Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Secs Sell 2: "The Deadly Art of Doctor Who"

After all these years, the Magnedon finally has something to tell us.

Three and a half years ago - three and a half ruddy years ago, when I still had a fully-functioning liver, when Paul Cornell had just provided the Doctor with a love-interest who didn't come with a special patch in case she got a puncture, and when Life on Mars had given the BBC a time-travel double-whammy which briefly convinced someone, somewhere, that John Simm would make a better Master than Derek Jacobi - I wrote an article called "Secs Sells". It was, for the most part, about toys.

If you recall, this sort of thing made sense in 2007. It was the year when Doctor Who seemed to swallow the world of consumer plastics like a great big Sumo Auton, when every sensible child's Christmas list proved that we had definitely won. Dalek Sec masks were being advertised on TV. You know, properly advertised. In the ad-breaks. Not just in black-and-white photocopied catalogues that made the action figures look like highly specialised marital aids, the way Dapol models used to be.

And yet... even then, even in the Winter of the Voice-Changer, there was something happening in Tesco's toy department that made us wonder if this wasn't still Dapol's World. The Character range was going pleasantly berserk, producing things that not even the world's least rational foetus would seriously play with rather than just collect. The Faceless Old Woman toy was my personal favourite, although the Burst Cassandra has since become legendary in its absolute uselessness, unless you're thinking of setting it on fire and making K-9 jump through it. Let's be honest, in a series which so routinely turns conventional items into potential threats, even monsters that work conceptually - which is to say, monsters that make perfect sense if you've seen the episode - become bizarre when moulded in plastic. A Weeping Angel figurine, out of context, is a very poor garden ornament. A little boy in a gas-mask would've seemed a perverse sort of plaything to our grandparents. A poseable Auton would've been pushing it even in Pertwee's day.

There were other oddities, like the 9" David Tennant in "Impossible Planet" space-gear, such a lost-looking throwback to Action Man's space-exploration phase that you had to wonder why he didn't have a voice-recorder in his backpack. Of the kind, O my Best Beloved, that you must particularly never take into the bath. Even though you may feel morally obliged to do so when there's a water-planet to explore. Remember, though, how New-School Doctor Who was itself undergoing a rather stressful adolescence at this point. I still maintain that "The Sound of Drums" was the point at which the programme Formally Jumped the Shark, not because it was singularly awful (we'd already had much worse), but because it was the point at which Russell T. Davies started writing scripts for the BAFTA audience rather than the general public. We ended up with an episode, and ultimately a series, in which television itself was the only reality.

So I said, at the time, that the best way of monitoring the series' impact on the Cultural Mass was to watch what happened to the toys. This seems like a good moment to come back to that idea. And not, as you may think, because we're now due for an action figure of Matt Smith in a f***ing Stetson. Instead, I'd like to go off a tangent that explores another way in which Doctor Who has traditionally interacted with the real world... especially at Play Time.

But to do that, I'm going to have to remind you all of Totally Doctor Who.

Now, I'm not a great supporter of (or, since around 2008, even a viewer of) Doctor Who Confidential. It made sense when the Great Journey of Life began again in 2005, but there's only so much to say behind-the-scenes before it becomes a celebration of... the idea that Doctor Who needs to be celebrated. Like DVDs that give you two hours of special features for every hour of movie, it's a work of fetishism above all else. Totally Doctor Who, now, that was remarkable. Simply by existing, perhaps even more unlikely than the victory of the Dalek Sec masks. Sorry? No, well, you weren't the target audience. Not even with someone as eminently capable as Kirsten "Yoghurt-Pants" O'Brien in front of the camera. It had to end, though, as soon as Catherine Tate became a regular fixture. If the emotional hook of a series involves someone who talks about temp work all the time, then no side-show is ever going to appeal to a schoolgoing audience. Nonetheless, the fact that Totally ran for two seasons has to be considered something of a triumph.

This is interesting, when you consider what's happening on CBBC in 2011. I may have to do some explaining here, because I sense that you're not as familiar with it as I might be, nor capable of joining in with most of the songs from Horrible Histories (incidentally, if you want to study the way anachronism has become the collage form of the twenty-first century, then this is at least as important as Doctor Who... plus, Viking rock ballad). Here I'm thinking particularly of Deadly 60. No? Very well. This is essentially the Extreme Sports version of natural history, in which Steve Backshall - mildly irritating at first, until you realise that he's genuinely excited about getting bitten by giant ants - goes in search of the sixty deadliest life-forms on the planet. Even as a method of presenting wildlife to children (ohhh yes, especially boys), this might be unbearable, if it weren't for the fact that Backshall doesn't do things by halves. We're exposed to hideous parasites and hugely unlikely species of squid-thing, not simply the Big Name Predators, and most of them make at least a token effort to savage the presenter. That said, the Big Name Predator footage is something special: David Attenborough's cameraman never came within two feet of getting his arms ripped off by a tiger, and it's genuinely terrifying to watch.

