Monday, April 28, 2008

4:3 "Planet of the Ood"

There is a vicious and unfounded rumour going around that I don't like new Doctor Who. In order to counter this libel, I shall concentrate on what I liked about "Planet of the Ood".

1: It was recognizably a Doctor Who story. The final scene, in which the underdogs who the Doctor has liberated gather round the TARDIS and promise never to forget him veered towards pastiche. (The title of the story felt so retro that I was afraid the story was going to be a parody.)

2: Come to that, it was recognizably a story. It had a beginning, a middle and and end, more or less in that order. It introduced a conflict (slave owners vs oppressed slave caste); set an objective (free the slaves); placed some obstacles in the Doctor's way and more or less resolved everything by the end of the episode. On the way, there was physical conflict (the Doctor chased around the warehouse by the mechanical grabber) and emotional conflict (the tour-guide almost seeing that what she culpable for the slaves' oppression.) There was an element of Mystery: how do the Ood's communication balls work? what's in the warehouse? what doe "The circle must be broken" mean? -- with a pretty satisfactory solution.

3: It had some emotional resonance. The scene in which the slave driver beats the Ood slave was a little corny, but the scene in which the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose find the Ood dying in the snow was really quite affecting.

4: The Ood felt like olden-days Doctor Who monsters; but they showed signs of having been thought up as fun aliens for the Doctor to meet; not simply as a collection of plot device to join some scenes together. The Big Reveal about the contents of the mysterious warehouse made some sort of sense on its own terms, and went some way to explaining the behaviour of the Ood in "The Satan Pit".

5: Finally, finally, finally a story set on an alien planet -- see, Russell, we are not too stupid to deal with the planet Zod, and the Non Wobbly Special Effects department did a good job at creating a convincing backdrop. The giant ice-bridge was particularly cool. (Do you see what I did there?)

6: The story was only slightly rushed. I felt "That could have done with being a full hour" rather than "That could have done with being a two parter."

(The morality of the story was pretty trite. It is clear in the first three minutes that the humans are all bastards and the Ood are gentle and harmless, so it's just as much about Good vs Evil as if the Daleks had been trying to wipe out the human race. Again. For the story to have actually been about something, you'd have needed to have added a wrinkle, say

a: Despite their obvious cruelty, Donna feels she should side with the humans because they are her people

b: There is a predator on the Oodsphere and, if not for the humans, the Ood would have long ago become extinct

c: Freeing the Ood will deprive the humans of their workforce, bringing about the collapse of the Great and Bootiful Human Empire and ensuring that the Daleks rule the galaxy for years to come.

As it was, the ethical issue served only to illustrate -- I would not use such a strong word as develop -- the relationship between the Doctor and Prima. The Doctor makes the valid observation that the 21st century humans use wage-slaves to make their clothes, but this scene is "about" the Doctor's self-righteousness and Donna's reaction to it. The Strange Interlude in which the Doctor uses the Vulcan Mind Meld to enable Donna to hear the Ood's telepathic singing is "about" Donna discovering what it's like to be the Doctor. He, apparently, can hear the Songs of of Captivity (wasn't that by Bob Marley?) all the time. The more Donna learns about the Doctor, the more she sees that what she thought was callousness is actually The Burden of the Time Lords. (But the most wonderful thing about Time Lords is I'm the only one). This doesn't, so far as I can see, change anything about their relationship. )

But I'm really happy for my criticisms to be parenthetical. This episode represents a much needed step from appallingeness towards good, solid, entertaining mediocrity.


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Monday, April 21, 2008

Umberto Eco sums up what I've been trying to say about Doctor Who so exactly that I assume I must have read the book at college and forgotten it.

"We should beware of understanding this distinction of levels as though on one side there were an easily satisfied reader, only interested in the story, and on the other a reader with an extremely refined palate, concerned above all with language. If that were so, we would have to read The Count of Monte Cristo on the first level, becoming totally enthralled by it, and maybe even shedding hot tears at every turn, and then, on the second level, we would have to realise, as is only right, that from a stylistic point of view it is very badly written, and to conclude therefore that it is a terrible novel. Instead, the miracle of works like The Count of Monte Cristo is that, while being very badly written, they are still masterpieces of fiction. Consequently the second-level reader is not only he who recognizes that the novel is badly written but also the one who is aware that, despite this, its narrative structure is perfect, the archetypes are all in the right place, the coups-de-scene judged to perfection, its breadth (though at times stretched to breaking point) almost Homeric in scope--so much so that to criticize the Count of Monte Cristo because of its language would be like criticizing Verdi's operas because his librettists, Maria Piave and Salvatore Cammarano, were not poets like Leopardi. The second level reader is then also the person who realize how the work manages to function brilliantly at the first level." -- Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

4:2 "Fires of Pompeii"

If Captain Kirk used his superior technology to impose his superior morality on every planet he visited, he would come across as a colonialist or a communist. But if he said that it's up to everyone in the universe to fix their own troubles, then there wouldn't actually be any stories. Ergo: The Prime Directive. Kirk is signed up to a Sacred Law which says that he can't interfere with the affairs of other planets, except when he can. Although this is said to be one of the laws of the United Federation of Planets, it's actually one of the laws under which a TV show like Star Trek always and necessarily has to operate. It's a way of drawing a circle around a genre-assumption and saying 'please don't think about this, or the whole thing will collapse'. It's a sacred mystery that enables us to believe that when Kirk reintroduces war to an otherwise peaceful planet, he's doing it in the name of non-intervention. It's only a problem when someone tries to tell us what the Prime Directive actually says; to examine it's philosophical ramifications. That's a bad idea: it's there to facilitate story-telling; it's not what the stories are about.

I know I'm banging on and on about rules: but ever since a big hairy cave man stepped out of the shadow of the TARDIS and started talking in a RADA accent, it's been absolutely clear that Doctor Who has at least two Prime Directives:

1: Everyone, anywhere in the Universe, speaks English.

