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?
Doctor.

'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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26 comments:

Kai said...

Because David Tennant and Steven Moffat do.

I too, for slightly different but overlapping reasons, was made sick by the end of The Last of the Time Lords. In fact, everything to do with the new version of the Master, while highly entertaining, disturbs me on several levels. I almost didn't miss the show while it was gone. Almost.

After months passed with little to no access to Doctor Who, I had an opportunity to see the latest Christmas special. Though it was not what I would call stunningly good, I did find myself cheering for the Doctor even as he said the most ridiculous lines with a straight face. While I agree with most of your thoughts about season three, I find myself agreeing more with the earlier post where you said that you simply couldn't imagine yourself ever not watching Doctor Who. Whether or not I can still invest myself in the characters remains to be seen.

Oh, and apparently the hand that picked up the ring was no one in particular, and RTD just put it in there to give future producers an excuse to resurrect the Master if they so choose. I hope that when that glorious day arrives, you will come back to the show to review it for us all.

Louise H said...

Whew! that was a lot of not-review.

I was going to write lots but it can be summarised as "the things that bother you don't tend to bother me"

As long as the writers don't wreck the characterisation, I can live with all sorts of variants in tone, self referential jokes, blatant implausibilities. If the Doctor wants to run around chasing fat jelly babies and playing with sonic pens one episode, that's fine, as long as he doesn't actually do or say anything that will conflict with the "serious drama" next ep. I really don't mind that my drama comes in bits dribbled throughout lighter stuff and the occasional gothic melodrama as long as it isn't mucked up in the process. And in general RTD manages to do that reasonably well.

I wish they hadn't messed around with the funeral after the utterly brilliant Doctor/Master scenes. But I can even block out the memory of the excruciating "Face of Boe" disaster; even following those two horrors I can still claim that Last of the TimeLords was splendid. Piecemeal memory- it's very useful.

And possibly not having watched so much Doctor Who, I don't find the scenes jar against the expected "rules", or no more than one would expect in drama. (I don't really see how you can possibly claim that the Doctor discovering that he is not the last of the timelords is somehow a breach of legitimate expectations. It's drama!)

And I still think you're wrong about Martha- she had an entirely convincing reason to leave.

Torchwood, on the other hand, mucks up big time. I was far far more irate about the season finale than I have been about any part of Doctor Who.

clarrie said...

I don't neccasarily know as I'd say that the NA's 'trod carefully' to be honest. In fact if I remember rightly it got to the point where there were pretty much whole NAs written taking the rise out of earlier NA's 'What happens if I pull THIS?' attitude towards the Doctor's past.

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?

I've said repeatedly that the finale of series 3 was pretty much screaming 'hey, guys, female sexuality is WRONG' at the top of it's voice for the entire duration, so, yeah.

Brad Ellison said...

I do, actually, read Bob Howard for both the prose construction and the irony.

Salisbury said...

But at a fundamental level, 'Last of The Time Lords' has killed my interest in the show.

And presumably if it hasn't, this will:

'The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion will appear as a guest star in the new series of Doctor Who, which began last night. "People were falling at his feet," says Davies, creator of the BBC's flagship show. "We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping."'

Abigail Nussbaum said...

1. You seem to drawing a stark distinction between books one reads for the prose (Virginia Woolf) and books one reads for the plot (Conanc the Barbarian, Harry Potter). Even leaving aside my objection to the idea that plot equals 'what happens next', I can't get onboard with this. You're leaving out reading for the characters, reading for the relationships, and reading for the setting. Which is a shame as, unlike plot and prose, it's possible to read both To the Lighthouse and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for these reasons, and, though the two books will give you very different things in all categories, to enjoy them both on all counts. Which is just my way of saying that I think you've come up with a rather reductive way of distinguishing between art and entertainment.

2. The final image of [Life on Mars] implies that Sam has chosen to become a fictional character.

I hadn't thought to put it quite this way, but of course this is entirely true.

3. I don't necessarily agree that all of the examples you give of genre-shifting between serious drama and silly buggers are a betrayal of the viewers. I thought, for example, that the gun-in-four-parts feint was quite clever. Where I do agree with you is when it comes to the Master's ring being picked up, and the implicit promise of his resurrection. This seems to me to be an example of a greater sickness that has infested the show - Davies's refusal to actually end anything. Daleks, Time Lords, Cybermen, alternate universes, the Master, Rose - they're all lost forever, and then they're not. Is this silly buggers winning out over serious drama?

