Friday, February 05, 2021

Not As Good As It Used To Be

"Oh, go back and watch Rose again" they said "I am sure that all the things you so dislike about Chris Chibnall were just as much problems in the Russell T. Davies era: you were just so excited about having Doctor Who back that you couldn't see them." You happened to be in the mood to like Doctor Who then and not in the mood to like it now. 

I remember watching Rose for the first time. Due to a catastrophic error of judgement I was living in Macclesfield. It seemed like a big deal: an event. Midnight showings of Star Wars movies were not yet an institution. Geek culture was not quite so mainstream. A company called Netflix sent me an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer each week in a cardboard envelope. 

We tend to see Shakespeare as a point of origin: we see the way he affected every writer who came after him, T.S Eliot and Ibsen and Bernard Shaw and Stan Lee. But we could also see him as an end point: we could read the Canterbury Tales and the York Mystery Play and the Castle of Perseverance and see how Shakespeare was the culmination of of everything which came before him. 

In 2005, Rose was a revival of the Old Series; interestingly distinct from the abortive American pilot; influenced by, without being a continuation of, the Virgin Books and the Big Finish CDs. (Big Finish became unwieldy and fan fictional and predictable and overwhelming but for six years it was all there was.) But now it is the origin of what Doctor Who became: it is primarily interesting because it prefigures Tennant and Capaldi and Moffat and Chibnall. 

So, I watched Rose again. 

The main thing which strikes me about it, compared with the new series, is its exuberance: Russell T Davies' sheer joy in invention, in creating fun stuff and putting it on the screen, of having more ideas than he can squeeze into 45 minutes. From one point of view, there isn't that much to it. A big plastic amoeba is living under the London Eye; it brings plastic dummies and a wheelie bin to life with its big plastic amoeba rays and the Doctor destroys it with his big-plastic-amoeba-destroying potion. But from another point of view, it is bursting at the seams: the introduction of Rose and Mickey as ordinary people; the montage of Rose's day at work; the tiny little character cameos with her mum; Rose stuck in the basement with the zombie dummies; Rose meeting the crazy mystery man; Rose meeting up with a crazy conspiracy theorist off the internet.... There is something extravagant about the way R.T.D introduces a funny character called Clive and kills him off before the end of the episode. 

The things which annoyed me at the time now seem to be part and parcel of this narrative profligacy. In 2005 I believe I said that the animated wheelie bin indicated that the series was not taking itself seriously. There cannot possibly be any story internal reason for it to belch; and the idea that Rose can't spot that Mickey is a replicant undermines her whole character. And I still don't really know, narratively, what is supposed to have happened. Mickey falls into a plastic bin, and is next seen semi-conscious in the aliens' base. Did the wheelie bin trundle home with Noel Clarke inside it? And where did Auton-Mickey come from. Has the Nestene Consciousness been reimagined as a plastic Mysteron, possessing the ability to recreate the exact likeness of an object or person, providing they have destroyed it first? 

But in retrospect, this is all part of the fun. The opening scene, in which the auton dummies come to life in the basement of the shop where Rose works, is genuinely scary. (I think the trick is that Davis first makes us think about how frightening it would be to be accidentally stuck in a shop basement overnight, before adding the fantasy element of the plastic zombies.) But the scene in which Rose eats pizza with the evil robot Mickey -- and Mickey starts to glitch, and his hands turn into shovels and the Doctor rips his head off -- has shifted to something much closer to Scooby Doo. 

"Why does the Consciousness's ability to animate plastic also give it the ability to remould it like silly putty?"

"Because I say so." 

This lack of world building -- this lack of interest in world building -- will come to undermine the New Who project. But for now, the idea that one forty five minute story can modulate between soap opera (Rose and Mickey), horror (the auton scenes), slapstick (the pizza), science fiction (the TARDIS scenes) and Indiana Jones action (the climax) is exhilarating. 

And it's a very good way of selling Doctor Who to millennial audiences. Remember that TV series your granddad used to like in the 1980s? The one with the impenetrable sci fi jargon, the thirty year back story, the theatrical overacting and the primitive special effects? Well, it's nothing like that. 

It doesn't rely on Whovian iconography. The TARDIS interior doesn't look like the TARDIS interior; the title sequence doesn't look like the Doctor Who title sequence, and the theme tune doesn't sound like the Doctor Who theme tune. Only the 1950s phone box gives us a hint that we have come to the right place. We fans know that the scene in the shopping centre is a riff on Spearhead From Space, but no-one else does. How very tempting it must have been to drop a Dalek into that very first episode, and how very sensible it was not to do so. 

