Saturday, November 05, 2022

Chibnall and I (3)

 2: Spoilers

There were relatively few trailers or pre-publicity materials prior to the transmission of Power of the Doctor. This led to some fan conspiracy theories. (Everything leads to conspiracy theories.) Perhaps the BBC hated Chris Chibnall and positively wanted the show to fail; perhaps they didn't quite regard Jodie as a proper Doctor because she was a woman. Perhaps they just accepted that the era had been a failure and were now focussed on the 2024 relaunch under the steady hand of Russel T Davies.  Or perhaps they hated the fans and wanted to deprive them of the fun of speculating about new the story in advance of transmission. 

Or perhaps there were so few Doctor Who trailers because the BBC was woke.

It is perfectly true that we already know more about Ncuti Gatwa's debut, which is still a year away, than we did about Jodie Whittaker's swan-song the day before it was transmitted. But the explanation is probably boringly simple. Russell T Davies is good at publicity. One of my main complaints about his era was that he introduced "NEXT WEEK" trailers which tended to give away major plot twists, and advertised "surprise" villains on the cover of Radio Times. Chris Chibnall, who is probably more fannish, is also a lot more spoiler-averse.

Some people hate spoilers. Other people think that anything which can be spoiled with spoilers wasn't worth not spoiling to begin with. The Sixth Sense is exactly the same movie if you already knew that Janet Leigh takes her sledge into the shower as it would have been if you didn't.

My view is that "surprise" is one of a number of techniques that a writer can use to extract emotions from an audience. Gag-writing may not be the highest form of art, but that's no reason to give away the punch-line. Twists and stings in the tales can be good fun when they work. Serious writers sometimes make use of surprise as well: the very first time I saw King Lear, I was truthfully expecting it to have a happy ending.

I suppose there could be a moral point at stake here. Reading serious literature is good and improving. Reading lowbrow literature is wicked and degrading. Good literature is the kind of literature that is worth re-reading. Twist-ending stories only work once. If I tell you how a Tale of the Unexpected or one of Tharg's Future Shocks ends, all the enjoyment drains out of it. Which serves you righyt: you jolly well ought to have your fun spoiled as a punishment for liking such low-brow rubbish. 

Citizen Kane, which famously ends on a surprise revelation, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

There was a short trailer after The One With The Sea Devils that alerted us to the fact that Tegan and Ace, were going to guest-star in Jodie's reincarnation story.

Tegan is a former companion. She arrived in Tom Baker's last story, and stuck around for most of the Davison incumbency. Ace is also a former companion. She appeared alongside Sylvester McCoy in the final two seasons. The Seventh Doctor and Ace have a special place in the hearts of Doctor Who fans of a certain age. After the show was mercy-killed in 1989, they appeared in some thirty-five full length novels (and then a ludicrously large number of audio-CDs.) With Doctor Who off air, those novels -- the Virgin New Adventures -- were all there was. They worked very hard to present themselves as the continuation of Doctor Who by other means. Just as there are fans for whom the "real" Doctor will only ever be Matt Smith or Patrick Troughton, so there are some who think of those novels -- the so called Wilderness Years -- as "their" era. So the return of Ace is a pretty big deal.

Tegan appeared in the twentieth anniversary special, the Five Doctors, with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. She appeared with Colin Baker in the thirtieth anniversary skit, Dimensions in Time. She also appeared with Colin in a sketch about a little boy who wanted to be in Doctor Who, part of a TV show presented by a disc-jockey whose name can no longer be spoken. She has a fair claim to have appeared with more Doctors than any other actor.

After leaving the Doctor, Ace turns into a Time Lord. Or else she becomes a space-marine. Or possibly she goes respectable and runs a philanthropic organisation called A Charitable Earth. Tegan has a less established off-screen life, but a slightly mawkish epilogue to the Sarah Jane Adventures implied that she was gay and ended up in a relationship with Nyssa, who was last seen volunteering at a leper colony on a distant planet in a parallel universe.

So, of course, the trailer sent some sectors of fandom into overdrive. Ace and Tegan are coming back. We are going to find out what happens to them. Perhaps the New Adventures would be canonised; perhaps Tegan and Ace would become, er, canonically queer. Perhaps the A.C.E idea would be overwritten. It was really only a one-line gag in the Sarah-Jane adventures, although it was given a kind of canonicity in a minisode filmed to promote a Seventh Doctor box-set, but it never quite fitted in with anything we knew about TV Ace. At any rate: there was some hope that the destinies and futures of these characters would be explored, fan-fiction style.

