Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (10)

People sometimes say that something is "so bad it's good", but that's hardly ever true. Plan Nine From Outer Space, often said to be the worst movie ever made, isn't so bad it's good: it's so bad it's incredibly boring. It does sometimes happen that someone spectacularly fails to do what he set out to do (say, write edifying, tragic poetry) but inadvertently succeeds in doing something quite different (say, writing comic verse). That's why we still read William McGonogal: the things he does by accident -- bathos, mixed metaphors, mismatches between subject matter and tone -- are exactly what a skilled comedian does to raise a laugh. And it's all the funnier because he doesn't know it's funny: skilled comedians never do. (Except I think he probably does. I think that, far from being the World's Worst Poet, he was a clever man who knew precisely what he was doing.) [*]

There are people who get pleasure at watching someone fail at something: people who go along to the talent competition in order to laugh at the guy who can't sing a note. But that's really only one step up from picking on the fat kid who came last in the sack race. There were bullies who liked to laugh at Doctor Who's shortcomings. One of them was head of the BBC from 1984 to 1987. But I don't think that's what people who think that its home made quality was part of its charm are talking about.

There was a very good story called Kinda which famously contained a very bad monster: a giant pink snake that was obviously a puppet. I do not think that the giant pink snake was so bad it was good. I do not think that the giant pink snake was "part of Kinda's charm". I think that the giant pink snake represented a weakness in the script. I think that it was a mistake for the metaphorical, psychological evil to manifest in physical form in the first place, and certainly a mistake for the physical form to be a giant pink snake. The DVD version replaced the unconvincing puppet with a more convincing CGI animation. This did not remove any of the charm from the story. It didn't improve the story very much, either. It was a giant pink snake. 

Christopher Bailley (the writer of Kinda) was reportedly disappointed with the way in which his story was mounted. It was, snake apart, a pretty polished and professional piece of work. But he felt that the jungle planet looked like a garden centre and the natives looked like extras in a shampoo advertisement. The sequel, Snakedance looked fabulous; but it still looked like a fabulous stage set, not a fabulous alien planet.

It's interesting to try to imagine Kinda being remade today. Exactly the same script, mind you, but location work in a real jungle, actors who really look like aboriginal natives -- or, better yet, CGI aliens, possibly with blue skin. I don't know if this would remove any of the episode's "charm", but I do think it would change the whole tone of the exercise. I think that dialogue which worked fine when spoken by BBC actors in a studio would seem stilted and artificial on a location shoot; I think that the whole idea of an alien worlds being used as the crucible for an experimental morality play would be harder to swallow if we half-believed that this really was an alien world we were looking into. For one thing, our attention would be focused on the wonderfully convincing alien shrubbery, when it ought to have been focussed on the script.

Gerry Anderson died recently. I used to love Thunderbirds. It was always on on Sunday lunchtimes. The episodes weren't shown in any particular order. I swear they showed that one where the explorers get stuck in the alien pyramid twice in three weeks. I remember the boy next door saying that he would like Thunderbirds better if it was real -- people rather than puppets, he meant. I think that he had missed the point of Thunderbirds. If you are going to make a series in which spaceships fly to the sun and property developers physically move the Empire State Building, and where skyscrapers, space ships and pyramids can be guaranteed to explode before the third advert break, then the thing has to be done with models. Most of the time, we couldn't literally see the strings, but it was important that we could see them metaphorically. It's not that the machines are unconvincing: they are incredibly convincing. The best models anyone has ever made; far better than anything Doctor Who ever had. But still obviously models. That was the point. Gerry Anderson had better toys than we did, but they were toys and he was letting us play with them for an hour. 

And isn't that what people mean when they talk about Doctor Who's homespun quality being part of its charm. Sometimes, the special effects were genuinely bad; more often, they were pretty good; but  they always looked like something someone had made. It was never really true that the sets wobbled: no more so than in any other TV show of the era, anyway. But it is true that there was an awful lot of running down corridors. And the line "all these corridors look the same to me" really did turn up: and not always ironically. And we all understood the reason: it was filmed in a studio; there were a finite number of sets available, so you couldn't always construct an impressive location for an expository scene to happen in, so you had one all purpose length of corridor and put the minor scenes there. 

This, particularly in the Baker era, created a feeling that there was no real geography, no transitions: Tom could pop up wherever he needed to be, wandering about spaceships and nuclear bases with apparent impunity. That capacity to walk into the boss's room and say "I'm the Doctor, this is Romana, would you like a jelly baby?" is far more believable in a universe which we know (deep down) consists of six sets, one corridor, and no space in between them one which plausibly consists of the whole of London, if not the whole of space and time.  The Doctor, like Gandalf, has the capacity to be always exactly where he needs to be. New Who uses, and overuses, devices like psychic paper and the bloody sonic screwdriver to explain how he gets there. In Old Who, he didn't need them so much. We accepted, at some level, that he was in a model universe which someone had built and he could, when he needed to, simply nip behind the scenery.  

