Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Doctor Who: As Rubbish As It's Always Been

Well, just as two TARDISes can't occupy the same space without the danger of recursive occlusion, Doctor Who and Eurovision apparently can't share the same Saturday night without fear of a ratings implosion. So we're being treated to a mid-season break and as much as I found myself thoroughly unmotivated to blog about New Who while it was on, this (actually welcome) breather does afford an opportunity to reflect on the third season so far. And it'll save me the job of a full season overview come the end. For which, courtesy of the trailer that followed last Saturday's Lazy Arse Experiment, I have higher hopes. Even if, by the time we get there, I find I can't be bothered to review individual episodes, I'll be sure to let you know if those hopes are dashed!

Meanwhile, Season 3, thus far has failed to spark much enthusiasm on my part, it must be said. As noted, I haven't even been inspired to air my opinions here. Possibly because I was always raised with the idea that it was impolite to yawn in public.

Maybe it's just some of the show's laziness rubbing off. Because if there's one word that has characterised this series so far, lazy is it. It's as though the producers, revelling in DW's rediscovered popularity, are far too content with the status quo. Appropriate enough, I suppose, given their apparent aim to demonstrate just how many hits you can produce with the same three chords. There's still the famous Doctor Who variety, but it feels as though it's been so heavily branded that, no matter how diverse the locations visited or the genres being revisited, there's an underlying - and underwhelming - sense of sameness and predictability to proceedings.

It's getting old. Rusty, you might even say.

It says something, I think, that Smith And Jones, the season opener, so far rates as this year's highpoint. And I wonder now whether that has more to do with the fact that it surfed in on a wave of New-Season optimism, a sort of post-Runaway Bride notion that anything had to be an improvement, than any actual upturn in the quality of product. But let's hold on to that initial positive impression for the time being. Despite its share of flaws and plot holes, it had a certain vitality and, at the time I did feel that there was something of a regeneration in evidence. New companion, new beginning and - in some respects - better than Rose.

Then along came The Shakespeare Code. The first of this year's stories to feel like a shopping list. Shakespeare, three witches, Doctor Who - tick all the ingredients and you get exactly the recipe you expect. Gorgeous CGI backdrops come to the foreground because, despite a degree of colour and sparkle to the dialogue, the rest is just a predictable 'Shakespeare For Dummies' exercise, peppered with tired quote-dropping, the 'surprise' revelation that the witches are aliens and the tried and tested final act of having a bunch of CGI aliens swirl pointlessly around flexing their pixels, until they can be banished back to their abyssal dimension by the recitation of the worst hidden code in any text by anyone ever. God forgive you, Dan Brown, if Da Vinci's Code is as feeble as Shakespeare's.

Next, Gridlock. The plot engine splutters in its efforts to keep the anti-grav VW camper story afloat, coughing out fumes that smell distinctly of that old McCoy classic, Paradise Towers. Contrivances are built into the dialogue to attempt to hold the entire dumb scenario together, but even a dose of the Macra can't save it. But never mind, it has oodles of CGI spectacle and an emotive bit with a hymn, presumably to inspire us all to pray for something better.

For those that did, you got Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks. DIM/Evolution. Says it all, really. For one, if you're going to have Daleks In Manhattan, you need to produce something that equals everything that title conjures. For another, if the Daleks are going to evolve, should it really be into spats-sporting sub-Jagaroth headed hoodlums with no talent for acting? Once again, some gorgeous CGI backdrops are the best thing about it and amid the feast of things that are wrong with this two-parter, it also manages to be slow. To say nothing of the gamma ray-lightning hybrid that proves so crucial to the 'plot' resolution. Dreadful. When we could have had Daleks doing great Busby Berkeley dance numbers, damn it. (Even with fountains and a spot of synchronised swimming, why not - the Daleks seemed to fare okay under water in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.)

Still, likely to be more memorable than, um, er, The Lazarus Experiment. Doctor Who By Numbers, with the limited palette and brushes the BBC can afford once they've spent out on a CGI monster worthy of some ropey old video game. The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns lives again. A non-event, but for the Mr Saxon arc elements which were clearly more important than any story it might have offered.

And that, for me, sheds a little light on the nature of the problem. Instead of a story, more often than not, we're getting a synopsis that happened to make it all the way to the production stage. There's so much emphasis on pace, a plot is rarely given enough time to breathe and grow into a story. No, it has to keep swimming in order to stay alive - like a shark, except it's apparently just as easy to jump while it's so constantly on the move ;). It's like, oh, what if the Doctor and Martha went to [this place] or we did a story where [this was the basic setup], and this happens, that happens, oh and the Doctor sorts it out somehow. I know it's a bit patchy, but as long as it's got pace and lots of spectacle and a good CGI monster to thrash around a bit at the end before being defeated, we don't need to worry about minor considerations like story development, internal plot consistency, that sort of thing. And anyway, we have an army of fans standing by with the Plot Polyfilla to cover over our mistakes and omissions. Slap. Dash.

