Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Incidentally, a merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Estragon: It might be better if we parted.
Vladimir: You always say that, and you always come crawling back.

So: 24 hours after he left Rose in an alien dimension, the Doctor, who used to think that Mickey Smith was an idiot, asks the cretinous Donna Noble if she would like to come with him. For the first and last time in the episode, Donna behaves like a believable human being and refuses to come. She's seen the Doctor's dark side, and couldn't live the way he does.
From the speech attributed to Doctor Bill ('Come with me, and I'll show you all that...or stay behind and regret that staying until the day you die') right through to the trailers for Eccleston's first series, the question 'Do you wanna come with me?' has always been directed to the audience rather than to the companion. On the surface, the 'Runaway Bride' is about the Doctor 'getting over' Rose, and realizing that he still needs a companion, even one who can't tell the difference between 'acting' and 'yelling'. But it's hard not to read it as being about the sado-masochistic relationship between Doctor Who and it's audience.
Last year's special, 'The Christmas Invasion', included a scene where Rose and Mickey went shopping at a Christmas market. Rose remarked that it is easy to lose track of time while traveling in the TARDIS. 'Oh yeah,' drones Mickey sarcastically. 'Because I love hearing all those TARDIS stories. Tell me another...' It would be going too far to say that Mickey and Rose are realistic characters. What would be 'realistic' behavior for a 19 year old girl who's been taken on board an alien space-ship and allowed to watch the destruction of the world? Best ask an anthropologist about the behavior of aborigines when transported to Times Square. But they are -- ahem -- semiotically coded as 'real' people. However much weirdness is going on around them, they stay within the narrative discourse of soap-opera, which is the closest TV gets to 'reality'. The scene summed up what Russel T Davies had done during the first season of Doctor Who. Here were two young people who could have stepped off the set of EastEnders talking about 'the TARDIS' without the slightest trace of irony or camp. Many of us expected – even hoped – that RTD would offer us dolly-birds and quarries, a pastiche of the Doctor Who we think we remember from the '70s. Instead, he said 'Let's pretend that Doctor Who is happening in the real world. Let's pretend it always has been.' It isn't very surprising that he convinced Doctor Who fans. Doctor Who fans will believe in anything, even Peter Davison. But to have also convinced the EastEnders audience was quite an achievement. At the end of episode 1, Davies effectively said to the mainstream 'Do you want to come with me?'. Astonishingly, eight million of them came.
There's an urban myth that everyone in England sits round the telly after Christmas Dinner and watches the Queen's Speech. It's certainly true that, on Christmas Day 1976, half the UK population – the largest TV audience of all time – saw Angela Rippon step out from behind the news desk and launch into a song and dance routine with Eric and Ernie. There were fewer channels and no I-Pods in those days, but the idea of the BBC providing a Moment of National Unity on Christmas Day remains a powerful myth. The 2005 Doctor Who Christmas Special played cleverly with this folklore. Only 8 million people watched the actual programme; but when we watched Harriet Jones make her emergency broadcast to the nation we felt – or at any rate, we could pretend we felt – that the whole country was watching with us. The papers were calling the Doctor Who special a Christmas tradition after just one year. Davies may not have achieved Morcambe and Wise viewing figures yet, but his Doctor Who is the very definition of mainstream.
