Friday, April 05, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (5)

So what, in fact, do we like about it? A short list would surely go something like this:

  • We like the Daleks. The Daleks are design classic. Watching the Daleks gliding across the floor and bullying Romana is cool.
  • We like the silliness of it. We like the banter. We like the arbitrary craziness of someone trying on new bodies in the way that they would try on new clothes (and the way that it hardly has anything to do with the story.) Our response to the regeneration scene while we are watching it is surely "Whay! It's silly, and it's not like anything else that there's ever been on TV!" "Hmm, what does that say about Time Lord culture and history, and how can it be reconciled with Brian of Morbius?" comes days or years later, if at all.
  • We like the aesthetics: the safety of a cosmos in which planets look like quarries because that's what planets look like, and where spaceship move in that particular way because that's the way spaceships move.
  • We like the gothic feel; while it is unlikely that the awakening of Davros at the end of episode one ever actually scared us, it has a quality about it which he have learned to think of as "scary."
The list could be extended as far as you like. 
  • The Edwardian costumes.
  • The juxtapositions: the high-tech TARDIS with the old fashioned hat-stand in the corner; the fact that it's not a meta-tricorder-o-gram but a sonic screwdriver. And the fact that the sonic screwdriver is tossed in the pocket with a some string and a bag of marbles. 
  • The lady in the leather bikini talking to the robot dog, or having tea explained to her by a Victorian gentleman. 
  • The jelly baby offered to the gothic skull. 
  • In fact, the whole idea of jelly babies, the idea of a grown man with an old fashioned bag of sweeties in his pocket. I never took to cricket whites and celery as I did to floppy hats, but it was clear that cricket whites were at least trying to fill the same sort of niche that floppy hats filled, and that it was the natural order of things that cricket whites should succeed floppy hats just as floppy hats had succeeded frock coats. 

But more even than that. 
  • The rhythms of the programme. 
  • The twenty five minute episodes.
  • The fact that Doctor Who was almost the last place on earth when an episode might end with a pretty lady tied to a circular saw. 
  • The opening credits: how many of us loved the time tunnel thing long before we really understood the show itself?
  • The slightly amateurish, home made look and feel of the programme; the bad special effects, the quarries, the fact that the sets wobbled (not that they ever did, of course.)

What we like and what we have always liked about Doctor Who is the texture and atmosphere of the programme: the fact that it looks and feels so much like Doctor Who. It's not a window that you look through -- its a stained glass window that you look at. 

Including the imperfections. Especially the imperfections. 

This is why I find the idea of the infinite canon so hard to agree with, even though it is quite obviously right. It's why I'm almost as apathetic towards the idea of a Doctor Who movie as I am towards Before Watchmen and the Bristol Mayoral Elections. I do have a sort of nostalgic attachment for the covers of the original Target novels, but only in the same way that I have a sort of nostalgic attachment to Rentaghost. Yes for many people and for a long time, those novels were the main and most important way of experiencing Doctor Who, and they were much better written than they needed to be: much better than most children's SF that was available at the time. [*] And there were, what, sixteen years when the only copy of Tomb of the Cybermen was sitting in the crypt of a Mormon Tabernacle in Tooting Bec when the novel was all that there was. Unless you include the Doctor Who Appreciation society's photocopied STINFO files, which would take us off in a whole different direction. [**] But I never really cared about that stuff, in the same way that, decades later, I could never really be bothered to read the Virgin or BBC novels, good as though some of them certainly were. Lawrence Burton (different Lawrence), re-reading one of the Virgin Doctor Who says they were "written as science-fiction novels that just happened to borrow from an existing mythos rather than simply trying to recreate a kid's telly show." And he thinks that that is a good thing. Which from one point of view, it might have been. From the point of view of not particularly liking Doctor Who. But it neatly encapsulates why I could never be bothered to read the things. Reading Doctor Who is a bit like stirring your porridge with a fountain pen. Possible, no doubt, but it rather misses the point of fountain pens. And you're likely to get ink in the porridge.

There is an old saying that radio is better than television because the pictures are better on the radio. And yes; the special effects in Doctor Who were much better when we were reading the books, reading Jeremy Bentham's from-memory summaries, or listening to tape recordings of the sound track of lost stories. But we followers of the Fourth Approach are interested in the special effects that we actually saw on the TV. We don't want to hear about what the "real" Dalek cruiser in the "real" Doctor Who universe "really" looked like; or to imagine a better one in our head. Matt Irvine's models are part of texture of Doctor Who. 

"But Andrew: isn't your "phenomenological" approach the most nostalgic of all? Andrew Hickey is openly watching Doctor Who with adult sensibilities; Lawrence Miles is watching it as an adult, remembering the experience of watching it as a child. Aren't you saying that if you just watch it, smiling at the jokes and clapping the good special effect and cringing at the bad ones effects, you can have the 1976 viewing experience all over again, like Holly wiping his memory so he can read Murder on the Orient Express without already knowing whodunnit? And that's patently impossible, because even in 1976 you didn't have a "pure" viewing: you were, by your own admission, viewing it through the lens of the Making of Doctor Who, the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special, Doctor Who Weekly, Jeremy Bentham... Watching something for the first time all over again is logically, and grammatically impossible." 

Yes. Yes. That's where it all breaks down, of course. 

But K-9, and Leela, and the Zygon space ship are like, incredibly cool. 


[*] I found a book called A Life for the Stars by the man who wrote Star Trek in the school library. I found it incredibly boring, but noticed that it was part of a series of grown-up books, and assumed that if I had read them as well, I would have understood it better. Fairly recently, I read the other three volumes. They are, in fact, incredibly boring. See also under "Kilraven".

[**] Mormon Tabernacles do not have crypts, and there isn't one in Tooting Bec. I assume that they do have toilets, but history does not record whether this one had a Yeti in it.

1 comment:

  1. There's lots of good stuff in this series, but I can't help thinking it's rather overlooking one of the more important reasons for liking, or even loving Doctor Who: because it's good. Not flawless, of course, very very far from it. But packed with good stuff: wit, humour, some superb acting and some real emotion, occasional insight(*), and most of all, ideas -- thousands of them.

    Because it's trying to do so much, Doctor Who inevitably fails. But I've always found it much easier to forgive failures of over-ambition than mundane successes what weren't worth suceeding. (See also: the Lord Of The Rings movies.)

    (*) "Every time you see them happy you remember how sad they're going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what's the point in them being happy now if they're going to be sad later. The answer is, of course, because they a re going to be sad later."


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