I want to dislike the new "Doctor Who". And I've tried. It would be so much funnier to be able to rip each episode to shreds as it came out.
As a devout fan, there is plenty in that I feel I ought to dislike. It's trampled on enough fannish sacred cows in seven episodes. A psychotic Doctor reveling in the suffering of his foes. A sympathetic Dalek. Fandom went into collective apoplexy in 1996 when Doctor Paul had a brief and rather chaste goodbye kiss with, er, thingy, the heart-surgeon. Here, we have monsters openly referring to the companion as "the woman you love" and police officers asking if their relationship is of a sexual nature, and and we hardly bat an eyelid.
Then there are the belch jokes and the fart jokes. Russel T Davies explained that he wouldn't consider a female Doctor because he wouldn't want parents up and down the land to have to explain to their kids "why the Doctor doesn't have a willy any more", so knob jokes can't be too far away. For some, this amounts to blasphemy of "Jerry Springer" proportions. The idea that Our Hero knows such words, much less understands the concept behind the words, is as unthinkable as ...I don't know....as the idea that the Queen Mother goes to the lavatory. In fact, the belching and the farting are a symptom of the programmers dangerously post-modern tendencies; as if it was ill-at-ease with it's own textual status.
Suppose the TARDIS materialises in a 1960s police-station, and the Doctor gets into an amusing argument with a Constables about whose Police Box it is. This makes complete sense within the imaginary universe of the TV show. But suppose that the policemen are, in fact, being played by the cast of "Z-Cars". We've now added a meta-textual joke. The audience, looking at the story from outside, understand what is happening and enjoy an ironic smile. But the characters, who are "inside" the story don't and can't see that anything is funny. Nothing has violated the story's internal logic, and the audience's belief in the show is not undermined in any way. Whenever we watch TV we are aware of a sort of double-vision: we imagine that we are watching real people whose fates we care about; while at the same time knowing that they are only actors pretending. (This double vision is pretty much essential if drama is going to exist. If you actually thought you were witnessing real surgery, then "Casualty" would be unbearable.) But suppose that, a bit later in the same episode, the Doctor were to turn to the camera, raise a glass, and says "By the way: A merry Christmas to all of you at home!" That action makes no sense within the story: the Doctor cannot possibly know that he is a character in a TV show, let alone be aware of the presence of cameras or want to talk to the audience. (It's pretty weird that he even knows it's Christmas Day: when on earth did the series start happening in real time?) You can't get away with this kind of thing more than, oh, once every fourty-two years: it undermines the whole reality of the show. It is one thing for Daffy Duck to be able to see the animator's paint brush -- we don't need to believe that he is a real duck (in fact, it is quite important that we don't.) It would be quite another for Indiana Jones to be aware of the camera and the special effects team. The whole fun of the movie depends on us believing (up to a point) that someone is really in danger.
As we have seen, the belching wheelie bin was an example of the second kind of meta-textual joke: it happens because the story teller thinks that it would be funny and for no other reason. The flatulent aliens in "Aliens of London" / "World War III" were another instance of the same kind of problem. Granted, there was a good, funny, story-internal reason for the joke – the squidgy aliens have squashed themselves inside rubbery human-skins and gas keeps escaping through the rubber. It often happens in body-snatcher scenarios there is some unique feature which enables you to spot which humans are in fact aliens in disguise -- webbed feat, green eyes, lack of reflection -- so I had no particular problem with the identifying feature being something completely ridiculous. What I objected to was the fact that the aliens got the joke. There was no story-internal reason for them to suddenly start talking in a 1970s playground slang: it only happened because RTD thought it would be funny to have a pompous MP say "I'm shaking my botty."
Much worse were the references to the Iraq war at the end of the same episode. There is no reason why "Doctor Who" shouldn't address itself to politics, although in the past it has usually done so through allegory or morality play. If video-nasties are in the news then the Doctor might find himself on a planet where the populace watch vicious gladitorial death sports. If C.N.D is in the news, then maybe the Doctor will befriend a race of ardent pacifists and help them understand why they are wrong. Actual satire, though, is remarkably rare. Helen A in "The Happiness Patrol" is (arguably) a caricature of Mrs Thatcher; the "Sunmakers" contained some weak jokes about the British tax system. Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the "Doctor Who" format, I would either have sent the Doctor to the center of government on some totally fictitious world on the brink of war; or else I would have dropped him in Baghdad in 2003 and used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story. (Maybe allied bombing released a nameless alien evil from the ruins of ancient Babylon.)
RTD chose neither of these options. Instead, he put some some key-words into the mouths of the aliens knowing that the viewers would see their significance and laugh. ("The alien's spacecraft have massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed within 45 seconds"). The aliens were not making a joke: they were genuinely trying to scare the human race into launching a nuclear strike. The humans didn't see the joke: they took it all totally seriously. Only we-the-viewer, watching the events through the square goldfish bowl, could see the similarity between a Prime Minister who was really an alien telling lies about "massive weapons of destruction" and a similar lie that was once told by a Prime Minister who is almost certainly human.
But the story was very specifically set in 2006; so we had logically to assume that everyone on planet earth would also see the joke, which they apparently didn't. It was as if there was a fairly realistic piece of science-fiction going on in one room (the sense of panic and popular reaction to the invasion was really very well done) and a rather silly comedy sketch going on in the other. I felt that this – along with the silly caricature MPs with silly jobs and silly constituencies – radically undermined my ability to believe in what was otherwise a really good earth-invasion story. The writer didn't really believe in it. The characters didn't believe in it. We are only playing.
