Sunday, April 27, 2008

Doctor Who 2008, Week Four: The Time That the Land Forgot

Riiiiiiiiight. Well, for now, let's not dwell on the seemingly-endless tedium of "The Sontaran Stratagem". Because as I write this, it's 6:45 on Saturday night: I've been out for a wee twice, I've put the dinner on, I've tried walking up and down and stroking the cat in an attempt to make time go faster, but the damned thing isn't even half-finished yet. The worst part is knowing that it's a two-parter, and that we're going to have to go through all of this again in seven days' time.

So, this week's article will largely revolve around dinosaurs living at the Earth's core. In fact, this directly relates to Doctor Who and the question of what's wrong with reinventing the Sontarans as an eco-hazard, although I admit that my use of the word "directly" isn't quite dictionary-standard.

I'm not picking this subject at random, by the way. Giant subterranean reptiles have presented themselves as a worthwhile topic this week, after last Friday's screening of At the Earth's Core on ITV. If you missed it, then it was broadcast at half past two in the morning, on the grounds that it's made the transition from "children's movie with monsters, good filler on a bank holiday" to "'70s retro, ideal for thirty-year-olds coming home pissed from a nightclub". Since a quick straw-poll has revealed that not everybody who watches Doctor Who has actually seen At the Earth's Core, it should be explained that this was one of a series of shockingly gaudy, unapologetically camp "pulp" adventure movies made in Britain during the 1970s, all of which feature (a) men in dinosaur suits blown up to immense proportions by the magic of back-projection and (b) Doug McClure as the two-fisted American hero amongst British character actors. It's been said that one of the many, many side-effects of Star Wars on our culture was to wipe this sort of film from the face of the Earth, and since the dinosaur Brit-flicks were also blatantly inspired by Saturday-morning serials of the Flash Gordon era, it's fair to say that both were trying to occupy the same ecological niche. Extinction was therefore inevitable, just as it was for Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion skeleton-warriors.

Wait, though. I've called them "dinosaur Brit-flicks", and this is both unfair and misleading. It gives the impression that these films were just about men in lizard suits, examples of cheap, artless Godzillary-pokery. Cheap they may have been, but artless…? What's striking now, and what nobody would have admitted in 1976, is that At the Earth's Core is a triumph of lurid design. The words "pop art" spring to mind. Now that we live in a world where mindlessly easy CGI has made everything in sci-fi cinema look like a homogenised computer game, it's startling to see such a low-budget movie attempt something so odd. The underworld of Pellucidar is a realm of bulbous, throbbing vegetation under a pink "sky", inhabited not just by dinosaurs - which are themselves rather more striking than the man-in-a-monster-suit description might suggest, great snarling heaps of horns, claws and rhino-skin - but by pig-faced dwarf-soldiers whose language sounds more like a product of the Radiophonic Workshop than the all-purpose grunting we've come to expect from troglodytes. The heroes end up At the Earth's Core thanks to a gigantic Edwardian drilling machine, the sheer pomp of which is enough to make you remember why people were perfectly happy with model-work in those days. We just didn't need CGI.

One of these heroes is Doug McClure, as per usual. The other, playing the elderly scientist who acts as both universal boffin and kindly father-figure, is Peter Cushing. Here we should note that the screenplay was written by Milton Subotsky, the man responsible for the '60s Doctor Who movies, which sets alarm-bells ringing for fandom even if Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD is (at the very least) no worse than what Terry Nation wrote. But if anything, what we end up with here is closer to Doctor Who than Doctor Who and the Daleks ever was. The love of improbable Victoriana, which has been a mainstay of the TV series since "Evil of the Daleks" and which is often seen as the default setting for "proper" Doctor Who thanks to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", is at the core of At the Earth's Core. It's not just that the technology's got brass fittings, it's that the trog-world of oppressed cave-people is the most late-Victorian / early-Edwardian set-up you can imagine: consider The Time Machine, or The Coming Race. This a view of the pseudo-rational world that Doctor Who has never wanted to escape.

It's enough to say that I saw the film at the age of four, and that as a child, I just naturally assumed that the principles of Pellucidar and the principles of Doctor Who were identical. The aforementioned glut of British character-actors helped, since it gave the impression that even if this wasn't "televised theatre" (q.v. Week Three), it was at least closer to BBC TV Centre than Hollywood. Oh, and… the villains of the story are super-intelligent pterodactyls with psychic powers. They have an inner sanctum at the heart of Pellucidar, where they perch on rocky pedestals, sleeping until they're approached by their minions. Remember the Malevilus in "Doctor Who and the Iron Legion"…? The "sanctum" scenes are such a close match that it's hard to believe it was a coincidence. And bear in mind that for many fans of my age, the comic-strip in Doctor Who Weekly was what Doctor Who was all about, certainly a lot closer to our ideal vision of the series than most TV stories of the same era ("the Doctor takes on an entire a parallel universe where Rome never fell" vs. "The Horns of Nimon"… it's not really what you'd call a fair fight). In the movie, Cushing gets what may be the best moment of his entire career, when he stares into the eyes of a hypnotising pterosaur and exclaims: 'You can't mesmerise me, I'm British!'


So it's no surprise that for most of my conscious life, I've taken it as read that in the Doctor Who universe, there are dinosaurs at the Earth's core. After all, there's no reason to think otherwise. If the centre of the planet is filled with green goo that turns people into were-gorillas ("Inferno"), and Silurians might have been mining the interior for thousands of years before they went into hibernation, then other forms of prehistoric life would seem positively logical. True, the Daleks didn't seem to release any psychic pterodactyls when they mined Bedfordshire ("The Dalek Invasion of Earth"), but they might just have sterilised the cave-systems during construction. More than a decade ago now, I wrote a New Adventure called Down, in which Bernice Summerfield journeys to the centre of an alien world and finds sabre-tooth tigers there: this is generally regarded as the last thing I wrote before I became competent, but if you read it now (please don't), then you can just tell I was irritated that I had to set the story on / in / under a completely made-up planet instead of Earth.

Which means that I had even more reason to be disappointed by "The Runaway Bride" than everyone else. You know the scene I'm talking about. The Doctor discovers that the Empress of the Racnoss has been digging a hole to the planet's core, and wants to know why. Donna immediately suggests 'dinosaurs!', and the Doctor… looks at her as if she's stupid. No, worse, he looks at her as if we're supposed to think she's stupid as well.

The most obvious question, which must surely have crossed a lot of people's minds, is: what's so stupid about that? Let's leave aside the "old" continuity, and the fact that the Doctor already knows there are lizard-people with giant reptilian pets living in the depths of the Earth. Let's assume he's put the Myrka out of his mind, if only for reasons of taste. Even if you know nothing at all about the universe pre-2005, this is an individual who's spent the last couple of years fighting man-eating wheelie bins, alien Santas, the Abzorbaloff, and - going too far into the realms of stupidity even for my tastes, since the story in question actually believes it's serious - the Devil. Dinosaurs at the Earth's core seem almost scientific by comparison, yet as an audience, we're meant to be laughing at Donna for suggesting anything so absurd. Whereas in fact, it's the most imaginative thing she says in the entire episode.

