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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Greg G said...

"The Doctor himself, of course, is hardly even a character, more a grinning collection of comic mannerisms: Basil Fawlty rather than Inspector Morse."

Brush, even.

I've often wondered what people who actually enjoy Nu Whu mean when they mention they enjoy the characterisation.

The question of the self-loathing fan is intriguing and explains much - the writers of the current incarnation quite obviously are fans themselves, and fan involvement in Who is rarely a good idea. cf Matthew Waterhouse, Ian Levine.

Andrew Stevens said...

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.

You have managed to depress me. I too had found it refreshing that Donna didn't seem sexually attracted to the Doctor, but you're right. That is precisely the sort of thing Davies would write. Now that you say it, it's so obvious that I should have seen it myself.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

[quote] 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. [/quote]

Because of course when you have literally the whole of space and time to play with, what is important is to keep on spinning variations of the 'boy meets girl will they won't they routine'

Louise H said...

But the Doctor CAN NEVER LOVE ANYONE EXCEPT ROSE! EVER! Haven't you been keeping up with your fanfic?

I have to agree with pretty much everything in this review though. Doctor Who does do drama/characters/plot these days, but just as often it doesn't bother. I quite enjoyed Partners in Crime as a way of spending some of the evening but in its way it was as unmemorable as the unmemorable Xmas thing. But I'd quite like an Adipose for my mantelpiece.

TM said...

I actually thought it wasn't bad -- but then I'm not the ordinary viewer, as being outside the UK I'm not subjected to the apparent raft of publicity that surrounds Dr Who in Britain, so I suspect that's part of it.

Tate lost pretty much all the goodwill she'd bought up from me in the "I want a mate" section, but there you go. Bernard Cribbins goes a long way.

Anyway, I'd say that without expectations, fanwise or Radio Times reader-- er, wise, it's pretty good. The precis of "sometimes blackly comic lunacy" is, I think, apt.

(For the sake of disclosure I should say I'm one of those people that is not "into" Dr Who but seems to have absorbed a lot of the mythos over time -- an unwilling fan, maybe.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, please don't agree with me. When people agree with me I feel sure I must be wrong.


Salisbury said...

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.

Well, they do appear to kiss in one of the numerous pre-season trailers. Of course, it looked like one of those 'kisses' rather than kisses, the sort used to distract the enemy/swap genetic material/remove the time vortex. (And, having thus distracted the older type of fan with plotting and/or science so shoddy he starts writing a letter to his local member, share a moment of Mills and Boon-style passion the general audience can latch onto to justify watching Doctor Who).

I can kind of see where Davies is coming from, though. It’s clear he thinks that there has to be some sort of dynamic and development between the two leads, which is not a bad thought to have. And given the most familiar sort of dynamic between a man and a woman—at least on TV—is a romantic one, that’s what we get. I don’t agree that you need romantic tension between leads to keep a show popular—you only have to look at the endless and character development–free Law and Order and CSI franchises in the States—but my gut tells me if we went back to the Doctor is Jo’s mentor and Sarah-Jane’s big brother and let nothing more be said about it there’d be a feeling all round that something’s missing. I guess we’ll see.

What ‘Partners in Crime’ has finally made clear, though, is just how important the companion (and the actress playing the companion) is. In itself PiC is completely throwaway; its only real point is to set things up for later in the year: Here’s our new companion; Oops, the Doctor shouldn’t have put that sonic pen in there; Hey, there’s Billie—and was that a wolf graffiti’d on the dumpster? In fact plot-wise it’s easily the lightest and most linear of the four, most obvious in its being a collection of gags and Things To Take Note Of tied together like sausages on a string. But it rises well above ‘New Earth’ (where Rose became smarmy) and ‘Smith and Jones’ (where Freema was—characteristically—hopeless) because of Catherine Tate who, like a lot of comedians whose comedy does nothing for me (see also, Jim Carrey), I find terribly engaging, sympathetic and watchable in a dramatic part. Of course, Doctor Who fans roundly disagree over which companion/actress does best, but I’d wager that your opinion of a given season or episode correlates quite strongly with how much you liked the Doctor’s not-in–love interest at the time.

So for me, with the woeful Freema Agyeman gone and the natural Catherine Tate in her place, this season looks good on paper. A ‘proper’ historical, some alien worlds, a Moffat two-parter, plenty of mystery, (presumably) Davros and a fanwank filled finale. Except that I was all geared up for a great final episode last year (I enjoyed ‘Utopia’ and ‘The Sound of Drums’—Gallifrey flyover and all), and once again Russell pulled the tablecloth out from under himself. Again, we’ll see,

Tom: I also have trouble imagining Doctor Who as this tea-time phenomena it is in the UK. For me in Australia it’s cult TV, and Catherine Tate is some bird whose show our public broadcaster sticks on to fill in half an hour on Friday nights at eleven o’clock. I think I’m happier for it.

Ruana said...

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.

Much as I love reading your comments on Doctor Who, you are starting to seriously piss me off.

'Asexual' is a valid orientation. One can quibble over what exactly it means, but it most certainly does not mean 'too busy obsessing over TV shows to get a date'. I have never been entirely comfortable with your use of terms like 'asexual fanboy' and 'asexual nerd'. Now you have dropped the 'fanboy' and 'nerd' parts, and are explicitly using 'asexual' as a synonym for 'over-enthusiastic fan'.

