Saturday, April 06, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (6)


We have the people who, as Michael Grade put it, watch Doctor Who every Saturday like a High Mass. 

We have the ones who watch Doctor Who because it reminds them of how they felt when they watched Doctor Who. 

We have the one who treat Doctor Who as a secular scripture and perform various kinds of exegesis on it. 

And we have me, who thinks the Daleks are cool. 

Do any of us have anything useful to say about New Who?

The first lot have no difficult in talking about the new series. The first lot's approach was created specially to talk about the new series. The new series is brilliant and perfect by definition because everything with the words "Doctor Who" printed on them is brilliant. Even the TV movie. 

The second lot are impaled over the cleft stick of their own petard. The second approach isn't and can't be a way of looking at new Who: because it's how new Who looks at itself. Russell Davies and Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat are all convinced exponents of the Second Approach; they just happen to pour their nostalgia into making a highly successful television series, rather than into writing snarky blog posts. It comes though in all sorts of ways. Amy knew the Doctor when she was a little girl. Babies and children have a special ability to call out to the Doctor for help. The Doctor is a story who remains real only as long as we remember him. There are secret cults dedicated to asking the question "Doctor Who?". Practically every story is about how the Doctor is remembered, or how he will be remembered; or what stories are or will be told about him. 

An approach which is all about memory and nostalgia can't very easily talk about a show which is all about memory and nostalgia. Neither can it incorporate last week's story into its biographical narrative. Maybe we are just getting to the point when "How I felt when I first heard that Doctor Who was coming back" and "How I felt when I first saw 'Rose'" might be elements in our own, personal histories. Old Fans were delirious with amusement when Radio Times printed an unselfconscious letter from a viewer who thought that Doctor Who wasn't as good as it used to be when Christopher Eccleston was the star. But if you tried to say "How I felt when I first saw the Angels Take Manhattan, three hours ago" you wouldn't be taking the Nostalgic Approach: you'd either be reading it as text, or "just watching it." 

If New Who is increasingly an argument or a thesis or a critical essay about Old Who, we can easily see why Lawrence Miles is so antagonistic towards it. He isn't just watching the programme: he's in direct competition with it. 

So, maybe the Third Approach is the only game in town. Fear Her and the Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe may have been a load of old tosh; but so was War on Aquatica [*]. But they are still part of the Who-Text. Texts aren't there to be liked or disliked: they are there to be read and interpreted. I am sure that Andrew Hickey's will incorporate "new Who" stories into his "fifty stories for fifty years" series, and I am sure he will say very interesting things about them. As I'm sure he could about Rentaghost or Sugar Puffs Boxes. 

My approach, on the other hand, rapidly collides with a brick wall. Of course, I can and do watch New Who for its texture and atmosphere, and I can and do find stuff there which I like, as well as stuff which I don't like. But then I find stuff I like in Merlin as well, and that has nothing to do with my liking for Old Who, or indeed for the Morte D'Arthur. It's a coincidence. 

I suppose New Who might have been done as a pastiche of the old programme -- corridors and quarries and spaceships and all -- and some of us old fans would probably have enjoyed it. But that would have sealed it in a sarcophagus of nostalgia. In the very early days, the Big Finish audio plays tried to recreate the texture of Old Who, to the extent of being recorded in 25 minute chunks with fake Radio Times listings on the interlinear notes; but after a very few discs, they had grown, organically, into something that might have been "Big Finish Doctor Who" but wasn't simply "Doctor Who" and wasn't trying to be.

If there is a thing called Doctor Who to be a fan of, then "Doctor Who" must mean "whatever the Happiness Patrol has in common with A Good Man Goes To War" and it starts to look very much as if that's a null set. 


[*] I'm sure you know what that is so I'm not telling you. 


Mike Taylor said...

Is all of this leading up to why you've not been writing about Series 6 or 7? That would be a shame (for me, I mean). That said, I know the feeling -- I have not yet written about either of the first two episodes of Series 8, and it's not just because I am screamingly busy (although that's the main reason) but also because I'm not sure what to say about them that's not already being said elsewhere.

BTW., what does the title "Who Remembered Hills" mean?

g said...

Mike, another reason not to have written about the first two episodes of series 8 is that there isn't yet a series 8. What's currently airing is the second half of series 7.

"Who Remembered Hills" is surely a reference to A E Housman's "blue remembered hills". I wouldn't be astonished if Andrew were making some other reference simultaneously.

Mike Taylor said...

g, I have seen the current sequence of episodes referred to both as the second half of Series 7 and as Series 8. That said, the BBC's own page refers to The Angels Take Manhattan as being in "Series 7 Part 1", so I guess that makes the official numbering as you said.

lizw said...