That was my immediate reaction, anyway. But there was something else about this scene, something that niggled me on a less rational level. Only while watching the repeat on BBC3, nearly a year later, did I finally spot the problem. It's simply this: a story about dinosaurs at the Earth's core would be much more interesting than "The Runaway Bride".

Just think about it for a moment. "The Runaway Bride" got a general thumbs-up from the viewers, because it pitched itself as the Christmas episode of a sitcom rather than a family adventure movie, the Doctor Who equivalent of festive Only Fools and Horses rather than the Poseidon Adventure antics of "Voyage of the Damned". But what this actually entails is twenty minutes of the Doctor running around in modern-day Britain, followed by a face-off with a bog-standard slavering alien in a bog-standard "darkened lair" set, followed by a climax involving the Thames Flood Barrier. Is it any surprise that so many of us felt so disappointed? There's nothing excessively wrong with any of this, but we're watching Doctor Who on Christmas Day, for God's sake. We could go anywhere in the universe, into completely imaginary places full of completely unthinkable people. Instead, we're running up and down the high street and wasting our time on dreary London landmarks. Then Catherine Tate (of all people) reminds us about dinosaurs living at the Earth's core, and we're supposed to mock her for saying it…? We could actually be at the Earth's core, with a multi-squillion-pound BBC Wales budget to do it properly this time. We could be watching David Tennant riding woolly mammoths, we could be meeting nouveau-Silurians under a psychedelic sky, we could be hoping that the companion gets thrown into a volcano by psychic pterodactyls. Instead, we get flashbacks of Donna meeting her fiancée in an office. An office? It's the Doctor Who Christmas special, and they're giving us an office?!?

The point of all this isn't my own personal disappointment about the lack of dinosaurs at the Earth's core, since I dealt with that when I was six. The point is the way Doctor Who has come to fetishise the "real" world, or rather, the way it's come to fetishise its own insistence on putting the "real" world and the "alien" world side-by-side. As we've seen over and over and over again, Russell T. Davies has an obsession with the down-to-earth that's become the series' second-greatest liability. Perhaps he's still remembering the '80s and '90s, when we were all supposed to feel shame and embarrassment for liking bizarre, otherworldly things. He remains convinced that the audience will only accept companions from modern-day Britain (consider the late-'60s TARDIS crew… nobody had a problem with a series which featured a renegade alien, an eighteenth-century highlander and a girl from the future as its point-of-view characters, and the audience was supposedly less cosmopolitan in those days), and insists that we have to keep returning to Earth every three or four weeks (again, nobody seemed to feel this way in the first three years of the original programme, or when the show hit its ratings peak during the later Tom Baker epoch), even though we've established that his idea of "real" is increasingly "reality according to people who work in television". I've said all of this before, and yet…

…and yet as the last forty-five minutes have proved, there's now a definite "Doctor Who normal", a growing belief that This Is What The Programme Does. Putting an alien in the middle of a grey, ordinary-looking urban environment is what the series is "for", at least when it's not doing time-tourism (q.v. Week Two). Torchwood is at least partly responsible for this: it may not have a direct bearing on the mother-series, but for the staff of BBC Wales, it's reinforced the notion that this entire many-headed project is rooted in present-day Cardiff / Cardiff-as-London. In truth, modern-day Doctor Who got where it is today by using contemporary Britain as a gateway into something stranger ("Rose" set the pattern for this), yet now we've reached the point where contemporary Britain is treated as if it's meant to be part of the programme's appeal. The series has become obsessed with pointing at the familiar - high streets, call centres, sat-nav - and saying: "Look, something real! And look, there are aliens standing next to it! Isn't that great?" Whereas if we're going to be honest, it's significantly less great than taking us somewhere completely different.


There's no getting away from it: the simple fact is that grey, ordinary-looking urban environments aren't interesting. Yes, you can get a certain amount of mileage from presenting the audience with a familiar setting and then plonking a Yeti in the middle of it, attending to its toilette or otherwise. Yet this is a programme which is meant to be able to take us anywhere in the conceivable universe, not just to other planets or historical eras, but to places where wholly different rules apply (I could write whole paragraphs on this part of the programme's heritage, but for now I'll just say "Enlightenment" and let you work the rest out for yourselves). "The Runaway Bride" points up the problem better than any other episode. Even those who'd defend it - and again, it's not actually bad, just misjudged - would have difficulty claiming that on Christmas Day 2006, they wouldn't have preferred a story about Silurians at the Earth's core. But suggest that this is somehow less sensible than aliens in the basement of a London-based Torchwood research facility, and you get a withering look from the Doctor himself. At the very least, you'd hope that a series with Doctor Who's traditions would feel compelled to give us a great big Edwardian drilling machine. But no, there's just a big hole in the ground and some technobabble about huon energy. This programme's no fun any more.

And so we have "The Sontaran PLEASE GOD LET IT ALL END Stratagem". In the first three minutes, we know something's wrong: we have a story about Sat-Nav Turning Evil. Leaving aside the crassness of doing yet another [Thing in the Real World] Turning Evil story, this only makes an impression if sat-nav is a big part of your life. Call me a woolly-headed environmentalist if you will, but I don't even have a car. If shop-window dummies coming to life are universally creepy, then this is creepiness for a smug consumer culture, ironically disguised as a criticism of that culture. There's a warning about carbon emissions buried in here somewhere, but whereas "Third World War" quite rightly pitched the whole shebang as a grotesque parody rather than genuine satire, this script actually seems to believes it's got something meaningful to say. And if you're going to tell a story set in the modern world, then you should at least have the grace to try to show it in a new light, yet the following fortysomething minutes are entirely made up of set-pieces. We have This Week's Monster, of course. Technically it's a "resurrectee" monster, but since the Sontarans are just generic world-threatening military skinheads, they could look like giant badgers for all we care. We have an Evil Twin subplot that would've been a cliché in The Man from UNCLE forty years ago, and an Evil Nerd Genius who would've been a cliché in the 1980s. You could quite honestly get a computer to write this.

Yet it's all justified by the idea that this is what Doctor Who "does" these days. It bores the casual viewer, it annoys the fans (long-term or post-2005), it makes Doctor Who look like cheap-rate sci-fi filler. But it's set in the modern world, it's got aliens in it, and Kirstie Wark is going to be in the second half as the token newsreader who announces the potential end of the world. This in itself is enough to excuse the programme's existence in the eyes of the media. Ooh, look, some UNIT men have discovered a big vat-machine in the middle of the complex! What's going to be in it…? Well, we don't really care, because we know this is a bog-standard Alien Invasion story and we know it doesn't have any real consequences. It isn't going to surprise us, it's just part of what this programme "does". When it's opened, the vat is full of green slime and a clone. Yeah, thanks for that. Even "The Claws of Axos" wasn't this banal.

