Monday, November 13, 2006


Prefect SlogOkay, so I opted for one of those provocative eye-catching headlines. Still, if it did grab your attention, then all to the good. Got to attract those audiences. Of course, having kicked off with such a bold, controversial statement (aka cheap ploy), we all know that there are in fact plenty of shows that are not as good as New Series Doctor Who. It stands to reason. But the fact is, whatever they are, I don’t watch them.
In any case, of course, right from the beginning this Better Than Doctor Who heading was all about one thing: passing examinations of the shows that afforded me greater viewing pleasure than New Who. Or, to put it a less fancy way, shows I enjoy more, get more out of – or, to put it another way, shows I think are better.
Truth is, there are too many other shows that I’d rate more highly, ones that for one reason and another didn’t necessarily warrant coverage here. In the cult/SF bracket I’d have to include The X Files, for instance, (which I rewatched up to the end of Season 3 this year) and Ultraviolet (which I only recently acquired on DVD – yay!). Goes without saying, right? But maybe that’s being unfair – these shows are the top of their game, the cream of the crop, setting the standard on either side of the Atlantic. But no, wait up. We’re talking about Doctor Who here. It set the standard, it was the cream of the crop, and it should have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with either of those and hold its head up high. But the sad honest conclusion I have to come to is that it can’t even manage that when compared with some of my ‘guiltier pleasures’.
Yes, it’s true. I enjoyed Jessica Alba in Dark Angel and thought the series was starting to really go somewhere in its second season, before it got shoved aside to make room for the mostly brilliant Firefly. I watched all of Tru Calling too, and found it entertaining in a Joey & Chandler’s Baywatch-obsession sort of way: “Run, Eliza, run!” And lately I’ve been following Jennifer Love Hewitt’s weekly outfits – I mean, exploits - in The Ghost Whisperer, which is kind of like Tru in that she helps dead people, but – sadly – without all the running. In the scheme of things, these are not great shows, and yet - while I confess the leading ladies in each might have something to do with it - I’ve enjoyed them all more than New Who. The answer? Put Jessica, Eliza or Love, as she prefers to call herself, in New Who and see what happens – obviously.
Okay, I’d probably watch.
But, um, no, I think there’s more to it than that.
There’s the expectation that comes with Who and the emotional attachment born of an n-ty year love of the series (where n is a large number that will likely give away just how old I am), but that also gives Who something of a free pass that other shows don’t have: there is the will, the desire to like it and the tendency to continue watching even if it falls short, past the point where you’d surely have given up on other shows. So the fact that Who has that past is a two-way street and, although an inescapable factor here, is not the distinction that strikes me most when looking at these otherwise essentially average shows.
It occurs to me – and it’s interesting to say this, given that two of the three shows were canned before their due dates – that these ‘lesser’ shows achieved at least 95% of their full potential. I could go into each of them in more detail in that respect, but we’re primarily here to talk about Doctor Who – and we will get there fairly shortly – promise! - especially when we appreciate that, on the question of realized potential, the New Series doesn’t even come close.
It’s something that dawned on me as I sat down to watch Season Two and the gap between expectations/hope and reality/end product yawned wide. And it perhaps wouldn’t have even been so bad if those hopes and expectations had simply been founded on nostalgia for the Classic Series and not built up by the New Series itself.
Despite any disappointments in Season One, there was enough to impress and sufficient cause to be optimistic that the various teething troubles would be ironed out and we would see a much improved Who come the new year. That optimism is epitomized in the closing speech given by a brand new Doctor in The Christmas Invasion.
The essence of the resulting disappointment is then equally beautifully captured in the opening episode of the second season. In the opening scene even. In the first place, it starts off with a needless recap. The characters haven’t moved, they and the story have gone nowhere. After the credits, when they do arrive somewhere, out of all the stars and planets they could have visited, of all the infinite possibilities arrayed before them in that Christmas night sky, they go to New Earth. Not Earth, you understand, but New Earth. It’s a minor detail and naturally it’s the story that matters, but it’s symptomatic of one of the show’s key problems. On top of an apparent lack of imagination, there is this unwillingness to let go of that bloody anchor.
As though we cannot travel anywhere because of some need to be surrounded by the safe and familiar. Whose benefit is it for? Not for mine, and if for the kids, then why does most popular children’s fiction remove the parents from the picture altogether or at the very least render the home situation unstable so as to promote adventure and, presumably, some sense of independence in the young reader? There are, as Farscape proves, better ways to explore your central character’s sense of separation from home, chief of which would be – I would think – giving some sense that they’ve been away. I can’t help feeling that in the past we could go anywhere, confront all manner of horrors and it was the Doctor who made us feel safe – not the fact that, it’s okay, we can pop back to do our laundry any time we wish. Phew.
The domestics are still very much an obsession of this series, the People Left Behind being a key theme. And even a sidestep into an alternative universe only serves to revisit the same territory explored to greater effect in the course of the first season. But more on that story – although as little as possible – later.
Getting past the initial blahness, we’re into the story and Season Two is off and running. It has pace and there is a sense that efforts have been made to make this new Doctor a more proactive Time Lord. He will resolve things, even if it is with an orange and a detach-part-of-the-spaceship button or, as here in New Earth, a drug cocktail that makes the witches brew in Macbeth (eye of newt, wing of frog! etc.) seem like advanced chem. Fun though some of it is, with all the body-swapping and great performances in that regard, it is hampered by this kind of dumb cobbled-together thinking and an illogical but convenient character U-turn on the part of Cassandra come the end, which gives rise to the notion that it’s not so much pacey as rushed.
It’s the sort of sloppy ‘first-draft’ writing that characterizes the majority of the stories to follow. So many of them, in fact, I’m tempted to say that it’s an element that characterizes the New Series as a whole. The mystery is that these scripts are apparently subjected to multiple rewrites and yet so much painfully awful stuff makes it on screen that the prevalent attitude would appear to be ‘It’ll do’. This can’t actually be the case. Professionals working in TV couldn’t get far with that sort of thinking. But the end product paints an impression and there is evidence of another loosely related attitude at work throughout the New Series. Indeed, it’s one that is apparently championed by some of its ardent supporters as ‘a good thing’.
It’s an attitude that’s also ably demonstrated, funnily enough, by some of the best stories of the season. As luck would have it the three real highlights follow hot on the heels of New Earth, in brisk succession: Tooth & Claw, School Reunion and The Girl In The Fireplace. I enjoyed them all. They were, in the New Who scheme of things, great. But each of them seems to subscribe to the Tea-Bag principle of storytelling – leave enough holes in them to let the flavour flood out. Essentially they only succeed by sleight of hand and illusion, in different forms: Tooth & Claw with atmosphere and pace, Reunion with nostalgia, SJS and genuine emotion, Fireplace with novelty and, er, warmth. And of course they all have spectacle on their side, but that’s a given for New Who. As effective as they were, they’re all held together by the flimsiest of threads and don’t stand up to much examination and I was wary of rewatching any of them for fear that the illusory bubble would burst.
School Reunion in particular, quite possibly my personal highlight for the season, was not very good. That is to say, the Doctor Who adventure plot – the Krillitane taking over the school, all solved by the robot dog – was about as poor as they come. But courtesy of the SJS thread being very much in the foreground, even I was ‘fooled’ into thinking it was a great episode. At the same time though, I was not ignorant of how much better it might have been if I hadn’t had to overlook the dog’s school dinner of a background story.
As the season goes on, the episodes continue to demonstrate, to a greater or lesser degree, the aforementioned prevailing attitude and, as best as I can make out, it is something along the lines of: the SF or Doctor Who story doesn’t matter, it’s the human drama that counts. In that I’m paraphrasing what some friends have said, but – at the risk of jumping ahead to the two-part season finale – here’s something Paul Cornell says when discussing the views of a certain sector of fans:

Paul Cornell's Blog

Under the heading Doctor Who: Jackie Tyler Leaves The TV On:
“These are the guys for whom the Dalek/Cybermen battle was the meaningful bit of ‘Doomsday’, and who ache that time was wasted on Rose and her family.”

If not the precise implication here, it does call to mind the argument that I have heard put forward to the effect that the Dalek/Cybermen battle (as with the SF/adventure elements of other episodes) was of lesser importance. Which is something borne out by the story: it’s a fun enough encounter, played for laughs – which it gets. And it’s all resolved by the throwing of a switch. The Doctor finds the invasion’s reverse gear. There' no story there really. It’s Rose’s story that counts, made obvious really by the way the story is topped and tailed with her account. But as with School Reunion, I have to ask myself how much better it all might have been if the SF adventure element – even if more of a background story, as in Reunion – had been granted the writer’s proper attentions. If this is anything like the true attitude that drives the series, it’s a deplorable approach to storytelling and the results come as no surprise. As a writer, I don’t think I’d ever take the line that aspects of a given story weren’t as important as others so I didn’t feel the need to bother with them so much. Surely every aspect of a given story warrants attention and deserves a little polish? And the drama of any human story would surely, like a diamond, benefit from a worthy setting.
Clearly, in this specific case, it would be difficult to lend a Dalek-Cybermen confrontation meaning. It’s a bit of fanwank. But I’m not sure that excuses the slapdash plotting, especially as it’s by no means something that’s confined to that two-parter. Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday scrapes by on the strength of its humour and its denouement and – where would we be without Old Faithful – spectacle. Other stories fare much more poorly because even the drama – supposedly the meaningful, important bit – is lame or ailing in some way.
In his blog, Paul goes on to say:

