Saturday, May 24, 2008

Week Seven-and-a-Half: Commercial Break

Smirnoff 1, Sontarans 0.

Perhaps the most striking thing about This Week's Big Doctor Who News - apart from making me wonder whether Steven Moffat actually read that thing I wrote about Mme de Pompadour and the blow-up doll [but see For One Week Only, below] - is that now the Emperor has named his successor, our focus has suddenly been shifted onto the future rather than the past. Which is to say…

One of the problems with Doctor Who having a single, visible God-King is that whenever the programme falters, it looks as if it's the result of an insane indulgence by a mad despotic ruler (here we might recall that Caligula wasn't assassinated because he was really a horse-shagging psychopath, but because he was making the Empire feel silly about itself). Of course, the actual reason that the 2008-season-so-far has been such a wash-out is that for the last five episodes, none of the writers have done any proper writing. "Planet of the Ood" barely even registers as a story; "The Sontaran Stratagem" no more qualifies as a script than that record by the Ting Tings qualifies as a "song"; the script of "The Doctor's Daughter" is abysmal, and the finished production only ends up being watchable through a combination of (a) the enthusiasm of all those involved and (b) Georgia Moffett's eyelashes; while "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is a collection of pork-scratchings from the corpse of Poirot, so much so that one of its main jokes / plot-twists is cut-and-pasted straight from "The Veiled Lady", although that's another issue.

Yet we have to believe that Big Russell is in some way singularly responsible, not least because he really, really wants us to. Which means that this may be the very last week in which any criticism we might make about the series will be rooted in what's gone before ("Jesus, this has jumped the shark") rather than what's likely to happen next ("still, at least it's bound to be completely different in 2010"). We can dwell on Moffat's potential impact next week, when he'll be presenting us with this year's BAFTA nominee. For now, this is our final chance to take stock of the story so far. And since this is the mid-season break, in an age when Doctor Who seriously believes itself to be a commercial concern, I'd like to do this by… talking about adverts.

Trust me, it's relevant.

What we've learned is that these days, TV ads aren't just the greatest competition that Doctor Who has, but the greatest competition that anything vaguely peculiar, fantastical, or outré can have. One of the reasons that avant-garde culture has had such a rough time over the last thirty years, even beyond the fact that various governments and Rupert Murdoch have done everything possible to bludgeon it to death, is that all the things we used to find remarkable - surrealism, shock tactics, and odd juxtapositions of all kinds - have now been co-opted by the corporate, commercial media. We live in an age of what a great man once called "the casually miraculous", and CGI has just compounded the problem. Consider, as a recent example, the case of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh. After they'd finished shooting their second series, they seriously believed that they'd made a programme more bizarre than anything else on television. Yet as Fielding has pointed out, it was only when the series was broadcast that the truth became apparent: a thirty-minute show about a pink octopus on a flying carpet or a Mexican bandit made of videotape is all very well, but all you have to do is switch channels from BBC3 to ITV, and you can see half a dozen (much higher-budget) thirty-second ad-spots in which cars change into giant robot scorpions and people turn into walking jigsaw puzzles. In fact, the most successful episode of The Mighty Boosh that year was the cheap-rate one about two men going berserk on a desert island, in which the "monsters" were coconuts with faces painted on them.

As we all know, special effects are now so commonplace that we don't even notice them. I say "as we all know", but… does Doctor Who know it? Time and time and time and time and time and time again, we've seen this series make the same mistake of believing that big show-pieces are more interesting than the narrative. This goes all the way back to the Eccleston season, the mythical era when the lost wisdom of the ancients guaranteed that the programme was at least interesting. Look again at the Confidential that accompanied "The End of the World" (you probably videotaped it, because you didn't know how sick you'd get of Confidential in those days), and you'll see Russell T. Davies boasting about the amount of cash that was spent on the spaceship effects, before announcing that if people don't remember this in years to come then the production team might as well give up and go home. Even at the time, it was hard to understand how someone who'd done so much good could make such an obvious error. Three years on, nobody outside fandom remembers the spaceship effects from "The End of the World", because they're virtually indistinguishable from the spaceship effects in every other SF series, SF movie, and SF television ad for Carling Black Label. The viewers of 2005 certainly don't recall Platform One as well as they recall a bunch of men dressing up as killer shop-window dummies, a week earlier.

And as we've already established, the most memorable thing in that whole season - for the general public, at least - was the frighteningly low-budget spectacle of a little boy in a gasmask saying 'are you my mummy?'. The reason is obvious, of course: in the context of the narrative, it's vastly scarier than standard-issue CGI monstrosities like the Reapers or (Christ help us) the Krillitanes. On top of which, we have the problem that any CGI monster is by definition going to be regarded as a Special Effect rather than a natural part of the story. The advantage of a "real" monster, whether it's a Dalek, a gasmask-zombie, or even a Muppet, is that it stops being bizarre after the first couple of minutes. The audience begins to treat it as a normal element of the story-world, and accepts it as a given fact, which means that we find the programme much more engaging. Whereas the point of a computer sprite will always be to make the viewer say "gosh, wow, look!", and the result of this is usually a series of set-pieces in which the episode shows off the CGI as much as possible whether we care about it or not. The plot of "The Unicorn of the Wasp" is specifically engineered to show us some footage of a giant wasp every few minutes, but since it doesn't do anything except hover menacingly, none of these scenes are remotely interesting. Just to add insult to over-budgeted misery, the computer-generated insect isn't even as scary as the stop-motion one in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