Davies proceeds on the assumption that we don't know who the Doctor is: everything is resolutely presented from Rose's point of view. And he doesn't give any pat, elevator pitch explanations -- "I'm a Time Lord"; "I travel in Time and Space"; "I travel around the universe fighting monsters." Instead we get an exposition of the Doctor's alien consciousness."We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go we die. That's who I am. " (Eccleston had previously played Steve Baxter, a very ordinary man who happened to be carrying God in his head, in Davies' 2003 series The Second Coming.) This could have been irritating: "Yes Russell: we know who the Doctor is already; can we please cut to the chase." But the script's refusal to take anything for granted means we fall in love with the idea of Doctor Who all over again. 

Of course, we can't possibly do a "cold reading" of Rose: Chistopher Eccleston's picture was on the cover of the Radio Times, on the side of busses, on every poster-hoarding in London. But the episode is directed at an imaginary viewer who might be surprised when the youngish brash Northern guy in the leather jacket says "I'm the Doctor, by the way", in the same way someone in 1966 might theoretically have been unable to accept that Patrick Troughton was now playing William Hartnell. 

How can you be the Doctor? I know what a Doctor looks like, and you aren't it?

Rose's question about the Doctor's accent doesn't really admit of a good answer: other planets may have a North, but presumably relatively few of them have a Salford. (We readily accept a Lancastrian Doctor, a Scottish Doctor and a Received Pronunciation Doctor but some of us apparently still find a Black Doctor too much of a stretch.) 

"Bigger on the inside than the outside" is somewhere between a catch phrase and a cliche: but RTD holds off showing us the TARDIS interior for as long as possible. We get a reaction shot from Rose before we see the control room for ourselves. The theoretically ignorant viewer would be thinking "What has she seen? What is so surprising about that phone box?" even though the answer has been spoiled by thirty years of history and a three page fold out in the Radio Times. 

Rose is surprised when the TARDIS moves. She is surprised when the Doctor says that it can go anywhere in the universe. And brilliantly, the one thing which everyone knows, the unique selling point of Doctor Who, is held back and delivered as a punch line. "Did I mention it also travels in Time?" 

This is a sales pitch: the idea of Doctor Who, shorn of its baggage, presented to people who didn't know they cared. 

It doesn't feel like a reboot. The McGann cul de sac downloaded a lot of post Deadly Assassin backstory, giving the impression that a fan had explained Doctor Who to an American executive who wasn't fully paying attention. We now know that they had built a backstory out of the wreckage of the original series, a Journey of the Hero in which Rassilon's half human son tries to stop his evil brother from changing history. 

Rose gives the impression, not that we are starting over, but that we are resuming after an interruption. The Doctor has spent seventeen years doing stuff we don't know about, and we have now crossed over with him and are going to have to pick up the threads. That's how everyone else interacts with the Doctor. Rose and Mickey and as it will eventually turn out Sarah-Jane see fragments of his life, non-sequentially. Clive the conspiracy theorist is trying to put the fragments together; to see the Doctor as we viewers, on the outside, see him. By the end of the episode, Rose knows what we know, or think we do: he's an alien, he travels in Time and Space, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside. But we have discovered there is another layer to be unpicked: stuff about the Doctor which nobody knows. It turns out that references to "the war" are foreshadowing a multi-season story arc, whereas "the shadow proclamation" is pure lore-babble. But it hardly matters: we know stuff about the Doctor that Rose doesn't know; but the Doctor knows stuff about himself that no-one knows. "I was there. I fought in the war. It wasn't my fault. I couldn't save your world! I couldn't save any of them!" This counts for more than twenty volumes of Looms and Dark Times and Others. 

I suppose that if Mickey were introduced to the series today, the alt-right orthodoxy would condemn him as "woke". And I imagine that R.T.D made a positive decision that the pretty white lady would have a nice black boyfriend: a conscious piece of diversity in what had previously been a rather aggressively caucasian show. This was before racists had developed a vocabulary (cancel/ woke / identity politics) which allowed them to say that black people shouldn't appear on TV without actually saying that black people shouldn't appear on TV. I don't say that the UK was less racist in 2005 than it is in 2021; but I do say that racists had not yet infiltrated Doctor Who fandom. 

