Monday, April 11, 2005

Not The End of the World

"Exclusive" – Word used by tabloid newspapers to describe a story which is in all the others.
Guardian style guide.

The makers of popular domestic serial stories (or "soap-operas" as I believe they are called) like to fill their narratives with un-expected twists. Marriages, deaths, divorces, revelations, all popping up in that final five seconds before the signature tune. But it very often happens that a tabloid newspaper gets hold of the script in advance, so by the time the Surprise Twist happens, you have already read about it on the front page of the Sun. What is strange to me is that people carry on watching the soaps in any case. If you are following "Eastarchers" then, of course, the sudden return Dirty Dorris who supposedly died in a combine-harvester accident ten years ago is great fun. But how can it be fun when the Daily Lie told you in advance that it was going to happen? Maybe there is something post-modern going on. Maybe part of the pleasure of a soap is that you know what is going to happen to these characters, but they don't. Maybe it gives you a sense that someone, somewhere, might be watching over you. Everyone knew the plot of classical tragedy. The moment Oedipus walked onto the stage, the audience knew that he was going to come to a sticky end. Plays used to be called "The Tragedy of MacBeth" or "The Comedy of Errors" to ensure that the audience knew in advance whether they would have happy endings or sad ones. Perhaps tabloid spoilers, by creating a sense of fate and predestination lend soaps a mythic gravitas.

Or perhaps not.

In retrospect, it is pretty obvious that Christopher Eccleston was never going to stay in "Doctor Who" beyond the first season. I doubt that, 18 months ago, when the Dream Project landed in Russel T Davies lap, he gave much thought to Season 2. I imagine his aim was to make a stonking, self-contained series of 13 episodes. You can imagine the conversation. "Chris, you are the exact actor I want to star in my new, high profile project." "I'd love to do it, Rus, but only for one series." "Tough. If you won't promise to appear in a totally hypothetical second series, you can't play." Yes, I know that fans think that "the return of 'Doctor Who'" means "They'll be a new series every autumn for the next 27 years," but TV doesn't work like that any more.

The final episode of the season is to be called "The Parting of the Ways". The penultimate episode is called "To Be Announced." This rather suggests that R.T.D has a big surprise up his sleeve which he doesn't want to reveal too soon. The missing episode title is probably "The Daleks Murder Rose" or "The Doctor Contracts Incurable Time-lord Flu" or "Rose and the Doctor have passionate sex under the TARDIS console." (I do hope not.) Very likely,"the Parting of the Ways" concludes with an amazingly surprising last minute twist in which Eccleston leaves the series. Maybe the Doctor dies to save Rose. Maybe it was always planned that the season would end with a "re-generation." Perhaps R.T.D always intended "Doctor Who" to be a one-season-wonder with the potential for a sequel.

But of course, after episode 1, everything went completely apple-shaped. The BBC was surprised by the fact that their massively hyped revival of one of the most famous TV shows of all time, er, got very high ratings. They panicked, and announced there and then that they'd commissioned a second series. (Or, as it may turn out, a "sequel".). Whereupon the Sun discovers that Series 2 won't have Eccelston in it, and runs an "exclusive" claiming that Eccelston has "quit" after one episode. And the BBC, foolishly, instead of saying "Just wait and see" confirmed the story.

Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, Chris would have been persuaded to stay on for another season.(Presumably, if had said "Not 2006, but maybe 2007", the beeb could have talked business.) Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, we would have reached the final installment, and found that the "twist" of C..E's departure was a brilliant and appropriate way of ending New "Who" Season 1.

At first, the news depressed me. I felt as if someone had given me a box of pistachio Turkish Delight and then snatched it away before I had a chance to eat one. It felt as if instead of looking at "The New Doctor" I was looking at "The Old Doctor, the Temporary Doctor, the Doctor who Is Not Going To Be Around For Very Long."

But I calmed down, and am watching the series for what it is. Ten hours is a very long time for an actor to play one character. Longer than Mark Hamill played Luke Skywalker. Almost as long as Sean Connery played James Bond. John Clease said that he got 6 hours out of Basil Fawlty, and Shakespeare only got 4 out of Hamlet.

I could do without all the speculation about who the new Doctor should be. You would think they had learned their lesson by now. Everyone and his grand-daughter was reported as being "considered" for the part last time around. The one person whose name was never mentioned was, er, Christopher Eccleston. I fear that the doctrine of regeneration, which was the saving of the series in 1966, could be the thing which strangles it in 2005. The fact that the Doctor regenerates has become the most important thing about him, the one thing which everybody knows. "Doctor Who: oh, its that series where you have to guess who the leading man is going to be that week."

