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.