Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Daleks are back – and this time, they've got a slightly more complicated connecting point for their antennae!

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 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...


Anonymous said...

I'm rather inclined to agree with Andrew Reeves on this one, although for me it's not so much the fact of the political jokes as the self-consciousness of them. Helen A may-or-may-not have been a charicature of Margaret Thatcher, but it was subtle enough that it didn't matter either way. The Political Jokes in the Ninth Doctor episodes are just kinda clunky.

As for the deus-ex-machina problem, I can't help but wonder if this is a deliberate style decision (of course "deliberate style decision" is not the same as "a good idea"). After all, the Doctor is pretty much a walking deus ex machina anyway (indeed you could argue that he is almost literally a God who comes out of a Machine). Still, drawing attention to the fact by having the Doctor win by sheer fact of being the Doctor doesn't really work.

Anonymous said...

"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."{

Did you miss John Petrwee? The most kickass doctor of all who levelled foes with Bruce Lee like efficiency? Yes, Petrwee /seemed/ non-violent because he was playing off Lethbridge Stewart. Granted, my biggest complaint about the 3rd doctor was that he was too perfect. He had no internal weaknesses only those imposed from the outside. It was fitting that it was only in his final episode that he overcame all of those weaknesses...Only to be replaced by a more internally flawed regeneration who turned out to be the most popular of all...

And I like Peter Davison!

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Reeves wrote: "Look, Rupert Murdoch is evil!"

I assume that if there was a moral to that episode, it was "Robert Maxwell is evil", given that the Editor said he liked to call the Jagrafess "Max".

Regarding the Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction joke in the Aliens of London story: I didn't get that reference at all until Andrew (Rilstone) pointed it out: for me, it worked as a plot point in its own right, and now that I see the extra meaning, I feel that those episodes are just a bit richer than I'd realised even when I already loved them. So Rilstone's problem may just be that he's too darned clever for his own good.

Also, I have no problem with the Doctor going psychopathic on the Last Dalek - even given that Tom Baker memorably refused to destroy the Dalek race, it still seems a reasonable thing for a Doctor to do: we don't want them all to have the same personality, do we? For me, the classically Doctorish part of the anti-Dalek crusade was the moment when Rose stepped aside and said "Look at it". At that moment, the Doctor could have blown the Dalek away, but instead his curiosity was aroused when he saw what was happening. And if any emotion is characteristically Doctorish, surely it is curiosity?

Finally, I note that, while the Dalek described Rose to the Doctor as "The woman you love", the Doctor himself did not say it - and I trust the people in charge enough to be confident that he never will. Let the Dalek misread the Doctor/Rose relationship as much as it likes (everyone else has!) So long as in fact it stays pretty much as it is (enigmatic, unusual, idiosyncratic, unconventional), that's fine by me.

In summary: new Doctor Who *rules*

Mike Taylor said...

Just watched Father's Day

Well, that's it, then. No arguments, please. Best. Episode. Ever. By a mile.

Anonymous said...

This made me laugh out loud:
From The Times, 17th May.
The censors . . . will . . . exterminate

Children understand conflict. If they need protection, it is from the politically correct

THE DOCTOR would appear to have a new set of enemies. Like the Cybermen, they appear once to have been humans, but they now seem to have purged emotion, humour, and indeed humanity, from their make-up. Like the Autons they are faceless dummies whose Achilles’ heel is an inability to hit the right target. And like the Sontarans they’re caught in a time-warp which leads them to lash out in the wrong direction.

The Doctor’s new enemies are, of course, the Censors. Inhabitants of a strange parallel universe known only as the British Board of Film Classification, the Censors suffer from tragic myopia but wield immense power. They have ruled that the latest series of Doctor Who cannot be shown to children under 12, when it comes out on DVD, because of the programme’s “excessive cruelty”.

The Censors specifically object to a scene broadcast last month in which the Doctor subjects an imprisoned Dalek to a bit of rough-house treatment. Taking a tough line with a species bent on mass murder and world annihilation is clearly too much for the Censors, who are worried that the Time Lord’s behaviour may set an unhappy precedent. In the words of one of the Censors, “however cross one might be with a Dalek, being cruel is not the way to deal with the issue. Some children might take it into the playground.”

It’s good to know that the BBFC are concerned that any Daleks who find their way through space and time into the nation’s playgrounds should not be unmercifully bullied. But leaving aside the important issue of just how the nation’s children should react to the arrival of a Dalek during lunchbreak (make sure it doesn’t feel excluded by picking it first for the football team?) another ticklish question of space travel arises. Just what planet are these Censors on?