The upshot is that this week, the whole of modern-day Doctor Who seems to exist in the shadow of At the Earth's Core. And the irony is that the film isn't even particularly good: ideal for four-year-olds and drunk people, yes, but with a script that's barely any less rudimentary than… well… than the one we've just suffered. The difference is that on a budget rather smaller than that of a modern-day Doctor Who two-parter, Subtosaky and friends showed us something far more bizarre, ambitious and grandiose than anything BBC Wales has attempted, even if it does involve a giant toad-puppet breathing fire at Caroline Munro. What am I saying…? The giant toad-puppet breathing fire at Caroline Munro is a good thing, because at least the film-makers were trying, without the laziness of CGI or advanced prosthetics to back them up. I've seen Doug McClure and Peter Cushing lead an army of escaped slaves through a luminous subterranean jungle, after escaping the lava-mines of the pterodactyl overlords and their half-human followers. Next to that, the aimless wandering-up-and-down of this week's Doctor Who seems positively tawdry. If the series is going to use the techniques of cinema rather than traditional TV (and this is apparently all it can do), then it should at least try to be exciting. Shouldn't it?


A few months ago, I sent a message to Nick Briggs in his capacity as Big Finish Big Cheese, and asked him whether I could write a Doctor Who audio involving Silurians at the Earth's core (I'm not blacklisted from writing for Big Finish any more, remember). More precisely, I told him: "It'll be so great that they'll remake it for television, like they almost did with Marc Platt's Cyberman story, and then you can do the Sea Devil voices. Everybody wins!" He hasn't responded to this, and I have the horrible feeling that he didn't realise I was joking, but… in the wake of "The Sontaran Stratagem", it doesn't seem quite so flippant. The programme has got into the rhythm of bringing back one Old Monster every year, ideally for the mid-season two-parter. When Doctor Who comes back from 2009's gap year - lean, tanned, and with lots of presents from abroad, we hope - a Silurian story would seem like a good proposition, assuming we can go down into their world rather than forcing them to come to the surface and lumber around in our boring old city streets. Because given this sort of brief, an actual adventure rather than a soap-opera with laser-gun fights, I can't help feeling that Helen Raynor might actually be able to write something good.

For now, though, I can boil the argument down into a single thought. If Hollywood were to remake At the Earth's Core in 2008, then it'd almost certainly be set in the present-day rather than the early 1900s, with a sleek, high-tech, government-funded drilling machine (a la The Core) rather than a home-made lash-up with wooden control panels and brass knobs. And as things stand right now, Doctor Who would make exactly the same mistake. "The Sontaran Stratagem" is the best possible example of that line of thinking, an insistence on giving people what's "now" even if "now" is the most mediocre thing imaginable. Enough of the modern world! Most of us are sick of it anyway.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Week Three: The Complete History of Doctor Who (Director's Cut)

As an afterthought on Week Two… we note that in the commentary for "The Fires of Pompeii", James Moran states that the inclusion of an ordinary Roman family gives us some idea of the scale of the tragedy, since you can "multiply it in your head". Apparently not noticing that the family survives the eruption with a body-count of zero, and that if we scale this up, then there should be a final scene in which we see two-thousand people standing on the hills around Pompeii and saying (as one): "Phew, that was close!"

This week, however, we're going to talk about directors. We have to, really, because there's less and less to say about writers. Let's be quite clear on this point: there are no great television writers any more, certainly not in drama. No, that isn't clear enough, so let's try it another way: there are writers working in television who are great at what they do, but they're not necessarily great television writers, in the purest sense. Russell T. Davies can safely be thought of as one of these, because as we saw in Week One, this is a man who thinks like a director rather than a playwright.

Wait, this is going to get complicated. So let's start by going back to basic principles, as they stood in the days when Doctor Who was hand-cranked by burly stage-assistants, and even the TARDIS controls were written in felt-tip. The most important thing we have to remember about the Mark One series is that it came from a tradition of televised theatre, and this alone should be enough to disembowel the arguments of anyone who thinks it was in competition with / in the same field as Star Trek. American SF series are often described as "Westerns in space", which is a fair assessment, although the key point isn't the content (only Star Trek itself is a perfect match for this model, given that Rodenberry famously pitched it to the executives as Wagon Train with aliens) but the way these programmes have been influenced by American cinema. In the '60s, US adventure-TV wanted to be just like John Ford, even when there weren't actually any cowboys involved. Episodes were shot on film rather than videotape, to give everything that ersatz Hollywood look. Rapid-cut stunt sequences and sweeping orchestral scores were the ideal. Even series set in the twentieth century seemed to want to shout "let's head them off at the pass!" in every scene.

As late as the 1970s, programmes like Battlestar Galactica - the version with proper Cylons, natch - could get away with repackaging its two-part storylines as big-screen movies, at least for the consumption of easily-fooled foreign territories like Britain. For any American drama above the level of soap opera, there was no dividing line between TV and cinema, or at least no dividing line between TV and cheap cinema. Stick together two episodes of The Man from UNCLE and you've got a ready-made B-movie, but just try to imagine Doctor Who in that context. Try to imagine a story like "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", which is about as cinematic and as decently-budgeted as the pre-1980s series ever got, being transposed onto the big screen and passed off as a Hammer movie. Even if you beef up the rat, cut the filler in episodes five and six, and make the film-stock look like celluloid rather than video, it still doesn't work. It looks, for all the world, like a stage-play that's been recorded for posterity. Which is more or less what it is.

Budget aside, there are two main reasons why the BBC took the "televised theatre" approach to its drama series. One is that… well… it was the BBC. In the middle of the twentieth century, and most especially during World War Two, it was the BBC's job to maintain a certain level of High Culture for the good of the common man. Our modern, consumer-age society tends to pooh-pooh this idea as "elitist", but then, our modern, consumer-age society believes Desperate Housewives to be the height of sophistication. It's true that many of those in charge of the BBC were unrepentant snobs, yet the Corporation's principle was a sound one. Bringing Shakespeare to the masses was part of its mandate right from the start. Hardly surprising that it was more interested in recruiting playwrights than in staging car-chases, or that a supposedly SF show should end up caring more about stagecraft than spaceships.

The second reason for the "televised theatre" approach is the way Doctor Who was made. Needless to say, there's an unerringly useful article about this in About Time (Volume I… what, you still don't have a copy?), but the main point is that it was shot "as-if live": actors would perform entire scenes without any breaks, and the results would be transmitted without any edits. The tape was only paused when a major scene-change was required, and only rewound if something went catastrophically wrong. Videotape editing was such a palaver in 1963 that anything else would have been unthinkable, and with only a week to plan, rehearse and perform each episode, the many fluffs of William Hartnell seem a lot more forgivable. All of which meant that the actors needed the same kind of discipline they would've needed on the stage, and the writers had to take this into account. Editing became easier / cheaper / more daring as time went on, but even twenty years after Hartnell, in Doctor Who you can still see a programme with its roots in the theatrical tradition. If pigeons have lingering race-memories of being dinosaurs, then "Timelash" can't quite shake the feeling that its distant ancestor was Richard III.