Halfway through this year's Christmas special, the improbably named Lance directs a camp tirade at Donna Noble, the titular 'Runaway Bride'. 'How thick are you?' he sneers 'How can I stay with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavour of Pringles? Yak, yak, yak, Brad and Angela. Is Posh pregnant? X-Factor, Atkins diet, Feng Shui, Split ends. Text me, text me, text me.' Now, we know that RTD feels the need to insult Doctor Who fans. We're all asexual nerds with alien eyeballs in our pockets and he's not really making the series for our benefit. But aren't game shows, tabloid gossip, beauty tips and soap operas precisely the kinds of things which the mainstream audience might be supposed to take an interested in? Doesn't Doctor Who come on straight after Strictly Come Dancing, a less toxic talent show than X-Factor, to be sure, but a talent show nonetheless? We already knew that Davies had a low opinion of his audience. They are too thick to understand scientific explanations; too unimaginative to be able to deal with stories set on the Planet Zog; too ignorant to have heard of any but the most iconic historical characters; and so shallow that if there is even two minutes of exposition, they'll get bored and switch channels. Donna isn't even aware that the earth was invaded by cybermen, because she had a hangover at the time. That's about at the level of saying 'Oh, was their a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers? I must have been off sick that day' – a level of thickness that even Jade Goody would struggle to achieve. Is this how Davies sees his new mainstream audience? Is he insulting the EastEnders audience to remind Whovians that he really loves them despite it all? A sort of gift-wrapped revenge of the nerds? Or is he the kind of self-loathing artist who needs to despise his public? "Yes, eight million people watch me, but they're either nerds with wooly jumpers and no girlfriends, or else they're lower class people who like Pringles. Oh god, I'm so depressed." If he thinks that TV audiences like this kind of things then he is mistaken. When he slapped his old fandom bitch around, she put up with it because she was used to it and even quite like it. But lay a finger on your new mainstream slag and she'll show you the door. And quite right too.
RTD thinks that Little Miss Mainstream can't deal with anything heavy on Christmas night. This is simply untrue – look at the number of divorces, suicides, and switched-off life-support machines in the annual EastEnders special. That said, pantomime is a perfectly respectable Christmas tradition - (Several hon. members: 'Oh no it's not!') - and Doctor Who has always teetered on the edge of panto. Considered on it's own terms 'The Runaway Bride' was a harmless enough little romp. Donna has swallowed some Hewon particles, which are so dangerous that the Time Lords abolished them zillions of years ago. It turns out that they were administered to her deliberately by the agents of the Racknos, ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times. (Memo to BBC: Ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times are a lazy fall-back plot device when you can't think up a proper villain, and Russel Davies really should try harder.) The eggs of the only surviving Racknos are hidden at the center of the earth. Hewon particles are the only thing which can release them. Donna and the Doctor are chased around London by Racknos' agents, including the killer Santas from last year, and then trace them back to Donna's place of work – an office building that used to be owned by Torchwood. (P.S That's another plot device which is already getting terribly, terribly boring.) There is a big pit going right down to the center of the earth. Disappointingly, no one says 'We call it...the Pit.' After some waffle, the Racknos sends the Hewon energy down the pit; but the Doctor opens the Thames barriers and floods out the baby Racknos before they can be revived.
As the story rattles along, there are some nice stunts and special effects set-pieces. The Racknos herself, a giant red spider, is a fine creation. It appears that she is mostly a physical prop rather than a computer generated animation, and this gives her a slightly retro feel which rather suits the overall tone of the episode. The early scenes between Donna and the Doctor are quite amusing, although I find it hard to believe that even someone so thick and common that she likes X-Factor would, if she believed that she had been kidnapped on her wedding day by an alien, be primarily interested in getting to the church on time. She never changes out of her wedding dress which is, as the fellow said, a bit Arthur Dent. The whole story boils down to a McGuffin hunt in which the heroine is the McGuffin, but Doctor Who stories have been based on much sillier ideas.
