Watching the revived Doctor Who over the past 5 years has been a dispiriting experience. All melodramatic mouth, no intellectual trousers. But Russell T Davros has moved on to be replaced by Stephen Moffatt - of Coupling and Weeping Angels fame and the first episode with him in charge was screened last night.
And the verdict? Too early to say yet but its certainly encouraging. Much more engaging. I almost felt that Moffatt was succeeding in getting Davies’s ideas to work.
I have recently started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. About bloody time you might think but, as I think, better (eight years) late than never. And, needless to say, given that it was a huge international hit, it’s brilliant.
While watching it I couldn’t help noticing some extraordinary similarities between Buffy and the new series of Doctor Who:
- the 45-minute, story-in-one-episode format
- Rose seems heavily based on Buffy even down to the special powers
- Eccleston’s Doctor seems to have more than a whiff of Angel about him. Even down to the leather jacket
- Deaths off-screen (usually) - an apparent break with the Doctor Who tradition
They both have elements of mystery, spectacle and terror. So, why does Buffy work while (for me, at least) the new Doctor Who doesn’t? Why is it that Buffy seems perfectly paced while Doctor Who seems rushed? Is it just bad writing? That doesn’t seem to ring true. Russell T Davies can certainly write. And, if anything, his scripts were the weakest in the series. Is there, perhaps, a problem with the settings? Doctor Who has a new setting each week, Buffy, is always right there at the Hellmouth. Could all the time spent setting the scene be taking away from the mystery? Perhaps, but you wouldn’t have thought it would be that difficult.
The only thing I can think of is that in Buffy, the writers deliberately slow things down and allow the characters to mull things over in scenes that usually take place in the library. This allows, us, the viewers, to get involved with the plot.
I like contrived plot explanations.
They found a couple of Doctor Who clips and the (Doctor Who) world goes nuts.
Found? Yes. The BBC wiped the original tapes, so it’s a big thing in the Doctor Who world when they find even clips (these ones seem to be no more than about 12 seconds in length).
Wiped them? Why? It’s a long story and there is more than one version of it knocking about. One involves simple incompetence. Another involves a far more convoluted and elevated variety.
Further evidence that the state is useless, then? Maybe. But we should always bear in mind that commercial TV managed to wipe almost (if not all) of the first season of the Avengers. Though, that was in the very early 1960s. The Who episodes that the BBC wiped stretched from 1964, through to 1973. We should also, perhaps, bear in mind that Doctor Who might not exist at all if it wasn’t for the nationalised broadcaster.
So, why the nuttiness? Coz we care. Actually, I don’t get all that excited. It just serves to remind me of how sad and angry I am that the episodes were wiped in the first place.
So, they were really good then? Ah. Not necessarily. The Power of the Daleks (from which these clips were taken) is a classic. I think it is my absolute #1 favourite Who serial of all time. It’s almost Shakespearean. Actually, you can understand it, so in that respect it is rather better than Shakey. But others, hmm, well...dodgy sets, dodgy accents, dodgy acting, dodgy scripts, dodgy sound. Mind you, seeing as they were pumping out something like 48 episodes per year I think some leeway has to be given. By comparison, this year’s series ran to a grand total of 13 episodes.
Hang about. How come you know all about the Power of the Daleks if it has been wiped? Ah, through the wonders of reconstruction, string and sealing wax.
So, if they weren’t all that good, why are you so upset? It’s because I trusted them. It’s because all through the Seventies I thought: “One day, I will, if I choose, be able to see all the old episodes. The good ol’ BBC is keeping good care of them just for me. I am so glad we have a nationalised broadcaster. Wouldn’t happen if we were all commercial like the Americans.”
Wrong, Crozier. Wrong.
Natalie Solent’s getting all steamed up about Doctor Who over at Biased BBC. Personally, I’m not all that bothered. Doctor Who has always been profoundly political. The Daleks are the Nazis. Davros is Hitler. The Sun Makers (a Tom Baker-era story) was all about sky-high taxes. The Sea Devils is all about the Ulster Troubles. It is one of the great strengths of science fiction that it is much easier to discuss political issues than it is with straight drama. That an episode might try to make an (apparently) left-wing point should come as no surprise. You can’t expect it to go all your own way.