Except that… new technology changed the nature of the programme in all sorts of ways. Everybody knows that something happened to the series between "The Horns of Nimon" and "The Leisure Hive", yet most fans flounder for an exact explanation, and end up saying things like "it got glossier" or "John Nathan-Turner wanted a show that was more… um… different". But the biggest single change was that starting with Season Eighteen, we got an influx of programme-makers who wanted to use the flexibility of modern TV to make something more film-like. Since this was at the end of the '70s, in that brief period when American cinema had gone through a renaissance and "Hollywood" wasn't a dirty word, this was no bad thing. The newer (though not always actually younger) directors had no interest in pointing a camera at a two-dimensional stage-set and letting the actors get on with it. Peter Grimwade tried to use the techniques of cinema to turn story-worlds into complex, three-dimensional environments, which is why "Earthshock" seems so much more dynamic than its '60s-style plot might suggest. At best, this brought a new energy to the programme. At worst, the obsession with unconventional camera-angles meant that we got lots of close-ups of Cybermen's arses. Given what we know about Grimwade's private life, some critics have rather unkindly tried to suggest that he had an ulterior motive for all these Cyber-cheeks, but in fact it was just a side-effect of a much bigger movement in television. No, really it was.

Which is all well and good, especially since it gave us "The Caves of Androzani" (more of which later). The trouble is that however much Doctor Who might have changed, the demands of the audience were changing faster. Many of the clichés we associate with the '80s are perfectly true, and blah blah Thatcherism blah blah materialistic society blah blah yuppies blah blah lingering resentment and social unrest, but one thing that's often overlooked is this: the '80s made Britain feel ashamed of its parochialism. Until the '80s, we'd liked the thought that everything in our culture was home-made and hand-crafted, we'd liked our sitcoms to be about stinking old men in junkyards, we'd liked our drama programmes to look like local theatre productions of King Lear, we'd liked the thought that the output of the BBC was a game of make-believe which asked us to play along (rather than expecting us to be a bunch of slack-jawed hicks, whose job was to sit there and say "gosh, wow" like suckers at a P. T. Barnum show). But now we were hit by a tsunami of glitzy, glossy, high-profile, high-budget American "culture", and with every pundit telling us that "cheap" was out and "slick" was in, we came to despise everything that the BBC did well.

Traditionally, a big part of the British psyche had been a love of the amateur and a distrust of the professional. Now "professional" was the buzzword of the age. This, far more than John Nathan-Turner or Bonnie Langford, is what killed Doctor Who. In the 1990s, many fans responded to this in the most appalling way imaginable, by re-envisioning the programme as "sci-fi" and claiming that it should be brought back as a "modern" series that could compete with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (I still recall, with a horror greater than any other known sensation, the letter in Doctor Who Magazine which argued that the series should try to be more like the American model because it "hasn't won any Emmy awards"). It's fairly obvious to us now that these people were evil, degenerate vermin, but perhaps we should consider the mitigating circumstances. Old-style Doctor Who's greatest strength lay in its home-baked quality, yet Thatcher's children turned amateurishness into something to be ashamed of. What the fans really wanted was a programme they didn't have to feel embarrassed about. Ironically, what they got as a result was the Paul McGann TV movie.

Let's not pretend that this is all in the past, though, because the shame never went away. We still have trouble believing, as a culture, that anything shot on videotape can possibly be worth watching. For the last two decades, it's been universally taken for granted that television drama has to aspire to the level of a big-budget movie, if "aspire" is really the word we're looking for. "Ape" might be more apt. Thanks to the filmlook process, programmes can now be shot on cheap video and digitally treated to look as if they were made for the big screen, not because this does anything for the quality of the production (we all know it doesn't) but because it gives the appearance of something shot in Los Angeles. When Casualty announced a "new-look" series in 2007, we just knew it'd involve the leap from "raw" video to filmlook, even though Casualty viewers were in no way crying out for a version of the show that makes Charlie Fairhead look glossier.

What does this mean for the scripts, though? In effect, it means that they're more like storyboards than plays for television. Indeed, even the phrase "plays for television" has the smack of something old-fashioned and discredited about it, like "public duty" or "Marxism". Adventure-TV circa 2008, whether it's Spooks or Primeval, means a bastardised version of mainstream cinema: rapid-cut action sequences, shaky camera-work to make everything look fast-paced and urgent, and absolutely no long dialogue scenes unless they involve characters histrionically breaking down in tears at the end. Audience research has found that the public no longer sees drama as being what television is "for", and can we be surprised? If drama means "things blowing up", then you might as well just watch a Schwarzenegger movie on Channel 5.

It'd be nice to think that Doctor Who is the exception to this, wouldn't it? In fact, in some ways it's the worst offender of them all, particularly if you consider those episodes which are most explicitly based on Hollywood templates ("The Lazarus Experiment" and "42"... thank God there was a fortnight's break between them, or it would've felt like a "B-Movie of the Week" season). The reason Doctor Who gets away with it so often is the aforementioned fact that Russell T. Davies thinks like a director rather than a pure writer, and his scripts are written with an instinct for how things look and move on the screen rather than an instinct for stagecraft. Even "Gridlock" - the episode which comes closest to old-fashioned drama, since it's ultimately a piece about people trapped together in small spaces - exists in a universe of big cinematic gestures and show-stopping CGI, hence my description of it as "Harold Pinter remakes Attack of the Clones". Modern TV is a director's medium, not a writer's medium, and Davies treats it as such.

Hang on, though! In this light, let's look at "The Caves of Androzani" again. In 1984, this was the classic hybrid of theatrical Doctor Who and the pseudo-cinematic version. It does everything that Peter Grimwade was trying to do, only more so. We have a script by old-school old pro Robert Holmes, but more crucially, we have Graeme Harper at the controls: a director who uses the camera to give this story-world a genuine depth, who not only shows us a fully-formed environment but gives a genuine sense of weight and urgency to its collapse. For years, Harper was quite understandably regarded as the series' greatest director. Why, then, is he considered by many fans to be… well, we won't say "a spent talent", because nobody has any problems with the way he handled "Doomsday". He even got an award for it, albeit a Welsh one. But nor does fandom see him as head-and-shoulders above the competition any more, despite doing the best job that any director possibly could do with a rotting hog's-carcass of a script like "42" and a walking lobotomy like Michelle Collins as a guest star. Why is this?

The reason isn't that Harper has lost any of his nouse, it's just that the rest of the world has taken his version of TV drama and made it look ordinary. In 1984, he applied (good) cinematic techniques to a (good) television script, and the result stood out a mile. In 2008, television is made of nothing but cinematic techniques, used so haphazardly that even the best of them no longer make an impression. And as for the scripts… again, there are no television scripts these days. There are just faux-film scripts, strings of set-pieces with standard-issue dialogue attached (q.v. Robin Hood). This no more qualifies as "scriptwriting" than mixing the two halves of a Muller Fruit Corner qualifies as "cookery", yet Doctor Who is in no hurry to complain about it. As we saw in Week One, Russell T. Davies now seriously believes that the test of a true writer is to script a complex action sequence like the window-cleaner-box routine from "Partners in Crime".