The trouble is that RTD doesn't even try to make any of this make sense. He gives the impression, to coin a phrase, that he's not bovvered. He has no idea what Hewon particles are, or how they work. They are just a tool to propel the unconvincing Donna and her even less convincing groom through a series of mildly amusing set-pieces. Whenever RTD needs to propel the plot in a particular direction, he makes Tennant mutter a new piece of gobbledegook and we watch the goalposts move to some new location.
A few of the more obvious absurdities were:
1: There are no hewon particles anywhere in the universe apart from at the heart of the TARDIS; but the Racknos is able to distill them from the water in the Thames because, er...
2: Lance has been feeding the liquid particles to Donna (in her coffee) because without a living host they will be inert. He chose a person who was getting married as host because the emotional excitement of a wedding would 'cook' the ingested particles. However, Donna says that he only married her because she nagged him so much; and Lance subsequently says that he had to marry her 'to stop her running off'.
3: Donna had to be fed the particles over six months; but when the plot demands it, the Racknos announces 'Now I have studied the bride's catalysis' (what dat?) 'I can force feed it,' and infects Lance with the energy between scenes.
4: Donna is the 'key' to releasing the Racknos eggs (which is like, very ironic, because the company that she works for makes computer entry systems). When she escapes, the Racknos infects Lance, so he becomes the key. But when Donna is recaptured, the Racknos suspends both of them above The Pit, in a scene so reminiscent of 60s Batman that it hurt. Is there some reason why two keys are better than one? Did I miss it?
5: Donna is initially sucked to the TARDIS because the hewon particles in its heart attracted the particles inside her. But when RTD needs to get our heroes out of a sticky situation, the Doctor decides that breaking a test tube of (inert?) particles will make the TARDIS materialize around Donna.
6: At the very end, when the Racknos space ship is going to be destroyed by earthling tanks the Doctor announces that 'She's used up her hewon energy...she's helpless.' Nothing has suggested that the Racknos lives off or draws strength from hewon energy -- and so far as I can tell, the plot rather depends on the fact that there are only two test-tubes of the stuff in the universe.
7: And how is it that someone who has been hibernating at the edge of the universe for a gazillion years knows what Christmas is?
When the Doctor can't improvise a new plot device out of hewon particles, he just whips out his sonic screwdriver. The screwdriver was originally a perfectly valid plot device: it's boring if the Doctor can't easily gain access to secret bases and other areas behind locked doors. (Davies own addition to the canon, psychic paper, serves a similar purpose.) But in the course of this single episode, the Doctor uses his amazing magic phallus to:
1: Operate a phone box.
2: Steal money from a cash-point.
3: Make the cash-point spray out money.
4: Deactivate the robot Santas.
5: Open the door of the taxi that Donna is trapped in.
6: Deactivate the robot driving the car.
7: Soup up a borrowed mobile phone so it will tell him who owns the company Donna works for.
8: Plug it into the sound system to make all the Santas blow up.
9: Trace the signal that is controlling the Santas.
10: Control the lift.
11: Cut Donna free from the spider-web.
And when Plot-device In My Pocket doesn't work, the TARDIS itself can be used to provide a never-ending stream of pixie dust. When Donna is kidnapped by a robot disguised as Santa disguised as a taxi-driver, he makes the TARDIS fly through the air (something it has never, ever done before) match speeds with the car, and persuade Donna to jump into it. With one leap, our hero was literally free. If I have counted correctly, the TARDIS makes seven separate trips through time and space in the course of this one episode: about the same number it made in the whole of the 1963 64 series of Doctor Who! (What would the classic Doctor Who stories been like if the Doctor had been able to use the TARDIS to check out on what was happening in the cybermen's tomb, give Marco Polo a lift to Cathay, or to go the Daleks' city without all that tedious mucking about in the wilds of Skaro?) The real Doctor had to get out of dangerous situations using his wit, his ingenuity, his cleverness. This one has such a large supply of rules-busting gimmicks that nothing can really challenge him.