It was said at the time that a similar American series would probably not have featured a white heroine with a black boyfriend; but that if it had done so, it would certainly not have depicted the boyfriend as such an unmitigated idiot. Noel Clark is a fine actor and Mickey is a funny character and I think I preferred him as a comedic foil than as a Cyberman slaying hero. But I do feel uncomfortable with the final scenes. It is completely appropriate for Mickey to be traumatized by what has happened: it needs to be made clear to the audience that the Autons have manifested in the normal world; a world where aliens and robots and replicants are completely not normal. It is completely appropriate and in character for Rose to have to support him -- to affectionately refer to him as a useless lump. But there is something unfortunately simian about the way he clings to her leg. I am sure it wasn't intentional. I take it that the actor didn't mind. But I do think it's a glitch. 

Rose was the first Doctor Who in 16 years (or 12, or 9, or 6 depending on how strict you are about canon.) It was our last chance of Doctor Who continuing into the future. Now it is one of 147 episodes of a series which is almost certain to stretch on to the crack of doom. Rose was a pitch and a promise: if it had failed Doctor Who would have receded into the same limbo as Star Cops and the Tomorrow People. Revolution of the Daleks was a more or less workmanlike attempt to carry the baton for a few hundred yards without tripping up or dropping it. If we like it, fair enough. If we don't, then they'll be another one along in a minute. But we can no more be excited about Revolution of the Daleks than about digestive biscuits or PG Tips tea. Perpetual revolution is neither possible nor desirable. But TV shows die when they become complacent.

"Oh, go back and watch some Tom Baker stories" they said "I am sure that all the things which annoy you about New Who were just as much problems in the Classic Era. I shouldn't think Phillip Hinchcliffe could sustain the level of scrutiny you are directing at Russel T Davies." 

Hindsight isn't as good as it used to be. Nostalgia is always 2020. 

The Viewer's Complete Tale


Richard Worth said...

I would suggest that there are perhaps two blends of 'Who': the outward-facing version which appeals to casual viewers,and the inward-facing version which appeals to fans. Younger or foreign viewers could watch 'Rose' without knowing about floppy scarves. I am not sure anyone could watch 'The Pandorican Opens' and 'The Big Bang', or 'A good man goes to war' without a lot of back-story, and perhaps a diagram. However, 'Rose' did not have to bench-mark against a dozen years of later episodes: it was as new and fresh-smelling as a flower? Later episodes (for your purposes, probably anything with Clara Oswald) did have to benchmark against 'Rose', and began to look tired and formulaic. 'School Reunion' raised a challenging issue of how loyal the Doctor is to each of his companions: a few years later his loyalty becomes a given. The Cybermen of 'The Age of Steel' were menacing, the Cybermen of 'The Timeless Child' were a re-hash like 'Dracula meets Frankenstein's Werewolf'. I would suggest that the seam of genuinely new 'New Who' is mined out, and it is time to prospect elsewhere.

Clarrie said...

"I don't say that the UK was less racist in 2005 than it is in 2021; but I do say that racists had not yet infiltrated Doctor Who fandom."

(With apologies if I'm missing a joke) I actually found that line quite startling, so much does it differ from my pre-2005 experience. Dr Who fandom as I've experienced it from the early '90s onwards has always felt roughly split down the middle between those whom the appeal was (excuse slightly reductive descriptions) progressive/liberal escapism and those for whom the appeal was nostalgic/conservative escapism. With a solid chunk of the latter group being extremely openly racist, sexist and homophobic.

I'd have actually considered that 'two parallel fandoms' nature of it one of the defining characteristics of Who fandom. Much like Folk music and, nowadays, Warhammer.

Andrew Rilstone said...


My interaction with fandom was primarily reading DWAS fanzines (in the 70s) and (in the 90s). I recognise the split between "liberal escapism" and "nostalgic escapism" very much. Whether it was declaring Doctor Who dead because Deadly Assassin contradicted established canon; or feeling that the more experimental New Adventures were not really Doctor Who at all. And definitely, there is a thin line between saying "If it doesn't have Jon Pertwee in it, then I don't want to know" and saying "Things, in general, were better in 1972 before the invention of feminism and homosexuals". I'm not personally remembering any openly racist or homophobic stuff, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. (Some of the language used about John Nathan-Turner wasn't very nice.)