2: If the viewer knows the outcome of an historical event, the Doctor can't change it.

Directive 1 is so obvious that for fourteen years, no-one noticed it was there at all. In, I think, 'Masque of Mandragora', Sarah wonders why she is understanding Italian and Doctor Tom mutters something about sharing a Time Lord gift with her: the subject isn't raised again until RTD starts to obsess about it in 'End of the World.'
Directive 2 is more of a problem: it comes on stage from time to time (in 'The Aztecs', 'The Time Meddler', 'Day of the Daleks' and arguably 'Genesis of the Daleks'), but it patently makes no sense whatsoever. If helping Harold beat William at Hastings counts as time meddling; why is helping the Thals beat the Daleks on Skaro perfectly OK? In general, the series has been happy to say 'Because the Laws of Time say so' or, in the vulgar, 'It just is, okay?'

RTD has followed Big Finish in adopting Peter Darvill-Evans elegant theory: the whole of the future is in a state of flux and pretty much everything counts as 'future' from the Time Lords point of view. When the Doctor materializes at a particular point, he 'crystallizes' history around himself and makes the events he experiences, and any which depend on it immutable. The fourth dimension is a collection of fixed points, linked together by more or less mutable time-lines, in a sea of unresolved possibilities. But 'The Web of Time' is just another way of spelling Prime Directive: in the Doctor Who universe, history is immutable, except when it isn't. Why can the Doctor change the outcome of the war between the Daleks and the Movellons, but not the outcome of the Second World War? He just can, okay.

Sadly 'The Fires of Pompeii' is yet another example of Doctor Who turning in on itself and making the 'prime directives' -- both 'why does everyone talk English?' and 'why can't we change the past' the actual subject of the story?'. Doctor Who, it seems, is about the narrative conventions of Doctor Who. It's about our nostalgic memories of a show called Doctor Who. It's about the nature and significance and state of consciousness of a character who is carefully not called Doctor Who. About anything, in fact, apart from coming up with an entertaining answer to the question 'What would happen if a none-too-bright 20th century girl was transported back to ancient Pompeii?' Which some people might have thought was the object of the exercise.

This is rather a pity: because, after the grit your teeth embarrassment of the Season 3 finale, the total waste of time that was the Christmas Special, and the 'what the hell are they thinking' comedy of 'Invasion of the Jelly Babies', 'Fires of Pompeii' was quite a decent little story. While nominally about Pompeii, it felt a lot as if the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose had materialized on the set of Rome, largely because they had. (Indeed, I kept wondering whether Quintus was going to be buggered by Ceasar and declare himself Emperor.) The joke that, because the TARDIS translator turns Latin into colloquial English, the market trader talks like Del-Boy and Lucius' family talk like soap opera characters lasts for about five minutes. By the time we get to the serious bits, everyone starts talking Theatre. The question: 'If the TARDIS makes my English sound like Latin, what do the Romans hear when I speak Latin?' is the sort of question only a child (or, I suppose, a fan) would think to ask. The answer 'Welsh' is funny the first time. But not very.

Donna wants to use the TARDIS to save the people of Pompeii from their impending destruction. The Doctor knows that this violates narrative conventions, but Donna persists. He bends the rules slightly, rescuing a single family, because, presumably, introducing thousands and thousands of their descendants into human history doesn't constitute 'interference.' The point of the story is not that the Doctor saves the earth or Lucius's family but that he realises that he needs Donna, even though the audience still can't stand the bloody site of her. Without her, he would have callously left everyone to be incinerated just as he would have wiped out the jelly babies and did in fact kill the ickle bubby spiders. The old man in 'Voyage of the Damned' told the Doctor that if he kept making life or death decisions he'd become a monster and the Dalek in 'Dalek' said he'd make a good Dalek.

Well, yes: every hero is potentially a villain. Surely the Master was introduced precisely to make this point? Sherlock Holmes would have made an excellent murderer; come to think of it, the very first thing we're told about him is that he'd think nothing of killing a friend in cold blood. But I do hope we are not building up to a story in which the Doctor turns evil and, say, Donna, Martha and Rose have to get together to bring him back.

This core story only requires that the Doctor and Donna appear at some historical crux: to give them a chance to assassinate Hitler or stop the Black Death. Arriving in Pompeii 24 hours before the volcano erupts does the job admirably, even if it does effectively decanonize a rather excellent little Sly McCoy / Bonnie Langford audio. One might think that 'Do we save the city or not?' would be quite a big enough question to fill 45 minutes of airtime. (It took basically 100 minutes for Barbara to work out that weaning the Aztecs off human sacrifice was a: a bad idea b: impossible.) But no: it has to be enmeshed in half a dozen other story lines. The overwrought climax in which the Doctor has to choose between destroying Pompeii and allowing some aliens to destroy the whole world diminished, rather than intensified, the dilemma. Save Pompeii or Save the World is not really a difficult call: just a matter of choosing the lessor weevil. Save Thousands of Humans or Obey The Laws of Time could actually present a problem. (And anyway: isn't Pompeii actually part of the world?) It makes a good point about the Doctor's burden: it's in his nature as a Time Lord that he can see the consequences of his actions, that merely by time travelling, he's causing historical events to happen, making decisions which effects who lives and who dies -- which could turn him into a monster, remember. But this -- plus the emphasis on his unimaginable fourth dimensional consciousness -- is one more step towards turning him into a god, if not actually God.

This is overlaid with the amusingly silly idea that the people of Pompeii are physically turning to stone so the city is actually populated by creatures which resemble the plaster casts you can see when you visit the archaeological site. (I wonder if Draft 1 involved the plaster casts in the museum coming to life and menacing the modern visitors, as Egyptian mummies do all the time.) This is happening because they are breathing in dust from the Volcano, through hypocausts, which is related to some alien life form that crashed there in the past, and which is having the effect of making everyone telepathic oh, and also precognitive. These aliens eventually manifest as Transformers made of fire and magma; although they are not very threatening, because they can be defeated by chucking water over them.