But some of us boring old fans smiled wryly. Because Doctor Who just doesn't work like that.

What we actually got was two extended cameos. Sophie Aldred and Jan Fielding turn out to look a lot older than they did forty years ago. Actors who had supporting roles in the 1980s and haven't done much since turn out to look quite old fashioned and stagey alongside contemporary TV casts. They get brief meetings with the current Doctor. They each get a three minute scene with a holographic representation of "their" Doctor. Sixty year old Ace gets to wear the jacket she wore when she was a teenager; and biff some Daleks with a baseball bat, like she did in Remembrance of the Daleks. Ace mentions that she saw the Master turn into a cat. (Ooo, ooo, Survival! say fans) and the Master mentions Tegan's Auntie Vanessa (ooo, ooo, Logopolis!) and that's pretty much it. Quite good fun. But not a continuation of the story of Tegan and Ace. Because there really isn't one. 

There is, in fact, a story to be told about what it would be like to be an ex-Doctor Who companion: to have travelled all round the universe with God, and then been dropped off in Croydon and forced to pick up the threads of your life. School Reunion (a David Tennant tale) gestures towards a story of that kind, without actually telling it. Sarah Jane seemed to have led a slightly sad, unfulfilled life: everything after the Doctor had been a complete anti-climax. Russell T Davies always tended to use 'The Doctor' as a metaphor for Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom, and Sarah-Jane was to some extent a metaphor for the sad fan-boy who enjoyed a particular TV show so much that he wasted the rest of his life writing incredibly bloggy essays about it, very probably in his underpants. But this was clearly too much of a downer, and when Elisabeth Sladen fronted her own, (very good) children's TV show, it turned out that having travelled with the Doctor always results in your leading the most brilliant, wonderful, amazing, fantastic, life it is possible to imagine. Sarah-Jane acquired teenaged prodigies who were guaranteed brilliant, wonderful, amazing lives at one remove. Doctor Who is good for kids, it seems, but nostalgia is harmful for grown ups.

It's a story which can probably only be told once, and an actual episode of Doctor Who is probably not the right place to tell it. It probably needs to be tackled in a grown up novel by a grown up writer with the serial numbers filed off.  I could imagine a serious novel about a middle aged man in therapy because a psychotic vigilante dressed as a flying mammal trained him as a ninja a few hours after his parents died in a freak trapeze accident.. But it probably wouldn't make a great Batman cartoon. The alternative is to just keep doing School Reunion over and over again, with Liz Shaw and Dodo Chaplet rather than Sara-Jane. 

But where would be the point? They had miserable lives or they had fantastic lives; they had a secret they never shared with anyone else; or else they told everyone but weren't believed. They are ever-so-much older than twenty and have forgotten how to fly; but to live has been an awfully big adventure. They think their experiences with the Doctor were a delusion. Everyone else thinks their experiences with the Doctor were a delusion. They are interested in nothing but nylons, lipsticks and invitations.

To Chibnall's relative merit, he kept the other celebrity cameos in the Power of the Doctor a pretty perfectly guarded secret. And they were carried off with a certain amount of panache. When the Thirteenth Doctor encounters David Bradley playing William Hartnell playing the Doctor, I think that many an Old Fan went "mmmm" in the manner of one who has just been reminded of a brand of confectionary that they don't make anymore. And when he turned into Colin Baker and Peter Davison, the "mmm" may have developed into the sound that audiences make after an impressive instrumental interlude, kind of like "nice!" or even "¡Ole!": Paul McGann was more an occasion for punching the air and saying "Yes!" when your team has won an important match.

Jo Martin's cameo was less of a surprise. She's pretty much a character who only exists to appear in cameos. Some people really like her: but I think that what they really like is the principle of there being a black lady Doctor. Which I like too. But there's not enough to The Fugitive Doctor for me to feel enthusiastic about.

But the final moments before the Regeneration can only be said to have brought on a fully fledged fangasm. Yaz has been perfunctorily sent away from the TARDIS; but immediately encounters Graham (along with Dan, who perfunctorily left of his own accord at the beginning of the episode.) Together they go to some sort of hall or community center where a kind of support group for former companions of the Doctor is having its first meeting. We can see the characters who have appeared in this story: Yaz, Graham, Dan, Teagan, Ace, and Kate Stewart -- along with three much older people. Bonnie Langford. Katy Manning. And good lord can it actually be, William Russell. Mel, Jo and Ian. Ian who last appeared in Doctor Who some 58 years ago.