Naturally, the argument in favour of the modern, depth-free, fast-cut version of television is that it's What People Want, and that it's therefore commercial suicide for any programme - even Doctor Who - to do anything else. Leaving aside the obvious fact that anybody who thinks this way should immediately be killed, and the equally-obvious fact that the whole point of the License Fee is to free the BBC from this sort of commercial concern… we're still left with the question of whether it really is What People Want. Of course, modern-day Doctor Who has been so keen to associate itself with the Big Spectacle that a dialogue-heavy episode (say, the mythical modern-day "Massacre" we talked about last week) would run the risk of leaving the audience confused and disappointed. On the other hand, the programme-makers' pathological urge to make things bigger isn't keeping the punters happy either. Just three years on, "Rose" seems a rather small affair by 2008 standards, yet the living mannequins and evil wheelie-bin made more of an impression on the audience than the immense snowscapes of "Planet of the Ood" will have done. In five or ten or twenty years' time, casual viewers who watched "Voyage of the Damned" will remember the episode only for Kylie Minogue, not for the hideously over-budgeted action scenes: those you can get anywhere, and the effects are largely indistinguishable from any other piece of sci-fi filler these days.

In fact, the feedback suggests that an awful lot of people would prefer Doctor Who to be more about the content and less about the light-show. It's notable that of all the writers who've worked on the series so far, the one who comes closest to being a "pure" television writer - at least when he's not being inexcusably lazy - is Steven Moffat, who also happens to be the popular one. As someone with a background in sitcom, it's perhaps no surprise that his scripts are wordier than most, yet what's striking is that people seem to like it this way. The cock-posturing between the Doctor and Captain Jack in "The Empty Child" is at least as memorable as Rose dangling off a barrage balloon; it's the explanation for the Clockwork Droids that makes "The Girl in the Fireplace" interesting, not the way they chase people up and down corridors ("The Lazarus Experiment", f*** off and die right now); and nobody seems to object to "Blink", except me, ironically. If nothing else, then the fact that children preferred the Weeping Angels to any of last year's CGI monsters says a lot about the gulf between Big Spectacle and public reaction. As we've seen again and again, special effects are only worth watching if there's a decent context for them. In context, polystyrene statues are better viewer-bait than planets blowing up.

In the case of "Planet of the Ood", the saddest thing is that seen from a distance, this is exactly what Doctor Who should be good at: an unapologetic SF fable, ending in a relatively blood-free revolution. Some might even want to interpret the Doctor's Ood-angst as an apology for everything that went wrong with "The Impossible Planet". What we actually end up with is a collection of action sequences and lots of people running around with guns, with the occasional moment of cloying sentimentality to make it all seem meaningful. Perhaps more than any other episode - even episodes which are much, much worse - this is the textbook "modern" TV script, in which everything revolves around the set-pieces and the dialogue is almost an afterthought. Some of those set-pieces are specific to Doctor Who rather than industry standards, so we naturally get a climax which involves people standing on a balcony and looking down at a big CGI thing, in this case a giant brain instead of a vat of living plastic or... well... the Devil. The accompanying Confidential seems rather self-deluded about all of this, with Big Russell seriously trying to tell us that this is the story in which the Doctor and Donna "bond", even though Donna appears to have less personality than ever before and is reduced to doing Generic Good Guy things like pointing out how bad slavery is (we'll try to put the 'you… murdered him!' line out of our minds altogether).

Given material this lightweight, Graeme Harper's never going to be able to deliver something with the urgency of "Androzani", and treats the whole affair like a skiing holiday. He seems to know that any attempt to turn this into a world-shaking epic is doomed to failure, and breezes casually through this week's life-or-death situations without asking us to break a sweat, which at least allows us to tell ourselves that it's just a filler episode before the two-parter with the Sontarans. In theory, there's no good reason that it shouldn't be great in its own right, but that's not the modern way of things. We should know, by now, that Doctor Who in 2008 is unlikely to deliver anything more complex than the old "evil businessman" schtick. That's the inevitable result of making a directors' programme rather than a writers' programme, although it'd be nice if we could be sure that the directors aren't getting bored as well.

But in terms of content - what there is of it - you can spot the exact moment when "Planet of the Ood" cops out. After Donna insists that there's no slavery in her world, the Doctor asks 'who made your clothes?', the most acute thing we've heard in this programme for a long, long time: suddenly we're forced to remember how twenty-first-century Earth actually works, and we no longer have the comfort of believing that we're morally superior to the Ood-wranglers. Yet Donna responds to this all-too-sensible question by criticising the Doctor for taking cheap shots, and… the Doctor apologises, thus allowing us to return to our normal level of smugness. Well, that's no surprise. This is a modern, consumer-age version of Doctor Who. And we can't ask a modern, consumer-age audience to feel uncomfortable about itself. Can we?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Doctor Who 2008, Week Two: The Past is Another Country… It's Full of Bloody Tourists

Now I'm imagining Jon Pertwee shouting: "We're on Spiridon… and it's Icecano Day!"

However, on to this week's grand philosophical question: why do Doctor Who people have such a problem with big-H, fully-contextualised, Simon Schama-flavoured History? This has been an issue since the stone age, or at least since "The Tribe of Gum", but it's a problem that's taken various forms over the decades. The Hartnell-era outings with periwigs and lumbering henchmen are now thought of as "straight" historicals, in the sense that they don't involve history being molested by crashed spaceships or werewolves (or, indeed, anything more threatening than Barbara Wright in Aztecwear), yet they were nothing of the sort. When I said that early Doctor Who was the TV branch of children's literature, I meant something specific: most of the '60s historicals aren't based on bona fide history at all, but on the kind of historical adventure stories that children were expected to read in those days, or at least recognise.

Hence, "The Highlanders" has more to do with Robert Louis Stevenson than the actual events of Culloden; "The Smugglers" is Moonfleet with the novel inclusion of a heroine in a miniskirt; "The Reign of Terror" features characters straight from the pages of The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities, as if it's a test-run for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and dear God, wouldn't that be a better model for the twenty-first-century historical than the one we're stuck with); "The Crusade" presents itself as a Shakespearean history play with extra flesh-eating ants, as if it's a prelude to King John; even "The Massacre", the supposedly serious one, hangs on an Identical Twin gimmick just like the one in The Prisoner of Zenda.

