Monday, January 15, 2018

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time

I have done my very best to like the Doctor Who Christmas Special. I truly have. But it won’t do. I’m sorry. It just won’t do.


In the 1950s, most children got smacked by their parents. I’m sorry but they did. Canon be damned, the First Doctor is Susan’s grandfather: he has been in loco parentis for a number of years. In the first episode of Dalek Invasion Earth she recklessly causes a bridge to collapse, blocking off the only route back to the TARDIS. You can see why the old boy might be a bit miffed, but we cringe when he threatens to spank her. Of course we do. We would like to believe that the remark was an unscripted interjection by William Hartnell. (All the bad lines in 60s Who were unscripted ad libs by William Hartnell, in the same way that all the bad lines in Shakespeare are interpolations by Middleton.) And it would have been better if Terry Nation had written “clip round the ear” or “thump” rather than “jolly good smacked bottom”. But the Doctor is more or less Susan’s father. When he gets cross with her, he talks like a tetchy, old-fashioned, embarrassing, late-1950s Dad. This was the kind of thing embarrassing Dads said in those days. I’m sorry, but it was.

The scene had a purpose within the overall structure of Dalek Invasion of Earth. Young people today may feel that it is not quite politically correct, or even decent, for stories to have overall narrative structures and for scenes to have points, but in those days everyone thought it was perfectly normal. The First Doctor was quite forgetful. The original series pitch used the word “senile”. He mixes up his companion's names and can’t remember how to operate the TARDIS. So at the beginning of the story, he treats Susan as if she is about twelve, even though she is seventeen. But at the end of the story, he treats her like an adult, even though she is only seventeen. You may think that shutting her out of the TARDIS at the end of the story is just as abusive as threatening to hit her at the beginning. But “How the Doctor came to see that Susan was no longer a little girl” is one of the things Dalek Invasion of Earth was about.

It is impossible to know how the First Doctor would have reacted to swearing. In one sense it's a meaningless question: no-one could possibly have said “bloody” or “arse” on 1960s TV. Mrs Whitehouse thought that even “bum” was crossing a line. But I imagine he would have said something like “Goodness gracious me! You will make me blush! I haven’t heard such words since I was on the lower decks of HMS Victory!”

To which Ian would have replied "Oh Doctor! If you had taught in a London secondary modern school, you would know that it is sometimes politic to go unaccountably deaf for a few seconds…"

And the Doctor would have gone "Hmm, hmm" and everyone would have laughed.

What I am confident that the First Doctor would not have done under those circumstances is threaten to spank a 28 year old stranger.

There is such a thing as fan lore and folk memory. Everyone knows that the Third Doctor used to say “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” a lot, even though in the actual scripts, he didn’t. But he did use a lot of pseudo-science and Jon Pertwee did tell a story about memorizing that particular phrase to the tune of "When I was a lad..." from H.M.S Pinafore. So although it's a myth, it’s a myth that stands in for a truth.

I struggle to think of examples of the First Doctor being particularly sexist. All the original Doctors were somewhat patronising to their companions. I recall the rebels on Dalek controlled earth asking Barbara if she could cook — but that’s not an unreasonable question for a group of male soldiers to ask a middle-aged lady. I recall the Second Doctor telling Polly to go away and make some tea but that was a plot point. I recall one of the UNIT soldiers announcing that Zoe was much prettier than a computer. But the Doctor thinking it was the job of his lady companions to dust the TARDIS? If the TARDIS got dusty I am sure there would have been an auto-cosmic-room-sanitizer-ray.

Why does Moffat wrench an admittedly terrible line out of context and somehow imply that this was the kind of thing the First Doctor said all the time? Weren’t there more interesting contrasts to be drawn between Olden Days Doctor and Current Doctor? Man of Science vs Man of Action is the one that comes immediately to mind. "Oh by the way, did you take three dimensional graph geometry at your school, hmm?"

But let's accept for the sake of argument that the First Doctor is the Sexist Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor is the Less Sexist Doctor. Who lore apart “A fairly liberal guy has to spend time with a previous, more socially conservative version of himself” is a perfectly good starting point for a story. But if that's your premise, for goodness sake, do something with it. Do the obvious thing and have the liberal guy show the conservative guy the error of his ways. Do the very slightly less obvious thing and have them both learn from each other. Ironically reveal that the chap who says “my dear” and “young lady” is deep-down a better feminist than the guy who uses the right-on language. Do something. Do anything. Don’t just point at the two characters and say “har har weren’t the olden days old fashioned."