Davies says that the mainstream doesn't like exposition and don't really understand science-fiction. I think that what he actually means is this: the lower orders like Pringles, watch X-Factor, and don't pay very much attention to TV shows. 'The Runaway Bride' was probably switched on in the majority of English living rooms. People probably walked into those living rooms, looked at the screen for five minutes, said 'I'm not bovvered', laughed, and walked out to get a turkey sandwich. They don't expect to be able to understand 'science fiction' and so they certainly don't expect to understand what is going on in Doctor Who. Hence, if the Doctor speaks a few lines that sound like an explanation, they will assume that the story makes sense, but that only a geek could be bothered to follow it. If it did make sense, they wouldn't listen or would fast forward through the explanations. The only people who know or care if the story makes sense are the asexual Doctor Who fans -- but if it doesn't, they'll simply write a fan-fiction patch and post it to the Internet by Boxing Day. So everyone goes home happy.
Fortunately, the one thing that Davies is bovvered about is the character of the Doctor. This excuses a multitude of narrative sins. There is a fine moment when a couple dancing at the wedding reception briefly make him think of Rose – a moment so artfully subliminal that I only spotted it on the third viewing. The 'wide-eyed enthusiasm' routine is becoming a bit wearing; it sounds too much like something out of the Fast Show. ('Ain't the universe brilliant?!') But the scene where the Doctor takes Donna back in time to witness the formation of the earth can be added to canon of 'magical moments'. The guy in the geeky suit and the girl in the creased wedding dress, floating in a telephone box while Creation unfolds around them. It isn't such a long journey from 'Unearthly Child' to 'Runaway Bride' after all. The dialogue is a little too Phillip Pullman for my tastes ('No, but that's what you do, find meaning in chaos...') but at least someone is trying.
Tennant also does a lovely job with the scary, cold-blooded side of the Doctor's character; psyching the Racknos out by revealing that his home planet was named Gallifrey. (The first time the Time Lord planet has been referenced by name: Davies previously thought that Little Miss Mainstream would be freaked out by such a geeky reference to the Old Series.) And the inevitable 'good-bye' scene puts another really interesting spin on the Doctor's persona. We've just seen the Doctor's callous streak, seemingly feeling no emotion while the baby Racknos are destroyed. Donna recognizes this dark side, and says that he needs a companion 'to stop him'. There is a lot to be done with the idea that the Doctor is a potentially dangerous force as well as a force for good – but it needs something more substantial than a pantomime to hang it on.
So, maybe 'The Runaway Bride' was simply a bit of Christmas whimsy; but since Torchwood I have no faith in RTD's good taste, or, come to that, his sanity. On average Davies seems to come up with a new direction for Doctor Who about once a fortnight: is there any danger that sub-Scooby-Doo romps represent his new theory of what the programme should be about?
Doctor Who has hurt me over and over again. Bertie Bassett; Bonnie Langford; the whole of season 23. But fandom is a classic dysfunctional relationship; unlike Donna, I don't have the guts to walk away. The idea that I might someday say 'I've stopped watching Doctor Who' is about as likely as Cardinal Ratzinger saying 'I'm going to have a lie in this Sunday and not bother with Mass.'
'Jason Statham has reportedly been offered the title role in the next series of Doctor Who.
The Crank star is allegedly being lined up as the 11th Doctor in the hit BBC show amid rumors current Time Lord David Tennant is quitting the role.
A TV source tells The People, 'It will be Doctor Who meets gangland. He will do a lot more thinking with his fists and will be a sure-fire winner with the ladies.
'Doctor Who is still seen as a bit geeky but Jason will add sex appeal and give the character a more dangerous edge.' '
But it could happen.