And it's barely even worth dwelling on "The Lazarus Experiment", which draws this insanity out to a whole episode, except to say that… in the 2007 season, our new God-King once again threw a spanner in the works by giving us a low-budget monster that everyone preferred to the flashy CGI one. But a less obvious example is "The Fires of Pompeii". As I mentioned in Week Two, at heart this is a little story, in which the citizens of Pompeii are given far more emphasis than the James Bond secret-volcano-base where the Pyroviles are massing their forces. It won critical acclaim for its '60s-ish subplot about the Doctor's impotence in the face of oncoming history. Yet BBC Wales is under the illusion that people won't watch "little" (you could argue that the existence of the soap opera is evidence against this), and according to Phil Collinson, the point of the whole episode is the enormous CGI eruption at the end. The trouble is that these days, every single TV documentary about natural disasters has effects that look exactly like that, even on Channel 5. This isn't something huge and remarkable, it's just TV-normal.

Bearing that in mind, let me ask this question. Was the eruption footage actually necessary? Imagine a version of "Pompeii" staged on a much smaller scale, with the catastrophe implied rather than on-screen, as in its better-groomed ancestor "The Massacre". Conventional wisdom is that the modern audience wouldn't "accept" an episode without a visible big bang, yet the actual audience reaction suggests that this is bunk. A more compact, character-driven "Pompeii" wouldn't just have been more satisfying, but would have seen the budget slashed by… well, I don't have all the relevant figures, but shall we say about a third? Remember, this is a BBC production, so we're allowed to get self-righteous about them squandering our licence-fee money. This goes double for "Voyage of the Damned", which is nothing but a series of effects set-pieces.

The obvious conclusion here is that narrative context is what makes Doctor Who work, not the scale of the show-pieces, but the wider point is that this is true of all TV drama in the modern world. Any given TV commercial will have effects at least as good as those provided by The Mill, probably better, since the CGI budget will be peanuts compared to the amount of cash the advertisers will spend in order to get the ads on television. But we barely even notice these thirty-second spectaculars, let alone remember them. Why? Because the narrative context is missing, and only drama can - should - provide that. It's not that CGI is intrinsically a bad thing, especially not if it's used for world-building purposes, or if it's executed with a genuine sense of beauty (q.v. the last few scenes of "Gridlock", or the catacombs in "The Impossible Planet", by far the most appealing thing in the episode). The problem is simply the misguided belief that CGI will, in itself, make us go "woo!".

With all of this in mind, it's time to present…

Five Recent TV Ads More Impressive Than Doctor Who

1. Car Tax. A young couple walk back to their car after closing-time, only to see the vehicle crush itself into a cube in front of their confused and gormless faces, while the sinister voice-over informs us that if you don't pay your car tax then "we" (ominous, that "we") have the power to clamp, tow away, or even crush your car. If something like that happened in the real world, then you'd never get into a four-wheeled vehicle ever again, yet this underlines something significant. Imagine a Doctor Who story in which some alien force tampers with the world's cars in such a way that on transmission of a certain signal, those cars will auto-compact themselves. It'd be one of the scariest things ever, and children across the country would insist on walking to school on Monday morning, in an echo of the "Terror of the Autons" incident. Not only would this do more to alleviate global warming and childhood obesity than anything the government's ever done, it'd make the Cribbins-in-peril cliffhanger of "The Sontaran Stratagem" seem genuinely terrifying. Instead, what the series gives us is a story in which the "evil" cars either drive into rivers or turn into smoke-machines. "Lame" isn't a word I enjoy using, but occasions like this seem to demand it.

2. Smirnoff Vodka. Out at sea, a swarthy-looking fisherman is understandably startled when various items from the ocean bed - anchors, gold dubloons, rotting Spitfires - haul themselves out of the deep and fling themselves into the sky. They're followed by other, larger, pieces of marine detritus: colossal Greek statues rise from the depths, wrecked ocean-liners are vomited onto the land, while a Viking longboat crash-lands next to a petrol station. All of this is supposed to be a metaphor for Smirnoff's "purity", but the remarkable thing is that this is a kind of catastrophe we've simply never seen on television before. As with the Car Tax ad, all it needs to be genuinely astonishing is a narrative, and yet most of the Earthbound catastrophes we've seen in Doctor Who have involved deathly-dull alien spaceships hovering over urban landmarks. More interesting than Viking longboats landing on petrol stations? I think not. What's most galling, though, is that this wins out over Doctor Who for reasons which have got nothing at all to do with the budget. Flying colossi are no more expensive to do in CGI than (ooh, let's say) a Sontaran warship, but they do require rather more thought.