But having said that, Doctor Who is beginning to bother me. I thought the opening episode (and I said so at the time) was a triumph. But with each successive episode I have become less and less enthusiastic. I am becoming ever more convinced that I was right first time: this is going to be a disaster.
I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on why (and still haven’t) but I feel that Joe Newbery’s ”How to ruin Doctor Who”, an essay I recently came across, comes very close to it. Newbery’s basic point is that the Doctor is an Enlightenment hero. His dominant characteristic is his rationality. Not for nothing did Richard E Grant describe Doctor Who as “Sherlock Holmes in space”.
Just as an aside isn’t it interesting how almost all the great fictional detectives: Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Fletcher, Morse are single? I don’t think it’s coincidence.
Now, the leap that the author makes is to list all the ways eg. make him more human, give him a love life, make it action-orientated, have him dressed in normal clothes, to make the Doctor less rational and therefore ruin the show. I think I’m with him here though I am not quite sure why. Suffice to say the new producers have done most of these things and are ruining the show.
The more I think about it the more I think the destruction of Gallifrey is hugely significant. It was not just any old plot device but something far more malicious sending out the message that the old Doctor Who is dead and it’s never coming back.
The odd thing is that I can’t work out what possessed them to do this. I believe it’s a political act but why should the left be so opposed to reason? I thought they were all in favour of it.
Of course, it might be commercial. But by destroying Doctor Who’s roots, they will lose the hardcore fans and I don’t see the new programme being distinctive enough to generate the audience they need to justify the enormous budget.
Anyway, I’ll cling on but I’m beginning to lose hope.
Update Natalie has even more thoughts.
Plastic Mickey. Don’t blame Billie Piper for burbling away all un-noticing: how conscientious are you in regularly checking up whether your nearest and dearest have been plasticised?
Update. And Stumbling and Mumbling stumbles into the sadly neglected area of Whonomics.
Update II It just doesn’t stop. One day they commission a new series, the next Eccleston says he won’t be in it.
Last week I was half thinking of writing a piece about the then-forthcoming new series of Dr Who. I was going to call it: “Dr Who: it’s not looking good”. My argument was going to be that it was going to be awful, it would flop, that this would be the excuse to consign it to the dustbin of history and that all of this was entirely intentional - science fiction in some way not fitting in with the BBC’s Weltanschauung.
In defence of my argument I was going to mention that the Doctor was to be played by Christopher Eccleston, his assistant by Billie Piper (former pop star and the former(?) Mrs Chris Evans), that it had been written by Russell (Queer as Folk) Davies and that it had a large budget. To assemble such a bunch of talentless (though respected) clowns in the same place at the same time and to deny them the excuse of no money could only be the consequence of pure malevolence. It was if the Master had become science fact and found work as a BBC producer.
Well, I was wrong.
This morning I sat down to watch Rose, the first episode of the new series. To say it was good doesn’t do it justice. It was superb. It was better than I could ever have imagined it to have been.
It was: fast-paced, funny, well-filmed, well-acted, observant, unpredictable, realistic (yes!), self-deprecating. It brought the programme bang up to date (if not beyond) while retaining all its traditions: the Tardis, the music, the sonic screwdriver, regeneration. The special effects were superb.
They’ve clearly spent a lot of money on it. Usually, this is bad news. Team America: World Police (although a good movie) clearly suffered from too many dollar bills chasing too little plot. Dr Who didn’t. Nothing seemed wasted. Every penny seemed to propel the story forward.
I’ve been trying to puzzle out how it was they got this so right. I imagine that the long break since the last series went out in 1989 was a factor. It gave a new generation the chance to re-invent it, to question every aspect of it and to give it a new feel. I also got the impression that after the (ahem) 1996 Dr Who movie there was an element of “we must not fail”. (Indeed, it’s funny to think how similar in many ways the two were - the difference between success and failure is slight indeed.) And I think there was also a deep desire to keep the tradition alive. To a large proportion of the people involved in producing, writing and directing the new series, Dr Who was something that they were brought up with, like Wimbledon and England World Cup exits. The ball was being thrown to them and they had to make damn sure they caught it. Fortunately, they did.
PS James Hammerton also seems to have liked it.