With that, you have crossed from irritating to offensive. Stop it, please. There are plenty of ways you can say what you mean without indirectly insulting me and people like me.

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

Ruana said...

'Asexual' is a valid orientation. One can quibble over what exactly it means, but it most certainly does not mean 'too busy obsessing over TV shows to get a date'.

This is a standing joke you may have come in in the middle of. At the time of "Girl in the Fireplace" Stephen Moffat said -- I don't have the exact quote, but something like "The asexuality of the Doctor has been projected on him by some of his more asexual fans." Since it seems obvious to me that the original "Doctor" was almost never shown in a romantic situation it appeared that I must be one of the "asexual" fans he was referring to. Similarly, the impeccably liberal Guardian newspaper is apt to say "The Matrix DVD will be bought by people without girlfriends" and "the new Star Wars book will be enjoyed by single men who never leave their bedrooms" -- although that may be taken as implying that all sci-fi fans are gay. So I am likely to carry on using the term "asexual" to mean "those fans who RTD intends is trying to triangulate the series against." No disrespect to people of an asexual orientation is intended, any more than the running gag about Rowan William being a multi-classed Cleric and Archdruid is intended to offend the New Age, or neo-pagan community, or, indeed, Dungeons and Dragons players.

Wednesday, 16 April, 200

Andrew Stevens said...

The full quote from Moffat (Radio Times, May 2006) is:

"I think that his asexual nature was perhaps read into the series by its more asexual fans. If you look at the old show, it's not true. At some stage the Doctor had a wife and a family, because he's got a granddaughter. He likes everything: he drinks, he eats, why wouldn't he date?"

It is entirely unclear to me what eating and drinking have to do with this, but to a certain extent, Mr. Moffat is of course correct. Despite some fans' trying to ignore it, there is not even the slightest hint at any time that Susan is not the Doctor's granddaughter. Whether the Doctor had a wife is debatable, but extremely plausible. (Time Lords do apparently date and presumably marry. See the respective exits of Susan and Leela.) And there is zero evidence that Time Lords reproduce asexually (again, Leela and Susan wouldn't make much sense if they did).

However, Moffat is ignoring the fact that the Doctor never showed even a glimmer of sexual interest in anyone in 26 years on the screen. (Okay, perhaps a glimmer in Season 1's The Aztecs, although even that seemed more like affection to me.) Personally, I always assumed that Time Lords were like those other fictional immortals - Tolkien's Elves, in that they have a sexual and reproductive period early in life and then lose interest. Were it not so, the Universe would probably be pretty full of Time Lords.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that on The Empty Child DVD commentary (made before his comment to Radio Times), Moffat himself referred to the Doctor as a "sad 900 year-old virgin" (though he was probably kidding). Long before all of that brouhaha, Jon Pertwee referred to the Doctor as "asexual," stating that he loves his Companions in a completely avuncular way.

Anyway, I'm sure we can all reassure you, Ruana, that Mr. Rilstone has no prejudice against asexuals. I'd be hard-pressed to name a site more welcoming to asexuals (or voluntary celibates) which wasn't created expressly for that purpose.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I could see the relationship between Doctor Jon and Jo Grant at the end of Green Death as being slightly more than avuncular. And maybe some of the off-screen closeness between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward came through in the relationship between Doctor Tom and Romana. (Who said that if "City of Death" was the honeymoon then "Warriors Gate" was the divorce?) And if we allow deuterocanonical material, Doctor Colin and Evelyn are compared with an old married couple.

I seem to think that Doctor Tom -- in that BB2 documentary in 197something said "The Doctor can't become interested in romance: he simply doesn't have emotions of that kind": one of the reasons why Actors found him an interesting challenge.

It is the word "dating" that's the problem: love-with-a-capital-l, a huge cosmic passion with some alien Cleopatra; yes. Late flowering devotion, with some elderly lady science teacher whose prepared to bring him tea and crumpets and talk about astrophysics. But not "dating" like some teenager.

Andrew Stevens said...

The end of The Green Death always struck me as a father losing his favorite daughter. Through Season 10, every female Companion of the Doctor's except for Liz was essentially an adopted granddaughter. Perhaps he had some wistfulness that Jo wasn't older and with a more suitable lifespan.

As for Lalla and Tom, I've looked hard and I've never seen it. I've had lots of people tell me that they were "plainly in love" during Season 17, but I must be obtuse or something since I don't see anything at all.

Salisbury said...

I doubt if the Doctor was ever asexual, any more than he was averse to urinating or eating lunch. The show, however, was, and it's in that that Steven Moffat is missing the point.

The Doctor is an eternal (grand)father figure. We all probably forget that, now that the current chap is around about our age. (Speaking of which, I believe David Tennant turns 37 today: happy birthday if you're reading.) There are some things you just don't want to see Dad doing, and getting it on with the pretty young PA is one of them.

So I'll continue to turn a blind eye to the Doctor and Rose, or whoever, because while I can happily picture Ecclesdoc fancying Rose, if I accept that I have to consider the possibility of Doctor Pat lusting after Zoe and thank you, no.