Once upon a time (TM) there was a very clever young composer. He'd been to music college and everything, and had written some sonatas and concertos which had been widely described as 'really not at all bad'.
One day, the very clever classical composer thought he would try his hand at writing jazz. 'After all,' he thought, 'All kinds of music are essentially the same, but where classical music has key progressions and time signatures and unresolved chords and stuff in jazz you just do what you like.'
So he dug up a lot of quite good musical themes which he had lying around, and stuck them together in no particular order, adding a few extra saxophones in the the dull bits. The kinds of people who had said that the very clever young composer's sonatas and concertos were 'really not at all bad' bought his jazz records and said that this cat was laying down some hep boogie woogie, daddy-o. But they got quite cross when jazz fans came to the concerts because they thought they were smelly and smoked too much and talked funny.
When some of the jazz fans said that jazz had it's own rules, different from the rules of classical music but just as complex and sophisticated and that what the clever young composer had produced was neither classical music, nor jazz music, but simply noise, the clever young composer said that they were asexual mosquitoes and swatted them.
So everyone lived happily ever after.
I thought that the Doctor would regenerate - into Dawn French or Lenny Henry or Graham Norton - but that it would turn out at the last minute that Donna still had the giant beetle on her shoulder.
Lawrence Miles thought that the Doctor would die, but that Donna would turn out to somehow have been a Time Lord - possibly the Doctor himself - and that she would regenerate into him, thus giving her life to save his.
Louise thought that the Doctor would admit his love for Rose, but that Rose would find that he had changed so much that she no longer loved him.
Jonathan regarded it as a no-brainer that the TARDIS was the Doctor's most faithful companion and that he'd therefore have to sacrifice the Ship to save the universe. During the 'gap year', he'd be stuck on earth, TARDISless.
I thought that despite their protests that they were just good mates, the Doctor and Donna would fall in lurve, precisely two seconds before Rose comes back on stage.
I also noted that there were some very pointed references to Donna's father in 'Turn Left', and that he was going to turn out to be significant in some way. Perhaps he would turn out to be descended from that family Donna saved in Pompeii, creating one of those time loop thingies. Or perhaps it would turn out that she was the Doctor's daughter, if not actually the Doctor's Daughter.
Do you see what was happening? We were all expecting a conclusion which followed on from what had gone before. We were all assuming that we were talking about characters in a drama. We had come to believe sufficiently in the Doctor, Rose and (astonishingly) Donna that we actually wanted their stories to end in a way which made sense. And we assumed that RTD did as well.
Silly, silly us.
"There are some sniffy people in the TV industry who have asked, archly, why I'm now writing genre, instead of drama. Obviously they've never watched a single episode of Doctor Who. It's the best drama in the world."
Russell T Davies
I have nothing against hype. If I read that mumble-mumble-mumble is going to be appearing in the new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, then I am as excited as the next geek. It may strike me as a little bit peculiar given that The Sarah Jane Adventures is directed firmly at a congregation who weren't born the last time mumble-mumble appeared in a canonical story. But I'm still excited because mumble-mumble is a character (a pretend person) for whom I feel a certain affection. I imagine that there will be funny scenes between him and Sarah Jane. I imagine that Sarah Jane and mumble-mumble going up against the Sontarans will make a good story. I don't particularly care that mumble-mumble is 'coming back'. Any fan-fiction hack – any eight year old with some action figures – can put two characters alongside each other and say 'Look! I have put two characters alongside each other.' But I will be watching because I hope his appearance will give rise to an entertaining 50 minutes of TV. And that he'll give Clyde a clip round the ear.
7.4 million people watched 'The Stolen Earth': a pretty good audience by modern standards, but nothing like what Who got in the old days. (16 million people watched 'City of Death' part 4. 9.4 million watched the final part of the distinctly mediocre 'Four to Doomsday'.) At the end of the episode the Doctor is exterminated by a Dalek - mere seconds after having been re-united with Rose. Being the Doctor, he starts to regenerate. Considered as an event in a story, this could have been rather interesting. Rose has trekked across several universes to find the Doctor, only for him to change into someone else – someone too old, too black, too gay or or too female for her to love. This would have been interesting because interesting things would have followed from it.
