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.