I could really, really do without all the silly discussions about whether there could be a black Doctor or a Lady Doctor, which we have had to listen to every few years since the departure of Tom Baker. Answer: a version of the Doctor based on some supposedly "trendy" version of black-british yoof culture would be too hideous to contemplate: a Doctor who happened to have dark skin ought not even to be worthy of comment. A relatively androgynous female Doctor -- like one of those actresses doing Prospero or Hamlet or Richard II -- would be no problem at all: one who was self-consciously glamorous or feminist would be unendurable. But I hate the fact that the discussion is being framed in this way – which group or category ought to have a chance of being "a" Doctor. The Doctor, for all his multi-facetedness, is a character. He should be played by a person who the director thinks can play him best.

I am trying to decide whether to do the joke about David Tennant becoming pope, or just to claim that white smoke will appear from the chimney of Television Center when the new Doctor is selected.

I said before that Tom Baker was the Doctor, where Patrick Troughton was only someone playing the Doctor. Eccleston is neither. He is a third party who is periodically possessed by the spirit of the Doctor. When he starts bickering with Rose ("You think your're so great", "I am so great") he feels as un-Doctor-ish as Peter Cushing. The character tick of calling everything "fantastic" is already fantastically irritating. But then, suddenly, he will take control of a situation, or make some speech about man's place in the universe, and he is suddenly – well, to coin a phrase, the Doctorest Doctor your ever saw.

I was about to write "As a completely new time travelling hero, I like him very much. But I am not sure if he has anything to do with the Doctor of old." But when tried to define the characteristics of Eccleston -- the glee at traveling through time, the naughtiness, the mood-swings, the occasional arrogance, the underlying Holmsian callousness -- I realised that they were all totally Doctorish characteristics.

R.T.D clearly has a meta-plot brewing. I am worried that this story-arc will become more interesting than the actual episodes. I thought part 2 "The End of the World" was rather weak as space-opera goes: but all the punch came from the slow-burn revelation about the destruction of the Time Lords. (Getting rid of the Time Lords, much the most boring thing in the Who mythos, is a good idea: but making the fact that the Time Lords have been destroyed a central plank of the Doctor's character could be a mistake.) If I said "I bet the Daleks destroyed the Time Lords" would anyone take the bet?

R.T.D said that he wanted "Doctor Who" to be character driven. Or "emotionally literate", if you insist. He is obviously taking a leaf out of the books of U.S TV shows like "Lois and Clerk" and that thing about vampires and school girls that totally passed me by. The main "fantasy" plot can be quite silly, but this doesn't matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. "The End of the World" was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a space ship being menaced by a baddie; it was about the Doctor's relationship with Rose and with the Tree-woman. "The Unquiet Dead" was not really about welsh ghosts, but about the character of Charles Dickens and how meeting the Doctor helps him overcome his general disillusionment with life. So far so good. But the relatively short episodes don't give much space for these characters to develop. The key character in Episode 3, Gwynneth the serving girl really only developed in one 5 minute conversation with Rose. If we were going to care about her, she needed a lot more screen-time.

I have no nostalgic attachment to the format of stories made up of 4 and 6 episodes (or rather, I do, but I don't expect the BBC to pay any attention to me); but the single 45 minute episode seems ill-suited to the type of story R.T.D wants to tell.

The Doctor is making too much use of gadgets. The sonic screwdriver in particular is becoming an all purpose get out of jail free card. Please stop it.

I think that it is a shame that the Doctor has got sufficient control of the TARDIS that Rose can nip home between adventures. I think that the sense of being lost in time and space and not quite knowing when and if the Doctor will get you home was an important part of the show's magic. Have you ever felt what it must be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?

"The End of the World" didn't feel very much like "Doctor Who"...and I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. A lot of aliens gather on a ship to witness a big event, and then one of them starts killing the others: this is more "Trek" than "Who". Some of the jokes felt a little familiar. (The "end of the world as an entertainment spectacle" is right out of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"; the "I-Pod" joke is straight out of "Dancers at the End of Time".)

The moral messages were rammed home with a distinct lack of subtlety. It was one thing for Rose to refer to Cassandra as "Michael Jackson", but not necessary for her to follow this joke with a little speech about plastic surgery. I am not sure that the conclusion, about cherishing the world we live in because it will all be destroyed in only five billion years, really made a great deal of sense. I think that if I had not been sitting there chortelling "It's a new episode of "Doctor Who", it's a new episode of "Doctor Who", and there are eleven more to come", I would not have thought it was a particularly good story.

I guess its main point was structural: to say to the audience -- last week was set in contemporary London: this week we are five billion years in the future, next week we will be in Victorian England.