This is really only sketched in the most perfunctory way. At the last minute, the Doctor says slightly desperately, that the precognition powers came about because a rift in time was blown open when the alien space craft crashed, and that the 'eruption' has blown it closed. Well, obviously.

Which, as I say, is a pity, because the basic story is really quite good. The soothsaying scene, the moment when the Doctor rescues the family, the epilogue, and the moral dilemma itself were all quite well done. It is one thing to use monsters as plot-devices to facilitate character based stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it every, single week : but the monsters have still got to be either believable and comprehensible, or far enough off stage that we don't notice. It's okay to for the Daleks to be a sort of Prime Directive which lasts for a single story. 'Why do they want to drill a hole through the Earth's core?' 'They just do, okay. It's the rebels you're meant to be interested in.' But the fire monster was complicated, contrived and fussy: it simply generated noise which drowned out, rather than illuminated, the passably interesting story about the Doctor and Donna which RTD presumably set out to tell.


When bad SF writers realised that they had written bad cliches into their bad SF, they used to think that it would help the audience suspend disbelief for the dumb blond to say 'Gee, professor, this is crazier than one of those nutty Science Fiction movies.' RTD's preferred technique is for someone to say 'Oh, you are kidding me.' Please stop it.


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Friday, April 11, 2008

Oh, all right, you talked me into it

Another reason not to review Doctor Who is that it is forearmed against critics. "Fans always find fault with the new series, as a matter of principal" goes the argument "Since this writer finds fault with the series, he must be a fan; therefore, we can discount his criticisms." Curiously enough, this argument is usually put forward by, er, Doctor Who fans. They are a self-loathing bunch, these asexuals.

But it is perfectly true that the fan's perspective is slightly different from that of the heterosexual community. There is some excuse for the director who says "I know that my film was savaged. But that was only the movie critics. It was never intended for clever people who've seen loads of films. It's intended for stupid people who haven't." The correct, normal thing to do is to say: "Apparently, Simon Pegg is appearing in a new science fiction movie. His character is the engineer on some kind of space-ship. He comes from Aberdeen." Only someone in an aberrant mental state would even know that this character – Taffy, is it? -- is vaguely based on one that appeared on the telly about forty years ago. The director certainly doesn't want anyone to make that connection.

So: let's cast aside my fan goggles and try to watch 'Partners in Crime', not as part of a thing called Doctor Who but as 45 minutes of TV intended to fill the gap between The Weakest Link and I'd Do Anything.

I think that what the straight viewer would see would be a situation comedy. The long drawn out opening gag, in which one character is looking for the other, but keeps missing him, despite the fact that he's only ten feet away, is the kind of thing you'd get in cleverly timed seaside farces or Carry On films. The main characters are broadly drawn comic 'types': there's the working class girl with the mockney accent, day dreaming about the one that got away; her nagging mother; her bonkers, dishevelled grandfather and the sinister company director who's part Anne Robinson and part bondage queen, explicitly compared with Supernanny. (Women in powerful jobs are both sinister and funny.) Only the science journalist, (this week's Highest Ranking Sympathetic Supporting Character) is played straight. The Doctor himself, of course, is hardly even a character, more a grinning collection of comic mannerisms: Basil Fawlty rather than Inspector Morse.

The opening scenes of 'Rose' said to the viewer: "These characters behave like people in a soap opera: please take them seriously". The opening scenes of 'Partners in Crime' said "These characters behave like people in a sit-com: please don't".

Approaching the show as comedy, I think the straight viewer will have quite a good time. There is lots of action, but it's all fairly obviously blue-screen and CGI: there's no real sense of danger. Common Girl and Crazy Man seem to be enjoying themselves: they are doing comedy stunts in the mode of Buster Keaton or Frank Spencer, as opposed to Indiana Jones. The scene where they finally catch up with each other and have to communicate in sign language is particularly good.

There is also a streak of what is evidently supposed to be 'drama' running through it – Crazy Man is supposed to be lonely (we see him in posing moodily in his spaceship) and Common Girl, who met him once before, is miserable because she can't find him. There are a lot of references to Crazy Man's previous two girlfriends. The scene between Common Girl and Cockney Newsvendor Grandad isn't funny, but it isn't proper serious drama, either. I think that the straight viewer is rather bored by these scenes, but she thinks that they are necessary exposition to set up what is obviously turning out to be a rom-com.

The plot is so surreal that the straight viewer will very sensibly ignore it. Since she has seen Harry Potter and the Golden Compass, she is hardly likely to be bowled over by the wondrous special effects. She's more likely to treat it as a cartoon. ('Supernanny' remains suspended in mid-air for a few moments after the tractor-beam is switched off, which will make anyone think of Roadrunner.) The little aliens are cute and funny, but not quite convincing; since we are obviously not supposed to believe in them, this hardly matters.

(In the old days of Doctor Who, the model space ships and monsters were frequently imaginative and well made, but the actual filming was so primitive that it couldn't really prevent them looking like models. This is what straights mean when they say 'wobbly sets'. I feel that the new series suffers from 'wobbly CGI': well-animated but still pretty obviously animation. The aesthetic is a lot like, say, the football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks -- the whole fun is in seeing characters who are real interacting with ones that obviously aren't.)