The BBC pointedly refused to send preview DVDs of the next episode to the press – not even to their own house organ, Radio Times. This created unprecedented interest in the national news papers. What was the big twist that the Beeb wanted to keep the lid on? As a result, 9.8 million people tuned in to 'Journey's End' (more than have watched any episode of Doctor Who since, er, 'Time Flight'). So fully 25% of those watching part 2 had not seen part 1. It is a safe bet that those 2,400,000 people were not Doctor Who fans. They are unlikely to have been interested in Dalek Caan or to have had the faintest idea who Mickey Smith was. They turned on because the press had swallowed the hype hook, line and sinker and told them that the BBC had pulled off the biggest coup in TV history, that David Tennant - not, in any sense, a character called the Tenth Doctor but very definitely an actor called David Tennant – was going to be evicted from the Big Brother Police Box.
He wasn't of course. The whole reason for taking Doctor Who off the air until 2010 is to give David Tennant time and space to go back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and do the Dane. Three minutes into episode 13 he pressed the Big Red Reset Button and the story carries impenetrably on.
No-one particularly minds when RTD uses minor pop stars and comediennes to try to dissuade the floating viewer from switching off the TV on Christmas night. But 'the regeneration which never was' was simply a stunt. This is not a story which happened to have been a bit hyped: this is hype as an end in itself, with no story attached to it.
"Playing Doctor Who came as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much. All that was required of me was to be able to speak complete gobbledegook with conviction. ...Problem? For me who believed in Guardian Angels and was convinced that pigs were possessed by devils after their New Testament encounter with God's son? It was easy and I loved it."
In 'The Dead Planet' the Doctor and his friends go to the Dalek city in order to obtain mercury to repair the TARDIS's fluid link.
Since we don't know how time machines work, we can't possibly know what a fluid link is, or why one would require mercury; but we do understand that the TARDIS is a mechanical apparatus and that a mechanical apparatus can't operate when one of its components is broken. So Terry Nation writes 'To fix [some component] requires [some resource] which can be found in [some location]' . This is perfectly intelligible and provides a perfectly convincing reason for our heroes to venture into the alien city. At that time the characters still needed some perfectly convincing reason to go into a threatening alien environment. 'Because they're Doctor Who characters' hadn't been thought of.
The choice of 'mercury' isn't completely arbitrary. In the days before political correctness most children would have handled mercury in their school chemistry lessons; Ian would certainly have had a jar of the stuff locked away in his prep-room at Coal Hill School. But it's also the sort of thing that Merlin or Catweazle might have used in one of their spells. So the message is 'The TARDIS is a bit scientific but also a bit magical.' ('Uranium' and 'dilithium crystals' would have sent out slightly different signals.)
Ian is suspicious when the Doctor says that the TARDIS needs [some resource] which can only be found in the city; and in the next episode, the Doctor admits that he deliberately damaged [some component] to provide a pretext for him to explore Skaro. This shows that the Doctor is driven more by scientific curiosity than personal safety; but that he has sufficient scruples that he'd rather lie and sabotage his own ship than simply force Ian to do things his way: and anyway, he rather fears that Susan would have sided with the humans over this one. But in the end, he admits what he did, and that it was wrong. The techno-babble, meaningless in itself, has brought out some reasonably complex aspects of the characters' relationships.