But Deadly 60 has its own pilot-fish programme, Deadly Art. This is the latest and most carnivorous offshoot of the Take Hart format (or Art Attack, if you're dead common), and you can probably see how it all fits together. We get a precis of the accompaying Deadly 60, and then two artists in the studio - usually young women, y'know, like with Tony Hart - make A GIGANTIC SODDING PRAYING MANTIS WITH GLOWING EYES OUT OF SCRAP METAL. Only pausing to run off a smaller version out of the sort of thing you might find, ooh, in your bins.

By now, you should be thinking: Wait a minute. Deadly 60 gets that as a spin-off, and we only get Doctor Who Confidential...? If you aren't, then you have no soul and I pity you, but I'll continue anyway.

The problem is, this comes closer to the nature of the way Doctor Who has traditionally functioned (and here "traditionally" goes at least up until 2007, possibly further) than any spin-off the programme has actually managed to create. Doctor Who was always a tactile thing, even when it came as close as the budget would allow to high-concept. Experiment is in its nature, and that rubs off on you. Yes, we did use wasteground to simulate quarries, either the kind which themselves simulated other planets or the kind where one might reasonably be expected to find a fossilised alien hand. I know for a fact, and from personal observation which under certain other circumstances might lead to a restraining order, that children in the Tennant era used cardboard boxes to reconstruct both monsters and architectures from the modern episodes ("YOU CAN'T TOUCH ME, I'M INSIDE THE TARDIS!"). Even the "Blink" game only works properly if you can play it in the presence of actual, definite statues.

Let me clarify this: if we imagine a theoretical Doctor Who Art, then we're not considering insipid "makes" a la Blue Peter. That would put Character out of business, and besides, you can probably tell from the awful bonus feature on "Talons of Weng-Chiang" that teeny-tiny reconstructions of Doctor Who stories were never popular even in the '70s (while the part about using your sister's violin-oil makes even me feel working-class). What's notable about Deadly 60's spin-off is how the materials of Termite Art, art made from accumulated bits and pieces, fit the subject matter so precisely. It'd be glib to suggest that Termite Art is good for making termites, but you can easily see how household detritus would resemble claws, scales, and pirranha-teeth rather than anything in classical sculpture.

As it was, so it should also be. Doctor Who has always been a creature of Found Parts, for reasons far beyond the BBC's make-do-and-mend requirements. We can trace this all the way back to 1963. The Magnedon, sharp-edged and slack-jawed in its petrified jungle, is a Hell of a lot like the kind of thing the Deadly Artists produce on a weekly basis. The idea of a Magnedon being a backyard project is... more than tempting, from an eight-year-old's perspective. "The Keys of Marinus" is even more obviously made of left-overs, and yes, I would like to build myself a statue that I can put my own arms through. Fine, we can keep "The Sensorites" for the inevitable model spaceship episode (yawn). But "The Aztecs"? "The Aztecs"...! I'm thinking, Barbara's headpiece. Maybe even an Aztec sacrificial mask. Okay, anyone who doesn't think that making an Aztec sacrificial mask would be cooler than an action figure of Matt Smith in a Stetson can now officially naff off and go back to watching Stargate.

The reason I'm examining this purely theoretical hybrid spin-off is really quite simple. I've argued that something along these lines is in Doctor Who's most primal nature, on-screen and off: for a programme that thrives on the palpable, that does wonders with men in big chunky monster costumes and goes belly-up when it tries to look like a CGI horror movie, this sense of stuff chimes with everything from the Very First Monster We Ever Saw to the Radio Times ad from 2006. (You may recall that when the RT first advertised on ITV, it began in the week of the "Rise of the Cybermen" cover. It involved a small boy making himself Cyber-armour out of tinfoil. See, I told you it wasn't entirely a twentieth-century thing.) But...? Yes, you knew there'd be a but. But at a time when a programme of this kind actually exists in a BBC children's slot, weirdly related to the real world rather than a haunted forest on a planet full of Daleks, Doctor Who itself... couldn't do it.

This lack of getting-your-hands-dirty-ness tells us a lot about what's changed, even more than we might have expected the toys to. It felt perfectly natural for the 2006 series to segue into something as DIY as Totally, and it would've felt almost as natural for it to link into a session of Termite Art (not in the case of every episode, although some awareness of the child-viewer's urge to create might have caused more people working on "Fear Her" to do their jobs properly). For the Smith Era... not so natural. Given Moffat's technique of making Doctor Who as much like a surrogate action-movie as budget allows, "Day of the Moon" was never going to resemble anything you can make out of packing material. "Curse of the Black Spot" is more likely to have an impact on real-world behaviour, if only in terms of shouting "arrr!", yet its strangeness comes from a lighting effect imposed on a supermodel. Rather annoyingly, "The Doctor's Wife" gives us a whole junkyard world - no, better than that, a TARDIS junkyard world - but then uses it as background. Even the moment of actual salvage is a plot convenience rather than a celebration of Found Parts.

