Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (10)

People sometimes say that something is "so bad it's good", but that's hardly ever true. Plan Nine From Outer Space, often said to be the worst movie ever made, isn't so bad it's good: it's so bad it's incredibly boring. It does sometimes happen that someone spectacularly fails to do what he set out to do (say, write edifying, tragic poetry) but inadvertently succeeds in doing something quite different (say, writing comic verse). That's why we still read William McGonogal: the things he does by accident -- bathos, mixed metaphors, mismatches between subject matter and tone -- are exactly what a skilled comedian does to raise a laugh. And it's all the funnier because he doesn't know it's funny: skilled comedians never do. (Except I think he probably does. I think that, far from being the World's Worst Poet, he was a clever man who knew precisely what he was doing.) [*]

There are people who get pleasure at watching someone fail at something: people who go along to the talent competition in order to laugh at the guy who can't sing a note. But that's really only one step up from picking on the fat kid who came last in the sack race. There were bullies who liked to laugh at Doctor Who's shortcomings. One of them was head of the BBC from 1984 to 1987. But I don't think that's what people who think that its home made quality was part of its charm are talking about.

There was a very good story called Kinda which famously contained a very bad monster: a giant pink snake that was obviously a puppet. I do not think that the giant pink snake was so bad it was good. I do not think that the giant pink snake was "part of Kinda's charm". I think that the giant pink snake represented a weakness in the script. I think that it was a mistake for the metaphorical, psychological evil to manifest in physical form in the first place, and certainly a mistake for the physical form to be a giant pink snake. The DVD version replaced the unconvincing puppet with a more convincing CGI animation. This did not remove any of the charm from the story. It didn't improve the story very much, either. It was a giant pink snake. 

Christopher Bailley (the writer of Kinda) was reportedly disappointed with the way in which his story was mounted. It was, snake apart, a pretty polished and professional piece of work. But he felt that the jungle planet looked like a garden centre and the natives looked like extras in a shampoo advertisement. The sequel, Snakedance looked fabulous; but it still looked like a fabulous stage set, not a fabulous alien planet.

It's interesting to try to imagine Kinda being remade today. Exactly the same script, mind you, but location work in a real jungle, actors who really look like aboriginal natives -- or, better yet, CGI aliens, possibly with blue skin. I don't know if this would remove any of the episode's "charm", but I do think it would change the whole tone of the exercise. I think that dialogue which worked fine when spoken by BBC actors in a studio would seem stilted and artificial on a location shoot; I think that the whole idea of an alien worlds being used as the crucible for an experimental morality play would be harder to swallow if we half-believed that this really was an alien world we were looking into. For one thing, our attention would be focused on the wonderfully convincing alien shrubbery, when it ought to have been focussed on the script.

Gerry Anderson died recently. I used to love Thunderbirds. It was always on on Sunday lunchtimes. The episodes weren't shown in any particular order. I swear they showed that one where the explorers get stuck in the alien pyramid twice in three weeks. I remember the boy next door saying that he would like Thunderbirds better if it was real -- people rather than puppets, he meant. I think that he had missed the point of Thunderbirds. If you are going to make a series in which spaceships fly to the sun and property developers physically move the Empire State Building, and where skyscrapers, space ships and pyramids can be guaranteed to explode before the third advert break, then the thing has to be done with models. Most of the time, we couldn't literally see the strings, but it was important that we could see them metaphorically. It's not that the machines are unconvincing: they are incredibly convincing. The best models anyone has ever made; far better than anything Doctor Who ever had. But still obviously models. That was the point. Gerry Anderson had better toys than we did, but they were toys and he was letting us play with them for an hour. 

And isn't that what people mean when they talk about Doctor Who's homespun quality being part of its charm. Sometimes, the special effects were genuinely bad; more often, they were pretty good; but  they always looked like something someone had made. It was never really true that the sets wobbled: no more so than in any other TV show of the era, anyway. But it is true that there was an awful lot of running down corridors. And the line "all these corridors look the same to me" really did turn up: and not always ironically. And we all understood the reason: it was filmed in a studio; there were a finite number of sets available, so you couldn't always construct an impressive location for an expository scene to happen in, so you had one all purpose length of corridor and put the minor scenes there. 

This, particularly in the Baker era, created a feeling that there was no real geography, no transitions: Tom could pop up wherever he needed to be, wandering about spaceships and nuclear bases with apparent impunity. That capacity to walk into the boss's room and say "I'm the Doctor, this is Romana, would you like a jelly baby?" is far more believable in a universe which we know (deep down) consists of six sets, one corridor, and no space in between them one which plausibly consists of the whole of London, if not the whole of space and time.  The Doctor, like Gandalf, has the capacity to be always exactly where he needs to be. New Who uses, and overuses, devices like psychic paper and the bloody sonic screwdriver to explain how he gets there. In Old Who, he didn't need them so much. We accepted, at some level, that he was in a model universe which someone had built and he could, when he needed to, simply nip behind the scenery.  

So, then: the child man who is both inside and outside your TV is also both inside and outside of the scripts. He knows he's in a play; he knows the walls are really just flats, and he can nip backstage, look behind the backdrop, slip between the cracks. That character is easier to believe in if his world, at some level, looks like a stage set. Looks like something someone has made.

What I am describing as the texture of Doctor Who was -- of course -- the result of the physical limitations of low budget TV. Clearly, nothing of that texture can possibly survive in a programme made on a high budgie, with your newfangled CGI special effects and good actors and well written scripts. And I am not suggesting that it should. The idea that New Who should be made on the same shoestring as Old Who is as silly as the idea that all children should listen to Dick Barton and there should be no TV cookery show but Fanny Craddock. But the idea of the Doctor became what it was because, or partly because, of the physical limitations of the show, and it was, in the end, that idea which made people like Doctor Who in a way that no-one has ever loved any other television programme. 

So it's to Matt Smith we have to look: has he found a away of embodying the idea of the Doctor -- both child and adult; both inside you TV and outside it; both real and fictional; not bound by the script -- in this new modern thing? 

Or is just doing a funny affectionate portrait of a clever autistic man trying to form relationships that Benedict Cumberbatch does much better in Sherlock? 

Mr C.S Lewis once wrote an essay called "Hamlet - The Prince or the Poem?" He argued that critics were too keen to focus on the psychology of the Hamlet himself, a subject that Shakespeare was demonstrably uninterested in, and fail to talk about the structural ambiance of the actual play. (This theory was one of the chief causes of Planet Narnia.) 