3. Lynx 3. In this case, the advert is utterly hideous, and sees the "ironic" girls-are-gagging-for-it theme of previous Lynx ads develop into something that looks like all-out misogyny. As we all know by now, Lynx aftershave / deodorant / shower-gel makes any man irresistible to women. In this case, it can drive a woman to such a level of desire that she'll hurl herself at any human female who's standing closer to the man than she is. The result of this suicide-dive - and the thing which must, surely, get Lynx 3 classified as a biohazard - is that both women will instantly explode in a cloud of what looks like toxic dust, and standing in their place will be a single super-beautiful gestalt woman with the best features of both. This process continues throughout the ad, with the uber-girls becoming more and more alluring as more and more women give up their individual identities. All horrifying enough, but once again, a narrative would make this scary in a good way. Traditionally in telefantasy, monsters which absorb / clone / drain the life-essences of their victims are unutterably banal (the Abzorbaloff, like it or not, is a rare break from the norm). The current run of Doctor Who is slightly less hung up on parasites and body-thieves than the 2007 season [see the article The Immortality Nerve, at the bottom of this page, for more on this], but whenever the series decides to give us an alien changeling, we still end up with an Evil Twin in a bath full of gunge or a man slow-dissolving into a CGI monster. The Lynx Effect is shocking by comparison. There's another joke about Sontarans here somewhere, but let's skip it.

4. Sony: Colour… Like No Other. Worth mentioning here just because it doesn't overtly use CGI, and appears to involve nothing more sophisticated than old-fashioned stop-motion, like the few bits of Skarasen footage in "Terror of the Zygons" that aren't embarrassing. This is the ad in which the centre of a busy urban metropolis is invaded by a wave of shape-changing plasticine, which forms itself into psychedelic goo-fountains and multicoloured rabbits while the Rolling Stones perform the alarmingly-entitled "She Comes in Colours". This advert has turned heads and won plaudits across the world, although for our purposes, the most notable thing isn't just the lack of computer graphics (assuming that it really is all stop-motion, rather than CGI that's been rigged to look like stop-motion, which would frankly be an easier way of doing it) but the fact that the modern audience is more entranced by a giant-sized version of The Amazing Adventures of Morph than by an army of cybernetic death-machines. We recall that part of the original appeal of newfangled Doctor Who was the way it eschewed cyberpunk in favour of a slightly girly pink-and-blue universe, yet this My-Little-Time-Lord approach seems to have been lost along the way. However, we can now scientifically prove that people prefer balls of sentient Play-Doh to the Lazarus Horror. Now I come to think of it, even the gorilla from the Cadbury's ad is more of an attention-grabber than anything in "The Sound of Drums", which is ironic in a way. ("Cadbury's Gorillas… made from a glass and a half of monkeyspunk.")

5. Any Car Advert. No commercial interest is as eager to show off its big-budget potential as the motor industry, and the aforementioned car-that-turns-into-a-giant-robot-scorpion ad - I forget what the exact make of car is, but it hardly matters - is only one of many which make Doctor Who look rather… shall we say "sluggish"? In this case, it's because the Transformer-vehicle in question turns into a scorpion and a snake and some other macho-looking mechno-hybrid in the course of a single thirty-second clip. And you just know that if Doctor Who featured that kind of slinky morph-machine, then we'd get long, drawn-out close-ups of every aspect of the transformation, purely so the programme-makers could justify the immense effects budget: again, look at the way "The Unicorn and the Wasp" insists on showing us the monster from every angle. (Although we should perhaps be thankful that it wasn't a robot wasp. Then the car-chase at the end would be indistinguishable from the one in the Avengers movie.) But we've become so desensitised to unlikely CGI in car ads that if we're shown - say - a world where the roads are inhabited by giant floating fish instead of traffic, then we don't even remember it a week later… which is why you think I made that example up, whereas in fact, it was a genuine ad which ran on TV a couple of years ago and which you've now forgotten.

However, some of the most successful car campaigns of recent years have been those which deliberately try to prod at the consumer's childhood memories, especially the increasing number of commercials which depict the car speeding through a landscape of gigantic Lego bricks, overgrown puzzle-pieces, or scaled-up toy fire-engines. Since Doctor Who has a history of relying on childhood impressions of the world, albeit in the form of nightmares rather than nostalgia, this may be another sign that the series has rather fallen behind. In the same way that the giant Ferengi-spider of "The Runaway Bride" is nowhere near as endearing as the dinosaurs-at-the-Earth's-core scenario that's mentioned by Donna as a joke, it's hard to escape the feeling that a story about the Doctor visiting Toyland would actually be more interesting than meeting Agatha Christie. Imagine the modern-day equivalent of a tale like "The Celestial Toymaker" (only with a plot) or "The Mind Robber", and the possibilities of CGI in a world full of grotesque doll-people and murderous toy soldiers… if you've read Alan Moore's Black Dossier, then you'll know how well this sort of thing can work when a decent writer gets behind the wheel. Anything rather than another sodding alien invasion.

Oi, Moffat! You like freaking out kids. Giant Evil Toy Dimension, what d'you reckon?