I guess what I'm noticing is the weaponization of fan nostalgia by the alt-right post-Gamergate. I don't think the language which said "A formerly male character is being played by a female; this is obviously part of a conspiracy to wipe out men" existed in 2005. Possibly the overt racists hang out on overtly racist forums where we could ignore them; but now they feel empowered to say "I am not a racist, but the real racism is the shadowy forces who have compelled to the BBC to cast Tosin Cole as Ryan simply on the basis of the colour of his skin..."

Or maybe the Twitter is just like C.S Lewis's third class railway carriages. ("What with there being a war on, the kinds of people who write for newspapers are taking the train more often, and overhearing what ordinary people say about the news. But this is exactly what ordinary people have always said about the news: it's just that the opinion-formers haven't heard it before." I paraphrase.)

Pete Ashton said...

I was just reading something about Organic Fascism and the tendency for modern-day back-to-the-land hippies to morph into right-wing preppers, and I'm wondering, maybe it's not the stuff-of-interest that's at fault but something more fundamental, like the means of talking about the stuff? [ponder face...]

Gavin Burrows said...

I would say there is a distinction between the conservative fans and the alt.right, even if it gets blurry round the edges.

The classic example being of course ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’, so let's go straight there. Conservative fans are hostile to the notion it might contain unconsidered racist assumptions. To the degree they must surely realise at some level they have their own unconsidered racist assumptions, and if they start to consider them in their favourite show they’d have to start considering them in themselves. Their mantra is “why do you have to go looking into things? Why can’t you leave them as they are?”

With the alt.right, I am scarcely the first to say that you always know what they’re up to, because it’s what they’re accusing you of being up to. When they accuse us of having a “woke agenda’, what they really want to colonise culture with their agenda. They wouldn’t be content if people just stopped criticising ‘Talons’. They’d want every Who story to have a racist agenda, and a consciously promulgated one. Rather than leave things as they are, they see the show as a piece of territory they want to take over, and plant their flag.

The distinction is between bad and worse. But still a distinction.

On the other hand, I was always more involved with comics than with ‘Who’ fandom. So I can’t overlook the possibility I simply escaped the most toxic stuff. And there’s always the friendship bias. The folk scene, for example, I would say is very, very white but also quite anti-racist. Even if that anti-racism is often at quite a naive level.

Pete, is your point the internet itself incubated the alt.right?

Mike Taylor said...

"Oh, go back and watch Rose again" they said "I am sure that all the things you so dislike about Chris Chibnall were just as much problems in the Russell T. Davies era."

A while ago, I found myself wondering whether exactly this was true of myself, and if I was remembering the Eccleston/Tennant/Smith eras through rose-coloured neurons. So I watched a much of series-one episodes an the answer was a very solid no: measured against current Doctor Who, the 2005 version really was a much, much better show. Do click though and read my thoughts if interested, but to summarise: 2005 version surpassed the present incarnation in its Doctor, in its Companion, in pacing, and most of all in integrity.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that alt-right are consciously engaged in performance art. They honestly believe in the SJWs and the Woke Mob and the Political Correctness Brigade, and believe that they can disarm them by acting out a parody. They are an extreme inversion of a bogey person they have largely made up in their own heads. They truly believe that there is a plot to ban white people from television, so they pretend that they want to ban black people from television. They truly believe that if a statue is taken down it mean that a "woke mob" is trying to "destroy society"; so they form a literal mob and try to literally destroy the center of their government. You see it in a smaller way all the time "Well, maybe I am offended because Private Eye DOESN'T print cartoons of the prophet Mohammed"; "Having mostly black singers competing in a gospel music competition proves that the BBC institutionally hates white people: "If you are allowed to call me a 'Star Trek Fan' then I must logically be allowed to call you a n.....r". Etc. Etc. Etc.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Watching End of the World (which is less objectively good than Rose) I am very struck by how Billie Piper is in a different league from everyone who has come after her. Not only is Rose a much stronger and more interesting character; but Piper is treating it as an acting role, not a Doctor Who role: she remains a twenty something shop worker who for some reason has been transported to an alien space ship even when the script isn't talking about that aspect of her character. (Eccleston is very good as well: but it is Piper's show.)

Mike Taylor said...

Well, I can't quite accept "Billie Piper is in a different league from everyone who has come after her" — I am thinking here of Amy and Rory — but otherwise I agree entirely. It's as though the sixteen-year hiatus allowed time for "Doctor Who Companion" concept to dissolve, so that the Piper was able to create something new, whereas as most subsequent companions seem to be consciously fulfilling a Doctor Who Companion archetype.