4. 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.

I'd agree with this if there had ever been any indication that meeting Shakespeare, visiting alien worlds, etc, had ever been Martha's primary motivation for being on the TARDIS. I mean, yes, she's obviously dead chuffed to have met the Bard, but the Doctor can still put a damper on those high spirits by musing about another girl. Which to me says that Martha thought she was being asked on a date from day one, and her leaving once she finally gets it in her head that the Doctor is never going to love her the way he did Rose is really the only sensible reaction.

5. I don't know whether Russell T. Davies believes in Doctor Who or not. But he certainly seems to feel that believing in it is something one should be embarrassed to admit.

6. Kudos for using Torchwood's full title.

7. I'm not trying to sway you one way or another, but one episode in I'm quite liking Catherine Tate as the new companion. The broad comedy has been turned down a little, and, more importantly, Donna does not seem to be in love with the Doctor. We'll have to see how long that lasts.

Sam Dodsworth said...

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'.

A Pedant Writes:

Aristophanes.

(Or if you mean novels - Petroneus, Apuleus, and the Greeks they were imitating.)

(Although, ironically enough, Herodotus and Thucydides seemed not quite to get the difference between 'history' and 'romance'.)

(Er... not that this has much to do with Doctor Who.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion will appear as a guest star in the new series of Doctor Who, which began last night.

"Doctor Who" has had guest appearances by famous people since it came back. (Anne Widdecombe and McFly in the last season.) In fact, didn't I complain that there wasn't a cameo by Dawkins (on religious talk show, arguing that ghosts don't exist) at the end of Season 2.

These little cameos are of the nature of jokes, one liners; they make you smile because you are not expecting them.

AND THEREFORE RENDERED TOTALLY BLOODY POINTLESS BY THE BBC'S INSISTENCE ON ANNOUNCING THEM WEEKS IN ADVANCE.

("Policeman turns out to be murderer in new drama." A new thriller by Mrs. Agatha Christie, in which it turns out that the detective and the murderer were one and the same, will screen tonight. "I am particularly pleased with this twist" said Mrs Christie "Because absolutely no-one will be expecting...."

See also under Piper, Billie.

ian said...

Another outbreak of pedanticness: Caxton was the cryptohistorian, not poor sir Mallory.
That aside, the new Who stuff certainly is painfully akward. Wich, after all, was the point of the article.

Salisbury said...

I suppose the question is: Did you watch 'Partners in Crime'? I assume you're still tuning in, since there'd be no point getting pissed off at spoilers if you weren't.

I liked it; which is, I think, to say I didn't hate it, which for a Russell Davies season opener will do. Also, I find Catherine Tate as Donna wonderfully engaging, though I suspect that might be one of those either/or things.

Abigail: I'm equally pleased that Donna (so far) is not the Doctor's romantic interest. But having decided that's the way to go, it seemed PiC couldn't shut up about it--any more than season three could go five minutes without Martha looking doe-eyed and smitten. It's as if the folks in Wales are terrified that everyone will switch off if the possibility of romance isn't unendingly raised, even if only in the form of an apology for not raising more of it. Note the way the lass in the call centre gave the Doctor her phone number, presumably so Russell can let us know that he's aware how desirable the Doctor/David Tennant is--even if Donna, strangely, isn't. Look for this to be a recurring motif/running gag in season four.

Kai said...

I remember, with great disappointment, how I thought when they got rid of Rose but before I'd seen Martha, "oh good, now we'll be rid of that whole the-Doctor-travels-with-girlfriends thing." It's disappointing to hear that even now that they've actually changed that, they're going on about it as a joke instead. I am however relieved to see in other replies that Donna and the Doctor are not in love, as that would just be unbearable to watch.

("Relieved to hear" because I'm in the US, where the new season starts airing on the 18th.)

Louise H said...

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?

Interestingly (possibly) I've just finished watching Queer as Folk (also RTD of course) in which unrequited love is a major theme but in which the unrequited person elects to hang around. And in which the drawbacks and advantages of taking this opposite approach are set out in great detail. I don't think RTD can be accused of taking this line without thinking it out.