So I guess I could have called this essay "Doctor Who: The TV Show or the Time Lord?" Or "The Corridor or the Cosmos?"

Actually, the title it really needed is the one which Andrew Hickey has already taken. "So, Do I Even Like Doctor Who?"

And I could probably have kept it shorter by giving the answer "Yes. Oh yes." 

[*] e.g But accidents will happen by land and by sea
Therefore, to save ourselves from accidents, we needn’t try to flee
For whatsoever God has ordained will come to pass
For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or a piece of glass.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (9)

Everyone knows that, on December 25th 1965, in the seventh episode of The Dalek Master Plan, William Hartnell "broke the fourth wall", appearing to turn to camera and say "A Merry Christmas To All of You At Home." 

In a small way, and in the margins of the Who-text, there is quite a lot of this "acknowledging the audience" stuff -- think of Tom Baker looking into camera and bursting out laughing when he opens up K-9 Mark II at the end of Invasion of Time; or being warned of the return of the Daleks by a BBC continuity announcer. Think of Patrick Troughton warning the viewers that their mummies and daddies might find this weeks episode too frightening; or even Sylvester McCoy winking at us from the title sequence. 

Think also of the blurring of the line between actor and character. Think of Jon Pertwee explaining the Whomobile to Peter Purves on Blue Peter; think of William Hartnell being followed around by children as if he was the Pied Piper; think of Tom Baker...well, just think of Tom Baker. William Hartnell's Christmas greeting may or may not have been ad libbed -- but Tom Baker really did make up his own lines, and the more lines he made up, the more like Tom Baker the Doctor became. If it wasn't quite clear whether it was Tom Baker or Doctor Who signing your book at the school fete, it was equally unclear whether the person playing chess with K-9 or suddenly taking up oil painting was the Doc or Tom. 

Television is weird. The word, as a great man said, is half Greek and half Latin. It's a piece of furniture which sits in the corner of your living room, in front of the proverbial sofa. But it's also as magical as a Narnian wardrobe. Valerie Singleton used to talk about whisking us away "through the magic of television" to the Ivory Coast or France or whatever exotic location she had visited during the summer recess. We had a strange, intimate relationship with TV presenters, which we never presumed to have with the movie "stars". They wore smart suits, talked politely, and regarded themselves (they sometimes used the phrase) as guests in your home. Everyone knows the story about how, one evening in 1977, Doctor Tom became literally the guest in strange families home. It may not be true: but if it wasn't true, it would have been necessary to invent it, and it's an important truth about Tom that stories like that cluster around him. We feel that the TV screen is permeable; if we are looking at the TV presenter, then surely he must be looking back at us. Kids shows like Play School were built on the conceit that Brian Cant and Chloe Aschcroft were relating to the audience on a one-to-one basis: they would pretend to be otherwise occupied, look up in mock surprise and greet the viewer as if he had just arrived in their house; or else they would pretend to be able to hear them joining in with the songs and nursery rhymes they were singing. Dixon of Dock Green did a similar thing. (Speak to the audience, I mean, not recite nursery rhymes.) 

Sometimes, the metaphor seems to be that the magic box in the corner is taking us to strange places; sometimes the presenters seem to be visiting us in our world; sometimes we are asked to imagine that we are visiting them in theirs. 

The magic window. The box that we are both inside and outside at the same time. Transcendental.

The analogy between the TARDIS and the television was made quite explicit by William Hartnell's Doctor: not only did he say that the bigger-inside-than-outside phenomenon was like showing a picture of a skyscraper on a nine inch TV screen, but when the TARDIS refused to go where he wanted it to, he claimed that the horizontal hold was malfunctioning. (Horizontal Hold was the bane of old black and white TVs, which used to make the screen scroll three minutes before your favourite show was about to come on.) The opening credits, which became a tunnel and then merely a starscape, were originally completely abstract, and resembled nothing so much as the random snow and interference you would have seen on an old fashioned TV which wasn’t working properly. Very similar imagery was used in the Outer Limits, which made the connection quite explicit. 


Monday, April 08, 2013

Nothing is more ungentlemanly than

Exaggeration, causing needless pain,

It's worse than spitting, and it stamps a man

Deservedly with other men's disdain.

Weigh human actions carefully. Explain

The worst of them with clarity. Mayhap

There were two sides to that affair of Cain

And Judas was a tolerable chap.


Who Remembered Hills (8)

But, of course, I left two rather important items off my list of things which I like about old Who. Let's add them now:
  • Tom
  • Baker

I liked his wit. I liked his floppy hat. I liked his teeth. I liked the way he was clever enough to get away with being cheeky in the face of authority. 

I didn't, in fact, particular care about his jelly babies. I liked them  -- and of course this is a Type 3 interpretation which I could not have articulated at the time [*]  -- but only because because they were tangible expressions of the Doctorness of the Doctor. He's a grown up, but he has childish, old fashioned sweets in his pockets. My grandfather had sweets in his pocket, but they were serious grown up sweets like extra strong mints and liquorice. [**]

That is why Peter Davison never really worked for me. The jelly babies encapsulated the idea of the schoolboy pretending to be a grown up or the grown up pretending to be a school boy. The stick of celery, not so much. But if we are actually going to find some continuing essence of Doctor Who, that's the place we need to be looking. In the central, Peter Pan conceit. There is a temptation to come over all Joseph Campbell and say that the Doctor is the embodiment of a universal jungian archetype: trickster of somesuch. But he really isn't. He's just a man who thinks that there is no point in being grown up if you can't sometimes be childish.

We think of the yo-yo's and sherbet lemons as being mainly part of the Second Doctor's era. And it is true that Troughton is the definitive Doctor, in the sense of having defined the role for everyone who came after him. Hartnell had been a patronizing old man: almost the first thing Ian had said to him was "Doctor, you are treating us like children." But the child-like thing was already there, despite, perhaps because, he was "really" an old man. It's the first thing the makers of the Really Awful Dalek Movie latch onto when they want a single image to tell new readers what Doctor Who is like. In the opening scene, "Susan" is discovered reading Physics for the Inquiring Mind; , "Barbara" reading The Science of Science and "Doctor Who" reading...the Eagle. ("Most exciting, most exciting.")

"But Andrew: saying that Tom Baker is the best Doctor and that the true essence of Doctor Who is jelly babies tells us nothing except that you were born in 1965. Everyone knows that the Golden Age of Doctor Who is 'about twelve'. All this talk of atmosphere and texture really amounts to a set of audio visual cues which remind you of your last year in junior school. Everybody thinks that the popular culture they grew up with this the best popular culture."

