Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fish Custard [16]

They were the worst of times, they were the best of times.
They didn't even tell us Doctor Who had been cancelled; just took it away and banged it on the head in the middle of the night. The first we knew was a clip show in 1992 which talked about it in the past tense.
And they lied and lied and lied. Oh how they lied! It is only off air for an extra six months, they said, we want to rest it to make sure the next season is even better they said, we are all sure it has a great future on the BBC they said, maybe some third party will work with the BBC to make the new series.
And then they tantalized us. There's going to be a 30th anniversary story starring Tom Baker and all the surviving Doctors. There will be an American TV series. There will be a movie. There will be a cartoon. (We were prepared to clutch at straws.) We kidded ourself that fan creations like The Stranger or the Virgin novels or the Big Finish CDs or the comic books were the "real" 28th 27th Season. The medium might have changed, but the sacred bloodline had been preserved.
What we actually got in November 1993 was Dimensions in Time a weird skit in which actual monsters and actual Doctors ran around the set of Eastenders. It was possibly intended as a parody, but there weren't any actual jokes. But it finally showed Colin Baker in a scene with the Brigadier, so it must, surely, be canonical? Clutching at straws. Clutching at straws.
But there were bright spots. Well, there was a bright spot. Two years after the abortive Paul McGann pilot, a short sketch called Curse of Fatal Death went out as part of the BBC's annual Comic Relief telethon. There were a lot of toilet jokes so joyless and anatomically mechanistic that they could only have been dreamed up by an eight year old; but there were also some surprisingly involved fan in-jokes. (Jonathan Pryce's pantomime Master falls repeatedly into the disgusting sewers of Terserus: fans with long memories remembered that this was where the hideously deformed Master was discovered in Deadly Assassin.) Rowan Atkinson, being a comedian, played the Doctor entirely straight. He was actually rather good. As we have said before: there is no such thing as a parody of Doctor Who. Curse of Fatal Death is a good deal less stupid than, say, Time and the Rani. And it worked not because the idea of using the Sonic Screwdriver as a sex toy hadn't occurred to absolutely everyone before, but because it was all coming out of the head of someone who loved and cared about Doctor Who: namely, Mr Steven Moffat.
Dimensions in Time had "celebrated" Doctor Who by parading a lot of props and actors in front of us and giving them the opportunity to repeat well-loved catch phrases. Fatal Death didn't contain a single actor or prop from the original series (the Dalek and TARDIS props were DIY efforts borrowed from fans) but it played around with the idea, the essence, of Doctor Who. Lovingly. Reverently. The kind of offensive blasphemy that only the most devout believer can produce. The idea that the Doctor is bored with his travels and wants to settle down and get married is comically incongruous: but it makes a certain amount of logical sense.
"How could I forget the only time travelling companion I've ever had."
"You've had lots of companions."
"The only time travelling companion I've ever had." [*]
The first episode is based almost entirely around the "joke" that the Doctor can escape from any trap, however deadly, by using Time Travel. If he's in an impregnable prison cell, he can, at some point in the future, go back in time and bribe the architect to add an escape tunnel. Literal minded fans complained that, once you have allowed the Doctor to do this, he ceases to be a hero, because any situation, however dangerous, can always be escaped from retrospectively. In fact, it forces the Doctor and the Master to engage in a comic duel of wits:
"When you told me to meet you at Castle Terserus, I simply travelled back in time and bribed the architect. Say hello to the spikes of doom!"
"Say hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort. Naturally I anticipated your journey back in time, and so travelled slightly further back and bribed the architect first."
"Or so you think! Naturally I anticipated your travelling back in time, so I travelled back to an even further point. And I bribed the architect first."
This feels a lot like a comic take on the duel of wits between Dream and Lucifer Choronzon in Sandman ("I am snake, spider-devouring, poison toothed" "I am ox, snake crushing heavy footed.") The Doctor's ability to escape depends purely on his wit an ingenuity. Which means, of course the wit and ingenuity of the writer. But then, it always has. If the Doctor is thrown into a den of lions, he has always been able suddenly to remember that he once spent six months with a circus and learned the art of lion taming. "I went back in time and bribed the architect" only writes this larger, louder, and funnier.
But we had to wait until the end of Season 5 to see Time Travel used like this in the, er, canonical TV series. It is astonishing how much of New Who and New New Who had their dry runs in this silly skit about an alien race that communicates by farting. It was here that we first saw that the Doctor could "fall in love" and still be the Doctor; it was here that it was first suggested that the Doctor and his greatest foe were, in some kinky way, lovers.
"Why do they call you the Master?"
"I'll explain later..."
And it was here that Doctor Who and the Doctor merged, and the Doctor ascended to his role as the most important being in the universe. The sketch really only exists as a pretext for the final scene. For no reason at all, the "twelfth" Doctor gets zapped and killed by special "can't ever regenerate" radiation. This is the final end, the Death of Doctor Who. Someone once said that his final words, "Look after the universe, I've put a lot of work into it" say more about Doctor Who than the entirety of the Paul McGann pilot. They are, of course, quoted by Matt Smith in the Eleventh Hour. The whole cast goes into a eulogy for the Doctor. The Master declares that he will repent and henceforth live a blameless life in memory of his greatest enemy. The Daleks announce that THEY-TOO-WILL-HONOUR-THEIR-MORTAL-FOE. Emma goes into a full blown speech about a Doctorless universe, concluding that "It will never be safe to be scared again." There is no pretence whatsoever that this anything other than a direct appeal to the BBC to bring the series back, that every time Emma says something about "the Doctor", what she is really talking about is Doctor Who. It would not be going to far to say that from this moment Doctor Who re-emerges as a potential BBC television show, as opposed to an intellectual property for BBC Worldwide to flog merchandise. If you felt that way inclined, you could also say that it was the precise moment at which Old Who died.
The resolution, of course, is that the Doctor regenerates in defiance of all physical laws, because "The universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor." Bus-spotters, bless them, grasping their little canons to their little hearts, protested that this meant that the Doctor could never again be in any real danger – because however bad things got "the universe" would save him. Some also ruled the series dead because the Doctor had, in five minutes, burned off all his un-used regenerations. (It is an object of faith among those kinds of fans that the rule that says that the Doctor can only have thirteen lives is the one part of Who mythos which can never be gainsaid.) And indeed, the scene really only worked at a meta-textual level. In the story, the Doctor may be kind, brave and heroic, but he's only one kind, brave, heroic person in a vast universe – one member of one particular race, however advanced and venerable. Only from the point of view of those of us "reading" the story can the the Doctor be the most important thing in the universe. The series has his name on it, and without him, there is no Doctor Who.
But only a hopelessly sad case would use words like meta-textuality in discussing an extended poo-joke. Which may have been part of the point.