So, then: the child man who is both inside and outside your TV is also both inside and outside of the scripts. He knows he's in a play; he knows the walls are really just flats, and he can nip backstage, look behind the backdrop, slip between the cracks. That character is easier to believe in if his world, at some level, looks like a stage set. Looks like something someone has made.

What I am describing as the texture of Doctor Who was -- of course -- the result of the physical limitations of low budget TV. Clearly, nothing of that texture can possibly survive in a programme made on a high budgie, with your newfangled CGI special effects and good actors and well written scripts. And I am not suggesting that it should. The idea that New Who should be made on the same shoestring as Old Who is as silly as the idea that all children should listen to Dick Barton and there should be no TV cookery show but Fanny Craddock. But the idea of the Doctor became what it was because, or partly because, of the physical limitations of the show, and it was, in the end, that idea which made people like Doctor Who in a way that no-one has ever loved any other television programme. 

So it's to Matt Smith we have to look: has he found a away of embodying the idea of the Doctor -- both child and adult; both inside you TV and outside it; both real and fictional; not bound by the script -- in this new modern thing? 

Or is just doing a funny affectionate portrait of a clever autistic man trying to form relationships that Benedict Cumberbatch does much better in Sherlock? 

Mr C.S Lewis once wrote an essay called "Hamlet - The Prince or the Poem?" He argued that critics were too keen to focus on the psychology of the Hamlet himself, a subject that Shakespeare was demonstrably uninterested in, and fail to talk about the structural ambiance of the actual play. (This theory was one of the chief causes of Planet Narnia.) 

So I guess I could have called this essay "Doctor Who: The TV Show or the Time Lord?" Or "The Corridor or the Cosmos?"

Actually, the title it really needed is the one which Andrew Hickey has already taken. "So, Do I Even Like Doctor Who?"

And I could probably have kept it shorter by giving the answer "Yes. Oh yes." 

[*] e.g But accidents will happen by land and by sea
Therefore, to save ourselves from accidents, we needn’t try to flee
For whatsoever God has ordained will come to pass
For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or a piece of glass.  


Steve said...

When did TV stop doing plays? By which I mean something that was definitely a Play rather than a one-off drama or a serial; something that wasn't quite like having a camera pointed at a West End or provincial stage, but certainly relied on the viewer's being able to use some of the faculties that he or she would use when watching such a stage and not those he or she would use when watching Z-Cars. In particular, accepting that the props and backgrounds didn't have to be photorealistic and were really a nudge to the viewer to use his or her imagination.

The canonical example is the Play For Today that the Beeb used to do, which is one of those seventies things like Public Information Films and Open University shows that I know about from YouTube and clips shows and any genuine memories have been overwritten by irony and nostalgia. I think I remember Yorkshire TV doing earnest Sunday night plays about unemployment, delinquency etc right up until the late 80s. Was Doctor Who a Play all along? It's very theatrical, isn't it? And the main lead must be not just an actor but an Actor: a mere telly star wouldn't do.

Mike Taylor said...

I am coming to the conclusion that Doctor Who was never a TV show, if such a thing even exists. It was a sequence of plays up till Sylvester, and has been a sequence of films ever since.

Does "television" even exist as a distinct art-form, as opposed to the medium though which various art forms (and Top Gear) are distributed?

Anonymous said...

Andrew - have you seen this - you appear to be in the target demographic...

Andrew Stevens said...

I'd never heard of William McGonagall before reading this post. I read the Wikipedia article and saw this: "He found lucrative work performing his poetry at a local circus. He read his poems while the crowd was permitted to pelt him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread. For this, he received fifteen shillings a night."

And: "Throughout his life McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. It is possible he was shrewder than he is given credit for, and played to his audience's perception of him, in effect making his recitals an early form of performance art."

It is incredible to me that this is in dispute. Of course he knew what he was doing. The audience is pelting him with things (for which he was fairly well paid) and he "seemed oblivious" that they didn't like his poems?

Then: "Author Norman Watson speculates in his biography of McGonagall that the poetaster may have been on the 'autism-Asperger's spectrum.' Christopher Hart, writing in the Sunday Times, says that this seems 'likely.'"

Are these people nuts? Are people going to say the same thing about Andy Kaufman in a hundred years?