QaF of course is entirely character driven, and benefits hugely from it. Having seen that, I can see rather more of the joins where RTD tries to match up character driven plots with classic Who adventures. But it the alternative is no character driven plots at all then I can tolerate that. If we had the old Who back I doubt that I'd be watching it.

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew, thanks for finally writing this -- it was well worth waiting for. I'm in agreement with much of what you say, but what I found hardest to come to terms with was the sheer waste of Series 3. After a shaky start, I think it was shaping up to the best I've seen, and the three-show sequence of Blink, Human Nature and Family of Blood was definitely the best three consecutive Dr. Whos I've ever seen. So I let myself get my hopes up for the final trilogy.

And even then, I liked Utopia much more than you did. The desolate far-future planet was very been-there-done-that, and the actual Utopia subplot seemed to fade away into the background rather carelessly, but I was fascinated by Derek Jacobi's character, and managed to convince myself (before the reveal proved me wrong) that he was in fact the Doctor in a future regeneration. Havigng him turn our to the Master instead was a little anticlimactic, but nothing compared with the grotesque sequence of mis-steps that made up the last two episodes. I don't think I've ever seen anything that caused me so much pain as everyone in the world chanting "Doctor".

I'm reserving judgement on Series 4: it's a shame the Adipose were so unconvincing, but that aside I think the first episode was at least promising, not least because the Doctor/Donna dynamic is so different from Doctor/Martha. And I did feel a tingle running up my spine on seeing the back of Rose's head and recognising her before she turned round. But but but -- you _can't_ go bringing Rose back, otherwise you completely unwrite Doomsday.

We'll see. If all she can manage is the occasional transitory hologram projection, I'm good with that. It would, anyway, give us a strange and new kind of relationship. But if she physically makes it back into our universe, then I will not trust _anything_ RTD tells us ever again.

Gavin Burrows said...

…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.

Well, that and the fact that death didn’t seem to be particularly terminal in the X-Men. I always imagined Professor Xavier’s answerphon containing lots of apologetic messages; “I’m sorry I can’t come in today, I’m a bit dead. Expect me tomorrow.”

Martha's role in 'Last of the Time Lords' is actually rather clever.

…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.

I read this piece avidly. But by the end of it I was wondering if what you’d done was dismissed Lazarus Effect but been bothered by Last of The Time Lords, so have ended up dismissing it at greater time and length. My main objection to the last series would be that the majority of episodes were as dismissable as Lazarus Effect. Rather than get the urge to post about them on the internet I’d find myself forgetting about them while I was still watching them.

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.

I have to say I wonder if you haven’t missed the point here! The point isn’t the parts, the point is the gun. The Master fails because he fails to get what good is; he expects the other side to do some echo of what he would do, except impeded by conscience. But goodness turns out to be some other thing entirely.

I’m not sure I’d count this as ‘real world rules’. I’m not particularly expecting Robert Mugabe to suddenly confess he’s failed to rig the Zimbabwean elections because he didn’t understand the concept of virtue. But I would contend I) as a kind of meme to put out in the world it’s not a bad one and ii) it’s classically Doctor Who.

I was also left wondering if you weren’t using quite a narrow definition of metafiction. Of course these self-inflicted plot spoilers are annoying. (“Oh look, the sudden appearance of a Dalek. A bit like it said in the title then…”) But the very act of bringing back the old series makes some degree of self-referentialism inevitable, and I’m not sure this is a bad thing in itself. The Master’s defeat is an example of this. Martha even tells him “while you thought I was building a gun I was telling a story.” The idea of the Doctor is more powerful than a gun. The idea of the Doctor is more powerful than the Doctor.

But on the other side…

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.

Let’s remember Alan Moore has spent most of his subsequent career trying to rebuild the very division he got famous for knocking down. Nowadays he writes America’s Best Comics or Lost Girls, with very little inbetween.

Yes, your analogy’s a good one. With a lot of modern genre comics, I feel like the same set of action figures bought for an eight year old are now being played with by a kid of thirteen. And of course he plays with them a lot more roughly, and finds it funny to stick them in all sorts of unnatural poses. In real life this happens and the action figures get broken.

But in the transforming logic (otherwise known as cheating) of comics, Batman can get his back broken but you can then make it all better again. There’s something pretty unsavoury about this combination. And yes the ending of Last of The Time Lords is reminiscent of that. Everything was gritty and horrific and apocalyptic and like you never saw before. All until Tinkerbell scattered the magic pixie dust and then it was all never was.