In fact, more mystifying than where Doctor Who might have gone wrong - hardly a mystery, since its flaws seem so glaringly obvious from where I'm sitting on a Saturday night - have been the defences put forward by some fans. Among them, in essence, the header for this blog. Yes, it's a cynical paraphrasing on my part, but when criticisms have been levelled at any of the New Who offerings, folks have argued that, well, it was no worse than, say, The Underwater Menace (random example picked to protect the innocent), or whatever. And maybe it's just me, but as arguments go, it's flimsier than a lot of New Who plots.

As far as I can understand it - which is not very far, I'll grant you - what I'm being told is that current Who is no worse than a 30-40 year old TV show. Hmm. Further, if you can forgive the flaws in Timelash, then you can certainly forgive those in Boomtown. Well, I don't forgive either, but I just chose two examples of the worst of each. For one, there's such a vast gap in terms of production and TV has moved on in such leaps and bounds, that I don't think it's valid to compare old with new. But perhaps more importantly, I don't know what it proves, other than the above contention that 'Doctor Who is as rubbish as it's always been'. Whereas I don't see it as unreasonable to expect a modern resurrection of an old show to have raised its standards in line with the modern competition, as opposed to - apparently - settling for being (as the Talking Heads used to say) the 'same as it ever was'.

Not only is there a capacity to forgive an older show certain deficiencies, because it's quite possible to allow for the advances in TV we've seen in the meantime - and, certainly in the case of some of the very early episodes, Doctor Who comes across as more of an am-dram theatrical production (The Keys Of Marinus?) that happens to be on this new-fangled marvel they call 'television', than a full-blown modern TV production that's attempting to be some sort of mini action movie (Rise Of The Cybermen, I'm - reluctantly - looking at you). Doctor Who writers in the past had to contend with the artificial - and characteristic - 25-minute cliffhanger-required episode format. Modern Who writers only have to contend with the - pretty much industry standard - 45 minute episode. If comparisons are to be made, then far fairer to compare with other more recent shows that have had access to all the same tools and resources. Of course, then New Who runs the risk of looking shoddy and at least as am-dram as its 'illustrious ancestor'. (And yes, I only use that phrase to aggravate those fans with Rose-tinted specs. ;) ) But if you're set on playing in the major leagues, then you'd best field a professional team. And the thing is, the people behind New Who are professionals - skilled, talented, qualified etc - but, as I've discussed previously here, I don't see the same evidence of care in the 'finished' product as I do in many other shows.

What they have on their side - in abundance - is the BBC publicity machine. I don't recall a time when Doctor Who ever had the support and publicity it has now. Yes, the New Series' initial popularity seemed to justify some spinoffery, but we now have Totally Doctor Who, Torch(yawn)wood, Confidential and a glut of Radio Times covers, to say nothing of the piles of high-profile merchandising. And now we also have the show receiving special treatment, getting a nudge back in the schedules because the BBC have noticed a drop in the ratings whenever they show it at an earlier time.

We know it's the BBC's flagship show, and that's great. But honestly, it's everything you'd expect of a British-built flagship. Paper thin hull, susceptible to the simplest of attacks and about as capable of ruling the waves as a lone gunman on a surfboard. If only they built their flagships like they used to, with a bit of weight and substance, care and craftsmanship - as well as the go-faster stripes and all the advanced technology - they'd be a far more formidable prospect in the face of the modern competition. And the BBC might not be so afraid of it sinking.


TimeWarden said...

Why is it that "Doctor Who" was at its best when the technology was so much simpler? Those hefty great cameras, filmed as live with a single break somewhere near the middle, no SFX worth speaking of except dangling a Dalek ship from a piece of string, and yet it was a full-fat butter better vision than the low-fat spread on our screens today.

The answer is in the writing. It's hopeless. I don't believe "Doctor Who" would capture my imagination as Hartnell did if I was the same age now as I was then! And, I know the only reason I'm still watching is because the programme is still called "Doctor Who" and I still carry the optimism of its earlier incarnation but with the cynicism of its resurrection ever-encroaching.

Stuart Douglas said...

Excellent review Simon, which hits every nail on the head. Even with the Shakespeare Code, which I loved, I can see where you're coming from.

I'm beginning to wonder exactly how many kids are watching New Who now, incidentally. The other day Cameron happened to mention that there are only a couple of kids in his class who still watch it, withe the other boy being like him, i.e. wtahcing it with his parents because they loved the show when they were younger. Without that adult element the other kids have found better thigns to watch/do on a Saturday evening.

If that's a position replcited across the country, I wonder how long the remaining slightly older audience is going to watch the attention deficit tinsel and shiny lights which New Who has become since Tennant rolled into town.

SAF said...

I tell it like it is. Even though it might make me the target of a 'fanwah'. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

As well you know, you are the shoadwy leader of the SAFside.

It's official and everything.

RJW said...

Pretty much spot on all that. What an up and down season it's been - so just like Doctor Who I suppose...