Why does the First Doctor have such outdated social attitudes anyway? If Doctor Who made any sense -- if you were going to reboot it and start again, knowing everything we know now -- then the earlier versions of the Doctor ought logically to be much more alien and Gallifreyan and ill-at-ease with humans. The later incarnations would progressively take on the attitudes of their adopted home planet. In fact, William Hartnell's Doctor knew nothing of Gallifrey: the Time Lords were a gigantic ret-con, added to the series at the end of Patrick Troughton's tenure. But there is no reason why they couldn't have been a ret-con that made sense: Gallifrey could have been very fusty and old fashioned and patrician; a vast dusty Oxford common room full of old boys in Edwardian suits who say "school master" and "young lady" and threaten to smack people's bottoms. The kind of place where the First Doctor would have fitted right in. In fact, when we first met the Time Lords they were super advanced and godlike. Granted, the Doctor is meant to be a rebel, but how does being a rebel from their point of view equate to being a bit of an old fuddy duddy from our point of view?

This isn't news: we all know that Doctor Who, taken as a whole, makes absolutely no damn sense. But why are we drawing attention to its senselessness in this particular way. There is no in-universe reason for the First Doctor to be old fashioned compared with the Twelfth. There is no reason for the First Doctor’s Police Box to look different from the Twelfth Doctor’s Police Box. We all understand perfectly well that the BBC doesn't use the same prop in 2017 that they used in 1966. But why draw attention to this kind of  thing? You might as well say “Before The Great Time War all spaceships were made out of washing up liquid bottles and propelled through space on the ends of wires”. You might as well have someone shout out "It's only a model" and have done with it.

It is quite possible to imagine an episode of a TV series in which someone says “It’s only a model” in a genuinely striking and creative way. William Shakespeare broke the fourth wall all the time. Steven Moffat is no William Shakespeare.

A character called the Brigadier certainly appeared in about half the stories transmitted between 1970-1975 — in all but one story during Seasons 7 and 8, and a couple of times in each of Seasons 9-12. He made three further appearances between 1975 and the show’s cancellation — once in a special and twice in regular stories. He never appeared in the reboot at all although he did have a cameo in the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. Yet on Christmas Day 2017 a Captain-Darling-style World War One officer (hammed up to perfection by Mycroft Holmes) deliberately withholds his name from the Doctor and Bill Potts specifically so he can announce in the final scene that his name is Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart.

Your reaction to this I suppose depends on how big a Doctor Who geek you are.


NOT AT ALL GEEKY:  Er…Wasn’t there someone in Doctor Who already called Lethbridge-Stewart?

JUST GEEKY ENOUGH: Oh. Okay. The Brigadier's grandpa.

TOO GEEKY: Oh joy! Oh rapture! What a Christmas Present! A Character who last appeared in 1989 has been referenced on screen!

MUCH TOO GEEKY: But…but…but…this means that the Lethbridge-Stewart novels are canonical! This is that very Hamish who slept with his brother’s wife while the latter was away at war and is thus the Grandfather of the Brigadier (although the Brigadier believes him to be his great uncle!)

For most of the Tom Baker era, Doctor Who was engaged in a Pol Pot level denial of its own history. Stories like Deadly Assassin and Destiny of the Daleks pointedly didn’t bother to check up on how the Time Lords or Regeneration had been treated in previous episodes. But every couple of seasons, someone would chuck in a reference to an old story to mollify the fans.

“The Daleks home planet is called Skaro”

“Drool, drool, they still love us, drool drool.”

Then of course John Nathan-Turner took over, there were back references in every episode, and the series went into a self-destructive spiral. New Who has consisted of nothing but internal references. I don’t need reassurance that Steven Moffat knows about Who history. I already know that Steven Moffat knows more about Who history than anyone else on the planet.

We are entitled to say that the Brigadier has greater significance in fan-lore than he ever had in the TV show. He started out as “that annoying soldier who the Doctor is sometimes allied with”; but he ended up as “the Doctor’s best friend”. And “How a Time Traveler met his former best friend’s non-canonical grandfather” is a perfectly good starting place for a story. That kind of thing happens to Time Travelers all the time. The Time Traveler usually inadvertently kills his friend's grandfather when he was supposed to live, or more problematically, saves his life when he was supposed to die. Sometimes he prevents his grandfather meeting his grandmother, becomes implicated in the curse of Fenric, or invents rock n’roll.

So why is Captain Darling Lethbridge-Stewart? So far as I can see, everything in this story, and in fact everything else in the history of the universe, proceeds exactly as it would have done if Mycroft had not been Lethbridge-Stewart but just some guy.

Are we meant to retrospectively think that when Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart turned up in the Second One With the Yeti, Doctor Patrick retrospectively thought “I had better been nice to him, he’s related to that guy I met for 20 minutes at the North Pole just before I regenerated.”

“No Luke. I am the non-canonical illegitimate grandfather of someone you once met.”

“O.K. I guess that’s quite interesting. Did we already know that the guy with the military background had family members in World War I?”

