Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Doctor Who Thing

Twenty-four hours until Christmas Day. Thirty-two hours until I find out how badly my relatives have misjudged my personality while attempting to think of a suitable gift, thirty-six hours until I have to ask myself whether I really am going to bother roasting something for lunch rather than settling for a tube of Pringles with a picture of holly on the wrapper, forty hours until I find myself joining in with every single word of The Two Ronnies. Just under forty-three hours until "Voyage of the Damned", the BBC's new vehicle for Bernard Cribbins.

Oh, all right. Since we're on the subject… at 6:50 on Christmas Day, Film Four will be showing Time Bandits, which may literally be the worst piece of scheduling in television history. Time Bandits is a wonderful thing, but is there anybody that might want to watch an eccentric time-travel-based comedy-adventure who won't be otherwise engaged at 6:50 on Christmas Day? Even if a few Film Four viewers have somehow lost track of the time and forgotten to switch over to BBC1, surely they're going to find themselves thinking "hang on, I'm sure there was something I meant to do" during the sequence set on board the Titanic?

My great-grandfather was booked to travel on the Titanic, as part of a transatlantic business trip. He pulled out at the last minute. Our family history doesn't record why he pulled out, but if you're familiar with "Rose", then you'll understand why I find this amusing. Perhaps he was talked out of it by a big-eared Mancunian. And I see that in the weekend papers, one of the few still-living Titanic survivors has objected to the BBC's lack of Christmas Day tact, although she doesn't really seem to have captured the mood of the nation.

Given that the Christmas Doctor Who is the BBC's highest-yield warhead, it's interesting to note how the other channels have decided to deal with it. ITV has elected to show The African Queen, a film which could happily be screened on any Sunday afternoon without causing a fuss (thus wisely avoiding any attempt at a ratings war… it's like 1977 all over again). It works both ways, though: BBC3's Doctor Who Confidential, which is usually scheduled to immediately follow its parent-programme, begins half an hour after Doctor Who ends. And it's not as if BBC3 has anything better to do at eight o'clock, because it's showing a repeat of Football Gaffes Galore. But then you realise… at eight o'clock, ITV is presenting us with Harry Hill's Christmas TV Burp. Has the BBC noticed this, and delayed Confidential by half an hour, knowing that Doctor Who and Harry Hill share an awfully large chunk of the audience? This is, after all, a man who opened his very first show on Channel 4 by wrestling a giant maggot.

Like any good warhead, Doctor Who makes a big bang while covering the surrounding area with fallout, and this Christmas it's hard to look at any page of the (Haaaa-lle-lu-jah) Radio Times without seeing traces of its influence. We note that the BBC's other "big" programmes this season include The Catherine Tate Show and The Shadow in the North with Billie Piper, neither of which is technically supposed to be Doctor Who-related, but the RT has thoughtfully put the interviews on the same page anyway. We'll gloss over David Tennant's appearance in Extras - a programme which, in all other respects, has a cast list that could only be worse if it had more than one copy of Ricky Gervais in it (in much the same way that ITV is marking New Year's Eve with a comedy-drama starring James Dreyfus in two different roles, i.e. a programme that's twice as bad as you might possibly imagine) - and instead turn our attention to New Year's Day, when we get BBC1's new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, written by leading-dramatist-turned-soft-core-hack Andrew Davies. We might expect plenty of period stripping-off, with no actual genitalia but lots of male buttocks thrusting in and out of multi-layered underwear. I mention this only because Mark Gatiss is in it. Surely, he isn't going to be doing any deflowering? His chat-up technique in "The Lazarus Experiment" was bad enough, but now I'm trying to imagine him seducing a nineteenth-century virgin, and all I can think of is Briss the Butcher. Licking his lips. In close-up.

And as the Doctor Who Christmas Special approaches, we simply have to acknowledge that Russell T. Davies not only has the best job in the world, but the best job that's ever existed in the whole of human history. Some people have criticised my occasional bitterness towards the series by claiming that I'm just jealous, to which I respond: well, duh. We should consider that Big Russell not only has executive control over Doctor Who as a concept, but access to a multi-squillion-pound budget with which to depict anything in the entire span of space and time, almost on a whim. Even Hollywood executives don't have this sort of reckless power. The only person in / on television who's in a similarly enviable position is Gok Wan, easily-anagrammed presenter of Channel 4's How to Look Good Naked, whose job description involves touching up the wobbly parts of overfed women while they nod seriously and listen to his sage council on what bras to wear. But since Wan is (presumably) gay, it's safe to assume that he has no conception of how lucky he is.