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Pennygwynne said...

I just read your blog entry with interest.

Congratulations on an articulate, thoughtful, entertaining and thoroughly engaging piece. Though I admire Russell Davies, and will forgive him much for his resurrection of Doctor Who, you do put up a persuasive argument.

Nonetheless, I will continue to admire him and his gorgeous, shonky programme, and to love the Tennant.

SK said...

Mostly, I am in total agreement.

One thing though: I don't think that insulting the mainstream (via Donna) is as dangerous as you think: people have an amazing ability to think that such insults are aimed at everybody else, not them, and thus instead of feeling cross and got at they will feel superior to the X-factor watching, Posh-and-Becks-caring-about masses (after all, they only watch X-factor to laugh at the bad contestants with an ironic detachment).

And if that doesn't work, well, the line is delivered by the baddy, so can be safely ignored anyway.

Davies, whatever you may think of his sanity, is a clever scriptwriter: he has managed to have his cake and eat it too -- then go back in time and eat it again just for good measure.

Phil Masters said...

The trouble is that RTD doesn't even try to make any of this make sense.

But this has pretty obviously been the way of things since, oh, the first few episodes of the revived series. RTD has junked any last vestiges of any claim to coherence or skiffy logic. I though it was clear long ago that you have to either live with this or walk away.

And I'm afraid that my key to understanding what he's doing with the title remains the assumption that he sees time-ands-space as a metaphor for gayness, specifically perhaps the experience of the gay kid from the sticks arriving in the city and encountering a gay scene for the first time. It's exciting and wonderful, and also scary and physically dangerous from time to time, but of course the idea of going back to that boring repressed previous reality afterwards is too horrible for words.

Which means that the series' relationship with mainstream culture - the "straight" world, in every sense - is going to be ambiguous at best. It's okay so long as the inhabitants can accept you for what you are, but... my dear... the clothes and the people. And things like Eastenders and Pringles are acceptable so long as they are sources of camp amusement, but anyone who takes them seriously is too boringly straight for words (just like anyone who takes vintage SF TV programmes too seriously).

I did quite like the flying Tardis, though. It struck me as an instance of something that the programme should logically have featured since the very beginning, but which the special effects technology can only now handle. And it can be explained in terms of the Doctor getting the darned thing refurbished during a downtime phase of the Time War. Of course it's going to be a problem for the future - how many other problems can be resolved by a flying Tardis? - but if Star Trek and most superhero comics can forget this sort of thing from episode to episode, I'm sure that RTD will be amnesiastically fine.

Gavin Burrows said...

One of the things I like about your writing is that you seem to be able to take quite dull, genre-ridden affairs and make them sound more interesting than they are. One of the paradoxes of your writing is that you often do this while complaining about the uninteresting nature of such affairs!

This time you seem to suggest the Doctor and Donna relationship is the Doctor and Rose relationship inverted. The whole point of Donna is that she doesn’t step into the TARDIS, that she goes home to suburbia and Christmas turkey. And this separates the two audiences rather than the customary act of uniting them.

Yet I wonder if you’re misreading the way such humour words. I quite liked the gag “You’re in the TARDIS.”, “That’s not even a word. You’re just saying things!” Taking it much more seriously than it probably deserves, doesn’t that implicitly put everyone on the fan side of the divide? Most people know what the TARDIS is, and the few who don’t could probably work it out. (I sometimes think fans over-estimate their isolation, and with it their specialness. My Mum has heard of Spider-Man for example, even if she couldn’t tell you the first issue where the Sinister Six appeared.)

In a similar way most people reckon they would have heard of a Cyberman invasion, so feel entitled to finger-point at someone who wouldn’t. Everyone likes to be inside of something, which creates the need for someone forever outside of something, which in turn creates the need for characters like Donna.

Dave Sim once remarked, when he was touring the comic shops, that each shop had a legendary uber-fan customer that all the other customers joked about. There are geeky outsiders within groups of geeky outsiders, so I can’t see why there shouldn’t be Pringle tasters within Pringle tasters.

Personally I found the episode so much a mash-up of previous episodes (including –ahem! - the previous Xmas special) that it veered towards becoming a clip show. And Donna refusing the TARDIS call is scarcely surprising when it’s already been announced who the new assistant was and it wasn’t very likely to be Catherine Tate anyway. As such it was enjoyable enough, in a slurry Xmas TV-watching sort of way, but hardly memorable.

It would be going too far to say that Mickey and Rose are realistic characters… But they are -- ahem -- semiotically coded as 'real' people. However much weirdness is going on around them, they stay within the narrative discourse of soap-opera, which is the closest TV gets to 'reality'.

For some reason a belatedly very obvious comparison now occurs to me. I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with comic fans who’ve claimed Sixties Marvel put ‘real life’ into superhero comics, with me arguing an Aunt who has a heart scare like clockwork each month is probably nearer to soap opera than real life. Nevertheless, while this is nearer to splicing two genres together than the works of Checkov the splicing works, as in it revitalizes the two genres.