Actually, what everyone thinks is that the popular culture they grew up with is the correct popular culture; the way popular culture would be if political correctness hadn't gone mad. I don't intellectually believe that vinyl is better than MP3: in fact I have never owned a turntable in my life. But it is still obvious that, in the natural order of things, music lives on heavy black discs. I still refer to my music collection as 'records'. (I also say "hang up the phone" and "pull the chain".) I was brought up to believe that English children had enjoyed Dick Barton and Muffin the Mule since the time of Alfred the Great at least, and that my generation had broken the apostolic succession by turning to Rentaghost. Our generation has done the same thing: Blue Peter is obviously part of the natural order of things and has to be kept going at all costs, even though the young folks show no interest i it. (Who cared, or noticed, when the Dandy ceased publication?)

But it must be the case that some things are better than other things; and some things are better than some other things at some particular times. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had to contend with some of the very worst popular music that there has ever been. (Garry Glitter, the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers.) We had a very bland light entertainment culture, give or take an Eric and Ernie. (Val Doonican, for crying out loud. Little and Large. The Black and White actual Minstrels.) On the other hand we lived at a time when Oliver Postgate was creating miniature worlds at the rate of approximately one a year; Blue Peter was being presented by Valjean and Pete and the Wombles and Magic Roundabout weren't half-bad either. If I had had my wish to be born in the 1955, I'd have lived through the Golden Age of pop music and the Totally Forgotten Age of Children's TV. 

I don't think Bagpuss was great because I happen to have been a kid when it was on; I just happen to have been a kid when the best children's programme ever made was being transmitted. Actually I was rather too old for Bagpuss, but that proves my point. I think. How many people have you ever heard claiming that Busy Lizzie was the greatest children's programme of all time?

Tom Baker is not the greatest because he was "my Doctor". But one of the reason that the expression "my Doctor" has gone on meaning something to me for more than thirty years is that I happen to have been twelve years old when the role of the Doctor was being played by the person who most perfectly embodied the part. 

"Embodied" being the operative word. You can't say "Jon Pertwee is playing the same character as William Hartnell, only younger" in the way that you probably can say "Roger Moore is playing the same character as Sean Connory, only worse." The different Doctors are different takes on the idea of the Doctor, and the notion that there is an idea of the Doctor that needs different people to embody it has increasingly been written into the metaphysics of the programme itself. 

I don't know what Patrick Troughton thought he was doing when he played the Doctor. He was probably the kind of actor who didn't think that he was doing anything except remembering his lines and not bumping into the scenery. But I have a strong sense of his Doctor being multiple. When the Second Doctor fools around with a recorder or passes round a bag of sherbet lemons, he isn't playing a role -- pretending to be stupid so people underestimate him. It's really him. He likes the toys and the sweets and the silly hats. But when he confronts the War Chief on his own terms, or makes that series-defining speech about how some areas of the universe have bred the most terrible things, he seems to be something else as well; or instead; or mostly. It's as if sherbet-lemons-Doctor has slipped under cosmic-entity-Doctor, or Sherbet-lemons is floating on a big sea of Cosmic. Which applies to jelly-babies-Doctor and fast-cars-and-gadgets Doctor and bow-tie-and-fez Doctor as well. The trouble with cricket-whites Doctor was the lack of conviction that there was anything very much going on beneath or alongside the stick of celery. 

Every attempt to sum up the Doctorness of the Doctor gets you involved in obvious banalities -- that he always does what is right, that he prefers to solve problems without the use of violets, that his dress sense is questionable at best. True but unhelpful. (Christopher Eccleston rather pointedly avoided all the superficial Doctor signifiers, but was clearly the Doctor. Tennant was full of Edwardian mannerisms, but just didn't seem to get it.) 

So I don't insist on my child-man thing. I merely throw it up in the air.

And I am going to make one other, very tentative, stab in the dark.

Part and parcel of the Doctor's child/man persona is that he transcends categories. He is both real and fictional; inside and outside the TV set; able to break the rules because to some extent he knows he's in a story. And that's what people who say "oh, the home-made quality is part of the charm" are groping towards.


[*] and yes, that is a Type Two comment: do you want me to draw you a venn diagram?

[**] Grown ups bought sweets like that because they smoked and needed to clear their breath. That has literally only just occurred to me. 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (7)

It would be very easy to make a list of thing which Star Trek had in common with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  • Series of fifty minute episodes 
  • Humanistic in outlook 
  • Idealized humans encountered aliens who were mainly characterized by cultural differences. 
  • Human / alien conflicts generally settled peacefully 
  • Conflicts involve a moral dilemma without a right answer 
  • Often involved not-very subtle metaphors for some contemporary issue 
  • Had Gene Roddenbury at the helm

I could, if you wished, add to that list:

  • Included characters called 'Vulcans' 
  • Included characters called 'Klingons 
  • Space ships said to have 'warp drive'

And I suppose that there are people who like Star Trek because it contains Vulcans, Klingons and warp drives; who will put the Star Trek label on anything with Vulcans, Klingons and warp drives and who will take it for granted that anything with the label Star Trek on it is great, even if it even if it re-imagines Captain Kirk as James fucking Dean. But they are wrong. Love it or hate it Star Trek is a type of story; an approach to story telling. You could cut out all the window dressing and still be left with something that was recognisably Star Trek. Abrams cut out everything that was recognisably Star Trek, left us with the window dressing, or at least a sort of parody version of the window dressing, and has now been commissioned to destroy Star Wars as well.

If we tried to do the same exercise with New Who and Old Who, we wouldn't get very far. 

  • Hero is an alien 
  • Travels through time and space 
  • Travels with pretty ladies.  
  • Helps people 
  • Mostly helps people foil alien invasions. 

Or, in fact:

  • Hero travels around and does stuff.

Not much to go on, is it? 

The best definition anyone has so far come up with is "it's all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism" which doesn't get us that much further. And it is the council of despair to say "The essence of Doctor Who is that its essence constantly changing" or "The essence of Doctor Who is that it doesn't have an essence". That's too much like one of those dreadful politicians who say "The French are characterized by their liking for good food; the Arabs by their hospitality; the Japanese by their honour; but the English are characterised by not having a national character but putting up with French, Japanese and Arab johnnies with their funny foreign ideas about food and etiquette." 