With great power comes great responsibility: this is what I was getting at during the "Unquiet Dead" farrago, and if it was true of Gatiss, then it's twentyfold-true of Big Russell. This man has more influence over the minds of the nation's youth than anybody else in contemporary British culture - go on, prove me wrong - and according to the interviews, he even has the ability to make Kylie wee herself. ITV fears him. Ant and Dec have known his wrath. He may not be as famous as David Beckham, but then, nobody actually listens to what David Beckham says. Fortunately he tends to use this power for good, or at least, to say things like "I know, let's put rhinos on the moon!". But this doesn't mean we should take our eyes off the bugger, because…

…because even if power doesn't always corrupt, then showbiz invariably does. I know I'm not alone in feeling that "The Sound of Drums" marks a very specific jumping of the shark, yet apart from the relative dullness of it, two things seem especially worrying. One is that although it continues the twenty-first-century Doctor Who obsession with stores set in something like "the real world", the programme's idea of what constitutes "the real world" is becoming increasingly slanted towards the point-of-view of people who work in television. In much the same way that Jennifer Saunders is no longer capable of doing anything other than making jokes about meeting minor celebrities at BBC TV centre, Doctor Who's two default methods of establishing a contemporary British setting are (a) guest appearances by famous people playing themselves, and (b) set-pieces involving any event where TV cameras might be present (note that apart from the regulars and semi-regulars we already know, there are no modern-day characters in "The Sound of Drums" other than media figures and Saxon's co-conspirators). In other words, the Doctor's natural environment these days is a BAFTA awards ceremony. No other Doctor would seriously have considered putting on a dinner jacket for "Rise of the Cybermen" or "The Lazarus Experiment", because no other Doctor belongs on the Red Carpet. Tom Baker in formalwear would have been unconscionable; David Tennant in formalwear seems perfectly normal.

Once you realise this, Tennant's appearance in Extras is rather unsettling, because you begin to see that the two programmes are converging on the same territory. "Real world" stories are supposed to draw in the viewers by giving the adventures-in-space-and-time concept some grounding in the world we recognise, but the Britain we see in "The Sound of Drums" just alienates us. Even if there are TV studios, press interviews and high-society get-togethers, there are very few actual people, so it's no more familiar to us than Mangooska Six in the ninety-eighth century. Using actual BBC presenters and perfect mock-ups of News 24 bulletins (starting with "Rose", but most notably in "Aliens of London") was clever, yet we've now reached the point where modern-day Britain doesn't seem to contain anything else, a version of the country in which TV is the only reality. We know that the Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack are in trouble, because their faces are on the television news; we know that the death of the President of the USA is a turning-point, because it's broadcast to the whole world; even the Master has started taunting the Doctor via the BBC, and just to rub it in, there's a bomb in the TV set.

If this were a story about television, a la "The Long Game", then this might make sense. But it isn't: the Master controls the population with a spurious hypno-satellite, not by manipulating the media, which blows a hole in the idea that this might be a satire. It's just how the programme-makers see the world these days. Similarly, even those who actually like Catherine Tate would have difficulty arguing that she can provide the voice of One of Us, which is theoretically what the companion is there for. She's been hired specifically because she's a Television Celebrity, so there's automatically a gulf between herself and the audience.

And if we're talking about a series that's rapidly becoming lost in showbiz, then this leads us on to the second problem with "The Sound of Drums": Ann Widdecombe is an evil Tory bigot, while Sharon Osbourne is a vicious parasitic brood-harpy who drinks the spinal fluid of little children. If only metaphorically. The point is, I'm having problems with the irony threshold here. These people are clearly - as it were - servants of the Jagrafess, people who might reasonably have been depicted as The Enemy during the Eccleston season. When did they become Friends of Doctor Who?

That's enough cynicism. On a lighter note, this is also the time of year when we play the two key Doctor Who guessing-games, the "Who's Going to Be Next Year's Big Historical Guest-Star?" game and the "Name a Contemporary Character Actor Who's Likely to Turn Up in a Minor Role" game. However, we already know that 2008's Historical Guest Star duties are going to be shared by Agatha Christie and a great big volcano. (I'm hoping the Pompeii story will be a historical farce a la "The Romans", in which the Doctor and a young Captain Jack run around the streets of the city on Volcano Day but somehow never meet. Please, God, any excuse for a historical that doesn't have sodding aliens in it. Surely, CGI lava is as big an audience-grabber as CGI monsters?) As for the Character Actor game… this takes some skill, and requires us to think about the kind of television-friendly performer who's likely to move in the same circles as the production team. After the 2005 season, my guess for 2006 was Louise Delamere; I was close, but she eventually ended up in Torchwood instead. Last year, my guess for 2007 was Lucy Montgomery; again, I was on the right lines, since Debbie Chazen (the other one from Tittybangbang) is in "Voyage of the Damned". For 2008… how about absolutely anybody who was in Oliver Twist? Although personally, I'm still amazed that Celia Imrie has managed to avoid the series for so long.

I will, of course, continue to act like the frustrated conscience of Doctor Who fandom throughout the coming year. Because some f***er's got to do it.

And a Merry Cribbins to all of you at home.