Sunday, May 04, 2008

Doctor Who 2008, Week Five: "Surpriii-iiise!"

In which Helen Raynor fails the Gadarene Test.

Look, I was only eight: however half-baked and unconvincingly-monstered it may seem now, the fact is that episode one of "The Leisure Hive" just freaked me out. It wasn't that the "wooooo!" title sequence I'd known all my life was suddenly replaced by a "phreeeeeow!" one, or that the sets suddenly involved actual colours (rather than late-'70s regulation spaceship grey) and the incidental music sounded like Brian Eno (rather than Tenko). It was the cliffhanger. The Doctor got his arms and legs ripped off, for God's sake. True, it wasn't The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but we still found ourselves staring down his screaming throat while an alien death-telly pulled his body into five easy pieces. The idea that he could scream was startling enough. Remember, for the previous three years we'd had a "comedy" version of the Doctor who was largely a vehicle for Tom Baker's endless showing-off, a version who never looked remotely threatened by the villains, who seemed to adopt new superpowers every week, and who probably wasn't even capable of feeling pain. We hadn't seen him break a sweat since Sutekh, and to an eight-year-old, 1976 might as well have been the late Renaissance. Now the Doctor was actually being tortured, or so it appeared. Surpriii-iiise!

And then, a week later, he got turned into a wrinkly old man. We didn't know the universe could do that to him, either.

If it seems unlikely now that a little thing like "the lead character grows old" could actually surprise us, then that's partly because we've been so over-exposed to the idea in the ten months since "The Family of Blood" did it properly (we consider its recent use in Torchwood, which wasn't just surplus to the plot but outside the realms of all discernible logic), but mostly because 28 years of advances in prosthetic makeup have made us think of it as exactly the kind of thing sci-fi does these days. Which sums up the problem in a nutshell: Doctor Who has always surprised us, yet fandom has the kind of hindsight which stops us remembering how bizarre it all was at the time. In the case of "The Leisure Hive", the important thing isn't what actually happened (or why), but the fact that this double-violation of the Doctor changed the tone of the whole series.

But just try to imagine the surprise of the original, first-generation audience. In 1963, there was nothing else on Earth like this programme. After the obvious "what the Hell is this?" value of "An Unearthly Child" and the "where the Hell are we?" impact of "The Daleks", early Doctor Who was seen by the viewers as uncharted territory, not just because they had no idea where they were going next - they didn't keep getting dragged back to present-day Earth, the jammy bastards - but because the programme itself was so often an unexplored landscape of alien shapes and radiophonic noises. This series surprised people by giving them things they'd never seen or heard on television, not by the nature of its plots. This was true even in the 1980s. The only surprising things in the script of "Earthshock" are the two Big Twist moments, yet the real shock wasn't the return of the Cybermen or the eventual sacrifice of the firstborn boy-child, but the fact that a TV programme was giving us this physically dark, quasi-gothic version of the future. In the age of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, nobody else was attempting anything like it on the small screen. In fact, an argument could be made that the real reason Doctor Who went to pieces in the mid-1980s (and bear in mind that even in this column, we've heard numerous reasons more complex than "John Nathan-Turner went mental") was that it stopped even trying to surprise the audience, and instead settled into a pattern of pandering to the fans while delivering The Kind Of Things Doctor Who Does.

Which might be taken as a warning from history, but we'll come back to that later.

Flip forward to the 1990s, and a small war is raging in fandom, at least amongst those who regularly pick up the Doctor Who novels (and, yes, it already seems strange that there was a time when we needed this life-support system). By the end of the decade, there were supposedly two camps, "trad" and "rad". We'll skip over the question of whether the "rad" authors were genuinely "radical" or just trying to be interesting, and concentrate on the "trad" side of the argument. The theory holds that there are "traditional" types of Doctor Who story, and yet… if you examine the episodes from the original series, then it's hard to find more than a handful of them. Certainly, those stories which are most beloved of "trad" fans - or, at least, those which seem most iconic - weren't even remotely "trad" when they were broadcast. "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" was an oddity, not a template; "The Silurians" was unlike any Doctor Who story that had gone before it; "The Web of Fear" would have been unthinkable in William Hartnell's day. Occasionally, we find stories which seem to be made up of mass-produced parts from other stories of the same era ("Fury from the Deep" is easily the worst offender in this category), or stories which seem familiar because they remind Cult TV fans of other Cult TV programmes ("Terror of the Zygons" is an Avengers episode with monsters), but this isn't what "trad" really means.