The idea that the Doctor can change his physical form goes back to the 'Tenth Planet'; but it took a long time for the concept of to be systematized within the show's internal mythos. When Doctor Pat changed to Doctor Jon, there was no suggestion that this was a normal part of the Doctor's life-cycle: the Time Lords announced that they were going to change the Doctor's physical appearance so that he wouldn't be recognized on earth during his exile. One gets the impression that the writers were saying 'We've already used the idea of the Doctor's old body being worn out: we'll have to think of a different excuse for to the actor change this time.' (It will be remembered that Plan A was for The Celestial Toymaker to put a spell on the First Doctor, causing his face to change.) Even when the term 'regeneration' was coined for the Pertwee-Baker change-over, writers carried on having different ideas of how it worked: Terrance Dicks still seemed to think that different Doctors were somehow different individuals; Douglas Adams imagined that Time Lords could change bodies as easily as they could change clothes. Robert Holmes introduced the idea that they could only regenerate twelve times, seemingly unaware that Philip Hinchcliffe had already decided that the Doctor was already on his twelfth regeneration. As long as 'regeneration' is simply a paper-thin device to facilitate a periodic personnel change none of this matters a great deal. In canonical Who, except in a changeover story, or in rare and ill-advised multi-Doctor anniversary stories, 'regeneration' was hardly ever brought on stage
But Davies is obsessed with the concept, referencing it quite un-necessarily and using it, like the TARDIS and the sonic-screwdriver, as a one size fits all deus ex machina. (*) There's at least a suspicion that he had always intended Tennant to play the Doctor, but used Eccleston for a single season because he felt that regeneration is such a central part of the myth that it should be laid before the audience as early as possible. He certainly cast Derek Jacobi as the Master purely in order to change him into John Sims. And he has developed an appalling habit of re-defining how it works on a moment-by-moment basis. When River Song tells the Doctor that he will die if he wires his brain into the Device For Saving The Universe When The Doctor's Brain Is Wired Into It she adds 'And don't think you'll regenerate.' (Why not?) In the ludicrous 'Last of the Time Lords', it's arbitrarily decided that regeneration is an act of will: the Master can 'choose' not to change so as to spite the Doctor. In the rather good 'Turn Left' it turns out that the Doctor has died because he didn't have time to regenerate. And in 'Journey's End', regeneration becomes an all purpose trapdoor, to be used promiscuously to save RTD the bother of actually thinking up a story.
It will be recalled that during 'The Christmas Invasion' a Klingon chopped off the Doctor's hand: but RTD discovered a brand new trap door: for a few hours after regenerating a Time Lord can grow new limbs. In the first season of the dreadful Torchwood, it turned out that Captain Jack had found and preserved the severed hand, and that it functioned as a Doctor Who Detection Device which wriggled and jiggled and wiggled when the TARDIS was nearby. In 'Journey's End' it turns out that:
1: The Doctor can transfer the energy that would have made him regenerate into the spare hand - meaning that his body is healed but that he doesn't change persona. What? One really feels that we're watching that nine-year old boy and his action figures. "Pretend the Daleks deaded the Doctor. No but pretend they didn't deaded him after all because it's Tuesday and eating Cadbuy's Cream Eggs on Tuesday smakes him not deaded."
2: This energy causes a complete new Doctor (with all his memories and personality) to grow from the hand, so now there are two Doctors. Only the second Doctor is human. Obviously.
3: In the process Catherine Tate (not a character called Donna Noble: very definitely Catherine Tate the comedienne) is turned into a Time Lord and starts doing bad impersonations of David Tennant.
3a: But only after she's been zapped by Davros.
4: The human Doctor defeats the Dalek plan to wipe out the entire universe (like the cricket warriors - but they were supposed to be ridiculous) by talking really, really, quickly and pushing a Big Red Button on the TARDIS console which opens the Make Every Dalek Blow Up Trap Door.
5: Having all this Time Lord knowledge is too much for a human brain to cope with; so Donna has to have her memory wiped. If she ever hears of the Doctor again, her head will go explody explody explody.
Every one of these manoeuvres is completely arbitrary: the Doctor says 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she must have her memory wiped and never hear of me again', but if he had said 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she can never go back to earth or see her parents' we would have believed it just as much or just as little.