This is no bad thing, of course. We've got to remember that in the 1960s, literature was the second-best way of engaging with the furthest reaches of the planet: the best way, actually going there, was unthinkable for 90% of the population. More importantly, though, it was the only credible way of engaging with the past (it still is). "Marco Polo" may not actually tell you much about thirteenth-century China, especially now we know that the real Marco Polo made it all up, but it does encourage the sprogs in the audience to recognise and understand the written sources. This is why Tat Wood has wrongly-but-tellingly tried to argue that Doctor Who is, in its naked state, "about" literacy. Here in 2008, where literacy only stretches as far as Harry Potter and taking in interest in the furthest reaches of the planet is actively discouraged by most of the people who run the media, this doesn't just sound old-fashioned but actively antisocial. What, kids were expected to read in those days? Euuuurrrrr! What was the matter with them, didn't they have Sky Plus?

No, let's wind it back a little, because we should consider what happened in the 1980s. The deliberate blurring of the line between "history" and "classic fiction" in '60s Doctor Who was perfectly sound, and yet it had a rather odd effect on the minds of those who grew up in its wake. You can rely on the fact that Doctor Who fans of any era will know more about history (or at the very least, European history) than the average citizen, for obvious reasons, but they can have a certain… shall we call it a lack of perspective? We all rationally know that the Siege of Troy didn't really pan out that way, or even the way Homer claimed, yet if the baseline of your knowledge is "The Myth Makers" then it's bound to affect your view of the era. An interesting case-study here is Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, the twentieth-anniversary volume that filled so many Christmas stockings in 1983, when fan-guides were still a rarity. It's interesting for two reasons. Reason One: the book details the history of Doctor Who itself, but gets it wrong in exactly the same way that Doctor Who stories get "real" history wrong, giving us a survey of the programme's past that's based more on mythology than fact. Many of the great misconceptions about the Mark One series originated with this volume, which is why we still have to remind ourselves that "An Unearthly Child" wasn't broadcast late because of the Kennedy assassination, that "The Gunfighters" wasn't the lowest-rated story ever… and so on.

But Reason Two is more interesting: Peter Haining went on to become a proper historian, or at least, that's what he thought. In the 1990s, he gave us Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which he claimed that Todd was an honest-to-goodness historical figure rather than the legendary bogeyman we tend to assume. The book was reprinted shortly before Haining's death in 2007, to cash in on the Tim Burton movie, and yet it'[s got to be said… for a volume that sits in the "History" section of W. H. Smith's, it's only fractionally more believable than "The Gunfighters". Haining wilfully fudges the line between fiction and actuality by passing off nineteenth-century romances as if they were primary historical documents, then presents us with a complete biography of the "real" Sweeney Todd without bothering to tell us where he got the information from or how much of it he's making up for the sake of effect. And yet astonishingly, many people have managed to take this work seriously. The most obvious cheap-shot would be to say that Haining's standard of research didn't improve after 1983, although the bigger issue is that you really have to expect someone with a background in Doctor Who to do this. Sweeney Todd never actually existed, any more than Nero actually burned down Rome or Barrass actually planned the rise of Napoleon in the backroom of a French pub, but if you've seen the Great Fire of London being started by Tereleptils then anything goes.

Back to the present, a time in which the past is very much in the past. At its very worst, historical drama in the BBC's "Golden Age" meant period flouncing-around and character actors giving it their all. Now the best you can hope for is period flouncing-around with occasional bouts of shagging. The Tudors is the most obvious example of the modern style of antiquity, a version of the past that borders on the "Al Pacino is Arthur Scargill" Hollywood model, with token nipples every twelve minutes. (More amusingly, the same screenwriter gave us Elizabeth, in which the Virgin Queen gets a good seeing-to at least twice during the course of the movie. I look forward to a "controversial" new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, in which Anne is captured by the Nazis after they hear her banging in the attic [see footnote].) What's notable about recent Doctor Who is that it's basically following the same pattern, except with monsters instead of sex. However, without a proper context, monsters are only marginally more interesting.

We might have guessed that with the modern-day series giving so much of itself over to the Cult of Celebrity, "historical" stories would largely involve semi-famous people of today playing famous people of yesteryear. "The Unquiet Dead" laid the ground-rules for this, although the real test-case is obviously "The Shakespeare Code", just because its complete lack of interest in actual history is so utterly - dear Christ, I didn't spot the pun until it was too late - shameless. It's always tempting to point out the historical glitches in this kind of script, given how many there are (my favourite is the thought that although Shakespeare meets Martha after writing Love's Labours Lost and spends much of his time trying to get into her anachronistic pants, just one year later he publishes Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio's line about wanting to marry his betrothed "were she an Ethiope" demonstrates that Shakespeare considered black woman to be the ugliest creatures on Earth… does Martha go back to 1599 at some stage, and really, really piss him off?). But the nit-picking is pointless, because "Code" doesn't give a rat's codpiece about history. Clearly it doesn't care about historical fact, hence the depiction of Shakespeare as a member of Oasis, but nor do the story or its themes have anything to do with what was actually going on in Elizabethan England. History is there to be scenery for monsters. End of.

This borne in mind, the modern Doctor Who historical can be seen as a kind of time-tourism. History plays up all its regional clichés in order to attract the casual traveller, without doing anything that might scare the crowds away or - God forbid - tell them anything they didn't already know. The ending of "The Shakespeare Code" is quite gratuitous in this. You can almost hear the American tourists standing in the balcony, saying: "Gee, look, honey! Doctor Who and William Shakespeare are fighting some monsters, using a spell from Harry Potter. Have you got the camera?" Plus ca change: the more things change, the more we re-write the past in order to make it look as if they don't. Shakespeare is like a rock star (although, perhaps mercifully, there's no attempt to create a running gag by having him say "what the Chaucer was that?" at any stage), while the teenagers of ancient Pompeii act just like teenagers from a BT commercial.

Ah yes, "The Fires of Pompeii". Given its pedigree, we wouldn't have expected anything less rudimentary than the standard "period costume + alien invasion = enough to keep the Radio Times happy" formula: James Moran's episode of Torchwood may not have been the series' worst (I was about to say "Sweet Jesus, can you imagine an episode of Doctor Who written by the author of the worst episode of Torchwood?", but then I remembered that there already is one and that I've been trying to block it out of my consciousness), yet it is among the most pointless, and that's saying something. If we'd seen the Confidential before the actual episode, then we might have feared the worst, with Phil Collinson repeating the "Voyage of the Damned" mistake of assuming that Big Effects are enough to justify an episode's existence. What we actually get is therefore a surprise, not only because it's half-competent, but because - perhaps uniquely - it doesn't follow any one single model. Moran's Radio Times interview makes him sound as if he was in a state of borderline schizophrenia when he wrote it, aiming at something that would entertain his fan-self and his ten-year-old self and a modern audience of eight-million, which explains a lot. This is almost a Historical Doctor Who compilation tape, a demonstration of all the things that pretend-period-drama has tried to do over the years.