Actually, "trad" didn't exist in the TV series until quite late in the day. It's been argued that "The Visitation" was the first genuinely "trad" story, the first to mimic a specific style of Doctor Who without even trying to add anything new to the mix. Which points up something rather important: those old-school Doctor Who stories that come closest to being "trad" aren't actually very good, and probably wouldn't even keep "trad" fans happy these days. No, what the "trad" camp of the 1990s wanted were books that were just like the Doctor Who stories they happened to like, however freakish those stories may have been on first broadcast. I've mentioned this before, but when an acquaintance lent me a copy of The Last of the Gadarene eight years ago, he made me tell him what it was about before I'd actually read it. He did this by asking me questions about the plot, and encouraging me to give the most predictable answers I could think of. 'It's a Third Doctor story, so where do you think it's set?' 'Erm… England in the 1970s?' 'And who do you think the villains are?' 'Well, I suppose… aliens who want to invade Earth.' 'Yes, but how?' 'By infiltrating an institution of some sort?' 'And?' 'Um, disguising themselves as something normal and then smothering people.' And so on, right up to the "twist" where it turns out that one of the characters is the Master in disguise.

At the time, one of the review magazines gave The Last of the Gadarene full marks for being a "perfect Pertwee", yet the irony here is that Barry Letts would never have commissioned a story this banal in the actual, bona fide 1970s. However formulaic the UNIT stories may seem now, there was always something new to see during his producership. Even "The Claws of Axos" - probably the drabbest of them all, and a story well worth contemplating this week, since we can think of it as a direct ancestor of "The Poison Sky" - showed us things that seemed slightly weird by the standards of the day. Letts' own 1990s attempt to recapture the Pertwee years, The Ghosts of N-Space, demonstrates that Yet Another Alien Invasion was the last thing he wanted: Ghosts may be hideously malformed in almost every detail, but as a story in which the Doctor visits a Hieronymus-Bosch-style spirit-realm while attempting to defeat a four-hundred-year-old Mafia boss who's also a necromancer, you can't call it staid. The truth is that like so many other '90s fan-phenomena, the "trad" novel didn't come from a genuine tradition of Doctor Who at all. It existed partly to give a career opportunity to writers with very little imagination, but mostly as a kind of security-blanket for people whose video of "The Three Doctors" was getting a bit worn out.

(Incidentally… since I've mentioned The Last of the Gadarene, I might as well head back to Gatissville. I've always argued that "The Unquiet Dead" isn't a "trad" Doctor Who story at all, but an episode of a generic '90s sci-fi show: try watching it back-to-back with Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Time's Arrow", and see what strikes you. But a few years on, even those who liked "The Unquiet Dead" have begun to admit that there isn't really much to the script at all, and that it works because everyone involved in the production is so good at doing random Victoriana. The sets are perfect, the performances are just like those you'd find in one of the BBC's Christmas adaptations of Dickens' novels, and the gas-monsters are visually beautiful even if they're conceptually ugly. Strip away these nineteenth-century crowd-pleasers, though, and you're left with… well, with something like "The Idiot's Lantern", which is also made of Cult TV standards but doesn't have the right visual "props" to keep the punters interested. Here we should bear in mind that Mark Gatiss is so confused about what the traditions of Doctor Who actually are that he thinks it's indistinguishable from Quatermass, even though the two programmes are philosophical opposites. See the article Sci-Fi Iconoclasty 101, about halfway down this page, if you really care about this sort of thing.)