The straight viewer will not understand, nor even listen to, the explanation that supernanny gives about what the cute little aliens are, but since it hardly makes any sense at all, that won't matter. She may recognise the scenes in which the aliens burst out of the bodies of human beings as being a quote from a horror movie with Sigourney Weaver that she once saw, and so get the concept of 'parasite' which is the only scaffolding she really needs. The animated sequence makes perfect sense on its own terms: globules of fat break off comically lower class obese people; turns into millions and millions of jelly babies who fly home to mummy on a flying saucer out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the same kind of logic you'd get in one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations. The final, ridiculous image, of the girl and the crazy man waving at the old guy from a phone box in space confirms that what we are watching is a cartoon and should be treated as such.

So: what is the straight community's verdict? I think that they find the early comedy sections and some of the stunts quite amusing. And there certainly isn't anything else on TV that wraps sit com and farce and some less than subtle social satire around a surrealistic cartoon in quite this way. I think that the sheer strangeness of it will keep them watching. I think that they will be either bemused or intrigued by the romantic sub-plot – this girl is going off in some kind of space ship, but she's treating it either as a holiday or a date -- but they will certainly want to see how it turns out. But no-way will they regard it as 'drama' along the same lines as Casualty or Morse or even The Archers. Is there any other TV show (even The Sarah Jane Adventures) that would be allowed to get away with such a paper thin plot.

Catherine Tate is less irritating than she was the first time around. Unlike some people, I am less than confident that she is going to have a platonic relationship with the Doctor. She seem to tell Tom Campbell – sorry, Gramps – that she's interested in the Doctor romantically; but to tell the Doctor himself that she just wants to be his friend. Isn't this precisely how you reel in the straight but geeky guy who isn't all that interested? I imagine that the Doctor will declare his love for Donna in episode 7 and Rose will turn up and spoil things in episode 8.

The sad thing is that, while this mess spins around him, David Tennant is still trying to present a character who is recognisably the Doctor. His performance does, at least, give me some kind of reason for switching on. But, oh, as the fellow said all those years ago, what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?


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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ce n'est pas une revue

"I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived. "

Helene Hanff

It took the human race several thousand years to come around to the idea of fiction. Medieval writers seemed to not quite get the difference between 'romance' and 'history'. Malory kicks off the Morte by demonstrating that King Arthur really existed, as if that was necessary to establish its credentials. Three hundred years later, the Defoes and your Richardsons still had to half-pretend that Moll and Robinson and Pamela were real people.

But nowadays, we mostly don't notice the huge leap of faith which fiction involves. We read things which never happened to people who never lived and somehow feel worried when they are in danger and sad when they die and really, genuinely pleased, pleased enough to go around smiling for the rest of the day, when their estranged godfathers send them a permission slips to go on the outing to Hogsmead. A story teller asks us to treat his characters as if they were real and we take it for granted that he's going to do so as well. Otherwise, how can we invest this emotional capital in them?

The worse the story, the more investment is required. One might get something out of, say, Virginia Woolfe without 'buying into' it at all. 'I don't care about, or come to that, believe in, these characters', you might say, 'But what beautiful prose! What clever construction! What stunning irony!' No-one ever read, say, Bob Howard for the prose, construction or irony. But lots of people have said 'Yeah, I know the writing sucks, but dammit, I care about what is going to happen to Conan.'

Some people might say that making the reader care about what happens to Conan is just as much a feat of good writing as making some witty comments about Mrs. Dalloway's flower arrangements. I'm not going to stop them.

'Wanting to know what happens' is not the whole story. In series fiction, you know exactly what is going to happen: the hero is going to escape, beat the baddies and live to fight another day. The very first story depicts King Conan nostalgically remembering the days when he was a full time barbarian. This rather rules out the possibility that he really ended his days, say, nailed to a cross in the middle of the desert. Granted, in something like X-Men, there is a larger cast so the characters are more expendable: but then, we have less emotional capital invested in each of them. The trick is to make the reader feel that the hero has something to lose; that something is at stake; that the game is being played for money, not match-sticks. Steve Ditko's Spider-Man mattered much more than Superman ever did because Spidey was capable of being affected by his adventures. He came home with a black eye; he ripped his uniform; he fell out with his friends. Superman lived in a dream world where nothing bad could ever happen. Spider-Man's world felt sort-of kind-of real.

Doubtless, there are variations and nuances to this rule. The Hobbit slides from being a non-threatening fairy tale to a full-dress epic in which people die. Movies like The Sixth Sense sometimes manage to envenom their tails by only revealing that their genre is 'ghost story' rather than 'thriller' in the final frame. But it's a dangerous game to play. Lewis Carol, Geoffrey Chaucer and Neil Gaiman have successfully written stories set inside someone's dream. But the worst ending any story can possibly have is 'He woke up and found it had all been a horrible dream.'

There were these two race horses. The first race-horse said: “I'd never won a single race in my career; but yesterday, my trainer put a tot of whisky in my oats, and I came in first place.”
Funny you should say that,” said the second race horse “They were giving 100-1 against me last week, but my trainer gave me a tot of brandy, and I won the race.”
That's amazing!” remarked a passing greyhound. “My owner's been putting rum in my doggie-biscuits, and I've won five races in a row.”
Good heavens!” said the first horse “A talking dog!”

Like most jokes, this one makes us laugh because it breaks a rule. The opening line implies that we are listening to the kind of story in which any horse, dog or tree is entitled to speak (and where landlords are only mildly surprised when people walk into their pubs with ducks on their head) provided it sets up a bad pun. The final line reveals that we were, after all, in the real world where animals can't talk.

There are a large number of jokes like this. Instead of getting a laugh by breaking the rules of grammar, logic or decorum they actually break the rules of joke-telling. (Many of them are about horses, for some reason. 'Whoever heard of a horse bowling?' 'If I could run I'd be at bloody Ascot'.) The most famous involves a chicken and a road. The joke-teller asks the question in such a way as to make the hearer search for a cleverly illogical reply. He then gives a perfectly common sense answer (implying, I think, that the hearer was rather stupid for not knowing it.) By failing to break any rules, it breaks the rule that a joke should involve the breaking of the rules. It's a self referential paradox. It's a metajoke with 'This is not a joke' printed underneath. And it's not very funny.