[*] Whatever he may later have claimed, at this point Moffat still thought that the classic Doctor had been, how shall we put it, asexual.


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Anonymous said...

To nitpick pointlessly, Morpheus has his dream-duel with Choronzon, not Lucifer.

nemryn said...

On the 'only 13 regenerations' thing: I haven't watched much old Who, but I remember some bits about somebody stealing regenerations from somewhere, or the Master being granted additional regenerations. To me, this implies that the limit is a legal one, not a biological one; more than 13 are possible, but only with the permission of the Time Lord High Council. Now that all the other Time Lords are dead, though...

Andrew Stevens said...

"A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about."

-- The Master in The Five Doctors, the story where the Master was offered a new cycle of regenerations by the High Council of the Time Lords

SK said...

While the Stranger videos were certainly a fan creation, the novels, CDs and comic books were just as official as The Curse of Fatal Death, so unless your point is that Doctor Who isn't Doctor Who unless it's on television (in which case James Bond and Sherlock Holmes aren't James Bond and Sherlock Holmes unless they're in prose, and so on), I'm not sure what you're getting at there.

Though the general point that the climax to Moffat's series is The Curse of Fatal Death -- only better, because it manages to do the 'the universe needs the Doctor' bit without Amy needing to make a teary speech to that effect, and therefore layers it in subtext rather than forcing it down our throats -- is one I agree with, having made it myself...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Interpreters of Rilstone vary as to whether he meant that the Virgin and Big Finish stories were written by people who had grown up as fans of the series, and therefore had a different, more fan-fiction "aesthetic" than any TV episode; or whether he made a punctuation error and intended to say "fan creation like the Stranger -- and Virgin and Big Finish stories."

Dr Plokta said...

It seems worth pointing out that The Curse of Fatal Death's duel between two parties, each of whom repeatedly goes back in time to thwart the other's preparations, is straight out of the climax of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.