Thursday, August 01, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (1)

In the future, everyone will be Doctor Who, but only for fifteen episodes.

I have become disengaged from Doctor Who.
Don't worry, this is not going to be one of those "I swear on Uncle Ben's grave, never again shall I watch this travesty" essays. I am sure that fourteen months from now I shall still be going on and on about how Patterson Joseph is not as good as Matt Smith.
But right now, I don't care, although I care very much about not caring. It no longer matters, but it matters that it doesn't matter. I imagine that this is what divorce or loss of faith would feel like. It doesn't, I am happy to say, feel anything like grief.
Matt Smith was what was keeping me watching; and Matt Smith is going. So we will have months and months of speculation, and two massively over-hyped specials. Then we will have a new series, though not for a year, in which yet another new actor has yet another go at figuring out what the new show is all about, and then quits when we have barely had time to get used to him.


When we hear that a comic or a book or a TV show which we quite liked is going to be turned into a movie, we go through three stages.  

Stage 1: Faith
The new movie is going to be the Exact Same Thing as the book or comic we loved so much, with the pictures we made up in our head magically translated onto the big screen. "Will Benedict Cumberbatch be playing that extremely obscure character that only fans remember?" we say "I wonder how he will deliver that particularly special line we love so much?" The answer always turns out to be "No, of course he won't" and "They not only cut that line, but cut the whole chapter and replaced it with a fight scene." But we still go through the "Faith" stage next time around.

Stage 2: Revulsion 
This stage is often very brief; no more than a momentary flinch or shudder when we realize that, in fact, the movie is going to take a sledge hammer to the book or comic we love so much. Arwen is going to wield a sword. Lois is going to know Superman's secret identity from the beginning. The Doctor is going to be Rassilon’s illegitimate son and the TARDIS is going to be a rap singer. They are taking out Captain Kirk altogether and replacing him with James Dean. We sometimes get angry at this point and say that no-one should be allowed to touch the icons of our collective past. We used to say that bad remakes and disappointing prequels were like "someone raping our childhood" but in the light of what has happened to the whole of 1970s popular culture, that analogy no longer seems in particularly good taste.

Stage 3: Retrenchment  
Once we reach this stage, we claim it is the only reaction we ever had, or anyone could ever have. We never remotely expected the movie to be anything like the book. Anyone who did expect that is a colossal geek. Just because Tom Baker didn't play the Doctor as a US marine with an assault rifle it doesn't follow that no-one can play the Doctor as a US marine with an assault rifle. You have to put all thoughts of the original book, comic or TV show out of your head and ask "Was it or was it not a good movie?" And if you reply "No" then that also proves you are a colossal geek.
And, indeed, there are no hard and fast rules, about turning books into movies or anything else. Maybe you can re-imagine Hamlet as a ninja and make it work. People have successfully turned samurai into cowboys and back again. But if I am excited about the idea of a new Star Wars movie (and, with a hundred yards of reservations, I really am) then I'm excited because I want to see X-Wing Fighters, lightsabers and Luke Skywalker's kids. If I find they've cut out all the space ships and lightsabers and replaced them with bum-jokes and flirting then I have the right to become disengaged. "But was it a good movie in its own right?" is a non sequitur. I wasn't promised a good movie in it's own right. I was promised a sequel to Star Wars.


As we go through the triennial "could the Doctor be black" argument, many of us are getting are our retrenchment in first. Don't ask how an ethnic minority Doctor, or a female Doctor, or a female ethnic minority Doctor might be consistent with or inconsistent with what Doctor Who has been up to now. Ask only if it is a good TV series in it's own right.


This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.


Paul Brown said...

Issues of the race, age, gender, height, weight and other attributes of the Doctor notwithstanding I have felt for some time now that Patterson Joseph would make an awesome Doctor, simply because giving the Marquis de Carrabas a time machine sounds like a recipe for a lot of fun; unfortunately he has already been in an episode in a very visible, plot related, speaking role, so the chances of him getting the role are pretty poor.