Ergo, we have a Roman nuclear family, halfway between the 1960s version of history ("everything before the present day was a test-run for the perfect consumer society", the thinking behind both The Flintstones and "The Time Meddler") and the 2000s version ("everything before the present day was a test-run for the perfect consumer society, except that the audience in the '60s knew it was a joke, whereas we're actually daft enough to believe it"). We have expensive-looking street-scenes featuring the creepy one out of Dead Ringers, like a cross between the Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stylings of "The Romans" (vintage 1966) and the big-budget tele-gloss of Rome (vintage 2006, a very poor year). But we also get nods and apologies to the versions of history that only Doctor Who can do. The weakest, drabbest part of the affair is the standard-issue plot about This Week's Aliens trying to colonise Earth, complete with standard-issue drivelling rant about an "empire", and yet… the script treats this almost as an afterthought, so the scary priestesses become part of the scenery. Naturally, we also have the inevitable CGI footsoldier-beast, which at least has some elan this time around: if the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings looked like an end-of-level monster from Tomb Raider, then this looks more like Ray Harryhausen doing the effects for "Transformers: The Rock Years".

But most obviously, there's the same smack of tragedy that drove "The Massacre", with many of the same moral arguments being waved around in front of our noses. In fact, if anything, the greatest flaw in "The Fires of Pompeii" is that it doesn't go far enough in this direction. And "direction" may be the key word here, because there are moments when it seems as if Colin Teague is just trying to get the human horror out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible, so he can focus on what he considers to be the real star of the show (i.e. the big exploding mountain). Even given Catherine Tate's grotesque attempts at tragedy, as she belts out lines about death, suffering and responsibility like a six-year-old having a strop, the scene in which Donna tries to tell the locals to run for the hills - and specifically, the moment when she realises it's pointless - should pack more of a punch than the eruption itself. Instead, Teague directs it as if it's an action sequence, part of the catastrophe montage rather than the point of the whole story. No wonder this all seems like such an odd mix. Even when the writer decides to do "serious", the programme thinks we'll feel cheated if we don't see people waving their arms around and panicking.

On balance, you'd have to say that it works more often than it doesn't, simply because there's so much going on in this 48-minute toga-party that it's bound to get something right every couple of scenes. It's not great, of course: historical Doctor Who won't be great until we see a story that's got the nerve to absolutely, unapologetically do one intelligent thing and do it well. Yet the consensus, at least among old-school fans who want to sound as if they know all about modern television, is that a historical has to be something like this; that there must be a CGI monster and a possessed villain in order to keep the punters watching; that any broader view of the programme is inconceivable in today's consumer-driven, showbiz-addled, idealism-free environment. All these things are quite untrue, but then, we should know that instinctively. It could be - should be - the pure human drama that drives an episode like this, and to assume we're only watching it because of the big bang at the end is rather insulting. Especially when you realise that if you take away the effects, then this is actually a rather small story, about the fate of a single family more than the grand scope of humanity.

The truth is that even if the audience is no longer capable of caring about big-H History, it is capable of caring about people, at least when the screen isn't clogged up with computer graphics. In a world where special effects are omnipresent and there are multi-million-pound spectaculars in every ad-break, even a monster-free remake of "The Massacre" would make more of an impression than the sight of several dozen screaming extras being showered with tissue-paper ash.

Footnote. There was a sketch about this "nipples and sexy assassins" version of historical drama on BBC7's Tilt this week. I mention this purely because I was the one responsible for it, although the version I wrote wasn't exactly the version they broadcast. The scripted line parodying The Tudors was: "Yes! Yes! Come on my tits and dissolve the monasteries!"

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Doctor Who 2008, Week One: Big Russell's Immense Organ

Builds week-by-week into a complete collection of fanboy angst.

Let me just ask… you know that bit at the end of "Partners in Crime", where the little Adipose waves goodbye through the window of the spaceship? I'm not the only one who actually found himself waving back at it, am I…? Early, '60s-age Doctor Who often worked by invoking the country's twenty-year-old memories of World War Two - consider "The Web of Fear", and the instinctive connection it makes between soldiers and underground stations - but this is Doctor Who for a generation that's never known a national trauma. Ergo, it invokes our twenty-year-old memories of watching Rainbow. "Bye-bye! Byyyy-yyyyye!" (On another level, we might like to see this as the counterweight to that shite-awful "Something Borrowed" episode of Torchwood, in which it's okay to kill alien babies if they had a parasitic upbringing. We note that "Something Borrowed" avoids showing us the alien baby in question, so that we don't have to squirm when the hero murders it. The Adipose wisely make themselves visible whenever they can.)

Good, now that's out of the way…

It should be clear to us by this stage that Doctor Who's worst enemy, far more than the BBC schedulers, the Eurovision Song Contest or the estate of Terry Nation, is our expectations of it. The word "our" is used in the broadest, whole-of-humankind sense here, because it should also be clear that the expectations of hardcore old-school fandom are violently different from the expectations of the general public (or even individual slices of the general public… "Fear Her" worked for children, because that's the way they tend to think about the world, but it was anathema to those who believe that proper sci-fi has to involve alien invasions, random Victoriana and very dark sets). The expectations of the media are different to both. This is why the views of the Radio Times never seem to gel with the views of people you hear talking about Doctor Who on the bus, and ultimately, why Catherine Tate was considered a good move. I mention this last fact not to begin another round of abuse, but simply because it tells you so much about the way the series has developed. If Big Russell's idea of "the real world" is now "the real world as people who work in television see it" - and increasingly, it is - then the media can be thought of as his whopping great sensory organ.

Which is a problem, when the views of the media are as smug and misguided as those of fandom. Consider, for example, the opening line from Time Out's preview of "Partners in Crime": "A call centre is the unlikely, earthbound setting for this latest series of time-travelling hi-jinks." Unlikely…? In the BBC Wales scheme of things, as it was laid out right in the very first moments of "Rose", surely a call centre is the most likely, most predictable place in the universe for a new series to start? The real surprise here, and the one that kicks "Partners" into high gear, is that Donna isn't working there but acting as a Doctor-surrogate by trying to infiltrate it. The Radio Times tends to follow the Time Out line - q.v. this week's editorial, and its cry of "take yet another bow, Mr Russell T. Davies", even though most of us are saying "no, please don't, that's part of the problem" - yet there's a terrible sense of self-congratulation here, as if media types who don't normally watch anything more outré than Holby City think it's somehow remarkable to begin an SF series by showing us a modern-day workplace and then revealing it to be a front for alien invaders.

As anyone who's been watching carefully since 2005 will know, this sort of thing is positively ordinary by now, but what's Davies to think? If this is the only feedback he really gets, then how's he going to work out that he might just be driving the series up a blind alley…? Fortunately, with "Partners in Crime", he's found an approach that stops the episode being a straight retread of "Invasion of the Bane": this is the best screwball romantic comedy that Hollywood never made, presenting David Tennant as a time-travelling Cary Grant rather than a latter-day Tom Baker. Can Russell keep it up forever, though? Can the other writers? Can anybody?