Captain Darling and the First Doctor are momentarily shocked when Bill Potts mentions that she is gay. And, once again, nothing follows. I don’t know what an actual World War I officer would have said if a young lady (a young black lady, at that) openly said that she was a hoh moh sexual. Would he have turned his back and averted his gaze in case he was morally contaminated by the sinner, or would he have said “Oh, I know all about that kind of thing m’gel, I was at Eton too don’t you know”. The First Doctor would I suppose have been Enlightened By the Standards Of His Day: “Hmmm.. Hmmm… well I dare say you are my girl I dare say you are, and it is entirely your own business but we really don’t need to mention it in mixed company, do we, hmmm hmmm?”

In fact we just establish that social attitudes used to be different and move on.

Remind me, why am I watching this thing again?

And then again again; the Christmas Truce.

The Christmas Truce seems to be something which actually happened in history. That is, for one night in 1914 and maybe again in 1915, the British and German armies stopped trying to kill each other. I think that this kind of thing was quite common in pre-modern conflicts: soldiers regarded war as a rather violent game and didn’t think it that odd to meet up in the pavilion at half-time and say “you fought awfully well today, sir.” That was one of the things which the First World War brought to an end. It wasn't an astonishing thing happening for the first time, it was a fairly normal thing happening for the last time.

But just as there is a folk memory of William Hartnell and a folk memory of the Brigadier, so there is a folk memory of the Christmas Truce. I think (like a lot of our memories of World War One) it largely comes from Oh What A Lovely War! It is basically a set of symbols: there are no characters.

Germans singing Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!

The English soldiers responding with Silent Night. Miraculously, they were all taught the same translation at school.

A few soldiers come out of the trenches, nervously, and shake hands.

More join in.

They show each other pictures of their sweethearts.

Some of them start kicking a football around.

They go back into their trenches.

One of them opens a box of Sainsbury’s Chocolate Biscuits. I may possibly have made that up.

The next morning, they carry on killing each other as if nothing had happened.

The Christmas Truce worked its way into the Christmas Special partly as a plot device: the Brigadier’s Grandfather and a German Officer are about to kill each other, but the Doctor moves them a few days forward in time so Peace breaks out before they can do so. But it’s mostly a detached, free floating image to make the audience feel vaguely warm and Christmassy.

Who was it who said that Dickens' Little Nell isn’t a character — she is simply an onion to make you cry?

It’s a scrap book approach to history. You take some cuttings — soldiers fraternizing in no-man's land, the first Doctor being embarrassingly tetchy at his granddaughter, an affectionately remembered 1970s character — and you hang them on a string like fairy lights. And that is all you do. “Christmas truce” makes you have a Christmassy emotion. “First Doctor says bottom” makes you have a superior emotion. Cameo by Wonderful Clara makes you have a sad emotion. Someone saying the Brigadier’s name makes you have a fan-squee emotion. And then you watch Strictly Come Dancing.

“Oh but Andrew I am sure if you went back and watched old Who you would probably find it had plot holes as well. If you moan every time you find a tiny little plot problem in what is after all basically just a kids show you will have to pull down ever pub in Bristol and pour salt over the ground.” 

Yes, Doctor Who frequently had plot holes. Doctor Who was frequently very silly indeed. It relied very heavily on super villains who did illogical things (hollow out the center of the earth? feed prisoners to an alien mind parasite? release dinosaurs in the middle of London?) for no better reason than it was the kind of thing a super villain would do. It relied very heavily (though not as heavily as the reboot) on heroes who could pull Special Baddie Defeating Devices out of their jolly good bottoms. We long ago admitted that this silliness was a big part of what made Doctor Who Doctor Who. But it always took place in the context of a story.

The Christmas special doesn't have plot holes. The Christmas special is a collection of holes without any plot to go round them.

I could never give up on Doctor Who. It is coded into my DNA more than anything except, I suppose, Spider-Man and Winnie-the-Pooh. (I love Star Wars, of course, but I had lived on this earth for twice seven years before Star Wars came into my life.) It is, as the fellow said, part of my personal mythology.

But I have wasted far, far too much head space searching for content in a series which has none; trying to find the story in a series which is only about surfaces; clutching at straws when it reminds me a little of the programme I used to like so much.

And it is now being handed over to a Peter Davison enthusiast who was show runner on the dreadful Torchwood.

Time for a  break, I think.

There are Big Finish CDs I haven’t listened to and New Adventures I haven’t read and Tom Baker DVDs gathering dust on my shelf.

Maybe I shall binge watch all 30 of Jodie Whittaker’s stories over Christmas 2020 and let you know if things seem any better.


Mike Taylor said...

