Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Who reads this drivel?

The Times yesterday published a minor journalistic coup.

It revealed that the TARDIS which appears in Doctor Who is, in fact, a BBC prop and not a real time machine at all.

"Doctor Who's (sic) time-travelling Tardis (sic) hides a secret which may disillusion his legion of fans -- it is transported not by the intergalactic power of dilithium crystals but like an Ikea wardrobe, flat packed on the back of a lorry."

The idea that a large object might be transported in pieces and assembled in situ comes as a complete, jaw-dropping novelty to the poor hack. He stumbles around for a comparison, and the only one he can find is "Ikea wardrobe". Home assembly furniture is one of those things which the English find intrinsically funny like mothers-in-law and Milton Keynes. He makes this comparison three times in his 150 word piece. I suppose we can just be relieved he used the snappy headline "MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF THE TARDIS IS OUT: IT MATERIALISES LIKE AN IKEA WARDROBE" rather than the more traditional “Look Who's Back” “Look Who's Here” “Look Who's Got A Crap Sub-editor.”

Why do hacks writing about sci-fi adopt this style? No-one, for example, will be able to avoid the expression "Holy there's a new movie about about the long running comic book character Batman, Batman" in their reports about The Dark Knight. Note the word “intergalactic" in line three. It is doing absolutely nothing: you could replace it with "banana" and the sentence would still make as much, or as little sense. The next story on the page is about the launch of an Arabic news service: yet the writers doesn't feel the need to say "No-one had towels on their head, and few camels were in evidence, but desert BBC yesterday palm-trees launched kebabs an arab oil-well news service.” The next one is about the discovery of a possible painting of Catherine Howard, but it doesn't contain phrases like "Off with her head....'enry the 'eighth I am....sucking his fingers after throwing the chicken bones over his shoulders..." Claiming that the TARDIS runs on dilithium crystals is at exactly the same level as thinking that the Rovers Return is in Ambridge or that Dr. Watson is Miss Marples' assistant.

What's particularly galling is that they managed to find some fans who were prepared to roll over and dance for the amusement of the straight folk: "I expected the Tardis (sic) to beam down from some far-off galaxy" says one Sue Bishop. Did you, Sue? Did you really? "But it looked more like some flat-pack furniture from Ikea when it was pulled from the back of the lorry to be screwed together. It's the last of my childhood fantasies shattered." It seems rather suspicious that a journalist who can't tell the difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek should find a fan who thinks that the TARDIS "beams down" rather than "materializes". The two people who provided the quotes both have female names, so we are spared the "Doctor Who fans har har don't have girlfriends must be gay har har" thing. Or is that only the Guardian?

Mr de Bruxelles has quite comprehensively missed the point. When Doctor Who was a 1960s children's programme, there was some attempt to maintain the illusion of reality. When William Hartnell appeared at a carnival, the organisers arranged for a light model police box to be parachuted in from a helicopter to give the impression, sort of, that the TARDIS had landed and the Doctor had emerged from it. Patrick Troughton thought that doing out-of-character interviews was like a conjurer revealing how his tricks are done. When Jon Pertwee appeared on Blue Peter or Junior Choice he did so in character. New-Who, on the other hand, continually draws attention to its illusory nature. The press are primarily interested in the back-stage soap opera: who's in, who's out (oh, god, I'm doing it now) who's staying, who's leaving. A week before each episode, we see a montage that reveals all the twists and surprises in advance. Straight after each episode, the actors take off their masks and explain that they were really only pretending and the techies show how the special effects were done. First, we see, out of context, the clip of the flying saucer destroying Big Ben. Then, we see it again. And again. Then we see photos in Radio Times of a technician making the model. Then, we see the actual episode, in which, sure enough, a flying saucer destroys Big Ben. Then we see the man on Doctor Who Confidential showing how he made the flying saucer destroy Big Ben. Then, on Thursday, the flying saucer man shows the nerdy kids on Totally Doctor Who how to make flying saucers, by when it's only a short wait for the DVD with the voice over by RTD explaining how he came up with the idea for Big Ben, Flying Saucers, and how silly it all is.

This is very much how movies work in the interweb age. The true buff finds the rumours about Indiana Jones, the teasers for Indiana Jones; the trailers for Indiana Jones; the official leaks about Indiana Jones; the supposed copies of the scripts for Indiana Jones -- the endless interviews and pre-release speculation about Indiana Jones extremely interesting. Once the actual film comes out, his interest goes away. The makers of Cloverfield cleverly did the pre-releiase hype but didn't bother to come up with an actual film to go with it.

By the time you see a new episode of Doctor Who, you feel you are watching it for the third time. The Making of Doctor Who is now more important than Doctor Who itself. Interest is focused, not on whether there is going to be a new story involving a fictitious character called Rose, but on whether or not an actress called Billie Piper has been voted back into the Big Brother House.

From a financial point of view it makes sense. If you can increase the value of your advertising space by putting Dalek Sec on the cover of Radio Times, then that's a good use of what's doubtless by Beeb standards a very expensive piece of animatronics: why should they care if it happens to spoil the ending of “Daleks in Manhattan” and therefore render the whole story pointless?

So the Times entirely missed the point. A picture of the TARDIS being assembled is vaguely interesting. But if you'd wanted an iconic image that summed up the modern programme, you'd have photographed the techies taking the TARDIS apart.


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