So we fall back on characteristics like 

  • Has Silurians 
  • Has Daleks 
  • Has Cybermen
  • Has Tardis
  • Has Sonic Screwdriver
  • Has Time Lords

And cool as some of the Doctor Who window dressing undoubtedly was, and indeed is, the fact that I used to like a TV series in which there was a blue police box with a control room inside it is not much guarantee that I will like a new series in which there is a blue police box with a completely different control room inside it. Some fans do talk as if the presence of some icon or bit of jargon from the old series is a sacred guarantor that New Who is still carrying the torch of Old Who and that there is some corner of a foreign field which is forever 1976. Which is why "Will there be any old monsters?" is such a totemic question. From the beginning of the 1980s, the old show had a fan adviser (cough, cough, Ian Levine, cough, cough) who would ensure that magic words like "UNIT" and "fluid link" were sometimes uttered by Peter Davison. The show honouring its history, they called it. For half a season, we were all ecstatic. Then it got cancelled.


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. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (5)

So what, in fact, do we like about it? A short list would surely go something like this:

  • We like the Daleks. The Daleks are design classic. Watching the Daleks gliding across the floor and bullying Romana is cool.
  • We like the silliness of it. We like the banter. We like the arbitrary craziness of someone trying on new bodies in the way that they would try on new clothes (and the way that it hardly has anything to do with the story.) Our response to the regeneration scene while we are watching it is surely "Whay! It's silly, and it's not like anything else that there's ever been on TV!" "Hmm, what does that say about Time Lord culture and history, and how can it be reconciled with Brian of Morbius?" comes days or years later, if at all.
  • We like the aesthetics: the safety of a cosmos in which planets look like quarries because that's what planets look like, and where spaceship move in that particular way because that's the way spaceships move.
  • We like the gothic feel; while it is unlikely that the awakening of Davros at the end of episode one ever actually scared us, it has a quality about it which he have learned to think of as "scary."
The list could be extended as far as you like. 
  • The Edwardian costumes.
  • The juxtapositions: the high-tech TARDIS with the old fashioned hat-stand in the corner; the fact that it's not a meta-tricorder-o-gram but a sonic screwdriver. And the fact that the sonic screwdriver is tossed in the pocket with a some string and a bag of marbles. 
  • The lady in the leather bikini talking to the robot dog, or having tea explained to her by a Victorian gentleman. 
  • The jelly baby offered to the gothic skull. 
  • In fact, the whole idea of jelly babies, the idea of a grown man with an old fashioned bag of sweeties in his pocket. I never took to cricket whites and celery as I did to floppy hats, but it was clear that cricket whites were at least trying to fill the same sort of niche that floppy hats filled, and that it was the natural order of things that cricket whites should succeed floppy hats just as floppy hats had succeeded frock coats. 

But more even than that. 
  • The rhythms of the programme. 
  • The twenty five minute episodes.
  • The fact that Doctor Who was almost the last place on earth when an episode might end with a pretty lady tied to a circular saw. 
  • The opening credits: how many of us loved the time tunnel thing long before we really understood the show itself?
  • The slightly amateurish, home made look and feel of the programme; the bad special effects, the quarries, the fact that the sets wobbled (not that they ever did, of course.)

What we like and what we have always liked about Doctor Who is the texture and atmosphere of the programme: the fact that it looks and feels so much like Doctor Who. It's not a window that you look through -- its a stained glass window that you look at. 

Including the imperfections. Especially the imperfections. 

This is why I find the idea of the infinite canon so hard to agree with, even though it is quite obviously right. It's why I'm almost as apathetic towards the idea of a Doctor Who movie as I am towards Before Watchmen and the Bristol Mayoral Elections. I do have a sort of nostalgic attachment for the covers of the original Target novels, but only in the same way that I have a sort of nostalgic attachment to Rentaghost. Yes for many people and for a long time, those novels were the main and most important way of experiencing Doctor Who, and they were much better written than they needed to be: much better than most children's SF that was available at the time. [*] And there were, what, sixteen years when the only copy of Tomb of the Cybermen was sitting in the crypt of a Mormon Tabernacle in Tooting Bec when the novel was all that there was. Unless you include the Doctor Who Appreciation society's photocopied STINFO files, which would take us off in a whole different direction. [**] But I never really cared about that stuff, in the same way that, decades later, I could never really be bothered to read the Virgin or BBC novels, good as though some of them certainly were. Lawrence Burton (different Lawrence), re-reading one of the Virgin Doctor Who says they were "written as science-fiction novels that just happened to borrow from an existing mythos rather than simply trying to recreate a kid's telly show." And he thinks that that is a good thing. Which from one point of view, it might have been. From the point of view of not particularly liking Doctor Who. But it neatly encapsulates why I could never be bothered to read the things. Reading Doctor Who is a bit like stirring your porridge with a fountain pen. Possible, no doubt, but it rather misses the point of fountain pens. And you're likely to get ink in the porridge.

There is an old saying that radio is better than television because the pictures are better on the radio. And yes; the special effects in Doctor Who were much better when we were reading the books, reading Jeremy Bentham's from-memory summaries, or listening to tape recordings of the sound track of lost stories. But we followers of the Fourth Approach are interested in the special effects that we actually saw on the TV. We don't want to hear about what the "real" Dalek cruiser in the "real" Doctor Who universe "really" looked like; or to imagine a better one in our head. Matt Irvine's models are part of texture of Doctor Who. 

"But Andrew: isn't your "phenomenological" approach the most nostalgic of all? Andrew Hickey is openly watching Doctor Who with adult sensibilities; Lawrence Miles is watching it as an adult, remembering the experience of watching it as a child. Aren't you saying that if you just watch it, smiling at the jokes and clapping the good special effect and cringing at the bad ones effects, you can have the 1976 viewing experience all over again, like Holly wiping his memory so he can read Murder on the Orient Express without already knowing whodunnit? And that's patently impossible, because even in 1976 you didn't have a "pure" viewing: you were, by your own admission, viewing it through the lens of the Making of Doctor Who, the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special, Doctor Who Weekly, Jeremy Bentham... Watching something for the first time all over again is logically, and grammatically impossible." 

Yes. Yes. That's where it all breaks down, of course. 

But K-9, and Leela, and the Zygon space ship are like, incredibly cool. 


[*] I found a book called A Life for the Stars by the man who wrote Star Trek in the school library. I found it incredibly boring, but noticed that it was part of a series of grown-up books, and assumed that if I had read them as well, I would have understood it better. Fairly recently, I read the other three volumes. They are, in fact, incredibly boring. See also under "Kilraven".

