Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In-Between Days

"We will pan it, we will scan it / We will render it byte by byte / We will digitise, mass-produce and sterilise / We will turn it to shite, shite, shite." - Song of the Computer-Generated Mice on the Mouse Organ.

I think you should all know that I've finally worked out why I'm so at odds with the rest of modern culture. Or at least, why I don't seem to be down wit' da hip kids, and why I don't see Today's Stuff - particularly Today's Doctor Who Stuff - in quite the same way as other people in my own mildly dysfunctional peer group. Actually, working it out was quite easy: I just watched Spider-Man 3 on Channel 5.

Now, I loathe superhero movies. To be honest, I loathe anything CGI-driven that's indistinguishable from its X-Box tie-in. I loathe the artless techno-pettiness which believes the latest piece of industrial code from James Cameron or Peter Jackson to somehow qualify as cinema, even though the directors can't tell graphic realism from characterisation or a Tomb Raider end-of-level monster from a proper Balrog. But I double-loathe superhero movies, with extra bogies on. Not just because they're wholly founded on their "roll up, roll up, and see what we can make a digitally-generated humanoid do this year" faux-showmanship, but because they're so sodding banal. I crept into the cinema during the first Spider-Man in 2002 (I was leaving the cineplex after watching something else, there was no guard in the passage between screens, and the film was just starting… well, I wasn't going to pay), and ended up sitting through two hours of constipated narrative before a final showdown that looked for all the world like a massively overbudgeted episode of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. The fact that the jizz-awful Green Goblin mask was designed by the same man who wrangled everything from Zygon nodules to the Bespoke Time Lord Collar just made the experience more painful.

But I watched Spider-Man 3 on its terrestrial premiere, simply because… no, I don't mind admitting it. I used to read the comics when I was fourteen, and I'd gathered that this was the film in which Movie Spider-Man met Movie Venom. And in a moment of High Geekery, I wanted to see how the epic saga I'd read as a young 'un - a half-decade story-arc in which Spider-Man acquired a telepathic bodysuit from a bio-tech-happy uber-civilisation, then ditched it when he figured out that it was a parasite rather than a symbiote, then watched as it transmogrified its next victim into his Evil Twin - would be squeezed into a two-hour movie. In fact, the script managed this quite simply: it turned the alien git-costume into a meteorite full of goo, which conveniently happened to crash into a field right next to Peter Parker. The ineptitude of this was probably inevitable, but tragically I kept watching, and it's what else I learned from the movie that's been troubling me.

In Spider-Man 3, and all its bastard kin, there's a simple pattern. There are Big Events. You can tell the Big Events, because they're denoted by computer-generated action sequences. In this case, these include a skyscraper-chase between Spidey and Green Goblin Junior, a duke-out between Spidey and the Sandman (i.e. a man made of sand, because the Marvel universe is terribly literal), a "symbolic" passing-on of the meteor parasite from Spidey to Venom… punctuated, and I really do mean punctuated, by in-between scenes.

It's the in-between scenes which interest me. Nobody involved with the film seems in any doubt that the Big Events are the point of the exercise, yet spacing these out are the "slow" moments in which - ooh, let's say - Peter Parker talks to his Aunt May about something sentimental that no-one will ever remember, or goes through Relationship Problems with Mary-Jane that look exactly like the Relationship Problems you might get in an episode of Dawson's Creek, or goes all broody and starts to ask himself what he's doing with his life. Scenes which don't exist because any viewer might be capable of caring, but which instead act as a sort of Pavlovian buffer. I find myself remembering the extended schedules in early '70s porn cinemas, when audiences were required to sit through several hours of slightly pervy "documentaries" before the main feature, partly because it allowed the cinema-owners to appear legitimate and partly to make sure the punters were salivating by the time they got to see the first nipple.

The news that FX-based movies are stuffed with filler comes as no surprise, natch. Yet without understanding the way this kind of storytelling works, the modern form of Doctor Who makes absolutely no sense. I've been hugely critical of the last few years' worth of That Series I Grew Up With, but because I deliberately haven't been going to see arsecock like Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer (which I tried to watch on Channel 4 two weeks ago, just to make sure I wasn't imagining things… no, I obviously wasn't), I didn't realise why I seemed to be witnessing a different programme to an awful lot of other viewers. Simply, modern Doctor Who is made for an audience weened on superhero movies. That's not just the… excuse me… core demographic, it's what the programme is fundamentally aiming for. Over the last few years, whenever people I know have engaged each other in protracted conversations about the quality of the effects work on Dr Octopus' robot arms, I've had a tendency to leave the room. If I'd stayed, I might have clicked sooner.