The real Doctor had to get out of dangerous situations using his wit, his ingenuity, his cleverness. This one has such a large supply of rules-busting gimmicks that nothing can really challenge him.

And how! There’s the great line in Girl in the Fireplace where the Doctor explains the fireplace to be a Spatio-Temporal Transporter because “I didn’t want to say magic door”. But magic wands and magic boxes need rules to limit their usage, or else the writers are taking a Tony Blair attitude to their executive powers. I firmly contend the TARDIS should be a kind of Narnian wardrobe, taking our cast to a fresh new quarrie… I mean planets, then whisking them off again at the end. It should be barred from appearing anywhere except for within three minutes of the opening or closing credits. If anything otherwise is attempted again, stern-looking men should come along and put stripy tape around it.

For some reason I get less annoyed by the sonic screwdriver because it was intended from the start to overcome trials, traps and other limitations in the scriptwriter’s imagination. It’s cheating, but at least its established cheating. The overuse of the TARDIS is new cheating.

I quite like the psychic paper, however, because it’s a kind of microcosm of what such programmes need to do. They need to act as a kind of stem cell, providing basic information but suggesting a whole lot more - which each individual viewer is then able to fill in for themselves, to their own likings. ‘All things to all men’ is the watchword of mass transmission.

Gavin Burrows said...

Phil Masters said...
Which means that the series' relationship with mainstream culture - the "straight" world, in every sense - is going to be ambiguous at best. It's okay so long as the inhabitants can accept you for what you are, but... my dear... the clothes and the people.

I’m not sure I really think this holds up. Rose is certainly part of the “straight” world of tower blocks and shop jobs, and one of the chief themes of the series is how well she adapts to the Doctor’s invite, without ever giving up her old life. (Every previous assistant has had an either/or choice between the TARDIS and their own world.) To the point where it’s a poignant moment where she has to go back to the straight world.

You could certainly make the argument it’s she who’s the protagonist of the first two series. As Andrew mentions, she at least represents a humanism the Doctor can forget about. (For example there’s a running theme of how she’ll ignore master/servant distinctions, implicitly because she’s not from posh origins herself.)

Phil Masters said...

But Rose is torn between the two worlds. She's never going to quite be part of the Doctor's different world, but even so, her experiences with him are incomprehensible - and vastly better - than life in the world from which she comes, and to which she can only return as an outsider.

(Avoiding words like "fag hag" here...)

aderack said...

1: It's not that the particles are being distilled from the Thames water; it's that, through some process we're not meant to understand, distilling them through the water is particularly neat and effective. It's like making Huon tea -- which, it appears, is a hell of a lot more workable than whatever they must have already had.

2: The marriage-activation thing has nothing to do with the Racnoss plot; it's just an explanation for why Donna got fired up and transported aboard the TARDIS.

3: Yeah, that's kind of strange. However, for what it's worth, see below.

4: It's not that Lance is supposed to be the new "key"; rather, the Empress shoved him full of particles in order to bring Donna back. I guess just pumping him full of Huon particles is enough to turn on the magnetism, yet to be really effective they still have to gestate for a while? As for why this might be, who knows.

5: He doesn't break the jar; he fiddles with the cap and brings it close to Donna, making all the particles (within the jar and within her) glow -- as demonstrated earlier. I assume this is the whole proximity thing that Huons have going on. This time, for some reason, the particles are activated strongly enough to suck in the TARDIS (much as Donna was sucked into the TARDIS at the start of the episode). I'm not sure why it worked backwards this time.

6: Huon energy is incredibly powerful; when the Empress had it, she was very dangerous. Without it, not so much; she's just an alien spider lady. She's out of Huon energy. Thus.

7: Presumably she watches television?

Tom R said...

"Star Wars, As Re-Imagined by Ronald D Moore"