[**] Mormon Tabernacles do not have crypts, and there isn't one in Tooting Bec. I assume that they do have toilets, but history does not record whether this one had a Yeti in it.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (4)

So, I suppose, we come to my approach, which is really a complete lack of an approach. If the second approach says "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" and the third approach says "What does Doctor Who mean?" I am more inclined to ask "What is Doctor Who like?" Or, more simply,  "What is Doctor Who?"

Anyone who thinks that this approach could be described as "phenomenological" is invited to leave, right now.

Of course, Doctor Who is an historical and biographical phenomenon. It's a TV show that we saw at a particular time and in a particular place and because there is a so much of it those times and places carry on being pretty important to how we think about it. But not the only important thing. 

If you showed me an old episode of Rentaghost (or Basil Brush or Hope & Keen's Crazy Bus -- remember that?) I believe that I could recover the original sitz in lieben without to much difficulty. But it wouldn't be a very interesting thing to do, because Basil Brush and Rentaghost are not very interesting television programmes, unless you have a liking for incredibly contrived puns, which admittedly I do. Once I had said "Oh god, I remember that one! I was in Miss Walker's class! It was the week Graham got spanked for calling the dinner lady a Fat Cow! The joke about Timothy Claypole and the ladder practically made me wet myself" I would have said everything that could be said. [*] They may have great sentimental value, but they have practically no value in themselves. 

On the other hand I have absolutely no idea where I was when I first saw City on the Edge of Forever, and even if I did, it wouldn't matter. If I were to talk about Star Trek, you'd expect me to talk about allegories and moral dilemmas and sexism and the Cold War, but who I was when I first saw it would be irrelevant. The programme is just not entwined in our lives in that way. It's a text; it's only a text; it's always only been a text. It may have considerable intrinsic worth, but it has very little sentimental value. 

And you would think it very odd indeed if I tried to do Shakespearean criticism in terms of first seeing King Lear when I was sixteen and the seats being uncomfortable. I suppose I might possibly say "When I first saw King Lear, I thought it was going to have a happy ending, and was shocked when Lear brought in the dead Cordelia" but that would only be a rather pointed way of saying "The ending really is quite surprising". Some people say "I hate Shakespeare because Miss Muir made me copy out a long passage as a punishment for calling the dinner lady an old cow" but one feels they are mostly missing the point of Shakespeare. 

Doctor Who pretty clearly lies half-way between Star Trek and Rentaghost, and you are cordially invited not to take that remark out of context. I can certainly tell you where and when I was when I first saw Destiny of the Daleks. I can probably reconstruct my original reaction to the Romana Regeneration pretty well. My overwhelming feelings were personal betrayal. It was well known at school that I was a Doctor Who fan, and I knew from the moment it started that this story was going to be silly in a way that would rob me of whatever shred of credibility I might retain in the playground i.e none whatsoever. I also experienced confusion, if not actual cognitive dissonance, which would, if I had put it into words, have come out as: "Oh, does regeneration work like that? I thought it worked like this. I must have missed something. I wish I had been born in 1955. Then I would have understood that scene." But I was delighted with the little Hitchhikers in-joke [**] and loved the fact that the Daleks were in it. I suppose I was already experiencing the programme through the lens of Doctor Who fandom: I liked to see the Daleks on the screen because Daleks had been part of Doctor Who in the olden days so every time I saw the Daleks I felt more like a Wise Old Fan.

But if that was all there was to say about Destiny of the Daleks, there would be hardly any point in saying anything at all. Trying to use fourteen-year-old Me's emotions to limit what it means, or can mean, for thirty-something me is as silly as invoking "canon" to make my version right and your version wrong.

Rentaghost is something which we used to like. Destiny of the Daleks is something which we like.


[*] Mr Claypole: To Majorca? Will that not involve many months at sea?

Mr Mumford: Ah! In the modern era, we have invented a machine that means that human beings are no longer limited to the ground, but can raise themselves high above the earth...

Mr Claypole: Oh, we has such a device in medieval times as well. We called it a ladder. Why are your parents taking a ladder to Majorca?

Mr Mumford: Oh, for pete's sake.

Mr Claypole: Ah. Peter has no ladder of his own...


Mr Claypole: (To Mr and Mrs Mumford) I understand that you are taking a ladder to Majorca? For the sake of Peter?

[**] The Doctor is briefly seen reading a book by Oolon Coloophid. Why do I keep footnoting things you already knew?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (3)

The third approach has a lot in common with the second. It's also inclined to make the concept of "canon" incredibly wobbly, if not actually non-existent. It doesn't feel that party loyalty requires it to pretend that Doctor Who was good even when it quite obviously wasn't. It takes the line that the story on the back of the Nestles Chocolate Bars is as much a part of Doctor Who as anything which ever appeared on TV -- or that it can be if you want it to be. 

But while it is certainly interested in ephemera and memorabilia, it isn't that interested in putting Doctor Who in a particular historical or biographical context. You can read whole articles written from this perspective without finding out how old the writer was when they first saw Genesis of the Daleks, or how much they disliked their P.E teacher. It regards Doctor Who as a text -- but it thinks that that text is potentially very large and (therefore) very contradictory. What you do with the text is "read" it, appreciate it, and, if you wish, interpret it. The Third Approach is interested in seeing how the Lyons Maid Dalek Death Ray Lolly wrappers fit into, or can be fitted into, the Total Text of Doctor Who: it is not particularly interested in how you felt when you first discovered them in the freezer cabinet in the long drought of 1976. The Daleks were created by a crippled fascist called Davros and also by a smurf named Yarvelling [1]: that contradiction is a fact about the text, in the same way that "it used to be in black and white and then it went to colour" are facts about it. What you do with it is up to you. But you shouldn't (according to this theory) use the concept of canon to privilege one over the other or to falsify a unity and consistency which simply isn't there.[2]

The Second Approach asked "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" The Third one asks "What does Doctor Who mean?"  

This is of course the furrow that Andrew Hickey is plowing so cleverly, both in his Mindless Ones columns and his own blog. They are are full of interesting -- if highly tendentious -- ways of reading the actual text of Doctor Who. In his inspired riff on Logopolis he notes that Adric -- greedy for food, awkward around girls, obsessed with maths and computers, far too pleased with himself -- could have been a deliberate parody of a Doctor Who fan, and is, not un-coincidentally, the character Doctor Who fans most universally hate. That never occurred when I first saw the Adric stories; it hadn't occurred to me in the thirty years since; I very much doubt that it was consciously in John Nathan-Turner's mind when he dreamed up Adric; but now the observation has been made, it can't be un-made. It is obviously, compellingly true.

