Saturday, June 16, 2007

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.