And yes, of course: every one of these things is no more or less sensible than the idea that a grumpy old man in a grey wig can turn into a smiley young man with a recorder. The whole idea of regeneration is completely silly That is why it should be mentioned only when you need to change the lead actor and at no other time. Not to get the Doctor out of a hole. Not because you can't think of a better way to signal that 'Prof. Yaffle really is the Master.' Not (for the benefit of those of you who think that I only object to crap, incoherent plotting when the new series does it, and yes, I am looking at you, Nick) when you need a completely arbitrary plot twist about the identity of the Time Lord's prosecuting attorney in order to come up with some retrospective justification for a ridiculous trial.
And yes, of course: I am quite sure that fannish explanations about what happened can be downloaded from lots of different websites. That isn't the point.
David Tennant, as they used to say over the closing credits, is currently appearing in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford on Avon. In Hamlet the main character discovers that his father has been murdered, and becomes obsessed with revenge. As a result, he does all sorts of strange things: he pretends to be mad (or maybe he's not pretending), he abuses both his mother and his ex-lover, he kills a harmless old man. While Hamlet's behaviour is perplexing and enigmatic, we feel that it arises organically from the basic premise 'Dad's ghost says Uncle Claud killed him.'
Revenge can be a perfectly good motivation for a character. But we've all read comic books and seen movies where 'revenge' is used instead of character motivation; where 'vengeance' becomes a catch all magic word to permit the main character to do any crazy, pointless thing that a writer happens to feel like. If you ask 'why?' you are just told 'because a baddy killed his daddy.' A baddy killing your daddy justifies anything, up to and including dressing up in a batsuit.
RTD uses technobabble in much the same way. When he wants to bring all the Doctor's former companions together, he simply takes the Harriet Jones Action Figure out of the box and announces that she has a Big Red Button that can track down everyone who has ever known the Doctor. When he wants to delay the Doctor's reunion with Rose till the end of the episode, he simply says 'But 'tend that the Big Red Button doesn't work unless you've got a web cam.' Instead of coming up with a resolution to the Doctor/Rose love story he arbitrarily decides that there are now two Doctors Who but that one of them is a potential baddy and needs to be exiled to Earth-2 with Rose. Instead of coming up with a dramatically believable reason that Donna can't or won't stay with the Doctor he pulls a trapdoor out of his hat and says that if she ever sees him again, her brain will explode.
This is not pseudo-science used to provide character motivation and to drive the plot. This is pseudo-science instead of a plot.
"Two comics in one: double the fun."
And finally: I have nothing against cross-overs. I like cross-overs as much as the next geek. That is to say: I like the idea of cross-overs. I think that it is fun to put my
Captain Kirk action figure next to my Spider-Man action figure, and pretend that they are having a fight, or since the invention of the internet, that they are having sex. But in itself, this kind of thing doesn't make a good story.
Superman is strong, but Batman is clever; Superman is good but nice, Batman is good but nasty; Superman obeys the law, Batman does was right according to his private code. The Superman/Batman team lasted for decades because the pairing of those two characters with different points-of-view generated interesting stories. But most 'official' crossovers and all fan-fiction starts from the premise that the meeting of two established characters is intrinsically interesting: that a very run of the mill story about an experienced, adult superhero with relatively weak powers and a less experienced, younger character with potentially vast powers suddenly becomes very interesting indeed if you write 'Spider-Man vs Harry Potter' on the cover.
The idea of bringing together all the characters in the 'Doctor Who' franchise was fun enough. There a pleasant narrative dislocation during the first fifteen minutes as we shift from Sarah Jane's loft to the Torchwood hub and back to the TARDIS. It feels as if we are channel hopping but finding that all your favourite shows are talking about the same subject. Like the Olympic Games, only with sink plungers.
However, once you get over the novelty, the only possible interest is in discovering how established characters are going to interact - using 'The Sarah-Jane/Torchwood Team' to generate new stories which are worth telling. But RTD doesn't actually bother with a story. We get Jack and Sarah in the same room, but nothing follows. Lots of things could have followed. Captain Jack would come on to Sarah as a matter of general principle, I suppose. I don't know whether Sarah would have flirted back or slapped his face but I rather imagine that Luke would have said 'Mum, who is this dreadful man and why is everyone treating him as if he is somehow important?'