Jump-cut to the present day, and "The Sontaran Stratagem" / "The Poison Sky". Last week I spent 3,000 words explaining exactly why this sort of Yeti-in-the-loo business is bound to wear thin after a while, with occasional diversions in the direction of the Earth's core, but it wasn't until the repeat of "Stratagem" that I realised I'd missed the most important point. It isn't just that the series is intent on flogging a formula we're already sick of, or that Doctor Who's capacity now appears to be more limited than at any point in its prior history, including the UNIT era. It isn't just the embarrassment factor of watching yet another TV newsreader announce the apocalypse while urgent-sounding music pumps away in the background, or the crushing banality of the "relationship" dialogue, or the way Helen Raynor keeps saying how nice it is that Doctor Who can combine "real world" with "alien" without noticing that the "real world" half of the programme is a spent force and that the "alien" half is rapidly becoming too routine to seem worthwhile. No, the real point is this:

The programme is now being made by people who don't even realise that "surprise" is meant to be part of the package.

There are no surprises in the Sontaran storyline, but it isn't just a problem with the plot. Remember what I said: it's in the mandate of Doctor Who to give us a kind of television we've never seen before, to use the medium in unique ways, to show us things that have never previously existed. What we have now is a version of the programme for people with no imagination, who want it to be as cosy and as familiar as Casualty (which would, at least, explain why Alison Graham actually prefers it this way). Surprise is no longer part of the agenda. In "The Sontaran Stratagem", we're given numerous questions to which we already know the answers, like The Last of the Gadarene for under-twelves. "Why are these cars killing people?" "Because of aliens." "What do these aliens want?" "To take over the world." In "The Poison Sky", we're faced with questions that are tougher, but no more interesting. "Why do the Sontarans want to change the atmosphere?" "For some reason to do with their war, but it doesn't really matter, to be honest." "How are they going to be defeated?" "The Doctor's going to rig up a spurious piece of technology, just like always." We're being shown something known, something safe. This is television specifically for an audience which doesn't feel the need to get involved, an audience which supposedly gets scared if you jump out at it and go "boo!". And this is unfortunate, because that's always been Doctor Who's job.

This surprise-free version of the series should come as no surprise. Looking back on it, the clue was there two whole years ago, in the Confidential that accompanied "The Girl in the Fireplace". You may recall an interview with Julie Gardner, in which she expressed her surprise that a script which begins with monsters on eighteenth-century Earth should then cut to a space-station in the fifty-first century, and said that this clearly wasn't business as usual. Now, this puzzled me at the time. Since Doctor Who is capable of going anywhere, anywhen and anyhow, and has the ability to change its methods with every episode, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I consider a time-shift between the 1700s and the 5000s to be pretty much par for the course. At the very least, it's no big deal. Yet as far as the programme-makers are concerned, standard practice is to (A) find a historical setting or a modern-day "topical" issue, (B) attach a monster to it, and (C) arrange the set-pieces around the result. To me, a script that stretches our attention between Mme de Pompadour and clockwork droids in the far future is surprising, but it's only a background-radiation level of surprise. To a producer who doesn't even realise that surprise is a minimum expectation, on the other hand… yes, it must seem spectacular.

This point became even more obvious when Russell T. Davies announced that he considers Steven Moffat to be a genius, and to have neural pathways made of gold (or something like that… I forget the exact quote). Well, Moffat is certainly competent, which is a novelty these days. Yet his work should, ideally, be the baseline for all modern Doctor Who rather than its pinnacle: "The Empty Child" and "The Girl in the Fireplace" should be the norm rather than the crème de la crème. If our standards hadn't been set so low by the (A), (B), (C) approach, then we'd be able to see this rather more clearly.