The BBFC professes itself “concerned at the use of violence to resolve problems” in a programme that children might see. Where have they been while the rest of us were growing up? Conflict is integral to drama, and those who construct narratives to grip young minds have always known that. J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling place their heroes on fields of battle under darkened skies where good and evil contest for mastery.

Children, as the tale of the emperor’s new clothes is there to remind us, have an unerring ability to spot the bogus, pious and inauthentic. A picture of the world around them purged of conflict will not engage their minds because such a depiction does not engage with the world in which they are growing up. To imagine that our children can be turned into a nation of Fotherington-Thomases, tripping through the daisies and greeting the sky, is to indulge in a fantasy further removed from reality than any Doctor Who script.

The truth about violence, whether in Doctor Who, Middle Earth or the Middle East, is that it is not morally wrong in itself. The real moral question is, do we allow the bad guys to profit by it?

It would be easy to dismiss the Censors’ judgment on Doctor Who as just another piece of bureaucratic foolishness from a body that has taken political correctness too far. But it is worth noting precisely because there are all too many examples in our society of just such a phenomenon. What is really remarkable about the BBFC’s judgment is not how singular it is, but how typical of a prevailing attitude.

The Censors’ action over Doctor Who crystallises, in all its absurdity, key trends of our time. First, the judgment of a bureaucratic elite is held to be superior to that of informed individuals, so government appointees, not parents, decree what is the correct way to bring up children.

Secondly, art, including drama, is forced to conform to external criteria of “worthiness”. Works that should be there primarily to entertain have to serve a socially useful function. Soaps have to communicate the right message on drugs or dating, children’s drama has to promote an ideologically approved means of resolving disputes.

Thirdly, children themselves have to be brought up in an environment purged of danger, conflict, risk or jagged edges. There’s not much risk of them torturing any stray Daleks in our playgrounds when they’re not even allowed conkers. And while absurd restrictions are put in place to protect their bodies, so now censorship is deployed to protect their minds.

Commentators on the Right are sometimes accused of over-reacting to the march of political correctness by jumping at every provocation. Why get worked up about a ruling on Doctor Who DVDs, after all? Especially when we already know that good parents will already carefully police what their children see and bad parents won’t care, provided the kids aren’t screaming.

But it’s because some of us want to live in a country governed by a proper sense of proportion that we do react to every incursion of political correctness. We don’t want a society where access to entertainment and the upbringing of children are subject to a thousand tiny, well-intentioned but ultimately infantilising interventions.

There are a host of traps and temptations for our children to which sensitive parents need to be alert, such as the way teenage magazines push forward sexual boundaries. But the answer to this, and many other dangers, lies in teaching children to take responsibility for themselves and resist the fashionable flow. The best children’s authors realise that, and embody it in their heroes, from Charlie Bucket to Harry Potter. It’s a pity that wisdom is, in every sense, so alien to the Censors.

Michael Gove.

Yours, Colin.

Anonymous said...

Please someone, explain how you use those bloody html tags.

Anonymous said...

It starts off well enough - this is clearly a Very Silly bit of thinking by the BBFC - but then, it all rather loses the plot by ranting about "political correctness" (generally the code-term for "politeness which happens to be inconvenient to me" from people who are usually all in favour of other sorts of politeness) and demanding that parents should be left to bring up their own children unhampered by the state.

(Does the state know how to bring up children serviceably? Dunno. But ten minutes of observation in the average busy high street leaves me thinking that it couldn't do much worse than a lot of parents.)

It's also clear that the BBFC wasn't challenging most of the violence on Dr Who (anyone else notice the disappearance of the question mark from the title?) - which is a good thing, because, well, as the scriptwriters have gleefully admitted, there's a pretty high body count on every episode - but a sequence in which a bound victim, pleading for pity, is deliberately and gleefully tortured.

I don't know if this really is an important distinction to impress on children - actually, I think that the idea of teaching children that it's okay to fight so long as you "fight fair" is pernicious drivel - but I can see the theory. Children seeing autons shooting shoppers will probably just run around shouting "bang bang" a lot; children seeing the hero getting into punch-ups with villains will, if they get too imitative, have at least some chance of learning the hard way that this is a mistake; but torturing chained-up victims is, well, widely seen as exceptionally nasty, with some reason.

The fact that, in this case, the chained-up victim was a psychopathic alien dustbin, and that the hero had in fact pretty clearly lost the plot himself at that point, is what makes the decision look bloody silly. (The psycho-dustbin also proceeded ato demonstrate the folly of gloating to its previous tormentors shortly afterwards.) It's a lesson in the folly of applying rules too inflexibly, not in the evils of "political correctness".