The idea of "support groups" has turned up in the The Boys and in several Marvel Universe films; where the point is that, in those worlds, having been injured by passing superheroes or abolished from existence by a glove-wielding alien demi-god is a relatively normal experience -- as normal as a PTSD group for Gulf War veterans or grief counselling for 11/9 survivors. The "support group" metaphor is a less good fit to the Doctor Who situation: meeting the Doctor is regarded as an exceptional and unique occurrence. There's no particular reason for the meeting to be happening in a community hall: if you took the Doctor Who universe seriously, you would expect UNIT or Torchwood to have provided an ultra-high-security venue for it. But the burden of this essay, and indeed this blog, is that the Doctor Who universe is impossible to take seriously. So let's just sit back and enjoy the irony of a companion support group being run like an Alcoholics Anonymous cell.

Chibnall is a fan, and he knows what he is doing. Characters who everyone loves, and also Bonnie Langford, appear on the screen for only a couple of seconds, and get barely half a line each. And that makes the sequence more special. By the time we've registered what's happening, it's over. It's really the equivalent of a Regeneration Flashback Montage, which happened twice in the original series but was retrospectively declared a Tradition.

If we had known in advance that Jo Jones (nee Grant) would be appearing in the Big Centenary Special we would have spent a year speculating about it, in which case the brief glimpse would have felt like a punch in the gut. The scene works because we didn't know it was coming. Now I have told you about it, I have ruined it. 

We know that Bernard Cribbins is appearing in the November 2023 special; and we think we know that the Celestial Toymaker and/or Beep the Meep are in it as well. I hope our guts remain collectively unpunched.

There could be a story about a lot of the Doctor's companions having a meet up. There could be a story about anything. I imagine that at this very moment official fan-fiction is slipping into place in which each of the Doctor's exes sit round and tell a story illustrating some aspect of their Doctor's character and showing how it changed them. And then they probably all go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. But this isn't that story. It's more like a Play School presenter reassuring the children that Humpty Dumpty wasn't hurt and the ten green bottles weren't broken after all. Don't be too sad. Jo Grant is okay. Yaz and Graham will do just fine. And there's a spare chair for Barbara and Sarah, just in case. 

We love these characters; we love Doctor who. A love that asks no questions. The point of the scene is to see Ian, and to be delighted that we are seeing Ian. And this jaded cynical blogger was as delighted as anyone. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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voxpoptart said...

My preferred version of post-Doctor Sarah Jane Smith, by far, is the investigative reporter who, with the aid of K-9, delved into the illegal international arms industry in Lawrence Miles's brilliant novel 'Interference'. Set in the late '90s, it is basically compatible with the later children's show, if one likes; and not at all with the bathetic and condescending 'School Reunion' (which I enjoyed as an episode of television but do not accept as some sort of Official Right Answer about her life).

I didn't think Ace-the-Space-Marine was a good idea, but I very much like the conclusion she got in Kate Orman's also-terrific novel 'Set Piece', where she ends up with limited time-and-space-teleporting ability that allows her to become a non-Time-Lord but resourceful guardian of those bits of Earth in the general 1850s-to-2100-or-so range that don't attack the Doctor's attention.

I haven't ever bothered to wonder how Tegan turned out. I liked her, but she was ordinary by design and intent, and seemed eager to return to that.

I like Bonnie Langford. The writing and direction she got was never her fault.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Nothing against Bonnie Langford, but she was woefully miscast.

dm said...

It's a minor point but it is so refreshing to read someone say that about the Jo Martin doctor, because I've felt like I've been watching a completely different show to the one other fans are watching when they say she was AMAZING in the role. There is nothing wrong with her performance, she's quite enjoyable, but there's so very little to go off in the programme. Reminds me of a slightly different and even less relevant point about people saying that McGann was AMAZING in the TV Movie. He was fine, but again there's almost nothing there. The most Doctor Who element of the TV Movie was, in fact, Eric Roberts. A B-List character actor having an absolute blast chewing the scenery while wearing a silly costume? That's MY Doctor Who.

Anton Binder said...

'They are interested in nothing but nylons, lipsticks and invitations'. Ah, the problem of Susan!

'Characters who everyone loves, and also Bonnie Langford'. Naughty!

Nice piece sir. Found myself agreeing with pretty much all of it