If there is a thing called Doctor Who to be a fan of, then "Doctor Who" must mean "whatever the Happiness Patrol has in common with A Good Man Goes To War" and it starts to look very much as if that's a null set.

But does there need to be a thing (just one) called Doctor Who to be a fan of? I'm with Wittgenstein on how language works, so (a) I don't think the Happiness Patrol and A Good Man Goes to War need to have anything in common in order for both of them to be called Doctor Who, and (b) I think it's entirely possible that "being a Doctor Who fan" is defined by common behaviours or a common relationship to a community - playing the same language game, in effect - rather than by anything inherent in the show(s) itself(themselves).

Mike Taylor said...

Meanwhile, of course Happiness Patrol DOES have something in common with A Good Man Goes To War: the Doctor. It's a pretty amazing tribute to something or other that all eleven Doctors, with their very different personalities, are all very clearly playing the same person. There is a core of commonality there, and I find it very attractive.

Gavin Burrows said...

Can I make sure I've got this right?

Group One – show as tribal totem. Avoid practitioners at social occasions.

Group Two – show as Proustian cake. Or whatever passed for madelines in the Seventies. We never had anything more exotic than Ginger Nuts on our house, so I suppose they'll have to do.

Group three – show, what show? The most important thing is the expanded canon. Even when there was a show, even before multi-media experiences, it was already a multi-media experience due to the chocolate wrappers and playground games.

I am with you on avoiding Group One, so let us move swiftly on...

With Group Two, I am not entirely clear on why this should be, why this particular cake should taste so heavily of Proust. What is it puts the show between 'Star Trek' and 'Rentaghost'? I can, I will have you know, quite vividly remember first seeing 'City on the Edge of Forever', and DeForest Kelley's “I'm mad, me” face leering out of the telly while those spiky scales played. And yes you're right, it doesn't seem to matter much.

A couple of people mention that the show is “long-running,” but surely that can only ever be a component part of it. 'The Archers' is more long-running still and there are some pretty dedicated Archers fans. They say things sagely, like “that yioung Aldridge lad is turning out like his grandfather.” But there are not Archers fans, I don't think, in the way that there are Dr. Who fans.

To cut to the chase, I don't really know the answer here and am hoping that someone else will come along and tell me. Here's the best I can do for the time being...

As a child viewer, it seemed terribly important to me that the show had already been broadcast before I was born. Of your reminiscences, I was quite taken aback by you saying you remembered seeing your first episode. I remember flashes of images, with storylines only emerging later in my memories. My parents have told me I'd watch Troughton episodes quite attentively, though I don't have a single memory of his face on screen.

We're not allowed to say 'phenomenological', but no rule has been set yet for the Freudian notion of the unheimlich. So I suppose I had better get in quick. Here was a show about time, which stretched back into time, whose central characters spanned generations, which was a strange mixture of the familiar and unfamilar, of coat stands and command consoles. There was a strangeness, a mystery about it. Perhaps this goes some way to allowing the brain to assign it the personal mythology of which you speak.

Perhaps consequently, I have always been at odds with those who wanted to neaten the Whoniverse up. How can the Daleks have been begat by both Davros and a smurf? I neither know nor care. The time I could spend worry about that would be better emplpyed in my fixing up the back bedroom. 'Genesis of the Daleks' doesn't even fit together terribly well with 'The Daleks', and they were written by the same bloke in the same media. And were supposed to fit together.

Gavin Burrows said...

I will confess I considered the whole of Group Three as point-bypassing obsessives, to be avoided as much as Group One, until Andrew Hickey happened along. He proclaimed indulgently “kids, in a way, you're both right,” put everything in a quantum state and Doctor Who went from a TV show to a game everybody could play.

In the recent 'Doctor Who and the Comics' exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, they even argued the off-air years were a boon time for Doctor Who, as everybody could just get on with whatever take they chose without the BBC breathing down their necks. I would have called that claim sacrelige only a few years ago.

The pull Group Three feel seems more obvious, and has already been alluded to. It's pretty much the same reason why Doctor Who attracts so much fan-fic. It would be a fairly pointless approach to take for something like 'Babylon 5' or the “re-imagined” 'Battlestar Galactica'. You might as well write a prequel to 'Watchmen' or make the fourth film in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, the absurdity is so obvious no-one would ever try.

But 'Doctor Who' was not put together seamlessly, by a single and unifying creative brain. It was assembled out of parts by a committee. A committee whose complementary tea and biscuits had been spiked by psychedelics, yes. But a committee nonetheless.