A big part of the problem here is that television in general, and (sad to say) Doctor Who in particular, is almost going out of its way to discourage any actual talent amongst new writers. As we saw in Week Three, a modern script is expected to be more like a storyboard than a teleplay. It's notable that Davies considers Moffat to be the best of the bunch, because Moffat is significantly older than most. He started working in television in the 1980s, and can therefore remember a time when writers were actually supposed to write, rather than being encouraged to churn out second-rate Hollywood action-movies for TV. I say "notable", because he's succeeded by actively defying what the producers have forced Doctor Who to become. Moffat has - if you will - the element of surprise, but that shouldn't be a sign of genius, it should just be a sign of adequacy. A quick glance at this year's Radio Times round-up of the 2008 season shows us that while Davies is patting his writers on the head for giving us by-the-book scripts like "Planet of the Ood" and "The Sontaran Stratagem", Moffat will be giving us a story involving…. Christ, I don't even know what it involves. There's something about a library, something about shadows, something about data-ghosts. This could go anywhere. I'm more interested in "Silence in the Library" than any other story on the menu, not because I believe Moffat to be the high-water-mark of all Doctor Who authorship, but purely because I have no idea what it's going to be like. As I said, this should be a normal part of the Doctor Who experience, not something exceptional.

Perhaps, just perhaps, all writers could be this unpredictable if the producers actually gave them some incentive for doing it. Instead, we get a two-parter that starts with a killer sat-nav device driving a car into a river (see, I told you that modern-day Doctor Who is just like Bugs) and then gives us an alien invasion that makes Independence Day look creative. It's not as if the modern series can't surprise us, just that… it can't be bothered. After all, the 2005 season was a long list of shocks to the system. "Rose" surprised us all - and horrified the Cult TV fans, pleasingly - by taking Doctor Who out of the realm of sci-fi and into the daylight, giving us a universe that was upbeat and bright pink instead of morbid and badly-lit like The X-Files. This was only the beginning. "The End of the World" showed us a future that was completely berserk instead of cyberpunk; "Aliens of London" reinvented the contemporary Doctor Who story as a wilfully grotesque parody; even "Father's Day", which really is much less interesting than the thirty-second trailer that gave away most of the plot, is a long way from routine. (Ironically, at times it's a lot like an episode of Casualty, with the key difference that the supporting characters are being threatened by Reapers rather than a crashed bus or a gas leak. However, Casualty with Reapers is far more surprising than "The Poison Sky", and therefore - on the grand scale - less Casualty-like. If you see what I'm getting at.)

But that was 2005, when the programme had to redefine what Doctor Who actually did. Now it can afford to be complacent, and so… it is. In less than three years, the series has reached the same point that fandom had reached in the 1990s: for the first time in the Doctor Who's thirty-year history (I'm not counting the big gap), there's now a surfeit of genuinely "trad" stories on television. And just as before, "trad" means "stories which try to be like other stories that weren't trad at the time", usually padded out with clichés that could have come from any Cult TV series ever made. In the case of the Sontaran story, you can turn "Spotting the Sci-Fi Standards" into a drinking game, although for now I'll simply mention the amusement value of the Evil Martha episode being shown on the same day that Channel 5 broadcast S Club: Seeing Double. This isn't "traditional", this is just banal. If there's any form of surprise here at all, then it's our sheer amazement when the script sinks to the lowest level of Cliché Hell by having the Cartoon Teenage Braniac heroically sacrifice himself in order to blow up the alien spaceship, at which point the drinking game became irrelevant and there's no option but to drain the rest of the bottle.

Of course, thanks to the US, our very idea of what "surprise" means has been altered. Babylon 5 led us to become obsessed with the Cult of the Story Arc, and this changes our expectations of what a fantasy programme is supposed to do. In a Story-Arc world, "surprise" means the big twist in episode fourteen that changes the nature of what happens in episodes seventeen and nineteen as a means of setting up the season finale in episodes twenty-one and twenty-two. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Heroes are entirely driven by this sort of numbers game, and it rather distracts the viewer from the fact that the form of these programmes isn't surprising in the least. Back in the 1990s, I knew someone who mocked Babylon 5 for having "terrible scripts". This shocked and appalled the rest of us, since we were under the impression that it was the only thing on TV which did sci-fi "properly", and yet… watching the programme again now, as a fully-grown-up grown-up, I can't help noticing that he was right. The scripts are awful, but what kept us watching was the scale of the Story-Arc. Take away big questions like "what do Vorlons look like?" and "if he goes to Zha'ha'dum, will he really die?", and any individual episode just looks like po-faced, Voyager-level space opera. Nobody outside geekdom would be able to hear lines like 'I hear they still call you the Star-Killer' without needing Settlers.