(By the way, to get italics in HTML, you start with a , and close with .)

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Can't be bought by the under-12s" seems a not unreasonable classification for the scarier bits of "Doctor Who."

The way you do HTML is (I)like this (/I) only with pointy brackets. Now you'll understand those geek in-jokes that go: (Devils advocate)I think that the unemployed should be sent to workhouses (/Devils advocate)

Anonymous said...

(Damn. The pointy brackets showed up correctly in my last post when I hit preview. Hang on while I test something:




How does that look?)

Anonymous said...

(Right, yes, worked that time. Must have been using Preview that screwed it up. Anyway, to render text italic you type in something <i>LIKE THIS</i>. Getting pointy brackets to show up on screen is the advanced lesson...)

Anonymous said...

"Can't be bought by the under-12s" seems a not unreasonable classification for the scarier bits of "Doctor Who."

Probably true (insofar as I'm any judge of what is or isn't right for children, which probably isn't very far). However, given that these episodes were shown on terrestrial TV at 7pm (6:30 this next Saturday, fanboys!), well, the decision does end up looking a bit quirky.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think the idea is that at 7PM on the TV, parents are monitoring what the under 12s are watching, but you don't want them to go into HMV and buy it with their own pocket money. Or something.

Mrs Whitehouse was right about "Deadly Assassin" part 3, though.

Anonymous said...

I particularly like the way the original article denounces the fact that, under "politcal correctness"

art, including drama, is forced to conform to external criteria of “worthiness”. Works that should be there primarily to entertain have to serve a socially useful function. Soaps have to communicate the right message on drugs or dating, children’s drama has to promote an ideologically approved means of resolving disputes

And then ends with the observation that:

There are a host of traps and temptations for our children to which sensitive parents need to be alert, such as the way teenage magazines push forward sexual boundaries.

Remember kids: torture is okay, but sex is bad

Anonymous said...

Ah. Thanks chaps. It was the closing slash I was missing.

Anonymous said...

I can't really see anything wrong with the BBFC's ruling. The vast majority of children seem to watch videos and DVDs alone, either in their bedrooms or while parents are otherwise occupied. I think Doctor Who and in particular the Dalek episode could be quite disturbing to children if watched alone under those conditions. TV is moving towards a solitary occupation for children as well but the Doctor Who slot is more likely than most to be watched with adults around.

It's not necessarily depriving children of the experience- like many parents I frequently decide that we will watch something which the ratings indicate are unsuitable (Between 10 and 12 years old he watched all of the unexpurgated Buffy seasons and virtually all the Angel, less a couple of episodes censored by me.) But I wouldn't necessarily allow him to watch them on his own.

Of course the whole rating system is frequently completely irrelevant. I asked my son what the most popular game was among his schoolmates- apparently Grand Theft Auto is owned and played by virtually all of the boys (aged 12-13). The fact that it is rated 18 and its themes are deeply dubious to anyone with even a hint of "political correctness" in their make-up seems to be no obstacle to either getting a copy or being allowed to play it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In ancient Minoa or somewhere like that, subjects were not permitted to say "The King is a scoundrel" -- in any context whatseover. If you said " ' Anyone who says "The king is a scoundrel" will have to answer to me ' you would stil be throne to the crocodiles.

One of the functions of Biblical exegesis is to show how to get from "this happened" to "this is what you should do". It isn't self-evident that you can go from "Jesus cursed a fig tree" to "We should all curse fig trees" or "The children who mocked Elisha were eaten by bears" to "We should feed naughty children to bears."

It appears that the British board of film classifcation are either Minoans, or else very bad at exegesis. They appear to believe that "In a surprising twist, the hero unexpectedly goes psychotic in the presence of his old enemy, and tries to torture him" means the same as "Torture is a good way of dealing with your enemies."

That way, Wertham lies.

Anonymous said...

I assume that the BBFC would say that their job is not to engage in exegesis, but to assess the exegetic capacities of the audience, categorised by age band. No one is saying that this moral can logically or reasonably be derived from that scene; the question is whether children under the age of 12 would draw that moral anyway, consciously or subliminally.

Me, I don't know. Child psychology really isn't my thing. However, I will say from casual observation that young children aren't always terribly logical or rational beings, and vague recollections of my own childhood suggest that I wasn't always very good at perceiving irony or ambiguity in the behaviour of generally-admirable hero figures.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've been thinking about the appearances of deus ex machina in the series, and have written about it in my blog, quoting quite a bit from yours, Andrew, and specifically from this entry. I thought you might like to know.