The whole thing felt like a collective pursuit from the state, which made for a virtual invitation to join in. There's little chance of you mucking things up any further. And besides, even if you did, that would most likely make it better.

Of course you should be writing what you feel like writing. But I have to confess to feeling a pang of disappointment when it was revealed all this was heading towards the new show. I'm sure I'll read the rest of it. But I have to admit that not only am I no longer very interested in the new show, I'm not even very interested in why I'm not very interested in it.

Gavin Burrows said...

Make that "a collective pursuit from the start."

Though it was the BBC so I suppose technically...

Andrew Stevens said...

Gavin: I think I'm the only one who mentioned "long-running," so I'm going to have to take a stab at what I meant. However, I do want to clarify that my exact words also included the phrase "object of adulation." (This will be important later.)

I think, for something to work in the autobiographical sort of way that Lawrence Miles writes, there must be two component parts of it.

1) You must have seen it as a child and

2) It must have lasted long enough to vary up your memories of it.

For example, I watched Star Trek as a child: all of it. It was in syndication and it was on five days a week. There are only 79 episodes, so it didn't take long before I had watched them all. It satisfies condition 1, but does not satisfy condition 2. All my memories of Star Trek are alike. I watched all of them for the first time in the same room with the same people. Like you, but unlike Mr. Rilstone, I can recall a lot of my reactions to it at the time. However, it wasn't long running enough to possibly function as an autobiographical text for my life.

But imagine the following thought experiment. We take the 79 episodes of Star Trek, find someone who really, really likes them, and then only allow them to watch a couple of episodes a year. Surely, they might very well write in the same way about Star Trek as Lawrence Miles writes about Doctor Who?

Now for "object of adulation." The Archers is a soap opera and soap operas simply don't affect people the way a lot of science fiction (and other things) does. People may not get all autobiographical about Star Trek as they do about Doctor Who, but it unquestionably receives similar levels of adulation. I don't think there's anything particularly special about Doctor Who which explains why people treat it differently from soap operas, in that respect. And people treat it differently, in this autobiographical way, from Star Trek or Star Wars or whatever, because of its long-running nature.

So that's my stab at answering it. Agree? Disagree?

Mike Taylor said...

I'll chip in, since I've also mentioned "long-running" as a factor.

I agree with Andrew Stevens that an important part of this is just that the show runs through a large part of the viewer's life. But it's not just that: it's also to do with the long lifetime of the showing giving it time and space to evolve in itself.

Despite the important commonalities to the character of the Doctor (which I just wrote about in a comment to #7), the show has changed enormously through its lifetime -- not just a step-change between McCoy and Eccleston. By the end of the original run its tone and shape were already hugely different from its early days. Heck, that was true by the time Jon Pertwee was in his stride.

So an important aspect of long-running is simply the fact that Doctor Who has been a lot of different things. Whereas Star Trek has always been more and more of the same thing.

Gavin Burrows said...

‘Star Trek’ fans are probably spitting in their replicators at Mike saying it “has always been more and more of the same thing.” And it’s true, ‘Mudd’s Women’ is not much like ‘Corbomite Manoeuvre.’ But then Kirk was still Kirk and Spock remained Spock whatever was happening around them. (And, come to think of it, Spock spent most of Season Three tutting “this programme is becoming increasingly illogical” like the Captain in 'Monty Python', before losing his nut completely.) So this is really a roundabout way of me agreeing with him.

Actually I agree with both Mike and Andrew, but think there is something more afoot. What they say is necessary but not in itself sufficient. A TV show could become an “object of adulation” (sorry if I missed the phrase first time) for arbitrary, labelling or marketing reasons. Or because the lead actor changed around a bit like in James Bond, allowing each generation to have their own marker peg. But my contention is that there’s something going on in the content of the show that builds on those formal aspects.

Admittedly my way of describing this so far has either been the poetic side of vague, or vice versa. Perhaps I’m just better off pointing at something Mark Fisher wrote about the series being “strangely familiar.” (Alert! Fisher’s writing can be jargonistic but despite the polysyllabic surface does have content.)
The ideal way of my watching ‘Tomorrow People’ always seemed to be on my own. Its message was “kids rule really, even if adults don’t know it yet.” And indeed it was shown after school. Whereas the ideal way of my watching ‘Doctor Who’ always seemed to be with the rest of my family. And indeed it was shown on Saturday evening.
My Doctors were all older men who travelled with younger people. The Tardis had the same mixture of otherworldliness and cosiness as did my Grandparents’ house. There’s something about at least the old show which encourages you to see it generationally, not in the sense of one replacing another but kind of building on them. The past never really ends in ‘Doctor Who’, for all it nominally being a science fiction show. Reincarnation meant accumulation.