When the Jackie Tyler Action Figure turns up, holding the gun that came with the Mickey Smith Action Figure, any sense of narrative goes out of the window. Granted, Jackie now lives on an alternate earth; granted, she's been somewhat changed by her experiences; and granted that the Torchwood of Earth-2 is capable of improvising a getty-between-dimensions machine (which even the TARDIS had trouble with) - but why on earth would Torchwood-2 pick Rose's Mum to go on the mission to Earth-1? And granted that they did, why on either Earth should the Mickey Action Figure and the Jackie Action Figure materialise in exactly the time and place necessary to save the Sarah Jane Action Figure from the Dalek Action Figures?
This isn't a story, it's a game of Pokamon. If Richard Dawkins and Bernard Cribbens had a fight, who would win?
In fact, the hosing down of Mickey Smith's character is the saddest thing about this whole appalling mess. Because Noel Clarke played an ordinary character in an ordinary way and because the role didn't require any big thespian histrionics it was easy not to notice what a damn fine actor he is. The job of a Doctor Who companion, as everybody knows, is to be the ordinary person through whose eyes we see the Doctor. As Rose changed from 'ordinary person' to 'remarkable person' we increasingly needed Mickey to ground us: to be the person through whose eyes we saw Rose seeing the Doctor. For the first season-and-a-half, Mickey grew quite organically: from a positively simian hopeless boyfriend to a very useful and heroic member of the team, but one who is smart enough to recognise that he can only ever be the tin dog. His final appearances in Season 2 tended to become a series of plot devices: his decision to stay on Earth-2 to replace the Heroic Mickey and take care of his Gran was pulled out of thin air - but it was largely carried off because Noel is a good enough actor to deliver contrived lines and make them seem natural and logical. (See also: Sladen, Elizabeth.) So it is really, really, sad for the Mickey Action Figure to wind up all this back story in a single aside. Granny-2 is dead, and Rose is obviously going off with the anti-Doctor, so he may as well come back to Earth-1 and become the token heterosexual in Season 3 of the dreadful Torchwood. Unforgivably, he and Rose don't even get a goodbye scene. He's supposed to love her, for Tom's sake!
When companions were simply bimbos in skirts at whom the Doctor recited gobbledegook, this kind of thing was excusable. Peri may have been cute, but you could hardly mistake her for a human being. (Dodo disappears from the series half way though 'The War Machines' without so much as a 'goodbye': Liz just evaporates between seasons.) But Russell, how dare you allow me to like Mickey and then treat him like this.
It's the face of Boe all over again, I tell you.
There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conception, just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishery with the all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its 'quintaness' and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I am writing for the other sort
A cretin writing in the Guardian watched the first part of the fourth and final series of Battlestar Galactica and concluded that the programme was impenetrable:
'I do realise that after one episode I'm not really qualified to judge. And that I don't understand half the complexities. That, incidentally is another problem: it's so bloody complicated. Why is sci-fi like that - a competition for boys to see who's best at working out what the hell is going on?'
A lot of us might think that this was an odd approach. Would you start reading Moby Dick on page 450, notice that you have no idea who 'Starbuck' is or what he means by 'a fast whale' and conclude therefore that 'books' are impossible to understand? On the other hand, when a different cretin in the same paper writes of 'Journey's End' -
'I think we can safely say there was something for everyone in that, can't we?...I can't, to be brutally honest with you, work out exactly what happened. The jargon-heavy mid-section rather did for my chances of keeping a grip on the minutiae, but that's nothing that three days on the internet forums won't sort out.'
- you might wonder why the straights are prepared to cut Doctor Who so much slack. If you watched any other TV drama and found that you couldn't work out exactly what happened, you'd simply decide that it was terribly badly written and give up on it.