But this approach also has a drawbridge. "Textual interpretation" is arguably quite a strange thing to be doing to what is, when all is said and done, a children's TV adventure serial. When we wonder if "The Watcher" who is watching the Doctor in Logopolis might possibly represent us, the person who is watching the Doctor on the TV (which would mean that we, the viewers, were really the Doctor all the time) we are doing something to Doctor Who which it would never have occurred to us to do to Doctor Who if we had not already put Doctor Who up on the kind of pedestal where that's the kind of thing that it occurs to us to do to it.

And that's what "canonization" means, isn't it? Putting a book, or a person, on a pedestal? It originally referred to the canon of Holy Scripture. [3] No-one would argue about whether the book of Maccabees was, or was not, Scripture if they didn't already think that there was such a thing as Scripture for it to be -- a special kind of book that you treat in a special kind of way. We may admire the Screwtape Letters very much -- more than we admire the Epistle to Jude, if we are perfectly honest. But we don't think that it would be appropriate to pick a particular sentence from Screwtape as Collect of the Day or use it as the starting point of a sermon or set it to music or use it liturgically or swing censers of incense in front of. Neither do we, on the whole, write articles about the internal continuity of Rentaghost. Even though  we loved Rentaghost at exactly the same moment we first loved Doctor Who. 

Some clergymen treat the Bible as (at best) as a collection of raw material to do exegeses of; and at worst, a convenient source of sermon illustrations. Some academics regard novels primarily as things to fall out with other academics over. And if we aren't careful, the whole process of "being Doctor Who fans" can make Doctor Who, the television programme invisible. 

Almost the most interesting thing about Andrew's "Fifty Stories for Fifty Years" series is the way he treated The Iron Legion [4] and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters [5] as part of the Total Thing Which Is Doctor Who. But by opening up the canon in this way, he is acknowledging that there is such a thing as canonicity. He reads The Iron Legion in a way in which it would not occur to us to read Beryl the Peril or Winker Watson [6].

"What if everything is canonical?" is a perfectly good question. But it's a slightly different question to  "What if nothing is?" 

What if the stories on the backs of the Sugar Puffs packets are just as much a part of the Doctor Who canon as the Dalek Masterplan?

What if doing a close analysis of a forty-seven year old television programme (of which no copies exist) is just as silly as doing a close analysis of the backs of old cereal boxes?


[1] In the TV Century 21 Comic Strip...but you knew that.

[2] I think that an explanation along the lines of: "They both happened, but in alternate time lines" is just as much a smoothing over as "Davros rediscovered Yarvelling's long lost blueprints" or "TV Century 21 is NOT CANON and DOESN'T COUNT." My preferred answer (to get ahead of myself) is "It doesn't matter that they contradict each other, because neither of them 'really happened': they are both stories."

[3] Andrew Hickey has helpfully reminded us that we owe the word's application to popular culture to a spoof article in which a clergyman applied the methods of Historical Jesus Scholarship and source criticism to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

[4] A comic strip in "Doctor Who Weekly". You knew that as well.

[5] The novelisation of "The Silurians". 

[6] Comic strips in the Beano. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

[The Bells of St John (7.7)]

Doctor Who's greatest asset is Matt Smith, even if on a bad day, we feel that he could swap places with Sherlock and no-on would really notice. 

The best thing about the Bells of St John was the trailer. The Doctor in the park, on the swing, talking to the little girl, doing the whole child-man thing perfectly. "That's sad"/"It is a bit" gets the cosmic loneliness of the Doctor better than a whole season of angst. 

I suppose the Doctor couldn't really have spent 45 minutes talking to a little girl, although is it too much to hope for that one day we could get a "nothing happens" episode (like that episode of Red Dwarf, or that episode of Porridge, or that episode of Zed-Cars I heard about but never saw) where there was no silly action and we just got the Doctor being the Doctor? I suppose that's why I loved the Lodger so much. 

But obviously, a thing has to happen. 

And the early signs are pretty good. The little girl's suggestion (go to a quiet place and wait until you remember where you lost your friend) leads us straight to the Doctor having gone into retreat in a monastery. That's how the show is now. Everything has already happened. If the Doctor wants it to be breakfast time then he can skip the night and make it breakfast time: he doesn't merely have a time machine, he's outside of time in an Aristotelean way, and that outside time-ness scrambles the linearity of the show. I think that's a good, off-the-wall, left-field-way of ensnaring the Doctorness of the Doctor in a narrative were Things have to keep happening. Both real and a dream, both a child and a man, able to slip from Baron Hardup's Kitchen to Prince Charming's Palace in the blink of an eye because he knows they are both stage sets; and also everybody's best mate, who scoops you up and puts you in bed with rubbish flowers and a plate of jammie dodgers. It's really only the consummation of what the Doctor has been doing since the universe was black and white: talking about the adventures you missed, name dropping the people we never actually saw him meet. Only now we have.

Note For Americans: Jammie Dodgers are the cheapest, least interesting biscuit (i.e cookie) money can buy; the sort of thing Mum gets you if she doesn't feel you've been good enough for Jaffa Cakes. 

So the Monk thing, and the hanging around outside Clara's house thing, and the getting to know Clara thing, and the driving around London on an old motorbike thing, and, in fact, practically all the things work perfectly well. So long as we can accept that the plot-thing is only there as a canvass on which the Doctorness of the Doctor can be drawn and a backdrop against which the Doctor and Clara's relationship can play out, then it it's a perfectly adequate plot thing. It's silly and perfunctory and it makes no sense. But compared with some of the silly and perfunctory plots which make no sense that we've had, it's actually fairly sensible. 

It has been said (possibly by me) that every New Who villain has been, not so much an alien or a monster but more a demon, working according to some sort of magical or metaphorical dream logic. The Doctor doesn't defeat them or outwit them so much as exorcise them, often by the use of sympathetic magic. On those terms, today's story  was perfectly intelligible (they aren't always). There is a magic monster that lives on or possibly in the internet. It sucks people into their computers and eats their souls. The Doctor finds out where it lives and forces it to set all the captive souls free. Easter Saturday isn't a bad day to have a Cyber-Harrowing of Hell, come to think of it. 