I really wanted to like this, too, but couldn't do it. I realised that we've come to the end of the Peter Capaldi era, and even though I've watched every single episode, very little has stayed with me. Having written essays about every single Matt Smith episode, I think I wrote about three of Capaldi's, never getting up enough enthusiasm to get into a writing routine. I don't understand it. It's not that he's a bad doctor -- far from it. But something is definitely wrong.

All of which leaves me in a position I would never have predicted: looking forward to seeing the BBC's Political-Correctly-Gone-Mad female Doctor, and looking forward to the tenure of Chris Chibnall, who is responsible for so much of the The Dreadful Torchwood. Although given Chibnall's idea of what constitutes "adult" TV, I can only fear for what he thinks is going to be good for kids.

Gavin Burrows said...

Well, for once I was ahead of the curve! If blogging about ’Doctor Who’ can be taken as a measure of a particular type of interest in it, I tailed off during the later Matt Smith era and managed just one post over the whole of Capaldi. Though of course I am not the Who sage you are, so your saying this now is still the more significant event.

But I really wanted to ask about something that was a semi-digression:

”I think that this kind of thing was quite common in pre-modern conflicts: soldiers regarded war as a rather violent game and didn’t think it that odd to meet up in the pavilion at half-time and say “you fought awfully well today, sir.” That was one of the things which the First World War brought to an end. It wasn't an astonishing thing happening for the first time, it was a fairly normal thing happening for the last time.”

I honestly haven’t heard this theory before, and was wondering if it came from something you read or how it came to occur to you. At probably no great surprise to anyone, my lot (politically speaking) tend to see the Christmas truce as an early foreshadow of the more widespread refusal to fight that marked the later stages of the war.

SK said...

I think that Peter Capaldi would be really good at playing Doctor Who. Somebody should get him to do it, before he's too old.

I think the nicest thing I can do for Steven Moffat is re-watch his first episode in charge, which had a story and jokes that were funny (and some that weren't, but…) and a clever resolution which used a bit of information set up earlier in the episode as an aside in an unexpected, but perfectly sensible once it was pointed out, way.

And try to forget about the plotless piece of fan-fiction that was basically the really boring bit at the end of David Tennant's episode where he meets his companions and gives interminable speeches about how great he is, expanded to an hour.

Still, at least we can pinpoint exactly the point at which Doctor Who ceased to even pretend to be about anything other than its own supposed brilliance, and disappeared firmly up its own smacked bottom.

I'd like to do what you promise to, but I know myself, I won't. What am I going to do — not watch it?

Alan Stevens said...

This is an excellent article, with only one flaw. In all probability, Hartnell did make up the line about smacking Susan's bottom; and I know that because I've just checked both the draft script and the camera script for "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and the line doesn't appear.

Gavin Burrows said...

"I think that Peter Capaldi would be really good at playing Doctor Who. Somebody should get him to do it, before he's too old."

SK, you can't say that! You know we're not allowed to agree about anything!

Nick M said...

The whole thing looked like Moffat did a brainstorming session ‘ooh Christmas - world war 1 truce - soldiers - brigadier - cybermen - 10th planet - first doctor’ without ever bothering to come up with a story surrounding it.

Does anyone remember the Steven Moffat who wrote episodes like Blink which effortless exploited the potential posed by time travel and produced a series of stunning plot twists which came together to form a satisfying whole? Are they any relation? We should be told

Mike Taylor said...

The whole thing looked like Moffat did a brainstorming session ‘ooh Christmas - world war 1 truce - soldiers - brigadier - cybermen - 10th planet - first doctor’ without ever bothering to come up with a story surrounding it.

Yes! That's it exactly. And the reason that hurts so much is that there is a genuinely fascinating story to be told about the 1st and 12th Doctors both coming to terms with regeneration -- with or without Cybermen, with or without WWI, with or without Christmas. I do with Moffat had taken the trouble to write that story.

Does anyone remember the Steven Moffat who wrote episodes like Blink which effortless exploited the potential posed by time travel and produced a series of stunning plot twists which came together to form a satisfying whole?

I really, really miss that Steven Moffat. The one we have now reminds of nothing so much as late-stage Russell T. Davies.

SK said...

You know we're not allowed to agree about anything!

I disagree.

Gavin Burrows said...

"I disagree."

Well, that's alright then.

No, hang on, wait...

Anonymous said...

Moffat's not fit to lick Davies boots. The worst of Davies is light years ahead of the best of Moffat

Mike Taylor said...

That is plainly false. Voyage of the Damned is not, by any measure, better than The Empty Child.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Which RTD story did you have in mind that was light years ahead of Blink?

Nick M said...

Is ‘voyage of the damned’ better than Blink?

Brian's Coffee Spot said...

So, let me get this straight. I gave up watching Dr Who, what, three seasons ago? And you persauded me back for the last Capaldi season and got me interested in it again. And now you're pissing off and leaving me all on my own?

You utter, utter bastard.