But perhaps another point of comparison might be the ‘re-imagined’ Battlestar Galactica. There they even did the ‘one year later’ thing and stuck to it! Of course Battlestar is definitely aimed at adults (no matter it’s predecessor), while Doctor Who is a family audience show. That distinction can create a paradox which is hard to overcome. And yet when it is, you see it works in its own way…

PS Have you seen this yet?

Andrew Rilstone said...

PS Have you seen this yet?

For "Stephen Green of the evangelical pressure group Christian voice", read "loony fundamentalist fruitcake Stephen Green, speaking on behalf of himself."

I wonder if RTD really doesn't know the meaning of the word "passion" in a religious context?

Gavin Burrows said...

For "Stephen Green of the evangelical pressure group Christian voice", read "loony fundamentalist fruitcake Stephen Green, speaking on behalf of himself."

As with Torchwood, the adjectives are sometimes silent.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Brad Ellison said...
I do, actually, read Bob Howard for both the prose construction and the irony.


Ah, yes -- I've had these kinds of discussions before:

"Virginia Woolfe is a different kind of writer from Robert E Howard!"

"Intellectual Snob! Cultural Elitist!! Literary Fascist!!! Virginia Woolfe writes exactly the same kinds of books as Robert E Howard!!!! It's just that she not as good at it as he is!!!!!"

nickpheas said...

I rather enjoyed the season series of Torchwood. The first was truely dreadful, and the last couple of episodes of season 2 fell a bit flat, but on the whole it was rather good. The Sapphire & Steel story with the scary circus was excellent, and the one with the First World War soldier who they have to send back to the Somme to save the world was as good as any TV SF in the last few years.

Oddly, my grandmother would insist that "...and then they all woke up..." was an essential part of any story even remotely fantastic. She also insisted that Robot should be pronounced Ro-bo, from the original French.

Louise H said...

I liked the second season of Torchwood too. It was just that last episode that misstepped appallingly.

But we mustn't get sidetracked on Torchwood on Andrew's Doctor Who blog entry, even though I doubt that we will ever get Andrew's Torchwood blog entry...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Season 2 of Torchwood was utterly contemptible. Since Season 1 was beneath contempt, that counts as an improvement.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I thought "robot" was a Czech word, anyway?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Louise H said...
But it the alternative is no character driven plots at all then I can tolerate that. If we had the old Who back I doubt that I'd be watching it.


No-one is proposing that we should have the old Who back. Not that old Who even existed; if the series had never been canceled, then we can assume that the first episode of Season 46 would have been as different from "Survival" as "Survival" was from "The Daemons". The first "Big Finish" CDs may have been pastiches of the old show, but incremental change turned them into their own thing. Even the "Sarah Jane Adventures" -- which were often less irritating than RTDs "Who" scripts and certainly more mature than "Torchwood", were nothing like old "Who." And I'm not objecting to the programme being "character driven": in fact, if some of the monsters and baddies were treated more as characters and less as plot devices, that might help.

I guess what I really feel the new series lacks is plots. Logical sequences of events with a beginning, middle and end, and plausible (within the genre) motivations. You know: stories. Is that terribly terribly old fashioned of me?

nickpheas said...

Andrew Rilstone said...Season 2 of Torchwood was utterly contemptible. Since Season 1 was beneath contempt, that counts as an improvement.

As Louise said, it ended very badly, but it had in there about six well done episodes, several of which involved real character growth and development. The whole 'Owen dies, gets better and in the process grows up' arc was certainly better than anything RTD's ever managed.

I thought "robot" was a Czech word, anyway?
Do you see what I was doing there? I said that she strongly believed in something that as a whole we might disagree with, and then pointed out that she believed something that's patently barking, hence indicating the degree to which I support her beliefs.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Do you see what I was doing there?

Brain slightly disengaged. Sorry. Can't do jokes about yanks not getting irony any more.

Brad Ellison said...

"Intellectual Snob! Cultural Elitist!! Literary Fascist!!! Virginia Woolfe writes exactly the same kinds of books as Robert E Howard!!!! It's just that she not as good at it as he is!!!!!"

It is possible to believe simultaneously that Virginia Woolfe wrote a very different kind of book than Howard and that there are reasons to read his work other than finding out what happens next.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.