Lots of children have a sort of vague belief that TV screens and mirrors might be permeable; that the image on the screen might look back at you; there's another world on the other side of the mirror; that the TV might suck you in. (Very early Who played heavily on that belief.) And everyone talks about cyberspace as if it is a place, so the idea that you might fall through the screen and get trapped there is quite a compelling one. And it's also a metaphor — people talk about getting "sucked into" Twitter or World of Warcraft or Angry Birds. The science fiction scaffolding around that idea is embarrassingly perfunctory: it simply doesn't mean anything at all. People being hacked into the wifi so they are like flies in the world wide web. It's on a level with catching flu over the phone. But this only matters if you still think of Doctor Who as "science fiction." 

(I would like to know what a Young People, who grew up with Computers, think when they hear a person on the telly saying "I’ve hacked their base operating system, but I can’t find their geographic location." Are they embarrassed because way behind the times adults are using computery words even though they obviously don't know what the mean, like the Vicar talking about hippy-hoppy music in his Easter sermon? Or do they just sort of accept that TV gets stuff wrong but watch it anyway, the way we used to put up Fireball XL5 because there wasn't anything else? Or are they so used to computers that they do in fact think of them as magical, in the way that some of us used to think there were little men in our TV set? Or are they just not paying that much attention?)

No, my problem with the plot is that I've seen it fifteen or twenty times before. In the Idiot Box, obviously, where people get trapped in 1950s TVs, and in The Eleventh Hour, where something vaguely internetty is happening while the Doctor gets to know Amy, and in the one with the mobile phones and the one with the sat-navs and the one with the diet pills. And it felt a lot like Rose, of course, because it was introducing a new companion lady, who, in an astonishing twist, is torn between her responsibilities on earth and her desire to travel with the universe and see the Doctor. And like Partners in Crime, because it was the Doctor and a new companion lady running around London, with office buildings and ice-cold lady-baddies.

It's not that Doctor Who is formula ridden. Some of the best TV in the world is formula ridden. One man's cliche is another man's format. But it's like every story takes every other story, tears it to pieces, throws the pieces up in the air and pastes them together in a very slightly different order. 

I could have done without the Doctor riding his motorbike up the side of the skyscraper, but I don't think it mattered. I think that the Doctor who hangs out with little kids on swings is a real person and I don't think real people benefit from being turned into cartoon superheroes. I think that the child man who is outside all categories could have found a cleverer, funnier and more Doctorish way of getting into a skyscraper. I think perhaps he should have gone back in time and bribed the architect. The denouement where he turns up the minions "obedience" slider to maximum actually made me smile; it was clever and it was foreshadowed and it only very slightly reminded me of Robocop. 

The trouble with the made-up villain being The Great Intelligence (from the Christmas show and the 1960s) is that it doesn't make any difference. I suppose it is a foreshadowing of the Big Bad: each threat this season will unconvincingly turn out to be controlled by the Great Intelligence, and the Great Intelligence will then be the villain in in the last story of the season. In the 1960s the Great Intelligence controlled Yeti — Abominable Snowmen — so it was quite funny that at Christmas he was controlling actual Snowman. One of the 1960s stories involved something called the Web of Fear so its quite funny that this one involved the World Wide Web. I don't know who finds its for, though. Not me, particularly. Not young kids. Not ordinary viewers. Not people in the their sixties who've actually seen Web of Fear. I think it's for the kind of fan who has never seen any black and white Doctor Who but has read about it in the their spotters guide to Doctor Who. It's not like the Archers or the Simarillion or to to be fair Harry Potter where the Great Intelligence turns up because someone who cares about building an artificial world has been tracking what he's been doing off stage since his last appearance and knows that this is the point where he would naturally have to turn up. 

Is there a word for overloading things with meaning? "Over-coding", possibly, or "semiotic entanglement"? At one point, Clara is seen reading a book by Amelia Williams. [*] It might turn out that that is really important. Or it might turn out that it's just a thing. Almost everything has a special meaning because it has happened before, but the special meaning doesn't mean anything. I find it quite exhausting. The Doctor makes a big thing of putting on a bow-tie because the Doctor wears bow-ties; we see him wearing a fez a couple of times because he once wore a fez; he quotes some lines from the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, twice. None of it means anything. It's there because it's there because it's there. It makes me dizzy, and leaves me confused about how I am meant to be watching. When we find out that the sinister lady in charge is called Kizlet I immediately think — "Is that important? Have I missed something?" I don't think it is and I don't think I have. 

I am pretty sure that this is because I am looking where I should not look be looking. The plot is noise. I am supposed to be looking at the Eleventh Doctor and Wonderful Clara who is for some reason the most important person in the universe, just like Wonderful Amy, Wonderful Donna and Wonderful Rose. (We have all forgotten Martha.) I could wish for less wonderful companions. I could wish for very ordinary people who just happen to get stuck with the Doctor. (Don't all these Wonderful companions rather spoil the nauseous Sarah-Jane adventures metaphor that contact with the Doctor makes people Wonderful?) 

The set up is intriguing. I don't know why Emma keeps dying in one time and being alive in a different time. She keeps asking "Doctor who?" and the Doctor has noticed that she keeps asking "Doctor who?" and we know from the end of the last season that the Silence is a cult dedicated to finding out the answer to that question, so I suppose it will turn out that she is either an agent of the Silence of else she isn't. [**] I am quite happy to look at the Eleventh Doctor and I am quite happy to watch him hanging out with Wonderful Clara, although, to be honest, I wish she was still the child on the swing. (Doctor meets a wonderful companion as an adult and find out that he first met her when she was a kid. There's a turn up for the books. Surprised they've never done it before.) I think that the funny-silly-actiony version of Doctor Who is a good space for the Eleventh Doctor to inhabit; I think, with reservations, the very silly One With the Dinosaurs was the most successful of the first half of this season's stories. I am quite happy for that to be what the series is for the time being. 

But I am very much afraid that next week the series will decide to be something entirely different. And so far, without a single exception, every single great big soap opera story arc has failed to have a pay-off which delivers on the the set-up. 

Hammer and tongs, by the way. Hammer and tongs. I expect that will turn out to be significant. Or else not. 

[*] You can actually buy the book. Unless it's an April Fool, which would make it worse.

[**] When we first met River Bloody Song, who we know is the most Wonderful of all the Doctor's companions, because she told us so herself, the Doctor knew that she was his wife (the time traveller's wife) because she knew the answer to the question "Doctor who?" The story where we first met her was called "Silence in the Library." Just saying. 