“Drama isn’t your puppy, it’s a tiger. It’s not meant to make you comfortable. It’s meant to make you feel alive.”

Absolutely. But too much of New Who’s drama makes me uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. It’s frequently painful to watch and just as frequently doesn’t qualify as drama. It breaks the rules of good writing and good storytelling, at best undermining its better qualities, at worst shooting itself in the foot and waiting for the end credits to come and put the episode out of its misery.
Witness the many failings of the Cybermen two-parter, where the chasm between anticipation and reality was at its most gaping. Not only do we get one of the dullest depressions of the < Alt > + < Universe > key, but when dramatic opportunities present themselves the writer hits < Delete > immediately. “We’re stranded in a parallel dimension!” “But it’s okay, we’ll recharge and be out of here in a day or so.” “We’re surrounded by Cybermen!” “Don’t worry, I’ll zap them with my power crystal.” “We’ve drained our power crystal and now we’re really stranded in a parallel dimension!” “But it’s okay, it’ll recharge in a few hours and we’ll be right as rain.” “Now, where’s a handy mobile phone so I can defeat the Cyberman invasion?” Plod, plod. Clunk-clank.
From these depths, the series then struggles to haul itself back up to mediocrity. Ranging from mostly forgettable – The Idiot’s something or other – to if only it was more forgettable – Love & Monsters. Along with Fear Her, the saddest indictment of those episodes is that I actually feel disinclined to re-examine them any further. We are in the realm of fire-and-forget TV. Ultimately disposable, and it is somewhere in this stretch – probably the point fifteen minutes in to L&M when I was about to go off and do something less boring instead – that New Who dropped to the level of ‘just another TV show’. I think, on reflection, that while Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel removed the emotion and replaced it with something mechanical, the bulk of the stories that followed removed the hope that things might improve. (An operation later concluded with the introduction of Catherine Tate at the end of Doomsday, and post-season news of what we might expect in the Third Season. Yes, folks, the new companion has a family and they will be appearing as semi-regulars.)
Still, I will take the time to mention The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Again, it’s all relative in the New Who scheme of things, but in that post-Age Of Steel drought, this other two-parter is the one that stands out best in the memory. It gets points, anyway, for ambition and most impressive spectacle. Whereas the Daleks were the stand-out monster from Season One, I think it’s this story’s Satan that leaves the most lasting impression. Even if a chained giant demon is ultimately ineffectual, visually the image of a tiny Doctor confronting this great Devil is a striking one. Storywise, it didn’t altogether suck, although as we noted with dismay at the time it did pop at least as many dramatic balloons as the Cyber-debacle (shooting its own cliffhanger moments down like clay pigeons) and it did feature some of the worst characterization-by-exposition I’ve ever seen (“This is Bob, he’s our Science Officer, and he has a dark secret in his past, don’t you know”). There was a certain gusto to it all though and delightfully dark aspects that, somewhat like Ghosts/Doomsday all combine to help it scrape by. If only the station crew had been given personalities, we might have cared more. Because if there’s one thing human drama does benefit from it’s the presence of a few humans.
This, as it happens, was also the story in which David Tennant’s Doctor and Billie Piper’s Rose appear to be at their highest – on drugs, that is. When they step onto the station, they are (to take my cue from the one truly awful moment from Girl In The Fireplace) laughing like a couple of the laughingest laughing hyenas laughing away on laughing gas. I don’t really think this was symptomatic of drug use, I’m not sure what could have brought it on. It didn’t help the story and it was Tennant at his gooniest – and, I think (apart from his Blackadder moment in Fireplace), his worst.
Acting aside, what I think it’s more indicative of is this need to have the Doctor turn up and be gushingly enthusiastic about absolutely everything. It’s a follow-on trait from the Eccleston Doctor to a certain extent, with his black-and-white, Sun-reader view of the Universe. Greeting positive things with childish glee and declaring them all to be “Fantastic!” Tennant’s Doctor appears to do a lot of the same, although he’s expanded his vocabulary to encompass a few more adjectives.