When I was growing up, 'knock, knock' jokes were still a pretext to make a weak pun about someone's first name. ('Knock, knock.' 'Who's there.' 'Sam and Janet'. 'Sam and Janet who?' 'Sam'n'Janet evening, you may meet a stranger, across a crowded room'.) The 'Late Arrivals at the Detective's Ball' round in I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue is simply a sophisticated, Radio 4 way of telling knock-knock jokes. ('Will you welcome Mr. and Mrs. Teasefalcon, and their daughter Moll.') But, if my godchildren are any thing to go by, the only 'knock, knock' jokes which survive are the ones where the point is to break the rules of knock-knock jokes. And they aren't very funny, either.

Knock, knock.
Who's there?

'Utopia'; 'The Sound of Drums' and 'Last of the Time Lords' systematically violated the rules of Doctor Who. The overall effect was to squander the emotional capital which I have invested in the characters over three seasons, and to reduce the setting to a Supermanish dream-world. The trilogy left me feeling that I had been the victim of one of my god-daughter's knock-knock jokes.

Over the previous twelve months, the expectation had been created that modern day Cardiff is the location of the dreadful Torchwood; and that stories set in Cardiff are therefore more mature and adult (i.e. contain more occurrence of the word 'fuck') than those set elsewhere. Further, the rules of the dreadful Torchwood seemed to say that the parent series can be alluded to, but not referred to directly. It is therefore mildly disconcerting that in the prologue to 'Utopia', we see the TARDIS appear in Cardiff. We momentarily feel that the rules of the dreadful Torchwood have been broken. They haven't, of course: this is Saturday, not Wednesday, and the Cap'n Jack who ends up on board the TARDIS is a pre-watershed Jack who watches his language and doesn't have sex with Martha, not even once.

In the dreadful Torchwood, Jack is represented as a very dark character with a terrible secret in his past. His transition back to Doctor Who is played for laughs – he runs across Cardiff and hitches a lift by hanging on to the outside of the TARDIS (in itself a minor violation of the programme's rules). The mystery associated with his character in the dreadful Torchwood evaporates in contact with Doctor Who: all those flashbacks where he seems to have been a part of historical events are explained away -- Bad Wolf simply dumped him on earth a century or so too early. His indestructibility is the result of the same plot device. (The first thing which happens in Season 2 of the dreadful Torchwood is that Jack acquires two more Dark Secrets: a long lost brother and a psychotic ex-boyfriend. The Dark Secret which defined his personality in 'The Empty Child' – that he used to be 'A Time Agent' and has lost a portion of his memory – has been largely forgotten.)

Since 1970 the 'Time Lords' have been the controlling idea in Doctor Who : after the TARDIS and the Doctor himself, they are the one central thread which defines the series. Over the course of episodes 1 – 7 of Season 1 of the new series, RTD progressively revealed that the Time Lords no longer existed. This could be seen as a massive re-writing of the rules, although at the same time, it was highly reactionary: RTD s had, after all, re-defined 'The Doctor' as 'a character who is fleeing some kind of disaster or tragedy which we don't know about' – pretty much how he was introduced in 1963.

The revelation at the end of 'Utopia', that Professor Yaffle is a Time Lord is thus a huge violation of the newly established rules of the series (which say 'the Doctor is the last of his people'); but, at the same time, a massive restoration of the status quo. The moment when Derek Jacobi is transformed into John Simm is supposed to be a Sixth Sense moment which says 'Everything you thought you knew is wrong' But (even if the sodding Independent hadn't revealed the twist in advance) it's not really that big a surprise. We've been expecting that the major baddies from the original Who would stage come-backs; we've had Daleks and Cybermen, so who's next on the short list? The regeneration isn't quite what we expected from this story, but it's very much what we expect from Doctor Who. If anything the minor twists – the use of regeneration as an element in a story, not merely a hand-wave to facilitate a staff reshuffle; and the 'bleeding' of the plot of 'Human Nature' into that of 'Utopia' – are more unexpected and disconcerting breaches of the rules.

So: we aren't quite sure if we're in the dreadful Torchwood or in Doctor Who, we aren't quite sure if we're following the rules of the old series or the new series; a large chunk of what we've been told about the setting of the new series turns out to be false; a major actor appears purely in order to be written out. Watching 'Utopia' is a dislocating and disorientating experience.

"Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?"

'Sound of Drums' starts as it means to go on. The apparent cliffhanger (the Master has taken the TARDIS and trapped Our Heroes at the end of time) is resolved practically off-stage: the Doctor had sufficient magic pixie dust in his pocket to get everyone home. However, this small piece of rule-breaking ('the Doctor's in terrible danger, whoops, no, with one leap he's free') plunges him into the middle of a bigger and much more interesting cliff-hanger. Harold Saxon is the Master, which we had seen coming; and he's the Prime Minister of England, which we possibly hadn't.

The rest of the episode involves a whole raft of genre-violations, including.

[a] The Doctor Who theme tune is referenced within the series itself. (It's rhythm represents the drums which the Master hears in his head and which have driven him mad.) This is almost the oddest thing in the whole story: a much bigger piece of taboo breaking than if the main character had actually been referred to as Dr. Who. Having characters in the series humming the theme tune made me feel I was reading TV Comic or looking at the wrapper of a bar of Nestles chocolate.

