you see this as The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters, on the other hand, then… you can't help remembering that this is the series which, on a good day, considers an Irish cat-person played by Ardal O'Hanlan in a Biggles hat to be the baseline of normality. Michelle Collins in a sweaty t-shirt, and the weird belief that adding a 24-style ticking-clock somehow stops the whole thing looking like a third-rate Aliens knock-off, is very nearly an insult.

Yes, we all have our own ideas about what this programme "should be" and "shouldn't be". Frankly, my only strong opinion is that it shouldn't be the kind of programme that sci-fi fans like, because they're the scum of the Earth and they're always wrong about everything. Aside from that, I don't really care what it's like, as long as it's not precisely like anything else. And now the series has successfully set the tone - now we've established that it's comfortable doing everything from sitcom to Broadway musical numbers - its chief problem is that it simply isn't mental enough. As I've said before, in a world where there are giant dinosaurs and shape-changing robots in every ad-break, a huge mutated scorpion-beast a la "The Lazarus Experiment" is simply ordinary… whereas, for example, armies of gasmask-people saying 'are you my mummy?' simply isn't. People "possessed" by killer sun-energy isn't merely ordinary, it's positively useless. This is never going to be a "serious" sci-fi programme, so isn't it time to go even further the other way? Because once you've turned Trinny and Suzanna into Playmobil androids with chainsaws, there really isn't any turning back.

But if we're specifically talking about "42", then let's bear this in mind. The real-time clock may mark this out as an obvious parody of 24 (even if it cheats and skips several minutes halfway through), and yet… three-quarters of the people who saw this episode on first broadcast will never have watched 24. "Love & Monsters" and "Kinda" may have left the children behind, but this is the first episode of Doctor Who which doesn't make any sense at all unless you're a smug, media-aware adult who's seen the specific source material. If you're unfamiliar with the canon of Jack Bauer, then it just looks like a bunch of mediocre actors running up and down corridors. And that's exactly what it is. A 42-minute in-joke, not a proper television programme at all.

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