My problem is that I don't believe in in-betweens. The very idea seems anathema to what might be called Proper Drama, but I'll stick close to home, and say that no Doctor Who story I ever considered half-decent was about the Big Event: the in-between moments were the story, not a way of marking time between special effects. The monster at the end of episode two isn't the main attraction of "The Caves of Androzani". Quite the reverse. Likewise, neither the Drashigs nor (most pertinently) the Top of the Pops-style psychedelia-gun in episode one are the reason "Carnival of Monsters" exists. And the giant clam certainly isn't the star of "Genesis of the Daleks", although now I've said that, I'm starting to wish that it were. By contrast, there's nothing really in "The Lazarus Experiment" except the ridiculous Mill-spawn (an apt example, given that Russell T. Davies explicitly described the story as being inspired by Marvel Comics), and BBC Wales is currently trying to sell us Matt Smith with the Sam Raimi-style shot of the Doctor dangling from a flying TARDIS. Rather than, for example, by getting him to do any acting. Let's not deny it, there were many, many, many filler scenes in the programme of old. But that's because it was made on the fly, on a minimal budget, under extreme stress. Whereas the modern programme has an insultingly large slice of the License Fee at its disposal, yet treats non-FX, non-stunt-based sequences as if they're dramatic pauses. Or, up until now, as excuses for David Tennant to do his "sad" face and make everyone go "awww, look, he's tortured".

You may, of course, recall that I keep insisting on seeing Doctor Who as a work of all-round BBC goodness rather than a "cult" sci-fi series. So I'll just point out that I, Claudius (yes, it is the best drama serial ever made, shut up) is nothing but in-between moments. In-between moments are good, if they're done properly. They're human. They give meaning to the parts where monsters or armies of legionnaires turn up, and should be treated as an art in themselves. Whereas we now have a culture which sees dialogue and characterisation as bubblewrap, except without the satisfaction of being able to pop the bubbles. Oh, and another telltale point: note that the Doctor is now being pitched to us with almost-macho displays of his power and invincibility ('there's one thing you never, ever put in a trap… me!!!' being both the latest and the stupidest), diluted forms of the "I'll be back" sloganeering you'd expect from America action heroes. When you can imagine Clint Eastwood delivering the Doctor's lines, but not Tom Baker, something's definitely gone awry. Actually, try imagining this kind of waffle being recited over a soundtrack by Dudley Simpson rather than Murray (spit) Gold, and it seems even dafter.

I could keep listing examples of the way this tendency has skew-wiffed recent Doctor Who, and I'm sure you'll be able to think of your own. But it's me, and I'm planning my exit strategy here, so I'll go for the big one. Yeah, I'm a-heading back to "Blink".

Now, here's the thing. When "Blink" was first broadcast, I got bored within the first twenty minutes, and assumed (as most of us do, in these "is it just me?" situations) that everyone else would feel the same way. You could've knocked me down with a Krolltacle when it was deemed to be the paragon of all things shiny, and for the last few years, I've been rather puzzled by the success of what seems to me like a rather dribbly script. After Spider-Man 3, however, I suddenly see it. What do people remember about "Blink"? The scary bits with the Weeping Angels, and the sexy bits with David Tennant talking to you - yes, you, straight female or gay male fan-person - out of a TV screen. Between those Big Events…?

Nobody much cares about those bits, and there's no reason that anybody really should. Sally's future-boyfriend (a geek called Lawrence, and I'm still not sure whether that was Moffat's idea of a joke) is introduced to us when he walks naked into a kitchen in front of the female lead and does the usual "ooh, hang on, am I naked?" schtick that sitcom writers use as filler when they don't have any better ways of getting the 18-30 demographic to keep watching. His nerdy personality is further underlined with the standard "all your friends are on the internet" bumf that even EastEnders had turned into cliché by 2007, while Sally spends much of the episode delivering the kind of dialogue that ageing heterosexual authors would like to imagine dynamic twentysomething women delivering in the real world, at least as long as they can imagine her saying "oh, yes, you big, rugged man who works in the media, yes, yes, yes" afterwards. Ah, but wait! This is supposed to be a scary story, yet the Weeping Angels don't actually do anything bad to anybody. So let's contrive a wholly negligible scene in which the Token Black Character snuffs it on his deathbed, just so Sally can say 'people have died', even though he's apparently had a pretty good life and we've spent more time watching him die as an old man than we spent getting to know him as a young one. Whoo, pathos.