[b] Throughout RTD's tenure, alien planets have been taboo (because mainstream audiences can't deal with the planet Zog.) For the same reason, the name 'Gallifrey' was avoided until the second Christmas special. So the flashback sequence is quite transgressive. It's odd to see an alien world on the new show; odder to see live Time Lords; and oddest of all that they are dressed in the silly Flash Gordon costumes they were saddled with in 'Deadly Assassin.' (If anything in the show needed re-imagining, that was it.) There is also a bijou jokette for the asexual community: the novice Time Lords are wearing robes a lot like those the Time Lords wore in their first, monochrome appearance. Much more shockingly, this scene actually gives us information about the Doctor's life on Gallifrey before he became a wanderer (an area where even Big Finish and the New Adventures trod carefully) and partly demystifies the Master's origins.

As ever, the Highest Ranking Sympathetic Supporting Character -- the Time Lord who is 'initiating' the novices – has dark coloured skin. You can break all the narrative rules you like, but the BBCs diversity guidelines are sacrosanct.

[c] Martha speculates out loud that 'the Master is the Doctor's secret brother'. This is a long held fan-theory. Colin Baker once said it was the sort of thing one should ponder, but which would be spoilt if it was ever said to be definitely true. It feels very odd that it should cross the third wall into the series itself. The Doctor doesn't directly contradict Martha: he merely says "You've been watching too much TV." Villains turn out to be the hero's sibling in TV shows, not in real life -- says the main character in a long running TV series. If this were played upon the stage, I should dismiss it as improbable fiction. Why did the chicken cross the road?

"You know, Doctor ", said Jo suddenly "I think you've got a sort of a sneaking liking for him."
The Doctor looked indignant. "Like him? I can't stand the fellow. He's ruthless. Depraved. Totally evil. In fact, a thoroughly bad lot. Only..."
"Only what, Doctor."
The Doctor looked a little sheepish. "Well, I do sometimes think the cosmos would be a duller place without him."

"Terror of the Autons"

Harold Saxon is the nexus of this meta-textual dislocation. Casting Sam Tyler from Life on Mars in this role was a deliberate bit of intertextuality. Sam spends his whole life wondering whether he is experiencing real life or a dream. He talks to characters on the TV and hears them answer. He momentarily becomes confused about whether or not Camberwick Green is a real place. The final image of the show implies that Sam has chosen to become a fictional character. So it doesn't seem strange to see him playing the Master, a character who has crossed from the world of Doctor Who annuals and Sugar Smacks packets to that of serious Drama, but who refuses to be tied down to any genre.

At one level, scarily, he's part of the real world -- real London, real parliament, real newscasters, real Anne Widdecombe -- a psychotic lunatic in charge of a realistic near future England. (In another piece of meta-textual irony, 'The Sound of Drums' was transmitted on BBC1 while BBC2 was showing the first part of their grovelling biography of, er, Tony Blair.) On the other hand, the actual Downing Street scenes utterly resist any semblance of realism. feeling more like something out of My Dad's The Prime Minister. As the story goes on, we'll see Saxon portrayed as a genuinely psychotic dictator, and as a peculiar pantomime villain who plays pop-records while he slaughters and tiptoes around in his dressing gown to taunt the Doctor.

In the original series, The Master was a comic-opera villain who literally twirled his moustache; who had no motivation except to spread chaos across the universe and be its emperor, but who was always polite and charming to the people he intended to kill. Simm is as far as way from the old theatrical ham as it is possible to get -- yet we never doubt that we can see Roger Delgado behind his eyes. In this respect, his performance is very similar to that of Christopher Eccleston, who, as older readers will remember, once played the role of the Doctor.

The difference between 'The Sound of Drums' and, say 'The Claws of Axos' lies in the amount of emotional capital we are being asked to invest in the Doctor and the Master. The scene in which the latter gasses the entire cabinet may be slapstick, but the scene in which he and the Doctor confront each other (over a cellphone) demands to be taken seriously as drama. It has long been established that the Doctor and his Moriarty mutually respect – even need – each other; but RTD raises the emotional ante. These are no longer merely contemporaries: these are the only surviving Lords of Time. (The title of episode 13 is deliberately ambiguous.) Earlier in the season, the Doctor was shown to have a similar bond with Sec because he is the last Dalek in the universe, which takes us full circle to the first Dalek story in Season 1. Having refused to confirm or deny that the Doctor and the Master are brothers, RTD comes very close to implying that they are lovers.

This superheated emotional plot is matched in intensity with what is literally the biggest cliffhanger in the series' history. In the past, the rule has been that the Doctor will always save the day. The alien invasion will be averted. If London is over-run with dinosaurs -- or, more probably, glove puppets of dinosaurs -- everyone will have forgotten about it in a week's time. New Who has attempted to fix the series in a consistent, developing near future: if Big Ben is destroyed in 'Aliens of London' then it will have scaffolding around it in 'The Christmas Invasion'; if London is menaced by a giant space ship in 2005 and a giant spider in 2006 then in 2007 everyone will leave the capital. (Granted, the news doesn't get as far as Cardiff, but Cardiff is nearly three hours away by train.) This is the central premise of the dreadful Torchwood: 'the 21st century is when everything changes.'

Hence, the Master's triumph at the end of episode 12 is a violation of the rules of the old series, but completely consistent with what the new series has led us to expect. The Master has finally made himself ruler of the earth; the Doctor is not merely defeated, but humiliatingly transformed, first into an old, old man, then into a grotesque goblin. (The notion that the main character can be played by a special effect for the better part of an episode is another creative violation of the rules of series television.) As if to underline the point, episode 13 begins with the caption '1 year later': this is no cliff-hanger to escape from, but an event in the Doctor Who pseudoverse which has really, irrevocably happened.

Robin: But he knows that we know about his hideout there!
Batman: Correct! However, knowing that, he'd think that we'd think he would not return there, therefore he did and so will we!

When Willliam Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton in 1966, it was an off-the-wall, genre-bending experiment: surely changing the lead actor in an on-going series is the one thing you can never do? (And if you must, surely you wouldn't draw attention to it.) When Christopher Eccleston turned into David Tennant in 2005, it felt almost cosy. We've had Daleks, we've had Autons, now we've had a regeneration, so we know the dear old series has come back to our screens. It's part of the Doctor's job-description to regenerate from time to time. You might say that 'change is the only constant', if that was the sort of thing you felt inclined to say.