I think we asexuals often underestimate how strange 'science fiction' looks to the gendered community. 'How was I supposed to know that that character is an honourable warrior while this one is an emotionally repressed scientist?' they ask. 'It was obvious,' we reply 'The first one had nobbly bits on his forehead, and the second one had pointy ears.' This problem rarely crops up in mainstream fiction. If I accidentally hear half an episode of The Archers, I may not know exactly what's happening: but I know the kinds of things that could be happening. 'The young man with the yokel accent is clearly the former lover of the girl' I say 'She obviously wants him back and he's obviously afraid of being emotionally hurt.' I am unlikely to say 'Wait a minute; what is this 'marriage' which you keep talking about? What is a 'pub'? Are 'farmers' goodies or baddies?' But even fairly basic scientific terms are off-putting if you've spent more time in Borchester than on Betelgeuse. An intelligent mundane is told that something is 'in a different solar system' and asks 'Is that very far?' But then, when I am told that Bertie Wooster is 'three over par' I say 'Wait a minute...is that good or bad?' (There are whole episodes of Deep Space Nine which I can't follow at all because I don't know the rules or vocabulary of baseball.)
When a straight watches science fiction, she doesn't expect it to make sense. All of this whacky sci-fi stuff is meaningless to her. 'Eee equals em see squared' and 'reverse the polarity or the neutron flow' are equally arcane incantations. If you told her that one was a part of real physics and the other is made up, she'd reply 'You have an anorak and no girlfriend and dress up as a wizard in an anorak wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets.'
I suspect that she even quite likes that sense of strangeness and distance that watching something that you don't understand gives rise to. There's a certain joy in looking at Japanese videos without the sub-titles. I recall looking at an issue of New Teen Titans after 15 years of reading nothing but Marvel Comics. The very fact that I didn't recognize the characters and couldn't tell who were the goodies and who were the baddies made the superheroes seem much more, well, superheroey.
A letter appeared in the Radio Times to the effect that the scene in 'Journeys End' where the TARDIS appears to tow the planet Earth through space (and the population get buffeted about, and have to hold onto the furniture to avoid falling off) was the silliest thing ever to appear on Doctor Who. (It probably wouldn't even make the the Top 5. (**) The following week, a cretin responded that it wasn't very reasonable to complain about 'silliness' when you are talking about a man with two hearts who travels through time in a phone box. The message is clear: once you've admitted a fantasy element into your story, all bets are off. Many years ago, I slagged of a film called Photographing Fairies on the grounds that it was philosophically and logically incoherent – it couldn't make up it's mind what 'fairies' were, or what they meant. 'And this from a film about fairies!' exclaimed a link site – as if expecting coherence in a film about a fantastic subject was wildly eccentric of me. The gendered community thinks that admitting the supernatural is like opening the doors of perception and reducing reality to a set of discordant images which aren't supposed to connect together logically.
And so far as I can see, this is how R.T.D thinks, too. He doesn't particularly like 'science fiction' or 'fantasy'. He certainly doesn't like science fiction fans. He thinks that the sci-fi label is an excuse to write discordant, meaningless, un-connected non-narrative; because that's what he thinks other sci-fi is like.
I mean, I am assuming that's the reason. I am assuming that the writer of Queer as Folk and Cassanova and The Second Coming can write. He must have consciously decided not to. 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' are really not at all bad. But 'Journey's End' is not Doctor Who. It is not 'drama' either. It is not narrative. It is not a story. It is simply noise.
(*) The various proposals for what became the Paul McGann telemovie, and the script which was actually filmed, were similarly obsessed with regeneration. The filmed version decided that "a Time Lord has 12 lives" was the very first thing that US viewers needed to know about the character, and introduced Sylvester McCoy simply in order to kill him off. Rejected scripts wanted to start out with several different Doctors specifically so they could meet up and turn into each other. One can understand an American, charged with adapting a foreign TV show that he has never watched, thinking that "a show where the main character keeps changing his face" is the Unique Selling Proposition of Doctor Who. But you would think that Russell Davies, a Brit who has (I assume) actually watched the show would know better.
1: The Olympic Torch
2: The Adipose
3: Floaty Glowy Jesus Doctor
4: The Kandyman
5: The Pantomime Horse
6: Bonny Langford
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