"The Unquiet Dead", on the other hand, was classic old-school "Doctor Who". I wouldn't go as far as the man in the Grauniad who said it was the best thing the BBC had produced in their entire history, but it was damned good stuff. Two ordinary characters witness a strange supernatural event in the pre-cred sequence; the Doctor turns up "just to have a look around" and gets embroiled in the plot; he takes control of the situation; he meets a historical character; there is a tragic outcome. I do hope, that the idea of a subsidiary character pulling the Doctor's fat out of the fire at the last minute doesn't become a recurrent motif.

It needed to be longer. We'd hardly met the zombies before we found out the explanation; we'd hardly had the explanation before we'd got the solution. Oh, for some old fashioned pacing – an episode of the walking dead; and episode of blue ghosts; an episode of thinking that they are "good" aliens; and a final episode fighting them as "bad aliens". And a whole month to get to know Gwynneth, so we could properly feel her sacrifice.

It wasn't "Talons of Weng Chiang", but then, what is?

The dialogue sparkled, although Mr Davies needs to watch his habit of letting story-external humour work its way into the plot. It was a mistake in episode 1 for the wheely bin to belch, not because there is anything wrong with a belch-joke, but because there was no logical reason for it to do so: it wasn't a creature and it hadn't eaten anything. There was no reason for Charles Dickens to says "What the Shakespeare was that!" because, well, he just wouldn't have. We pardon both jokes for being funny: but too much of this kind of thing and we may stop believing in the show. The Doctor's own wit, and especially, Rose's reaction to it, is much funnier. ("I don't believe you just said that.")

Note: every time I type "Rose", I almost type "Ace". Hmm....

So then. An unquestionably cool stand-alone fantasy TV show, but with enough references and reminiscences of "Doctor Who" to satisfy my inner fanboy. I still don't know where it is going; I still want to find out. I hope that R.T.D doesn't blow the emerging backstory. And I want to see the Daleks. As relatively unequivocal a thumbs up as you could have expected an old anorak like me to give, then.


Anonymous said...

A month? Please, no; I shall be falling asleep on the sofa, not hiding behind it. Maybe two weeks for The Unquiet Dead, max. I thought it was fine at one, better so than the End of the World which was undoubtedly rushed.

I love story arcs, and this one is being built up rather well. Once I'd managed to establish that it was a story arc, of course; absence of detail on the previous plots left me wondering at first whether it was just something I'd missed.

What I really like, I have to confess, is Rose's thrilled infatuation with the Doctor. It's the way one should respond to this marvellous, infuriating creature; just to delight in being allowed along for the ride. It's also of course something they can keep up indefinitely without needing that "sex in the Tardis" scene to keep it going. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that....

Andrew Rilstone said...

Victorian Wales, to be accurate

You mean Wales isn't in the West of England?

(Hangs head in shame.)

A month? Please, no; I shall be falling asleep on the sofa, not hiding behind it. Maybe two weeks for The Unquiet Dead, max

I guess I was thinking about the good old days where 100 minutes emerged over a month.

Anonymous said...

Basically I agree with everything Andrew just said (which is a first!)
Key problem for me is the heavily compressed/rushed storylines, and I would like to see how the two-parter feels. Must admit after the dismal End Of The World episode (not just elements of HHG2TG, but also 2001, Farscape, Lexx, and Buffy where in there I thought; though the National Trust joke was rather good) I had DW on probation: one more like that and I'm off, I thought; but luckily the Dickens one was very good (though I would like an explanation of how/why the aliens initial blue-white 'angelic' appearance changed to orange-red 'satanic'; I mean, how could they know how we humans would perceive them?)

Couple of other general 'difficuties' for me:
1/The Tardis's Heath-Robinsonesque control panel, whose principal controls appear to be a wheel off a supermarket trolley and a bicycle pump, doesn't really work with the stylish interior.
2/The 'Star Turns' from too familiar actors: Mark Benton in ep.1, Zoe Wanamaker (the face) in Ep2, and now Simon Callow who is not only very familiar indeed but who had already done his Dickens characterisation in another show (What next, Charlie from Casualty? Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare?). For me it's distracting having an actor with so much 'previous' in a subsidiary role, especially as both Ecclestone and Piper are relatively unfamiliar.

Oh: could someone fill me in with the 'story-arc' as I appear to have missed something.


Anonymous said...

The Time War concept leaves me cold. I think it's the fact that they've mentionned it in every. single. episode. The episodes are short enough as it is, without trying to work in constant references to some Great Dark Backstory.

Anonymous said...

Ah: Thanks Pete