Bottom the Weaver takes off his lion mask and says "Its all right. I'm not really frightening! Its only a play!
Another problem is the show's embarrassing fondness for deus ex machina. "Doctor Who" isn't really suited to the single-45 minute story format. In the old days, each Episode 1 established a new setting and a new supporting cast, who the Doctor would hang out with for 4 week or 6 weeks or even longer. 45 minutes is not long enough to establish a setting, establish a danger and crisis, and then resolve it. (It works fine for the type of ongoing US series where the same settings and supporting cast are used throughout an entire season.) I quite see that the 25 minute cliffhanger format doesn't work in The Modern Age. I think that for season 2, RTD should try to establish a compromise, where the Doctor stays on one planet for 2 or 3 weeks, but gets involved in 2 or 3 separate, self-contained story lines before moving on. At any rate, it is getting wearisome that each week, there is a magic button that the Doctor or one of his companions can push to end the story. (Week 1: The Doctor happens to have a cannister of "alien destroying chemical" in his pocket. Week 2: There happens to be a "defeat the baddies" button hidden on the ship. Week 3: The guest star realises that the aliens go away if your turn the gas on. Week 4/5 The Doctor has a secret code word to call in an airstrike Week 7: The alien goes away if you turn the heating up.) On rather too many occasions, the Internet turns out to be a Universal Plot Device: any character can do anything at any time by saying "Oh, I looked it up on the Internet."
Lastly, and most seriously, there is a distinctly laddish undertone to the show. This is only thing which could seriously turn me against it. The Doctor is...well...a doctor. A wise man. A scientist. An essentially non-violent character who solves things with his mind. The one thing he can't be, mustn't ever be, is a standard tough-guy hero.
I can deal with the occasional violation of the taboo which says that the Doctor doesn't carry a gun. Doctor Peter broke that rule once or twice, and Doctor Tom went around with K-9, which amounts to much the same thing. But I am uneasy when he threatens the kid who put graffiti on the TARDIS with "I'll 'ave you" and taunts the teenage genius with the words "You? Fight? That's a laugh? What are you going to do? Throw your A levels at him?" before picking up a big gun and saying"Lock and load!" A Doctor who wears normal clothes and talks with a northern accent is an "interesting new characterisation." A macho Doctor who despises learning wouldn't be the Doctor.
Having said all that, the show, at some deep and fundamental level, works. I am having a great time watching it. At the end of episodes I phone up my friends in order to says "Wow" and "Gosh" and "Best 'Doctor Who' story ever!"(I say that even when it isn't true, but in the case of "Dalek" it very possibly was.) I was on a high for twenty minutes after the "Aliens of London" cliffhanger.
There is a great sense that RTD is enjoying himself. He seems to embark on each episode saying "Given that I can do anything I like, what amazingly cool thing can I do next?" (One sometimes had a sense, in the Olden Days, of your Terrence Dicks's and Robert Holmes's saying "Which quite interesting story about yet another alien in the hold of yet another space ship can I do a perfectly workmanlike job on?")
While the sci-fi elements of the show have not, so far, been scintillatingly original, Davies is doing a brilliant job of finding new directions in which the basic "Doctor Who" premise can be pressed. Indeed, he seems a lot more interested in "Doctor, Rose, and what it is like to travel through time" than he is in the actual adventures that they encounter along the way. (This may be why the two absolutely stand-out stories so far have been the ones not penned by RTD himself.) We are invited to imagine what it feels like for Rose to know that she is in the future, or the past, or on an alien planet. Previous companions might have spent an episode or two saying "I.D.B.I" but they very rapidly came to accept the idea that a jaunt back to ancient Rome was no more surprising than, say, a business trip to Japan. It may not be subtle for Adam to faint when he realises that he is the Far Future, but at least it makes the point that Time Travel is a weird idea. Much better are the moments when Rose realises that her mother has been dead for centuries, or that she is now eight years older and says, thoughtfully, "That's so weird." We are asked to consider what it is like for the family and friends of all these "assistants" that the Doctor plucks of the face of the earth; and what it is like for the companion herself when she goes home. These may be obvious questions, but they have never been addressed before. (At any rate not outside of fan-fiction.) This week's story, "The Long Game" featured a naughty companion who broke away from the Doctor and the main storyline and started acquiring alien technology for himself. While I didn't think it was that well handled, it did at least show a companion doing the kinds of things you or I might do if we were dumped a thousand years in the future. And it showed a companion acting pro-actively. If nothing else, this gave us a sense that the world had an existence beyond the confine of the corridor where the Doctor was solving the plot.
Old "Doctor Who" was and is a powerful concept embodied by some extremely charismatic actors and also Peter Davison. But it very rapidly stopped being a " magical idea about traveling through space and time" and became "a well-known format for a TV show." 'Doctor Who' story" and " 'Doctor Who' companion" became known quantities. (Bonny Langford was the nadir of this malaise: she had no personality or back story; her whole raison d'etre was "generic 'Doctor Who' companion.") New "Doctor Who" has left these concepts and formulas virtually unchanged, but said "Suppose this was happening to real people, in the real world: what would feel like for them?" It makes the programme feel fresh and dangerous. It makes old-hands feel right at home, but unncertain about what is going to happen next. It makes people who never watched "Doctor Who" in their lives say "Now I understand what you saw in this old TV show."
Well, isn't Regeneration one of the things which "Doctor Who" is all about? At first, Ben and Polly couldn't believe that this clownish little man was the wise old Doctor that they first met. But once they got to know him, they realised that deep down, they were very much the same...