After the very pleasant surprise that was Matt Smith (who has actually usurped Tom Baker as my favourite Doctor ever) I am quietly hopeful that the new choice will be a good one, but I reserve the right to change my mind this Sunday at around 19:30.

SK said...

yet another new actor has yet another go at figuring out what the new show is all about, and then quits when we have barely had time to get used to him

Which is as it always was: Smith has played the Doctor for (taking into account production slippage) about three years, which is the same as Hartnell, Troughton, Davison and McCoy, and more than C. Baker, McGann, or Eccleston.

In fact only three actors have played the role for longer, and Tennant only counts because of that bizarre 'specials year'.

Three years is, it seems, the standard time for an actor to play the Doctor. Some do it for less; the ones who do it for more are notably exceptional.

Andrew Stevens said...

SK: I would make exceptions for Hartnell and Troughton who packed an awful lot of screen time into their three years. (I.e. I think we had plenty of time to "get used to them.") In terms of screen time, the first four Doctors are pretty easily the top four. (I believe David Tennant finally passed up Peter Davison for the number five slot.) It's after Tom Baker hangs up his scarf, that shorter tenures became the new normal. (You make a good point that this might have been inevitable after they shortened the seasons in 1970, but there was a delayed effect because Pertwee and Tom Baker each hung around for longer than usual to put off the moment when the Doctor became more ephemeral.)

SK said...

Oh, in terms of screen time, the comparison's a bit unfair, because (as we all know) in its early years Doctor Who was a weekly soap opera recorded as live. The simple realities of TV production and the changed nature of the programme make it impossible that any other doctors could 'cram in' as many episodes.

Nevertheless, one can look at the numbers. Davison starred in one series of twenty-six twenty-five-minute episodes, one of twenty-two (plus a ninety-minute special), and then twenty-two episodes of a third series (counting 'Revelation of the Daleks' as originally-intended rather than as broadcast). That's a total, by my calculator, of 1840 minutes of screen time.

Smith has up until now been in three series of thirteen forty-five minute episodes (actually, 'The Eleventh Hour' was sixty, wasn't it?) and three hour-long Christmas specials, for a total of 1950 minutes.

So he's already beaten Davison for screen time, and he still has at least the anniversary special to go (not sure how long that will be, but it'll probably put him over the 2,000-minute mark) and possibly the Christmas special (depending on whether he regenerates at the beginning or the end).

So even by screen time, Smith's run wasn't that short.

I suspect that this is a case where the memory cheats: both in terms of time seeming to take longer when you are a child, and in terms of you growing up in the Tom Baker era, such that Baker could have been the Doctor for effectively your entire childhood.

I know it seem to me that Doctors Who change far more frequently these days, but the numbers don't bear it out.

I'm also not convinced that screen time equals 'getting used to' time. Sylvester McCoy made such an impression in twenty-eight episodes (700 minutes, we're ignoring season twenty-four) that the character he created could sustain nearly five million words of novels over the next few years. Smith actually was better served by the scripts than McCoy in that he hit the ground running in his first series, so his impressions was practically instant.

SK said...

(Tennant did the same number of regular episodes as Smith, but all the specials he did, including the one which I'm sure you remember was seventy-two minutes rather than the usual sixty, push his total up to 2,247 minutes).

Andrew Stevens said...

SK: Yes, I knew Matt Smith had also beaten out Peter Davison (but not David Tennant). I also agree with your general point that Matt Smith's tenure wasn't that short and that short tenures have been the rule in Doctor Who for a long time (the last thirty years). I was only disagreeing because you were including Hartnell and Troughton as short-tenured Doctors, and I think Mr. Rilstone can plausibly make the case that, prior to 1981, you could expect each Doctor to put in a pretty long run of material, much longer than has been true since.

Gareth Rees said...

The modern version of the show is much faster-paced so I'm not sure it makes sense to base comparisons by screen time. A 45-minute story from series 7 like Nightmare in Silver doesn't have much less story than a 100-minute 1970s 4-part story like Pyramids of Mars. If we count stories rather than screen minutes, we find that by the time he quits Matt Smith will have starred in 39 stories, whereas Tom Baker starred in 41.