Here we'll assume that playing in a skip is, at least symbolically, a good thing. (Symbolically, it's what virtually every pioneer in both the televisual arts and radiophonics did, so this is a safe assertion as long as you've got some iodine handy in case of scrapes.) On any level, this isn't the sort of thing Doctor Who encourages in the current phase. There are many niggling reasons for that, but it comes down to one key point: Doctor Who is now a brand. It says so on the back of the Michael Moorcock novel, in big letters, so it must be true. "One of the biggest brands in sci-fi," no less. But then, it's not as if we weren't forewarned. First we got the company logo, then we got the range of excitingly-coloured Daleks.

This isn't the first time it's been pitched this way. Just as Russell T. Davies became so bound up in his role as Toast of the Showbiz World that he started making a programme explicitly for people who work in TV, John Nathan-Turner became so bound up in his role as Toast of Fandom (this was in his early period, you understand, before fanzines started announcing fatwahs) that his version of programme-making became divorced from anything outside Doctor Who itself. He'd spend more and more time at conventions, where people would hang on his every word, and cheer whenever he'd say anything like "well, of course, the Ice Warriors might be back next year". The ultimate result, beyond "Attack of the Cybermen" and stories which treated the Rani meeting the Autons as a major selling-point, was to turn the Series Concept into something which largely existed to be sold and oversold to those who already believed in it. Personally, I can forgive the merchandising. The Doctor Who Cookbook at least wanted us to know it was ridiculous, or they wouldn't have put a Yeti in an apron on the cover; and despite Tat Wood's insistence, I've yet to see definite proof that Knit a TARDIS ever existed. No, the issue wasn't the bumf, it was the crippling sense of self-involvement.

Yet Doctor Who in the '80s at least retained one advantage: it was genuinely unique. Season Eighteen may have been in competition with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but nobody ever really thought they were meant to have anything in common. And when ITV finally won its great victory circa 1985, with a version of Robin Hood that was demonstrably better (certainly more of-its-time) than "Timelash", you could at least truthfully say they weren't on the same turf. Now, though, Doctor Who isn't the only game in town. It does high-visibility, high-maintenance fantasy... and so does everybody else, from Hollywood downwards, if that's an accurate use of "downwards". The reason the series has to be branded is that it can't retain an identity any other way. We can see a difference, mainly because we're the kind of gits who remember the past too well, but the general audience no longer perceives a gulf between this and the Next Effects Series Along. Many excuses have been made for the relatively feeble viewing figures in 2011, although the most important point has been politely coughed over. The last series of Merlin got higher viewing figures while being threatened by X Factor than this does against pretty-much-nothing-at-all.

As in the '80s, the shift towards branding Doctor Who means appealing to the existing fan-base, if in a slightly different way. Whereas Nathan-Turner tried to do it by overloading episodes with Old Favourites...

(...sorry, I'd honestly forgotten "The Pandorica Opens" until that moment, and it took me a few moments to stop chuckling...)

...we note that all the factors used to keep the series solvent in the 20-teens are favourites of the modern sci-fi fan. You know the ones I mean, you can count 'em off yourselves. Ratings are always a treacherous guide, but is anyone really surprised that viewing figures went back up for "Curse of the Black Spot"? Doctor Who vs Pirates vs Mermaids isn't terribly original, yet at least it puts the programme in a different space from anything else on TV. Well, until the Johnny Depp movie a few days later. An Angel-age storyline about a time-baby pregnancy, or snatches of future events that aren't designed to be comprehensible even to the dedicated viewer, are of no interest to anyone except - ironically, given recent controversies - the kind of people who care about spoilers. If the Termite Art version of television provokes the viewer into going outside and poking around to see what's there (and I still hold that this is what most good telly does, especially children's telly), then this is more like siege conditions. Branding always closes the gates. This is your product, you don't need anything else.

Which brings us back to that other sort of product, the "real" toys and games that don't seem real at all. I was right about this, at the very least: you can tell the programme's status from whatever's in the shops. What we have in May 2011, heavily-pitched on commercial TV (and tellingly, often late at night), is the trading-card game that promises "awesome alien beatdowns". Wholly insular, and almost unplayable as a game unless you're already hooked on Yu-Gi-Oh, it exists to flog trading-cards to boys who've already been sold on the idea of buying trading-cards. While we could at least laugh at Tom Baker underpants, and while Dalek Sec seemed like a triumph even though we didn't necessarily like "Evolution of the Daleks" very much, this is... all right. Let's call it a different sort of phenomenon, and leave it at that.

You can't even make a shark out of it.