And it didn’t serve up strange and exotic objects like flying saucers so much as present familiar things rendered strange, like Police Boxes dematerialising or shop window dummies coming to life. It at the same time promised escape into adventure and worked as a distorting mirror on our lives.

Mike Taylor said...

Thank you for the link to the Fisher article. Very interesting and apposite. (Although, speaking as a vertebrate palaeontologist, it was surreal for me to read of Doctor Who being "sacralised", as that verb means to me the incorporation of vertebrae from the back into the fused unit that the hips attach to. I digress.)

It's certainly true that Doctor Who's biggest charge of fear has always come from making the commonplace sinister. The autons are the classic example of this, but the same applies to the Weeping Angels if you want to get modern. That's the reason for the tendency (which Andrew seems unhappy about) for the series to keep returning to sinister phones, sinister satnavs, sinister WiFi. Monsters aren't scary. It's thing that you trust, when you find you can't trust them any more, that are scary. (See also: The Empty Child, for my money the scariest New Who has ever been.)

I didn't realise that Freud came up with his own Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny observation. Evidently Psychology Recapitulates Embryology. (I award ten pseud point to anyone who laughs at that last sentence.)

Gavin Burrows said...

I think the point is that it's both the Doctor and his foes who make the commonplace sinister. There's a weird way in which they go hand-in-hand. (And I use that word advisedly!) It's not just about framing some external threat, more like a way of looking at the world which once noticed can't really be switched off. The show is kind of saturated in it.

It can be scary too. But they're not necessarily the same thing. If I only liked the show when it actually scared me, there wouldn't be a whole lot of point with me bothering with it at all.

The new show has had a tendency to define this uncanny sense too narrowly as technofear, which has got tedious and checklisty. Wi-fi was a barrel scraper! It's the same difference as between the jelly babies and the stick of celery.

Is the last sentence funny because it sounds funny? if so, then I get it.

Mike Taylor said...

You're right, of course, that "scary" isn't really the point. It's just one of several ways that the supernatural in the mundane manifest. At best, it rises far about mere scariness and touches the numinous -- not something you can say about a lot of Saturday-evening family TV. I was lazy in reaching for the "scary" cliche to describe this.

I'd also agree with your sense that recently the show has got too locked into one aspect of this -- ubiquitous technology (TVs, phones, SatNavs, WiFi). But there are plenty of other things that are also ubiquitous and commonplace, and which could sustain excellent stories. Earlier I mentioned the example of a lost child. The labyrinth of corridors of the hotel in The God Complex is another (although I seem to recall that you didn't like that episode. I did.)

While I love the audacity of the new series, I do worry that by going high-concept so much of the time, it runs the risk of losing this important aspect. I suppose the poster episode for this tendency is Dinosaurs On A Spaceship -- a conceit that I admit made me laugh out loud (as did Let's Kill Hitler), but which, by combining two exotics, rules out all possibility of threatening via the mundane. (It can also have the effect of making the writer lazy as though all he needs to do is collide dinosaurs with spaceships, then sit back and watch the fireworks.)

Mike Taylor said...

All this discussion reminds me that nearly everything I love (Doctor Who, the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings films) is deeply flawed. Turns out I don't care too much about flaws if there's enough good stuff going on, too. Seems I evaluate art not on the ratio between its success and failure, but on the difference. Lots of win and quite a lot of fail sums to a big win.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Who remembered Hills sounds a big like Blue remembered hills, a quote from a Houseman poem about remebering childhood and how you cant ever go home again. Used as the title of a play by Dennis Potter, of course. A really terrible title. I wish i had stuck with Tangled Up in Who, although thats earmarked for the essay on AA Milne which I've been failing to finish since 1920.

Mike Taylor said...

I see no reason why you shouldn't write a whole sequence of critical essays all with titles of the form "Tangled Up In [thing-that-rhymes-with-blue]"

By coincidence, an essay that I wrote about the decline of programming was entitled Tangled up in Tools. (I didn't choose the title, but I was pretty happy with it. I did manage to work in a Monkees song-title as a section heading, which should make Andrew Hickey happy.)

Gavin Burrows said...

"Scary" = not especially useful word in this context.

But "sinister" = very useful word indeed.

I feel like I liked 'God Complex' more than you always imagine I did. It's one I'd put into your category of flawed but interesting, which is better than successfully functional.