Here we should consider the series' other great handicap, the chief writer's bizarre belief that it needs to keep one foot in contemporary London and / or Cardiff if the audience is going to care about it. We can skip over the obvious arguments against this, and merely mention that old-style Doctor Who got its highest ratings during a period when the TARDIS never landed in twentieth-century Britain and there weren't any human characters on board. I've already argued that with the BBC pumping out two spin-off series at once, and thus giving us eighteen "a bit like Doctor Who, but set in 2007" stories since the end of the last season, there's something rather dubious about using the epic budget of Doctor Who itself to do more of the same. The biggest problem with "Partners in Crime" isn't that there's anything wrong with it as 48 minutes of television entertainment, it's that this is what Torchwood and The Sarah-Jane Adventures should be like all the time.

The mother-series has bigger fish to fry, or at least, it should have. When the programme was confined to Earth in 1970, the writers complained that they were stuck with mad scientists and alien invasions, and modern Doctor Who just underlines the point: with so many CGI-and-urban-skyline stories being churned out per annum, the production team starts to rely on showbiz guest-stars ("The Sound of Drums", and this includes John Simm) and unexpected-looking monsters (the Adipose here, bless 'em) to distract the audience from the formula. For the media, which sees Doctor Who as a gimmick-driven adventure serial in the mould of Robin Hood - or, more accurately but less topically, like Bugs - this is fine, since they expect it to be formulaic. For the rest of us, though…?

If we got lucky this time around, then it's because this is about the characters rather than the plot. Whereas "Invasion of the Bane" gave us the sneaking feeling that nobody involved really cared about teenagers in contemporary Britain, and would rather be focusing on the enormously-tentacled aliens, "Partners" assumes that everyone will be tuning in specifically to see how the Doctor deals with his latest, most showbiz accomplice. Again, we have to ask ourselves whether this is exactly what Doctor Who is supposed to be doing, but a bigger question is where the programme can go if the onus is on the stars rather than the stories. With David Tennant now one of the most famous people in the country, and a companion on board who's already a celebrity, the regulars are the selling-points and any further development seems unnecessary. We've got Catherine Tate and the promised return of Billie Piper, plus a clutch of well-known TV faces as Batman-style guest villains. That'll keep the papers happy. Why do more?

Others may be less convinced than the press. Perhaps the greatest single problem with the casting of Tate, even beyond the fact that she can somehow deliver the line "things of metal and fire and blood" as if she's on methodone, is that she's guaranteed to alienate the younger viewer. Steven Moffat was quite right in saying that children prefer to see slightly older actors as point-of-view characters, but a more accurate summary is that they like child-substitutes rather than children, so that they can imagine what they'd do if they were grown-ups. The appeal of Rose, and to a lesser extent Martha, was that she had enough savvy to appeal to teenagers but enough "wow, let's explore the universe!" gumption to appeal to under-twelves. Now consider Donna Noble. In "The Runaway Bride", she'd rather have a high-paid job in human resources than adventures in time and space. In "Partners in Crime", she's depicted as a career woman who's had a mid-life crisis and wants to get out more. In spite of this episode's best efforts, she's grown-up in the bad way. As a result, the series begins to look as if it's an in-joke for adults.

In this light, we reflect on the thought that there's no Totally Doctor Who this year, and ask… can you imagine what it would've been like if there had been? Can you really see Kirsten O'Brien trying to get the Who-sprogs worked up into a frenzy over a POV character who's older than the actor playing the Doctor and treats TARDIS travel as if she's just been promoted to accounts? Can you imagine one of those terrible animated cartoons we had last year, only with Donna instead of Martha? And as I've asked before, how are the authors of the Doctor Who juvenile novels - you know, the ones I wasn't allowed to write for - going to sell this companion to ten-year-olds on the printed page? It still seems odd that nobody at the BBC noticed all the potential problems, but then, nobody there would have bothered arguing. Remember, Davies gets his feedback from the media. Media people think it's a good idea to use an established celebrity as the audience's point-of-view character, because they're the only ones who think celebrities are normal. If Tennant leaves, then they'll probably want to see someone out of Little Britain as his replacement. They're like that.

Or, how about this as a more telling symptom of Doctor Who in the Showbiz Age? Davies tells us in this week's Confidential that if he were teaching a course in scriptwriting, then he'd start by challenging the writers to put the "Doctor and Donna hang off a window-cleaner's platform" sequence on paper, and to make it as unambiguous as possible. Can you see the problem with this, boys and girls…? What he's actually saying here is that it's the first duty of a writer to know how to storyboard an action sequence. This is twaddle, of course: what you should teach a writer, if s/he's writing drama, is how to make sure that the stuff coming out of the actors' mouths is actually dramatic. Now, however, Davies' view seems to be that a scriptwriter's job is to make the finished work look as much like a Hollywood movie as possible. Davies himself can get away with the Hollywood version of Doctor Who because, at heart, he thinks he's a director. "Partners in Crime" works because it's a director's script, and uses rapid-fire cutting as a storytelling device rather than a way of making the episode look slick and fast-paced, but expecting everyone to take the same approach is… well, let's just say "problematic".

When future generations look back in judgement at the era when Doctor Who went to Showbiz Hell - assuming that future generations will be able to make judgements, or indeed, follow any narrative structure more complex than a BBC3 news bulletin - they'll look at the Confidential documentary that followed "Voyage of the Damned", and wonder why nobody realised what was happening. When Russell T. Davies can be seen creaming himself over the presence of an acceptable-but-in-no-way-great Australian actress as if it's the high-water-mark of human culture, and when Kylie's manager seriously tries to tell us that the Doctor's regenerations are comparable to a pop star "re-styling" himself, we should be in no doubt that something's f***ed up somewhere. Even if it does leave us with the image of William Hartnell dressing up like Ziggy Stardust. "Voyage of the Damned" itself was a preening demonstration of How Big This Programme Is, even aside from its mad belief that an "ambitious" television show is one that's got bigger special effects than usual. "Partners in Crime" is vastly better on every level, but ultimately, it's still weighed down by the same obsession with the series' own public image. This is, above all else, a programme which believes that its target audience is Jonathan Ross.

Perhaps there should be a rule by which everyone writing for Doctor Who should be obliged to watch "An Unearthly Child" before starting work, not because the series should actually be like that these days, but just as a reminder of where it came from, where it was supposed to be taking us, and what space it's meant to occupy in the British psyche. Doctor Who was, in a more idealistic age, like children's literature for television. And remember, this was in the days when children were actually educated (just look how much "The Crusade" and "The Reign of Terror" assume the audience to know in advance), so we're going some way beyond Harry Potter here. It's veered a long way from that path over years, sometimes quite successfully, but the original version still reminds you of what the programme's aspirations might be and could be. Meanwhile, the modern version is more like Heat magazine with special effects.

Then again, what isn't these days? At the start of the Eccleston season, Davies poured scorn on the tabloids for suggesting that Jamie Oliver might be the new Doctor, as if a mere TV personality could play the part rather than a serious actor. Three years on, it's as if he's deliberately steering the series towards a point where nobody except a TV personality could possibly be a replacement for Tennant.

This Week's Summary: Mostly bright, but with ominous clouds later in the day.