What shocked us much more was the departure of Rose at the end of season 2. It seemed impossible to imagine new-Who without Billie Piper: unbelievably, we had a version of Doctor Who in which the companion was more indispensable than the hero. So Martha's whole function in Series 3 was to not be Rose. Almost the first thing the Doctor says to her is that she is not Rose's replacement. She worries that the Doctor is taking her to the same places he took Rose; she is jealous when she finds out that Rose was a blond; she has a crush on the Doctor and is completely overlooked because she is not Rose. But, of course, Rose's replacement is precisely what Martha is: she reads Rose's lines, behaves just as Rose would have done, fills, in short, a Rose shaped hole. A companion is a companion is a companion.

Martha's role in 'Last of the Time Lords' is actually rather clever. Where the function of a companion is to be rescued by the Doctor, Martha has to be the rescuer on rather an large scale -- spending a whole year travelling the earth in order to find the four components of the only gun which is capable of killing the Master. It turns out that this is only a feint – what she's really doing is spreading a secret message to everyone in the whole wide world (a direct lift, by the way, from Big Finish's Dalek Empire.) Martha is betrayed to the Master by a human turn-coat; but it turns out that this is precisely what she wanted to happen: this betrayal brings her close enough to the Master to put the Doctor's plan into operation.

These kinds of stories, which rely on the hero being able to infallibly second guess the villain, are never quite believable. But what struck me more forcefully was that Martha mocks the Master for having believed in something so silly as a gun broken into four parts: that is, for believing in the kind of plot device on which 'The Key to Time'; and 'The Keys of Marinus'; were hung. Martha fools the Master because he thought the story was operating under the rules of Doctor Who where it was actually operating under the rules of the real world. She might almost have said "You watch too much TV." Good Lord! A talking dog!

"English children have 'The Beano' in the same way that they have rickets."

Alan Moore

Newspapers still print lies about the Old Series having had Wobbly Sets. (They still occasionally even say that Daleks can't go up stairs.) But it's perfectly true that there was something amateurish and ramshackle about Doctor Who: it was never a high-budget prestige series; always a slightly cobbled-together, small scale fixture in a peculiar time-slot that was neither quite for kids or quite for adults. Some people will always think a newer, glossier programme is not really Doctor Who.

This is also true of the Doctor himself. In, say, 'The Time Warrior', he cobbled together a device out of spare parts which enabled him to track where Lynx was taking the missing scientists. He repulsed the attack on Wessex's castle by manufacturing scarecrows that resembled knights and cooking up some supercharged stink-bombs; he defeated Irongron by brewing some sleeping draft from herbs in Lady Eleanor's kitchen. He was not God (although, of course, he could supply any number of jury rigged dei ex maxhinae) and he certainly wasn't a superhero. He was a gentleman amateur who travelled the universe and sometimes found himself in a situation where he could lend a helping hand.

At the climax of 'Last of the Time Lords' – the single most embarrassing thing ever to appear on Doctor Who -- the Doctor is transformed into Christ-in-a-Geeky-Suit because everyone in the whole wide world believes in him. It's hard not to read this as a metaphor. Doctor Who has been transformed into an all-conquering Beeb-saving TV success because it is loved, or at any rate, switched on, by practically every UK citizen who owns a TV set. Once, it was a deformed, grotesque caricature, placed in the graveyard slot against Coronation Street, with guest appearances by Ken Dodd, Nicholas Parsons and Bonnie Langford. Now, it's like the Second Coming of Eric and Ernie, the highlight of Christmas, advertised in mainstream movie houses, on the front of every Radio Times. My Doctor defeated the baddies because he had one or two gadgets that possibly they didn't, like a teaspoon and an open mind. This Doctor solves everything with a wave of the sonic screwdriver, or, failing that, by being born aloft by angels, resetting time, bathing the world in heavenly light.
Once a boffin; now a saviour but somehow no longer Doctor Who.

The Marquis De Sade meets Leopold Sacher-Masoch in hell.
"Whip me! Beat me! " says Masoch.
"No." says De Sade.

That the Doctor escapes from his cage because everyone wishes for him to do so is a pretty egregious narrative cop-out. It is followed by a far greater narrative sin -- the violation of a rule which (I believe) the series never once transgressed in 45 years.

Time Travel (specifically the Deactivation of the Paradox Machine, but still, basically, Time Travel) is used to undo events which have previously happened. Time winds back. The Master never conquered the earth, decimated the population, levelled the cities. The narrative promise of Episode 12 is broken. We woke up, and it had all been a horrible dream.

RTD attempts to make up for this betrayal by turning the emotional volume all the way up to 11. The destruction of Earth, Martha's quest for the magic gun, the mutation of the Doctor – all this has in fact been only an external outworking of the Doctor / Master love story. It's on this relationship that all our emotional poker chips should have been wagered. And, I have to say, the pay-off is handled extraordinarily well. In 'Doomsday', when Rose left forever, the Doctor almost cried. When the Master dies, he blubs uncontrollably. Because his love for a member of his own kind, even an enemy, is greater than his love for any human? Because he and the Master were friends long before they were enemies? Because the Master is the last Time Lord and the Doctor is now alone in the universe? Because all their battles through time and space were really part of a big S&M love affair?

The Doctor and Martha second-guessed the Master about the gun; but the Master and the Doctor second guess each other much more efficiently. Each does the one thing which the other wouldn't expect. The Betrayed, Crucified and Risen Again Doctor forgives the evil one, and that pierces him far worse than any mere defeat. The Doctor's old boy-friend humiliates him, not by destroying the world, but by refusing to regenerate. The Doctor beats the Master. The Master beats the Doctor by letting himself be beaten. In any S & M relationship, the apparent victim is really the Master.

