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?