It’s almost as if the writer is hoping that by injecting all this over-egged enthusiasm into the proceedings, it will rub off on the audience. By declaring enough of it to be “Fantastic!”, “Briliant!” or “Amazing!” the hope is that enough of the audience will believe it to be so.
To which, I have to say: show us, don’t tell us.
It’s almost as if there’s some underlying insecurity at work. As though the series is self-conscious about how ropey it can be. Which is just silly. But then, when we look at the finished product, we can see why they’d have some cause to be insecure.
The trouble is, it’s not a finished product. Too often it feels unfinished and amateur. Worst of all, it’s rarely in something as superficial as the visuals; it’s routinely in something as core as the writing. And yet given the dozens of rewrites, you have to assume that the end result has been given the producer’s full thumbs-up.
In contrast, all the other shows that I’ve cited in this little series seem polished and professional. They’re confident. Even Dark Angel with its lack of direction, Tru Calling with its lack of variety and Ghost Whisperer with its lack of drama are finished products, delivered to a respectable standard. Okay, they may be cheap takeaway, but hey, sometimes I’m just in the mood for shallow-pan pizza and it turns out I prefer that to the undercooked Happy Meal that is New Doctor Who.
Of course it hasn’t escaped my notice that the vast majority of the shows I’ve covered here have been American ones. And it must be said that the only quality New Who has going for it above these shows, as far as I can see, is its essential Britishness. No American show can match that, fairly naturally. But I’m not sure that’s a recommendation any more. Especially if Britishness these days means being A Bit Rubbish™.
Still, we mustn’t lose sight of the one distinction Season Two has over its predecessor, and that is the master stroke of placing my three personal highlights together in the schedule. It does mean that there is a single entire New Series DVD out there that I might, one day, maybe, feel inclined to buy and perhaps even watch. That’s not something I could ever have said about Season One. Season One, you couldn’t get Dalek without a Slitheen double bill and you couldn’t even get the flawed but passably entertaining season finale without bloody Boomtown on the disc.
So, Season Two: 3/13. Or, let’s be generous and give it a 5/13, to make allowances for the good parts of Impossible Planet/Satan Pit and Doomsday.
But the truth is, I have no desire to rewatch any of it. And perhaps worst of all, the other week, when we had guests over for dinner, a mate of mine chanced to ask, “So when’s Doctor Who coming back on our screens?” – and, automatically, without thinking, I shrugged and said: “Who cares.” The forthcoming Christmas ‘Special’ – The Runaway Bride – fills me with what I can only describe as anti-excitement and when it comes to thoughts of Season Three, there is none of the accompanying anticipation that preceded Season Two. Which, who knows, may work in its favour.
Meanwhile, by way of some sort of conclusion, tongue-in-cheek provocative headline though it was, I guess I should make some attempt to answer my own question. Better Than Doctor Who: What Isn't? Space: 1999, Season Two, that's What Isn't. When I was a lad, it must have been the appeal of Maya and her cool shapeshifting ability that won me over. Because having seen a lot of them on ITV4 recently, every single episode I've caught so far has been truly, truly awful. No doubt the producer thought it was brilliant.


Stuart Douglas said...

Consider me applauading wildly, stamping my feet and giving out the occaisonal whoo and hoo.

I enjoyed reading that review better than watching season 2.

As an aside, I watched The Invasion yesterday in two four episode chunks - and it's slow as treacle at points, has shady special effects and some truly crappy acting, and yet I got a great deal of pleasure form it, which I didn't from most of the last season of New Who. Because the Doctor's the slightly scruffy hero in Invasion, not some smug twat; because he doesn't have all the answers but goes on regardless (I love the bit where he sits down with Jamie and starts dealing cards because he's not got a way of escaping from the approaching men in black with guns); because the alien invasion is a secret kept from the public who aren't - as in New Who and Torchwood - a shower of fucking idiots; because Jamie and Zoe are *miles* better than Rose; because, because, because...

It's just better, that's all.

SAF said...

Ooh, colour me envious. Yes, I must get myself a copy of Invasion - I've had the BBC audio for a while, but this sounds like such a must-have DVD.

There are, meanwhile, parts of the CD I'd rather watch than some of the last season :)