So. Having invited us to invest all our emotional capital in this scene, Davies proceeds to throw it back in our faces.

After the Master's funeral -- a scene so jaw droppingly out of keeping with the style of the show as to make me say 'I literally cannot believe I am watching this' -- we see a hand, presumably that of Saxon's wife, remove his ring from the pyre, while the Master's demonic cackling is played in the background. The cremation is a crass, silly quote from Return of the Jedi so we naturally associate the ring with Flash Gordon, in which the removal of the Ming's ring signified that he was still available to menace the hero in a sequel. Demonic laughter has frequently been used in Doctor Who to signify that the apparently defeated Master is still alive.

You thought that the relationship between the Master and the Doctor had been recast in terms of Serious Drama. We invited you to take the characters seriously. But the Master was only a comic-opera villain after all. He'll be back to tie the pretty lady to a trainline again in the next thrilling installment. My word! A talking dog!

Yet the lack of realism lets it down. Lee and Will find themselves filming on a fantastically elaborate and pop-video-looking wasteland, complete with a very unlikely smashed-up jeep upturned on a pile of rubble. The kids later actually succeed in getting the jeep to run. Maybe it's absurd to care about details like this, yet unless we believe in their world, it's difficult to care and difficult to laugh.

Guardian review of 'Son of Rambow'

And, just when I have almost chewed my own fist off in disbelief that the BBC would let RTD get away with anything so dreadful, along comes the news that Captain Jack is the Face of Boe.

I have watched 'Utopia' repeatedly, and when Martha refers to the Face of Boe, there is not one trace of a reaction on Jack's face. He should have done a double take and said 'Hey, that's what they called me when I was a kid.' But he didn't. Of course he didn't. Because RTD just made it up, out of his head, on the spot. Don't ask why Jack would have waited a billion years and then informed the Doctor, in the form of a very oblique acronym, that Prof. Yaffle is a Time Lord, a piece of information which Jack already knows, having been there, will be of no help to the Doctor whatsoever.

It makes no sense. He made it up. Out of his head. On. The. Spot.

Don't tell me that I am being a pedantic little asexual fanboy This sort of thing matters. It matters because it makes it hard for us to emotionally invest in these characters ever again. It matters because it makes the whole imaginary world dissolve into a dream. It matters that a story-teller, at a basic level, doesn't care about his characters. So why should we?

Now all that remains is to hit a couple of reset buttons and restore the status quo. Captain Jack waited a hundred years for the Doctor to come and find him (this was his whole personality), but he decides to go back to his little team after all. Does this happen because it is the kind of thing which Captain Jack would do, or simply because there has to be a second series of the dreadful Torchwood?

Not-Rose realises that the Doctor is never going to be her boyfriend because she's not Rose, so there is no point in hanging around with him any longer. Faced with the choice between 'saving the universe, meeting Shakespeare, visiting alien planets, and being on really quite close and intimate terms with an amazing guy, but accepting that he's never going to fuck you' and 'staying home and finding some boyfriend', well, obviously everyone would choose the latter. Do you think that possibly RTD has Issues about having been some girl's Gay Best Friend until she went off with a straight guy?

So. Jack back in Cardiff, Martha back at the hospital, Doctor back in the TARDIS spluttering setting-up for the Christmas special. Omega's in his black hole and all's right with the world.

They woke up, and it had all been a dream.

"What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?"

In the 72 hours after the this debacle, I learned.

[a] That Martha's exit was, in fact, another feint: we'd get to hear her saying 'fuck' and 'pee' in a few episodes of the dreadful Torchwood but she'll be back in the TARDIS before the end of Season 4. It's pretty hard to emotionally commit to characters as characters when so much of the plot is narrated in advance, when the actors are so much more important than the characters they play.

[b] That temporary companion for the Christmas special would be Kylie Minogue. This elicited the reaction 'Oh well, at least it's not Catherine Tate, the hopelessly miscast, unfunny comedienne whose portrayal of the moronic and unbelievable Donna made the 2006 Christmas special practically unwatchable.'

[c] That the permanent companion for Season 4 would be Catherine Tate.

After this, the news that the series would be rested at the end of Series 4 felt less like a gap year, more like euthanasia.

After watching 'The Daemons' for the first time Louise H. remarked that the much revered older series couldn't sustain the kind of critical analysis which the new one is subjected to.

Of course it couldn't: but neither does the old series invite that kind of analysis. 'The Daemons' presents itself as a mock gothic sub Dennis Wheatley cliff-hanger yarn; therefore, we accept it as a mock gothic sub Dennis Wheatley cliff-hanger yarn. We boo the Master, scream at the monster and wonder why Miss Hawthorne is so underused. But if you announce to the world that Doctor Who is 'not genre but drama' then it is entirely possible that some of us are going to treat it like drama and complain when, as drama, it fails.

It's just conceivable that Alan Moore or someone could re-imagine Tom and Jerry with realistic animals and a socially realistic setting. But it wouldn't be fair to expect us to laugh at the mouse being put through the meat grinder. We'd be more likely to ask 'Why does no one send for the RSPCA.'

So. That is why I didn't review Doctor Who, series 3. Yes, there were good things in it. 'Blink' was genuinely good; 'Human Nature' very nearly worked. It must be said that both stories were really post-modern deconstructions of Doctor Who: when they tried to do actual non-ironic Doctor Who stories like 'The Lazarus Effect' and 'Evolution of the Daleks' one felt that their heart wasn't really in it. No, there wasn't anything as disastrous as 'Fear Her' or 'The Idiot's Lantern.'

But at a fundamental level, 'Last of The Time Lords' has killed my interest in the show. RTD doesn't believe in it any more, so why the hell should I?


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