Who Remembered Hills (2)

The second group treats Doctor Who as a kind of private religion: a Proustian umbilical connection to a collective past. You remember that story where the Daleks had to form a temporary alliance with Captain Kirk to prevent Cyborg and Muton blowing up the dining room table? No? But it's just as much a part of the history of Doctor Who and the Daleks as the Chase, which I missed, due to not having been born. (I have seen the DVD, though. It's not very good.) I have a much stronger memory of Doctor Who driving the Whomobile into Gerry Cottle's circus than I do of him driving it around dinosaur infested London. In fact, I rather suspect that the TV set was broken during Invasion of the Dinosaurs.(I have the DVD of that too. It's dreadful.)

The second approach holds that those kinds of memories are all equally part of a big messy wobbly thing called "Doctor Who". Not that it's limited to childhood, necessarily: sitting in a smoky bar watching a snowy VHS tape of the Gunfighters (and naturally singing along with the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon) is just as much a part of Doctor Who as having a break between the twiglets and the jelly at Robert's birthday party in order to watch Genesis of the Daleks, (the DVD of which is bloody brilliant). 

A very wise man once said: "The Gunfighters isn't a TV drama: it's the fossilized remains of a Saturday tea time nearly fifty years ago." 

The astute reader (I know where he lives) will recognize that this is the approach that Lawrence Miles has been taking in his (I hope ongoing) series of essays, which are almost certainly the best things which have ever been written about Doctor Who. His remark about Doctor Who being something like a personal mythology has changed the rules of the game in a way they haven't been changed since, oh, the last five minutes of Curse of Fatal Death. And yes, he can indeed be rather annoying and sarcastic at times. Lots of us can be rather annoying and sarcastic at times, Nick, but not all of invented the Faction Paradox. [*]

The second approach is very close to my heart. It's the kind of thing I tried to do to Watchmen in Who Sent The Sentinels; and it's what I may yet get around to doing to Spider-Man. It's very much the kind of thing which the aforementioned Francis Spufford did in his wonderful Child That Books Built. 

It's also what Proper Literary Critics sometimes invites us to do with Shakespeare. Hamlet isn't just, or even, a text: it's the intersection between every actor who has ever played Hamlet; every academic who has ever lectured on Hamlet, and ever drunk old codger who has ever said "Ah, Yorick, but there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" in the pub.

It has an obvious strength compared with the first approach. It allows you to carry on talking about Doctor Who without needing to pretend that it was ever really very good. If you were terrified by the giant maggots when you were ten, then you were terrified by the giant maggots when you were ten. That's a fact about the giant maggots and there is no need to carry on pretending that the giant maggots (inflated condoms, weren't they?) were actually particularly terrifying.

But it also has an obvious drawback. It's subjective. Carnival of Monsters was the first story I ever saw, but it wasn't the first story you ever saw, so it is naturally special to me in a way that it can never be to you. I first saw Unearthly Child at Panopticon 2, but you didn't. If we aren't careful, we will find out that we aren't talking about the same thing; that we don't know what we are talking about; that we aren't really talking about anything at all. [**]

Oh: and it's almost completely meaningless if you're under thirty five. 

[*] Alan Moore

[**] At the end of his long and difficult book about literary theory, Terry Eagleton comes to the conclusion that there probably isn't any such thing as literature to be having theories about.


Monday, April 01, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (1)

There is a very old joke which says that if you ask three different Christians a sensible question about their faith, you will receive four different answers.

The joke is also told about Jews and Psychiatrists.

I am about to claim that I have spotted three different ways in which people write about Doctor Who.

It would be awfully pretentious to describe them as "schools of criticism"; so instead I shall say that they represent three possible ways of enjoying the programme.

The first way, which should and can be ignored, is to regard Doctor Who as a kind of loyalty pledge. Last week's was the greatest Doctor Who episode of all time; in fact, it was the greatest thing ever to appear on TV -- very probably the single greatest piece of drama since man invented the alphabet. And next week's will be even better. If you say differently you are not a true fan. At the very least you should refrain from saying that David Tennant was incredibly irritating when non-fans might be listening, in the same way that it's obvious evangelistic common sense not to debate the precise job of the Virgin Mary or the finer points of the Holy Communion while there are infidels in the room.

This is the voice of the mercifully defunct Doctor Who Confidential, and, to a great extent, of Doctor Who Monthly. It naturally includes a few people who are working on the series, and an awful lot of people who think they ought to be. 

I don't blame them at all. They have their reward. They get to feel that they are part of an in-group; the gnostics, the knowing-ones who are riding the crest of the zeitgeist like the young folks, not stuck in the past like the fogies who are frankly more excited about the animated reconstruction of Reign of Terror than Season 7b. And it is probably perfectly true that Doctor Who fans appearing on Points of View and saying that Time and the Rani was an embarrassment hastened the cancellation of the original show.

But I have never particularly wanted to be on the crest of anything. What I have wanted, ever since I was buying fanzines which referred to Tom Baker as the New Doctor, is to be one of those wise old fans who has seen every episode of Dalek Masterplan and knows what is wrong with every episode of Season Fourteen (OH-WHAT-HAS-HAPPENED-TO-THE-MAGIC-OF-DOCTOR-WHO). If I had found the proverbial bottle containing the proverbial genius, my proverbial wish would have been to have been born exactly ten years earlier than I actually was. Oh, to have seen Unearthly Child on the day it was first transmitted! To have lived through Dalekmania! To have been a teenager in the UNIT era! 

Doctor Who began in 1963: which was rather too late for me. [*]

Had the proverbial granted my wish, I would also have been exactly the right age for the Marvel Age of Comics although on exactly the wrong continent to have enjoyed it; have had an eight year window to write to C.S Lewis; and a seventeen year window to meet J.R.R Tolkien. I would have been exactly the right age for Sgt. Pepper and exactly the wrong age for Star Wars. I wouldn't have had to do National Service, but I would have had to sit the Eleven Plus, had a much smaller chance of going to University and a much greater risk of getting the cane at school. I'm sorry; what was the question again?

If you make Doctor Who a shibboleth in this way, you will find that you are left with very little head-space in which to actually enjoy it. But that kind of fandom never was very much about enjoying the programme. It was always about being the biggest fish in the pub; having your balsa-wood Daleks feted in the art-room; having that reel-to-reel tape that no-one else had, a complete set of Annuals and the Dalek Outer Space Book. (I still don't have the Dalek Outer Space Book.) If some keen fourteen year old had asked one of those Wise Old Fans "Do you actually like Doctor Who?" he would have got the same reaction as if he had asked the Vicar if he actually believed in God.

Hush, child. That's not the sort of question you are supposed to ask.

(*) You've done that one before. -Ed