This is terrible writing, and terrible characterisation. If you're a fan of "Blink", though, then… what do you remember? Do you remember anything at all about these puppet-people? Puppet-people on more than one level, in this case, since the plot of the episode is pretty much a denial of free will in the Doctor Who universe. Or do you just remember the creepy statues and the Easter Eggs? Plus some arse about timey-wimey paradoxes that the author's been constantly recycling since the 1990s, although that goes without saying in a Moffat script. (Jesus! I used to edit a thing called "Faction Paradox", but even I didn't resort to the old "we've seen evidence of this in the future, so it must be destined to happen" routine. Even once. Let alone five times. Yes, five! Count 'em.)

So, to summarise. I care about the in-between bits, because that's what I think "drama" is. The monsters are the moment of shock, they're not the story. Then again… if anything, does this just prove that I shouldn't be here at all? Interviews have cited Moffat as saying that he doesn't want to be remembered as the man who broke Doctor Who, but some of us would argue that he already did break it, even if we didn't notice it at the time. The moment of doom was "The Girl in the Fireplace", a story which - while quite good in itself, at least when the author's concentrating on robots, time-travel, and other things he pretends not to care about when there are women looking - changed our expectations of what the series is meant to be by playing to much the same audience as Twilight. From that point on, the Doctor was damned to a life of fetishism and well-groomed heroics. From that point on, he had to be young, cute, athletic, and godlike. Oh, and tragic. However unconvincing or repetitive the tragedy may be, he positively has to be tragic.

Looking at the revised, superhero-friendly version we've got in 2010, I find myself remembering two things about Moffat that I've previously suppressed. One is the conversation I had with him in late 2005, just after the title of his first Tennant-age story had been announced in the press. I said to him:

'Oh, I see a pattern forming here. First "The Empty Child", now "The Girl in the Fireplace". It's -'

And before I could say any more, he snarled into my face (in a fashion which, with hindsight, more than slightly resembled Rik in The Young Ones): 'Oh, what? Because they've both got the word "The" in the title?'

'Erm,' I said. 'Erm, no. Because they're both weird juxtapositions. You don't expect to get a child that's empty, and you don't expect to get a girl in a fireplace. It's like early surrealism. It's a bit… sort of… Magritte?'

He looked away. Stared at the pavement, as if annoyed by this outbreak of reasonable discussion. Then stomped off without answering.

But the most telling moment was this. I bought a video of The Complete Bagpuss (i.e. a video containing all thirteen episodes of Bagpuss, in case "Complete Bagpuss" sounds like one of the more obscure insults of Frank Butcher), and had it with me at the Tavern. I was showing it to a female acquaintance, when Moffat swooped past and looked down at it.

'That's just saaad,' he said.

'But… but it's Bagpuss,' said my acquaintance.

And Moffat twisted his face into a revolted sneer before leaving us.

Ergo. Having understood the nature of "state-of-the-art" narrative in the early twenty-first century, I can accept that this really is the Moffat Era, after all: an age of moments that could exist with equal comfort inside trailers or stories, movies or clips shows. But now I'm thinking of that scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in which - as in Hamlet - the Prince's family ask R&G to figure out why Hamlet's so unhappy. Their conclusions: well, your dad's been unaccountably poisoned, your uncle's probably the murderer, and he's taken your throne while simultaneously marrying your mum. No, we can't imagine why you'd be unhappy. So for all those who've written badly-thought-out rants about this column over the last few years, and who genuinely can't tell the difference between "man who wants a war" and "man who's just disappointed and sarcastic", I'd like to say this…

Doctor Who taught me to be interested, xenophiliac, and prepared for strangeness of all magnitudes. Throughout its history - and this even applies to the best of the twenty-first-century episodes, before Big Russell started writing it for the BAFTA awards panel rather than intelligent children - it's been closer to Oliver Postgate than The Matrix. Yet now it's in the hands of a producer who's as arrogant as I've occasionally pretended to be and as cynical as I could never be, who deliberately overruled his own instincts and cast the silliest possible actor as the leading man, purely so he could continue his own mad campaign of pretend-populist squee. He sneers at Bagpuss, which is at least as bad as jesting at scars. Matt Smith has been given a demographically-tailored Quirky-Yet-Somehow-English costume, to make sure everyone feels comfortable accepting this as the same mass-produced product we got in the Tennant years, while the 2010 series has (it seems) been carefully stripped of any new or peculiar features and involves episodes written by the authors of "Exit Wounds", "The Idiot's Lantern", and Love Actually.

Now, why on Earth would I feel betrayed?

Look him in the eye and tell me I'm wrong.