Again, it has to be remembered that Doctor Who used to surprise us with the nature of the territory it covered, not with "revelations". As I've pointed out elsewhere, "Gridlock" may not be to everyone's liking (that's okay, this programme's always been an experiment), but it is one of the most surprising episodes made in the modern age: it has a narrative approach unlike anything else on modern TV, and finds a new way of integrating old-fashioned "small-scale" television drama into the twenty-first-century CGI epic. Yet as I've also pointed out elsewhere, Mark Braxton - the Radio Times' geek-in-residence, and a man who has all the critical faculties of kelp - dismissed it as being "slow", then claimed that it was excused by the Face of Boe's "revelation". Of course, this "revelation" was so bleeding obvious that we could easily have taken it for granted (in fact, many of us already had), but let's focus on the larger point here. Even if the producers of this show weren't encouraging writers to be as bland as possible, should Doctor Who really be pandering to this sort of idiocy?

Increasingly, the series is under the impression that it's okay to keep doing the same trick over and over again, as long as there are clues to the end-of-season two-parter buried in the mix. The big surprise of "Partners in Crime" was the second coming of Rose Tyler, yet many people would much rather have been surprised by an episode that wasn't set on modern-day Earth (again) and didn't involve alien consumer products (again). Likewise, I'm guessing that most of the internet-talk about "The Poison Sky" will revolve around the one-second-long glimpse of Rose on the TARDIS scanner rather than the actual story. Irony Number One is that this new, Americanised form of "surprise" was developed specifically because so many US shows couldn't go anywhere in space and time: if you're stuck on a single space-station week after week, with a finite number of sets, then you need ongoing plots and subplots just to keep the audience watching. The same goes for "small-town" fantasy, Buffy included. But Doctor Who is, demonstrably, meant to be above all of this. Irony Number Two is that the Cult of the Story-Arc demands constant clues about what's going to come next, and the entire essence of Doctor Who - at least when it's any good - is that we're not supposed to have the slightest idea what comes next.

But if it's physically impossible for the series to get any blander than "The Poison Sky", then the worst part is knowing that even now, the programme-makers seriously believe the laser-gun battles and the colossal CGI explosions to be exciting in some way. Whereas in fact, we've forgotten them by the time the episode's over. A scary kid in a gasmask saying 'are you my mummy?' is vastly more memorable than a standard-issue spaceship explosion, even for younger viewers: this week's episode has the Doctor make an in-joke about "The Empty Child" just as the Valiant arrives, but the script doesn't seem to realise that it's just underlining its own failure. We're here for the strangeness, not the big showpieces. And Doctor Who Confidential, in which the cast and crew analyse every detail of the scripts as if they're somehow more than just collections of action-movie set-pieces, are becoming harder and harder to sit through without squirming at the self-delusion of everyone involved. Hearing Helen Raynor trying to explain the motivation of Luke Rattigan is like hearing Chuck Jones trying to describe the psychosexual nuances of Wile E. Coyote, while hearing Russell T. Davies talk about the "importance" of the petty, vapid relationship-building scenes between the Doctor and Donna is like hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger tell us: "I think when the Terminator says 'I'll be back', he's expressing a profound and deep-felt longing to return to this place and time, which is essentially the only spiritual home he knows…"

But then, what do I know? I've just spent a total of 7,000 words criticising something which is, technically, too drab to be even worth discussing. All it really comes down to is that you can think of "The Poison Sky" as either (a) "The Christmas Invasion" with all the good bits taken out, or (b) a story about Sontarans meeting a child genius that's even less interesting than the one from Jim'll Fix It.